From Left Field
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Adam Sartain is the face of the Rockets baseball franchise, a long-time left fielder with an easy-going attitude and a reputation for helping out in the community.
Haley Thurman is literally the girl next door; she and Adam grew up like siblings, raising hell and sneaking out for late-night hijinks at the neighboring Reeves Farm. Now, Haley dreams of buying the farm for her no-kill animal shelter.
Haley’s plan is perfect, until Adam learns the farm is for sale. His unscrupulous manager has cleaned out his bank account, and the only way he can regain his fortune, save his reputation, and continue to fund a charity for underserved kids is to buy the farm and develop it as high-end condos.
Sparks fly as Haley and Adam fight over the farm—and neither is prepared for the heat when they realize they aren’t just neighbors any more…
From Left Field, the seventh 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 >>>
After thirty-two years of Baseball Opening Day Barbecues, Haley Thurman should have been an expert.
It wasn’t all that tricky. Buy enough food for a full-scale deployment of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Bring extra chairs into the living room while the game was on, so everyone could watch the Raleigh Rockets win their first game of the season. Make sure the beer stayed cold and the grill stayed hot.
And keep an eye on the dogs.
That’s where she screwed up. She should know better by now. But Killer, the toy-size mop of a mutt, had woven between her ankles, pressing against Haley’s shins to express undying canine love. Darcy, the three-legged beagle, began baying like his heart was about to break. And Heathcliff, the brains of the operation, used his height to snag an entire smoked pork shoulder from the counter.
She got it back from him. In a household that included three dogs, a grumpy cat, and a tank full of fish, chaos was the norm, and Haley was used to moving fast to avert disaster. But by the time she made her recovery, the pork was beyond salvaging. The human guests would have to make do with beef brisket, grilled chicken, links of sausage (hot and sweet), gallons of Brunswick stew, and a dozen assorted side dishes, all served at picnic tables in the back yard.
The dogs got locked in the laundry room—better late than never—and Haley rewarded herself with one of her ice-cold beers.
“Careful, now. Toss ’em back like that on an empty stomach, and you’ll be staggering by sunset.”
Of course, she recognized the voice before she turned around. Thirty-two years of being next-door neighbors did that to a person. “The man of the hour,” she said, grinning as Adam Sartain folded her into a bear hug.
“Sorry I’m late,” the Rockets’ left-fielder said, brushing a kiss against her cheek. “The post-game press conference went on longer than I thought it would.”
She laughed as he let her go, and she turned toward the fridge. “You say that every year,” she said, automatically reaching toward the back for his preferred Guinness.
“Every year, I think I can slip out early.”
“Sure, the team would be fine with that. The face of the franchise, ducking out of a little Q and A because he’s got barbecue waiting across town.”
“A man should have priorities,” Adam said, grinning easily. He accepted the beer and handed over a white pasteboard box in exchange.
“For me?” Haley asked, pretending surprise.
Adam chuckled. “Like I could forget and dare to show my face around here? Happy spring training.”
She eyed her annual treat of Florida salt water taffy longingly. “I should eat dinner first.”
“I won’t tell on you,” Adam said.
Not that she needed his permission… She pounced on a piece of cinnamon candy, tearing off the waxed paper and slipping the pink stuff into her mouth. She sucked hard on the spicy sweetness. The taffy was so soft that she moaned a little in pleasure.
He laughed. “Huh. I’ve worked for years to perfect my sweet loving, and all I really needed to do was give a girl some of that candy.”
She almost choked. There’d been a time, for about three days back in high school, when she would have swooned to hear the word “loving” come out of Adam Sartain’s mouth. But her brothers’ mocking had knocked that insanity out of her system fast. So she grinned and said, “The truth hurts, doesn’t it, buddy?”
Adam shook his head in pretend mourning. “I thought you invited me every year because of my winning personality.”
“I invite you every year because my brothers would kill me if I didn’t. Let’s go. Michael and Billy are dying to talk about that suicide squeeze in the ninth.”
Adam led the way. He knew the screen door as well as she did; he remembered to lift on the handle as he pushed it open. He should remember—he’d been running in and out of this kitchen since he was a skinny blond boy with summer shorts, a bare chest, and scabbed knees.
The hair had darkened over the years—it was chestnut brown now, with a hint of silver coming in at his temples. And he wore an anonymous navy polo shirt to cover his chest. She had no idea about the state of his knees, especially after that hard slide he’d taken into second, in the bottom of the fifth.
Adam Sartain might be the most popular player on the Raleigh Rockets, the steady left fielder who’d shown up day in, day out for nearly a decade of play. But first and foremost, he’d always be Haley’s next-door neighbor. That’s the way things had been for decades. And that’s the way Haley wanted them to stay forever.
* * *
Hours later, Adam whistled in admiration as Haley let loose with a string of profanity that would have made her a star in the Rockets’ locker room. “Let me guess,” he said when she had finished. “Billy cleaned out the beer.”
“I should have known better than to trust my baby brother with putting away the leftover food.” She slammed the refrigerator door.
He was honor bound to distract her from thoughts of bloody revenge. “Any of that banana pudding left?”
“Aren’t you in training?”
“Sure. I’ll have a bowl now and run a few windsprints tomorrow.”
“A few hundred, maybe.” She grumbled, but she dished up two gigantic servings of dessert. He followed her into the family room, gladly accepting his bowl and collapsing on his end of the old, familiar couch. The sweetness in the first bite made his teeth ache, and he leaned his head back in contentment. “Man, it’s good to be home.”
“Come on,” she said, kicking him with a bare foot. “You love Florida. But now that you’re here, let’s go. Spring Swap. I went first last year.”
Yeah, she had. But maybe he could distract her into forgetting their stupid tradition. He put his bowl on the coffee table and pulled her feet onto his lap. His fingers automatically started to work the arch of her right foot, finding the pressure points and releasing her tension.
“Mmm,” she sighed, and he wasn’t sure if that was a comment about his hands or the massive bite of banana pudding she’d just shoved into her mouth. “God,” she moaned. “That feels amazing.”
“Sounds like someone hasn’t been getting any,” he teased.
She opened one eye. “Ante up, Sartain. I fed you, and I bought you Guinness. We all celebrated your win. Now it’s time for Spring Swap.”
Jesus. But Haley would never give up without a fight so he swallowed hard and confessed, “It was a dry season.”
Haley raised her eyebrows. “No one? Not all spring long?”
He shrugged. “I hooked up with one girl the first week, but she was out of there by the middle of February.”
“By Valentines Day,” Haley teased. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost that old Sartain charm.”
“I’m an old man down there.” He kept his voice light, but he saw her measure the truth behind his words.
“You’re thirty-two. I don’t think we need to drag out the wheelchair quite yet.”
He shrugged. “Half the guys are right out of college. Baseball is a young man’s game.”
And that was the thing about Haley. She didn’t try to tell him he was an idiot, didn’t try to make up a million excuses to soothe his ego. Instead, she sat up and pulled her feet out of range. “Hey,” she said. “Are you okay?”
And he should be, right? He had a year left on a multi-million-dollar contract that had pretty much set him up to do whatever he wanted for the rest of his life. So what, if his shoulder ached when he got up in the morning? Who cared if his knees complained for the first half hour he walked around? Why should it matter that the opposing pitcher never threw over to first once he got on base because he was never a threat to steal, not any more?
He still loved playing the game. And the team still looked to him for guidance. Hell, he’d taken the first question at the presser that afternoon, feeding all the usual answers about how this was the strongest team the Rockets had ever seen. And he’d loved saying it, because it was true. This team actually had all the parts to win a championship. With their starting pitching and their lineup of hitters, half the sportswriters out there said they were a shoo-in for the World Series.
“Adam,” Haley said, and he realized he’d let a lot of time go by without saying a word.
“Yeah,” he said, and he made himself smile. “I’m fine. But you’re not going to get any vicarious thrills from my wild exploits in the Sunshine State, not this year. So, your turn. How are things with computer genius Dylan?”
Automatically, he started looking around. Nope, there were only three dogs snoring in the huge bed beneath the grand piano. “You’re still together?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No. But I decided three dogs were enough for any girl.” She hesitated, but then she admitted, “There’s a cat around here somewhere. She’s probably curled up on my bed.”
Haley adopted a new pet after each spectacular breakup with the guy she’d been convinced was The One. Darcy had been that asshole with the Jaguar, the lawyer who’d screwed around behind her back for a year before she found out and threatened to cut off his balls. Heathcliff was the artist, the one who’d sponged off her for ages before she finally gave him his walking papers. Killer was… who the hell was Killer? Some other clueless jerk Haley had thought she could save, just like she thought she could save every homeless animal in Wake County.
“Let me guess,” he said. “The cat has three legs.”
Haley shook her head and kicked his thigh. “Nope, that’s Darcy.”
“Then she needed two thousand dollars’ worth of surgery before you brought her home.”
“You’re thinking of Heathcliff.”
“No one would adopt her because they thought she was a chupacabra.”
“That’s Killer, and she’s been over the mange for ages.”
“What’s wrong with the cat?”
“Nothing,” Haley said. But then she gave him a sidelong glance. “If you don’t count the fact she only has one eye.”
“What? There’s nothing wrong with Emma! It’s not her fault she got into a fight before Paws saved her!”
Paws for Love. Haley had built the damn thing from the ground up. She still wanted to drag home half the animals from the no-kill shelter. And she would, if she kept dating assholes who left her high and dry. “So,” he prompted. “Dylan?”
She grimaced. “He had an … anger-management problem.”
His gut tightened, and he sucked in air between his teeth. “Shit,” he said, and the word came out sounding like he was pissed with her.
She set her jaw. “Yeah. But I wasn’t quite the punching bag he expected.”
“What happened?” He wished Dylan was there, so he could beat the guy’s face in. He was glad the asshole wasn’t anywhere in sight because he wasn’t sure he’d know when to stop.
Haley squared her shoulders. “Turns out I learned something growing up with you and my brothers. My right hook’s as good as ever. I broke his nose, and he didn’t get a hand on me.”
She met his eyes. “Yeah. Well… Jesus. Sometimes I feel like I’m a million years old.”
“Don’t say that,” he warned. “Not when I’m six months older than you are.”
“At least you still have a marketable skill. What am I going to do in my old age?”
“Whoa! You’re getting way too close to a pity party. It’s a good thing Billy took the beer, or I’d have to cut you off.” He pushed himself upright and dusted off his hands. “Great Spring Swap. We really need to do this again soon. Not.”
“Yeah, well.” She shrugged. “Welcome home.”
He nodded. “Time for me to get back to my place. Through the dark. And the cold. All the way across both yards.”
“You poor thing.” She was laughing, which had been his intention.
“Up all those stairs to my bedroom.”
“Smallest violin in the world,” she said, rubbing her fingers together.
“With nothing to look forward to but a cold shower in the morning.”
“With nothing— Cold shower? Why?”
“Goddamn water heater must have blown out during the week, some time after Jason stopped by on his regular rounds. I found out last night when I got home. There’s a foot of water down there.”
So much for having someone look in on the place while he was gone. His manager, Jason Reiter, was supposed to watch over the house. The guy had an eagle eye for details; that’s why he was in charge of all Adam’s money. It was unlike him to miss a leak. It was even more unusual that he hadn’t responded to Adam’s texts all day.
“You can’t sleep there if your basement’s full of water!”
“Why not? I’ll be upstairs.”
“What if there’s an electrical short? What if the house burns down?”
He rolled his eyes. “It’s had plenty of time to do whatever it’s going to do. I’ll be fine.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! You’ll stay here tonight.”
“It’s no big deal.”
“You’re right,” she insisted. “It isn’t. The bed in the guest room is all made up.”
“I’m not a charity case.”
“No,” she said, sounding like he was the biggest idiot she’d ever met. “You’re a friend.” When he still didn’t respond, she said, “Come on, Adam. I’m just being neighborly.”
And that was it, the code from their childhood, passed down from their parents, time and time again. It was neighborly for him to mow the Thurmans’ lawn, in exchange for the chocolate chip cookies Haley baked. It was neighborly for her to pick up groceries for his mother, once Mom’s arthritis had made daily errands painful. It was neighborly to do a dozen different favors, whatever was needed at the time.
Well, the prospect of waking up to a hot shower had a certain amount of charm. And it wasn’t like he’d never spent a night in this old house—he’d practically lived here when he was a kid. Besides, he knew that look of determination in Haley’s eyes.
“Fine,” he said. And then, because he sounded like a seven-year-old boy who’d just been tricked into eating his vegetables, he added grudgingly, “Thank you.”
* * *
Haley tried not to gloat. “Go on upstairs. I’m just going to lock up.”
Of course, he didn’t leave her. He followed her into the kitchen as she checked that the dogs had plenty of water in their bowls. He watched as she tested the lock on the back door. He stood beside her in the front hall as she flipped the deadbolt and turned off the porch light.
Back in the family room, she ignored the old adage and knelt beside her sleeping dogs. She pulled gently on Darcy’s ears, evoking a series of snorts as the ancient beagle settled to a more comfortable position at the bottom of the canine pile. She rubbed Heathcliff’s belly, setting off a few half-hearted tail thumps against the floor before the shepherd mix sighed back to sleep. She scratched Killer from the top of her head to the tip of her tail, reminding the mutt that she didn’t need to wake up before sunrise.
She knew Adam was laughing at her. Everyone laughed when she talked to her dogs. But that would never keep her from carrying on the conversation. After all, the dogs were there for her every morning and every night.
Which was a hell of a lot more than she’d been able to say about Dylan. Or any other man she’d dated.
Adam followed as she led the way up the stairs. They both knew to avoid the center of the squeaky one, three steps from the top—habit now, because they didn’t have to worry about waking her parents, who were presumably sleeping soundly in their Florida condo. Not like when she was growing up, when Mom and Dad threatened to chain the doors shut against rule-breaking kids who only found new ways to get into post-curfew trouble.
Smiling at the memory of some rather spectacular displays of trouble, Haley pulled open the door to the linen closet. She’d told the truth when she said the bed was all made up—she always kept the house ready for any of the Thurman clan to stop by. She made short work of digging out a towel and a washcloth. It took her a little more effort to find a toothbrush at the back, but she managed.
“There you go,” she said.
She watched him slip into the guest room, the one that used to host her brothers’ bunk beds. He gently shut the door behind himself, and she took the chance to duck into the bathroom, to brush her own teeth, to splash water across eyes that were suddenly grainy.
It was a ton of work to put on the Opening Day party. She’d cooked all weekend, getting things ready. She’d worried about the weather for twenty-four straight hours. She’d barely been able to concentrate on the afternoon game because she’d been thinking about timing, about making all the food come out in the proper order.
She rolled her neck, trying to loosen her muscles. Adam had done a killer job on her feet. She could still feel his firm, confident fingers on her calves. She should have pushed for a back rub.
She still could.
Yeah, right. Adam had to be as tired as she was. More—he’d just gotten back from Florida the day before, and he’d played the game she’d watched with one eye. Played it, and been interviewed, and then come over and talked to everyone at the party. She should let the guy get some sleep.
Shaking her head at her own selfishness, she went into the master bedroom, the one that still felt like it belonged to her parents. Leaving the door open a crack so patrolling dogs would know she hadn’t been abducted by aliens, Haley shimmied out of her clothes. She found her nightshirt under her pillow, the oversize T she always wore. As she slipped into bed, she pulled the blanket and comforter up close beneath her chin. This early in spring, it was cold in the old house.
The guest room would be freezing. There was only a thin cotton blanket on the bed. What sort of hostess was she, inviting Adam to freeze to death?
Shaking her head at her own stupidity, she climbed out of bed. Now, the house seemed more quiet than before. The door to the linen closet squeaked as she opened it, and she sounded like a marauding bandit as she excavated a quilt from the bottom shelf.
She didn’t want to knock on Adam’s door, in case he’d actually managed to fall asleep. Instead, she twisted the doorknob with painstaking care, adding just enough pressure to ease the door open.
Moonlight washed in through the pair of windows, supplementing the soft fall of light that barely made it down the hall from her own bedroom. She’d replaced the boys’ bunk beds with a single queen, making a decent room for visiting adults.
Adam lay on his back when she opened the door, but he pushed himself up on his elbows when she hovered on the threshold. The sheet and blanket slipped down his chest, making him look like some sort of Roman statue. “Haley,” he said, his voice low and throaty.
She was totally unprepared for the wave of emotion that hit her. Her belly swooped down to her toes—the same toes he’d been rubbing not an hour before. No, that wasn’t her belly doing the swooping—it was something distinctly lower. Something that hadn’t been involved with thoughts about Adam Sartain for fifteen years or more. She caught her breath in surprise at her body’s reaction.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, pushing himself up further.
But that only caused more of a problem, because it made the sheet fall farther, made the blanket drape across his lap. She caught herself looking at that lap, wondering if he was wearing underpants or if he’d stripped completely for a quiet night’s sleep. She didn’t know what type of shorts he wore. Her brothers had both switched to boxers as soon as they were able to voice a preference, so she assumed Adam had too, but maybe not. Maybe as an athlete—
“Haley?” he asked, and this time, the growl was gone from his voice, replaced by naked concern.
No. Not naked. She had to stop thinking of naked.
“Here!” she said, barking out the word at full volume. Then she cleared her throat and said, like a normal person, “I thought you might be cold. It’s a quilt. You know. In case you’re cold.”
Oh my God. She must be drunk. But she wasn’t drunk—she hadn’t had a sip of alcohol since that one beer with dinner.
He started to push back the covers, but she wasn’t prepared to let him do that. Instead, she closed the distance between them, practically throwing the quilt onto the bed. She turned on her heel and fled back to the doorway, trying not to think about how hard her heart was pounding.
“Thanks,” he said behind her, and she thought she heard him laughing.
“No problem,” she said, and she hurried out the door, pulling it closed all the way and practically running to her own room. She hurtled herself into her bed and pulled the blanket up to her nose.
No problem, she’d said. But she’d lied. There was very much a problem.
Adam Sartain wasn’t one of the untrained puppies in the Thurman pack. He was a man. A man who might very well be lying naked in the next room. A man who had given her a foot massage and made her moan like Hollywood’s idea of a woman in love. A man she’d known all her life, but who she was suddenly seeing in a very new light.
She told herself she was an idiot. It was absurd to tremble like she was. She’d drunk too much, or she’d put too much cayenne in the barbecue sauce, or she’d dumped too much sugar into the banana pudding.
She was not going to have a crush on Adam Sartain, not now, not after all these years.
But she wasn’t very good at listening to herself. And she had a hard time falling asleep. Because all night long, she listened for the guest room door to open. She waited for Adam to read her mind. And she fought to smother her disappointment when he didn’t.
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