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Long Relief (Hardball #1)
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Billionaire entrepreneur Maggie Harper has lived and breathed baseball since birth. But being the coach’s daughter never prepared her for team ownership, and all the business savvy in the world can’t help her navigate the complications from a sizzling one-night stand with a player who definitely wants something more.
After pitching a disastrous game that cost the Bengals the championship pennant, veteran reliever Chris Thomas knows his days as a player are numbered. There are more important things to be worried about than the sexy new team owner, but Maggie’s hot-and-cold act is driving him to distraction. A woman has never come between him and the game before, but now he has to make a choice between his love of playing ball and his rapid fall for Maggie.
Caught between doing what’s right for the team and what’s right for them, Maggie and Chris have to decide what’s more important: a championship season, or a chance at love?
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The Nashville Cowboys’ clubhouse had plastic wrap on every surface to protect the lockers and the walls and hell, even the ceiling from the champagne popping in celebration. The whooping and cheering reverberated through the cinderblock and steel of the stadium. Camera flashes ticked, and on the field, local police and stadium security tried to round up the fans who’d poured out of the stands.
It was awesome to be a Cowboy that night.
Chris Thomas, closer for the Grand Rapids Bengals, sat on the bench in the visiting team locker room. There was no plastic up here, no champagne, no reporters. There would be a press conference, and probably some interview requests. The biggest playoff blunder since Buckner? Yeah, they would want a scoop.
What would he say? What was there to say other than, “Sorry about that?”
He’d come in on a two-run lead. Bottom of the ninth, an easy close. Game five. He’d walked out of the bullpen confident, ready to save their asses and take them into game six. His first few pitches were rough–rough enough to walk a man. There were a thousand excuses for that walk. It had been unusually chilly that night, and his shoulder had been killing him since the start of the series. And all the stretches and soaks in the world wouldn’t take off the years.
He’d had an incredible career, until this season. He’d taken the mound with the intention of proving all those armchair analysts wrong. After that walk, all the best intentions in the world couldn’t get his head on straight. The next batter had gotten a double off him and had earned him a visit from the pitching coach. What had probably looked like a tense exchange to the fans had actually been a pep talk and gentle inquiry. He’d insisted he could stay in. The next batter up left with an out. The one after him, too. Chris had just gotten his good stuff back when a high fly ball advanced the runner. The next batter hit it into the stands. A few seats south and it would have been a foul ball. But it hadn’t been.
“Hey, Chris? You still in here?”
He got up and hefted his bag over his aching shoulder. “Yeah, I’m coming.”
Javier Vargas stepped around the corner. A lot of the young guys had looked at Chris with sympathy, but he’d sensed their resentment. He’d lost their bonuses, their rings, video game contracts, and the covers of all the sports magazines. But Javier hadn’t tried to sympathize. He hadn’t offered false support, and Chris appreciated that more than any of the empty platitudes he’d gotten from the other guys.
“The bus is leaving,” Vargas said. “We kind of need you on it.”
“Do you?” Chris had thought it would sound funny and self-deprecating. It just sounded sullen.
Vargas tilted his head. He was a catcher, good with body language. Right now, it said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” A clipped laugh preceded his words. “Yeah, we do. But we don’t need you feeling sorry for yourself. You had a bad game. It was a big game. Man up, get on the damned bus, go back to the hotel and drink the mini bar, do what you have to do. But don’t drag everyone else lower. They’re already down.”
“You’re right.” It was good advice, but that didn’t mean it would be easy to follow.
Javier went out–whistling, the guy was always whistling and it drove everyone crazy–but before the locker room door slammed again, he called back, “There’s always next season.”
And that was exactly what Chris feared.
“You see that, Magpie? You’ll never see anything that green anywhere in the world. Not emeralds, not paint, not the eyes of God himself. That’s as green as green gets.”
Maggie remembered her father’s oft-repeated words and sucked in a breath. Her hands on the railing, she slid her arms wide apart and leaned over, breathing in the smell of the concrete and fresh paint. In the outfield, the groundskeeping staff rolled the grass flat in a lattice pattern of squares that shimmered in the early April sun. Ronald Harper had been right; nothing, from thermal springs in New Zealand to the Baccarat tables of Monte Carlo, not even the money Maggie had used to buy her father’s former team could compare to Bengals Stadium.
Continental Bank Ballpark, she reminded herself.
She straightened and smoothed the front of her gray silk jacket. “Mr. Thorgerson. Three more days.”
“Call me James.” The tall, pale man who’d approached her had lips as thin as his salt-and-pepper hair. “Enjoying your ballpark?”
“Not my ballpark,” she reminded him, turning away from the field. “I believe Continental would like us both to remember that.”
“Well, your father was a good tenant, so I’m sure they’ll let that slide.”
“My father wasn’t exactly a tenant, Mr. Thorgerson. He coached the Bengals. I own them.” She wasn’t about to let anyone in the organization forget it. If she slipped up and fell into the role of Little Maggie Harper the Coach’s Daughter, she’d never come back from it.