Read Love Bats Last (The Heart of the Game) Online
Authors: Pamela Aares
Tags: #Romance, #woman's fiction, #baseball, #contemporary, #sports
wasn’t what she’d called to say. She cleared her throat.
“Yet I did get a feeling for why it’s such a beloved game.”
“And I understand that what you did, getting a home run with all those other players on base, was pretty rare. So congratulations.”
“I was hoping you might be interested in going to Santa Cruz two weeks from today.”
She stopped. Where had that come from?
“Um...” She took a long breath.
She really hadn’t thought this through. But she couldn’t exactly disinvite him now.
“There’s a seal release that Thursday morning and my brother is in the World Surfing Expo later in the afternoon. I thought you might find either—or both—interesting. I mean, seeing seals released is always so fulfilling and the surfing... Well, it’s a sport. And you, being a ballplayer, you obviously like sports.”
She was stammering!
“That is...” She was backpedaling now. “I don’t even know if you have time off. Well, anyway, you’re invited. There’s a party after—you can bring a date. I’ll email you the details. And, like I said, sorry I missed the rest of the game.”
She clicked off the phone and stared at it.
What was she thinking, inviting him to her brother’s surf expo? Why would he even be interested? And why in the world did she add that bit about the date? He’d think she’d gone mad.
She rubbed her eyes again, harder this time.
Maybe she had.
Jackie looked up from the harbor seal pool to see Jan, the crew supervisor, collapse under a charging, angry sea lion. Jan wasn’t even five feet tall, and the sea lion easily outweighed her.
Before Jackie could get to her feet, Alex leapt over the fence of the adjacent pen, grabbed the IV bag that Jan had abandoned and threw it. It smacked the sea lion squarely along the back of the neck. The startled animal turned, giving Alex enough time to throw a towel over its head. He hauled back on the towel and Jan wriggled safely away. She grabbed her herding board and braced, but Alex signaled her to leave the pen.
Jackie, brushing her hands off on her slickers, rushed to them.
“That was stupid of me,” Jan said as she backed out of the pen. Her hands were trembling, and one of her gloves was ripped where the sea lion had gotten a piece of it.
“You didn’t see it coming,” Alex said as he whipped the towel off the sea lion and then slipped through the gate. “It could’ve happened to anybody.”
When Jan just shook her head, he took the herding board from her and leaned it against the gate. “Hey, that’s why they call them wild animals. It’s their nature.”
“Look at it this way,” Jackie said in a soothing tone that didn’t match the spike of adrenaline still surging in her, “you just got rescued by the Galahad of the headlands.”
be expecting me to do that,” Gage said as he jogged up to them. He took Jan’s arm in his hand, but he shook his head at Alex. “You’re making us normal guys look bad again.”
“Let’s see your hand,” Jackie said.
“It’s okay,” Jan said. “She just nipped me.”
“You don’t want to risk seal finger,” Jackie said firmly. “It can lead to gangrene, remember? Let’s have a look.”
She peeled off her glove. The animal’s teeth hadn’t broken the skin.
“Whew,” Gage said with a mocking smile. “Thought I’d have to find another Tuesday crew supervisor who could make cookies.”
Jan gave him a playful kick. “I’ll go wash up.” She turned to Alex. “Thank you. I never saw anyone move that fast.”
“My pleasure,” Alex said as she walked away.
“You haven’t seen
on the ice.” Gage made a sweeping hockey move with the broom he held.
“Speaking of moves,” Jackie said, ignoring Gage’s display, “can you two give me a hand with the harbor seal in pen six?”
“Felt the earth stop just then, did you, Alex? The good Dr. Brandon is requesting help.”
Jackie shot him a glare.
Alex walked beside her to pen six.
“Sorry about missing your game.”
Her cheeks flamed as he looked at her. After her ridiculous message the day before, she’d run several lines over in her mind, but there wasn’t any better way to say it.
Alex shrugged and smiled. “There’ll be plenty more.”
“I always wanted to see a grand slam,” Gage said. “Almost as impressive as a hat trick.”
“Never saw a hat trick,” Alex said.
“Yeah,” Gage said with a grin, “you usually have to stay for a whole game to see that.” He crooked his thumb at Jackie. “She’s walked out on three of my games, so don’t feel slighted.”
“You see why I keep him around,” Jackie said in her finest ironic tone. “He’s our key diplomat.”
diplomat,” Gage said with a smug smile.
In pen six Jackie rolled a towel around the little harbor seal, pinning its flippers to its sides. Gage and Alex held it while she slipped a dental wedge into its mouth. “It’s too weak to anesthetize,” she explained, “but we have to get this hook out. Hand me those pliers, Gage. I’ll cut the barb off.”
With one swift stroke she clipped the barb and then removed the fishing hook. It was three inches long.
“Get that stitched up straight away.” She looked up for a split second. “Please.”
Gage laughed and nudged Alex. “Don’t you love the way Brits give orders?”
“Don’t you love the way Canadians have trouble taking them?” she muttered.
“That little one will be ready for release soon,” she said to Alex as she walked out of the pen. “If you do come down for the release, you’ll get to see your handiwork happily swim off into the ocean.”
“I’d like that,” Alex said.
And he looked like he meant it. She’d planned to grill him about the river, about his vineyard, but decided to wait until she had Bradley’s report. It was always better to have facts lined up before asking questions. If Alex was like most rich landholders, he probably wouldn’t know much about the details anyway.
Bradley pulled into the parking lot near the pen. He waved at her, then jumped out of his truck and leaned against it. With a brimmed hat shading him from the sun and a pair of aviator sunglasses, he looked like he’d just walked off the set of an adventure film. It really was too bad they had no chemistry. But she wasn’t ready for that anyway.
,” Gage called to her from the pen as she walked away.
She turned. “Yes. Thank you. Thank you both. I meant to say that.”
“Fine English manners aren’t what they used to be,” she heard Gage joke to Alex as she walked away.
Alex watched Jackie move toward the truck and the guy. And he kept watching as they walked off toward the building that housed her office, laughing and talking in animated tones.
“I thought you said she was a hard nut to crack,” Alex said to Gage.
Gage offered a smile that bordered on a smirk. “That’s Bradley,” he said, as if the name explained their relationship in a word. “He’s got her number—you know, science, data, saving the world. Little things like that.”
With his looks, the guy could’ve carried off any name. But still, Bradley? His mother must’ve known he’d be a scientist.
Alex watched until they were inside the building. Maybe he was wasting his time. But just being around Jackie and helping with her work made him feel worthy in a way he’d never felt before, had never known he’d wanted to feel. He stared at the door to her office and gritted back the jealousy flaring in him. He had no right to be jealous.
Gage elbowed him but didn’t laugh. And
was even worse, the speculative narrowing of Gage’s eyes without the man’s natural humor behind it. Alex couldn’t come out and say he wasn’t jealous, because then it would sound like he
jealous. And jealousy had never been part of his game plan.
Alex threw his gear bag into his locker, slammed it shut and headed down the tunnel to the field. The aroma of hot dogs and roasting peanuts already wafted in the air. Fans were filtering into the stadium, laughing and shouting. He loved the sound of the ballpark before a game. It was the sound of anticipation, the sound of people leaning into their yearnings. They put their troubles aside and entered the thrall of the game, settled into the flow of time that it, and not their busy schedules, dictated, if only for nine innings. He needed to do the same, to lean into that groove, but lately he hadn’t succeeded.
“You’re late,” Scotty said as Alex reached across him to grab his helmet. “You missed my Spades tournament in the locker room. Andres won.” Scotty’s smile froze when he focused on Alex. “You look terrific—bags that puffy are usually on bases.”
Alex didn’t need Scotty to tell him how bad his eyes looked. He’d barely slept. Though he’d sworn not to spend time dealing with the vineyard, Emilio had needed his help. He’d also taken on extra shifts at the Center; both had eaten into his schedule and his sleep. But his restless nights had more to do with his inability to get one feisty lady vet out of his mind than with any worries about Trovare.
“Time to warm up that arm,” Alex said. He ignored Scotty’s probing stare and jogged up and onto the field.
During batting practice Alex smacked ball after ball deep over the wall, but his mind wasn’t tracking what his body was doing. Jackie’s face kept rising in his mind’s eye, and the fantasies that followed weren’t ones he was used to. The sensual fantasies tugged at him with a new power but it was his imagining a life, a future, with her that had him stumped. Meeting her had cracked open some place in him that he hadn’t known existed, in territory he’d thought he’d known well. Evidently he’d been wrong. The woman had roused a force that wasn’t entirely under his control.
Zack walked up beside him, ready to take his practice hits. He ran a hand along Alex’s bat. “Scotty said all that vineyard work was magic.” He shot Alex a wry smile. “Sign me up.”
The guy was twenty pounds overweight and ate donuts for breakfast. But he had an eye for the ball and the power to send it out of the park. He didn’t need magic.
“There’s a waiting list,” Alex joked as he tucked his batting gloves in his pocket.
He grabbed his game glove and headed out to first to field ground balls. For a moment he scanned the faces in the stands. What puzzled him most was that no matter how many times he ran the images of Jackie in his mind, he couldn’t get a bead on any of them. And he’d hardly spent any time around her, so none of his reactions made any sense.
Sharp pain shot through his right leg. Cursing, he ran after the ball that had glanced off his shin.
“Yo!” Laughton, their shortstop, shouted from the batter’s box. “Thought you saw that coming.”
Half an hour later, his leg still twinged as he jogged toward the clubhouse. A routine grounder had hit him; he couldn’t remember the last time that happened.
“Laughton rang your bell,” Scotty said, tapping Alex’s head as they strode into the clubhouse to change into their game uniforms. “Anybody home?”
Alex cuffed him, making sure to go for his left arm. If they were to reach the playoffs, they needed his right one.
When they reached the playoffs
, Alex said, under his breath.
Scotty eyed him. “I told Walsh that you’re still depressed that they downgraded Pluto to an ice ball.”
“Ice balls are your department,” Alex said. The last thing he needed was their manager, Hal Walsh, hovering over him.
“Your locker’s over here, man.” Scotty banged on the one next to his. “What’s got you?”
Pitcher’s eyes—they missed very little.
“I keep thinking about all those animals,” Alex said absently as he moved to his locker.
“You mean about
,” Scotty said. He straightened, all trace of humor gone. “What’d you tell me last week—don’t bring it to the park?” He stuffed his glove into his gear bag. “Breaking your own rules, man.”
Alex pulled his shirt up and over his head, wishing he hadn’t told Scotty about the night he’d helped Jackie and Gage save the whale. Scotty had the wrong idea.
Scotty wagged a finger. “You once gave me a great piece of advice—”
Alex groaned, cutting him off. “Hold the bat with both hands?”
“Yes, very helpful, that,” Scotty said with the boyish grin he was famous for, the grin that had half the women in San Francisco swooning. “But it was another useful tip that you seem to have forgotten. You told me never to start any kind of real relationship during the season, that there’s no time to work it out, et cetera and blah, blah,
“That wasn’t me. Should’ve been, but I think you’re going senile.”
your department,” Scotty volleyed.