“I’ve got news.” Jamie Lawson eased the new Audi TL—the car his wife had insisted on buying when she’d gotten the offer from Strauss & Levine—onto the county road. Truth be told, he’d rather be driving their beat-up Subaru Outback on a night like this.
A light mist was falling, turning to ice at the corners of the windshield. He wondered briefly if it would turn to snow; February weather was nothing if not unpredictable in Minnesota.
“I got an offer!” He’d meant to deliver the news in a mature way, not blurt it out like the twelve-year-old kid he felt like right now. But the dinner with Lauren’s lawyer friends had dragged on forever. “From the Kansas City seed teams! The gateway to the pros, Babe!”
He grabbed his wife’s hand across the car console. “I talked to Brady—you remember him from college, right?” he continued. “He went there out of school and he’s moving up. He said he’d hook us up with a place to live and introduce us to the city. Can you believe it?”
It had taken three years and buckets of sweat, but he’d done it.
She pulled her hand away from his. “I can’t move to Kansas City,” she said.
Jamie’s breath caught in his lungs. “What do you mean?”
“You didn’t even ask me.” She frowned. “You just assume I want to pick up and leave.”
“But you knew.” Jamie used one hand to tug at the tie she’d wanted him to wear to dinner. “You knew going pro ball player was my goal. My dream. You knew it when we met, and you certainly knew it when we married.” He sounded accusatory, but he couldn’t seem to curb it. “You knew it would mean moving.”
“What about everything I’ve worked for?” she said. “What about my career? I could make junior partner in as little as two years. I can’t just pick up and leave. And for what? One year?”
She doesn’t think I’ll last more than one season.
Jamie’s knuckles turned white on the steering wheel. “What do you think I’ve been doing for the past three years, going to every tryout I could get?”
“I surely don’t know.” The distain in her tone was something he’d heard more and more often lately.
Jamie felt the slight skid of the car’s wheels on the slick pavement. He ignored it; slippery roads were part and parcel of driving in Minnesota.
“You don’t know,” he repeated flatly. When had their hopes and dreams become so divergent? “Who are you?”
What happened to the girl who used to hide under the covers with me and talk until the wee hours of the morning?
“Apparently I’m the adult in the relationship,” she said. “Everybody has to grow up sometime, Jamie. Be responsible. Get a job.”
Oh, so now she was saying his freelance work as a sports medicine consultant wasn’t a real job—even though it had helped put her through the last year of law school.
He shook off the hurt. Anger was easier. “So I can spend my life like you, kissing ass to get another rung on the corporate ladder?” he said. “No thanks, babe. That’s never been me, and you know it.”
And you used to love me the way I am.
“I’m not going,” she said flatly. “If you want to go, you go.”
And live apart for more than half of every year? What kind of marriage was that? They were supposed to be partners.
It wasn’t the prospect of a long-distance relationship that turned him cold. It was the suspicion—and yes, fear—that their marriage was already strained and wouldn’t survive a separation like that.
The back wheels skidded again.
Damn front-wheel drive.
This section of the road was curvy and heavily lined with trees. He noticed the ice had crept up the windshield.
“Slow down,” Lauren said.
He didn’t answer, although he did let off the gas a bit.
I can drive a car without instruction, thank you!
The thought was barely formed when the car took a violent lurch toward the outside of the curve.
He took his foot off the gas and jerked the steering wheel toward the center of the road.
The car whipped ninety degrees, perpendicular to the road.
He tapped the brakes.
That made it worse.
Trees came at them as the car continued a slow rotation.
The car’s wheels slammed into the high grasses on the shoulder.
He laid on the brakes, hoping for better traction on the grass.
“Jamie!” His mind registered the fear in Lauren’s voice. Registered the hand that gripped his bicep as he struggled with the steering wheel.
And then they were tumbling, like stones in a polisher. Right. Upside-down. Left.
Something struck his head.
An incredible, soul-shattering jolt shook the entire vehicle.
Red-hot pain radiated up his leg, his thigh, his neck.
His world went black.
SIX YEARS LATER
“Hey ump! What’s the score?”
Jamie turned to see a skinny boy with carrot-top hair, probably eleven or twelve. Since the players were changing sides, he pulled the scorecard from his pocket and gave the kid the score.
He couldn’t help looking at the woman who sat just behind the boy. He’d noticed her earlier—yellow sundress and shoulder-length brown hair that wouldn’t stay in the clip on her head—but now he could swear she was checking him out.
It was hard to tell with the sunglasses she wore.
He turned his attention back to the game. He’d done this umpire thing a long time and it was almost automatic to him; besides, this was just a small-town tournament (not that it didn’t get heated now and then).
The next batter up took his warm-up swings.
Jamie snuck another peek at the woman in the yellow dress, trying to figure out who she was with. Husband? Boyfriend? Maybe she was dating one of the players?
Concentrate, he told himself. You get paid to make the calls, not gawk at the fans.
He was doing a better job of ignoring the woman when a dog started barking. It was close—right next to the fence. Jamie heard its owner talking, trying to get the dog to quiet. But still the dog reacted to every crack of the bat or smack of the ball into the catcher’s hand.
Jamie was good at shutting out distractions, but the yellow-dress woman had thrown him off. He glanced at the dog, and found it was next to her. An older man on the other side of yellow-dress-woman was wrestling with the dog, and she was saying something that sounded like Quit heckling the umpire!
She looked up and met his eyes. Her sunglasses were perched on her head, and her eyes were wide and muddy-water green. “Sorry!” she called.
He pointed good-naturedly at the dog. “Tell him I make the calls around here.”
Some of the spectators chuckled.
“I’ll see if I can reason with him.” She had a smile that made him want to smile back. So he did.
Kira Walker studied the umpire as he took his place behind the batter. He had a nice smile and his eyes were a startling tawny gold/brown color with attractive crinkles on the outer corners. He easily stood six-three or -four. The red polo shirt stretched across his shoulders, and she could swear she’d glimpsed a tattoo high on his left arm. With his uniform-gray pants and that funny ball-pouch on his right hip, he looked… solid.
She liked solid in a man.
His hands were big, but oddly graceful. If the ball was short, he pointed down, then held his finger up. If it was long, he tapped his right hand against his left chest as if touching his heart. The strikes were the best, though. He bent at the knee and jabbed his finger to his right, his voice booming “heeer-ike” as if he especially relished that part of his job.
He was clean-shaven with a faint five-o’clock shadow that matched his dark hair. He wore a ball cap but no sunglasses—the better to see the pitches with, no doubt.
Many in the crowd obviously knew him, and now and then he would respond to someone’s good-natured heckling. She was impressed that he’d given the red-headed kid a respectful answer.
What would it be like to have those eyes looking at her like she was a buffet and he was starving… to have those big hands roam her body…
Whoa! Am I actually thinking about a roll in the hay?!
Well, why not? Since the divorce two years ago, she’d been overly careful when it came to the opposite sex. And she liked how she felt when he looked at her. She wasn’t old and she wasn’t dead. Didn’t she deserve to have a bit of fun?
“That umpire.” Kira leaned toward her sister and spoke under her breath. “I sure am enjoying watching him. Almost more than the game.”
Libby glanced at Kira; it took her a moment to catch her drift. “Seriously?”
Libby looked closer at the umpire. “That’s the chiropractor from Kennison,” she said. “Jamie something.”
Jamie. Kira turned the name over in her mind, thinking that it was somehow appropriate for the man.
“I think he’s single,” Libby said, waggling her eyebrows.
“I’m feeling brave,” Kira said. “Maybe I’d talk to him if I knew he was single.”
Libby looked thoughtful. “I know exactly who to ask to find out. I’ll be right back.”
Her sister was gone. Chewing on a nail, Kira tried to concentrate on the game.
The game. Not the umpire.
Her eyes kept returning to Jamie.
“Jamie Lawson is most definitely single,” Libby confirmed as she thumped down on the bleachers beside Kira. “And uninvolved at the moment. In other words, fair game.”
Now that he was attainable (in theory), Kira was filled with doubt; so far, the umpire had been surrounded by people every minute. How would she find a way to get him alone? “I don’t know, Libby…”
“You’re only here for the summer,” Libby said.
“In other words, if I embarrass myself, I don’t have to see him again.” Kira chuckled.
Libby didn’t laugh; instead, she looked thoughtful. “They also said he’s really nice.”
Kira didn’t dare ask who they were, but her inner diva’s voice whispered: oh he’s nice all right.
“I double-dare you,” Libby said.
“Oh no!” Kira said. “That hasn’t worked since we were teenagers.”
“Come on, Kira,” Libby said. “It’s been a long time. What’s the harm in asking?”
Kira knew her sister well enough to know that she wouldn’t let it rest until Kira made some sort of move on that poor man.
And she needed to shake things up. Shake herself up. Spending the summer in small-town Minnesota had sounded like a good way to re-focus her life, but in truth, it had left her restless. Maybe a diversion with Sexy Umpire Man was just what she needed…
When the game ended, Jamie went to the field house to report the standings and grab a hot dog and water. He had three more games to ump before he would call it a day, and though it wasn’t much of a lunch, it would get him through.
He felt a thump on his back and turned to find his buddy Ian McCleary grinning at him. He was dressed in his police uniform.
“Aren’t you playing today?” Jamie said. Just about every backyard ballplayer within a 90-mile radius was playing. The Nash area annual Fourth of July tournament was tradition, after all.
“I am.” Ian reached around Jamie to grab one of the hot dogs. “Outfield with the Vulcans.”
It was the next game Jamie was to ump. “I’ll show you no mercy out there,” he said.
“Don’t I know it.” Ian grinned, then grabbed a beer out of the bin and dropped a few dollar bills in the jar next to it.
Jamie raised his brow.
“No worries,” Ian said. “I’ll be out of this uniform before this beer is cracked.” He saluted Jamie, then headed for the bathroom at the back of the field house. No doubt the volunteer ladies would let him use it, since they all thought he was ‘such a nice young copper.’ Jamie chuckled. The perks of being the long arm of the law in a small town…
When he got back on the field, Jamie looked for the yellow-dress woman, but her spot on the bench was empty.
He was oddly disappointed.
It was the bottom of the second inning when he noticed she was back with a beer bottle in one hand and the same older man beside her. She had tucked her sunglasses in her hair so he could tell exactly where she was looking. And she was definitely looking at him. Rather intently.
He began to enjoy it. Just a little. He knew everyone within a 50-mile radius of Nash, Minnesota, and everyone knew his story. This woman he’d never met made him feel… younger. Attractive.
He hadn’t played this game in so long it felt foreign. She was pretty and a nice distraction in a life that had become a little… routine.
She was joined by a girl, probably around six or seven. She was obviously familiar with this girl, as the girl tucked herself into the woman’s lap.
The next time he looked she was speaking to a boy of maybe nine or ten. She ruffled the boy’s hair, laughing at something he said. He liked that smile way too much.
But… was this her family? Was she married? He’d seen no ring on her finger, no man other than the older one who looked like he could be her father. In a small town like this one, if you wanted to keep your reputation, you had to be careful about that sort of thing.
Not that he was thinking about… anything.
He turned his attention back to the game.
Okay. Kira was going to do it.
She was going to talk to Sexy Umpire Man.
With or without an introduction.
Because it looked like he was getting ready to leave, and she was going to miss her chance.
She intercepted him as he left the field house.
“Hey,” she said. “Do you have a minute?”
Up close his tawny-brown eyes were even more startling, and she faltered in her resolve. He held out his hand. “Jamie Lawson.”
“Oh, sorry.” She put her hand in his, marveling at the way it wrapped around hers. “Kira. Kira Walker.”
“You here with your, um, family?”
“Oh. No. I mean… I live in the Twin Cities. I’m just here for the summer. I’m staying with my sister. That’s them there—the kids and her father-in-law. The Johnsons.” She pointed across the lawn.
“Oh. Sure,” he said, and she could swear she saw relief in his eyes.
There was a pause. “You like softball?” he said.
She shrugged. “I think I enjoyed watching you more than the game.”
Oh my God, did I really just say that?!
She watched as his eyes dilated. With surprise? Something more? “Ah…”
Damn, she’d managed to embarrass them both. “I mean, the way you do your job.”
An awkward silence fell. She decided to plow on. “Actually, I thought you were, um, noticing me too. Maybe I was wrong.”
“No,” he said quietly. “You weren’t wrong.”
His eyes had taken on something different, something she couldn’t define, and her throat was suddenly parched.
She was going to chicken out. How did men do this?
No. I can do this.
She blurted out, “Maybe you would like to have dinner? With me? Sometime this week?”
Now the look on his face was entirely recognizable: she’d caught him completely off guard.
Almost immediately that look was replaced by… amusement.
Damn, he was going to have a laugh at her expense.
Well, what do I care? I don’t have to see him again…
And then he smiled. “I would like that.”
“You would?” She hadn’t meant it to come out so breathy, so… surprised.
His smile deepened, showing a dimple on one side that was just plain adorable. “Do you mind if I get your number and call you to set up a time? I coach a kids’ ball team and need to check the game schedule.”
He coaches a kids’ team too?
He pulled a phone from his back pocket, punched a few buttons, and held it out to her. “If you input your number, that is.”
Still surprised by his quick agreement, she almost fumbled his phone.
“I’m late for a family dinner,” he said, the dimples still there. “It was nice to meet you…” He looked at his phone screen. “Kira Walker.”