Authors: Tracy Wolff
“Look,” he said after watching her for a while. “I like you, Rhiannon. I like the deadpan sense of humor that slips out of you when I least expect it. I like the way you think, and the way you smile. I like the fact that you're here with me, now, even though I make you nervous. And I really, really like the way you smell, like the honeysuckle in my garden and rain on a sunny, summer afternoon.”
She took a deep, trembling breath. “That's not fair. You're a writerâhow am I supposed to compete with that?”
“Don't compete. Just tell me that you like me, too,
that you want to give this thing between us a try. I think we could have a lot of fun together.”
“I'm sure you've heard of the concept. It involves dating, hanging out, going to the movies, doing a bunch of cool things together.”
“Oh, right. Fun. I have heard of that concept.”
“So what do you say?”
She pretended to think about it, but he could see the sparkle in her eye and it made him happier than he could remember being in a very long time.
“I guess, I say okay.”
He couldn't stop the grin that split his face. “Excellent.” Reaching for her hand, he pulled it to his mouth and placed a lingering kiss right in the center of her palm.
She gasped, trembled, her fingers curling into a loose fist. He started to say more, though he wasn't sure what words he would have used, when a bunch of people on the boat cried out and pointed at the sky.
Looking up, he held Rhiannon and watched as thousands upon thousands of bats flew out from under the Congress Street Bridge, wings flapping wildly as they spiraled up, up, up and into the night. For the first time since Cynthia had messed with his head all those years before, he didn't envy them their freedom to just fly away.
HIANNON WAS NERVOUS
as she and Shawn traversed the plank that led from the boat onto solid ground again. They'd only known each other a couple of weeks, but she'd already screwed up the thing between them at least once. She didn't want to do that again, any more than she wanted to lay her vulnerabilities out there for Shawn to see.
At the same time, she was sick of being poor Rhiannon, sick of being limited by her own expectations of herself. Maybe if she just did thisâstepped outside of her comfort zone and went for itâmaybe everything would work itself out. Or, barring that, maybe she would do just what Shawn had suggested. She'd have a little fun and let the future take care of itself.
It was an alien conceptâat least, it had been for the past three yearsâbut she was suddenly ready to give it a try. God knew, living the way she had been hadn't made her happy. Why shouldn't she try something new?
Not that she figured all of her hang-ups were going to be cured now that she had decided to date Shawn, but at least she was taking baby steps. Making progress. Refusing to be a victim any longer.
“So, how was your first bat cruise?” Shawn asked as they headed back up the trails to the street.
“It was really great. Thanks for taking me.”
“Yeah, it was such a hardship.”
She laughed. “Are you ever serious?”
“Only when forced to be. And even then, not so much. Serious isn't a good look on me.”
“I don't know.” She glanced at him from beneath her lashes. “I can't imagine anything not being a good look on you.”
Shawn raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “Are you flirting with me, Ms. Jenkins?”
She'd just been being honest, but maybe that was the wrong approach. It had been so long since she'd dated someoneâalmost eighteen yearsâthat
didn't quite cover how she felt.
Deciding to go along with his easy banter, she said, “I just might be, Mr. Emerson. Why? Is that a problem?”
“Not at all. I just wanted to be sure I wasn't misreading the signals.”
“You weren't.” Rhiannon found she wasn't brave enough to look Shawn in the eye as she flirted with him, but she squeezed his hand to let him know she meant what she said.
“So, are you hungry?” he asked as they reached the street.
“Actually, I am,” she said, surprised to find that it was true. She'd spent the past couple of years without much of an appetite, and now suddenly she was starving almost all of the time.
“Now that I think about it, I'm not sure I should feed you,” he teased. “The last time I did, you ran off five minutes after dinner was finished.”
She flushed. “I'm really sorry I did that. I justâ”
“Hey, no sweat. I was just messing with you. I know this great Japanese place a couple of blocks away. Are you up for it?”
“Try to keep me away.”
They feasted on sushi and tempura, chicken teriyaki and fried rice and for dessert, green-tea ice cream. Amazingly, Rhiannon ate every bit of the food that was put in front of her. It all tasted so good, though she wasn't sure if it was the food or the warmth and amusement in Shawn's eyes as he asked incessant questions about her family and her childhood, then teased her about her answers. It turned out he was the youngest in his family, the exact opposite of her, and that he had a big sister who pretty much felt it was her job to keep him in lineâeven now that he was almost thirty.
She found it kind of interesting to see things from the other side. She was so used to being the one who watched over her siblings that she'd forgotten how they sometimes viewed her with as much exasperation as she viewed them.
It had happened a lot less since the rape, as her family had a tendency to walk on eggshells around her now. But she had memories of being driven absolutely insane by her younger brother and sisters. It was vaguely comforting to realize that Shawn had the same reactions, though for very different reasons.
After she'd eaten as many bites of her ice cream as she could manage, Shawn escorted her out into the street. She resisted the urge to twirl around like a little girl in a princess dress, but that was exactly how she feltâlike Cinderella at the ball, right before the clock struck midnight. A part of her was even waiting for the shoe to fallâ¦
“I had a great time tonight,” she murmured as the strolled along the still-busy downtown street.
“You say that like you think the date is over.”
“Isn't it?” she asked uncertainly, discomfort overwhelming her lazy pleasure as she imagined what Shawn could have planned for the rest of the night. She might have decided she was ready for casual dating, but she wasn't ready for anything else. Not yet, certainly, and maybe not ever.
“Don't look so freaked out. I promise, there are no animal sacrifices or other illegal acts on the agenda for the rest of the night.”
“Well, that's a shame,” she replied, regaining her composure. “It's been a while since I've been to a good animal sacrifice.”
He laughed. “Now
“Don't worry.” She reached out, patted his arm. “I'll be gentle.”
“Oh, I'm not worried.” His eyes went two shades deeper and suddenly the air between them was infused with sensual tension. She wanted to pull away, wanted to get closer, but didn't know how to do either. In the end, she stayed where she was, her gaze locked with his.
Shawn leaned in slowly, obviously giving her plenty of time to stop himâor to flee, as she had once before. But it turned out this time she wasn't going anywhere. Her need to be close to him outweighed everything else, even the fear that still ruled so much of her life. But this time, her feet were planted on the ground and the spinning in her stomach had a lot more to do with excitement than it did with fear.
Rhiannon braced herself for the feel of his lips on
hers, for the riot of emotions that had bombarded her last time. But at the last minute, Shawn turned his head and brushed his lips across her cheek. She didn't know if she was relieved or disappointed.
Probably a mixture of both, she thought wryly, even as she wondered when the disappointment would outweigh the relief. Wondered if it ever would.
“Come on. I have one more place to take you tonight.”
She started to ask him where they were going, then decided against it. Let him keep his surpriseâthe last one had been more than worth waiting for.
But when they stopped in front of a huge sports complex, she glanced at him, puzzled. “We're going to watch a kid's baseball game?”
“Nope. No game tonight.” But he went through the front gate anyway.
“Well, if there's no game, then what are we doing here?”
“We're going to hit a few.”
“Hit a few what?” she asked blankly.
“Balls.” His wicked grin was back, the one he'd used to convince her to plan his party and check out his house and go on this date with him. “We're going to have a go at the batting cage.”
Of course they were. Because, really, where else would Shawn Emerson finish up a date but at a kid's athletic complex? And how odd was it that she was actually excited by the prospect?
“Come on. You can pick out a bat while I get us a cage.”
“You make it sound like we're at the zoo.”
“That description isn't as far off as you might think, especially on Saturday mornings.”
“Really? You spend enough time here to know that, hmm?”
“I coach a kids' baseball team. Our games are here on Saturday mornings, so I do spend more than my fair share of time here.” He winked, then headed off to the cashier's booth at the front of the park.
She watched him go, bemused. Though she'd figured out that he was a big kid at heart, she never would have pictured Shawn as the type to donate his time to a kids' baseball league. Yet, the more that she thought about it, the less it surprised her. His gentle, generous treatment of her had already convinced her he was a stand-up guy.
She walked over to the bats and ran her hands over a few as she waited for him to come back. The sad fact was she wasn't overly skilled at softball, never had beenâeven in school. Which meant that she had no idea what she was testing the bats for. Though some felt heavier than others, she didn't have a clue which one would work for her.
When Shawn returned a couple of minutes later, she had picked out a shiny blue-and-silver bat. “Is that the one you like the feel of?” he asked curiously.
“I don't know. I picked it because it was pretty.”
“Not a big baseball fan?”
“I don't mind watching it, but I think I was fourteen and in Freshman P.E. the last time I held a bat. I can't say I've missed it.”
Shawn picked up a few bats, wrapped his hands around their bases and held them up as if he was actu
ally going to hit a ball with them. “So, that's what you meant by testing them?” she asked.
“Yeah. What did you think I meant?”
She shrugged. “I didn't have a clue.”
“We're going to change all that.” He held a bat out to her. “Here, try this one.”
“It's not as pretty as the one I chose.”
“True, but the one you picked is meant for a ten-year-old kid. You're a little too tall for it.”
“Yeah. Now, come on. I promise to go easy on you.”
“I've heard that before.”
But as Shawn led her to a nearby batting cage and cued up the ball machine, Rhiannon found herself looking forward to taking a turn at bat. While softball had never been her sport, she'd spent most of her life swimming and playing tennis. She hadn't done either in the past couple of yearsâhadn't done much of anything to be completely honestâand for the first time, she found herself missing the thrill of physical activity. There was something to be said for the feel of well-used muscles at the end of a workout session.
“Now, hitting a ball really isn't that hard,” Shawn said as he lined her up directly across from the batting machine.
“They sure make it look hard in the major leagues.” She held her bat to her shoulder and got ready to hit.
“That's because they're trying to hit off professional pitchers. I've got the machine set on slow pitches, so you shouldn't have any problem.” He took a step back, looked at her, then shook his head with a laugh. “Okay,
you wouldn't have any problem if you actually knew how to hold a bat.”
“I know how to hold a bat!” she exclaimed, insulted.
“If you say so.” He moved behind her and placed his hands on her hips. Her heart started beating triple-time, and the urge to fleeâand to fightâwas so strong within her that it took all her concentration not to act on it.
she told herself.
It's just Shawn. You're safe. You're fine. It's just Shawn. He won't hurt you. You're safe.
She repeated the words to herself over and over again until they became her mantra, the one thing she could hold on to as the world around her pitched and rocked.
“You'll have a much better shot of hitting the ball if you turn a little more to your right,” Shawn continued, oblivious to her panic. She must be getting better at hiding the freak-outsâsix months before, there was no way anyone could have missed her as she started to lose it.
“Now, choke up a little on the batâ¦” He continued speaking in a slow, easy tone that did more to ease her worry than anything else could have and by the time he finally moved away from her, Rhiannon not only had herself back under control, but she had a pretty decent batting stance, as well.
“I'm going to turn the machine on now,” Shawn called as he headed toward the other side of the cage. “Just relax and let yourself swing at the pitches. Have fun.”
Squatting down like he'd told her, Rhiannon held the bat up and prepared to connect with the ball as the
machine fired. She waited, waited, then swung right when the ball was in what Shawn referred to as “the sweet spot.” She waited to hear the crack of bat meeting ball, and was shocked when she realized the ball had hit the fence behind her.
“That's okay. Don't worry about it. Try swinging about one second earlier.”
She did as he suggested, and still the ball soared right by her. Again and again, until Rhiannon was sweaty and more than a little frustrated and Shawn was trying his best not to laugh.
“Maybe baseball's not your game,” he said with a grin. “We can go do something else if you'd like.”
“Turn the machine back on,” she snapped. “I'm going to hit one of these balls if it kills me.”
“Are you sure? I didn't mean toâ”
She glared at him. “Are you going to turn that thing back on or am I?”
“All right, all right. But maybe you should loosen up a little, take off your coat. It's a bit tight and might be preventing you from swinging through.”
“Yeah, that's what's preventing me from hitting. My too-tight coat, not my complete lack of talent at the sport.”
“Still. Try it and see if it helps. God knows, it couldn't hurt.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, even as she shrugged out of her coat and tossed it on the ground. “You know, payback's a bitch.”
“I'm looking forward to it.”
She grabbed the bat and got ready to hit, or try to hit. “Go ahead. Turn that stupid thing back on.”
But Shawn didn't move, didn't so much as acknowl
edge that he'd heard her. Wondering what had distracted him, she followed his gaze with her own, then cursed under her breath as she realized that
was what had distracted him. At least her scars had. She'd gotten so caught up in the game that she'd forgotten herself, had stripped down to the thin silk tank top she wore under her suit and now her scar-riddled arms were on display for the whole world to see.