“I’m not trying to grow up. I’m trying to go down to the baseline and help the guys prep the field.” I tried to smile, but my fear—that he’d try to take this away—stopped me.
“He slept with a player’s wife. Don’t think he’ll behave around you.” Our dance of avoidance stopped, the issue front and center.
“You’re giving my beauty way too much credit. I came from your ugly stock, remember?” I reached down and hefted my heavy backpack onto my shoulder, because he would let me go, he had to. So help me, if he didn’t, I’d turn into every other hellacious teenager that slunk through this stadium.
“Tyler.” Just one word from him, but it said so much.
We stared at each other for an eternity, one long stretch of silent communication where I begged, and he countered, where I screamed and stomped my feet, and he hugged me. It all passed through our eyes, his stance unchanging, and I knew I had won when he finally moved, pushing off the fence and dropping his hand.
“I love you.” I reached out a fist. “Spikes first?”
He reluctantly met my fist in the air. “Spikes first.”
Ty Cobb once spoke about sliding into base. Something about how his foot was coming up fast, his spikes out, and if the baseman happened to get in the way, oh well. Shit happened. Dad first told me that story when he was teaching me how to slide. I was eight, and still stubbornly clinging to the concept of dolls and dresses, and the thought of intentionally getting dirty was terrifying. It had been early February and hot, my cleats stained red by the dirt of an Orlando practice field. We had battled on that field, he and I. I hadn’t wanted to learn to slide, the entire lesson stupid, one I would never use, and he had insisted on it, one of the rare moments in those early years when he had put his foot down. The Ty Cobb story had made me smile, mostly because Dad’s retelling of the story included the word ‘shit,’ a forbidden curse that gave me a shot of glee.
On that day, on that field, I had gotten dirty. Even though I wouldn’t admit it, I enjoyed it. Afterward, we’d gone to a sports store, and Dad had bought me some sliding shorts, a few T-shirts, some pants. That day had been the first crack in my little girl veneer. And from then on, spikes first had been our code. Our mantra in life, the thought that you dove full force into confrontation, damn the repercussions to others, should they be too dumb to move out of the way. Sometimes you made it there safely. Sometimes you didn’t, the enormous effort a waste. But if you had the opening, you had to try.
I said spikes first in that bullpen to remind him of that. To remind him of the girl he’d raised. She wasn’t the type to go home when there was a game to be played. Chase Stern be damned. Naked bodies be forgotten. I was here for one reason, and it wasn’t lust.
Pregame, batting practice. I didn’t know what idiot created the standard baseball uniform, but they were terrible. Almost canvas in their thickness. Stiff with starch. Scratchy. Hot, even in our mild summers. I leaned forward, resting one hand on a knee, and wished, for the thousandth time in my life, for a pair of loose cotton shorts. The batter swung, and I jerked left, sprinting for his ball, my glove reaching out and falling a few inches short. I bent, scooping up the ball as I ran, and threw it in.
“Distracted?” Lucas, one of our outfielders, asked with a wink.
“You think you could have got that?” I shot back with a smile.
He scoffed, clapping a fist into his glove. “All day long, baby.”
I stabbed the grass with my cleat and let out a controlled breath, my fingers flexing in the sweaty confines of my glove, a new form walking slowly up our dugout steps, the sun glowing off his white uniform, his arms flexing as he worked a hand into a batting glove.
I had decided, that morning, that I would hate him. Based it on the cockiness in his tone when he’d spoken to me. The way he didn’t bother to cover himself when standing before me. The laughter that had been in his eyes.
Hating him would make everything easier. Cleaner.
But I couldn’t. I stood there, lost in far left field, and watched him reach for a bat. Watched him run his hands along its length. I watched him step up to the bag and push the batting helmet hard onto his perfect head.
And before he even tightened his grip, before that first swing that cracked open our future and sent the ball high over my head…
I was already done for.
The girl in left field had an arm on her. Chase watched her launch a ball from the fence, barely an arc on the delivery to second base, her jog back into place casual, as if the throw had been nothing. He turned to the hitter next to him, nodding a head to the girl. “Not a bad cannon for a girl.”
“Who, Ty?” The guy let out a hard laugh. “That’s Rollins’s kid. She should. He’s had a ball in her hand since she was old enough to pull on her own uniform.”
“He’s my dad.”
The girl from the locker room.
He stared at her figure in the field, and tried to connect her to the girl he had met yesterday. In the locker room, she’d looked meek and skittish. Out on the field, she was confident, a grin stretched over her face, her shout at another player done with ease, as if she was an equal.
“Rollins only have one daughter?” He tried to mold the two images.
“Yep.” The guy reached for a bat and looked over, his eyes hardening. “She’s seventeen. Just in case you had any stupid ideas.”
Chase held up his hands in innocence. “Just complimenting her arm.”
“Right.” The man held his eyes for a long moment before strolling toward home plate, his bat gripped with both hands, one last glare given before he stepped up to bat.
Chase took off his hat and wiped at his forehead. Letting out a controlled breath, he turned his back to the field, no need to see anything more.
So she was a ball girl. For the team. A seventeen-year-old ball girl. Heaven help him if she traveled with them, too.
4:48 AM. I counted out eight pairs of underwear. Two bras. Two pairs of jeans. Ten shirts. I stacked everything in the suitcase, grabbing an extra pair of Nikes and my toiletries bag. We spent nine months a year on the road. Packing had lost all creativity.
I could have grabbed my cute tops. Some footwear that was sexier than Nikes. My makeup. I thought about it, my hand drifting across the hangers, hesitating, but I didn’t. There was no point in courting trouble. And with makeup, when I made an effort—I could be called pretty. I didn’t want to be pretty to Chase Stern. I wanted to be invisible. He was God’s gift to our team, not to me.