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Hard and Fast (Locker Room Diaries) by Kathy Lyons (1)

Chapter One

Connor

“Can we talk about baseball now?”

I said the words with a smile because it was never smart to growl at a journalist, especially one who ran the biggest baseball groupie fan site on the web. Normally, I’d have a sense of humor about this, but I was at the All-Star Game, about to play one of the biggest games of my career. And instead of icing my aching knees, I was sitting in the locker room, giving an interview to an overblown redhead with too much makeup on her puffy, I-partied-hard-last-night face. And if that wasn’t bad enough, she seemed to be only interested in salacious gossip, not the upcoming game. As the catcher for the Indianapolis Bobcats, I was ready to answer all the questions she could come up with about baseball, not the least of which was our very real shot at the World Series this year. But instead, the woman seemed more interested in my personal life.

“Let’s move on to something more fun,” she said.

I made sure my smile was fixed in place and wondered how long I had until my muscles locked in rigor.

“I’m sure you’ve seen this calendar made by your fans.” She held up that hideous piece of stalker pornography and pointed to the title. “My heart beats for Connor Hart.”

Behind her, my older sister Sophia grinned. She was my publicist and the stalker behind the calendar. She’d figured out how much of a money-maker those things were and, knowing I’d refuse to pose for something like that, had hidden in bushes and snuck into my apartment to get the shots.

“I hear it’s already sold over a hundred thousand copies.”

Which meant the number was really more like ten thousand. Even that was ridiculous, but I wasn’t supposed to admit it. I felt embarrassment heat my cheeks, and I shrugged. What was I supposed to say? That my sister would do anything to make money, including pimp me out as a sex symbol. I’d changed my locks the moment I’d found out, but she’d already managed to get enough pictures that, with skilled use of Photoshop, she’d been able to put together that calendar.

“You asleep by the swimming pool, you stripping off your Bobcats jersey, and my personal favorite, you just out of the shower and barely holding on to your towel.” The reporter leaned forward, her eyebrows rising as she tried to get me to dish. “Is it true that you had no idea that these shots were being taken?”

“I had nothing to do with the calendar.” Absolute truth.

“You seem embarrassed.”

Yes. And really pissed off. I owed my sister a lot, but lately, she’d been going too far. Like a million miles too far. I didn’t think it was malicious. She just had a greedy streak, and given the way we’d had to scrimp as children, I really couldn’t blame her.

The journalist held up another picture of me asleep in bed, obviously naked and fully erect under the artfully draped sheets. “I wouldn’t be embarrassed. This is—”

“Photoshop.”

The redheaded reporter giggled like a pre-teen girl. “Maybe. But most guys wouldn’t claim it as fake. Not when you look like this.”

She flipped the page of the calendar. This one showed me in full frontal position, complete with ripped abs and an artfully placed baseball bat and catcher’s mitt.

“When I look in the mirror, I don’t see that.” I saw aging knees, dead eyes, and a lack of interest in anything. Including pleasing any woman with my “bat.” I tried for a bland, almost bored look. Unfortunately, a perverse twist in the female mind often turned it into a challenge. Each one wanted to be the one to crack me, and this reporter was no different.

“So you’re not going to tell me how this was done?” she asked. “My experts say that the bedroom shots might be doctored—”

Duh.

“But not the others. And especially not the one of you walking straight out of the shower.”

“You clearly don’t have good experts,” I said. Then, to lighten the atmosphere—and my temper—I flashed her my trademark “gotcha” wink. She chuckled as she turned to the camera.

“I’m not sure I care if it’s doctored,” she said. “What about you, viewers? Does it matter to you if this is fake or not? Leave your comments…” Blah blah blah.

Further back, my sister gave me a thumbs-up without even looking up from her phone. Sophia was probably checking the true sales figures. Spinning me as a sex symbol meant money, and that was all she cared about. The Bobcats were thrilled, too. Anything to increase ticket sales.

Still, it bothered me that when I told Sophia—as my sister, not my publicist—that the attention made me uncomfortable, she always answered the same way. What did I care if girls were salivating over my Photoshopped abs? If it ensured that I got paid well to play the game I loved, then I should be grateful.

I was grateful. But I was also irritated. Because every picture in the calendar was enhanced. Every single shot was a lie, and that bothered me more than anything. Because every day of the year, she made me feel like a fraud. I had enough fears about my knees, enough doubts when the commentators started calling me “the greatest catcher in the league.” I didn’t need her magnifying those expectations when I wasn’t sure I could deliver.

That was the thing about being a sports star. Expectations had to be met, or the greatest catcher in the league could suddenly become the greatest disappointment. I was already eaten up with guilt for how much I’d failed our younger sister, Cassie. I didn’t want to risk disappointing people in my professional career, too.

But I couldn’t say that aloud. I couldn’t confess my doubts to anyone, because it would shatter the image. So I kept my mouth shut and played baseball…until the day my knees gave out and I couldn’t.

In the meantime, I smiled for the camera and prayed the photographer didn’t catch the panic in my eyes. “Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?” I asked the reporter. “Like baseball?”

“Okay, okay,” she said with a throaty laugh. “I’ll put you out of your misery. Let’s talk about the All-Star Game. This is your third time here. How does it feel to be one of the old-timers?”

I bristled at the way she said ‘old.’ I was only twenty-seven, for God’s sake. Sure my knees felt like they were a hundred and twenty-seven, but that was the problem with being a catcher. “Naturally, it’s an incredible honor,” I said. “And it never gets old.” Had I emphasized that last word too much?

“But come on. It’s no secret that you’re having knee trouble. We all saw you limp off the field last week when you played the Tigers. Are you considering retiring soon?”

Talk about sticking the knife in and twisting. “Did you also happen to notice that I snagged a bad throw from third, then tagged the runner out for a triple play?”

“Very impressive, but—”

Damn straight it was.

“But nothing,” I interrupted. “That play would have taken a toll on anyone’s knees.”

She made a soothing sound, as if I were a grumpy toddler. “Of course, but a catcher’s knees are especially vulnerable.”

So’s your mother. Sure, that was a childish retort, but damn it, what other industry required a man to defend the health of his body parts? At twenty-seven?

“My doctors have declared that my knees are in tip-top shape—” They’d actually said tip-top shape considering my age and occupation. “And I couldn’t be more excited about being here.” Now that was a bold-faced lie. I hated dealing with reporters. And as for the All-Star Game, well the truth was that my knees could have used the rest. I didn’t know if they were going to make it to the end of the season, much less the pennant and the World Series. And for the first time in my career, that thought wasn’t a pie-in-the-sky dream.

The Bobcats had a real chance of going all the way this year. The pieces were in place. And if no one got hurt or stupid, it was a real possibility. We really could do it. Assuming my knees didn’t crap out. Or my very young teammates didn’t flake out. Speaking of which, where was our quick-as-lightning shortstop Jake, along with my cousin Ellie? They were supposed to have been here a half hour ago to take some of the media spotlight off of me.

Most guys loved it when they got press. Me? I hated every bit of it. It always felt like I was either supporting a lie—Oh yes, I love being a sex symbol—or creating a lie—I’m fit, I’m healthy, and my knees will last forever.

And speaking of uncomfortable problems, here came another one. Gia Kubic slipped into the room. She was the Bobcats’ perky publicist and the epitome of the awkwardness that defined my life.

My sister hated Gia. You’d think that since the two women had the same goal—making me look good—that they’d work well together. Nope. I wasn’t sure if Sophia was simply territorial or if she hated that I’d kissed Gia almost two years ago on New Year’s Eve, but she definitely had it in for Gia. In my defense, I didn’t realize Gia was a Bobcats employee. I thought she was our host’s neighbor. Either way, it wasn’t strictly against the rules, but it wasn’t a good idea, either.

Sophia had started on her “Gia sucks” campaign on January 1. She’d been at the party the night before and had let me know she’d witnessed my lapse in judgment. As nice as the kiss had been, Sophia was right about one thing—Gia did screw with my concentration. So from then on, I’d made it a point to keep myself as far away as possible from her.

And yet here she was, slipping into my interview with an apology on her beautiful face.

Damn it. That meant Jake and Ellie weren’t coming. I gave her a glare, even though I still smiled for the reporter. And I watched as her mouth softened in a depressed sigh. I knew she felt bad. It wasn’t her fault that Jake had bailed. But Gia had promised I wouldn’t be the only player in the spotlight today. And yet, here I was, all alone in front of the camera.

Don’t shoot the messenger.

I said that to myself a lot these days. Along with Play the game. Smile for the camera. And Publicity is a necessary evil.

Why, oh why did someone as smart and sexy as Gia have to make a living creating false images of people? Why did I want to shake some sense into her every time I saw her? And why was it that every time she opened her mouth, I wanted to stop her words with my lips? Answer—because I was a masochist. Because I liked hurting myself with memories of a single fantasy kiss on New Year’s Eve.

I was still lost in thinking about Gia—and our one kiss—when my sister noticed where my attention had gone. Damn it, I needed to be more careful. Normally, my sister was a smart publicist, but she got a bit irrational whenever Gia was around. And given that Sophia was already in a bad mood because her assistant had skipped town, this situation was ripe for disaster.

“Well?” Sophia demanded, interrupting the interview. “Where’s Ellie and that guy with the silly position? Jake, the shortstop.”

I winced. Good God, shortstop was one of the most vital positions in baseball, and she’d just demonstrated her ignorance of the game. Meanwhile, I watched as Gia’s face tightened. I could see she was biting back an angry retort. Unlike my sister, she knew how important Jake was to the Bobcats’ chances of winning the pennant.

“Um,” Gia said, as she smiled warmly at the redheaded interviewer. “I think it’s better if we just focus on Connor. This is his third year at the All-Star Game. He’s practically an institution, but he’s so modest, he rarely talks about himself. Why don’t you ask him about that behind-the-back catch he did last year? He’s been practicing it, just in case.”

The interviewer gave me a skeptical look, but was game. The diversion would have worked if my sister wasn’t insane when it came to Gia.

“You mean you screwed up and Ellie’s not coming,” Sophia growled. “Good God, how incompetent can you be? Connor, we’re done here,” she said, snapping her purse shut loudly. “I’ve got real publicity lined up and not this waste—”

“Sophia.” One word from me in that tone of voice was usually enough, but my sister was having a really bad day.

“—of time. Thank God, you have me and aren’t relying on the team publicist.” She sneered at the title, as if what she did was any different. “She can’t even—”

I tried again, my voice louder. “Sophia.”

It didn’t work. She was on a roll.

“—book a third-rate interview right. What a disgrace. I tell you, the team should hire me. I’d get things running the way they should be. I’m the reason Connor’s famous. I’m–”

I stood up and got in her face, a solid wall blocking her from the other people in the room. “I know it’s been a hard week, but you need to calm down.”

“—really just embarrassed by the level of her unprofessionalism.” Her volume was dropping, but her pique still came through loud and clear. “Is it a money thing? Is the team short on funds so they have to hire cut-rate staff?”

Damn it! That was not the thing to say in front of a reporter! I looked back at the redhead who was already pouncing on the dropped suggestion.

“Is that true?” the redhead asked. “Is Joe DeLuce cash-strapped? Are the Bobcats in financial trouble?”

“No,” I said, loudly and firmly. And right behind me, Gia was scrambling over to cover my sister’s gaffe.

“You have to be joking!” she laughed. “Joe DeLuce is one of the richest men in America. Ms. Hart is understandably upset at the change in plans for this interview. She was just—um…” Making up bullshit. “Trying to point out that I’m, um, modestly paid.”

I looked at Gia. Her cheeks burned crimson, but she didn’t break. I admired that. I knew better than anyone how much she’d have loved to throttle my sister, but she smiled and tap-danced as fast as she could.

“There are no financial problems,” I said firmly.

“That’s right,” Gia continued. “We’re well on the way to winning the pennant, thanks in no small part to our great catcher here. That’s the story—”

The reporter gave her a sly look. “You know I’m going to check it out. Give me the exclusive, and I’ll soften the blow.”

Well, hell. The redhead was not going to be distracted unless I did something significant.

“How would you like to see me make one of those behind-the-back catches?” It was the first thing I could think of, but it was a risk. I was about 40 percent with that catch, and that’s because I was helping one of our backup pitchers stay sober by tossing the ball around instead of heading to a bar. I hadn’t seriously been practicing the thing. And the last thing we needed was a video of me twisting around, missing easy balls.

But I’d already offered, and now the reporter’s expression turned speculative. “That would make for some good footage.”

Yeah, it was always fun to look like an idiot on camera.

Gia jumped right in. “It definitely would. And there’s still some time before the next event.” She whipped out her phone and turned to me. “How fast can you change into your jersey?” she asked.

Five minutes, but I knew she’d need longer if she wanted to pull this off. “Fifteen minutes.”

“Great I’ll text you where—”

The reporter interrupted. “And if you could arrange for me to have some one-on-one time with Joe DeLuce, I could make it worth your while.”

Gia shook her head. “I’m sorry. Joe’s schedule is fully booked.”

A lie. Joe’s schedule had openings. Meanwhile, my sister interrupted with a rude sniff.

“She can’t help you. Just call my assistant. We’ll get you what you need.”

That was a double lie, since Sophia’s assistant was MIA, but the reporter didn’t know that. And that would buy Sophia enough time to come up with a logical excuse why an interview couldn’t happen.

Meanwhile, Gia was busy on her phone, making arrangements. “Field’s busy,” she said to everyone. “But we can do it out front. I’ll get an area cordoned off.” She looked at the reporter. “Thirty minutes?”

“Works for me,” the redhead said.

Sophia released a dramatic sigh. “I guess I can make time.” Then she stomped out the door.

Oh joy.

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