Center Stage

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Actress Lindsey Ormond has always followed the rules – be nice, keep quiet, and never, ever get involved with a bad boy.  But her good behavior has yielded lousy results – she was just left at the altar for the second time in two years.

Raleigh Rockets center fielder Ryan Green keeps life simple – play ball, have fun, and keep an eye on his recently widowed father.  When Ryan attends Lindsey’s disaster of a wedding, another sizzling task hits his to-do list – help Lindsey learn how to break the rules.

Before long, Ryan is showing Lindsey just how much fun she’s been missing – in the bedroom and beyond. But Lindsey’s brother Zach (part of the Rockets’ management team) disapproves of their new relationship.  And Zach just offered Ryan’s father the job of a lifetime.

When the conflict moves center stage, will Ryan choose Lindsey?  Or will his obligations to the Rockets and his father send Lindsey back to her stifled life alone?

Center Stage, the eighth volume in the Diamond Brides Series, is available as an ebook and in print. (Each volume of the Diamond Brides Series is a stand-alone hot contemporary romance and can be read on its own, without the other short novels in the series.)

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If you’d like to buy Raleigh Rockets gear, stop by Mindy’s Cafe Press Diamond Brides store!  There are T-shirts, sweatshirts, coffee mugs, and more!

<<< Chapter 1 >>>

Marry in haste, repent at leisure…

Ryan Green looked at his watch again. At least the bride and groom weren’t in danger of repenting any time soon. It seemed like this wedding was never going to happen—and the sweltering church had just reached a temperature that felt a lot closer to Hell than to Heaven. The ceremony should have started an hour earlier, and there was still no sign of the groom. For that matter, the best man, the matron of honor, and Brother Mike had made themselves pretty scarce for the past thirty minutes.

Figuring he’d make the most of the delay, Ryan stood up from the rock-hard pew on the left side of the church. After spending the last twelve days on the Raleigh Rockets’ disabled list, Ryan barely felt the lingering tightness in his strained right hamstring, but there was no reason to let the muscle seize up by spending extra time on the unyielding wooden bench.

That was his story anyway, and he was sticking with it.

As he reached the back of the church, Ryan realized he wasn’t the only ballplayer with the same idea. Braden Hart, one of the Rockets’ pitchers, nodded a greeting, automatically shifting over like he was making room for the center fielder in the dugout. But this little gathering was woefully short on sunflower seeds and Gatorade, and they didn’t have a fistful of bubble gum between them.

Hart nodded toward the pews. “Hell of a night off, isn’t it? If we have to spend hours on a wooden bench, we might as well get a game out of it.”

Ryan shrugged. “There aren’t any women in a dugout.”

As if in response, a tide of feminine voices rose. Ryan had caught sight of the women when he’d first arrived at the church, right before an usher asked him, “Friend of the bride or friend of the groom?” He’d almost said “groom” just so he’d have a chance with one of them. During the long delay, he’d learned that they’d all gone to college with the groom. Each was prettier than the last, with her hair done up and her fingernails painted and a tight little dress that showed off a hell of a lot more than it covered up. Ryan couldn’t have told one from another, not if he’d been offered a five-year contract and a roster with every one of their names.

Hart followed Ryan’s gaze, but he shook his head in disgust. “Never f—” He seemed to remember he was standing in the back of a church, because he caught himself and started over again. “Never pick up a girl at a wedding. They put out easy enough, but they want a ring on their finger in the morning.”

Ryan shook his head. “Spoken like a real poet, man.”

“Hey, I call ’em like I see ’em. It’s a social disease, this getting married thing. Look around the clubhouse tomorrow night, buddy. You know I’m right. Guys are dropping like flies.”

Hart had a point. Half the guys on the team had proposed to their girlfriends before the end of last season.

Hart went on. “We shower with those guys, man. If it’s contagious, you know we’re coming down with it. And I, for one, have no plans on settling down any time soon.”

Ryan rolled his eyes. “Keep talking about women like they’re served up on some buffet, and you won’t be settling down ever.”

Hart looked real serious. “What do you think that would be like?” he asked. “Getting one of those debutantes in the middle of a buffet table? Play my cards right, I could have a beer in one hand, a roast beef sandwich in the other, and dessert spread out in front of me, ready and willing.” He flicked his tongue like a lizard, just in case Ryan didn’t get the joke.

“You’re disgusting,” Ryan said, but he was laughing.

“Come on,” Hart said. “We single guys have to say it, because those whipped dudes sure won’t.”

Ryan mockingly bumped fists with the pitcher. “Long live the single man,” he intoned. “Someone’s got to do what’s right—treat weddings like the excuse they are for warm beer, bad food, and good men lost forever.”

Hart winced before the words were out of Ryan’s mouth. Without turning around, Ryan knew someone was standing behind him. And from the way Hart was shaking his head, it wasn’t just any old teammate.

Taking a deep breath to steel himself, Ryan pasted on a smile and turned around. “Zach,” he said, holding out a hand, like he hadn’t just taken first place in the competition for Asshole of the Week.

Zach Ormond was the Rockets’ former catcher. More to the point in this little church where the air conditioner was obviously on the fritz and the temperature was nudging eighty-five degrees, Ormond was the brother of the bride-to-be, Lindsey. He’d been Ryan’s closest friend on the team for years.

That had all changed, though, last season, when a string of craziness led to Zach’s hanging up his spikes and his getting engaged—to none other than the granddaughter of the Rockets’ owner. Zach had left playing the sport he loved, taking up a job in the Rockets’ front office. The whole time that crap was happening, Ormond had kept to himself, never once confiding in Ryan. The gulf between them had carried through the rest of the season, but Ryan had thought—had hoped—that the wedding invitation had been a sign that he and Zach were past their differences.

Fat chance of that, with Ryan cracking stupid jokes.

“You got a problem with weddings?” Zach’s question was deceptively mild.

“None,” Ryan said, forcing himself to meet his friend’s eyes. “Not for the right guy.”

Shit. Why did Ormond have to catch him being a jackass? And here, Ryan had been fooling himself that Lindsey’s wedding would be a perfect chance to talk to the guy about some front office business. Ryan had thought the whole thing through as he knotted his tie that afternoon. Show up at the wedding. Shake hands with the groom, kiss the bride in the receiving line. Wait until the reception, after the toasts. Then, when Zach was looking for a break from champagne and photographs and everyone telling him his sister made a beautiful bride, Ryan could talk to him, man to man.

There’d never be a perfect time to ask Zach Ormond for the biggest favor of Ryan’s professional career. But the wedding should have put Zach in a decent mood, and Ryan couldn’t wait much longer. Not when he’d promised his mother he’d take care of Dad. Not when his father was getting crazier every day, spending more and more time in front of his television, watching reruns of reality shows after the baseball games ended each night, watching infomercials when the reality shows ran out. Truth be told, Dad was halfway to batshit crazy in the little house he’d lived in for thirty-five years, lost like a little kid now that Mom was gone.

Ryan could drive down to Chester Beach during the offseason. He could call the old man every couple of days. But Dad needed a hell of a lot more than that—he needed a job. A reason to get up in the morning. And for an old baseball guy like Dad, the best possible job would be working for the Satellites, the Rockets’ farm team based right there in Chester Beach.

But that was never going to happen if Ormond thought Ryan was crapping all over his sister’s wedding—old friendship or no old friendship. As the guests’ murmuring rose another notch, Ryan cleared his throat and pretended he was innocent. “Hey,” he said. “What’s up?”

“What’s up,” Zach spat, “is that the groom must be caught in traffic, the A/C in this place died yesterday, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to have people collapsing from heatstroke in the next five minutes.”

Hart, the coward, shrank away. But Ryan said, “Dinner’s set up downstairs, right?”

Ormond nodded. “The caterers have been ready for a while. We’re supposed to be eating by now.”

“No problem, then. They have to have water.” Ryan jutted his chin toward the pitcher. “Come on, Hart. Let’s do something useful.” He headed toward the vestibule and stairs that had to lead down to the reception hall.

Ormond barked out an order. “Hold up, Green.” Ryan turned back. “I don’t want you going up and down those stairs. Not with that bad hammie.”

“My leg’s fine.” It felt strange for Ryan to hear commands coming out of Zach’s mouth. They were buddies. Teammates. Friends.

Nevertheless, Ormond shook his head. “Hart can get it.”

The pitcher shrugged and hit the stairs while Ryan stood there, feeling like an invalid. He was tempted to say something to Ormond, to explain that he hadn’t meant to say anything bad about all weddings, that he obviously hadn’t been talking about this wedding, that…

Yeah. He’d already stepped in it. No reason to smear the shit around.

Before Ryan could think of something else to say, Ormond took out his phone, but he scowled at the screen instead of placing a call.

“No signal?” Ryan asked.

“No battery. I’ve been trying to reach Will for the last three hours.”

Three hours. That sounded like more than crappy Raleigh traffic on a Monday evening. Ryan dug out his own phone and passed it over. “Go ahead,” he said. “It’s got a full charge.”

Ormond thanked him and stalked over to the church’s front doors. Ryan waited until some of the caterers came upstairs with cases of water, and then he ducked back into the church to help distribute the bottles. As he stared at the sweaty, bored, impatient guests, he asked himself again why anyone would ever want to get married.

* * *

In the church’s stifling coatroom, Lindsey Ormond watched bleakly as her brother managed the disaster. “Thank you, Brother Mike,” Zach said as the kindly man headed toward the door. “We’re just fine.” Once the preacher was gone, Zach turned back to her. “Come on, Linds. Drink some of that water.”

But Lindsey didn’t want to drink any water. She was pretty sure she’d be on her knees in front of the toilet in the tiny bathroom off the vestibule if she drank any water. If she drank any water, or if she ate one of the tiny sandwiches Grace had brought her, or if she took a single step away from the folding chair where she sat with her arms folded tight around her belly.

“Come on, Sweetie,” Grace said. “Zach’s right. Everything’s fine, but you need to drink something.” Lindsey could read the lies on her sister’s face. She could hear them as loudly as if her matron of honor was shouting from the church’s steeple.

Swallowing thick acid at the back of her throat, Lindsey reminded herself that she was a trained actor. She could pretend to be anything from Alice in Wonderland to the Velveteen Rabbit. She made a career out of acting every night of her life and twice on Sundays, and she wasn’t about to let all that practice go to waste. “You know what, Grace?” she said, finding the perfect tone of surprised wonder. “I would kill for a Popsicle right now.”

Grace laughed, but then she asked, “You’re serious?”

Lindsey nodded, letting the idea grow with the confidence she layered into her voice. “I know the caterers won’t have any. But there’s a 7-11 just down Martin Street…”

Grace looked down at her pink dress, at her matching peau de soie shoes and her wristlet of sweetheart roses. “I guess I could go.”

Lindsey made herself laugh, bright and easy, just like she was reciting lines from the very back of the stage. “Tell them it’s for Bridezilla. Maybe you can get Rachel to drive you? Or Beth?” She didn’t care which of her sisters drove. She just wanted all of them out of the church, away from her, away from the disaster that was unfolding in horrifying slow motion.

Zach smiled his thanks to Grace as he fished in his pocket for his wallet and handed over a twenty-dollar bill. Lindsey barely waited until her sister was out of the room before she dropped the character of Brave Bride, opting instead for Doomed Lindsey. “It’s happening again,” she said, every syllable trembling.

At least Zach didn’t pretend to misunderstand her. “It’s a Monday night. Traffic is terrible. There’s a reason most people get married on weekends.”

Lindsey shook her head, biting her lip to keep from screaming. When the bride was an actor and the brother who was supposed to give her away played professional baseball, Monday night was the logical choice for a wedding. Only when she was certain her words could come out sounding remotely sane did she try to respond. “Give me some credit here, Zach. If I had to get jilted two years ago, at least I learned something from the experience. I can tell when it’s happening again. Will Braden Templeton isn’t coming to this church tonight.”

Zach protested automatically. “Don’t say that, honey. Jilted makes it sound like it was your fault.”

“It’s the truth!” Lindsey shouted. From the look on Zach’s face, he was every bit as surprised as she was by her volume. She hurried on, though, before he could offer her more pat words, more false comfort. “It’s the truth,” she repeated. “Two years ago, Doug jilted me. He let me stand there in my wedding dress, with two hundred of our family’s closest friends in the Claibourne ballroom, with a sit-down dinner and a band and a wedding cake waiting in the next room!” She was appalled by the words spilling out of her mouth, by the flood of ugly memories. But she couldn’t stop herself, couldn’t keep from saying, “He did all that because he was too afraid to tell me about his affairs, about three other women who I only found out about online, after the fact, after the most embarrassing night of my life.”

“Lindsey—”

“Don’t Lindsey me!” She felt terrible, cutting him off. She knew she was being rude, acting like a spoiled brat. But she had to finish. She had to say what she was thinking. She had to get all the words out, all the disgusting confessions, all the admissions she’d never had the guts to say out loud.

Because she’d worked hard at doing things right, every single day after Doug left her at the altar. She’d been a good girl, followed the rules, done everything she was supposed to do, whenever she was supposed to do it. She was the youngest of the Ormond girls, and she’d learned from the disaster with Doug. Just like she’d learned from watching her sisters.

Grace did everything right, and she ended up in a perfect fairy-tale marriage. Rachel used her kindness and strength and fortitude to recover from the worst thing life could throw at her, from being widowed by a drunk driver one year into her own storybook romance.

And Beth did everything wrong. Beth messed up everything she touched—school and friendships and family. Beth had dated bad boys from the first day she got a training bra. Beth got pregnant by the end of junior year in high school. She failed out senior year. And now, ten years later, she was only beginning to pull her life together.

Lindsey wasn’t going to be like Beth. She could still remember the screaming matches between Beth and their parents, the terrible night when Beth ran away and Daddy went to the emergency room with a heart attack, the constant, endless crises brought on by her sister’s bad judgment and worse behavior.

Lindsey could never do that to her family. Not to her sisters and definitely not to her brothers. Hell, Zach and Dane both, they expected her to be perfect. She was the baby. She had the benefit of watching and learning from everything her siblings did.

So she told the truth now.

“Even when I was standing there waiting for Doug, and you were making all your phone calls, and his best man was texting, and everyone was asking, and waiting, and confused…” She met Zach’s eyes. “I knew. I knew, in the pit of my stomach. I knew in that part of my brain, you know the one I mean. The one that tells the truth when you’re about to fall asleep, when you’re floating right on the edge of a dream. The one that wakes you up in the middle of the night, reminding you about phone calls and text messages and changes of plan that you never connected at the time, that you never realized had one thing in common. I knew the truth about Doug. I knew it even before I could say it out loud.”

Zach looked miserable. She understood how much that first disastrous wedding had cost him, and she wasn’t talking about money. The oldest of the Ormond siblings, Zach wanted to protect her. He wanted her life to be perfect, as perfect as he could make it, now that Momma and Daddy were both gone.

Zach was there for her. He might be twelve years older than she was. He might have resisted stepping into the strange role of not-quite-parent, all those years back. But for all of Lindsey’s life, she’d been certain Zach could pick up the pieces.

He was the one who’d found her hiding in the snack bar at the public pool when she was seven years old, crying because she was afraid to jump off the high board—and he’d taught her how to make the jump, and how to dive as well. He was the one who’d taught her how to drive stick when she was fifteen, letting her grate the gears on his old truck until she’d finally mastered the clutch. He was the one who’d told her she should look to her career instead of marriage when Doug proposed to her, and he was the one who’d walked into the hotel ballroom that horrible night and told all the guests that the wedding was off.

For all those reasons, and a thousand more, she turned to her oldest brother now and said, “It’s the same thing with Will.” But even as she said the words she shook her head, vehemently enough that her careful up-do started to tumble loose. “No,” she corrected herself. “It’s not the same. Will’s not screwing around with other women.”

“You’re not making sense, Lindsey.”

She bit her lip and forced herself to speak the truth. “Will’s not ready for this, not ready to be married. He thought he was. I thought he was. But he doesn’t want to be tied down. He doesn’t want to give up fishing trips with the guys and golf on Sundays. He doesn’t want to pass up the chance that there’s someone else out there, someone better. Someone who can cook,” she added ruefully.

“You can cook.”

She shook her head. “If you’re going to lie about that, then I can’t ever trust you on anything else again.” She sighed. “Macaroni and cheese out of a box isn’t cooking. Neither is raiding the salad bar at the local grocery store. Stop changing the subject. Will’s not ready. I forced him into this.”

Zach’s voice was rough. “If that’s true, then the asshole should have told you he had cold feet. He never should have let things get this far.”

Lindsey sighed. “It’s not all his fault. After last time, I wanted to do what’s right—keep the wedding small, keep it simple—but everything moved too fast. I was trying to be a good girl.”

“You are a good girl. You’re always a good girl.”

The vehemence in her brother’s voice sparked tears in her eyes. Before she could answer, there was a sharp buzz by her elbow. She recognized the text alert even as she reached for her phone. And there was the message—the one she’d feared to see, the one she’d known she would find. It had just been a matter of time.

I’m sorry.

The words were there in black and white, like thousands of other texts she’d gotten from Will. She could picture him typing the nine characters, lean fingers flashing over the face of his phone. She knew him well enough to imagine the other messages he’d typed, the longer ones, the explanations, and she could picture the way he’d deleted all but the basics.

The two words stole her breath, collapsing every atom of oxygen in her lungs into a solid, aching lump. For one blinding moment, she thought someone had actually, physically hit her. She couldn’t think of what to say, couldn’t remember how to speak, couldn’t put together a single coherent thought.

But then acting saved her again. She forced a deep breath into her lungs, just like she did for vocal warmups. She straightened her fisted fingers, focusing on the jagged energy that flowed out of her. She surveyed every taut muscle from head to toe, measured it, controlled it. And then she managed to pass the phone to Zach.

“There we go,” she said.

Years of acting couldn’t completely conquer her trembling vocal cords. Her voice was too high. But she was able to force another sentence past that lump in her chest. “Well, a good girl doesn’t keep her guests waiting in a sauna when there’s nothing left to see.” She started to push herself upright, even though she thought she might puke.

“I’ve got it,” Zach said. He looked like he was ready to go ten rounds with Will, then mop up the reception hall with whatever remained of her battered fiancé. No. Not fiancé. Not anymore.

Lindsey twisted the slender engagement ring on her finger, scarcely seeing the overhead fluorescents sparking off the two-carat diamond. “I’m fine,” she insisted, making a conscious effort to modulate her tone. “I’ll just go out there now and tell everyone.” She looked around the little closet of a room. “Do you think I should change first? I wore jeans. Maybe they’re more appropriate than this?” She gestured at her wedding gown.

Zach handed back her phone. “You don’t have to tell anyone anything. I’ll send people home. Go ahead and change. Or wait till Grace gets back. I can send back Rachel and Beth. Anna, too. They can help you.”

“No,” she said. “I don’t need any help. I don’t…” But she trailed off because she couldn’t figure out anything else to say. “I’m okay,” she finally finished, even though she wasn’t. Even though she never would be again. “I’ll wait for Grace.”

She sat back in her chair, because it was infinitely easier to do that than to argue. She buried her hands deep in her white satin skirt. She watched as Zach squared his shoulders, as he raised his chin, as he got ready to face the crowd.

“I’m sorry,” she said, just before he put his hand on the doorknob.

The stoic expression on his face almost made her sob. “You don’t have anything to be sorry about.” He stalked out of the room.

But she should be sorry. She’d brought all these people together, raised their hopes, heightened their expectations. She’d promised them dinner and a party, on a Monday night, for God’s sake. Monday, because that’s when the Rockets didn’t have a baseball game. Monday, because that’s when theaters were dark.

But now everyone would be sent home. All because Lindsey had screwed up. All because she hadn’t managed to talk to Will, to settle everything before it came to this.

She forced herself to her feet and strained her arm reaching over her shoulder, working the wedding dress’s long, hidden zipper. She’d better hurry, get out of the gown and back in her jeans and T-shirt. That way, maybe Grace wouldn’t worry too much when she got back. That way, maybe Lindsey could help with the caterers, or maybe with the pastor, with packaging up the food for a homeless shelter or someone else who could use it.

Maybe she could still make something good come out of this disaster. At least, she could try.

* * *

People could be real assholes.

As the wedding guests listened to Ormond’s announcement, a few gasped in surprise. One older woman exclaimed, “Not again!” Even the people who had enough sense to keep their voices down started whispering, loud enough to make the whole overheated church sound like it was stuffed with bees. When he was through talking, Ormond stalked down the aisle as if his spine had turned to oak; he didn’t look left or right as he strong-armed the door to the vestibule, obviously hurrying out to take care of his sister.

The guests could all lie and say they meant well. They only worried about poor Lindsey, about how she was handling being left at the altar twice in as many years. Of course it couldn’t be her fault. No girl deserved that.

But every goddamn whisper made it clear people thought there was a hell of a lot Lindsey had done. Or not done. It was all her fault.

Ryan took his time heading down the aisle, not wanting to fight the crowd. When he got to the vestibule, he found Ormond in the center of a tight knot of people. Anna Benson, his fiancée, was there too, and the matron of honor, in a pink dress that looked like it had seen better days as she clutched a brown paper bag with a spreading wet stain across the bottom. Another woman was calling out to a bunch of kids, telling them to hush for Aunt Lindsey’s sake, and a fourth stood on the edge of the family circle, shaking her head. A man balanced out the group, a couple of inches shorter than Zach and probably twenty pounds heavier, but with the same hard line to his jaw, the same eyes shouting that he was an Ormond brother.

“She’s fine,” Zach said, raising his hands to cut off protests from his siblings. “She wants to be left alone, and that’s what we’re going to do. She’s driving out to the farmhouse tonight. She’s got a couple of days off before she has to get back to work.”

“She’s still waiting to hear about auditions for Itsy Bitsy Mouse, isn’t she?” asked the quiet woman, the one on the edge of the group. “She’ll just die if she doesn’t get to play the mouse.”

Ormond shook his head. “She’s not going to die over anything. Come on, guys. This is Lindsey we’re talking about. She only wants to do what’s right. She wants some space, and we’re going to give it to her.”

Families were strange. Ryan was an only child; he’d never had a group of brothers and sisters to gather around, to talk behind his back, to do whatever they thought was right for him. It was kind of sweet.

Ormond started repeating himself, and then he began actively guiding his relatives out the door. “I’ll check on her tonight,” he said a few times. “I promise.” And then he pulled out the big guns. “Come on, guys. You know how she’d feel if she heard you worrying like this. Don’t pile on the guilt. Get out of here. We’ll talk in the morning. Anna, can you help round up the kids?”

By the time Ormond got them all outside, Ryan had changed his mind. Half a dozen siblings were half a dozen pains in the ass. He just had to remember that, the next time he called Dad and felt the old gripping fear in the pit of his stomach. The next time he thought about the promises he’d made to his mother, and all the ways he was letting her down. All the ways he was still the same screw-up he’d been in high school, in college, after.

Because he sure as shit wasn’t going to bring up the hitting coach job for Dad tonight. Not with Zach glaring at him right now, demanding, “What do you want, Green?”

Ryan held up his hands in protest. “Nothing, man. What can I do around here?”

“Get home. Get something to eat. You have to get to the park early enough tomorrow.”

Ryan shook his head. “Still on the DL.”

Shit. Ormond must really be upset. He never would have forgotten the disabled list under ordinary circumstances. Well, Ryan didn’t have to report to Rockets Field the following day, so he might as well do what he could around here. That might even give him a chance to build some good will when it came time to ask about Dad, in a day or two. A week. Whenever the coast seemed clear. “Need help cleaning things up downstairs?”

“The caterers’ll get it.”

Ryan glanced toward the closed door of the coatroom. That’s where Lindsey had to be. No chance in hell he’d be able to help with anything in there. He gave up and started to head toward the parking lot, but Zach caught him up short. “Actually, there is something.” At Ryan’s questioning glance, Zach nodded back toward the sanctuary. “Could you walk through and make sure no one left water bottles lying around? We probably shouldn’t have allowed any in there in the first place.”

“No problem.”

And it wasn’t. Just a walk down the center aisle, checking to either side. He picked up half a dozen bottles, some half-full, some stained with lipstick. As long as he was at it, he slipped a couple of hymnals back into their slots and collected a handful of programs that had been left behind.

He dropped the paper into a trashcan in the corner of the vestibule, but there wasn’t room for the bottles. Shrugging, he headed downstairs to the reception hall. The caterers were in full swing, knocking down tables and stacking folding chairs. The pastor was back in the kitchen, talking to some guys in jeans and T-shirts, giving instructions for them to take a couple of huge platters of food out to their waiting van, the one with Food For Our Fellows painted on the sliding door.

Ryan tossed the water bottles into a blue bin labeled Recycling just as someone asked the pastor, “What do we do with the champagne?”

The preacher looked like he’d never heard of the stuff. He spluttered, “Well, we certainly can’t send it over to FFOF. And we can’t keep it here in the church kitchen. I suppose Mr. Ormond should take it home. No reason it can’t be served on a happier occasion.”

The pastor’s words were interrupted by a crash as a stack of folding chairs toppled. The caterer leaped forward to handle the crisis, commandeering workers to restack the chairs. Ryan stepped forward as the preacher looked doubtfully at the case of Dom Perignon. “I can get that for you, sir.”

Instant relief washed across the guy’s face. “Thank you, young man.”

Ryan grunted as he picked up the case and headed up to the vestibule. Ormond was waiting at the top of the stairs. “What part of ‘don’t stress your hamstring’ do you not understand?”

“Forget about it,” Ryan said amiably as he put the box on a nearby table. “My leg is fine.” He glanced toward the coatroom. “How’s she doing?”

“She’s fine.” Ormond stopped and corrected himself. “She will be fine.” He shook his head. “She’s a fucking mess, but she’s pretending everything’s all right. Shit. I want to kill that son of a bitch.”

Ryan shrugged. “He deserves it.”

“She’s my baby sister. I don’t know how I missed it. How I fucked up.”

“This isn’t on you, man.”

Before Ormond could say anything else, the coatroom door opened, and Lindsey stepped into the vestibule. She was shorter than he remembered—the top of her head would barely reach his shoulder. She was skinnier, too. In blue jeans and a faded Rockets T-shirt, she looked like she might blow away if the old church’s air conditioner ever kicked in. Her face was drawn, but her cheeks were pink, like she was blushing.

Or like she’d scrubbed away a wedding’s worth of makeup. He could still make out mascara or eyeliner or whatever that crap was called, making her dark brown eyes look huge, like she was an orphan or something, which come to think of it, she was. Her hair fell around her shoulders in stiff waves. He could still see the crimped lines where it had been pinned off her neck, princess-like, for her big day.

She was carrying a long white garment bag, one that had to contain her wedding dress. Her other hand clutched something that looked like a strangled poodle. It took him a moment to realize it was her veil.

“Zach—” she said, and then she realized she wasn’t alone with her brother. “Ryan.” She nodded in greeting.

“Hey,” he said, because he wasn’t sure what else to say. I’m sorry? Congratulations on finding out before you tied the knot? I knew weddings were a crock of shit?

But he didn’t need to worry. Because Lindsey had straightened up the second she realized she wasn’t just talking to family. She raised her chin and forced a smile. He could tell she was working at it; her grin was just a shade shy of real, but it was a damned good act, given her shitty evening. “I have to apologize, Ryan,” she said. “I know you had better things to do on a day off than hang around for a wedding that never happened.”

Damn, she was good. He cleared his throat, wishing he was half as poised as she was. “I’m just sorry things didn’t work out.”

Lindsey nodded toward the champagne. “Maybe you can take a bottle of that. It’s something to make up for roasting half to death in this church.”

Before either of the men could stop her, she handed Zach her wedding dress and veil. She didn’t waste any time lifting the flaps on the case of champagne and slipping her blood-red fingernails in between the bottles. She made a show of handing one to him, displaying it across her forearm like she was a waiter in some fancy restaurant, tilting the bottle so the label was perfectly displayed. She put on a fake French accent. “Monsieur will find eet ees a most excellent year.”

He grinned and took the bottle, because what the hell else was he going to do? One glance at Zach, though, told him it was time to get the hell out of the church. Time to let Lindsey put away her act, to let her be herself on the most miserable night of her life. Folding his fingers around the neck of the champagne bottle, he nodded toward the stairs and said to Zach, “They’re pretty much done down there.”

“Probably ready for a check,” Ormond said.

“I’ll get it,” Lindsey said, and she reached around for the tiny excuse for a purse that hung from her shoulder.

“Right,” Zach said, and he raised his full hands toward the front door. “Get the hell out of here. I’ll take care of it.”

“It’s not right—”

“No,” Zach cut her off. “You’re right. It isn’t.”

She almost lost it then. The veneer of being in control, the smile she’d flashed for Ryan’s benefit, the steel that kept her spine straight, all of it wavered, like he was watching some magic trick collapsing.

“You,” Zach said, nodding to Ryan. “Get her out of here.”

And then it was like old times. Like he and Zach were on the road, back at the beginning of Ryan’s career, when he was just as likely to take one of the ever-present groupies up to his hotel room as he was to follow the rules and get some sleep and be ready to play the next day. Zach was the one who kept order then, who told him what to do.

So it was second nature to reach out and take the dress from his old friend’s hand. To shift the Dom Perignon so he could tuck the crumpled veil under his arm. To read the tight nod, the unspoken thanks, the brother-in-arms gratitude that he could accept with his own ducked chin. He and Zach had played together for years. They’d been in and out of a thousand scrapes—tough baseball games, tougher times in bars and airports and hotels afterwards.

It was like having a brother, without all the crap.

“Come on, Lindsey,” he said. And he held the door for her, with just enough insistence in his steady gaze that she had to lead the way out to the parking lot.

There were only a few cars left on the steaming blacktop. Zach’s Beemer. His own red Ferrari. And a dark grey Prius, looking all prim and proper, crouching beneath a scraggly tree at the far end of the lot.

“I can take that,” Lindsey said, holding out her hand for the wedding stuff.

“Yeah,” he said. “Right.” He fell in beside her as she huffed and led the way to her car. She’d always had a mind of her own. He’d first met her at the clubhouse, probably the first day he’d been called up from the minors. She’d worked some sort of publicity job for the Rockets then, something that helped pay the bills while she was in college. She’d worshipped her brother, gone to every home game, and all the guys on the team had gotten used to her hanging around.

She was Lindsey. Just Lindsey. Ryan might have been interested in her—half the guys on the team might—but she was totally off limits because Ormond would break any guy’s nose if a player was stupid enough to even sniff in her direction.

As Ryan watched, she opened her trunk. She shoved in the dress and veil, jamming them into the cramped space around the car’s battery. “Okay, then,” she said, slamming the trunk closed.

“Okay.”

“Go on,” she said, and then she seemed to remember the rules, seemed to remember that she was supposed to be proud and brave and not at all upset that she’d been left at the altar like a girl in one of those bad novels he was supposed to read in high school English class. She ran her fingers through her stiff hair and frowned when they snagged on hairspray or gel or whatever shit she’d used to make it work. “I’m fine,” she said. “You can tell Zach you got me all settled. Tell him I’m fine, and I’ll call him in the morning.”

It was the smile that got to him. The perfect, blinding smile, like she was competing for Miss America or something. She actually held out her hand, and he shifted the champagne bottle to shake it. He wasn’t supposed to feel the tremor in her fingers. He wasn’t supposed to see that her chin was shaking. He wasn’t supposed to notice the wash of tears that made her eyes shine like tiny mirrors.

“Drive carefully,” he said.

“I always do.” And she actually made herself laugh.

Shit. It was like torturing a kitten, standing here with her. Everything he said, everything he did just made it worse because she had to keep on acting, had to keep on pretending, when he could see that all she wanted to do was get some place alone, wash that crap out of her hair, scream and cry and probably get drunker than she’d ever been in her life.

So he walked over to his car. He let himself in without looking back. He keyed the ignition and then he sat there, steadying the champagne on the passenger seat like it was a patient in an ambulance.

Because he couldn’t just drive out of that lot. He had to make sure she was all right, okay to drive. Sure enough, after her headlights flicked on, she backed up a little too fast. She skidded on a patch of gravel, but anyone could have done that in the twilight. She raced across the asphalt to the exit, like she was dying to put some distance between them, to get away from the church, and men, and everything that had turned to shit in her life. And anyone could have done that, too, driven too fast in an almost empty parking lot. Without stopping at the edge of the lot, though, she started to pull out into the street, only crashing to a halt when a horn bellowed and brakes shrieked. A minivan swerved around her in the gloom.

Sure, Lindsey Ormond was fine. Perfect.

Ryan couldn’t sit there and watch her drive away like a bat out of hell. He caught up with the Prius at the first traffic light, but he hung back in the left lane, trying to stay out of sight. She barely waited for the light to change before she was gunning her engine, heading for the freeway and the fast track out of town. He settled low in the Ferrari and followed her, keeping just far enough back that she’d never have any idea he was there.

<<<>>>

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