Alice Darling was thinking about balls.
More specifically, she was thinking about the semitrailers full of equipment that would be rolling into Lakeland the next morning. Alice looked forward to the arrival of the big trucks every year with the same jubilance as a child waiting for the circus to pull into town.
The trucks meant baseball was back.
Hundreds of bats, thousands of balls, and with them the hope of a new season.
Lakeland was the spring training home to the San Francisco Felons, and late February saw the return of the team, invigorating the whole community for several weeks.
For Alice, the excitement wasn’t merely about baseball—though she loved the game—but rather it was the part she got to play. As a Grapefruit League umpire, she’d have a steady job for the next month and a half and into the ongoing minor league season that followed.
A job more exciting than waitressing and being a periodic Little League ump, anyway.
Spring training meant she’d spend her time circulating through other small Florida towns that were home to big-name baseball teams, and call games throughout Grapefruit League’s short season.
She lived for those six weeks and waited the whole year for them to come around again. It was the only time she got to zone out of her life and focus on something entirely different for a few hours at a time. She was used significantly more during spring training than as an umpire in the minors, since she wasn’t able to travel.
After pulling out of the Carmello’s Diner parking lot, she took the long way home, passing the stadium. The lot was nearly empty, save for a rusty Passat, but the field outside was freshly groomed, with new white chalk lines in place. They’d need to be redone ahead of the first training sessions, but the chalk was a more certain sign of spring to Alice than birds or black flies.
She parked and got out, leaning against the chain-link fence to take a long look at the pristine field. Soon enough it would be flooded with orange-and-white uniforms, while the Felons players ran their paces and tried to win a spot on the team’s forty-man active roster.
Chewing her thumbnail, she paused mid-bite to brush an errant strand of hair from her field of vision and breathed in the smell of fresh-cut grass.
Beyond the ballpark, a wall of dark clouds was rolling in, bringing with it the crisp, ozone-rich smell of a storm. Alice’s phone began to jangle from her jacket pocket, and she pulled it out, pausing to check the caller ID screen.
“Hi, baby.” Her voice slipped immediately into a calm, soothing timbre.
“Mom, can we have pizza for dinner?” Her daughter Olivia was sounding especially whiny, a tone she adopted when she wanted something.
Alice looked at her watch. It was a quarter to eight and well past a reasonable time for her nine-year-old to be expecting food.
“Livvy, Uncle Kevin was supposed to feed you two hours ago. Did you already eat?”
“Are you lying?”
“Put your uncle on the phone, please.” A long pause followed, during which Alice was certain her daughter was making faces. A moment later the phone was passed over.
“Kevin, did you feed Olivia?”
“Huh? No. It’s only like seven thirty.”
“She’s nine. We’ve talked about this before. You need to get her dinner by six. What about the chicken fingers I left in the fridge?”
A guilty beat passed. “I ate those.”
“Kevin.” Her brother meant well, but the care and handling of a child was sometimes beyond him, since he was basically an overgrown child himself at the best of times.
“She wants pizza, I’ll just order her pizza.” The sound of rustling paper drowned him out for a minute, then a muffled, “Liv, where’s the phone book?” After another lapse of silence, Kevin added, “You’ll be home soon, right?”
Alice didn’t need to dig too deep to unearth the subtext of his question. “There’s twenty dollars in the jar on top of the fridge. Liv will only eat cheese, so don’t order something loaded with meat.”
Kevin grunted. “Maybe I’ll get two. What do you want?”
She had to admit it was nice she hadn’t needed to remind him she would like to eat the pizza she was paying for. “Bacon, please. Anything with bacon.”
“I can probably sort something out. You okay with mushrooms?”
“As long as they’re only on your half of the pizza.”
“Okay. Where are you? Didn’t you get off work like twenty minutes ago?”
Alice gave the field a guilty look. “I stopped off at Joker Marchant. Wanted to see the stadium before things went bonkers.”
Kevin’s response was cut off by Olivia’s barely audible complaints. “You on your way now? The beast is getting restless.”
“The beast wouldn’t be half so restless if you had fed her two hours ago,” Alice reminded him. “Let her watch My Little Pony until I get home, and she’ll be fine.”
Any protestations Kevin made were halfhearted at best because she knew he secretly liked the cartoon.
“Yeah, I’ll be home in fifteen. Give Liv a handful of goldfish crackers if her tone gets any more woe-is-me than it already is. Don’t let her talk you into those cinnamon sticks from the pizza place either.”
“Her talk me into them. Yes. That’s what happened last time.”
Alice grinned at the phone. Whenever she questioned why she’d let Kevin move in with her, a moment would come around to remind her. She adored her brother, and he was the most important person in her life aside from Olivia, and even though he pushed her to the very boundaries of her patience, she loved him fiercely.
She got back into her car, giving the ballpark one last glance. In the next week it would be crawling with all manner of players and staff, and once the spring training games started, she’d be tossed into the mix. This was the calm before the storm.
After backing out of the lot, she turned onto the main thoroughfare and was soon driving down the barren stretch of highway that took her from Lakeland proper to her neighborhood.
Since the highway was typically empty this time of night, a set of blinking rear lights stuck out like a sore thumb in the dark. The part of her dedicated to self-preservation told her keep going, but the good Samaritan within reminded her it was a long shot anyone else was going to pass by and offer help.
Locking all her doors, she slowed down and stopped alongside the car. Better able to see it now, she let out an appreciative whistle at the pristine new Porsche Panamera. Its matte-black exterior made it blend in with the growing darkness, but Alice had to admire the audaciousness of the car.
She rolled her window down halfway and leaned across the seat. The car’s owner got out, and Alice struggled to place his face. He was unconventionally handsome, with a dark growth of stubble along his jaw and equally dark—borderline curly—hair in desperate need of a trim. He was familiar the way an old acquaintance at a party might be. She knew she ought to have a name to go along with the face, but she was drawing a blank.
“Car trouble?” she asked.
He braced an arm on the roof of her car and peered in the partially opened window. “Yeah. Flat tire. Guess Porsche didn’t design these things to survive driving over fallen tree branches.”
His round-cheeked smile faltered, and he lowered his gaze, looking downright sheepish. “If I admit I don’t know how to change a tire, are you going to think less of me as a man?”
Alice laughed. “If I told you I’m not shocked a Porsche owner can’t do his own car maintenance, will you think I’m being prejudiced?”
“I can’t be offended if it’s true.” He put his hand through the window. “I’m Alex.”
Alex. Alex. When Alice shook his hand, she scrutinized him more thoroughly. “Oh Christ. Of course. You’re Alex Ross.”
Alex didn’t seem surprised she recognized him. He probably got it a lot around town this time of year. Alex Ross was the star catcher for the San Francisco Felons. “That’s me.”
“We’ve met. I’m Alice Darling, Emmy Kasper’s friend. She introduced us at The Low Ball last year.”
He tilted his head, and she obliged him by lowering the window and activating her interior light so he could see her better. The new recognition on his face was genuine, and she was glad he seemed to remember her. “Wow. Hey, Alice. Small world.”
“No kidding. You need some help with that tire?”
“Yeah, if you don’t mind?”
“Changing a flat for a four-time All-Star? I don’t mind, as long as you let me tell all my friends.”
He laughed and stepped back from the car so Alice could pull forward and park ahead of him. When she got out, she was able to get a better look at him. Last time she’d seen Alex he’d been stocky—borderline paunchy, even—but the off-season had been good to him. He still wasn’t as tall as the average baseball player, only five-eleven or so, while most towered close to six and a half feet. But a taller man would have seemed ridiculously oversized in a Porsche.
His dark hair had been mussed by the evening wind, giving him a wild, youthful appearance, and when he smiled, his brown eyes lit up, and Alice was nearly dazzled by the whiteness of his teeth. He ought to give his dentist a nice, fat bonus check.
While his body wasn’t as lean as most of his teammates, the pudge of the previous season had been replaced with more muscle, and she found herself staring at his bulky bare forearms, marveling at the implied strength they advertised.
This was a man who caught hundred-mile-an-hour fastballs for a living and knocked home runs out of the park. Of course he had strong arms.
Strong arms that couldn’t change a flat, she reminded herself, to keep from getting too distracted.
Ballplayers were off-limits. That was her one steadfast rule, and she’d had it before she even started working games. There wasn’t a written rule against it because so few women worked in the league, but when she’d started, she’d been told in no uncertain terms she wasn’t allowed to mingle with the players. If she was going to be taken seriously as an umpire, she couldn’t have a reputation for bedding any guy with a nice swing, no matter how impressive his smile was.
The only time she’d broken her rule had been ten years in her past, before she was an umpire, and it would be the last time. That mistake had gone on to be a New York Mets MVP and had gotten his picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
She’d gotten a daughter.
And while the child-support checks were welcome—even if she’d had to fight tooth and nail for them through his team of lawyers—she would have preferred Olivia to be raised with a reliable father figure in her life.
Alex might be looking pretty good to her in the dim glow of his car’s headlights, but she immediately crushed any notion of anything happening between them. If he hadn’t been a ballplayer…if he’d just been some random guy who needed her help, she might have slipped him her number after.
As she passed by him to inspect the flat tire, she glanced backwards, getting an uninterrupted view of his ass. Her face flamed in a hot blush.
Oh yes, the off-season had definitely been good to Alex Ross.