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Bottom of the Ninth (Bad Boys Redemption Book 3) by Kimberly Readnour (1)

Chapter One

AJ

Current Day

“Why the hell do I look like a half-naked lumberjack elf?” I snap the red suspenders against my bare chest and glance at the green velvet boy shorts. Red triangles, with actual gold jingle bells, trim the waistband. Fucking bells. But I don’t know which is worse—the redonkulous suspenders or the green felt elf shoes with pointed toes curling upward, capped with more damn bells. I jingle like a powder-puff princess cat every time I move.

“You look...cute?” Jax, my soon-to-be-former roommate, says, suppressing a grin.

“Fuck you. Trade me costumes; I’ll be Mr. Fourth of July.”

He flanks my side, wearing red-and-white-striped pants and a matching patriotic hat. He’s like a beefed-up Uncle Sam. I don’t understand why I couldn’t have gotten that costume.

“No way, man. I’m not wearing that thing.”

“So much for helping a guy out.” The words no more than fall out of my lips when Mr. April, better known as Zach, our ace closer, walks by with a large pastel Easter egg tucked under his arm.

Zach stops midstride and sizes me up, the horror of my outfit reflecting in his bulging eyes. Perfect. His jaw drops, and he stands there gaping like a fish.

“Uh, I just… Yeah, MVP announcement party at my house. And I’ll”—Zach’s voice drops as his bunny paws carry him away—“stop complaining about my outfit.”

My blood boils. Sure, his silky boy shorts have tiny bunnies draped everywhere, but he pulls it off. I do a quick check of the other teammates and conclude I’m the only creepy one. When I agreed to be Mr. December, I thought a Santa Claus hat with sexy underwear would be my costume. Not this hideous contraption.

“Why the hell are we even here?” I grumble more to myself.

“You know why. Just grin and bear it.” Jax’s gaze roams along my outfit, and his lips press tightly together. Despite his best efforts, his shoulders start to shake, and a huge grin slowly stretches across his face. He snorts as he turns to leave and slaps my butt, the jingling sound drawing out the overdue laugh.

Bastard.

If Jax weren’t dating someone, I’d kick him in his nuts. His girlfriend may not like me much for that, though. Who I’d actually like to cock punch is Drake, our secondary catcher. Not only is the asshole vying for my spot on the team, but he’s the reason we’re here. His sister organized this fiasco disguised as a photo shoot.

I bite back a swear word. Yeah, the Ass Award goes to me for complaining. The calendar—the reasoning behind the photos—is for a good cause. I mean, it’s kind of hard to be upset when all proceeds go toward St. Claire Children’s Cancer Research Hospital. And that is the reason certain teammates agreed to stay in town a few days longer. Back-to-back World Series wins make for two long seasons, and everyone’s ready to return to their homes, families, and normal offseason lives.

With a deep breath, I look up to the ceiling to calm myself. It works. The metal I-beam framework pulls my attention away from myself, and I get lost in the architectural design. For an old abandoned warehouse, the building isn’t in bad shape, but it doesn’t take long before martial arts fight scenes flit through my mind. Blame the lackluster lighting and open-floor plan, but any minute, I swear ninja warriors will pop out from their hiding spots and spring into action.

I shake my head. I may need to cut back on the kung fu flicks on the El Rey Network.

Our right fielder walks by, and his chortle tramples upon my peaceful zen. Fuck! Charity or not, I look like a freaking creeper elf.

“This calendar better bring in tons of money,” I mumble beneath my breath.

“Oh, it will. Don’t worry.”

My back muscles tighten, causing me to stand straighter. That voice. That familiar voice glides over my skin and awakens every repressed give-a-shit feeling while simultaneously bringing forth every ounce of unworthiness. It’s been too long since I relished that sound. The sweet voice that made me cave and lowered my guard even if it was temporary.

I turn to face the woman I never dreamed of seeing again and force myself not to stumble. The sight of her hits me like a base runner colliding into me at home plate—sharp and painful but somehow satisfying. An eyebrow disappears beneath her blonde bangs as if challenging me to recognize her. How could I not? Of all the stupid things I’ve done—and believe me, there have been a lot—my treatment toward her has been my biggest regret.

But here she is in the flesh, standing in front of me with those electric blue eyes. How? Why? Confusion swirls in my brain before the synapses finally accept the charge, and I utter a single word.

“Cupcake?”

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