The breeze from the Chesapeake Bay cooled Brooke Chadwick’s face in the summer sun, as the baseball came hurtling at her off Dane’s pitching arm, clearly too high to reach with her rear practically glued to the seat of this wheelchair for the eighth week running. Stupid accident.
“Hey, I thought we were playing catch, not fetch,” she called. The baseball sailed over her outstretched glove, far out of her grasp, and plunked into the sandy reeds farther down the beach.
Brooke watched with covert longing as Dane jogged past her to retrieve the wild toss, his lazy gait confident as always— longing for both the ability to jog down the sand, as well as a deep longing for the guy she couldn’t ever have.
How was he even here, keeping her broken self entertained? Dane deserved some kind of good Samaritan award.
“We are playing catch, but you’re not fulfilling the catching end of the deal, Brooker.” His eye twinkled, electrifying her heart— blast him— as he tossed the ball again, this time straight into her mitt. “Come on, Chadwick. Two broken femurs and a broken hip? Lame excuses, so step it up.”
Despite how unlucky— or tragic— the last three months of her life had unquestionably been, today felt almost lucky here at the beach. Playing ball with Dane Rockwell for the umpteenth day in a row gave her a nice view of his wicked grin and its heart-melting dimple.
“I will step it up when you quit lobbing that ball at altitudes only professional basketball players could reach. Wrong sport” She threw it, snapping it hard twice into her mitt before winding up and hurling it toward Dane. “This is baseball, dude.”
“Some people are such whiner-babies.” He caught it and returned the red-stitched piece of physical therapy to her. “They seem to think a car wreck that happened three whole months ago is a valid excuse for not giving a hundred percent in the die-hard sport of catch.”
This time she caught it. “See? When it’s thrown with skill, I’m all over it.”
Week six into this banter, they had the pattern down: a little trash talk, a little flirting, a little bad-mouthing her brother, Quirt. Never mentioning the other consequences of the car accident that put her in the casts and this chair: the loss of both her parents’ lives— as well as the loss of her brother Quirt’s emotional presence.
Also never mentioning what was going to happen at the end of the summer when Dane left for law school, if he got in.
If he got in, she sighed again inwardly. Brooke knew how much he wanted it, for whatever reason. Being a lawyer had never been the joy of her dad Matthew Chadwick’s too-short life— coaching Maddox Little League had— but Dane admired her dad so much that as soon as the tragic accident happened, he started the late application process, and a few weeks later he’d started the process of playing catch with Brooke daily, getting her out into the sunshine, away from the confines of the hospital, then the rehab center, and then her aunt’s cramped apartment.
And with any luck, it’d go on daily until he left for law school.
Boy, if Dane already wore the white sheep wool of the Rockwell family, becoming a lawyer would bleach him by comparison.
“I’m sending you a pop fly. Catch it, Brookie Baby.” He threw it vertical, and it disappeared into the sun. “It’s yours.”
Brookie Baby. The name startled her, reminding her it was what her dad sometimes called her. Up to now she’d always been just Brooke to Dane; or Brooker, when he was being nice. But most of the time with him she’d been Squirt, the nickname equivalent of Quirt’s freak kid-sister. All she’d ever been was Dane’s best friend’s annoying tag-along while Dad coached them when Brooke was far too young to know anything about boys except that the only boy she’d ever want was Dane Rockwell.
The ball tipped the end of her mitt, but she snared it with her left hand. “A-ha!”
“Not bad, for Quirt Chadwick’s younger sister. He never was much of a catcher.” Yeah, the pattern continued: bag on Quirt, who’d never lived up to his potential as little league catcher for Dane’s legendary pitching skills. Legends in their own minds, more like.
Catch, throw. Catch, throw.
You should tell him, a treasonous voice inside her nudged. Tell him what this game really means to you.
Uh, no? Nuh-uh. Tell him that it meant everything? That it was the only therapy doing anything to keep her soul afloat while she couldn’t walk, and while Quirt ignored her and pretended nothing had happened? Tell Dane that without him she’d still be curled in a ball with the remote control, refusing to concern herself with preventing muscle atrophy, or that there were afternoons when the pain was so bad she wanted to give up but for the fact she had Dane’s game of catch coming in the evening?
Tell him that he was, cheesy but true, her only hope these past weeks?
The second she told him that, he’d bolt. If she even hinted, he’d get embarrassed and, horrors, quit showing up. This catch game would end and Brooke would shrivel back into herself.
No, tell him you’re interested.
Uh, whoa. In this state? While she wore basically a body cast and was the poster girl for ‘Stay Alive by Wearing a Seatbelt’ after her parents’ double funeral? While she was the least attractive she’d ever been since Dane met her— at least since she left the icky stage when she had braces and frizzy ponytails.
That would go over well.
She sighed. After losing her parents, but before her fourth surgery, Brooke had told herself she’d walk again— if only to follow through on her mom’s dream that Brooke compete in a beauty pageant someday. Pageants held little interest for Brooke personally, but she knew it would please her mother.
However, after the fifth surgery, the doctor cautioned she’d have to undergo a miracle ever to be able to walk, let alone stride with grace across a stage wearing high heels and a form-fitting dress.
So many dreams evaporated when her dad’s Buick rolled off that embankment, but frankly, she refused to let all of them die, and now that she had this daily ballgame going, she knew she’d defy the odds, and at the very least walk again.
Hello. Your dream of Dane persisted, too, and it’s looking possible. He’s here every day— without being asked.
She could not shake that nagging voice inside her, even though it needed to be shushed for its ridiculousness, because she couldn’t put herself out there when this whole catch-playing thing had to be nothing but a time-filler for Dane— a summer pastime while he waited for admission results. He probably had nothing better to do or, more likely, he lugged her out here daily out of duty, out of respect for her mom and dad’s memory, for how they pretty much took him in when he was a kid, notwithstanding his extensive Rockwell heritage, a legacy of court appearances and time in the state penitentiary.
Summer’s going to end soon. It might be now or never.
True. Summer would end. She’d get her casts off. Dane would go somewhere— whether to law school or just to work somewhere far from Maddox and this beach— and they’d stop playing catch. And she could stop holding out hope that he’d take her to spin doughnuts on the dunes in his old truck.
And she could just quit pretending he’d ever see her as anything but someone’s kid-sister.
Duality tore at her. Telling him she liked him put this whole sweet setup at risk— the easy friendship, the catch-playing therapy, basically the only conversation in her life that didn’t revolve around medical appointments, health insurance, or life insurance details like she and Aunt Ruth immersed in every day.
A ball slipped past her, and Dane had to retrieve it.
“Nineteen-year-olds just lose their touch when it comes to catch. If you were still eighteen, I’m sure you would have had the flexibility for that one. You’re getting old, Brooker.” Brooke watched him walk toward her, observing the length of his stride that left broad stretches between his footprints on the damp sand. Her eyes canvassed his well-made form.
Oh, she wanted him so much she ached.
And he only saw her as a charity case.
Tell him, the voice inside her insisted. It hollered in her soul. Darting away from the thought, she pounced on fifteen excuses: anything she said would sound juvenile, desperate— hadn’t he just called her nineteen? By contrast, Dane was done with college, a total adult. Now that she was going to postpone her education a full year— to play patient instead of nurse— she’d forfeit her scholarship to nursing school. She was still just a kid and would be for quite a while yet.
“Dane? I—” It shot out of her mouth before she could stop it, like a wild pop fly.
He looked up from the ball, their eyes meeting. An electric current surged in Brooke’s heart. This was it— her moment.
“Well, well, well.” Into Brooke’s moment, a leggy blonde rode a beach-comber bicycle and cooed at Dane, looking like a model and puncturing Brooke’s hope balloon. “If it isn’t Dane Rockwell, voted Most Likely to Be a Great Makeout by our high school yearbook staff.” She sidled up to him and gave his cheek a kiss-hello, ignoring Brooke. “Playing a little ball?”
Dane’s eyes dragged away from Brooke and focused on the blonde. The whole substation of power that had been surging in Brooke’s soul lost connection. The moment snapped.
“Um …” He shot Brooke an apologetic look.
“Oh, hi.” The blonde noticed Brooke. “You’re Quirt Chadwick’s little sister, huh? Bummer about your mom and dad.”
Understatement could slice like a knife.
“Yeah, bummer.” It came out a mumble, and Brooke wished for quicksand to form beneath her and suck her under this very second. What had she been thinking? Girl in wheelchair declares love for best-looking future-lawyer in town? What was her thought-pattern based on, a comedic farce? She looked down at her casted legs. Ha. Brooke not only wasn’t starting nursing school this fall, she probably wasn’t even going to shave her legs this fall. Some great allurement to a guy like Dane Rockwell.
“So, you coming by later?” The intruder girl looked a little worse for post-high school wear, but she was giving Dane all the come-on signals, and she clearly knew how, even if Dane just gave that non-committal shrug and aloofness all the girls fell for— girls ripped each other to shreds for the unattainable Dane Rockwell.
Brooke was nothing but one of the shredded masses.
Finally, the floozy left, and Dane started tossing the ball to Brooke again, his face a mask.
Throw, catch. Throw, catch. Throw, catch.
He’d never see her the way she wanted him to. And she couldn’t tell him now.
Brooke collected the little shattered pieces of her hope and tucked them deep inside her heart.
Well, that was awkward.
Why did that bimbo have to barge in? Dane couldn’t give her the brush-off fast enough.
The acceptance letter from UVA in his back pocket threatened to burn a hole in his jeans. The words glowed like they’d been written with twenty-four karat gold ink when he’d read them this morning, and his blood had thrummed in his veins ever since.
He had to tell someone soon or his circuits would overload.
No, make that he had to tell Brooke.
For one, it wasn’t like he could tell his family. None of the Rockwells would be first in line to give him any big ol’ fist bump for being accepted into law school. More like they’d tell him he’d sold out to the man when he ought to be stickin’-it-to-the-man— be more like Uncle Tyrone with his fake IRS phone call scam, or like Dane’s parents with their Bonnie and Clyde impression. Hope you like the Big House, Mom and Dad. He wouldn’t be jotting down a letter to them with the news.
Besides, Brooke’s reaction was the one he cared about most. Her dad, Matthew Chadwick, had been the lawyer. Her dad was the reason Dane had applied to law school. Her past and her future might be affected by this letter.
If his plans meant anything.
How should he casually drop it into conversation that he’d gotten his acceptance letter to top-ranked University of Virginia’s law school without sounding overeager, like he was trying to impress her by telling her that he’d been admitted to her dad’s alma mater?
“So. Now that whoever-that-was is gone,” he prompted, “you were saying?” Maybe she’d talk a little. Not that Brooke was one of those talkers, which liked about her, but if she would fill the air and lighten the mood just for now, then he could mentally formulate his announcement.
Brooke was silent though, and when Dane concentrated on her expression, something in it had changed.
Great. Now how was he supposed to tell her? Especially considering what he wanted the announcement to mean to Brooke?
Law school: if he finished it, he’d finally have concrete evidence that proved that he wasn’t a Rockwell— in the traditional sense of the name. Law school meant he’d finally be worthy of Brooke Chadwick.
“You know Brooke, dude. She’s not, uh, the Rockwell type.” Last year’s argument with Quirt still reechoed, when Dane told his friend that he wanted Brooke as his date for a fraternity formal.
“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?”
Quirt had lost his temper. “I’m saying, Brooke isn’t for you, dude.” He’d chucked a dirty sweatshirt at him from across the frat house bedroom.
“Isn’t that for Brooke and me to decide?” Dane had chucked it back. “She’s a big girl,” he’d argued, even though she’d only been eighteen at the time.
A murderous stare from Quirt preceded a angry grumbling as he stomped out of the room. “Brooke is not dating a Rockwell.”
Things had been pretty chilly between him and Quirt since then. And basically below zero Kelvin since the accident, though it was possible Quirt might have been icing everyone.
But Dane would show Quirt.
He’d show Brooke.
He’d show everyone.
Throw, catch. Throw, catch. There was a therapy about its rhythm.
Baseball and Matthew Chadwick had saved Dane from a Rockwell fate. As Dane’s little league coach Mr. Chadwick had yanked Dane away from an obviously bad home life and given him baseball— and his first glimpse of Brooke. Not that she’d been much to distract him back then— he’d been just a kid. But man, lately she’d been pretty much all he could think about. Every day he couldn’t wait to see her, to tease a smile into her deep, brown eyes and across her full lips.
Someday he was going to kiss those lips, even if they were frowning at him for now.
“I got into UVA.” He let it burst through.
“Dad’s school?” Brooke brightened a degree. “That’s fantastic. Good for you, Rock.” She called him Rock. When she did that, the distance closed and the mood lifted, at least for him. “How long until you go?”
Her tone held some longing, and he couldn’t help hearing it. Oh, yeah. She didn’t want him to take off. If she’d been ready to shove him away, she would have asked, when do you leave? But this phrase was different, like she wanted him to stay.
It was just enough hope to sustain him for the next three years.
Law school. Just make it through law school. Then he’d finally be enough.