Authors: Sloan Johnson
“Who’re you rooming with?” While he waited for my answer, I could see him mentally going through the pitching roster, trying to figure out who’d be the most miserable roommate. The truth was, most of our pitching staff was pretty damn cool. We were competing against one another for a limited number of spots, but we were friendly most of the time.
“Butler,” I answered because there was no way in hell his mind could make that leap.
“But he’s not even a pitcher,” Devin protested. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t said to myself when I was trying to figure out how I wound up in this situation. Most of the time, pitchers were put with pitchers and catchers with catchers. We worked differently from the rest of the team, so it made sense. Well, apparently to everyone but whatever moron had set up everything this year. “Or a catcher. I mean, I could see if you were rooming with Ortiz or something. He’s a punk, but at least he’s a catcher.”
“I know. But, it is what it is. I’ll get through it,” I said more to myself than to him. “Who are you staying with?”
“I got Houser this year,” Devin told me as he started filling out paperwork. “He’s not so bad. Not as cool as you, but I can’t complain.”
“You’d better not plan on replacing me, fucker,” I warned him.
“Please,” Devin scoffed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re out of here before the end of the day. With numbers like yours, they’d be fools to not move you up. They’ve got one hell of a hole since Sean retired.”
When Sean Tucker announced his retirement last season, I’d felt hopeful I’d finally get my chance. Then, I overheard some of Dad’s winter meetings and not once was my name mentioned. In fact, at one point they talked about trades to get some fresh blood into the club, because the Mavs kept falling short of the league championships. Being stuck in limbo pissed me off. It felt as though my dad didn’t have faith in my abilities, but he also wasn’t willing to trade me away to another team that might give me a shot. But I didn’t say anything to him because of our “no baseball at home” rule. The rule
had insisted on implementing.
The room grew insanely loud as more guys filed in to get their tests over with. My next stop was the fitness test. Last year, I’d worried I was going to be labeled one of the team fatties, but I was in good shape this year. Rather than worry about how short I’d fall of whatever unknown expectations management had for me, I remembered Jimmy’s advice and tried to remain positive. Sean was no longer the Mavericks’ key starter, and while I didn’t have any foolish notions about sliding from Triple-A straight into his shoes, if I was smart this year, there was a chance I could make my way to Milwaukee after all.
ou about ready
?” Bryce yelled from the top of the basement stairs.
“Yeah, I’ll be right there,” I hollered back. It drove Drew crazy, the way we were always yelling at one another through the house, but we rarely let that stop us.
“We have to be on the road in the next twenty minutes unless you want to miss your flight,” he warned me.
No way in hell would my ass not be on that plane. As my professor liked to remind me, this was the shot of a lifetime. Every year, students fought for the coveted role of summer intern for the Milwaukee Mavericks. More than a few of my classmates were pissed as hell I’d been offered the position. They accused me of asking Drew to use his influence with the front office to get me an internship I hadn’t earned. Well they could all kiss my ass, because I was heading to spring training while they froze their asses in Wisconsin.
I ran through my checklist once more to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything. I did this every time I went on an assignment, but this was the opportunity of a lifetime and I didn’t want to screw it up. I held on to this unrealistic hope I’d impress the hell out of the Mavericks and they’d beg me to stay on full time as their social media coordinator. Although they had a good PR team in the front office, they were seriously behind the times when it came to social media. I’d already talked to the director of media relations and she agreed it’d be a good niche for me to fill, as long as it didn’t pull me away from my other work assignments. From what she’d said, my primary task would be following players and suits around to various functions, taking pictures the team could send to media outlets with interesting tidbits to make the team seem as well-rounded off the field as they were on it.
I hoisted my camera bag over my shoulder, fumbled for my suitcases and began the trek upstairs. Eric, Drew, and Bryce were all standing around the kitchen island, beaming like proud parents. A few years ago, I would have felt a pang of sadness because they weren’t the ones I needed approval from, but now I’d grown to accept that it was better to be loved by people who wanted me in their lives than tolerated by those who brought me into this world.
“Guys, stop it,” I groaned as I poured myself a mug of coffee. “I swear, if you get out your phones and ask me to stand by the door for pictures, I’m bailing.”
It wouldn’t be the first time they’d done it. I swear, the day I started college, Bryce took more pictures of me getting ready than most parents do the day their kids start kindergarten. He swore I’d thank him someday, but I had no clue when that day was supposed to come, because it was still embarrassing as hell.
“You won’t run away,” Eric challenged me. I wondered if this was the year he wouldn’t get all morose about Drew getting on a plane for spring training while he stayed home. Most of the time, I believed him when he said he didn’t miss playing, but every February we went through a rough patch. I felt sorry for Bryce because this year he was going to have to deal with it on his own. “Besides, if Bryce wants pictures and you don’t humor him, he’ll tell Drew to embarrass you by documenting your walk into the training complex tomorrow morning. And you know if Bryce threatens to withhold sex, Drew will cave instantly.”
“Damn, it’s bad enough I have to hear you guys going at it, I really don’t need to hear about how you use sex as a manipulation tool,” I groaned. While it was great to live in a house where I didn’t have to hide who I was, there were times I wanted to buy them gags and myself earplugs. They were very vocal about what they wanted from one another. “Come on, I thought we were going to be late.”
When Eric and Bryce dropped us off at the airport, I accepted their quick hugs and good luck wishes and quickly made my way into the terminal to start checking my bags. I didn’t need to be around for them saying goodbye to Drew. It wasn’t that I worried about them trying to check his tonsils right there on the sidewalk; they were smarter than to let their guards down in public. No, it had everything to do with feeling like the extra wheel. Seeing them together was a reminder I was still pining over an asshole who had ditched me in an empty parking lot four years ago. My inability to move on was why I was alone and no one would miss me while I was gone. Life sucked sometimes.
“You ready for this?” Drew asked when he joined me in line. Either we were flying out at a shitty time or everyone in the state was trying to flee the bitter cold snap we’d been having for the past few weeks.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” I asked. It wasn’t as if I was going down there to play baseball. Yeah, it was the opportunity of a lifetime, as everyone kept reminding me, but it was what I was meant to do. When I had a camera in my hands, I didn’t feel like the awkward kid without a place in the world. It was as if the camera formed a barrier between me and the rest of the world. I was able to lose myself in thinking ahead, figuring out what shot I wanted to try for, adjusting the various settings, and then waiting for the moment to come. It was familiar and kept me grounded.
Drew seemed nervous, as if he was trying to avoid telling me something. We inched forward in the line and I studied him as he had some sort of argument with himself. I couldn’t hear the words, but his lips were moving and he kept shaking his head. When he looked up at me, he appeared worried. “Okay, I’m just going to say it. You do know how spring training is structured, right?”
“Um, yeah,” I responded sarcastically. “I might’ve been clueless a few years ago, but I’ve learned a thing or two since then. Is that what you’re worried about? Do you think I won’t know what I’m doing and I’ll look like an idiot?”
Drew shook his head again. “No, I know you’ll be fine with the work,” he assured me. “It’s just…you haven’t come down with Eric and Bryce the past few years.”
“Because I couldn’t take time off from school,” I reminded him. “It was one thing when I was still in high school, but my professors wouldn’t have been cool with me taking two weeks off every spring to come and hang out in Arizona.”
It was a good excuse. And technically not a lie. Drew shot me a pointed look, as if he was waiting for me to say out loud the real reason I’d avoided the annual spring trip. Everyone knew why I had stayed as far from Arizona as possible, and I didn’t think it was necessary to rehash what an idiot I had been.
I blamed my choices that first year on the fact that I was an eighteen-year-old experiencing his first real taste of freedom. Not only was I out from under the dictatorial thumb of my father, who would lose his mind if he caught me looking at a guy, but I was away from the prying eyes of my hometown. I didn’t have to worry about anyone seeing me and Nick together because no one knew me. He was the one with issues, but even he seemed happier when we were hanging out at the house. And naively, I thought our time together meant something to him. I thought we shared something special, but he left. He told me he couldn’t let a “silly spring fling” destroy his dreams and he fucking left.
“Drew, I’m not talking about him,” I warned him. We neared the front of the line, which thankfully meant he wouldn’t be able to beat this topic to death. “I’m not some wounded kid you have to worry about doing something stupid. I’m going down there for work, just the same as you. And he’s not going to be on the major league fields, which is where I’m going to be spending most of my time.”
“But he could be,” Drew told me. “Guys get shuffled around all the time down there. You need to be ready to see him, because with as good as his arm was last year, I’d be shocked if he doesn’t get brought up just in case we need him.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said firmly. “Nick Stone lost the right to have any pull on me when he walked away. If he and I are in the same place at the same time, I’ll be professional, but you don’t have to worry about me trailing after him like a little puppy.”
“That’s good to hear.” The desk agent called us to the counter and all talk of Nick ceased.
lmost eight hours later
, we were in a cab on our way to the house the guys, along with their buddies, had purchased so they’d have a safe haven during spring training. It seemed extravagant and unnecessary to buy a million-dollar home only to let it sit empty most of the year, but Drew explained it served as an income property for the group the rest of the year. Rather than blow their unfathomably large paychecks on toys and shit they didn’t need, they had properties across the country. Baseball wouldn’t last forever and the guys wanted a safety net for whatever came after. It paid off, because their investments were the reason Eric devoted most of his time to Secured Hope, Cam opened one of Milwaukee’s hottest restaurants, and Mason was living his dream life as a stay at home father to Asher. Recently, they’d even talked about adopting another kid. I thought they were nuts, but Mason and Sean were great parents.
A pit formed in my stomach when the cab pulled up in front of the house. I’d been here a few times since that first spring, but never during training. The realization settled in that I was going to have to face Nick at some point in the next six weeks. Although I’d promised Drew I wouldn’t let Nick screw with my mind, now that we were in the same state I had my doubts. No one knew I still followed his career. I rationalized my obsession by saying I needed to know he hadn’t thrown away what I thought we had for nothing. The truth was, there was some piece of my heart still holding on to that brief period of my life.
The front door opened and Jason jogged down the driveway to help us with our bags. After a quick round of man-hugs, we all trudged back into the house. It was eerily quiet. I’d never been here without the entire patchwork family. I hoped the week before the rest of the guys came down went fast, because I hadn’t been this uncomfortable in a long time. I closed my bedroom door behind me and got to work unpacking. More silence. I caught sight of the haphazard stack of video games on the bottom shelf of my entertainment center and was hit with a memory of the first night I’d met Nick.
“If you’re looking for the party, you’re going the wrong direction,” I called out when I caught a glimpse of someone wandering past my door for the second time. It wasn’t anyone I knew, so there was no reason for them to be up here. Eric and Bryce knew I had a huge project due the week we got back, so they’d promised they would try to keep the disruptions to a minimum.
My bedroom door opened further and the guy, who looked way too young to be a pro ball player, stood there gaping at me. I considered asking him what in the hell he thought he was doing. You didn’t just open someone’s bedroom door when you were a visitor in their home. For all he knew, I could’ve been in here tugging one out.
“You’re staring,” I pointed out. He clenched his eyes tightly and a flush creeped up his face.
“Sorry… I didn’t mean… I wasn’t…” he fumbled, then muttered something under his breath. Seeing as he was in my personal space, I refused to feel bad for checking him out. It was obvious he spent hours working out every day. My dick stirred as I wondered what those solid legs would feel like wrapped around my waist. Or how it’d feel to have him holding me with those solid arms while he pounded into me.
“Wow, and I thought I was shit at social situations. You okay?” I stared at him, waiting for him to say something. Anything. I was pretty sure he hadn’t even blinked as he gaped at me.
He swallowed hard and nodded. “Yeah, I needed a break.”
“I can understand needing downtime,” I commiserated. “That’s one of the benefits of having a pile of homework while we’re down here. If you want, you’re welcome to chill in here,” I told him, pointing toward a television and PS4 sitting in the corner. “I’m Cody, by the way.”
“Nick,” he returned. He toed off his shoes and flopped into the beanbag chair in front of the TV. “Do you want me to keep the sound turned down?”
“No need. I’m used to trying to work with distractions.”
As if to prove my point, I ended the conversation by turning my attention back to the books in my lap. I tried to ignore him as he rummaged through the duffel bag I’d shoved my games into before we flew down here. Bryce tried getting me to leave them behind, telling me there wouldn’t be time for hiding out in my room playing games, but I’d insisted. Now, I was glad I had. Nick decided on
and I tried to focus on my paper. Concentrating proved impossible, because Nick seriously sucked at the game. After the fourth time he died, I closed my books and picked up the second controller.
“Jump out for a minute,” I told him. He pursed his lips and glared at me as though I’d admitted how painful it was to watch him trying to get through the easy levels alone. “I’m going to be here for two weeks. There’s no reason I have to get everything done tonight.”
Plus, given the choice between researching a term paper on the US Government’s conversion of the economy to war production in World War II and spending time with the hottest guy I’d seen in a long time, he’d win. Hands down.