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Teetering on the brink of success as a patent lawyer, Amanda Carter is courting financial disaster. She’s juggling her family’s crippling medical expenses and a huge payment to join her law firm partners—nearly impossible burdens because her father stole her identity. If she doesn’t pay up and win her current case, everything she’s worked for will crash to a humiliating end.
Easy-going right fielder Kyle Norton is mired in the worst hitting slump of his career—until a black-haired beauty in the stands offers him her sunglasses. Slump broken, superstitious Kyle is convinced Amanda is the key to the championship his team so desperately wants to win for its dying owner.
Kyle needs Amanda to give him her glasses at every game. Amanda needs to bury herself in work and win the lawsuit—if she can find the money to buy into the firm. Soon, Amanda and Kyle are locked in battle, united by need, and consumed by passion.
In the end, can either one be always right?
Always Right, the ninth volume in the Diamond Brides Series, is available as an ebook and in print. (Each volume of the Diamond Brides Series is a spicy contemporary romance with no cliffhanger that can be read on its own, without the other books in the series.)
<<< Chapter 1 >>>
It was a beautiful day for a baseball game—right up to the moment Kyle Norton heard the crunch of titanium and plastic under his right cleat.
Batting practice was in full swing, with the Rockets’ power hitters behind the plate. Kyle was shagging fly balls in right field, keeping an eye on the practice pitcher throwing strike after strike. Tyler Brock had just soared three in a row over the fence at center field, making it look easy.
Kyle never hit fly balls like that—he’d always hit for average, not for power. He was in a batting slump now, had been for almost a month. Not a single hit, no matter who was pitching—righty or lefty, men who came on with heat, or crafty bastards who knew just where to put the ball. It didn’t make any difference to Kyle—he just wasn’t seeing the pitches, wasn’t getting his bat through the zone in time.
Brock hit another high fly toward the fence, and Kyle broke into a dead run. He got to the warning track, got to the wall. He whirled and found the ball, soaring straight toward him, like a magnet drawn to an iron column. He tensed his legs and extended his arm for the catch. He snagged the ball in the web of his glove, automatically snapping his fingers closed to keep it safe in the leather pocket.
And he tumbled into the wall, hard enough to jar his neck forward, to send his sunglasses tumbling onto the warning track. He didn’t have a chance of finding them before he came crashing down, mangling the frames and shattering the lenses.
As the crowd above him applauded his effort, Kyle glanced at the scoreboard clock. Only fifteen minutes left in batting practice. Not enough time to head back to the locker room, to scare up another pair of glasses and get back to right field, rounding out the practice. But there was no way he could play without something to cut the glare.
He turned toward the fence and the fans who were cheering right above him. With a shrug and a grin, he tossed the ball up there, making sure it landed in the long fingers of the woman who was centered at the front of the crowd.
She looked astonished that she’d ended up with the ball. She was there with a group, if the bright green T-shirts meant anything, the ones that shouted Link, Oster, Vogel, and East PLLC in bold letters. Her friends toasted her with their beers, slapping her free hand for high fives. One of the guys looked down toward Kyle and hollered, “Thanks, buddy!”
Kyle made a show of tipping the brim of his cap. That was the good thing about BP; it was warm-up time, sure, and there was a lot of work to be done, both behind the plate and out in the field. But it was also a chance to reach out to fans, to build the team’s reputation. And Mr. Benson, the team’s owner, was always happy to hear that his fans were satisfied.
At the urging of her friends, the woman who’d caught the ball leaned forward. Her long black hair was done up in two braids, like she was a kid. But there wasn’t anything childish about her. Her T-shirt was knotted above her waist, tight enough to show off her chest. Her legs, emphasized by her neatly cuffed shorts, were long and tanned; she looked like some sort of beach volleyball queen. Or maybe he only thought that because of the way she leaned over the railing, sticking her ass in the air as she blew him a kiss.
Sunshine glinted off the glasses she was using as a hairband, the titanium frames, the high-end lenses. “Hey, sweetheart,” he called. “If you really want to thank me, let me wear your glasses!”
He watched her shake her head in disbelief, curving her hand to point at her chest like she couldn’t believe he was talking to her. He was not going to think about that chest. He was not going to speculate about what she had on under that knotted tee. Instead, he pointed toward the shattered remains of his own glasses.
“Go on,” one of the guys urged her, an older man who looked like he was in charge of the office outing.
The woman slipped off her glasses and looked down at Kyle doubtfully. “Go ahead,” he shouted, taking off his glove and tucking it under his right arm. “I’ll catch them.”
“Sure,” she called, and she glanced at the ruined frames beside him.
“It’s my job,” he said.
“Go on, Amanda,” one of the other guys urged her. “Don’t impugn his manhood.”
Kyle hadn’t meant to call attention to his manhood, one way or another. Maybe the jeering embarrassed Amanda, because she started to back away from the fence. At the last minute, though, she turned back and held her glasses over the railing. He reached high, cupping his hands to receive them. She let go, and he made the easy catch.
They were top-of-the-line glasses—polarized lenses, lightweight frames, a neutral design that could be worn by men or women. Hell, they were probably as good as the ones he’d just pulverized into the warning track. He shouldn’t take them—at least not without getting her phone number, so he could return them after the game.
But balls still cracked off bats behind him. The other outfielders and relief pitchers still scrambled to catch the shots that got past the infield. The grounds crew still lay in wait on the warning track, ready to roll away the cage that kept the pitcher safe, to groom the diamond and get the show on the road. It was time to get back to work. He’d worry about getting the glasses back to Amanda later.
So work he did—through the rest of batting practice. Through the familiar routine of settling into the dugout as the announcers went through the ceremonial first pitch, the congratulation of game sponsors, the recognition of military veterans. He took his place on the field for the singing of the national anthem, and then he trotted out to right for a few last-minute tosses, long balls to Green over in center.
The game started, and Hart sat down the Milwaukee batters, one, two, three, with eleven easy pitches. And then it was time for Kyle to trot in from right, to step over the chalk that marked the first base line, taking care not to smudge it with even the tip of his shoe.
Traditions—that’s what mattered in baseball.
He exchanged his regular red cap for his batting helmet. Pine tar nearly obscured the Rockets logo on the front, the accumulation of hundreds of at-bats. That was more tradition—never clean a batting helmet mid-season.
He stepped to the plate, taking his time to dig in. In the past, he’d loved batting lead-off. He knew all the statistics, all the numbers the coaches tossed around. Getting the first batter on base was the single most important thing his team needed if they were going to score in the inning. It didn’t matter if Kyle hit a single or walked on balls, he just had to get ninety feet away, to first base.
Those rules were etched in his bones. He knew them without thinking. That was why he needed to step out of the batter’s box, why he had to check the straps on his batting gloves, to tap the bat first on his right shoulder, then on his left. He touched the shoulder of his uniform the way he always did, a little tug on the jersey like when he’d played Little League, when he’d played college ball, when he’d come up through double-A down in Chester Beach.
Habit. Ritual. Superstition. It calmed him, let him concentrate on the game.
He swung the bat over his shoulder and looked out at the Milwaukee pitcher. He sensed the catcher shifting behind him, flashing signs out to the mound. He saw the pitcher nod once, twice. It would be a fastball, then. Kyle couldn’t be certain where the ball would be targeted, inside, outside, high, low. That shouldn’t matter. Knowing a fastball was coming, he should be able to catch up to the pitch.
He glared through Amanda’s sunglasses, willing himself to concentrate. The pitcher wound up. Kyle watched the ball emerge from the other man’s glove, saw it leave the guy’s fingers. He knew where it was going to be when it crossed the plate, and he swung his bat, connecting with the clear, sharp sound of trademarked maple on leather.
Kyle knew it was a home run before he completed his swing—the sound, the feel of the ball coming off the bat, the graceful line as it jetted toward the deepest part of the park, over the center-field fence. His third home run of the season, and the crowd roared the entire time as Kyle trotted around the bases.
His long dry spell was over.
For the rest of the game, Amanda’s glasses worked like a charm—even better than the ones he’d ruined. As the team poured onto the field for its post-game celebration, he glanced toward the right-field fence. The cluster of green shirts was moving up the aisle, toward the exit and home. It was too late to thank Amanda. Too late to tell her the glasses had made all the difference.
* * *
Amanda Carter sat at her desk, rubbing the back of her neck and hoping the aspirin would kick in soon. She glanced at her computer screen, and the clock seemed to pulse in time with her throbbing headache. It was just past eight.
She should have skipped the game that afternoon. She didn’t have time for baseball, not with the trial of her life coming up in two and a half months. She should have stayed at the office all afternoon, writing her briefs, arguing the intricacies of patent law to the court.
But as the firm’s newest partner, there’d been no way to refuse going to the Rockets game. Harvey Link—whose name was first on the letterhead—was all about team spirit. And whatever Harvey wanted, Harvey got. That was the habit that had guaranteed Amanda made partner. Harvey liked hummingbird cake, so Amanda baked a hummingbird cake for Harvey’s birthday, every freaking year. Harvey liked Christmas carols, so Amanda organized the Christmas Chorale, every freaking year.
Harvey liked baseball, so Amanda had wasted five hours of her life when she could least afford to lose them, all with a headache pounding hard behind her eyes. Why the hell had she tossed her sunglasses to Kyle Norton? Her reaction had been completely illogical—she’d been egged on by Harvey, by everyone from the office hooting and hollering around her. That was her only excuse for leaning over the fence, for blowing a kiss to that ballplayer.
She wasn’t usually such a sucker. She didn’t roll over and do whatever a guy asked her to do—even if he did have an incredible smile. And rippling forearms that made her toes curl inside her shoes. And blue eyes that seemed to look past her silly group T-shirt, that seemed to see straight into her soul.
She shook her head. She’d given the guy her glasses because Harvey had told her to. And those had been her best sunglasses, too, a gift from a client after a hard-fought case down in Miami.
Her cell phone shrilled, setting off an echoing shriek behind her eyes. She almost decided not to answer, but habits were habits, and this was Sunday night. She forced herself to smile as she said, “Mom!”
“How has your week been?”
Amanda reached for a pad of paper and started writing out the Fibonacci numbers. Their cool, predictable logic always calmed her when she was itching to do something else, to be somewhere else. 0. 1. 1. “Fine,” she said to her mother. “And yours?”
“Busy. Barbara Anne came and sat with me today.”
“How nice,” Amanda said automatically. 2. 3. 5.
“She says she’ll drive me to the doctor’s office next week. I’m getting a second opinion on my back. On whether surgery is an option.”
8. 13. Amanda made sympathetic noises. Her mother was in constant agony from a variety of lower back problems. She’d had to give up work a few years ago, barely able to walk after decades of working two waitressing jobs, day in, day out.
“There may be tests,” her mother said. “Things that aren’t covered by Medicaid.”
Anxiety ignited in Amanda’s belly, coating her throat with a sour taste. She didn’t have extra money to cover tests. She didn’t have extra money for anything. As it was, she’d memorized her expense spreadsheets, all her careful charts of income and expenses. She knew exactly when her rent was due, when she had to pay for electricity, gas, and water. She knew her mother’s payment schedule as well, because that was Amanda’s duty, her obligation, to help out the woman who had raised her. It wasn’t like her brother Alex could. Warren, either.
21. 34. 55. 89. Amanda managed to sound calm as she said, “Don’t worry about it. Just have them send the bills to me.”
“Thank you, Mandy. You know, if there was any other way…”
Amanda took a deep breath. The Fibonacci numbers weren’t soothing the way they usually were. Of course, that was because she kept picturing another number—100,000. The number she had to write on a check by next Monday, if she was going to buy into the Link Oster partnership. She’d spent the past three months trying to figure out how she’d raise the money.
A normal person would take out a loan. But Amanda wasn’t a normal person. Warren had seen to that.
And just like clockwork, her mother said, “Your father was at church this morning.”
144. 233. 377. Oh, who gives a damn! She scribbled through the list of numbers, scratching them out like she was rooting out her past. She couldn’t bring herself to say a word to her mother.
“He has a lead on a new job,” her mother said, and the hope woven into her mother’s voice twisted the wires wrapped tight around Amanda’s heart. “He says things will be different this time. He’ll be able to pay restitution to all three of us.”
“Warren is an addict,” Amanda said, purposely keeping her voice even. She didn’t expect her mother to listen. Not this time. Not when she’d spent decades deluding herself. “He’s a gambler who bankrupted our entire family. He stole your identity, and mine, and Alex’s, and he ruined our credit history. That’s why you divorced him, Mother. That’s why I won’t speak to him.”
“He loves you, Mandy.”
Amanda bit her tongue. Maybe somewhere in the tangled neurons of Warren Carter’s brain, some chemical impulse fired every once in a while to delude him into believing he cared for his family. But a loving man would never have let his children go to bed hungry, night after night. A loving man wouldn’t have bet the money for the electric bill, wouldn’t have pawned half their possessions, sold the car out from under them, broken their hearts too many times to count.
The worst of it was, Amanda had been forbidden to tell anyone about the hell she lived in. Her mother had been terrified that Child Protective Services would get involved. CPS would have put Amanda and Alex into foster care if Amanda told anyone about wearing three pairs of pants to bed just to stop shivering, about doing her homework by the light of the streetlamp outside their home, about endless dinners of “tomato soup” made from ketchup and hot water.
But it wasn’t all bad. Sometimes the right horse came in. Sometimes the cards were kind. Sometimes it was Christmas in August and there was roast beef and champagne and all the ice cream two little kids could eat. Then the family had to take care that the IRS never found out about Warren’s secret income.
Privacy. That’s what decent people valued. That’s how polite people lived. Privacy above all was the Carter family motto. And because Amanda had perfected the art of pouring her affection for two parents into one, into her mother, she chose not to break that habit now. Because she still felt guilty, because she still believed she should have used her math skills to catch Warren’s financial sins before he destroyed their family, she kept her voice even and announced, “Mother, change the topic of conversation, or I’ll hang up.”
There was a long pause before Laura asked, “Wasn’t the weather lovely this afternoon?”
Amanda sighed and agreed and said something else to keep the conversation going. They chatted for another ten minutes before she could beg off and get back to work.
But her concentration was shot once she hung up the phone. Medical tests… What would those cost? Amanda had already knotted the shoestring of her budget once, twice, a dozen times, trying to come up with the money for her partnership buy-in.
Now, a week before that giant check was due, it was time to admit defeat. She’d have to go to the bank tomorrow. It would take every ounce of her legal acumen to negotiate a loan, to argue that she was a sound risk despite the bankruptcy, despite Warren’s shredding of her credit history.
Because salvation was within sight. The United Pharmaceutical Alliance case she was slaving over would finally free her from debt. All she had to do was win the damn thing, convince a judge that UPA’s patents had been infringed to the tune of millions of dollars. Link Oster would collect thirty-three percent of the award, and Amanda would get a bonus large enough to pay off every penny she and her mother owed—and then some. Until then, it was simply a matter of putting her head down, tightening her belt, and getting the hard work done.
Which would be a hell of a lot easier to accomplish if she didn’t have a headache lancing behind both eyes.
Or if she wasn’t picturing Kyle Norton, looking up at her from that broad expanse of green grass, laughing as he waved for her to throw down her sunglasses. She could still feel that moment between them, that tug as their eyes met. Sure, everyone had been laughing. The office folks around her had thought it was all a big joke; Harvey clearly thought it was the most hilarious thing in the world.
But looking down at the right fielder, Amanda had felt a hell of a lot more than a joke. Something had melted all of her insides. A warm bath had spread from her chest to her toes in a tingling rush that left her wondering where all the oxygen in the stadium had gone. She’d stared at Norton’s fingers as he cupped his hands, and she’d watched the strength flow from his shoulders to his biceps to his forearms and his wrists. When their eyes met, the entire ballpark had dimmed around her—not just the sight, but the sounds as well, and the tang of hot dogs and beer and funnel cakes.
The effect had only lasted for a heartbeat. Then Harvey had hollered, and she’d dropped the glasses, and everything had slipped back to normal.
She shook her head, exasperated with her imagination. Right. Like Amanda Carter would go boy crazy now, at age twenty-nine.
She rolled her eyes and pulled her keyboard closer to the edge of her desk. She had to go research crazy. Clicking her tongue and shaking her head, she opened up the powerhouse program all the lawyers used to gather information for their cases. At one flick of her fingers, she could search through vast databases of court decisions, newspaper articles, and scientific journals. She needed to pin down an expert witness for UPA, someone who could testify about a particularly obscure aspect of pharmacokinetics. An associate had already identified half a dozen likely candidates; Amanda’s task was to dig up dirt on each of them, to figure out how each scientist could harm them if called to the stand.
Due diligence. That was the name of the game. Every sane lawyer did it, to protect against disasters at trial.
As Amanda typed in the name of the first expert, her thoughts drifted back to the game. Back to Kyle Norton. Back to those cobalt eyes.
Cobalt. Right. Like any human being actually had eyes the color of the element with atomic number twenty-seven. Get a grip, Carter. Sheesh, she was smitten.
Not smitten, so much as bored. It was a hell of a lot more entertaining to think about a baseball player than it was to research some balding, wheezing expert on monocompartmental models of pharmacokinesis.
Her fingers darted across the keyboard before she’d made a conscious decision. She called up the broadest due diligence database, the one that would provide the most hits. She typed in Kyle’s name then added in variations, using initials, including his middle name—Marcus, she quickly discovered—along with all the other tricks of the research trade she’d mastered in three years of law school, in seven years of practice.
The flood of articles threatened to overwhelm her. But it didn’t take long to limit the search, to screen out all the reports of ordinary baseball games. Wanting to learn something about the real man, about who he was outside his persona of Baseball Star, she focused her review on Kansas newspapers, on stories from Kyle’s youth. There were the usual small-town entries—clowning around in a middle school play, making honor roll in high school, getting accepted to college on a full baseball scholarship.
There was a gap there, his freshman year in college. Three full months where not a single story appeared.
She flicked her fingers across the keyboard, calling up other databases, services that collected even more obscure local news. There was a caption from a photograph, a reference to a Mr. and Mrs. Wilfred Norton, parents of baseball player Kyle Norton, making a generous donation to a local charity.
Amanda dug deeper, following the trail. She bit her lip as she switched to a shadowy research service, a collection of records that weren’t lawfully obtained, that could never be produced in any court of law. And when she opened one last file, everything fell into place.
Kyle Norton wasn’t the man she thought he was. He wasn’t the man anyone thought he was. And now she knew the truth.
* * *
Hours later, Amanda lay in bed, trying to ignore the sound of a late-night shouting match between two drunks on the street outside her apartment. Sirens howled in the distance, and someone rattled through the trashcans on the curb.
She was a law firm partner, and this run-down apartment was the only place she could afford to live. It wasn’t fair. She’d worked hard every day of her life. She’d always played by the rules. She was a good lawyer, a good daughter, a good person, and all she got was a tiny one-bedroom that sounded like it was in the center of a war zone.
Not like some people. Not like Kyle Norton, who had broken the rules but prospered every single day of his professional life.
Muttering to herself, Amanda covered her head with her pillow and tried counting by sevens to one thousand. Sleep refused to come. At 4:30, she finally gave up, climbing out of bed half an hour early. She launched her morning exercise routine, fiercely adding extra crunches because she had the time, and then she forced herself to take a freezing shower. Studies showed that cold water could compensate for as much as 3.27 hours of lost sleep.
After armoring herself in her grey power suit and killer pumps, she fastened her hair in a graceful French twist. Her goal was to demonstrate that she was calm. Dependable. Entirely worthy of a loan. She took extra time to apply her makeup, outlining her lips with a pencil, tracing individual eyelashes with mascara. She slipped on her black-framed eyeglasses, the ones with clear lenses that made her look more intelligent.
Right. Like clothes, cosmetics, and glasses would erase the past.
She gritted her teeth and headed out to the battle field. Her first stop was the huge national bank with its main branch next door to Link Oster. When that didn’t work, she headed to the even larger institution across the street. And the credit union around the corner. And two smaller banks, each one a block farther from the office. At least those folks offered her ice water and warm smiles before they absolutely refused to even consider a risk as bad as the one she represented.
By noon, Amanda was sitting in the office of Tracy McIlroy, Certified IRA Services Professional, Certified Lender Business Banker, Certified Retirement Services Professional, and Certified Personal Banker. This bank was her last hope, Amanda’s only chance to meet Link Oster’s partnership requirements.
McIlroy pursed her lips, shaking her head like she’d just watched the Dow Jones plummet off a cliff. “I’m truly sorry, Ms. Carter. Here at Amalgamated, I have to answer to the vice president for every loan we make. We simply cannot take the risk given your…questionable fiscal past.”
Steeling herself, Amanda extracted a manila folder from her briefcase and pushed it across the desk toward the other woman. “Ms. McIlroy, I understand that my circumstances are somewhat unusual. But if you review these spreadsheets you’ll find—”
“I’m sorry,” the loan officer said, not even bothering to glance at the documents.
“If you could just look at the numbers—”
“Thank you for thinking of Amalgamated.”
“I’m only asking for a moment of your time. You can share these data with your vice president—”
Tracy McIlroy stood, flattening both palms against her desk. “Have a good day, Ms. Carter.”
Right. Amanda would hardly improve her argument if a security guard had to throw her out. She collected her papers and strode out of the office, chin up, shoulders back, daring anyone in the lobby to suspect she was a bankrupt credit risk with less than three hundred dollars to her name.
The August heat smacked her like a sopping towel, and she braced herself for the walk back to the office. No bank was going to help her. Her last paycheck had already been allocated to her modest needs and to her mother’s; she couldn’t get a payday loan until the end of the month, even if she was desperate enough to pay the usurious rates those bloodsuckers charged.
She’d have to shift her last few hundred in savings into her overheated checking account. She could put off paying rent for nine days—one day shy of incurring a penalty. If she skipped the electric bill, they probably wouldn’t cut her off for thirty days. She could make a payment on at least one of her mother’s upcoming medical tests.
But the truth sat in her belly like a mass of seething lava: this was the end of the road. She’d have to leave Link Oster. Give up the partnership. The other attorneys would never tolerate the risk of her bad credit; they weren’t running a charity, after all. Everything she’d worked for, every hour she’d spent proving she was a good, competent lawyer—it all meant nothing now.
She blinked hard, telling herself the sidewalk shimmered because of the heat. She wasn’t going to cry. She hadn’t cried since the last time she saw Warren, seven years ago when the pathetic liar had begged her for just a hundred dollars, a sure bet on an exhibition football game, enough to tide him over until he could get enough cash to buy back the registration on her beloved Miata.
She pinched the bridge of her nose and forced herself to take a trio of deep breaths. She couldn’t dwell on the past. She had to move forward.
Maybe she could work a deal with the firm. They’d throw her out of the partnership, but maybe they’d let her work for some pitiful hourly rate, bringing the United Pharmaceutical case to trial. They didn’t have anyone else in-house with the patent knowledge to represent their client.
Her predicament was all the more frustrating because the previous night’s research had finally yielded a star expert witness: Antoine Phillips. Dr. Phillips had the gravitas, the reputation, the sheer years of experience to make UPA’s case, to save UPA from financial collapse. Too bad he devoted the vast majority of his time to a public health project in Equatorial Guinea. Amanda had sent the good doctor an introductory email the night before, pointing out all the logical reasons he should come stateside to testify. Now, twelve hours later, there was a chance she had a reply waiting in the office. Maybe that would secure a temporary reprieve when she admitted she couldn’t pay up on time.
She shook her head, picking up her pace as a light changed and she strode into a crosswalk. She could have gotten her email off to Dr. Phillips a couple of hours earlier if she hadn’t let herself get sidetracked by her research into Kyle Norton.
She shivered as she slipped into the lobby of the massive office building where Link Oster made its home. The air conditioning raised goosebumps on her arms. At least that’s what she told herself as her heels clicked across the marble floor.
“Amanda!” She barely stopped herself from grimacing as Harvey Link’s bold bass thundered across the lobby. She slipped into the elevator beside him.
“Good afternoon,” she said, trying to sound confident and steady.
He waited until the door closed before he mauled the button for the eighteenth floor. “I’m glad I ran into you. The partnership wanted me to remind you about the pay-in.”
“Of course,” she said, not meeting his eyes. Her new reality was still too fresh; it hurt too much to tell him the truth.
“Excellent,” said Harvey, and he actually rubbed his hands together, like a giant child anticipating an early Christmas present. “We’ll look forward to receiving your check by next Monday.”
She blinked hard and tried to ignore the lie she’d just told. The elevator door slid open and Harvey stepped back, allowing her to go first. She took one step into the Link Oster lobby and stopped dead.
Kyle Norton stood beside the receptionist’s desk.
Kyle Norton, summoned like a spirit from her research and the vicious envy that had kept her awake all night. He wore a white dress shirt and khakis, looking perfectly at ease, as comfortable in the law firm waiting room as he’d been in the Rockets’ outfield. He held a manila folder in his left hand, just like the one she’d tried to pass to Tracy McIlroy.
As she gaped, he extended his right hand toward her, a smile broad across his face. That made sense, because he had no idea what she’d pulled up on her computer, what she’d read and checked and double-checked, until there could by no shadow of a doubt.
She shook her head and cleared her throat, stepping forward as she pasted on a professional smile. “Mr. Norton,” she said, matching his hand with hers.
His fingers were warm. As they tightened around hers, the pressure jolted along a direct line to her belly. She swallowed hard against that soaring swoop, that feeling that she’d pumped a playground swing out of control, that the chains were slack and she was about to fall away into nothingness.
Harvey cleared his throat behind her. The sound was enough to bring her back to earth. That, and the memory that Kyle Norton was living a lie. She reclaimed her hand and introduced the two men as if she’d known the ballplayer forever. The social nicety gave her a moment to push down her thoughts, to smother her memories of what she’d read.
The men talked about yesterday’s game. Harvey complimented Norton on that home run, and Norton nodded politely, tossing off information about beating Milwaukee as if it were easy, as if it mattered.
“Well,” Harvey said after a couple of minutes. “I should let you two get back to… what exactly does bring you to our firm, Mr. Norton?”
Norton’s grin was relaxed, easy. “A business proposition.”
Harvey’s face brightened, and Amanda could hear the ka-ching of an old-fashioned cash register as the senior partner calculated the value of his newest client. “Well, then! Why don’t we just step into one of the conference rooms here—”
“I’m sorry,” Norton said. “I wasn’t clear. My proposal is for Ms. Carter.”
Harvey’s surprise was evident as he fumbled for a laugh. Amanda watched him run his options—pretend Norton was joking, make an argument that Harvey was the better lawyer for whatever job Norton could possibly bring to the firm, or let his new toy slip away.
Before he could settle on a response, Amanda decided to take control over her own fate. She might not be able to buy into the partnership, but if she could land one more client for the firm, tie one more case to her name before she had to hit the streets… Maybe that would be enough to get her an extension through October. Maybe that would keep her career alive.
She raised one hand to indicate a conference room door. “Mr. Norton, we can step right in here.”
And she shot a smile at Harvey, trying to convey that she had the situation under control, that he could trust her. Yeah. Right.
She took a steadying breath as she flipped on the conference room lights and closed the heavy door. It wasn’t fair that Kyle Norton was bringing his business to Link Oster now, just as she might be forced to leave the firm. But life wasn’t fair, was it? Otherwise, why would she be stuck with Warren in her past, dragged down by a man who had abused her love, destroyed her trust? Why was she ruined while people like Kyle Norton never had to pay a price for their mistakes?
She tightened the muscles in her jaw as she took the seat at the head of the table. Norton waited until she was settled before he pulled out his own chair, and then he pushed the manila folder toward her. “Ms. Carter,” he said.
“Amanda,” she corrected, reciting the new-client script she’d written long ago.
“Amanda,” he agreed readily enough. “I owe you an apology. I wanted to get a message to you before the end of yesterday’s game, but I couldn’t break away.” He glanced at the folder eagerly, and she narrowed her eyes, trying to figure out his angle.
“Please,” he said, nodding toward the table.
Cautiously, she slipped one fingernail beneath the manila edge and pulled out two pieces of paper. “What’s this?” she asked, picking up the first one.
“A check. For your glasses. I trust it’s enough?”
Three hundred dollars. Yeah, that was enough. Twice the price of the glasses on the open market, forgetting the fact that she’d gotten them as a gift.
She resisted the urge to look at her watch. If she deposited the check before two, it would clear overnight. She could buy groceries and pay off part of her overdue water bill.
Resenting the uptick in her heartbeat, she stared at the funds. That damn check made a huge difference to her. And it was chicken feed to Kyle Norton. Almost literally nothing to a man who’d built his multi-million dollar career on lies. Not trusting herself to speak civilly as she fought a fresh wave of envy, she put her fingertip on the other item in the folder. “And this ticket?” she asked.
“It’s for next Saturday’s game. We’re playing Washington.”
She didn’t have time for baseball. Not if she convinced the firm to let her stay on for UPA. “Thank you, Mr. Norton. But that’s really not necessary.”
“Actually, it is,” he contradicted. “I need you there.”
“When you gave me your glasses, you changed my luck. I broke a twenty-seven game hitting slump because of you. You have to give me your glasses on Saturday, repeat everything just like yesterday, so that I keep hitting.”
She actually snorted in surprise. “That’s ridiculous!”
He shrugged and looked a little embarrassed. “I’m a superstitious guy. I need you there.”
Need. She felt that connection again, the spark between them as she stepped to the fence at right field.
But Kyle Norton didn’t have the first idea what need meant. He didn’t understand needing to pay the rent, needing to support a parent, needing to cover the utilities, the phone bill, the partnership buy-in. He played games for a living, and she hadn’t had time for games since she was a child.
“Fine, Mr. Norton. My billing rate is three hundred dollars an hour.”
“I can’t pay you!” He looked horrified, like she’d asked him to sacrifice infants on an altar at dawn. “The superstition would be jinxed if I paid you.”
Sure it would. She rolled her eyes. “Look, Mr. Norton. I can’t work for free. I’m a busy attorney, with a case going to trial in just a couple of months. There are only twenty-four hours in a day, and I can’t waste three of them watching you throw a ball around for fun.”
He actually grinned, a bit sheepish, shrugging like this was all some elaborate joke. But he was serious. She could see that in his eyes, they way they darkened from cobalt—that color is ridiculous!—to navy. “Five,” he said. “Five hours. I’ll need you at batting practice before the game.”
“There’s no possible way I can give you five hours next weekend!”
“Fine,” he said, pushing back from the mahogany table. “Then I have no choice but to tell Harvey Link that you’re refusing to help the Rockets get to the post-season.”
Tell Harvey Link. Tattle on her like they were kids on a playground. Run to her boss, to a guy who was obviously infatuated with baseball, with the Rockets.
This was all a game to Norton. Everything he’d ever done was a game—toss a ball around, collect a million dollars, do not pass Go.
Warren had played games, too, every single bet he’d placed, every single wager. Amanda hated games. She hated watching other people rake in their winnings, gloat over their success while she was left with nothing because she’d played by the rules.
It wasn’t fair. Nothing was fair.
“What’ll it be, Amanda?” Norton asked, his voice low, teasing. “Are you going to help me out? Or roll the dice and make me go to your boss?”
Dice. What the hell did Amanda know about dice?
A red haze drifted across her vision, and her fingers curled into fists. “Fine, Mr. Norton. Don’t pay me for my time. But pay me for this: I know about Spring Valley Renewal Center.”
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