Catching Hell

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Anna Benson is an eager “May” to Zach Ormond’s downright sexy “December”.

At age thirty-seven, Zach is a veteran catcher in the last years of his contract, grateful for a no-trade clause that will let him retire a star in Raleigh.  Twenty-five-year-old Anna has grown up in the Rockets’ front office; her grandfather has long groomed her to take over the team.

When Zach finally realizes Anna is no longer a star-struck kid, their passion flares like a game-winning grand slam.  But after a freak accident injures a young phenom and forces the team to land a new player, Anna must sacrifice Zach for the Rockets, convincing him to forfeit his hard-won no-trade guarantee.

There’s hell to pay. He’s doing everything in his considerable seductive power to make her keep him—on the team and in her bed. How can Anna and Zach live happily ever after when their romance will destroy the team they love?

Catching Hell, the second 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 >>>

Some day, all this would be hers.

Anna Benson sighed as she looked around the owner’s suite at Rockets Field. The cleaning crew had worked their magic during the night, emptying trashcans and restocking the small refrigerator with soft drinks and game-time snacks.

But they hadn’t touched the huge table that ran along the side wall, the one snowed under by a blizzard of papers. And they hadn’t moved the beat-up laptop that was plugged into the wall. And they hadn’t shifted a single one of the multicolor pens, pencils, and highlighters standing at attention in a variety of old coffee cans scattered around the room.

The cleaning crew was the best that money could buy.

Anna grabbed a can of Coca-Cola, her third of the day, but before she could drink it down she turned to the thermostat on the wall and made a quick adjustment. The suite was chilly, especially for a Friday evening in June. Maybe it would warm up before Gramps had a chance to complain. Anna shook her head. The gruff old man complained about everything—the weather, the umpires, the low-sodium, low-sugar snacks Anna kept on hand.

Let him argue. She intended to keep him with her as long as possible.

As if in response to her tart mental challenge, the door to the suite opened, and her grandfather’s querulous voice drifted into the room. Damn. Gramps was in the heavy-duty wheelchair, the one that gave him full support for his head and neck. A quick glance at Rob, Gramps’ day-nurse, confirmed her suspicions. This was a bad day.

Fighting a heavy heart, Anna crossed the room to plant a kiss on Gramps’ temple. The old man patted her arm, but he was already gesturing for Rob to roll him toward the front of the suite.

“I want to keep an eye on Ormond tonight,” Gramps said, clearly bristling for an argument.

Anna nodded, hiding the automatic flip of her belly as she spread a red and blue blanket over the old man’s lap. She wouldn’t mind keeping an eye on Zachary Ormond herself. She always had—from the moment she’d first met the catcher, when she’d been a star-struck ten-year-old with scabs on her knees from learning how to slide into home plate. Then, he’d been her hero, a twenty-two-year-old switch-hitting rookie who’d gone first in the draft and was already called up from the minors because the Rockets needed his defensive arm behind the plate as much as they needed his bat.

In the intervening fifteen years, Anna had become interested in a lot more than Zach’s legendary on-base percentage. Even before she’d truly understood the challenges of marriage, she’d watched him succumb to an ill-fated union with a surgery-enhanced bimbo as fake as the silk-wrapped nails she sported on national television. As a high-school student, Anna had watched Zach’s marriage fall apart; she’d daydreamed about the then-available star taking her to Homecoming, to Prom, to all the other high-school dances she skipped. In college, Anna had majored in Sports Management, and she’d written her senior thesis on the potential economic disruption of one player’s blockbuster long-term contract, using Zach’s ten-year deal with the Rockets as her primary example.

And all the while, Anna had found herself wondering how it would feel to have the legendary Ormond charm directed at her—Zach’s famous chivalry, his gentlemanly goodwill.

Okay, truth be told, Anna had wondered about a lot more than chivalry. She’d lost herself in more than one daydream about those Gold Glove hands, about…

She shook her head. She’d known Zachary Ormond for fifteen years. He’d watched her grow from a little girl to the woman she was today, and he’d never given her the slightest hint that he thought of her as anything other than Old Man Benson’s granddaughter.

She kept her voice carefully neutral as she responded to Gramps. “With yesterday as a travel day, his knees should be in good shape.”

“But that motherf— mummy Cranston is the ump behind home plate. We’ll be lucky if he only fu— fouls up half the calls.”

Anna swallowed her smile as her grandfather scrubbed his language. The managers and coaches who worked for him often remarked that the old man had taught them compound nouns they’d never imagined. But Gramps took preternatural pride in the fact that he’d never sworn in front of his wife, not once in the sixty-two years they were married. And Marty Benson would rather be confined to a hospital bed than defile the precious ears of the orphaned granddaughter he’d adopted twenty years before.

As Gramps went on to castigate the opposing team’s owner, the lack of double-salt pork rinds, and—yes—the glacial temperature in the suite, the room began to fill up. Anna smiled at the Vice President of Operations and the Director of Public Relations. She distributed stacks of papers to each staff member who arrived, efficiently explaining problems that needed more detailed attention.

As a barbershop quartet sang The Star-Spangled Banner, everyone took a respectful break from business, but after the anthem they returned to the serious work of managing a baseball team. The suite door opened just as the Rockets’ pitcher threw his first fastball over the plate, and Anna glanced up at the disturbance with a quick frown.

Gregory Small eased into the seat next to her. “Sorry I’m late,” he said. “I was on the phone with Cincinnati.”

She nodded, accepting the excuse, even though the general manager should be offering it to Gramps and not to her. Small had been her grandfather’s right-hand man for nearly a dozen years, exercising ultimate power over all new contracts and trades. The man had a computer instead of a brain, and he’d long ago replaced any semblance of a heart with a 108-stitch baseball. But he was good at his job, the best Anna had ever seen.

And she’d seen a lot.

With the exception of the four years she’d spent at University of Michigan, Anna had practically lived at Rockets Field. Her parents had been killed by a drunk driver when she was only five, and her grandmother had surrendered to a torrent of illnesses, all tied to severe depression over losing her only son. Gramps had made the best of a terrible situation, keeping Anna close every waking moment that she wasn’t at school.

At her grandfather’s side, Anna had learned the ins and outs of baseball, the highs and lows of team ownership. She’d watched silently as Small argued for multi-million-dollar contracts, and she’d learned to predict how her grandfather would invest the profits from his furniture manufacturing empire.

When Anna had first returned from college, she’d worried about the Rockets’ management, about their accepting her as a valuable member of the behind-the-scenes staff. But after three years of hard work—years when she had steadfastly refused to rely on her family name to win even a single argument—her co-workers had come to accept that Anna was the real thing. She had baseball in her blood. She was respected for her business acumen, completely separate from her position as Gramps’ heir apparent.

And now it was time for Anna to give back to her grandfather. The old man might be grumpy. He might complain about everything in sight. He might be dictatorial as he gestured from the stiff seat of his wheelchair.

But Anna knew that Marty Benson loved two things in this world—the Raleigh Rockets and Anna herself. And she was determined to give him confidence that his beloved team would survive—would thrive—even after he was gone. She was going to prove to her grandfather, no matter what it took, that she had the grit to own the Rockets and to make them succeed.

DJ Thomas rang up his third out, a great start to the game. Anna watched Zach straighten from his catcher’s crouch and walk back to the dugout. He was moving easily, without a hint of the lower-back tightness that had kept him out of the last two games.

Pulling her scorecard in front of her and selecting the bright green pen she always used to record Philadelphia’s moves, Anna settled back in her chair. This was a perfect night for baseball.

* * *

This was a perfect night for baseball.

Out of long habit, Zach tapped his batting helmet twice before he stepped out of the dugout. He took a couple of practice swings from the circle plastered with the Rockets’ logo, watching the Philadelphia pitcher deliver his fastball to Cody Tucker.

Damn, Tucker was a cocky son of a bitch. He stood on top of the plate, daring the pitcher to brush him back with a hundred-mile-an-hour ball. The kid had already been hit by pitches half a dozen times in the two-month-old season, but he was leading the league in home runs. And he wasn’t even legal to drink yet.

Zach took another practice swing. With Tucker in front of him in the line-up, Zach’s own stats were shaping up. He was on track for 125 RBI. Maybe that would get the goddamn press to give it a rest about the eighth year of his contract, about whether the Rockets were really getting their money’s worth.

Another practice swing. Zach could feel the tightness in his lower back, the nagging ache that never really went away. But he’d babied himself for long enough. Rockets fans came to see him play, not to watch him huddled in the dugout, spitting sunflower seeds and squinting at guys who were younger, faster, and a hell of a lot more limber. Zach had spent his entire career with Raleigh; there were grown men in town who had never known another catcher behind the plate.

Not that he could put off the inevitable much longer. Two more years, after this season. Two more years of proving he was worth every penny he’d negotiated so long ago. He wanted to make Raleigh proud. Wanted to make Old Man Benson say that Zach’s contract was the best piece of paper he’d ever signed.

Even if Zach couldn’t help being jealous of the speed and strength and downright ability of a kid like Cody Tucker.

Crack!

The ball flew off Tucker’s bat, shooting down the first-base line. The right-fielder took a shitty read on it, missing the rebound off the wall. Tucker flew by the bag, easily rounding toward second.

The right-fielder finally got his glove on the ball, but he made an awkward pivot back to the diamond. He bobbled the ball on the transfer, and Tucker exploited the mistake, turning toward third with a burst of fresh speed.

Zach moved with the ease of many years of practice, darting toward the plate to pick up the bat Tucker had flung away. The throw in from right was impossibly high; the cut-off man had to waste time leaping up to snag the ball.

Tucker barreled into third as the first-baseman recovered. The third-base coach made a split-second decision, windmilling his arm, sending Tucker toward the plate and an inside-the-park home run. The kid lowered his head and drove forward like a missile.

The ball came hurtling toward home, hitting the catcher’s waiting mitt. He was too far from the plate, too far down the line to tag up, so he planted himself squarely in front of the charging Tucker.

“Back off, asshole!” Zach bellowed to the other catcher. Tucker barely hitched his shoulders as he braced for the collision, even though the opposing player outweighed him by thirty pounds, and that was before the leather and steel of protective gear was taken into consideration.

The impact sounded like a side of meat dropping onto a steel table. Zach’s retinas registered the carnage before his mind was consciously aware:

The Philadelphia catcher, knocked back on his ass, sliding all the way behind home plate.

The ump, his hand already folding into a fist, his thumb extended, calling Tucker out.

The kid, jaw set, legs extended, sliding in hard.

The ankle, twisted to an impossible angle, 180 degrees from normal.

The crowd, frozen in immediate silence, still on their feet from cheering their hero home.

The kid again, screaming through clenched teeth, curled into himself, stretching for his foot, craning his neck to see something he should never see.

Zach hollered for the trainer even as he threw himself to his knees beside Tucker’s head. “Look at me,” he shouted, desperate to make contact through the kid’s wall of pain.

Tucker whined in high-pitched agony, writhing like a speared fish. The motion was the worse possible thing he could do; he was twisting his foot even more, forcing it further in directions it was never meant to move.

Zach swallowed hard, banishing the bile from his throat before he planted his hands on the kid’s shoulders. “Tucker! They’re coming out now.” Nothing. The kid couldn’t hear him. Zach leaned in, putting half his weight on Tucker’s chest. “Cody,” he snapped. “Stop!”

Even though it seemed like a century had passed since the collision, the ballplayer’s clock inside Zach’s head told him it had scarcely been thirty seconds. The trainer was already shouldering Zach aside, waving out another one of the team’s medics. As the medical professionals executed their quick triage, Zach shifted toward Cody’s head. His fingers were firm on the other man’s chin as he forced the kid to meet his eyes. “You’re going to be fine,” he said, power-driving certainty into his tone. “Let them do their work.”

But Zach knew the kid wasn’t going to be fine. He was out for the season, at least. Maybe forever. An ankle like that, his foot at that impossible angle…That had to mean surgery, pins, a plate…

“How bad is it?” Cody gritted, involuntary tears mixing with the red dirt of the playing field.

“They’ll take care of you,” Zach said, unwilling to tell a complete lie.

The trainers pushed him out of the way before Tucker could demand more information. The two sturdy men wedged their shoulders beneath Cody’s armpits, pulling the kid into a standing position by brute strength. As Zach watched, Cody tried to touch his toe to the ground, but he gave up as the pain bleached his face to a transparent sheet. The trainers hustled him off the field before the kid could try again.

Zach whirled on the Philly catcher, who was hovering several steps behind the plate. “You were blocking the goddamn plate!”

“I made a baseball play.”

The adrenaline buzz in Zach’s ears ratcheted up an octave. “Asshole! You didn’t give him a chance!”

“Cocksu—”

Zach didn’t wait to hear the rest of the retort. He planted both hands on the other guy’s chest, pushing hard to make sure he got his momentum past the insulating pads.

The other guy’s eyes flashed in surprise, the emotion quickly replaced by a shit-eating grin. His fist sailed out of mid-air, connecting squarely with Zach’s jaw.

Zach’s own left hook was automatic.

He barely saw the benches empty. He was only marginally aware of the men at his back, his teammates pushing against their Philadelphia counterparts. A couple of Rockets threw their own punches, but he couldn’t tell if his guys were actually escalating the fight or merely retaliating against Philly’s aggression.

Umps wasted no time wading into the scrum. Zach had enough presence of mind to edge away from the black uniforms. Nevertheless, it took Coach standing in front of him, shouting directly in his face to get him to stop shoving against the piece of shit Philadelphia catcher’s chest protector. He looked toward home plate just in time to see an ump pointing at him, jerking a thumb over his shoulder.

Zach was tossed.

For the first time in his fifteen-year career, he’d started a fight on the field. Sure, he’d joined in melees before, supporting his teammates when they’d been driven too far by one opponent or another. But he’d never been the one to deliver the first punch.

What the hell. There were some records that were meant to be broken.

Now it was time to hit the showers, leave the shambles of a game knowing that Coach was going to be red-hot about bringing in his back-up catcher for the rest of the game. Tucker’s bat was out, and Zach’s too. And there were still eight and two thirds innings to play.

Shit.

At least he could go straight to the hospital. Tucker should have a friendly face beside him when he learned the full extent of the bad news. Zach didn’t look at his teammates as he stalked through the dugout on his way to the locker room.

 * * *

The emergency room was a zoo. Cody Tucker had the piss-poor luck to shred his ankle on the night of a three-car collision that resulted in two patients with massive chest trauma and another with open head wounds that left the EMTs looking green. A gunshot wound from a drunken backyard hunting expedition, complete with a wailing woman who had never meant for anything bad to happen, only added to the insanity.

The Rockets’ trainers were vocal enough to get Tucker into a curtained examination area, and a doctor ordered the start of an IV drip, along with something for the pain. After that they were all reduced to a long wait. The kid just stared at the wall, sweat soaking through his uni with the stink of despair. Despite Zach’s best efforts, Cody had seen the damage. He knew what he was in for.

The rest of the team started showing up around eleven, showered and subdued by a brutal loss to Philadelphia. They paced and swore and demanded that the docs change their priorities. Just breathing, the guys shrank the emergency room waiting area. Seething with impatience, they made the entire hospital seem smaller than a postage stamp.

Zach steeled himself to go play team captain, to knock the guys into order. Just as he ducked under the polyester curtain, though, Anna Benson strode into the room.

In any other context, he might have taken her for a fragile child. She was thin as a greyhound, poured into her skinny jeans and a curvy Rockets T-shirt. She’d pulled on a hooded sweatshirt against the nighttime chill, but she’d pushed the too-long sleeves up to her elbows, exposing wrists that looked like they might snap in a strong wind. Her wide eyes, ocean-blue beneath the fluorescent lights, made her look like one of those animated heroines from some kids’ cartoon. Her cheekbones seemed sharp enough to slice open his palm.

But Anna Benson wasn’t a little girl any more.

She took about fifteen seconds to locate the triage nurse. Crossing to the desk with a minimum of fuss, she engaged in a quick, efficient exchange of information. Her jaw tightened. The nurse obviously didn’t have good news.

But that didn’t stop Anna. She turned back to the chaos of the overflowing waiting room. The guys still hadn’t noticed her; they were too busy devouring all the oxygen in the space. Anna raised her hands above her head and clapped three times. “Enough!” she shouted, her voice sawing through the fug of locker-room speculation.

She pressed her advantage with the instinctive drive of a shark. “Gentlemen! Thank you for coming to Raleigh Memorial. My grandfather and I appreciate your showing support for Cody. I just spoke with the nurse, and she confirmed that Cody’s in good hands. But it’s going to be hours, maybe days before we know anything specific. It’s after midnight, and you have to report to the park in less than twelve hours. Show your respect by giving the doctors the space they need to do what’s best for Cody. Go home and get some sleep, so you can put Philly in their place tomorrow!”

She hit the perfect tone. She let the guys know they were valued. She made them understand that she was worried—as much as they were, maybe more. She gave them a way to fight back, to get a ballplayer’s professional revenge.

And the team gave way before her leadership. One by one, the guys filed past her. She spoke to each of them, touching a shoulder here, shaking a hand there. She met each man’s eyes, assuring him his contribution was noted and appreciated.

And when the last ballplayer slipped out to the parking lot, Anna turned that cool intensity back to the triage nurse, demanding to know where Cody could be found, what Anna could do to expedite getting him out of the emergency room and into a less hectic standard room. As the nurse bent to her task, Zach ducked back into the curtained alcove, finally believing that this godforsaken night might be taking a turn for the better.

<<<>>>

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