A naïve, innocent woman too sweet for her own good meets a man too bad for words in this sexy stand-alone baseball romance!
Hotheaded Tyler Brock has one huge strike against him when he arrives in Raleigh as the Rockets’ star first baseman: he owes one hundred hours of community service for starting a bar fight. Lost in a new town with a new team, Tyler can’t confide his greatest shame to anyone—he can’t read.
When he’s assigned to work for Emily Holt, he’s in even bigger trouble. Emily is beautiful, uptight, and ready to shed her secret, unwanted virginity. They hit it off, in more ways than one. But when illiterate Tyler shirks his book-bound community service, Emily must hold him accountable.
Can this mismatched pair save each other by sharing their long-held secrets?
Tyler Brock’s life had turned into a country music song.
His girlfriend dumped him. His truck broke down. And now he was staring at walking papers from the only job he’d ever loved.
Brandee had called him two nights before, catching him just as he got back to the hotel after a big win against San Francisco. She wasn’t congratulating him on his two-run double in the top of the seventh. Instead, she was bitching again that he hadn’t texted her again at the end of the game. Shit. He’d told her a thousand times that he didn’t text, and that wasn’t going to change, for Brandee or anyone else.
Before the road trip, he’d parked the truck in the airport parking lot. Got back to it on Wednesday night, returning from California. The engine cranked but wouldn’t turn over. He’d taken a cab home and called the dealer the next morning. There was some recall he was supposed to have received. Probably had received, but he hadn’t done anything about it. It would take three days to get the part, and another day to install it.
But the girl and the truck, they were nothing, compared to the job. Tyler had taken another cab that afternoon, showed up at the ballpark on time for batting practice. He never made it to the field, though. Skip called him into the office and closed the door, all solemn, like someone had died that afternoon. He told Tyler these were the hardest conversations for a manager to have.
Bullshit. The past three weeks had been full of trade talk. Two teams had bid on him, competing with each other, upping the ante back and forth. In pretty short order, Tyler had known he was leaving Texas. He just hadn’t known where he was going.
Well, he didn’t have to hold his breath any more. Raleigh had bought him, fair and square. They were paying a shitload of cash, plus three players. Tyler should be proud he’d commanded so much, but he just felt rejected. He’d lived in Texas all his life. His mother still lived in the house where he’d grown up, still had his Little League trophies in a case by the fireplace. His five brothers all lived within an hour of the stadium.
But Skip pulled him from that night’s game, with a bunch of bullshit lies about how bad he felt doing it. It’d screw everything up, if Tyler injured himself before making it to his new team. He was due on a plane first thing in the morning, heading out to Raleigh and the Rockets and the first trade of his professional career.
Girlfriend. Truck. Job. All gone. And that was why Tyler Brock was sitting in a ridiculous hipster bar just a couple blocks from the stadium, finishing his fourth beer and spoiling for a fight.
He signaled to the bartender for another as a shout went up from the far end of the bar. Tyler glanced at the television screen in time to see JT Moran whiff on what would have been ball four.
“Pussy Moran!” some guy shouted, and all his asshole friends hooted with laughter.
Tyler knew the type—college guys, getting shit-faced on fake IDs and Daddy’s trust funds. Tyler identified the leader immediately—blond, broad shoulders; he’d probably played tennis for his goddamn prep school.
As the camera showed JT stalking back to the dugout, Tennis Dude kept at it. A blind monkey wouldn’t have swung at that pitch. A Girl Scout could have hit it out of the park. The jackass didn’t even realize he couldn’t have it both ways—the same pitch couldn’t have been shit and set up on a T.
“Goddamn faggot,” Tennis Dude shouted. “Moran should be sent down to the minors for life.”
“Can his ass,” another guy agreed before drinking deeply from his hand-crafted lager. He wore a dress shirt and a blue blazer; he looked like he’d just stepped into the bar from his job as a lawyer, or selling stocks.
“Three million bucks a year, and the moron plays like shit,” the third guy chimed in, the one wearing the backwards baseball cap. “Worst guy on the whole goddamn team.”
That did it. Tyler bulled his way into the middle of the group and announced, “JT Moran is the best right fielder to play for Texas in a decade.”
For a heartbeat, all three guys just stared. They recognized him; it’d be hard not to, with the shitty “career retrospective” the reporters had aired between the third and fourth innings. Lawyer Guy held up his hands, palms out, as he said, “Hey, man. It’s just a game. We have the right to express our opinions.”
Tyler set his mug on the bar, only the precision of the move giving the slightest hint that he was four beers down for the night. “Your opinions are wrong,” he said, directing his words to Tennis Dude. No reason to screw with the other guys. Might as well go for the leader.
That was the first lesson Tyler had ever learned in schoolyard fights, and it translated pretty well to bars. Take down the leader, and the rest of the guys’ll back off, run away like screaming little girls.
It wasn’t like Tyler wanted to fight. He would have just ignored the dipshits, if they’d been ragging on anyone else. But not JT Not the guy who’d had his back for the five years he’d spent in the majors.
And that wasn’t just the beer talking. Tyler was going to be lost in Raleigh without JT, without the only teammate who knew the truth about Tyler but had never told a living soul. Not since that first day, when they’d both stood in the locker room, staring at a notice on the team bulletin board. Tyler had known it was important, with bold letters and a headline in red. But he couldn’t pin down the words, couldn’t get the text to stop jumping all over the goddamn page.
JT had waited for Tyler to say something. Waited for him to react to whatever was posted there, plain as day. And when Tyler hadn’t said boo, JT grumbled, “Team meeting’s moved to seven. Last one there is volunteered to sit in the team’s booth at the State Fair all day Sunday.”
Tyler had snorted. And hustled off to the meeting with JT. But he’d seen the look in the other player’s eyes. JT knew his secret. JT knew Tyler couldn’t read.
Not that the guy ever made a big deal out of it. He let Tyler figure things out the way he always had—watching the guys to see what gate they all walked to at the airport, flipping through official forms like he was too busy to study them, just signing wherever someone pointed out a giant X. Tyler wasn’t an idiot, after all. He’d figured out how to sign his own name back in grade school. Numbers hardly ever gave him trouble.
But when he was lost, when there wasn’t any hint about what he was supposed to do, where he was supposed to go? Somehow, JT always managed to be there. He’d make a joke out of it, turn everything into a story. He’d make it sound all casual-like, as he told Tyler exactly what was going on.
And JT wasn’t going to be in Raleigh.
Tyler would be on his own, for the first time in five years.
So maybe he was just ready to beat the shit out of three over-privileged college dudes who thought JT Moran should have taken the base on balls, should have walked to first.
And Tennis Dude wasn’t exactly trying to keep the peace. “Shit, man,” the guy said. “If your boyfriend just lost us the game, that isn’t your fault. You’re not even on the team any more.”
Instant, heart-stopping rage, painting Tyler’s vision crimson, folding his hands into fists. This wasn’t the hotheaded push-and-shove of a fight on the baseball diamond, the type of bench-clearing brawl that added up to a lot of hot words and a few sharp jabs with the heel of a hand. This was the white-hot desire to obliterate someone, to make someone pay.
“What?” Tennis Dude said, laughing. “You’re going to fight me?”
Lawyer Guy tried to intervene, saying to Tyler: “Hey, man, come on. He didn’t mean anything by it.”
But Tennis Dude waved off his friend. “I meant every word I said.” He stepped away from the bar, squaring off in a way that told Tyler the guy wasn’t a stranger to throwing a punch. He probably worked out in some gym with his personal trainer, learned to go after the heavy bag as part of his fitness regimen. That was fine. Tyler wasn’t a stranger to a good fight, himself.
“Come on,” said Baseball Cap. “Jackson, leave him alone.”
Jackson. Tennis Dude.
Tyler didn’t take his eyes off Jackson as he taunted, “What about it? Going to listen to your friend? Sit down and have another—what? A cosmo? A goddamn appletini?”
“Leave me alone, asshole,” Jackson growled.
Those two words dripped from Tyler’s lips, burning like gasoline. Make me. The order that had kicked off every playground fight in his childhood. The rebellious demand that had sparked a dozen battles with his brothers. The defiant claim that had kept him after school for countless detention sessions, until he’d finally figured out he’d rather go to baseball practice, to football practice, to basketball if that was the only sport in season, than to sit in a windowless classroom, staring at a clock, and waiting for the bell to ring so he’d finally be free.
His heart pounded. He forced himself to take a deep breath, to steady himself like he was staring down a 100-mile-an-hour fastball. He was all too aware of the alcohol pumping through his veins; he couldn’t move as fast, strike as accurately as if he were stone, cold sober. But things had gone too far for him to back down now. Way too far.
Jackson swung first.
Tyler ducked away, catching the worst of the blow on his biceps. The guy was stronger than he looked. Tyler swung a quick left hook, automatically folding his thumb over his knuckles instead of inside his fist, to keep from breaking it. The blow glanced off Jackson’s forearm.
Tyler heard a woman scream. Lawyer Guy started swearing. Someone shouted, “Call 911!”
Jackson threw another punch, connecting directly with Tyler’s jaw, hard enough to make him see stars. The blow unlocked something in Tyler’s brain. He forgot about being a professional baseball player. He forgot about drowning his sorrows, about drinking away his last night in Texas. He forgot about everything except beating the living shit out of the guy in front of him.
The bartender and the bouncer finally wrestled them apart. But not before Jackson’s nose was broken, gushing blood. Not before Tyler’s knuckles were bruised and bleeding.
And not before the wail of a siren silenced every last voice in the bar.
* * *
Emily Holt sat in her best friend’s office, wondering if she was making the biggest mistake of her life.
“Anna, the guy’s a criminal.”
Anna Benson shrugged. “He’s a ballplayer. They all get into trouble at some point. Besides, you’re a social worker. Isn’t it your mission to get troubled souls back on track?”
“It was my mission to help victims of abuse rebuild their lives, until the hospital laid me off!”
Anna’s face grew serious. “That’s why this is so perfect. You need to get back on the horse, get back to work. And Tyler needs this chance. I need this chance, Em.”
“But the guy was in a bar fight! He pleaded guilty to assault!” Emily couldn’t put into words how much the thought disgusted her. After spending a couple of years counseling women who’d been beaten by the men in their lives, she had no sympathy for a man who used his fists when he got angry. Angry and drunk.
Anna shook her head. “It’s not like that. The other guy threw the first punch. Brock only took the plea because he had to wrap things up in Texas. We need him here, to start playing tonight.” Anna softened her voice into the cajoling tones she’d used for the past seven years, whenever she needed something special from her best friend. “Come on, Em. They wouldn’t have let him off with community service if he was a threat to anyone.”
Say that to the guy he beat up! That’s what Emily was going to say. But she didn’t get the words out of her mouth before there was a sharp double knock on the office door.
“Come in,” Anna called, casting an apologetic look at Emily.
Emily knew that look. It meant Anna had decided to act first and ask forgiveness later. Same thing she’d done countless times back at the University of Michigan—dragging Emily out on terrible double dates, securing off-campus housing where the pipes froze in the first winter cold snap, pushing Emily into study groups that just happened to include Anna’s crush-of-the-moment. The two women had met during Freshman Week at the University of Michigan—two North Carolina girls astonished at how far they were from home—and they’d immediately become fast friends.
So Emily wasn’t surprised when the office door opened and two men walked into the room. She even smiled and nodded at the first guy—Zach Ormond—although he only had eyes for Anna. Emily couldn’t help but glance at her friend’s hand, at the sensible, square-cut diamond that glinted on her ring finger. Anna and Zach had been engaged for less than a week, but it already seemed like they could read each other’s minds.
That sort of familiarity, that sort of love didn’t seem possible. At least not to Emily. She’d never felt anything close to it before. Sure, she’d had more than her share of boyfriends. She’d gone out on countless dates. She’d even had a couple of long-term relationships, if a month or two counted as long-term. But she’d never felt the absolute trust, the sheer certainty that shimmered off her best friend now.
Emily turned away, her throat thickening with unexpected emotion. And she found herself face to face with Tyler Brock, Criminal Mastermind.
Okay. Not a mastermind. A mastermind didn’t start a bar fight on his last night in town. A mastermind didn’t get slugged in that fight, leaving a pretty remarkable purple bruise along the left side of his jaw. A mastermind didn’t plead guilty in frantically short order, accepting the court’s full sentence, so he could resolve the matter before he moved halfway across the country to his new job. And a mastermind definitely did not scramble for the first community service job tossed his way, desperate to serve his time and erase his criminal record forever.
But suddenly, looking at Tyler, Emily found that not one bit of that mattered. Because the man who had followed Zach into Anna’s office stole her breath away, boiling off every protest left in her arsenal.
It wasn’t just those chocolate eyes, so dark that his pupils seemed to disappear. It wasn’t only the unruly black hair, the tousled waves that invited her fingers to tease them back into order. It wasn’t even the edges of the tattoo that peeked from beneath the sleeve of his tight black T-shirt, the tribal markings leaving sharp black points against his tawny skin.
It was the grin.
By rights, she reasoned, Tyler should have been nervous. He was meeting the woman—Anna—who was for all intents and purposes the owner of the Rockets baseball team. He’d arrived in Raleigh under a cloud, detained by the legal system for two full days when he should have been playing first base for his new club. The media had been howling since the deal was announced—first with glee, then with bitter condemnation. He’d been called a hothead, a bad boy, a head case just waiting to fall apart at the first sign of serious pressure on his new team.
But with that one grin, he made it clear that none of the media frenzy mattered. Nothing would get in the way of Tyler Brock being Tyler Brock. The painful-looking bruise along his jaw only heightened his devil-may-care appearance. As he shook Emily’s hand, Anna made a bemused introduction.
Emily told herself not to make anything of the contact that jolted her heart like a live wire. Her fingers always tingled when she met someone new. Her palm always felt like it was basking in the sun. Her heart always leaped in her chest, strangling her words, flooding her cheeks with a raging blush.
Emily lied to herself a lot. At least when it came to the men in her life.
“Pleased to meet you,” she said. Good. Her voice didn’t betray her.
Anna wasn’t nearly as affected by her new acquisition. She got right down to business. “Tyler, as you know, the court in Texas has transferred administration of your case to a judge here in Raleigh. Fortunately, the Rockets have some fans on the local bench. We can help you find appropriate community service, so you can complete your sentence and get this entire matter behind you.”
Tyler shoved his hands into his pockets. The action made his shoulders ripple—shoulders that were emphasized by the tight lines of his shirt. He had to realize what he was doing. He had to know he was making Emily’s belly swoop low, as if she’d just plunged down the slope of the world’s highest roller coaster.
Anna continued, as if she were impervious to the sinful waves of attraction washing off the ballplayer in front of her. Which, come to think of it, she probably was, with her own true love watching attentively at her side. “The team thinks it’s important, Tyler, for your community service to be highly visible. We need you helping the citizens of Raleigh, showing that you have the best interests of your new home in mind. I’ve asked Emily here because she has a project that meets all of our needs.”
Anna flashed her a broad smile, gesturing with one open hand as if to say, “The floor is yours.” Emily barely resisted the urge to wrinkle her nose, to roll her eyes, even to stick out her tongue. Wasn’t it just like Anna to put her on the spot like this?
But truth be told, Emily had played plenty of her own manipulative games in the past. Just a few weeks ago, she’d forced Anna and Zach into a conversation that neither of them had wanted to have—and look how things had turned out there! She might as well embrace the opportunity Anna was giving her.
Easier said than done. Her cheeks were on fire. She wanted to run her fingers through her hair, but she knew that would make her look like she was five years old—the curse of having shoulder-length blonde curls. She’d give anything for something to hold in her hands, something to keep her fingers busy.
But three pairs of eyes were on her. She could ignore Anna and Zach. But not Tyler. He might be the one person who could help her achieve her dreams. She took a deep breath and forced herself to look directly at him as she explained.
“About a year ago, my Aunt Minerva passed away,” she said. “Aunt Minnie was…a strong-willed woman, bless her heart.” She paused, to see if Tyler understood that Minnie had been an unrepentant pain in the ass.
He nodded, his lips twitching. And suddenly she wanted to keep on talking, to ramble on forever, if that’s what it took to make him smile again.
“Long story short, Minnie wanted her fortune to help veterans and their families. She left me her house and her bank account, but only for one year. After that, her executor will decide if I’ve used her legacy sufficiently. If I haven’t, I’ll have to move out of the house, and any remaining funds are forfeit to a rescue program for cockatiels.”
“Cockatiels.” He stretched the word with a soft drawl she hadn’t noticed in the flurry of their introduction. “Doesn’t sound like she was serious.”
“She was deadly serious,” Emily assured him. “She owned one of those birds, loved it more than her human family. The damn thing terrorized me every time she let it out of the cage.”
“So, she was trying to motivate you.” There was that hint of a smile again, causing something to spiral loose deep inside her.
“And it worked,” she said, reminding herself to focus. Anna might have dragged her here against her will, but she’d be a fool to let this opportunity go by. The sexy, wayward baseball player in front of her just might be the key to meeting Minnie’s impossible demands. “I’ve spent the past year trying to figure out what to do with the money. I meet with Ethan Samson, Minnie’s executor, once a month, every month. First, I was going to open a day care center, but Mr. Samson ultimately decided there were plenty of options for child care on and near the base. Then, I was going to open a library, but Mr. Samson shot down that idea, saying Wake County’s public libraries are more than sufficient for our veterans’ needs. For three months, I was going to build a health care clinic, but there’s the VA hospital right here in town.”
Emily let some of her frustration wash into her words. She’d worked hard on each proposal, done her research about the community, about its needs. Mr. Samson was a fussy old man with as much imagination as a stick.
“Sounds like you’re running out of time,” Tyler said.
“I am. And I’d almost be willing to give up, to walk away from the whole damn thing, except I finally hit on an idea that works. Mr. Samson signed off on it last month.” She took a deep breath, still not used to sharing her concept with strangers. “I’m converting the building into Minerva House. It’ll be a clearinghouse for veterans’ spouses, a one-stop center to get the support they need. We’ll have a resource room with computers and a separate classroom space, for group training sessions. We’ll have a lending library for all sorts of specialized books—everything from cost-efficient household management to non-traditional education to mental health care. We’ll have quiet rooms, where people can meet with others in similar situations, a safe space to talk about the challenges everyone is facing. And we’ll have a room for kids, with educational toys and projects, all sorts of things to keep kids interested while their parents take advantage of everything else we offer.”
“So, basically, you’re taking all the individual things this Samson guy wouldn’t accept and combining them into one. You’re doing a day care center and a library and a health care clinic.”
He was laughing at her. Her cheeks heated and she glanced at Anna and Zach, but she kept her voice even as she said, “If the shoe fits… I’m trained as a social worker. I know how to work systems, how to get people the individual care they need. Minerva House will give me a base of operations, a jumping-off point for everyone.”
“Sounds like you have your work cut out for you.”
“I do. I have seven weeks left before Aunt Minnie’s deadline.”
“Seven weeks before everything goes to the birds.”
Yeah. He was definitely laughing at her. But she forced herself to shrug like she didn’t really care. “Because Mr. Samson dragged his feet for so long, I can’t get a reliable contractor to take on the job in the time that’s left.”
“And how am I supposed to help?”
“I have a handyman who can do most of the work. But he needs another pair of hands for a lot of it. The house is a gorgeous old colonial, but Aunt Minnie didn’t put much into it for…decades.” Ever, she thought.
Emily had been living in the house for a year, and she was used to its eccentricities. So what if it took the water fifteen minutes to heat up for a shower? What if a strong north wind sliced through the gaps between the windows and their sills, forcing her to sleep beneath a pile of blankets in the king-size bed on the second floor?
She continued. “There’s a lot of straightforward physical stuff that needs to be done—upgrading the electricity, reworking the plumbing. The floors need refinishing, and the house has to be painted top to bottom.”
“And you think I’m the man for the job.”
She thought he was the man for some job. She bit her tongue to keep from making that utterly inappropriate suggestion. Instead, she nodded toward Anna and Zach, who had observed their entire exchange with palpable amusement. “They think you’re the man for the job. If things were left to me, I’d hire a second handyman.”
Anna waved off her skepticism. “Tyler owes the court one hundred hours. He has three months to complete his service, but there’s no penalty if he wraps things up early.”
* * *
That was Tyler’s cue to say how hard he was willing to work. But instead he found himself saying, “Sorry. Sounds like you need someone else to do the job.” He saw Ms. Benson frown, and Ormond looked pissed, but they’d have to get over it.
Sure, Tyler could do the handyman crap. He’d learned all that and more, working with his daddy. One advantage of having a hard-ass father who made him do his chores before he could get out of the house for practice, day in, day out, the entire time he was growing up.
But what would happen after the painting was done? If he still owed time, she’d ask for help setting up the computers. Putting books on shelves. Doing a hundred things he couldn’t do.
Shit. If he was going to fuck up, he might as well do it right now, instead of letting six weeks go by. Instead of letting Emily Holt get to the very edge of her deadline, then telling her she was screwed.
Because suddenly, inexplicably, he really didn’t want to disappoint Emily Holt.