She doesn’t know I’m watching. Like a wolf casing a hen house, my goal is to stay undetected. Hiding behind this column gives me the advantage. Plus, I’m able to avoid Brick while I’m checking out the new face in the clubhouse. I can ignore the piercing sound of worked-up kids in the room, because it’s the woman standing under the Tennessee Mavericks banner who’s pulled my attention. Noted and approved. She’s ripe for the taking.
Besides that, it’s impossible to miss the impressive curves hiding under jeans and a team shirt, or the long chestnut-colored hair that frames high cheekbones. Hard to beat those assets. Then she turns to pick up something she’s dropped. BONUS POINTS! Nice ass.
I learned early to master the art of the slick observation. Watching my older brother and cousins and how they acted around the opposite sex was my education. Sometimes it’s good to be the baby of the family, even at thirty. Whether my gaze is cloaked by dark glasses or team cap down—eyes up, there’s always a way to sneak a peek. It’s my superpower. There’s a kind of radar in me that locks on the most interesting girl in the room. And by interesting, I mean sexy.
It began before I even knew exactly what it was I was looking for. There was only a sense girls had something I wanted. It was a banner day when Brick told me what that something was, brother to brother. Now I had more than baseball to dream about.
This woman’s a natural beauty, three quarters girl-next-door, one quarter something I haven’t defined. Yet. But I think it’s wild. Maybe there’s a little gypsy in her. Whatever it is though, I like it. Nothing’s forced. And most unusual of all, she’s not doing a thing to get the attention of the horny young baseball players in the room. No flipping of hair or batting of unnaturally long false eyelashes. No taking selfies with pouting lips. That alone makes her stand out.
Professional athletes rarely need to work for a woman’s attention, and it messes with our heads. Not that I’m complaining. But when a guy gets used to that dynamic, it can make him lazy. It’s so damn easy to be the guy, win the girl, get laid. It happens without effort, which leads to a kinda dulling of the senses. I’d be kicked out of the testosterone club if anyone heard me admit my take on things. But we all know it’s true.
Even with my left arm in a sling I’ve managed to remain undetected. I’ve moved from behind the column just a little, so she can see I’m watching, trying to give her a preview of what I have to offer. Work with me baby. But there hasn’t been one glance my way or toward anyone else that I’ve seen. Her attention is locked on a young girl standing at the back of the crowd of rowdy kids, and she’s gesturing to her to move forward.
The girl stands her ground, holding a ball for an autograph, politely waiting her turn. Once in a while the boy in front of her turns and stares for a moment, which makes her look back to the woman. She doesn’t realize these entitled little shits aren’t going to consider the pecking order. The sponsors’ spawn are always the biggest brats. They’re like calves pushing their way to pasture, the kids crowd toward the signing table where my teammates sit. I think I hear a moo.
About three more years I’d say and things will change for the girl. She’s a little chubby, but that’ll disappear as she grows taller. Underneath her shyness and extra pounds of baby fat she’s pretty, like the woman. Around sixteen the boys will be fighting for her attention and all the bullies will quiet.
My own history has shaped me. I can still remember what it felt like to be overweight as a child and how much the bullying stung. Kids can be such raging assholes.
As if she can sense my stare, the girl’s head lifts and turns toward me. Oh God. Poor kid. The far left side of her face is burned and thickly scarred from chin to forehead where it disappears under her bangs. Our eyes lock for a moment before she looks away. Shit. I hope she didn’t read anything into my expression. Crap.
When I turn back to the woman, she’s looking at me intently, weighing my reaction. The corners of my mouth lift in acknowledgment of her stare and my head nods. No warmth is returned. Instead, she resumes her watch. Is she the girl’s mother? She looks young.
Quickly I do the math. If the kid’s about thirteen, the mother could be early thirties. Yeah, I guess it could work. I mean if I’d had a kid when I started having sex I could have a thirteen-year-old easily. That’s a sobering thought, I’m barely thirty and still sowing my wild oats as my grandmother likes to say.
“Atticus.” Brick’s hand lands on my good shoulder and I hear the impatience in his voice. “What’re you doing? They want to meet their favorite catcher. Come on.”
“Don’t have a hissy fit,” I say, imitating my mother’s voice and ignoring my brother’s directive. “I’m busy. Quit being my agent for a minute and look at that chick with the hair and the fine ass.” I lift my chin in her direction.
He takes a beat to check out my interest. A smile spreads across his face and a look that says he knows something I don’t.
“That’s Charlotte.” Stepping in front of me he blocks my view. “I invited her and her daughter. She’s nice. Don’t even think about it.”
“I’m just looking. She your date?” I say glancing over his shoulder.
“No. She’s my hairdresser. And my tailor. And I don’t want to lose either one.” He puts a hand on my good arm. “I mean it, Atticus. It took me a long time to find someone who knows how to tailor pants right. Don’t fuck it up for me. Come talk with the kids. You don’t have to sign.”
I consider my options and come to the obvious choice. “Introduce us. Then I’ll do whatever you want.”
A long sigh escapes his lips. “Just keep it in your pants. She’s nice. The woman has enough trouble without you hitting on her.”
“It’s tethered,” I lie.
I’m rewarded with a half-smile and a grunt that says he has zero confidence in my statement.
“Just go to the table. I’ll bring them to you.”
“That’s not gonna work. Those rug rats will push ‘em to the side.”
He knows I’m right.
“Okay. Wait here. But you’re going to sit your ass down with your teammates as soon as you say your horny hello.” He punctuates his order with a pointed finger.
“Yeah. But I’m not staying for long. I’m injured,” I call to his retreating figure.
There’s a shake of his head and a wave of dismissal as he heads for her.
My right hand runs through my hair and then cups my mouth, checking for funky breath. Shit. I know it’s all good. Why am I trying so hard? She didn’t give me a second look after the first one said she wasn’t interested.
I can’t step from behind the column because these little shits will stampede me. So I wait. And wait. Why is this taking so long? Come on, Brick. I risk being discovered and peek my head out further. Here they come.
“I’ve got a few friends I’d like you to meet,” he says approaching.
The girl’s having trouble holding eye contact. But the mother isn’t. Her beautiful pale green eyes are locked on mine. It has the surprising effect of sending a jolt up and down my spine, settling squarely on my dick. Wow. There’s a small smile accompanying her stare but not in a flirtatious way. It may be just good southern manners.
“Hi! I’m Atticus,” I say holding out my hand to the young girl.
Her warm delicate palm slips into mine. We shake. She’s too embarrassed, or excited, or maybe nervous, to respond. It’s always one of the three that tongue-ties a fan.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Pretty name for a pretty girl.”
But instead of a smile I get a frown. She’s not buying my sincere compliment. That was a bust. She gently pulls her hand back.
“And you’re Charlotte, right?” I say to the woman in my best I think you’re hot voice.
She extends her hand. “Yes. Hello.”
Her voice. It’s honeyed, as my father would say. We shake but she releases before I’m ready to let go. I’m not picking up any interest whatsoever. What’s happening? Come on, I’m using my best material and widest smile.
Brick’s distracted by the coach waving him over. “Sorry, I have to take care of something.”
He gives Charlotte a pat on her back then walks away. Good. Now I can do my thing without my brother busting my chops later.
“I’m always happy to meet Maverick fans. What if I sign your ball for you, Mallory?”
She hands the ball over and I look at the woman. “Can you hold my ball?” I say leaning forward a little. “I’ve got a broken wing.”
Nothing. No smile or amused chuckle at the innuendo. Nada.
“Sure.” She takes the pen the girl carries, uncaps it and passes it to me.
“Honey, hold the ball for Mr. Swift,” Charlotte says to her daughter, ignoring my request.
The ball’s passed back to the girl, and she steadies it with both hands. “I’m a big fan, Mr. Swift,” she says softly.
I sign and then look up at her face. “Really? Call me Atticus, we’re on a first-name basis now. Did you two see me get whacked by the ball last month when we were playing the Astros?”
Now the kid’s smiling. She nods her head. “I was watching on TV, but not Mom. I thought I heard the crack of your bone.” She touches her clavicle.
Turning to Charlotte, I hand her the pen. “How come you weren’t watching?”
Her face starts blushing and I can almost see the wheels working as she tries coming up with an answer.
“I think I was on the phone when I heard the announcement you’d been hurt. I missed that part of the game.”
A satisfied grin says she thinks she’s sold me on the excuse. Mallory keeps quiet, but the eyes tell me her mother’s fibbing.
“So you’re a fan then?” I say challenging her story.
“Yes. Definitely.” She raises a fist in the air and pumps it. “Go Mavericks!”
“How’d you like our big game with the Reno Weasels?” I say.
Her eyes widen as her eyebrows lift.
“Oh, that was a good one. What a game! We really enjoyed that, didn’t we Mallory?”
The kid and I lock eyes and then we both start laughing.
“What?” Charlotte says.
“Mom, there is no Reno Weasels! Who’d name their team the Weasels?”
I like this look. This face right here. She’s smiling and then laughing with us.
Her shoulders rise in embarrassment and she bites her full bottom lip. “Sorry. I didn’t want to admit I don’t like baseball.”
I put my hand over my heart and lean against the column. “That’s a fatal blow, woman!”
Both she and Mallory giggle at my overacting.
“I’m gonna have to change your opinion, you know. Baseball’s the greatest sport there is. It’s America’s pastime after all. Don’t you know that?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell her. It’s hopeless,” Mallory says.
The fact that the kid’s enjoying herself has turned the mood of the mother. Now’s my chance.
“So, Mallory, you coming tomorrow?”
“The picnic. My brother was supposed to invite you two. Didn’t he tell you about it?”
“No,” they say in unison.
“It’s gonna be great. Have you heard of Athletes for Heroes?”
“No,” Charlotte says.
“They work with the children of fallen heroes, policemen, firefighters, military. Those kids who’ve lost a parent…” Out of my peripheral vision I see one of the kids point at me. Shit! When I look, the news has spread. I’ve been discovered. There’s only a few seconds left of our private conversation before we’ll be surrounded. “It’s a national charity the Mavericks are involved in.”
I spot Brick approaching. “I’ll let my brother explain. He’s the expert. But please come. I’ll get your number from him…”
“Atticus!! Atticus!” Voices call my name and bodies press around me, pushing me against the column and Charlotte and Mallory to the side. I lose sight of them almost immediately as pens and balls and tickets are shoved at me for my autograph.
* * *
Whenever I drive down the tree-lined entrance to my parents’ property, I feel my body relax. Today’s no exception, minus my already-broken clavicle which that fucking kid hit with his head when someone pushed him into me. Today it’s throbbing in perfect time with Carrie Underwood’s wronged woman anthem that I’m blasting. I’d like to take a Louisville Slugger and hit myself over the head for not avoiding that tipped swing, ball to clavicle.
At least I’m partway through my recovery. I don’t like to think of how many weeks I’ll be out, how many games I’ll miss. All I know is it’s an eternity in baseball years. It doesn’t take long for some fresh-from-the-farm-system kid to show management he’s better than me.
The hills of Tennessee are lush and green with the summer season. This holy place on earth means so much to all us Swifts. It’s a birds-in-the-morning and crickets-in-the-night kind of spot. That hasn’t changed since we were kids. But it’s one of the only things here that hasn’t. I was proud to be able to build a new house on the land that my parents bought in the eighties. It was always their dream, but three children’s educations later they were still in the 1500 square-foot house on seven acres.
I was able to give them everything they wanted, and some things they hadn’t thought of, because the best is what was deserved. It was the first big purchase I made after signing my major league contract.
The flowering white and pink Dogwoods I drive past and the sunlight coming through makes it look like I’ve entered a Disney cartoon.
This first glimpse of the house is impressive. The sweeping lawn, the brick circular driveway that leads to the front steps and the wide wraparound porch of the white two-story Southern style home. Purple and lime-green hydrangeas follow the lines, front to side. And then there’s groupings of trees, trees, trees, everywhere you look.
I honk my arrival, so the dog has a heads up. The Colonel needs time to go through his routine. There he is at the side windows of the front door. He goes into protective mode, barking and growling what he has to say to me, making sure I know who’s boss.
The door swings open and Grandma Birdie steps out, giving a delicate wave as she does. As usual she’s dressed for the occasion. Sunday supper calls for pearls and an appropriate dress. I’ve never seen her with a hair out of place, or even in pants. I wonder if she goes to bed in her pearls? I don’t think Grandpa Davis would be as cool and collected if she did.
“There’s my southern belle!” I call.
The Colonel slips around her and sounds a warning. For a dachshund he’s got a good set of pipes and a bigger set of balls. He’s not afraid of anything. He’s down the stairs and sniffing my leg as I get out of the Ferrari. When he’s satisfied an intruder hasn’t breached his castle, he calms down.
“Hi, boy!” He gets a pat and a scratch on the head.
“Do I smell your peach cobbler, Grandma?” I call.
A pleased smile lights her face. “You know I’d make one for you, child. And butter pecan fudge for your brother and Bristol’s Hummingbird Cake. All my babies get their favorites today.”
Her arms open and she calls me to her with waving fingertips. Walking up the wide steps I lean in and wrap my arm around her soft frame. She’s shorter than me by a foot, but I always want to melt into her hug. There’s no place as comfortable as Grandma Birdie’s embrace.
“You’re going to spoil us, you know. Then no other woman’s cooking will be good enough, and I’ll die a lonely bachelor.”
She laughs out loud at my comment and looks me in the eye. “Who you kidding? It’s not their cooking that’s going to win your heart. I may be eighty-three years old but I remember that much.”
“Right as usual, Grandma.”
“All the chickens are here. Come on in.”
Arm in arm we walk across the mahogany-floored porch with the sky-blue ceiling and into the house. The sound of Swift voices and laughter fill the rooms. Up ahead, through the foyer and into the great room I see the familiar gathering.
“There he is!” says my smiling father, pouring his Jack Daniels. Scarlett, his beautiful, homely overweight cat lies at his feet. She gives me a look that says she’s weighing the idea of getting up to greet me, but it’s just too much effort. Like her namesake, she’s most comfortable having people come to her.
“Hey, y’all,” I say.
As Grandma goes one way and I head for the bowl of pecans, there’s a chorus of greetings from my mother and father, sister and brother. The Colonel lets me know he’s approved of my presence.
The last voice to weigh in is my grandfather, looking dapper in his bright-blue bow tie.
“How’s the injury? Are you healing properly, Atticus?”
I go to where he sits in his club chair and bend down for a kiss on the cheek. “It’s comin’ along. One of the kids at the signing today ran into it so it’s not feeling great right now.”
Brick turns his barstool to face me. “And that’s why you should have sat at the table. Wait! Where did I hear that? Who suggested that three times?”
I laugh at my brother’s questions. “Yeah, yeah, you told me so.”
“Can we talk about anything but baseball for once?” Bristol pleads.
No one takes offense at her comment. My poor sister is the lone wolf of the family. For her entire thirty-two years the sport has been the focus of the family. First my father, then Brick and I. She’s sick to death of the subject and pleads with us regularly to pick another topic of discussion. It hasn’t helped that my mother may be the greatest fan here.
“We can talk about football. Did you hear who the Falcons are letting go?” my grandfather says.
“I’ve got a better one!” Brick says chuckling.
“Good! What is it, darlin’?” my mother says.
“Atticus got shot down today by a woman.”
The faces reflect the surprise my family feels. They’re waiting for a fucking punchline.
“Believe me, I’m as shocked as you,” I say laughing at myself.
“Maybe she didn’t get a proper look,” my father says without a trace of humor.
Brick stands and comes to my side, patting my good shoulder. “No, that’s not it. She just wasn’t interested.”
“Impossible,” my mother says.
“How do you know?” I ask Brick. “Did she say that?”
“Didn’t have to. She wasn’t wearing that stupid look women get around you. And she didn’t ask any questions. Like, does your brother have a girlfriend?” He uses both index fingers and sound effects to pretend he’s shooting me dead. “Pow! Pow!”
“Or, what kind of dessert does your brother like? I’m a great cook!” Bristol says shivering with disgust.
“Or, your son is so nice, Mrs. Swift. You did a great job of raising him,” my mother says, imitating a bimbo’s sickening sweet voice, attempting to kiss her ass.
Watching my father laugh at his wife’s sense of humor is educational, a master course in romance. I think he’s one of the most content people I know. He’s still under the same spell he was when they were young. Forty-two years hasn’t seemed to dull what they have for each other.
I want that. None of the cleat chasers have made me feel anything close.
“Did I tell you you look like a sweet peach in that dress, Lucinda?”
She loves his attention. “Boone, you’re gonna spoil me.”
He takes her in his arms for a spin around the kitchen, dancing to music only they can hear. Then she twirls away and gets back to her dinner preparation.
“Anyway Atticus, you need to whittle down the contestants. Pick some women who challenge you instead of kissing your ass and laughing at your jokes,” Bristol says.
“Maybe,” I say pouring myself a drink. “But I like women who kiss my ass,” I chuckle. “And it’s not just me. What about Brick? The ladies like him just as much.”
“Your brother keeps a much lower profile. He doesn’t advertise like you do,” my father says.
“Advertise?” I pretend shock.
“Don’t deny it, Atticus. You strut your stuff like a peacock,” says Brick. “Not that I’m complaining. You’ve raised the team’s profile and doubled our followers on Instagram because of this.” He grabs my cheeks and squeezes them between his thumb and index finger. “And it all contributes to endorsements. But it didn’t work this time, brother. Sorry.”
“Besides that, she’s not into baseball,” I say.
Bristol lifts her arms in the air and starts to dance around the kitchen. “Hallelujah! Marry the girl!! I’m serious. I want you to marry her,” she says reaching up and messing my hair. Then she laughs and moves back, out of my reach.
“You’re gonna be sorry you did that, Sister. Payback’s a bitch you know.”
“You will be when I walk into your waiting room and get the kids all wound up.”
Her face falls. “Bastard!”
My mother picks up her glass dinner bell and rings it.
“Let’s finish this discussion over supper. Everyone into the dining room.”
When the bell sounds the Swifts obey.
As we start moving out of the kitchen, I take ahold of Brick’s arm. “Hey, did you tell Charlotte about the picnic?”
“Yeah. But she wasn’t sure they’d be coming.”
“Well, did you tell her about all the games for the kids?”
He looks at my face and gets serious. “You’re actually interested in her? A single mother? Is it just a challenge? Because if it is, stop now. She’s really a good person, Atticus, and from the little I know she’s had a rough life.”
“Give me her number. I want to call her.”
“Did you hear anything I just said?”
He just looks at me, weighing my words.
“Come on. I’ll be good. I just want to get to know her. And the kid too.”
“Hmmm,” he says eyes narrowing.
* * *
I assume my favorite position for a private phone conversation. Stretched out on my bed, in my boxer briefs, ceiling fan slowly turning. I’ve got the pillows propped up behind me just right to support me. On the bedside table is my water, three pieces of Brick’s fudge and the cell. Behind those items stands my lube. It’s staring, challenging me to squeeze one off before I make the call. Thank God I didn’t break the right clavicle. No, it’s already eight thirty. She might be an early-to-bed girl. Ummm. Bed. Girl. Stop! Make the fucking call.
One ring. Two. Three. What the hell? Four. And then it goes to voice mail.
Surprisingly there’s no friendly greeting or sexy voice asking me to leave my message and number. It’s the automated recording that came with the phone. At the sound of the tone, leave your message. Beep.
“Charlotte. It’s Atticus Swift. We met today at the clubhouse. I’d like to talk with you about the picnic tomorrow. It would be great to see you and Mallory there. Umm, so if you get home before midnight, give me a call. I’m a night owl. Okay. Hope you call. Bye.”
That sounded goofy. What the hell is happening here? Grandma Birdie would say I’m taken with the girl. Usually I’m a damn smooth talker. That approach doesn’t seem right for her. She’s smarter than that and my usual spiel suddenly sounded immature.
Out of my peripheral vision the lube stands waiting, calling my name. Might as well spend my time productively. I lose the briefs and grab the tube. Squeezing a generous blob in my right hand, I lie back and get to the job at hand. Literally.
My eyes close. I’ll start with my regulars, that blonde Victoria’s Secret model. No. Kerry from high school. Never got in her panties, but what I imagine her body to look like passes through. No. Tanya. No. Charlotte. Her face pops into my mind and holds. That mouth. Oh yeah. It parts just a bit and I watch as her tongue runs around her lips. Inviting me to have a taste. My strokes are slow. Slick and unhurried. But my dick’s already hard with the thought of her.
Now she’s standing in front of the bed, in the outfit she wore today. Her hands move to the bottom of the jersey and cross at the hem. She lifts it slowly over her head. No bra. Wait. Lacy red bra barely covering her nipples. No. Lacy white bra against ivory skin. Yeah. Faster now. I take her straps down and the bra falls. No, disappears. Nipples, mounds of soft flesh. Pink aureoles. Oh fuck. I’m sucking them and she’s moaning. My hand reaches for her pussy. She’s naked and shaved smooth. Faster and faster my hand flies on my dick. Oh God. I part her and reach inside. She’s so wet. I’m fucking her on the bed. Hard. Harder. She meets my thrusts.
Ring! My cell sounds and interrupts my awesome fantasy. Shit!!! Fuck!! I can’t stop myself; I’m past the point of no return. But I need to get the call. I start to come but control my voice and breathing as I answer.
“Hello?” I say jaw tensed, sounding as if there’s a knife to my throat.
My legs stretch and my toes curl. Cum squirts out the head of my dick and onto my new bedding. It’s a small load, cut short by the interruption. I’m shaking with the effort to control myself.
“Atticus? You okay?”
I thought I was selling it. “Hi, Charlotte. Oh yeah, I’m fine. Just doing a little weight work.” That’s not a complete lie, my dick’s no small thing.
“With your arm in a sling?”
“It’s a one-armed exercise,” I say. Well that’s true too.
“Oh. Your brother told us about the charity picnic. Thank you for the invite. Sounds nice. But I’m not sure Mallory would be comfortable in that setting.”
“Why not? There’s going to be lots of kids there.” My heartbeat tries to regain its normal beat.
“That’s the problem.”
“She seemed to have fun today,” I say grabbing some tissue and cleaning myself.
“After you left, we had a small problem. One of the boys made fun of her and we left with her crying. It happens. But it’s the kind of behavior that’s affected her deeply. You understand, I’m sure. But thank you for thinking of us. Maybe another time.”
“Let me talk to her.”
“What? No. I don’t think that’s a good idea. She’d be embarrassed I told you.”
“I’m not going to tell her you told me. Let me talk to her. Go get her.”
There’s a hesitation and then, “Alright, but be careful what you say. She’s very sensitive.”
“Don’t worry, Charlotte. I will.”
I hear her walking across a wooden floor and then knocking on a door. “Mallory, someone wants to talk with you.”
After a few seconds the door squeaks open and I hear the cell being passed from mother to daughter. “Hello?”
“Hi, Mallory! It’s Atticus. How you doin’?”
There’s some shuffling or movement happening between them. Charlotte is whispering something to Mallory, but I can’t make it out. So I just start talking.
“Hey, are you coming to the picnic tomorrow? You’ll be my guests, you know? It’s gonna be a blast. We’ll sit together and eat together and there’s games and a drone show and all kinds of fun things. All the players are gonna be there. You’re gonna get sick of me because we’ll spend the whole day together. Sound good?”
I take a breath and cross my fingers. Silence. I jump back in.
“Most of the kids might be shy because they’ve lost a mother or father, but I know they want to have fun and meet some new kids.”
Still silence. I’ve got one more card up my sleeve.
“It’ll be great for your mom too. I know how hard she works. I bet she needs a day to play. What do you think?”
“Yeah. I guess.”
I think that’s the best I’m gonna get. “Okay then! It’s a date. You, me, and your mom. Let me talk to her so we can decide what time we’ll take off.”
There’s no goodbye, but I get it. Poor kid. If I see anyone messing with her, they’ll regret it. I’m not afraid to make a bully cry. I hear Mallory’s door shut.
“Hi,” Charlotte says.
“So, we’re going to a picnic,” I say lightly. “What time do you want me to pick you up? Is twelve good?”
“How did you do that? She agreed to go?”
The surprise in her voice tells me they don’t get out much.
“Yes. And thank you. You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is getting her to have some fun, be a teenager. This will be good for her. Thank you again.”
“How about you?” I say bringing the conversation back to her.
“Do you need some fun too?” I hope.
“Maybe. I guess we both need a day to relax.”
That wasn’t what I meant. But I’ll take what I can get.