Sitting on my bed as I wait for Rod to pick me up, I pull the black velvet box out of the jewelry store plastic bag for the fiftieth time since bringing it home. My fingers still shake each time I open the box, hearing that creaking sound. The black and silver ring flashes underneath the ceiling light. The ridged metal really looks like a tire. Tilting it, I read the encircling inscription. The ring is perfect. Now, I have to work up the nerve to propose. I could do it on our vacation, but I’ll have nowhere to go if he turns me down. The beach would be better after Morgan’s wedding because since I’ll probably ride with Rod, he’d take me home if needed. God. I hope it isn’t.
Tucking the ring under my socks in my nightstand drawer, I sigh and grab my shoes. I’m on top of things today, getting ready for softball practice. Though I’ve changed my jeans and T-shirt three times, redid my make up twice, and threw up once. I still can’t think about food. I really don’t want to be on TV.
The ride to the park with Rod was oddly quiet. He didn’t even comment on my improved appearance, and I didn’t ask why, good or bad. I’m already nervous.
With Rod walking beside me, we reach Val and sit next to her on the bench.
“Hey, babe. Nice hitting yesterday. I didn’t get to tell you that.”
I shrug and glance around for Finn. “Thanks.”
She leans against me. “I talked to your man yesterday.”
I nod with a small laugh. “I saw that. What did he say?”
She peeks around us for eavesdroppers, Rod excluded. “He came over to say Brandon and I were doing a great job throwing. Then, Brandon got a phone call, so I asked Finn to show me his tattoo.”
My mouth gapes. “Did he show you?” I didn’t see him lift his shirt, and I was watching him more than Shasta and Cara combined.
“Yep. He was proud of it.”
I incredulously ask, “Nobody asked you what he was doing with his shirt up?”
Val shakes her head and touches my arm. “He didn’t lift it up. He yanked it down from the top. Between you and me, I think Shasta would’ve been all over him if he pulled his shirt up.”
I scoff in agreement. “I don’t doubt that. Did he say anything else?”
“I told him I’m a big fan and watch him every week. I also told him I’m his girlfriend’s biggest fan, which he debated.”
I laugh. “He did?”
“Oh, yeah. He said he was your number one fan. He’s a sweetheart.”
I beam. “I know.”
A scuffle ensues next to me as Morgan shoves Rod and squeezes in between us, sitting down on the other side of me.
“Excuse you, Morticia! Next time, use your backup beeper or foghorn!”
She grabs Rod’s ear and yanks him to her. “What did you just say to me?”
Swatting at Morgan, but unable to escape her grasp, Rod huffs, “You heard me, Goodyear.” She jerks harder, and he yelps, “Food here! I was asking if there is food here! Damn it!”
Morgan releases his ear, accompanied by a shove to his head. Turning to me as Rod rubs his ear, and then checking his fingers for blood, she brushes her hair out of her eyes. “Hey. So, how was church?”
Looking from a pained Rod to a calm Morgan, I laugh. “It was really nice. The place is gorgeous.”
Rod gets up from the bench and asks Shasta if his ear is red, and we all laugh. Morgan resumes, “Did Dick Rod drag you away from Finn in time?” Unfortunately.
“Yes.” I turn to include Val. “I picked up his ring last night.”
“Ooh!” Val coos. “I can’t wait to see it.”
“I’ll bring it in tomorrow.”
“When are you asking him?”
“I think after Morgan’s reception. I haven’t decided where yet.”
Val gasps, “That is so sweet!”
“I hope he thinks so and says yes.”
Rod, forever my crow’s nest, returns, still holding his ear. “Wilder and his entourage are here.”
I worriedly ask, “How do I look?”
Val says, “Lovely, babe.”
Morgan nods. “I approve of the makeup. Lipstick, too. Fucking nice.”
I shake my head, smiling uneasily. “I tried.”
Arriving at the diamond, Finn drops the ball bag and turns to Milo and the other guy intruding. I’m not getting on camera. If that’s not an option, I’ll fake my death.
As Finn talks to his crew, I admire his gray T-shirt with his station’s logo, along with faded blue jeans. His hair isn’t styled, and my stomach flutters, but in a good way this time.
“Oh, my God,” Shasta says from behind me. “Look at his goatee. Can he get any hotter? Shit.” That answer is a hell, yes. She hasn’t seen the look on his face before he comes.
Shasta whines, “Why are all the sexy guys taken?” I shrug, and Val slyly elbows me, and I try not to laugh.
Morgan turns to look at Shasta. “I hear his girlfriend is also gorgeous. Doesn’t that suck?” That’s a lie.
“Ugh. Don’t even tell me that. She’s probably a model. Gross.” I turn my head closer to Val, fighting harder not to laugh.
Val argues, “He doesn’t seem like the type to date someone like that. From what he told me yesterday, he’s wildly in love with her.” I giggle at her wild reference. That Val.
Shasta muses, “I wonder if he’ll bring her to our games.”
Straightening, I reply, “Definitely. He mentioned it.”
She walks around the bench to face us with a frown. “Why does he talk to you three, but hasn’t said a word to me?”
Unable to look directly at her, I reply, “He’s quiet.”
Betsy ponders, “I wonder if he’s quiet in bed?” He doesn’t need to be loud to be terrific.
Shasta says, “I need to find out.” And I will knock your head off with a softball bat.
Finn walks over to everyone and nods to the two men beside him. “Okay, guys. This is Reed and Milo. Throughout the season, they’ll shoot footage, so get used to them. First off, Val, did you bring the team name suggestions?”
“Oooh! I did!” She stands excitedly and pivots to her audience. “We have quite a few names in this box. I had to discard some, Rod, but I kept the best ones.”
His mouth petulantly drops, and he crosses his arms. “What? I still love Bat-Shit Crazies!”
Ignoring him, she digs into the small box for a slip of paper. “Let’s see.” Val cringes. “Harvey Dirt Bangers? How did that get in here?” We all laugh. Cara whispers something to Finn, and he laughs again. I grit my teeth, sending pain throughout my face.
Rod shouts, “That is the coolest name ever! Whoever put that in there, I commend you.”
Val reads from more slips. “Screw Balls? Those Dirty Scores? Baby Got Bats? Rough Sliders? Mounds of Joy? Gregory Rodwell!”
“What? They’re all baseball-related names! Come on, Val!”
She dives into the box to pull out more slips. “No amount of begging will work.”
“Sounds like every woman I talk to.”
We decide on Legal Eagles since it’s fitting and non-offensive. Rod pouts.
Val announces, “I will order the uniforms tonight, and they’ll be here before our first game.”
“Can I help you order them, Val?” Rod asks as he sidles up to her.
Not looking at him as Val sets the box on the bench, she replies, “When hell freezes over. I know how you help.”
With an exaggerated grimace, Rod puts his right hand on his chest. “Val, you’re breaking my heart. That cuts deep.”
She glances up at him. “If you keep it up, I will cut you deep, Gregory.”
Her attached smile is creepy, and he steps back, near Grant and Sylvie, but says, “She loves me.”
Finn takes over again as Val sits down next to me. He actively avoids looking in my direction. “Now, I’d like to pull each of you to answer a few interview questions. The rest of you can practice with Ricky while I conduct them. Who wants to go first?” Brandon volunteers with a big smile, taking the bullet. That’s the way to show initiative, I guess.
Morgan plays on her phone near the interviewing area while lifting her gaze every few seconds, watching Cara. Staying away from the camera, I lead Rod to the outfield. Maybe Finn won’t interview me or forget about me altogether.
When it’s Shasta’s turn, Rod and I temporarily gravitate to the infield to hear the conversation. They’re wearing mics, with the large one hanging over them. In full-blown reporter mode, Finn charmingly grins after he makes his introductions into the camera, triggering Shasta to barely contain herself. He starts with, “What do you think of softball so far? I know it’s only our second practice, but do you like it?”
Shasta bounces on her toes with a disgracefully rabid grin. “I already love it! We have the best coach who makes it so much fun! I can’t wait for more! Bring it on, Coach Wilder!” Oh, shut the hell up, skank.
Finn laughs. “Well, thank you. I’ll try to make it fun. What do you want to achieve by being here?”
“Well, I couldn’t say no, or I’d get in trouble.” Finn steps closer to Shasta’s side. Shasta’s mega-watt grin returns, and she shifts closer to Finn. Rod automatically grabs my arm to restrain me, already knowing what I’m thinking. I jerk, but Rod’s grip is unrelenting.
Finn asks, “Do you have a boyfriend who will watch you play?”
Shasta eagerly shakes her head. “Nope. No boyfriend. What about you?”
He coyly smirks. “Me? No boyfriend.”
She rolls her eyes. “No, I mean, your girlfriend. I hear you have one.”
He shakes his head, pretending to be confused. “Really? Where’d you hear an outrageous thing like me having a girlfriend? That’s crazy!” Finn turns to the camera, maybe laughing or frowning. From behind him, I can’t tell. “Haven’t you seen my dares?”
Shasta’s smile fades. “I missed a couple.” Like all of them.
Finn shakes his head. “You missed a doozy on Good Friday.”
He asks her more innocuous questions. When the interview wraps, I take off to the middle of the field in a strange attempt to hide.
“Rodwell!” Ricky yells. “You’re up!”
“Sorry, Hadders!” He tosses the ball once more to me and takes off for his fifteen minutes. Unlike me, Rod is looking forward to his spotlight.
Again, I move to hear the interview. Finn introduces Rod, and they shake hands. Excellent start, I suppose. Rod’s smile is bright and eager, while Finn’s is more reserved and professional. Before Finn asks the first question, Rod inquires, “Do you watch all the games you report on?”
Finn nods. “Most of them, but I can’t be everywhere. I also have other things I need to do.”
“Like washing your car?”
From my spot near the pitcher’s mound, I see Finn’s forehead wrinkle with his skewed smile. “Uh, yeah. I do that, but not when I have a game to watch.”
“You just said you couldn’t watch every game.”
“I said I can’t be everywhere, but I watch many.”
Rod crosses his arms. “So, you give us sketchy information and lull us into a false sense of security?”
Finn desperately holds onto his fast-slipping public mask. “How do I do that? I only report scores and highlights.”
“Now, you’re saying your job is menial?”
The look on Finn’s face is a mix of pure bafflement and sheer homicidal. “Huh? No. I mean, I don’t report the headlines.”
“Did you maybe go to college for the wrong career since your job isn’t important?”
“Wait a minute. You’re turning this around on me. My job is important to a lot of people.”
“How do you know that? You’re busy washing your car.”
Finn disbelievingly laughs and shakes his head as if to clear his muddled mind. “What just happened? Here’s the deal. Since I can’t watch them all and have a life outside of work, my co-sports anchors and I split up the games. Is that answer satisfactory?”
“I guess. I just asked a simple question. Wow. God bless your girlfriend for enduring your confusing life. At least your car is clean.”
“Yeah. At least I have that.” Finn flashes another fake smile before thanking Rod and ending the interview.
After Rod returns, I see Finn has his arms crossed, leaning against the framework of the shelter covering home plate. His grin grows exponentially when his gaze catches mine, and he tilts his head, crooking his finger at me.
Caught! I glance around and point to my chest, mouthing, “Me?”
He nods as his grin impossibly widens more, reminding me of the smile he gave me when we played on the beach. Shit. He’ll forcibly pick me up, with me kicking and screaming just like he did then, too.
Suddenly, Rod grabs my arm, pulling, and I resist as a fat turkey going behind the woodshed. I shove on his arm, trying to break free, but that does me no good.
Nearly tossing me to the wolves, Rod proclaims, “Here’s your last victim, coach.”
Finn’s eyes don’t leave me as he replies, “Thanks, Rodwell.”
Walking over with a black thing in her hands, Cara says, “This is a mic. I need to hook it up to you. Lift your shirt.” She sounds like she’d rather scoop cat litter. I don’t want her touching me, but I nod anyway. Handing me the wire, she works on attaching the box to the back of my jeans. Finn’s smile falters when I lift my shirt and thread the wire up to my collar. Then, grabbing the mic through my shirt opening, Cara clips it onto my T-shirt collar. Her perfume engulfs me, and I turn my head, so I don’t throw up in her face. It’s horrendous. Does she bathe in it? I doubt a hooker would buy it at a yard sale. I wish Finn offered to help me instead of this hussy because I’d sooner Rod see me naked than for her to fondle me.
Maybe that’s a tad extreme. And I guess it wouldn’t bode well for our male coach to put his hands up my shirt. Since we just met and all.
When I’m done, his smug smile returns. “Thanks, Cara.” He then nods to the camera aimed at the chain-link surrounding home plate. “Shall we?”
I feel the vomit ascending. “Do we have to? Really? Can I defer to a later date?”
He slowly shakes his head, his eyes boring into mine, throwing me off my train of thought. “Nope. Everyone else had to do it. Your turn.” He’s taking my request for no favoritism further than I wanted today.
Resorting to desperate and juvenile measures, I whine and virtually stomp. “But I don’t want to!”
Finn raises a challenging eyebrow, daring me to argue with him in front of an audience. “Oh, come on. Put a smile on that face and answer innocent questions. No harm. No foul.”
I cross my arms, biting a smile. “Was that a baseball pun?”
He licks his lips with a mocking grin. “Good observation. I hope you’re that sharp on the field.”
I gulp and peer at the baseball diamond. “Yeah. Me, too.”
He steps backward until he’s in front of the camera, and I more than grudgingly follow, nervously finger-brushing my ponytail. I glance at Milo, who is grinning ear-to-ear at my mini-breakdown. The other guy, Reed, doesn’t appear to know who I am. Reed nods at Milo and shouts, “Action!”
Finn looks at the camera. “This is my final player.” He turns to face me, and his dark eyes sparkle as they crinkle at the corners. “Can you tell my viewers your name?” Do I have to?
Folding my arms under my breasts, I clear my throat and softly reply, “Hadley Beckett,” at the ground. However, his gaze has a gravitational pull, forcing me to glance back up, now trapped in his absorbed stare.
As if in a trance of his own, he nods and puts his left hand on his hip. It feels like we stare at each other for eons when he finally asks, “What do you think of playing softball with your coworkers? So far, is it fun, and it’s all good, or do you wish you were in a bowling league instead?” He teased Shasta, but he’s actually interviewing me. That slightly calms me, yet unnerves me, too. I’m a conundrum that even I can’t figure out.
Blinking out of my preoccupation, I take a shaky, deep breath. “I love softball. I played shortstop when I was younger. It’ll be fun playing with people I work with but barely see. That sounds weird, I know. We work on the same floor, but don’t see each other much. Maybe it’s just me. I kind of stay in my office and keep to myself. Not that I’m a snob. I just… I think I’m rambling. Sorry.”
He laughs, and it’s a genuine Finn Wilder laugh. I presume my suffering must be entertaining. “You’re fine.” He continues to study me with his laid-back smile, and I try to relax, but my hands shake so badly. I’m afraid I’ll throw up in front of his Finnatics. I hope he’d have the heart to edit that out.
Finn climbs his fingers above our heads into the chain-link next to us, and my gaze slides to his firm, barbed-wired bicep peeking out from his T-shirt’s short sleeve. He’s so confident and sexy. His fans will notice I’m gawking at him like a lovesick kid.
He says, “Your hits surprised everyone yesterday. It impressed me, to say the least. Were you that good back then, too?”
Shrugging as a preliminary answer, I play with my ponytail. I need to get with it, or I’ll look even more absurd. I’m sure Rod is having a literal field day, watching me fall flat like my pancakes. Clearing my throat, I reply, “I guess. I hit a home run or three.” Finn beams as if he’s proud of my answer, and his magnificent grin is ultimately the death of me. Being away from him, and his valiant effort to not parade our relationship around my coworkers ignites something in me. A couple of weeks ago, I was upset he hid me. Why would I deny our love now?
Plus, with Cara and Shasta watching, it fuels my fire. Morgan’s words replay in my head: Whatever you have to do to hold on to your man, Hadley.
With new motivation, I smile, conveying borrowed confidence. “Okay, Finn. It’s my turn to ask you a question.”
His eyes widen, and he skeptically chuckles. “What question did you want to ask me?” There’s one I really want to ask you…
I’m unwavering. “I saw your tattoo dare.” I return his earlier challenging look. He stops blinking, and I hear his staggered breaths. “We all want to know. What’s your girlfriend like?”
His smile freezes while his eyes scour my face, breaking entirely from his professional demeanor. Will he not answer me, or will he just cut the interview short? Finn’s public mask tumbles when he anxiously licks his lips and swallows hard. His eyes become darker, even in the sun, as they lock on to mine. Although he appears unsettled, he steadily says, “She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met. Stunning doesn’t describe her. She makes me laugh, think, and care about things I never did before. She’s my other half, my soulmate, and my best friend. I fall more in love with her each day.”
Astonished from Finn’s public admission, I stutter on the word wow. How much is he willing to admit on camera? Wanting to drive him further, I step closer to him. When I do, the muscles tense in his upheld arm as he stares down at me. He acutely inhales, his eyes searching mine before he says, “Now you tell me. What’s your boyfriend like?”
I demurely smile. “He’s sweet, devoted, caring, soulful, and the sexiest man I’ve ever seen in my life. I love his smile, eyes, and magical, color-changing hair. His daringly cocky attitude hurdles me to the brink of insanity and back, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. He’s my missing puzzle piece, my soulmate, and my best friend. My love for him multiplies by leaps and bounds every time I look at him.”
Reaching up, I boldly curl my fingers into the neck of his T-shirt, and his microphone crackles as I pull down until his heart tattoo is exposed. “Becks,” I state like it’s an answer to a question. He nods, and I feign obliviousness. “On your dare, what did you say your girlfriend’s name is?” I look from his tattoo, up to his guarded eyes. He licks his lips, and I’m now unsure if he’ll answer. This could be a disaster.
But he says, “Hadley.” I’ll never stop loving him, saying my name.
I grin, relieved. “What a coincidence.” We both dazedly nod, and I forget the camera, along with the crowd around us.
I let go of his shirt, and he says, “Tell my viewers the name only your boyfriend calls you.” My heart stammers while Finn smirks. “I dare you.”
Matching grins spread across our faces as we taunt one another. “Challenge accepted.” I bite my lip and glance at Cara, who’s witnessing an explosion at a match factory. Suck it up, bitch.
I look back to Finn, and my lips curve into a smile. “Finn Wilder calls me Becks.”
Finn drops his hand from the fence, and he leans closer until we’re nearly nose-to-nose, his quick breath blowing across my face. “What a coincidence.” His brash smirk disappears, and his fiery gaze falls to my lips. I want to kiss him, but we’re on camera.
Without caring, I again tug on his shirt as my other hand flies up to his face, pulling him down to mine. Our lips readily collide, with my fingers sliding into his hair, and he kisses me as if I’m the oxygen he needed.
As do I.
From behind us, I vaguely hear cheers, mostly from Rod, Morgan, and Val.
Finn abruptly breaks our kiss to look out at the team on the field and then turns back to the camera. He nods at me. “Oh, yeah. She’s my Becks.”
Before I fully comprehend what just happened, he eagerly swoops down to kiss me again.