Better Than Perfect(2)

By: Kristina Mathews

“You’re new, too.” She scooted over to his side of the table, dismissing Johnny’s rejection as strike one. She must think she had a better chance of scoring with Bryce.

“I am. I think I left my heart somewhere in the city. Could you help me find it?” He slid one of his photos across the table to her.

“I can help you find whatever you’re looking for.” She took the pen from him and wrote something on the inside of his forearm. Her number, most likely.

Bryce grinned as if he enjoyed having a stranger tattoo him with a permanent marker.

“Bring your friend, too. If he’s up for a challenge.”

“I’ll see what I can do, sweetheart.” Bryce tipped his cap and winked at the woman.

Johnny exhaled, realizing he’d been holding his breath during the entire conversation.

“Thanks man, I owe you one.” Johnny shook his head, as relieved as if Bryce had just snagged a line drive with two outs and the bases loaded.

“So it really isn’t an act.” Baxter eyed him carefully. “You really do walk the walk.”

“What walk?”

“The celibacy thing. It’s for real.” A lot of guys thought he was full of it. That it was just for show. A way to get attention, and women. But once they realized he was genuine, most of the other players accepted him. Some even respected him. “You really don’t mess around.”

“No. I don’t. I’m not perfect, but I try to stay out of trouble.” Johnny removed his cap and ran his fingers through his hair. Since they were both new to the team, their booth wasn’t as crowded as some of the others. They had a chance to catch their breath. He was able to finally sit back and enjoy the perfect weather. It was one of those glorious Northern California days when the sun came out to tease, dropping hints of spring and the fever that came with it.

“You looked like you were a little uncomfortable there.” Bryce, on the other hand, seemed to relish the attention.

“I know it’s part of the job, but it’s not the part I’m good at.”

“You let your game speak for itself. That’s cool.” Bryce reclined in his chair, looking as relaxed as if he was sitting in his own back yard. “Some of us have to use our charm to make up for lack of talent.”

Johnny laughed. Baxter had plenty of talent. And more than enough charm to go around.

“She was pretty fine, though.” Bryce continued to check her out as she walked away, collecting ballplayer’s numbers like kids collected baseball cards. “Exactly what I need to get me in shape for spring training.”

“Is that so?” Johnny managed to avoid the whole groupie scene. His entire career had been about control, both on and off the field. The Monk kept his cool. The Monk never got rattled. And The Monk maintained a spotless reputation. He had to, considering where he’d come from.

“There he is. Come on, Mom.” A kid, about twelve or thirteen, rushed up to the booth, practically dragging his mother by the arm.

Johnny slipped on his best fan-friendly smile.

“We’re, like, your number one fans.” The boy was practically bursting at the seams. “Right, Mom?”

The boy’s mother stepped forward, taking Johnny’s breath away.

He’d had several reasons to come to San Francisco. Eleven million obvious ones, and several others that he’d done his best to articulate to the fans. There was only one reason he should have stayed away.

“Alice.” Just saying her name sent a line drive straight to his heart. Even fourteen years later.

“Congratulations on your new contract. I know you’re going to have a great year.” She sounded like any other fan, wishing him well. She just marched right up to his table to ask for an autograph. A freaking autograph? Like he meant nothing to her.

A slight breeze blew her hair around her face. She tried to smile as she tucked a loose strand behind her ear. Blond, straight, silky—and if he remembered correctly—oh-so-soft. She wore modestly cut jeans and a soft blue sweater that on anyone else would have looked plain and proper. He didn’t need to glance at her left hand to know she was off limits. Yet, she still moved him like no other woman ever could. Made him long for what he’d had. What he’d lost. What he’d tried for years to forget.

“Wait.” The boy gaped at her. “You guys know each other? For real?”

“Yes. Johnny was…” She held Johnny’s gaze just long enough for him to catch a flicker of regret. She turned to her son, who was about an inch or two taller than her. “He was your dad’s college roommate.”