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Come Back to the Ballpark, Maisy Gray (Comeback Romance Series Book 1) by Cynthia Tennent (1)

Chapter 1

Indianapolis SPORTS Star

A Weekly Column by Luther McLean for Indy fans everywhere

 

Indianapolis baseball returned to its proper axis last Friday as Kevin Halderman took the mound.

After three years of erratic pitching, chronic injuries, and a string of frustrating losses, Kevin reclaimed the arm that won him two Cy Young Awards.

 

Turbos fans are asking what happened.

A photographer may have discovered the answer sitting in the right-field bleachers…

 

Maisy Gray came back to the ballpark.

 

 

 

 

One Week Earlier

 

Maisy Gray chased her fourth graders down the last row in the upper deck of Turbos Stadium and cursed the hormones that were responsible for so much trouble in the world.

“I win!” Anthony shouted at a girl who tried to hip check him out of the way.

“Winning isn’t everything,” Maisy said, inserting herself between them. She sent Anthony and the girl a wicked smile and pointed at the seats on either side of her. “How lovely it will be to sit right between two of my favorite students.”

The kids moaned and took their seats. Maisy settled the rest of her class and kept her eyes from straying to the bullpen, where her first lesson in hormones was probably spitting sunflower seeds in the dirt and scratching his crotch at this very moment.

In the old days, she sat behind the dugout. Before each of his games, she would spin in a circle, pop a wad of Dubble Bubble gum in her mouth, and salute the pitcher’s mound.

Now, Maisy plopped down without fanfare.

The lucky ritual might have been funny five years ago, but she had emerged from that time in her life with an aversion to merry-go-rounds, gum, and men.

Heather Mason, Maisy’s fellow teacher and best friend, sat down directly in front of Maisy. “You okay, girl?”

“Oh, yeah.” Maisy swatted the air. “This is like visiting an old friend.”

“You mean a friend who betrayed you?” Heather sent her a pitying look. “On the bright side, a good-looking guy across the aisle is checking you out.”

“Whatever…” Maisy didn’t bother to glance his way. She had checked out long ago.

“We have plenty of chaperones, Maiz. Your class will be fine if you ditch the game to avoid he who must not be named.”

“He’s not even pitching today,” Maisy said, waving toward the bullpen. “Besides, the fourth-grade field trip is an annual tradition. Skipping it would’ve been like skipping the staff holiday party.”

“Honey, I kind of wish you had skipped that. I will never be able to unsee you doing that booty pop on our principal’s coffee table.”

Maisy grinned, happy to change the subject. “You were jealous of my Beyoncé moves, admit it.”

From the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of the scoreboard as it flashed an image of a familiar face. Screw his Captain America good looks. He was everywhere. It was impossible to live in Indiana and not notice his face on billboards and in the news. She should move to Alaska.

The announcer came over the stadium speakers. “Today’s starting lineup has changed. In place of Romeo Lopez, Kevin Halderman will be pitching for the Indianapolis Turbos.”

Anthony moaned. “Oh, no! Halderman? Now we’re gonna lose for sure.” Restless fans joined Anthony in a chorus of boos.

Maisy barely heard them past the buzzing in her head.

Heather’s panicky voice broke through. “Maisy? Are you breathing?”

“I’m fine,” she said with a tight smile, even though the noise of the stadium was muffled and the spackled concrete pixelated beneath her feet.

“You look green,” Heather said.

“It’s a reflection from the sun.”

“The sun is behind a cloud.”

“It’s the hat.” Maisy removed her cap and raised her chin.

Heather grabbed her wrist. “You’re right. Your face isn’t green. It’s pure white.”

Maisy tried a shaky joke. “I’m white.”

The contrast between them was a source of humor most of the time. But Heather wasn’t laughing. She nodded as if she had made up her mind. “I’m getting you a beer.”

“Shh.” Maisy put a finger over her mouth. They joked about it all the time. But they would never drink alcohol on a school-sponsored field trip.

“I don’t care who hears.” Heather looked as serious as Maisy had ever seen her. “Listen here, girlfriend. No one who knows your story will blame you if you happen to pass the concession stand and cross paths with a cold brew on the way to the bathroom.”

The announcer called attention to the left field, where a military flag corps played the first few notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Maisy coaxed her kids to stand and sing. The anthem lasted forever. She mouthed the words and wondered if someone had added an extra verse.

At last, the unofficial last phrase arrived, and the kids shouted along with the crowd. “Play ball!”

As soon as they sat, Anthony started a war of the sexes by kicking the seat of the girl in front of him. Ironically, they were diverted by the kiss cam scanning the stadium for couples who were caught kissing.

“Gross!” Anthony yelled. She silently agreed.

Anthony was smart, boisterous, and had a knack for trouble. She’d moved his desk to the front of the room the first week of school. Instead of being surly about it, he enjoyed the extra attention. They “got” each other. Mainly because he reminded Maisy of herself at that age.

Maisy nudged Anthony and delivered a warning. “Behave, Anthony. I can take you back to the bus if I have to.” With any luck, he would make her use her threat.

His attention shifted to the animated scoreboard and the antics of the racing donuts. Sprinkled, chocolate-covered, and jelly donuts ran around the bases on the huge jumbotron screen.

Heather twisted around in her seat and whispered, “Look at you, acting all normal. You’re my new superhero.”

“It’s not that bad.” Heather was totally overreacting.

“What part of ‘childhood sweethearts, then dumped for a supermodel’ goes with ‘not bad’?”

Maisy swallowed.

“You were practically left at the altar.”

Giving up, she put her hands on Heather’s shoulders and squeezed. “You’re right. I’m never coming back here again. As soon as the bus leaves, you owe me a shot of tequila.”

“We’ll go to Plato’s. I’ll tell Lamar we’ll be late to Mama’s. He and Mama can play Crazy Eights together. Here. Wet your whistle on this for now.” Heather passed her a soda and Maisy took a sip, wishing for all the world it really was a stiff drink.

The game started and Maisy forced herself to look at the field as the only man she had ever loved (besides Dad and Chad, her brother) perched on the mound and began his windup.

It would be a fastball.

He always lifted his head ever so slightly before he let it loose. It was his favorite pitch.

Maisy had been watching Kevin throw since she was her students’ age. She’d spent countless hours scrutinizing his every pitch and praying that each batter would hit air. She’d done his homework for him when he was too tired from practice, and she’d gone to all of his games, even on the night of her senior prom. During his first two seasons in the major leagues, she sat in the same seat behind the dugout, performing her crazy routine with the bubble gum just for luck. When he went to his second All-Star Game without her, she’d believed him when he said she’d hate it. That should have been her first warning that he was throwing nothing but wild pitches.

She jumped when something landed in her lap. “What’s this?”

Anthony leaned her way and held up a T-shirt that said, The Turbos take the Lead. “Our donut won, Miss Gray. Our whole section gets T-shirts. Smile!”

A cameraman captured them on the jumbotron.

At home plate, the batter swung and missed for the third time.

The crowd clapped for the man Maisy once thought she would spend the rest of her life with.

The batter kicked the dirt and walked away.

She understood his frustration.

Sometimes you were thrown a pitch you didn’t expect. All you could do was keep your head up and hope for better luck next time.

***

Sam Hunter entered the Turbos’ corporate suite at the top of the eighth inning just as Kevin Halderman threw a fastball that surpassed ninety-five miles an hour. The umpire waved his thumb in the air, signaling an out.

Sam popped another wad of gum in his mouth to keep from pacing the room like a barefoot man on hot coals. With every pitch Halderman fired, Sam’s plan to sell off the most expensive player on the team became more complicated.

Not a single player had connected their bat for a base hit. Not one.

At first it was just a fluke.

Then it was sheer magic.

No one said what they were all thinking. The usual chatter that filled the suite was diminished to a hush. The Turbos’ owner, the Donut King himself, Charlie Zumaeta, sat on the edge of his seat clutching his armrest with white knuckles. Around him, people avoided eye contact with each other. No one dared to utter the words that would jinx the pitcher and send a long fly ball over the right-field fence.

Baseball was superstitious like that.

Perhaps the most superstitious sport in the world.

Below them, the lower-deck crowd was enjoying the game with a different sense of urgency. They celebrated each out as if it were a bases-loaded home run. Lucky SOBs. A group of kids in the far-right field had started to chant “K-man,” and the drunks in the bleachers had taken on the cheer with their own version that included extra wording referring to Halderman’s sex life. Kevin was dating the hottest model in the western hemisphere. Every male over the age of eighteen, and many below that age if they were honest with their mothers, knew what Alexa looked like in a thong and nothing else.

Damn. Another swing and a miss. The crowd was riled up. The wave had made its way around the stadium three times. A record for sure.

“Rethinking your plan?” asked Tristan Staub, the greenest member of the Turbos’ front office.

The kid was a numbers wiz. Sam had hired him for data analysis and budget crunching. Despite his genius, he had no brains when it came to the unwritten rules that dominated the sport.

“Shut up, kid.”

Tristan pursed his lips. “There is no data that supports that old wives’ tale. You know that, don’t you? A more interesting observation is how a pitcher behaves when—”

“I want a meeting of the operations staff at eight a.m. tomorrow.”

Tristan’s face fell. “Tomorrow’s Saturday.”

“I don’t care.”

“But we haven’t had a day off in—”

“If you don’t like it, work for the government.”

“But everyone will be celebrating tonight if—”

“Don’t be late!” Sam handed the kid his gum wrapper and moved to the side of the owner’s box to sulk alone.

Nobody on a struggling team got days off. The kid should understand that. If the entire front-office staff didn’t get into gear and help the Turbos sell tickets and squeeze the tight budget, there would be plenty of days off for them to deal with later.

Sam leaned against the wall and watched Kevin throw a damn good slider. He ran a hand across his face and pushed back his misery. The bartender was mixing a martini. Too bad he didn’t drink on the job. If the game kept going this way, he’d stop by Plato’s and hide with his Budweiser in the backside of the bar.

The Turbos baseball team was the expansion team Indianapolis had longed for. During the first few seasons, the team had reaped the benefit of good draft prospects and Kevin Halderman’s winning arm. Up until three years ago, fans thought Halderman was worth his overgenerous multimillion-dollar contract, so trading the favorite hometown boy had been impossible. Until recently. Doubt over Kevin’s future was growing like weeds among the fans and local media. It helped his master plan. The complicated deal Sam was working on would offload Kevin and his expensive arm and get the Turbos two good relievers from Toronto, a veteran designated hitter from the Yankees, and a promising catcher from Atlanta.

A pop-up fly hovered in the air over the pitcher’s mound. Halderman made the out himself. Jesus. What kind of fire had Kevin lit up his ass today? If he kept pitching like this, any trade deal would make Sam the least popular general manager in baseball.

The little boy in Sam, the one who loved baseball so much he’d kept a glove under his pillow until he was sixteen, was awed by the rare spectacle. The calculating manager side of him watched his deal sink into the dirt behind home plate.

He could always blow it and say the words no one would utter. But in the end, he loved baseball too much to ruin the amazing spectacle.

Sam kept his mouth shut.