A secret baby gives reunited lovers a second chance in this sexy stand-alone baseball romance!
Photographer Jamie Martin gave up her fast-paced New York career and moved to Raleigh, NC to raise an unexpected blessing: her daughter Olivia. Desperate for clients, Jamie is thrilled to land a job with the Rockets baseball team…until she discovers she must work with her ex-fiancé, who doesn’t know he fathered her child.
Career-driven second baseman Nick Durban broke up with Jamie at college graduation so they both could follow their dreams. Seven years later, he gets a reality check when he learns about Olivia.
Jamie is so determined to keep Nick out of her life that she tries online dating, never dreaming he is her perfect electronic match. Can this out-of-sync couple get past their second thoughts and learn to trust each other again?
Jamie Martin tightened her thighs, shifting her legs to get a better angle. “That’s it,” she crooned. “Almost there…A little more…More…Curl your fingers…Perfect! Hold it! Yes! Oh, yes! That’s it! Perfect!”
She lowered her camera and stepped away from her subject, smiling in victory. Some photo shoots took forever—soothing a nervous client, cajoling them to relax, spending hours making them forget the lens was right in front of them. But Anna Benson had made this shoot easy.
And that was a damn good thing, because Jamie didn’t have time to waste. Her rent was due in a week, and Baby literally needed new shoes, and a new winter coat as well. Olivia was growing like a weed after spending four months in her new North Carolina home.
It was all worth it, Jamie reminded herself as she reflexively thumbed through the shots on her camera’s viewfinder. The hassle of moving, the struggle to find an assistant in a new city, the tight finances as she settled in. The boring work.
Jamie had loved the first seven years of her career, photographing bands in obscure New York City venues. After Olivia came along, Jamie had juggled her shooting schedule with overnight babysitters, pre-school, and sniffle-driven sick days. She’d thrived on catnaps and caffeine, reveling in a life she’d built on her own terms.
Until she realized she was missing Olivia’s childhood.
Sure, her daughter had been safe and warm and fed in their Brooklyn walk-up. But Jamie had missed countless firsts—first steps, first words, first day of school. When Olivia’s first baby tooth fell out and the babysitter played Tooth Fairy, Jamie had known something had to change.
She sold her move to Raleigh as a positive decision—to her family, to her friends, and to herself. She’d gone to school nearby. Her college roommate still lived in town—Ashley had even volunteered crash space for the few weeks it had taken Jamie to rent a house. Raleigh had plenty of wealthy families and lots of booming businesses—prime customers for a photographer with Jamie’s skills. Booming businesses like the Raleigh Rockets, a major league baseball team.
Anna Benson had recently taken over the owner’s responsibilities from her grandfather, and she’d decided she needed fresh corporate headshots to highlight her new role. Jamie was grateful for the opportunity—she’d been referred by a former client who happened to be Anna’s best friend. Yes, Jamie was grateful, even if her first vow upon crossing the North Carolina state line had been that she would stay as far away from the baseball park as humanly possible.
Present business before past peccadilloes. Besides, some vows were just meant to be broken. Jamie had spent the entire day at the ballpark, and nothing terrible had happened. Yet.
“These look great,” Jamie said, looking up from her camera. She gestured toward her computer, which had automatically loaded the hundreds of shots she’d taken. “I’ll go through and get rid of the ones we’re obviously not interested in so you can review the rest.”
Jamie loved that part of the job. Sure, there were some shots clearly meant to be tossed—blinking eyes, smeared lipstick, bodies blurred with movement. But most of them forced her to focus on minute details, reading the slightest changes from image to image. Jamie viewed each shot with a Zen eye, measuring the emotions that radiated from her subjects, the tiny changes from hot to cold, from confident to wary. Sifting through the raw shoot, Jamie always felt she was discovering truths about herself, more about her emotions than her subjects’. She loved the process, even if a lot of people found the detail work stultifying.
Case in point: Anna Benson said, “Better you than me.”
Jamie grinned. “I’ll get the ‘maybes’ to you tonight. Then you can tell me which ones I should retouch.”
“I appreciate your making this so easy.” Anna’s voice was sincere. “I’ve been dreading this entire process!”
Jamie laughed. “You wouldn’t believe how often I hear that.” Most people preferred having their teeth cleaned to sitting for headshots. Of course, the average dentist visit lasted forty-five minutes. Anna’s photo session was going on four hours.
As if on cue, Jamie’s assistant poked his head through the office door. “Ready for me to help you strike?” Robert asked.
Jamie waved him in with a grateful smile. The man was a godsend—as comfortable with camera equipment as he was with makeup and a blow-dryer. She still couldn’t believe he’d responded to her online job posting. “Thanks!”
But Anna interrupted before Robert could take down the first reflector. “I wonder…”
Jamie turned to her expectantly. “Did you want to try something else? We could take some extras with the blue blazer, if you want a few more traditional poses.”
“No…” Anna crossed behind her desk. “Do you have anywhere else you have to be this afternoon?”
Jamie shook her head. “Just back at the office, going through your shoot.” Office. That would be the living room in Jamie’s compact clapboard house.
“Great,” the other woman said, picking up her phone and punching in a four-digit extension. “Zach, could you come in here a moment?”
Robert sprang to attention like a foxhound scenting prey. The guy was a committed Rockets fan. The look of excitement on his face now could only mean Jamie was about to be dragged deeper into Raleigh baseball.
Which was fine, she reminded herself firmly. Because red might be a wonderful color for a baseball logo, but it was pretty much a disaster when it came to her bank account. She could handle any baseball-related social crisis, if it meant financial independence.
A quick double knock on the door announced the newcomer. Anna called out, “Come in!”
Robert was practically vibrating with excitement as someone—Zach, presumably—entered. “Mr. Ormond,” he exclaimed, gliding forward to shake the guy’s hand. “I’m Robert Zeller, and I’m one of your biggest fans. My father took me to see your first game with the Rockets. We went to batting practice, and I caught one of your home runs, and you signed the ball for me before the game!”
“Down, boy,” Jamie said, forcing a laugh she meant to be charming before she introduced herself. “Jamie Martin.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Zach’s smile was easy. He’d be a joy to shoot; he had the sort of easy confidence that made the camera melt. Anna Benson obviously thought the guy was great; her entire face lit up as Zach looked at her expectantly.
Anna got down to business immediately. “You were in that meeting yesterday, Zach. We still haven’t come up with the right premium for our season ticket holders. What do you think of a calendar?”
“Like a refrigerator magnet?” Zach looked skeptical.
“No. Something to hang on the wall, a holiday gift from the team. One player featured every month, with the games written in for the season. Maybe some coupons for food and T-shirts at the park, that kind of thing.”
Zach nodded slowly. “We did them years ago, before your grandfather cut the team photographer. With social media, a calendar could be cross-purposed. We could use some of the photos for the guys’ individual accounts, maybe work them into a montage video for Opening Day.”
Anna beamed as she turned to Jamie. “Are you game?”
Baseball. Hot dogs. Apple pie and Mom. A new coat for Olivia and invaluable additions to Jamie’s portfolio. Even as she realized accepting the job would mean spending more time at the ballpark—a lot more time—she said, “Absolutely!” She almost believed herself.
Anna asked Zach, “Is anyone around the clubhouse? As long as Jamie and Robert have all their equipment set up it would be a shame not to put them to work.”
“I’m not sure,” he said. “I saw Nick’s car in the lot when I came back from lunch. Let me give him a call.”
Jamie’s heart tried to squeeze past her lungs as Zach took out his phone. Quit it, she told herself in her best School Principal voice. You knew there was a chance you’d see him the second you landed the headshot job.
Utterly unaware of School Principal’s tongue-lashing, Robert asked, “Nick Durban?” He sounded like a man being offered the keys to a Lamborghini.
“None other,” Zach said, with an amused smile, and then he exclaimed into his phone, “Nick!”
As Zach launched into a friendly conversation, Jamie’s palms became so slick she had to set her camera on a nearby credenza. You have no one to blame but yourself, School Principal said sternly. You could have chosen to live anywhere in the country. Anywhere in the world. But you had to come back to Raleigh.
Antarctica was looking like heaven right about now. Even if Olivia would need a hell of a lot more gear than a new winter coat.
Zach hung up his phone and announced, “He’s on his way.”
Jamie’s belly turned over, and she realized she hadn’t drawn a full breath the entire time Zach had been on the phone. Before her conscience could find a new way to undermine her, she asked Anna Benson the first of several vital questions. “What type of setting did you have in mind for the calendar? Do you want to do them here in the office? Or maybe around the stadium, taking advantage of some of those gorgeous views?”
As they began to discuss the various pros and cons, Jamie’s professional mind took careful notes. A deeper part of her, though, braced itself to see her former fiancé for the first time in seven years.
* * *
Nick Durban frowned as he approached Anna Benson’s office. It was his own damn fault, getting roped into this publicity thing. People called it the off season for a reason. He was supposed to stay away from the goddamn ballpark.
But he’d come back for his copy of The Sun Also Rises, the one he was re-reading. The one with margin notes he’d made freshman year in college. The one he’d somehow left on the top shelf of his locker when he cleared out after the last regular season game.
It was just bad luck Ormond had seen his car in the lot.
He should quit bitching. It wasn’t like he had anything better to do. Hemingway could wait for a few hours. And helping out the team’s acting owner had to earn Nick some points along the way.
The office door was open. Ormond looked up as soon as Nick reached the threshold. “Great,” he said. “I thought they’d have unis ready downstairs.”
Nick shrugged, comfortable in his familiar white uniform. It had actually felt good to pull on the high socks, to tug the jersey into place. The off season lasted too long, by about three months. He tucked his book under his arm as Ormond waved him into the office. “Ms. Benson,” he said to the woman who held absolute control over his contract.
“Thanks for coming by, Nick.” Her smile was warm. There was a lot of locker room speculation about the things Ormond was doing to keep her happy. Nick agreed with the rest of the guys that whatever it was, Ormond should definitely keep doing it.
He glanced at the white cloth umbrellas that surrounded Ms. Benson’s desk. Nick hadn’t seen photographic reflectors like that since college. A guy stood in the middle of them, carefully adjusting one of the nearby lights. He must be the photographer—he had that artistic look. His jeans were a size too small, and his faded plaid shirt was too ugly to be an accident.
Ormond made the introductions. “Nick Durban. This is Robert Zeller.”
“Mr. Durban,” the photographer gushed. “Such a pleasure to meet you—I’m a big Rockets fan. LA didn’t have a clue what they were losing when they gave up the Professor!”
When Nick had started his professional career, he hadn’t known what to do with fans like this. He’d felt embarrassed, cornered, like he had to say something perfect or he’d ruin their dreams forever. In the past seven years, though, he’d learned that a handshake and a nod went a long way. And an autograph, if there happened to be a stack of publicity stills around. Not that a photographer would want a general issue publicity still. Now, he laughed and said, “Call me Nick, please.”
“Nick.” The guy looked pleased.
“So, what are we working on today?” Nick asked, including Ormond in the question. “You said some type of calendar?”
The former catcher nodded. “It was Anna’s idea.”
Okay, then. Even if Nick had considered lodging a complaint, he’d hold his tongue now. The owner’s granddaughter got to do whatever she wanted to do.
Nick turned back to the photographer. “So, where do you want me?”
“Actually,” Zeller said, “Jamie will tell you that. I’m here for hair and makeup.”
Nick followed the direction of the guy’s gaze, into the shadows behind that forest of white umbrellas. Even as he realized the magnitude of his mistake, Ormond said, “Nick, this is Jamie Martin. She’s the photographer who’s handling the whole project.”
Of course she was.
Eleven years ago, Jamie Martin had knocked him silent just by walking into Econ 101. And she didn’t have to move a muscle to throw him now—all she had to do was stand there, looking at him with a camera in her hands. He turned to stone.
A few things had changed in the past seven years. Her hair was cut short now. She wore makeup, at least something to make those anime eyes spark all the way across the room. Her lips stood out like a silent invitation. She wore tailored trousers and a white blouse—a far cry from the faded sweatpants and ragged T-shirt she’d worn the last time he’d seen her. A quick glance at her hands confirmed she wasn’t engaged or married. At least, she wasn’t wearing any rings.
“Hey, Twelve,” he said, his mouth as dry as if he’d just chewed through an entire bag of sunflower seeds.
Used to be, he could read her mood from a single syllable. He’d known when she was really studying, or when she actually wanted to be distracted from her stacks of books. He’d known from a single glance if she was worried about her killer course schedule, or thrilled to be discovering new things in her latest classes. He’d known if she wanted to risk eating from their university meal plan, or if she preferred grabbing a slice of pizza off-campus, or if she didn’t really want any food at all, if her hunger was for something else entirely.
All of that was gone, though. Jamie Martin was as opaque as a baseball.
Of course he didn’t know what she was thinking. He’d lost that ability forever the night before college graduation. The night he’d broken up with her. The night she’d handed back her engagement ring, despite his feeble protests. The night he’d walked out of her life without a backwards glance, without a phone call, without any contact at all for seven long years.