Back in the Game
Stardust, Texas: Book 1
Good grief. How embarrassing.
Breeanne lay on the ground, staring at the baseball with Rowdy Blanton’s name scrawled across it in red Sharpie, and she quickly put two and two together. One of the kids he’d given a baseball to had done what kids inevitably do when they had a ball in their hands.
Unfortunately, she’d stuck her nose in a book, determined not to let Rowdy see that his sly wink and killer smile had slammed her with such a one-two punch that she hadn’t seen the baseball headed her way.
Briefly, she closed her eyes, assessing the damage.
Her head stung a bit where the ball had landed, but the impact had been fairly minimal since the tree had taken the brunt of the ball’s momentum. She wasn’t dizzy, and her thoughts were clear. She knew her name, the day of the week, and who was the current president of the United States. The unexpectedness of the blow had caused her to startle. She’d toppled more from surprise than the actual hit.
Good to go. She was okay, unless her sisters found out about this. They’d kick up a huge fuss and insist she go to the hospital.
Get to your feet. Now!
Acutely aware that she was sprawled on the ground in a skirt, she tried as gracefully as she could to gather her legs beneath her.
A big masculine palm, wearing a World Series ring, appeared from nowhere, reaching down to help her up.
A burning heat scooped a hole in her stomach. Dear Lord, had he seen her cheetah-print panties?
His firm grip enveloped her hand, and he tugged her gently to her feet.
And there she was nose-to-collarbone with the object of so many of her midnight fantasies.
Most preteen girls got their first crush over boyish pop music stars or baby-faced actors. For Breeanne, it had been this sexy major league pitcher. On her twelfth birthday, and not long after her seventh major surgery, she’d been lying on the couch in the living room with Dad, watching their hometown hero take the mound during his television debut as a rookie pitcher for the Seattle Mariners.
Rowdy had been so green he could have passed for a spinach smoothie, and he walked three batters before the manager pulled him. But he’d strutted off that field as cocky as if he’d struck them out. Anyone who could remain that self-confident in the face of total failure was a rock star in her book.
Two days later, something went wrong with her recovery, and she ended up back in the hospital, facing surgery number eight. That next weekend, the Mariners were in town playing the Gunslingers, and Rowdy had swaggered onto the teen ward at the Dallas Children’s Hospital, signing autographs, telling stories, handing out jerseys, and baseballs. The moment he’d signed a ball and pressed it into her perspiring palm, she’d become his lifelong fan. She’d had the baseball mounted, and still kept it on a bookcase in her bedroom. But she wasn’t about to tell him that, and only partially because her tongue was welded to the roof of her mouth.
“Are you all right?” His deep, husky voice rasped with concern.
She bobbed her head. Could he feel her pulse jumping through her veins like a steeplechase stallion on race day?
“Do you know what your name is?” he asked.
He wanted to know her name. Um … um … For a freakishly long second she forgot her own name. Not from the bump on the head, but from this alpha male’s distracting scent tangling up in her nose.
She nodded again still unable to speak.
“Can you tell me what your name is?”
Breeanne was vaguely aware that a crowd had gathered, but of course, Rowdy drew a crowd wherever he went. She tugged her hand from his, the loss of contact with his skin finally knocking her tongue loose.
“I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.” She turned to the crowd, which included a hangdog little boy and his worried mother. She assumed this was the child who’d thrown the ball. “I’m good. All is well. Go back to your shopping.”
Rowdy tossed the autographed baseball back to the boy. “Could you folks give us some space?”
Immediately the crowd dispersed.
“What’s it like having people jump to do your bidding?” she asked, unaware that the question was going to pop from her mouth.
He chuckled. “Kinda nice actually.”
“I bet.” She inched away from him, but her foot bumped into a tree root, and she wobbled.
His hand shot out to cup her elbow, sincere concern furrowing his brow. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Fine. Perfect. Great. Dandy. Couldn’t be better. This stuff happens to me all the time. I’m a natural-born klutz.”
“You’ve got some dirt …” He leaned over and ran a hand across her shoulder blade, dusting her off, his broad hand circling lower and lower to the small of her back, igniting flames everywhere he touched.
Knots formed in her lower abdomen, tugged, tightened. She shook him off and plastered both palms to her butt, vigorously swiping her seat. “I’ve got it.”
He stepped back, piercing blue eyes stabbing into hers, mischief brimming in his gaze. “So cheetah, huh?”
Mortified, she squeezed her eyes shut for a second, gulped. “Could you pretend you didn’t see that?”
“You’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about.”
She scrubbed two fingers over her forehead. “Easy for you to say. You weren’t the one laid out with your underwear on display.”
He pulled out his weapon of mass destruction, that devastating wink. “I’ve always had a fondness for women in animal print.”
“I imagine you have a fondness for women in pretty much anything,” she popped off. What was it about him that brought out this sassiness she hadn’t even known lurked inside her?
He lowered his eyelids in a look so sultry that she forgot to breathe. She’d seen men give other women looks like that before but no man had ever looked at her that way. She didn’t know what to do with it.
Suki would say something flirty. Kasha would act cool and sophisticated. Jodi would snort and roll her eyes, and tell him that she wasn’t falling for that slick shtick. But Breeanne didn’t know how to flirt, she wasn’t sophisticated, and well, she liked his slick shtick.
“Sweetheart,” he murmured, leaning in closer, his minty breath warm against her cheek. “I prefer that my woman wear nothing at all.”
Sweetheart. My woman.
He spoke those words while looking at her. Plain, ordinary, pasty-skinned Breeanne Carlyle.
Wildfire heat spread under her skin, tongues of flame licking her from head to toe.
She wasn’t going to read anything into those words. Most likely he called every woman sweetheart because he had so many women he couldn’t remember their names. Her cheeks burned. She backpedaled, hoping he’d get the hint that it was okay for him to go away and leave her to her humiliation.
And she ran smack up against the tree trunk.
He stepped closer, breaching the breathing-room gap she’d created, and pinned her to the spot with a gaze as sturdy as handcuffs.
She couldn’t keep looking into those heartbreaker eyes. Her heart had healed up nicely, thank you very much, and she wasn’t about to test the strength of her surgeon’s stitches. She dropped her gaze, spied her paperback lying on the ground, and bent to pick it up.
“Allow me.” Like some chivalrous knight, he scooped it up. Pausing, he examined the cover. One amused eyebrow shot up on his forehead, disappearing beneath the shadow of the bill of his baseball cap. “Love’s Throbbing Fury?”
She jutted out her chin, bristling at the humor in his eyes, and snapped, “You got a problem with that?”
He looked as if he was about to make some comment about her choice of reading material, but instead he simply handed her the book.
Squaring her shoulders, she stood her ground. She loved romance novels—granted some of the titles were hokey, but that didn’t affect the quality of the story inside—and it irritated her when people put them down without ever having read one.
But even so, she heard defensiveness in her voice. “It’s a great book.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
Some of the pages had creased. Carefully, Breeanne smoothed them out. She revered books, all books, any books, and took great care with them. It pained her to see people dog-ear corners, or break the spine on paperbacks.
“I feel the same way about baseballs. It gets me here when it’s time to throw them out.” He pressed his palm to his solar plexus, and she couldn’t help staring at the hard six-pack visible beneath his white cotton T-shirt.
Alarmed that he’d so accurately read her mind, she looked around for her tote bag, but he had already retrieved that too, and now the cloth handle dangled from the end of his long, thick index finger.
She reached for the tote.
In the exchange, their fingertips brushed, sending a shocking current of awareness humming through her arm to invade her entire nervous system. Lighting up all the secret parts of her that she’d never had the opportunity to use.
She bit down on the inside of her cheek, desperate to keep him from seeing how his touch electrified her.
He cocked his head, studied her like she was something he’d not quite seen before, and didn’t know what to make of his new discovery.
Honestly, she didn’t know what to make of him either. Why was he still blocking her exit? Why was he still here? Didn’t he have someplace to be?
He had no idea the amount of hero worship she had built up inside her, nor was she about to let him find out. She needed to get away from him before she did something irretrievably stupid, like throw herself at his feet, and grovel, I’m not worthy. She had no business thinking sexy thoughts about him. None whatsoever..
She adjusted her weight, her gaze, and her fantasies.
And for the first time she noticed the long pink scar running underneath his left arm, and her gut twanged. It was such a shame what had happened to him. That savage, career-ending beating in the alley behind a popular Dallas nightclub dished out by a jealous husband.
Empathy punched her in the throat, and she reached up to rub three fingers over her breastbone scars. Pain she understood far too well.
When the news of Rowdy’s attack first broke, some people in Stardust had declared he’d brought it on himself by sleeping with another man’s wife. But no one deserved to be brutalized like that, and Breeanne ached for him. He’d sworn in interviews that he had not slept with anyone’s wife, and she believed him. The police had not caught his attacker, so no one knew the other side of the story. It might well have been a case of mistaken identity as Rowdy had maintained in TV interviews.
But now that he was standing right in front of her, looking so much larger-than-life, and more delicious than a triple Dairy Queen dipped cone, It seemed unfathomable that anyone could mistake this man for someone else. He was one of a kind, solid, sexy, masculine, and far more man than she could ever handle.
As if he would ever want the likes of her when he had the most beautiful women in the world to pick from. He’d dated models and actresses and female athletes. And yes, so sue her, she followed his sexploits in the tabloids, often pretending she was the woman du jour on his arm.
But even so, even though she knew it was silly and futile, she couldn’t stop fantasizing about him. She imagined being pressed beneath those powerful hips as they rocked her relentless as ocean waves, his big body inside hers, his calloused palms gliding over her bare flesh …
Snap out of it.
While she was scouting him out, he was scrutinizing her with the same intensity. His gaze traveled from her hair, which the breeze was fluttering against her cheek, to her chest, where his number was stamped across the front of her baseball jersey.
Oh heavens, she was wearing his number, and now because of that he had her number. It was no secret she was a fan girl. Easy pickings. No doubt he considered her a pop-fly lay.
Breeanne gulped. Ha. The joke was on him. She’d never been anyone’s lay.
But why on earth would Rowdy choose her, no matter how easy he might erroneously perceive her to be?
His eye-trip continued as if he was thoroughly enjoying the journey, his gaze lighting for a long moment on her hips. Was he thinking about the cheetah panties underneath her skirt? Goose bumps coated her arms, and it was all she could do not to shiver under the burn from those hypnotic blue eyes. His roving gaze took a long time sliding down her legs before finally stopping at her feet clad in a comfortable but unattractive pair of purple canvas loafers. Not exactly her sexiest outfit.
As if she owned a sexy outfit. And if she did, as if she would wear said sexy outfit to an estate sale. Okay, true confessions. If she’d known he was going to be here, she would have bought the sexiest outfit she could find, and worn it just for him.
A twig snapped, and they both glanced over to see his chauffeur/bodyguard or whoever the big, bald, badass dude was, standing behind them.
Bodyguard Dude cleared his throat, gave Rowdy a look that said, Why the hell are you hanging out with this nerdy chick?
Rowdy gaze stayed married to hers, but he inclined his head toward his companion. “I gotta go.”
“Oh yes.” She bobbed her head like one of those silly drinking-bird-toy heat engines. “Me too. Busy, busy, that’s me.”
“Reading Love’s Throbbing Fury,” he teased.
She flushed, realizing she still held the paperback clutched in her hand, had in fact raised it up to the level of her heart. Quickly, she stuffed the book into her tote.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked.
She stapled on a cheery smile. “Yep. Fine. Couldn’t be better.”
How many times had she fantasized about this man whispering sweet nothings into her ear in the middle of the night? An endless number. Uncountable.
Double nut bunnies.
Why was she getting weak-kneed over some jock? She was an adult, not a simpering teenager, never mind that she was also a virgin.
“For the record,” he whispered, “cheetah is my favorite animal print.”
“Really?” she quipped, not having a clue where the sauciness was coming from. “I would have pegged you for snakeskin.”
This was so unlike her. She was quiet, studious, and minded her own business. Just ask anyone. But something about this man whetted her tongue, and turned her mind to quicksilver.
It was scary. Startling. And kind of awesome.
His laughter exploded loud enough to cause people to turn and stare at the mousy woman who’d tickled the funny bone of such a vibrant peacock. Playfully, he chucked her under the chin. “Love your sense of humor,” he said, then turned and walked away with his companion.
Leaving her with her mouth hanging open, a tingly chin, and the terrifying knowledge that she had just been Rowdy Blantonized.