Read Love Bats Last (The Heart of the Game) Online

Authors: Pamela Aares

Tags: #Romance, #woman's fiction, #baseball, #contemporary, #sports

Love Bats Last (The Heart of the Game) (5 page)

BOOK: Love Bats Last (The Heart of the Game)
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Alex woke the next morning to bright sun streaming into the bedroom of his Nob Hill apartment. The storm had passed, and it was a clear day in San Francisco. He ran a hand over the stubble on his face and then slid his legs over the side of the bed. Already he ached in muscles he’d forgotten he had, muscles evidently specialized for wrangling sea lions and not accustomed to use otherwise. He rubbed his elbow where he’d jammed it while operating the winch.

He took in a breath and rotated his wrist. At least he hadn’t torqued it.

Winching whales was not an exclusion clause in his contract, but if the front office heard about it, they’d probably try to add one in next year. The thought of them working on the language made him laugh. As he did, he felt the pull along his ribs. Not good.

What he needed was a strong cup of coffee and a couple of ibuprofen—the time-tested breakfast of champions. He tugged on his jeans and pulled on a favorite T-shirt. Sabrina kept him in T-shirts from her favorite causes. He’d once calculated that given the extent of his sister’s donations, each shirt cost about $8,000. This one was from a 10K run for endangered frogs. The cartoon on the front made him smile.

When he reached the kitchen, the stench caught him off guard.

His crumpled overcoat sat heaped on the floor like a deflated balloon, right where he’d peeled it off in the wee hours before dawn. Gage had driven him home. God knows how long he would’ve had to wait for a cab to find its way out to the headlands
any cabbie had been willing to go out at all. He grabbed a trash bag from a drawer in the kitchen island and stuffed the stinking coat into it. The image of the big sea lion hauling its head back and sneezing on him was too fresh to be funny. At the time, he wasn’t sure which one of them was the more surprised. He stared at his shoes, then chucked them in with the coat and tied off the bag. At least they were evidence that he hadn’t dreamed the whole adventure.

Though he
dreamed, he remembered. Multiple times. And Jackie had wound through all of them. He had the very unnerving feeling that the images of the night before, the images of her, just might haunt his day.

His body stirred as he remembered the feel of her in his arms. He’d liked her laugh, a laugh that opened up the space before it as if carving out territory of its own. She’d treated him like a normal person, no conniving or bowing and scraping. It’d been too long since he’d felt that from a woman.

The strange ache that stirred in him as he poured his coffee was more than bruised ribs. Something new prowled in him, something that had been sleeping, something he’d kept stuffed down for a very long time.

He downed the coffee and tried to ignore the tension in his belly. But the coffee didn’t help put the images of one feisty marine mammal vet out of his mind. He cursed against the rim of the mug.

He rummaged in his gear bag and found his phone. Before he thought, he’d pulled up the website for the California Marine Mammal Center and found Gage’s phone number.

Gage answered on the second ring.

“It’s Alex.”

“Man, you saved our butts last night.”

“I thought we saved a whale.”

Gage laughed. “Well, that too.”

“How’s the good doctor Jackie doing?” He tried to sound casual. He was just testing the waters, after all. It should’ve felt easier.

“She’s on her way to the Farallons. I avoid all rescues that involve breeding grounds of great white sharks. It’s in my contract,” he added with a laugh. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to be on that boat. It may only be a couple hours, but Jackie barfs the whole way.”

“Does she ever take time off?”

Gage guffawed.

“I take it that’s a no.”

“She’s all work except for when she’s rock climbing.
a crazy sport if you ask me.” He paused. “Made an impression, did she?”

Leave it to a Canadian to get bluntly to the point.

“If you want to get anywhere near her,” Gage said, “you’ll have to volunteer.”

“Do you get a finder’s fee for recruiting?”

“Only if the guy is healthy and over six feet. Saves my back when I have to wrestle bull sea lions.”

Alex heard him take in a breath.

“Think about it. We could use a guy like you.”

His earnestness caught Alex off guard. There was an awkward pause as he tried to think of a response.

“Look, Jackie’s not a crackable nut. Not that I’ve seen. But I meant what I said. We could use your help.”

Alex made some lame excuse about being too busy to volunteer and ended the call. It was actually true, but it still sounded lame.

He checked the clock on his phone. Barely enough time to call Emilio and sort out irrigation plans for the vines they’d grafted and get to the ballpark on time.

He decided not to mention his reasons for missing their meeting that morning. Rescuing a whale and chasing down a woman were likely not equal in Emilio’s eyes to caring for one’s crops. Emilio was old fashioned. He’d argue that Alex had to see the layout of the vines to have a true sense of what was needed. And he’d be right. But for now, a phone call would have to do.

By the time the call was done, a familiar guilt had chewed a knot into Alex’s gut.

It’d been a fight, but Alex had persuaded Emilio to bring in an irrigation consultant and two more crews to handle the bulk of the spring work. But even with expert help, there were details to running a place like Trovare that required Alex’s attention—details he was determined to handle efficiently and not let get in the way of his game. Not again.

Some days he wondered what he was scrambling to prove.

With nine years on the All-Star team as proof, he’d had a good run at the game. But he wanted to win the batting title, wanted it more than he’d remembered wanting anything, wanted it in a way that secretly embarrassed him. Winning the Triple Crown was something he had to prove to himself. Just the thought of failure made the knot in his gut cinch tighter. If he was going to go out, he wanted to go out on top.

He took in a deep breath, released it slowly, grabbed his gear bag and headed out. Hitting a few over the wall would clear his head. It always did.



Chapter Four


You sure do know how to treat the help, Jack,” Gage said as Jackie walked into the necropsy lab.

The tomboy in Jackie rather liked it when Gage called her Jack, but his tone warned that a lecture was brewing. After hours of retching on the trip out to the Farallons and a difficult rescue, she wasn’t in any mood for a lecture.

“We’d never have gotten that whale off the beach without Alex,” he said as he opened the freezer that held the animal serum and tissue samples. “You didn’t have to bite the guy’s head off.”

“He tried to
me up the cliff.” She laid her scalpels out onto a steel tray, lining them up according to blade size, largest to smallest. “Only an idiot would try that. He wasn’t roped in—we could’ve both gone over.”

“He’s no rock climber—he couldn’t have known it was a dangerous move.” Gage huffed out an exasperated breath. “He
you go down when the whale thrashed you. You scared the bejeezus out of me, and I
you.” When she didn’t reply, he took the tray from her and thumped it down on the necropsy table. “We
more help. He called this morning. I think he’s interested in volunteering.”

Deal now or deal later, that’s how it always went with Gage. She pulled her tray back and began to re-sort her scalpels.

“He’s another rich dilettante—you saw how he was dressed.” Gage lifted his hand as if to protest, but she cut him off. “He’ll hang around for a week or maybe two. We don’t have time for that, not again. At least

The truth was, both times she’d been near the man he’d triggered feelings she’d worked three long years to forget, feelings she didn’t need to deal with right now. Maybe never. And she felt deep suspicion at his turning up out of the blue twice in less than two weeks. The first time could’ve been innocent, but the second surely wasn’t coincidence.

Gage shot her a glare that she was sure stopped his hockey buddies mid-ice. She didn’t see it often.

“Someday you’re going to have to rethink your knee-jerk wariness to men, boss. Alex is a good guy.”

She wished she were as optimistic about people as Gage was, but she wasn’t. And he was right—she was leery of men, especially men who made her pulse jump in ways she couldn’t control.

Gage stood there with that look, the big-eyed, near-pleading look that’d made her hire him in the first place. Well, that and the fact that he’d had the best credentials she’d seen in ten years.

She shook her head. “That’d be
version of a polite no-thank-you,” she said, ignoring his crossed arms and puffed-up stance. “Or is it too early in the morning for such subtle information to register in your brain?”

Gage cracked a lopsided grin. “I see we did our joy and happiness meditation this morning.”

Turning away, she opened the steel cabinet beside her and drew out a saw.

“Was it something I said?” Gage smiled, pointing to the sharp blade she brandished.

something you say.” Ignoring his attempt at levity, she turned to the first sea lion on the table. She hated when it was a pup, hated to see life snuffed out so early.

She lifted the saw. Pain laced through her arm and she doubled over.

“You should have that X-rayed,” Gage said. He picked up the saw that she’d dropped to the floor.

“I’m fine. Just a bruise.”

“Information is better than guessing,” he said, feeding one of her pat lines back to her.

She didn’t want to know. She should’ve known better than to lasso a live whale. She smiled to herself. She
known better; she just hadn’t been ready to let the whale die. A banged-up arm was a small price to pay. But she shouldn’t have made the trip to the Farallons today. The rope sling that hauled her from the boat up to the cliff on the island hadn’t done her arm any favors. But they’d pulled in the fur seal the Coast Guard had called about. If her estimate was right, the stitches would heal and the animal would be back in the ocean within a week.

“I can finish up here,” Gage offered. “Take a break. But before you go out there”—he nodded toward the volunteers feeding animals in the pens across the lot—“you should know that they’re upset that you put Scrappy down.”

“Heads-up duly noted and appreciated,” she said, shaking her head.

Euthanizing animals was the toughest part of her job. If she let herself feel too much, she’d have a hard time doing it, making the right decisions. Feelings and facts didn’t always coincide; she’d stick with the facts.

She’d given Scrappy his best chance, had rewired his jaw. It didn’t take. She’d rather have put down the fisherman who shot the little sea lion—it was a good thing they hadn’t found out who’d done it.

She took the saw from him and replaced it in the cabinet. They both could use a break from the heavier work. She pulled a glass slide off the stack on the windowsill and motioned to the jar of fixative. “Let’s finish up six more tissue samples and then we can regroup.”

Gage let out a frustrated breath.

“Hey, the day crew’s making pizza for lunch,” she said, giving him a smile that she wished wasn’t wavering. “That prospect alone should cheer you.”



Jackie was shocked when she returned to her office and read the email from Bradley Hanson, head of the lab up at UC Davis. He rarely marked his emails urgent.

She’d sent the water and tissue samples from her river trip to him to analyze. He knew the Center couldn’t afford to run all the necessary tests, and Bradley loved a challenge. But she also knew he was doing it partially as a special favor for her. Asking for favors was part of running a struggling nonprofit, but she’d never been comfortable asking for help.

Earlier that afternoon Gage had teased her about taking advantage of Bradley. She liked Bradley and to anyone’s eyes, they were a good match. He ran one of the best pathology labs in the country, he had a far-ranging mind and he was a renowned scientist. And he was handsome, she had to admit. He had one of those faces you’d see in an L.L.Bean catalogue, the guy with the Christmas tree slung over his shoulder and a casual grin lighting his wide-set eyes.

But he didn’t light any fire in her. Thank goodness. Right now she needed a colleague, not a boyfriend. But he’d asked her out a couple times and though she’d always managed to have a good excuse to refuse, his interest made her uneasy.

She took in a breath and punched in his number.

“And how’s my favorite seal doctor today?” Bradley’s voice didn’t have its usual cheery tone.

“I’m well, thank you. But I’ll be better when I know what you’ve found out.”

“In that case, I wish I had better news. You were right—the tests on the water samples from the mouth of the river showed nitrates, the sort of thing you’d see from fertilizer runoff. But it’s a very high concentration. It’d kill a crop if you treated it with that much nitrogen-based fertilizer.”

BOOK: Love Bats Last (The Heart of the Game)
6.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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