Love of the Game
Stardust, Texas: Book 3
It starts like this: an unexpected spark, instant attraction, the jolting jab of oh-so-you-feel-this-too? Flash fire in the belly. A corkscrew twist in the center of the chest. A physical ache that punches low and heavy and spreads out hard and fast through muscles and tendons, blood and bone.
Physical therapist Kasha Carlyle had felt it before, this hot flare, runaway-mine-train-express that stirred fear in the dark recesses of her mind. She’d resisted it then. Resisted it now.
But this? This here? This was something more.
Coal black eyes melted her resistance, seared it to ash. In that stopwatch moment when her gaze struck, and stuck to the steely stare of the Dallas Gunslingers’ most valuable pitcher, Axel Richmond.
He’d just completed a physical therapy session with his trainer, Paul Hernandez, and he was sitting on a bench wearing nothing but red workout pants, his bare chest on display. Every glistening muscle was finely etched. Not a drop of fat on him. He was a splendid specimen of adult male in top physical shape, life and passion oozing from his pores.
The only thing that seemed out of place was the black tattoo over his heart that spelled out
One look and everything and everyone blended and blurred as white-hot need transported them into their own little world far from the sports medicine facility in North Dallas, where baseball coaches, managers, administrators, and sports medicine specialists surrounded them.
For a split second.
Then pure panic set it.
It was Tuesday, May seventeenth, and the second week of Kasha’s three-month probationary period at her new job working with injured major league baseball players.
And she was already falling in lust.
No. No. This simply would not do. Keeping her job was essential.
Now that she had Emma to consider, she urgently needed the bump in salary to pay off the student loans that had gotten her through her PhD. Not to mention the excellent health insurance coverage. Finding out about Emma had changed everything.
Quickly, Kasha peeled her gaze from Axel’s and studied the insignia on the wall above his head—the blue and green Gunslingers crossed dueling pistols logo—but she didn’t see a darn thing. Purposefully, she slowed her breathing, and forced herself to listen to the conversation.
“I wish we had better news,” Dr. Tad Harrison, the lead physician on the team, said to Axel.
Dr. Harrison had been the one to hire Kasha, and the one to caution her that only thirty percent of probationary employees made it past the first three months. “It takes a special breed to work with these ballplayers. They’re long on arrogance and stubbornness and always think they know best.”
“I have a lot of patience,” she’d said because it was true.
“I heard they call you the Exorcist in your current job,” Dr. Harrison had said. “Why is that?”
She couldn’t keep from smiling. “My colleagues say I have a talent for taming difficult clients.”
“And do you?”
“I consider physical therapy a calling.” She folded her hands in her lap, and said without a hint of ego. “I was born for this work.”
Dr. Harrison stroked his chin. “That’s what Rowdy said too.”
Rowdy Blanton was the field manager for the Gunslingers. He was also Kasha’s brother-in-law, married to her younger adoptive sister, Breeanne, and he’d recommended her for the job.
“If I hire you,” Dr. Harrison had continued. “It will be on your own merits, not your relationship to Rowdy. He got you this interview, but that’s as far as nepotism goes.”
“As it should.” Kasha bobbed her head.
The uncertainty of the job was why she hadn’t yet rented an apartment in Dallas. Every day, she made the one hundred and thirty-five mile, one-way trek to the stadium from her hometown of Stardust.
While she was optimistic, she was also practical. She’d learned that fate could derail even the best intentions and you had to be ready to flow whichever way the current took you. For the next three months, until she solidified the job, she would keep making that drive.
Her thoughts took off in a hundred different directions at once. Stalled. Spun. Gathered momentum like an encroaching hurricane. Realizing her mind had wandered, she forcefully shut down the unproductive thoughts and directed her attention back to the patient.
One more look and Kasha was on fire and she hated it. The last thing she wanted right now was to meet a guy, especially this guy. Whose stark dark hair was drenched in the heady sheen of sweat.
He was as sexy as ten kinds of sin, and twice as handsome, and he was studying her through heavily lidded eyes as if she was the most fascinating creature he’d seen in years.
Um . . . yes . . . that’s why her mind had wandered. To keep from dealing with the feelings his hot-to-trot gaze churned inside her.
She let out such a long sigh that everyone in the room swiveled to stare. She kept her face blank and examined her fingernails, pretending she’d discovered a ragged cuticle.
From the moment Axel had strolled into the therapy room with his pro-athlete swagger and princely sense of entitlement, she’d been mesmerized.
Spellbound by the way his fitted T-shirt hugged his intricately muscled body. Then he’d stripped off the shirt, giving her an even more arresting view. A thick head of lush brown hair curled around his ears, and those powerful thighs strained at the seams of his workout pants.
It wasn’t like her to ogle hunky guys. Okay, yes, she could appreciate the perfect male specimen as much as the next woman. But normally the sight of a well-constructed body didn’t carry her away.
For one thing, as a physical therapist, it was unprofessional. For another, just because a guy was hot didn’t mean he had a lick of substance.
But sometimes, the visual was too compelling to ignore. Case in point, Axel Richmond.
She was glad she was merely here as a trainee observer, and not his physical therapist.
Big. Darkly tanned. Rugged. Hard-edged. He exuded a savvy, urban, streetwise vibe that blasted a shiver up her spine. He was the kind of man who could seriously derail a woman’s life if she gave him half a chance.
Especially a woman who’d grown up in the safe cocoon of a town called Stardust, where houses were charming and colloquial, yards were tree-shaded and expansive; fences were white-picket, and most of the townsfolk had Texas roots that ran five generations deep, but spiked with Louisiana flair. From crawfish boils to boggy swampland to the way people pronounced “praline.” (Pray-leen for the rest of Texas, prawl-een in the eastern border counties.) Stardust was a perfect place to stay in a haunted B&B, catch lightning bugs in a jar on a muggy summer’s evening, celebrate the Fourth of July, trade tall tales with the locals, and watch pine trees grow.
In the best Bugs Bunny imitation Kasha had ever heard, Axel said with a sarcastic tone, “Aww, what’s up, Doc?”
Kasha hid a grin and Axel caught her hiding it. And his gaze turned knowing.
The sizzle between them was as volatile as dynamite and just as dangerous.
Dr. Harrison pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose, rubbed the spot between his eyebrows with the pad of his thumb. “Your recovery is not progressing as quickly as we’d hoped.”
Axel struggled to contain the ghost of a wince, layering a smile on top of the hurt as if over-icing a lopsided cake, trying to make it look better.
“How’s that possible? I’ve been pushing myself to the limit. Working out eight, nine hours a day. I’m ready to get back out on the mound. More than ready. Hell, I’m desperate.” Axel said the last word as if a dentist had wrenched it from his mouth.
A painful truth.
Dr. Harrison darted a glance at the Gunslingers general manager, Truman Beck. The GM shook his head. Both Beck and Harrison exchanged concerned looks with Rowdy, who stood to one side, arms folded over his chest.
Rowdy knew what it was like to be in Axel’s position. His career had ended abruptly after a baseball bat–wielding assailant had attacked him outside a Dallas nightclub three years earlier.
“What?” Axel demanded, a dismal note in his voice. The guy might be a typical cocky jock, but he was aching. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Dr. Harrison cleared his throat. “Your range of motion has actually worsened since your last exam.”
Axel’s face crumpled as surely as if he’d taken an uppercut to the jaw from the fist of a heavyweight prizefighter. To his credit, he recovered quickly, shaking it off, hardening his chin, straightening his spine. Tough. He was tough.
His right hand clenched closed in his lap, his left palm lying open on his knee. He licked his lips, an I-freaking-hate-being-vulnerable glaze clouding his eyes. “So where do we go from here?”
Another tense, three-pointed exchange of glances between Dr. Harrison, the general manager, and Rowdy.
Kasha’s stomach tightened.
“We’re just as anxious to get you back on the field as you are to get there,” said Truman Beck. “Dr. Harrison has consulted colleagues across the country about your case and . . .”
“There is a cutting edge procedure we’d like to try.” Dr. Harrison fiddled with his tie.
“Why haven’t we tried it already?” Axel shoved a hand through his hair, his frustrated brow cleaved.
“Because,” Rowdy said, “although the surgery has rapidly restored functioning in some people, in other cases it’s actually made things worse.”
“Ah shit.” Axel pulled a palm down his face.
Dr. Harrison gave Axel a booklet. “All the statistics are here, and of course we would use the doctor who invented the procedure, which increases the chances for a positive outcome.”
Beck stuck his hands in his front pockets and rocked from the balls of his feet to his heels. “It’s your best option.”
Using the TV monitor in the corner, Dr. Harrison started a PowerPoint presentation on the innovative surgical procedure. Axel stared at the screen, but Kasha could tell he wasn’t absorbing much of it.
Her sympathy shifted, bloomed to full-on empathy.
Axel’s gaze smashed into Kasha’s so sharply she softly gasped at the impact. The sultry expression in his eyes said, You, me, another time, another place, fireworks!
Thank God it wasn’t another time or place. Kasha didn’t do fireworks. Ever.
Purposefully, she schooled her face, making it unreadable. She wasn’t going to let Mr. Hotshot Pitcher know how much he affected her.
When the presentation was over, Dr. Harrison switched off the television and turned his attention back to Axel. “So when should we schedule the surgery?”
Axel grunted. “Why do I feel like I’m being railroaded?”
Dr. Harrison raised his palms. “Mr. Beck needs to prepare for the future—”
“And you want to know whether to move me to the sixty-day disabled list or not,” Axel said flatly.
Axel jumped to his feet, his hands clenched by his side. “You don’t have to put me on the sixty-day DL. Give me a shot at the mound. I can play through a little pain.”
“We tried that two weeks ago against Denver, and not only did we lose the game, but apparently it set back your recovery.” Beck slowed his speech as if talking to a wayward child, pausing to let the news sink in. “The key question here is whether you can get better without aggressive intervention.”
Axel’s face paled and he looked as if he might throw up. “And if I refuse to have the surgery?”
“Then I can’t guarantee your future with the Gunslingers.”
“You say that like anything is guaranteed in baseball.” Axel’s laugh was harsh, humorless. “Let’s be straight up about it. What you’re really suggesting is that if I don’t have the surgery, I’m out.”
“Not at all.” Beck backpedaled. “I’m saying you have some important decisions to make concerning your career.”
Axel sank back down on the bench where he’d been sitting, grim determination stretching his lips taut. He shot a glance at Rowdy. “I know they want me to have the surgery.” He nodded at Beck and Harrison. “But you’ve been where I’m at. What’s your opinion?”
Rowdy rubbed his jaw. “It’s not my decision.”
“But do you believe the risks of the surgery outweigh the rewards?” Axel pushed, intensity vibrating off his hard-muscled body. He seemed a lone warrior, carrying a bedraggled shield, raising it to his chest for another round of exhaustive fighting.
His weariness plucked something inside Kasha, and she had the strangest urge to touch him, soothe him, reassure him that was not alone.
“You have to weigh the odds,” Rowdy said. “Does the surgery give you a better chance of getting your pitching arm back over more traditional methods?”
Axel picked up the booklet Dr. Harrison had given him, and glowered at the data as if he scowled hard enough it could change the facts. “According to this, the surgery ended the career of thirty percent of the players.”
Dr. Harrison cleared his throat. “But forty percent returned to the game with improved pitching stats. As you can see for yourself, the remaining thirty percent returned to their previous level of performance. Odds are in favor of the surgery.”
Beads of sweat popped out on Axel’s brow. He raised his head, swept his gaze around the room, and landed on Kasha again.
She made the mistake of meeting his deep brown eyes, and stumbled over the sharp desire in those dark depths. She braced herself not to react, even as she felt a hot flush pinch low in her body. She drew herself up tall, stretching out all of her five feet, eleven inches.
“Hey Sphinx,” he said. “What do you think?”
“Are you speaking to me?” she asked, keeping her voice low, temperate.
“You’re the only one here with a stony face.” He waved at the collected managers, coaches, administrators, and medical personnel. “I can read what everyone else is thinking. Beck is rolling around dollars and cents. Stilts over there,” he said, nodding at the Gunslingers’ diminutive media liaison, “is planning a palatable press release. Doc is stumped on how to proceed with my rehab without the chancy surgery, but he doesn’t want to admit it. Rowdy feels I shouldn’t do it, but he’s caught between a rock and a hard place and can’t say so. But you, you’re new, and you have no dog in this hunt. What do you think?”
Oh, but she did have a dog in the hunt. She needed to keep this job, and going against management was not smart.
“Ahem.” Dr. Harrison pushed his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose again even when they didn’t need pushing. “I know exactly how to proceed. We’ll—”
“But you . . .” Axel said to Kasha, ignoring the physician. “You play your cards right up against your vest.”
“That’s because I don’t have an opinion,” she said mildly, even though her heart was pounding. Why?
“Everyone has an opinion.”
“I don’t yet have enough information to form one,” Kasha murmured. “And either way, my opinion doesn’t matter. I’m simply a physical therapist here to do whatever I’m assigned.”
“There is nothing simple about you, Sphinx,” he said, his tone oozing testosterone. “You’re more complicated than everyone in this room put together.”
His comment was a heat-seeking missile that shot straight into her gut. Every gaze in the room zeroed in on her, some people actually looking at her for the first time.
To keep from squirming under the scrutiny, Kasha breathed in gently through one nostril, slowly exhaled through the other. “I just met you. How could I possibly know what’s best for you?”
“You’ve got good instincts.”
“You can’t know that.”
“But I do. I’ve been watching you working out with the injured players. I see how you are with them. Caring but appropriately detached. Calm. Encouraging. You know when to push, and when to let a player figure things out on his own.”
“I’m breathlessly flattered,” she said, injecting her voice with sarcasm because she was flattered by his attention. Kasha wasn’t accustomed to giddy feelings. She didn’t like the sensation. It made her feel out of control.
“I didn’t mean it as flattery,” he said. “I call it like I see it. So tell me the truth, what do you think about my situation?”
“You really want my honest opinion?”
“Raw and undoctored.”
“You don’t need the surgery.”
“No?” He arched his eyebrows as if he’d expected her to tell him to go ahead with the procedure. “Why’s that?”
“You’re not the only one who’s been watching,” she said.
His mouth twitched into a smart, edgy smile. “You’ve been watching me too?”
She flapped a hand at the elaborate facility they were in. “It’s a big wide open space with lots of mirrors.”
The air crackled with sexual electricity. Kasha couldn’t believe that the others could stand so close to them and not flinch from the heat. It was all she could do not to fan herself. She battled against the steamy sensations that Axel’s smile triggered inside her, a fireworks show of sparks and flames.
He moved then, rotated his injured shoulder, and tried to smooth away the grimace tugging his brows inward with a quick smile. It was unconvincing.
He was hurting.
But it was more than mere physical pain. Emotional pain was inset deep, tucked away from the casual observer. His pupils darkened as she stared into him. Sharpening her attraction.
Kasha’s throat went dry. She should keep her mouth shut. It was the smart thing to do.
“What did you see when you were watching me?” Axel prodded.
“They push you too hard.” She waved a hand at the group. “It’s understandable because you’re a money maker. But more than that you push you too hard.”
“Too hard?” he scoffed. “There’s no such thing.”
“That take-no-prisoners attitude has worked to get where you are,” Kasha said. “But now it’s not working anymore.”
His nod was almost imperceptible. He knew it intellectually, but his heart resisted. He possessed such singular focus that backing off and slowing down felt like failure.
“You’re not giving yourself the time and space you need to heal,” she went on. “You’ve got this mistaken belief that if pushing hard is good, pushing harder is better. It’s not. That’s why you’re not improving.”
“Ms. Carlyle,” Dr. Harrison barked. “You’ve overstepped your boundaries.”
She knew it, and a sense of dread washed through her. She was a probationary employee. They could fire her without cause.
And then what would she do about Emma? She was struggling to pay off school loans from getting her doctoral degree in physical therapy; without this job, she wouldn’t be able to afford both her debt and Emma.
But she kept her voice even, reasonable. “He asked my opinion.”
“And you should have kept it to yourself,” Dr. Harrison snapped. “Axel, don’t let this woman influence your decision. You are in control of your care.”
She should let it go, humble herself, try to hang on to the job, but Kasha simply had to say one more thing. If she kept quiet, and Axel went through with the surgery and the results turned out badly, she would never forgive herself for not speaking up.
“Try my way first,” she said. “Take some time off. Give your arm a rest. Try massage and gentle therapy. Try hatha yoga. You can always have the surgery later—”
Truman Beck interrupted. “This innovative surgery is so ground-breaking, that if he has it now, there’s a chance he could even be back on the roster by the All-Star break. Granted, we’d move slowly and he wouldn’t see much action until we were certain his arm had fully healed, but it is a reasonable possibility. Data backs it up.
“And if the surgery fails,” Kasha said, “not only is his career done for, but it could have long-lasting consequences for his overall health.”
“We could have you scheduled for surgery in two days,” Dr. Harrison said.
Kasha shifted her gaze to Truman Beck, who was shooting her the evil eye. Axel’s current therapist, Paul Hernandez, didn’t look happy either. The man had his hands on his hips and a dour expression on his face.
Terrific, she was making enemies left and right.
“Well, Ms. Carlyle?” Axel cocked his head, but did not drop his gaze.
Her heart knocked heavily as if she’d been running full-out. She had the oddest urge to drop panting to the floor, sink her face into her hands, try to block the sensations surging through her body.
She wondered if perhaps she was dreaming this. Axel’s stare, the way he made her feel, the intense, undeniable attraction, the muddle of her mind. She should tell him no. Firmly. Clearly. Save herself.
Instead, she murmured, “I can’t make any promises except to give you my best.”
“That’s all I ask. You’ve got the job. How, where, and when do we start?”
“Axel,” Dr. Harrison said. “Ms. Carlyle is a probationary employee and she is still working on her certification in sports medicine. If you’re not going to go through with the surgery, at least use Paul.”
Axel growled. “She’s the one who had the stones to speak up against this rush to surgery. She’s the one I want.”
“This . . . this . . .” Dr. Harrison sputtered, “is highly unorthodox.”
“What’s it going to hurt to give her a chance?” Axel said. “Unless there’s a good reason why not. You did say it was my decision.”
Truman Beck glared at Kasha as if he blamed her.
Axel got to his feet, towered over the general manager. “The surgery is no guarantee that will happen. Let’s give Kasha a chance.”
“Is this what you want?” Beck asked Kasha.
No. This was not what she wanted.
Why had she opened her mouth? What was wrong with her? It was like an unsolvable math problem she’d been given seconds to work out in her head. “I will help Mr. Richmond to the best of my abilities. But we need a quiet place to work. Somewhere out of the city so he won’t be distracted from his recovery.”
“You could stay at my place,” Rowdy offered. He and Breeanne still had a sprawling second home in the country on the banks of Stardust Lake that they rarely used. “I have a home gym, and Kasha lives right there in town. Easy. Convenient.”
Everyone looked at Beck for approval.
The skin on Beck’s jowls wobbled. “A week, Ms. Carlyle. I’ll give you a week. If we don’t see some improvement in Axel’s arm by then you’re out of a job. Understood?”
Punished. She was being punished for speaking her mind.
“Well?” Beck snorted.
Kasha gulped, nodded, and prayed she was right about Axel’s condition and that she could indeed help him. “Yes, sir,” she said, and reached down deep inside for the bravery that had pulled her through a dicey early childhood. “But I have a contingency.”
“You have a contingency?” Beck’s tone was beef-jerky dry.
Great. She was going to blow this job before she ever got started. She pressed her feet hard into the floor, anchoring herself, but kept her knees loose. “I do.”
Respect crossed Beck’s face. “Yeah? And what’s that?”
“If I can improve his arm in a week, then you take me off probation and make me a regular employee without the three-month waiting period.”
Simultaneously, Beck flicked both his index fingers against his thumbs.
Kasha held her breath. Had she gone too far?
“Pretty sure of yourself.” Beck growled. “Making demands.”
No, she wasn’t sure of herself at all, but she’d stepped up to the plate; she had to follow through or he would think her weak, and so would Axel. “If I’m going to risk my job going out on a limb, then I deserve to be rewarded if I’m proven right.”
Beck stared at her long and hard and finally laughed. “All right,” he said. “You’ve got a deal.”
Kasha starched her spine to keep from sagging in relief. Her gamble had paid off. In a week’s time, if she’d made improvements in Axel’s arm, her insurance benefits would kick in and so would her pay raise and she could move forward with her plan to get custody of Emma.
Beck swung his gaze to Axel. “And you. If she hasn’t helped your shoulder by this time next week, I’ll expect you to consent to surgery.”
“If it’s not better, I will.” Axel nodded, but the look he shot Kasha said, Don’t let me down.