Stopping Short by Mindy Klasky

Stopping Short

A widow and a cocky bad-boy hero with PTSD find healing in a fake engagement in this sexy stand-alone baseball romance!

Drew Marshall, the Rockets’ bad-boy shortstop, is about to be cut from the team. In the middle of spring training, his baseball skills are slipping, and his recent scrapes with the law place him in hot water.

Drew’s agent hires spin doctor Jessica Barnes to save the shortstop’s career. Widowed Jessica knows nothing about baseball, but she’s determined to rescue her client. Along the way, she needs to prove she’s finally over the death of her risk-taking husband.

Alas, a well-intentioned teammate tells ravenous paparazzi that Jessica is Drew’s secret fiancée. Now the couple is trapped in the same hotel room, sharing one bed, a fake engagement, and a mutual attraction that’s hotter than the Florida weather.

What could possibly go wrong?

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Chapter One

It’s just like riding a bicycle, Jessica told herself, conveniently ignoring the number of times she’d skinned her knees falling off her old banana-seat Schwinn. This Monday Status Meeting wasn’t going to draw any actual blood. It probably wouldn’t even hurt.

She stretched a smile across her tight lips and pushed her way into the familiar boardroom. A year had gone by, but they still kept the coffee service in the same place. A stack of yellow legal pads still teetered in the center of the table. Black pens still bristled from their holder, each embossed in white: Image Masters LLC.

Jessica skipped the coffee, figuring her hands were already shaking enough. She collected paper and pen, though, and she took her usual seat, three chairs down from the head of the table.

She could do this. She was good at her job, had been for the four years she’d worked at Image Masters after graduating college. She took a deep breath and stared out the window at Central Park. She’d rather be out there, bundled up and walking down a snowy path on this sunny February day. She’d rather be just about anywhere.

But she wasn’t going to earn a paycheck walking through the Park. She wasn’t going to convince herself and the rest of the world that she was finally over Kevin’s death, that she was ready to resume her life, that she was a strong and independent working woman instead of just The Young Widow.

Image Masters was safe. It was comfortable. And even if she had to work like a dog now that she was back in the office, her job was a refuge until she could figure out what she was going to do with the rest of her life, however many decades that might be.

She glanced at the oversize watch wrapped around her wrist. Five minutes to nine. No one was ever late to an Image Masters meeting. The staff should be arriving just about now.

Jessica reapplied her smile as the door opened and half a dozen of her colleagues poured into the room. Caden: They were all thrilled to see her. Marnie: They were all so happy she was back in the office, couldn’t wait to catch up over coffee. Rebecca: Maybe lunch or wouldn’t drinks be great?

The chatter only died down when Chip Patterson took his seat at the head of the table. He plugged his tablet into the appropriate jack and reached down to loosen the hinge on his thousand-dollar ergonomic chair. Leaning back to his customary 120-degree angle, he gestured down the table, taking in the entire team with his perfectly-manicured hands. “Welcome back, everyone. I trust you enjoyed Presidents Day weekend?”

There were rueful noises of agreement. The office had been officially closed for the holiday, but that just meant the dozen associates at Image Masters had worked twice as hard, completing their own projects without benefit of receptionists, assistants, janitors, and the like. Chip, of course, had been at his mansion in the Hamptons, because that’s what fifty-year-old partners were expected to do. Nevertheless, he’d probably monitored every active case from his state-of-the-art home office. Because that was also what partners were expected to do.

Now, he narrowed his charcoal eyes toward Jessica. “Welcome back, Jessica. We’ve missed you.”

“It’s good to be back.” She made herself relax her grip on her pen.

“And I hope you’re ready to jump in, because we’ve got a new client for the firm.”

Buzz. It wasn’t a hum exactly. It wasn’t even really a sound. But Jessica recognized the hungry attention of every person in the room. She leaned forward herself, like one of Pavlov’s dogs summoned by the dinner bell. That was what an Image Masters associate did. That was how she’d already climbed the ladder to success, before her backslide during the past twelve months of mourning. And if she wasn’t feeling very successful right now, she’d damn well pretend, until all the old habits kicked in.

Chip flicked his fingers over a remote, broadcasting images from his computer to the whiteboard that filled the wall behind him. “Meet Drew Marshall.”

Jessica studied the photograph, an official publicity shot. Drew Marshall was a baseball player—at least that’s what she gathered from the blue R on his red baseball cap, from the well-fitting jersey with Rockets spelled out in old-fashioned script, from the baseball bat held at attention over his left shoulder.

And it quickly became apparent that Drew Marshall was a player of another sort.

Chip flipped through a handful of shots, each featuring the tall, buff man, with his sun-streaked hair and his butterscotch eyes. Drew Marshall at some sort of charity gala, his bow tie stripped open as he toasted a sleek woman with a flute of champagne. Drew Marshall in a white-tablecloth restaurant, his arms around two buxom blonds, all of them laughing across a mountain range of martini glasses. Drew Marshall in a dark bar, towering over a girl who wore stiletto heels, cutoffs, and a shirt barely knotted around her double-pierced midriff, while three other women looked on from a jealous distance.

Drew Marshall, a windbreaker pulled over the top of his head, a manila file folder covering half his face as he hustled down the white marble steps of some official building, warding off a thicket of microphones and cameras with his free hand.

Chip cleared his throat as he displayed that money shot. “Mr. Marshall has a bit of a problem where women are concerned. Last week, within twenty-four hours of arriving in Coral Crest, Florida for spring training, he was arrested for statutory rape. Charges were dismissed once a witness recanted her testimony that she’d actually seen the parties go into a private room.”

Jessica pursed her lips. Witnesses could be bought easily enough. Not that Image Masters did anything slimy like that—they came in after the fact and helped people rebuild their public personas after media disasters. If lawyers and investigators manipulated official proceedings in less than savory ways to get the results they needed… Well, Jessica was trained not to notice.

Chip elaborated: “Mr. Marshall claims he was duped. He asked the young woman in question for ID prior to escorting her from the club where they met, and she presented him with a Florida driver’s license that clearly stated she was twenty-one. Under question from the local excuse for a newspaper, she admitted to fraud because ‘Who wouldn’t do whatever they could to get that big guy into bed.’”

The conference room was filled with knowing laughter. Jessica caught herself grinning—she’d heard similar excuses in a dozen cases over the years. In fact, Chip’s backgrounder made her feel so comfortable, so at home, that she asked, “So Marshall’s the one who reached out to us?”

Chip pinned her with his inky eyes. “No—his agent did. It turns out this year is particularly sensitive for Mr. Marshall’s career. He played poorly at the end of last season, and he was sent down to the minors. The Rockets brought up a kid to take his place, someone they didn’t think they’d be relying on for another three or four years. Now Mr. Marshall and Rafael Ordonez are in spring training together, competing to see who will play shortstop for the upcoming season. Mr. Marshall’s agent wants our assistance to make sure nothing distracts the team from evaluating his client solely on the basis of his baseball skills.”

Sent down to the minors. Spring training. Shortstop. Jessica knew Chip was talking about baseball, but that was all she could parse. She’d never been athletic herself; she’d certainly never followed baseball.

Even when Kevin was alive, team sports had never been part of their life. Kevin had thrived on athletic competition, but he always preferred solo activities, the more extreme the better. He ran ultra-marathons and went kitesurfing in the Caribbean. He loved hang-gliding and whitewater kayaking. He skied down black diamond slopes even after the spring melt had begun, transforming an already treacherous path into an icy channel—

She tugged her thoughts back from the brink with the force of will she’d mastered during her year’s hiatus from the office. She barely needed to clear her throat before she could ask, “So this is a standard media management gig?”

Chip waggled his hand in a more-or-less gesture. “More like a media intervention. The reporters are going nuts for this story. We need to get them focused on good news for Mr. Marshall, on the message that he’s the best man to play shortstop for the Rockets now and for the future.”

Chip was still looking at her, staring like he never needed to blink. Jessica nodded and said, “Sounds interesting. Could be a good practical use for SCC Indexes.” Sympathy, Competence, and Charisma—the three-fold system she’d been honing before she took her leave of absence.

Chip obviously agreed. She knew that smile—the perfect pearly teeth, the smooth taut lips. “Excellent,” he said. “Because we were all fully-booked before the holiday weekend, before this new case walked in the door. Welcome back to the working world, Jessica. And safe travels on your way down to Florida.”

Jessica focused so hard on squelching her sudden nausea that she forgot to pay attention to the rest of the staff meeting.

* * *

Drew never thought he’d be wishing for a formal press conference after a game—an unsteady table at the front of a too-crowded room, shouted questions, a sound system that shrieked with feedback, and water pitchers so beaded with sweat they practically leaped out of your hands. But that’s what he wanted now—the safety, the distance, the formality of taking questions on home territory at Rockets Field.

Instead, he was stuck in the lobby of the Vista Linda hotel, staring at the reporters who’d turned on him like starved jackals. “Come on, guys,” he said. “This is spring training. You know these games don’t mean anything.”

Wrong answer. Ross Parker shoved forward like Drew had just thrown chum in the water. “You’re saying you don’t care about a loss, Drew?”

He tightened his lips into what he hoped was a smile, even though he wanted to kick the columnist’s teeth down his throat. “I’m saying we work on different things down here. You know that. We try different combinations. Mac wanted DJ to focus on picking guys off at first today so he threw over a dozen times.”

Parker didn’t know when to shut up. “So what were you focusing on today, Drew? Overthrowing to second on the first leg of a double play?”

Asshole. Yeah, he’d blown two double plays that afternoon. What else did the guy want for the good folks back home in Raleigh? For Drew to explain why he’d struck out at the plate three times? It probably would have been four if Skip hadn’t sat him down, hadn’t given the last two innings to Ordonez.

It was a long way back from the minors to the big game. Drew’s timing was off, and there wasn’t any way to get that down but to practice. At least he was spared the need to reply to Parker when another reporter shouted out his question: “Are you having trouble concentrating on the game, Drew? Still worried about Kaley Armistead?”

Goddamn jailbait. He’d asked her all the right questions—demanded to see her driver’s license, made sure she was twenty-one. He’d felt like a goddamn bouncer, and the whole time she’d been all calm and understanding and reassuring, just like a grown woman would be. Kaley Batshit Armistead had known exactly what she was doing—when she’d invited him to sit next to her at that tiny table in Torrid and when she’d handed over her FBI-quality fake ID in response to his hesitation.

She deserved a goddamn Oscar for the way she’d invited him back to her room at that fleabag motel. If Greenie hadn’t been giving it to her older sister in the next room… But the center fielder had gotten laid, at the same time conveniently screwing the testimony of the only person who swore up and down that she’d seen Kaley arrive with Drew at that dump. So Drew was off the hook in the eyes of the law, if not at the hands of the press.

He tried to shrug like he didn’t have a care in the world. “Hey, guys, I’m just playing the game, one day at a time.”

And Jesus, that was the wrong thing to say, too. Parker jumped on him. “‘One day at a time’ is a phrase commonly associated with Alcoholics Anonymous. Do you have a substance abuse problem, Drew?”

“The only problem I have is that you guys aren’t letting me get upstairs to my room.” There. That was a good answer—not too angry but to the point, getting across the idea that he’d worked hard for the day and was ready to kick back and enjoy a quiet evening.

Or maybe he was just lucky. Tyler Brock entered the hotel lobby, freshly-showered and shaved after a star turn at the park. The reporters turned toward the first baseman like a pack of wolves pouncing on fresh meat. Brock had hit a monster home run in the fifth, a grand slam that should have held up to win the game, would have held up, if a dozen things hadn’t gone wrong in the field—including Drew’s two errors.

Drew shook his head and slouched over to the elevators. Great. A woman was waiting there, all alone. He scanned her automatically, noting her short brown hair, eyes the color of good rye whiskey. She must have just arrived from someplace up north—she was wearing a navy business suit and heels, and she was dragging a roller bag the size of a small car.

The elevator door opened, and he stepped back. “Go ahead,” he said. “I’ll take the next one.” Not that she looked like a threat. She was dressed like a lawyer. She didn’t look like she’d ever hung out in a bar, much less pulled up her tank top and let some guy drink shots from between her boobs, all so someone could take pictures and sell them to the highest bidder on the web.

Not that he was thinking about her boobs. He wasn’t supposed to think about any woman that way. He’d gotten that message, loud and clear, even if his dick wasn’t actually on board with the plan. He shifted his weight to remind himself to behave and waited for her to step onto the elevator.

“Mr. Marshall,” she said, instead of moving forward.

“Yes?” His voice curled up at the end, turning his statement into a question. What was she? Not a reporter, not dressed like that. Maybe she was from a TV show, 60 Minutes or something, and she wanted to ask him a bunch of questions on camera. Make him look guiltier than hell.

“Perhaps we could go upstairs?” she asked, nodding toward the reporters who were still squawking around Brock at the far end of the lobby. “Somewhere we can talk without being interrupted?”

“Sorry,” he said. “I don’t get into elevators with strange women. Nothing personal,” he said. Even though there was something about her that made him wonder what she’d be like on a personal level. Maybe it was her straight spine. Or the hard set to her jaw. Or the determined way she gripped that handle on her suitcase…

The elevator door slipped closed, and the two of them were left staring at each other. Her lips twitched into a frown. “As much as I appreciate the compliment, Mr. Marshall, I can assure you I’m not underage. I’m on your side.”

No one’s on my side, he started to say. Especially not with Brock shouting something over his shoulder as he headed into the bar. Great. Now the shitbirds would be back on the prowl. They needed to fill their column inches somehow, and Rockets Lose could only take up so much space on the page.

Yep. Parker was already looking this way. And Kaley Armistead’s biggest defender wasn’t far behind. “Look,” he said to the woman. “I appreciate your offer to help, but I’m doing just fine.”

She followed his gaze across the lobby. At least she wasn’t afraid of those shitheads. Instead, she shifted her weight, resting one hand on top of that giant suitcase like it was a boulder she could drop on them. She slipped the other hand into her pocket and produced a slip of paper, a business card that he automatically took when she passed it to him.

Image Masters LLC, it said. And her name—Jessica Barnes—along with a New York address. “Mr. Marshall,” she said calmly, “Why don’t you check with your agent? You’ll find that he requested my services. He asked me to help you out of a bad situation.”

And the thing was, he believed her. She looked honest. She certainly wasn’t eyeing him like she wanted him in her bed, not like Kaley or any of the other Baseball Annies who hung out around the training camp. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone.

Before he could punch the button that would connect him with his agent, the elevator doors opened and a circus tumbled into the lobby. There had to be a dozen kids, all poking each other and screaming. They shouted players’ names and raced across the room, pulling baseballs and pens from their pockets and backpacks. One woman shrieked to a guy who looked unfortunate enough to be her husband, “I told you we needed reservations. The kids aren’t going to eat till midnight!” Another woman screeched, “Jaden Turner, you get back there this second!”

In response to that last bellow, one boy turned and hurtled back like he’d been shot from a cannon. His speed, though, was better than his accuracy. He took out two of the littler kids as he slid past his red-faced mother. Drew shot out an arm to keep Jessica Barnes from toppling backward over her giant suitcase.

He saw the flash of cameras before he processed the reporters’ attention. Freezing, he was suddenly aware that he stood chest to chest with a strange woman, that his arm curved protectively around the small of her back as he tried to shield her from the trio of screaming kids. That strange woman—Jessica Barnes—had short hair and a wild look in her eye; she had a sudden vulnerability that made her look like she was about twelve years old.

No wonder the reporters collapsed into a feeding frenzy.

“Drew, tell us about your new girlfriend!”

“Who’s your newest fan, Drew?”

“Drew, look this way! Tell us about the new girl!”

* * *

Jessica’s heart was pounding so loudly she could barely hear the reporters howl. She couldn’t believe the chaos in the hotel lobby—the kids screaming, the press braying, the shriek of the elevator protesting that its door had been held open too long.

She was a trained professional. She was supposed to handle disasters like this. All she needed to do was pull herself to her full height, shrug her jacket into place on her shoulders, take a deep breath and project to the back of the crowd, announce that she was—


She couldn’t very well say that she was an image consultant, brought in to clear up Drew Marshall’s problems with the press. In a best-case scenario that news would get him ridiculed. In the worst, no one would ever believe him again; they’d discount every word he said as something that had been “handled.”

Before she could figure out a solution to the problem, another baseball player pushed his way to the front of the crowd. Jessica recognized him from the research she’d done in the past twenty-four hours; he was Adam Sartain, left-fielder for the Rockets, one of the most popular players on the team.

“Hey,” he said lightly, immediately snaring the reporters’ attention. “Give the guy a chance to catch his breath.”

The crowd eased back. Kids came to rest beside their parents, gaping like they were watching a movie. Those parents were equally transfixed by the Rockets’ leader; they corralled their hellions, brought about a little order.

Drew responded as well. She felt him relax as the reporters stopped screaming their questions. He slipped his hand from the small of her back, and he took a half-step away. Only then did she realize how close he’d been standing. He was still near enough that she could smell his soap or shampoo, something like salt and spice, clean and fresh.

Adam’s grin was easy as he reached out a loose fist to punch Drew on his upper arm. “Come on, buddy. Don’t hold out on us.”

Jessica caught the flash of uncertainty in Drew’s eyes. He wasn’t sure what Sartain was saying, where this conversation was going. But that confusion was quickly replaced with level-headed trust.

Adam Sartain was the face of the Rockets’ franchise. Jessica had read that on her trip down to Florida. He was the player with the greatest seniority; all the guys looked to him for leadership. Last year, when the team had barely missed the playoffs, it was Sartain who had taken the first stint in front of the ravenous press. He was the one who’d accepted responsibility, who promised more for this year.

So it wasn’t surprising that the reporters were ready to listen to whatever Adam Sartain had to say.

And it wasn’t shocking that Drew stepped back, relaxed and trusting that Adam would make everything all right.

But Jessica could not believe her ears as the handsome left fielder turned to everyone and said, “Come on, Drew. This is your big chance. Introduce us all to your fiancée! We’ve been dying to meet her!”

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