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Fix Her Up

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A brand new romantic comedy from New York Times bestseller Tessa Bailey!

Castle’s family runs the best home renovation business in town, but she
picked balloons instead of blueprints and they haven’t taken her
seriously since. Frankly, she’s over it. Georgie loves planning
children’s birthday parties and making people laugh, just not at her own
expense. She’s determined to fix herself up into a Woman of the
World... whatever that means.

Phase one: new framework for her business (a website from this decade, perhaps?)

Phase two: a gut-reno on her wardrobe (fyi, leggings are pants.)

Phase three: updates to her exterior (do people still wax?)

Phase four: put herself on the market (and stop crushing on Travis Ford!)

her best life means facing the truth: Georgie hasn’t been on a date
since, well, ever. Nobody’s asking the town clown out for a night of hot
sex, that’s for sure. Maybe if people think she’s having a steamy love
affair, they’ll acknowledge she’s not just the “little sister” who
paints faces for a living. And who better to help demolish that image
than the resident sports star and tabloid favorite?

Travis Ford
was major league baseball’s hottest rookie when an injury ended his
career. Now he’s flipping houses to keep busy and trying to forget his
glory days. But he can’t even cross the street without someone recapping
his greatest hits. Or making a joke about his… bat. And then there's
Georgie, his best friend’s sister, who is not a kid anymore. When she
proposes a wild scheme—that they pretend to date, to shock her family
and help him land a new job—he agrees. What’s the harm? It’s not like
it’s real. But the girl Travis used to tease is now a funny,
full-of-life woman and there’s nothing fake about how much he wants

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ISBN 13:
(Hot & Hammered #1)
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wow really good !!!! recommend reading if you want something light and HEA :)
10 November 2021 (19:51) 
Idk how you guys found it but it wasn't the same book lol. I realised soon later that I was reading "the Academy Seiers" by tessa baily. Tho I'm not complaining it is really good so yeah.
11 December 2021 (12:31) 

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Sumisión 3. La experta (Spanish Edition)

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Los renglones torcidos de Dios

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To the youngest siblings everywhere



Title Page


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine


An Excerpt from Love Her or Lose Her

Chapter One

About the Author

Also by Tessa Bailey


About the Publisher

Chapter One

No freaking way.

Georgette Castle tucked the stolen key into her pocket, wincing at the creak as she opened the apartment door. Empty beer cans skittered along the floor the farther she pushed, the stale stench of unwashed dude reaching out and throttling her. Her older brother had tried to warn her. Had she listened? No. Did she ever listen? Also a definitive no.

This time, though, Georgie had been positive Stephen was mistaken. It didn’t seem possible that the town’s baseball phenomenon could fall so far so fast. Just under two years ago, she’d watched Travis Ford hit a World Series grand slam on live television, along with everyone in town, gathered beneath the new flat-screen television at Grumpy Tom’s. There had never been a doubt Travis would go professional after his sterling college career at Northwestern.

No one saw the injury coming. Especially Travis.

After a year of physical therapy and being passed between teams like a hot potato, Travis had come home to Port Jefferson. Georgie could still see the heartbreak in his eyes during the sparsely attended press conference announcing his retirement at age twenty-eight. Sure, he’d been smiling. Joking about the chance to improve his golf game. But Georgie had been in love with Travis Ford since she hit pubert; y and knew his tells. Every expression on his face was categorized in her memory, his name scrawled on every other page in her diary, never to be discovered beneath the floorboards of her bedroom. Five decades from now, when she looked back on her youth, she would remember Travis standing at home plate on the high school baseball field, lifting his batting helmet to adjust it, allowing just a glimpse of dark auburn hair to catch the wind, before covering it back up.

Heroic, gorgeous, bursting with character, and cocky as sin. Travis Ford before.

What would the after look like?

“Hello?” Georgie called into the dark dwelling. “Anyone home?”

She kicked aside a plastic bag full of takeout containers and closed the door behind her, advancing into the apartment. Stephen had definitely been here to see his childhood friend. The untouched health shakes and UV sun lamp made that obvious. He’d at least tried to reach Travis. So had members of the church, old baseball coaches, and autograph seekers. Instead of being coaxed back out into the light, though, he continued to wallow.

Georgie had a better plan.

“Hey, dickhead!” Now in the living room, she stooped down and picked up a melted pint of ice cream, her lip curling in a smile. Perfect ammunition.

See, Georgie might have reached the ripe old age of twenty-three in Travis’s absence, but she would always be the pesky little sister. That wasn’t a label she’d given herself. But she’d heard it upward of a thousand times growing up and it refused to die. What was a girl to do besides give in and embrace it? Sympathy hadn’t worked with Travis. Now she’d try her own method of breaking through to him.

A floorboard groaned beneath her foot as she stepped into the bedroom, finding Travis facedown and naked on top of the covers, that signature deep auburn hair in a wreck around his head. She almost lost her nerve then, lowering the pint of soupy vanilla ice cream to her thigh. Ridiculous that her heart should kick into a gallop and the moisture in her mouth dry right up. It was just a butt. You could go on the internet and see butts by the . . . butt load. While she was thinking about it, God bless the internet. What an invention.

Still. Throw in Travis’s considerable height and naturally athletic frame, complete with ripped muscles and dark, manly hair . . . well, maybe his butt excelled over other butts. Every human in town with a preference for men concurred. Travis Ford was extraordinary.

Just not today. And not for the last month since his premature homecoming.

Georgie lifted the pint of ice cream and took a moment to contemplate the task in front of her. This wouldn’t be easy. Deep down in her bones, she wanted to throw her arms around Travis and tell him everything would be all right. He might not get another chance to be a star on the baseball field, but he’d never stop being a hero. The man who left this town and achieved dreams most men let go of as children.

Unfortunately, he’d never stop being the man whose face she’d pictured while Frenching her pillow in middle school, either. As a grown woman now, she pictured him during far less innocent endeavors, which usually required a charged device and twenty minutes alone.

But she digressed.

Her infatuation with Travis was impossible to miss. Even her siblings were aware of it, but they wrote it off as their pesky little sister’s silly crush. So be it. She’d be the best damn pest on this side of Long Island. An effective one, too. Hopefully.

“Hey!” Georgie reared back and threw the full container of melted dessert at Travis’s naked back, watching in fascination as it spread into a Rorschach painting on his shoulders. And hair. And headboard. It was almost beautiful. “Get up!”

Travis must have gone to bed wasted, because it took a full five seconds for him to register the liquid mess seeping down his skin and onto the bedsheets. His head came up, right wrist swiping at the ice cream on his forehead. “What the fuck?”

His gruff tone made Georgie think of teeth marks and massage oil—seriously, God bless the internet—but she ignored the reaction. “I said get up. You’re disgusting.” She bent down and picked up a pair of stiff boxers, dangling them at the very tip of her index finger. “Only two outcomes are possible here. Your face is eaten by rats. Or this place gets condemned by the fire marshal.”

“Georgie?” Facedown again, Travis turned a little to confirm her identity. There it was. An expression she’d had thrown at her since birth. The perfect combination of irritation and dismissiveness. It screamed, Go away, you are irrelevant! without making a sound. Georgie hated that expression but, somewhere along the line, had been given no choice but to lean into it.

If you can’t beat them, join them, right?

“I’m surprised you recognized another human being through your own self-pity.” Georgie sighed and sat on the edge of the bed, taking the opportunity to memorize his concrete-slab buttocks. “I saw a container of lo mein on the way in here. Figure I’ll throw that next. It’ll pair nicely with vanilla. Probably. I’m not a chef.”

“Get out, Georgie. What the fuck? I’m not even wearing clothes.”

“I’ve seen naked men. Tons of them.” On the internet, God bless it. “You used to be a nine point five, but you’re slowly bottom-ing—ha—into a seven.”

“Really? Because I can feel you staring at my ass.”

“Oops. I thought that was your face.”

Cool. Good one. Five minutes around this man and you’re ten years old again.

Travis’s snort sent Georgie back out into the living room. She toed open a bag of Chinese food, confirming the lack of vermin before extricating the lo mein. One step into the room and she let it fly, noodles and rotten chicken raining down on her brother’s oldest friend. “Might need a pinch of salt to bring it all together.”

“I can’t believe you did that,” Travis roared, sitting up and throwing his legs over the side of the bed. Anger radiated from every inch of his baseball player body, veins protruding from the sides of his neck, his cut biceps. She’d never seen him with a beard before, but the uneven state of it told Georgie the facial hair was definitely the product of laziness instead of a style change. “Go!” he shouted, dropping his head into his hands. “Don’t make me throw you out.”

She refused to acknowledge the sharp pain in her chest. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“I’ll call your brother.”

“Do it.”

Travis surged to his feet, turning a storm of rage in her direction. The noodles in his hair would have been comical in any other instance but this one. Clearly remembering his naked status, he whipped a T-shirt off a nearby chair and held it over his lap. “What do you want?”

Now, that was a loaded question that could be answered in two parts. She wanted one person in her life to see her as more than the annoying hanger-on. As far back as she could remember, she’d always wanted it to be Travis who listened to her. Told her she was special. Right now, none of those hopes and dreams would be useful. Probably never would be. “I want you to stop being a selfish asshole. Everyone is worried about you. My brother, my parents, the local doe-eyed groupies. Spinning their wheels, trying to figure out how to cheer you up. Maybe you just enjoy being the center of attention whether it’s negative or positive.”

His arms shot wide, bringing the T-shirt along for the ride.


There he sat. Long and thick and crowned like a king. They didn’t call him Two Bats for nothing. Ever since he’d been snapped by the paparazzi in a compromising position with a Swedish pop princess during his rookie year, the media had been fascinated with Travis, documenting his never-ending one-night stands and notable conquests. “It Wasn’t Me” by Shaggy would play over the stadium loudspeakers when he got up to bat. Women would shriek.

All while Georgie watched from a cross-legged slump in front of the television back on Long Island.

The Player’s Player. The Other Home Run King. The Backseat Athlete. Gorgeous even in his dishevelment, the cocky charm was nonetheless missing at this very moment.

“You think I enjoy this?”

“Yeah,” she shot back. “I think you want to stay in here forever, because it means you don’t have to try again.” Working a loose-hipped swagger out of the room, she called back over her shoulder. “I think you’re a wussy man. I think you’ve been sitting in here crying to your highlight reels, wondering where it all went wrong. What a sad cliché. I’m going to talk to my brother about finding a cooler friend.”

“Hold the fuck on,” Travis thundered, following her out of the bedroom, just your average, everyday, gorgeously pissed-off athlete who was once a contender for Rookie of the Year. “You’re acting like I got laid off from just any job. I was a professional baseball player, Georgie. That was all my life was ever building to. There’s nowhere to go from there but down. So here I am.”

Surprise knocked her back a step. Travis Ford was insecure enough to write himself off as a failure? She’d never known him to be anything but wildly confident—to a fault even. Her hesitation had caused him to back slowly toward the bedroom, though, so she shook off her sympathy and pressed on. “Stay down, then. Become a pathetic has-been who tells the same bummer injury story every time he has more than two beers.” She gestured to the apartment. “You’re halfway there. Don’t quit now.”

“It’s been a month,” Travis seethed.

“A month you could have used to make a new plan, if you weren’t a wussy man.” She raised an eyebrow. “Like I said.”

“You’re a kid. You don’t understand.”

Oh, that was almost her knockout punch, those oh-so-familiar words hitting Georgie’s most sensitive target. If she hadn’t grown up with Travis, she might have left and gone to lick her wounds. But this man had sat across from her at the kitchen table a thousand times. Ruffled her hair, grabbed from the same bowl of popcorn during movies, and defended her from meanies. After all, Travis and Stephen could torture her, but when it came to other people doing it? Not a chance. If she hadn’t spent her life in love with Travis Ford, she would consider him a brother. So she knew a strong, self-assured man was under this bearded freak’s surface. And he needed someone to jab and punch until he was free.

“I just bought a house. My own house. I’m not a kid anymore, but even if I was? I’d have my shit together more than you do. And I’m a children’s birthday party clown—let that sink in.” Georgie paused for a breath. “Right now, everyone in town feels bad for you. They understand the loss.” She poked him in the chest, right over his red-and-black baseball diamond tattoo. “But in six months? A year? People will shake their heads and laugh when you walk down the street. Look at him now. He never recovered. What a waste.”

By the time Georgie finished, his chest shuddered up and down, muscles jumping on both sides of his jaw. “Why did you come here? What do you care?”

“I don’t,” she lied. “I just came to see you for myself, because I couldn’t believe it. The guy we all looked up to is a drunk slob. Now I know.”

“Get out,” Travis snarled, taking a step closer. “I’m not going to say it again.”

“Fine. I probably need to schedule a tetanus shot anyway.” Georgie turned on a heel and sidestepped a pizza box on her way to the door. “See you around, Travis. Probably on the last barstool in Grumpy Tom’s muttering about your glory days.”

“It was . . .”

His new, choppier tone stopped Georgie midstride. She looked back over her shoulder just in time to catch him swigging from a half-empty whiskey bottle.

“Going pro was my only way to be better than him, all right? I have no way to be better than him now. I’m nothing. I’m him.”

“That is garbage, Travis Ford,” she breathed, unable to speak above a whisper. “You did it. You achieved what you set out to do. Circumstances screw everyone once in a while—and they screwed you worst. But you’re only him if you lie down and play the victim.” She turned away before he could see the tears in her eyes. “You’re better than this.”

Georgie left Travis standing in the filth, looking like he’d been struck by lightning.

And he hadn’t seen the last of her, either.

Chapter Two

Travis squinted through his front windshield into the sunlight and wished it were raining. Maybe if the sun weren’t beating down on him like a cheerful asshole, he could have given himself an excuse to stay inside one more day. Instead of his usual routine of waking up, ordering breakfast delivery from the diner, chasing it with a six-pack, and going back to sleep, he’d found himself pulling on clean pants and walking out into the daylight. His sudden motivation had nothing to do with Georgie’s visit yesterday—nothing whatsoever. He’d simply hit his limit for staring at the same four walls and needed a change.

Was this the right change, though? A construction job?

He didn’t need the money. If he wanted to spend the next decade living like an antisocial vampire who drinks Bud instead of blood, he had the funds to do it comfortably. Frankly, that sounded pretty appealing at the moment.

I think you want to stay in here forever, because it means you don’t have to try again.

Travis pushed himself out of the truck with an annoyed growl. When did little Georgie Castle turn into such a ball-breaker? Last time he’d seen her she’d still been in middle school. She’d spoken only when necessary so she wouldn’t have to show off her mouthful of braces. Far more preferable than the whirlwind who’d blown through his apartment yesterday, engaging in a one-way food fight. Some things about Georgie hadn’t changed, like her uniform of ripped jeans and oversized sweatshirts, but she’d definitely found her voice. He wished she’d directed it elsewhere.

Travis tugged on the collar of his shirt, grimacing at the dampness. August in Port Jefferson. He’d been out of his air-conditioned truck for only five seconds and his clothes were already sticking to him. From his vantage point, he could follow the paths of residents hurrying down the gentle slope and curve of Main Street, rushing to get to their next, cooler destination. Beyond the town’s main drag, water spread out wide and blue, boats lifting and dipping with the current. Banners stretched over the road, advertising church festivals and town hall budget votes. Whether he wanted to be back home or not, time and distance had given him enough objectivity to admit Port Jeff wasn’t a terrible spot. It would just be hotter than the devil’s ass until fall hit.

Travis came to a stop on the sidewalk, looking through the giant picture window of Brick & Morty. Through the gold lettering that hadn’t changed since his youth, he could see his friend Stephen Castle on the phone, probably barking orders at some poor soul. Travis’s best friend had been groomed to take over the family house-flipping business since high school and he’d fallen right into rhythm, inheriting the institution from his father, Morty. Right after Travis’s ascent to the majors, his phone calls to Stephen had been the one thing keeping him grounded. When all the Rookie of the Year fanfare threatened to inflate his head, Stephen had no problem reminding Travis he was the same asshole who’d broken his arm at age nine attempting to ride a skateboard backward down the Castle driveway. Toward the end of his career, he hadn’t needed Stephen to deflate his ego.

Fate had handled that nicely on its own.

Would his easy friendship with Stephen be the same now that Travis’s identity had been stripped away? The death of his career seemed to cast a shadow over his every interaction now. He’d always been a baseball player. The game ran in his veins. It never failed to be the first thing people spoke to him about. How’s the shoulder? Better than ever. How’s the team looking for the upcoming season? We’re focused and ready to win games. Hit me one out of the park. I’ll hit you two. The few times he’d left the apartment since returning to Port Jefferson, the topic of baseball had been deftly avoided anywhere he went. If someone asked him about the weather or complimented his new non-haircut one more time, his fucking head was going to explode.

Was this his life now? Pretending as though the five years of his baseball career never happened? Some days, that’s what he wanted. He wanted to numb himself to the memories of his injury and subsequent decline. Being shared around the league like a bummed cigarette. And finally the phone call from his team manager that was the equivalent of shooting a lame horse. Other days, though . . . pretending his career never happened scared the shit out of him. What was the point of all that hard work when he’d ended up right back in Port Jefferson, hitting up his friend for a job, just like his father always predicted he would?

That was a reminder he could have done without today.

Knowing he needed a minute before having to converse with a real live human being, Travis sighed and backed away from the window, leaning up against the building’s concrete wall. Maybe he should put this off until tomorrow. It wasn’t a reunion, exactly, since Stephen had been at his place a week . . . or maybe two . . . ago. Hard to remember since he’d been knee-deep in a bottle of Jack at the time. Having a sober face-to-face conversation with the bluntest person he knew might not be the greatest idea in his shitty frame of mind.

“Travis Ford?”

He turned to find a pretty blonde he didn’t recognize approaching him on the sidewalk. When all he could muster was a nod, she laughed.

“You don’t remember me, do you?”

“Can’t say that I do,” he responded, without matching her smile. “Should I?”

Her composure faltered, along with her stride, but she recovered fast. “Well . . . we went to high school together. Tracy Gallagher. I sat behind you in homeroom senior year.”

“Oh, right,” he said tonelessly. “Sure.”

Port Jefferson was a little bubble of a town. What happened out in the world only mattered insomuch as it directly affected the residents. But the familiar mixture of interest and censure on Tracy’s face made one thing pretty obvious: his reputation as an unrepentant womanizer had penetrated the bubble. She stood there waiting for him to elaborate on his monosyllabic answers, maybe even make a pass at her, and she was about to be sorely disappointed.

“Um,” she continued, seemingly unfazed. “You’ve been back in town for a month and I haven’t seen you around. Were you . . .” Cheeks turning pink, she squared her shoulders. “Did you want some help reacquainting yourself with the town?”

“Why would I? Nothing here has changed.” God, he was being a complete dick. As little as six months ago, they would have already been on their way back to his place. Good old Two Bats, always up for a lay. Until he wasn’t worth a damn anymore. Everyone had wanted a piece of him until shit got heavy, right? After the trades started and his stock went down, his phone stopped ringing. Here was a woman showing him some interest. Hell, she seemed nice enough. Maybe her intentions were pure. But after the fleeting smoke-and-mirrors lifestyle he’d led for the last five years, he could no longer muster an ounce of excitement. None of it ever meant anything. “Look, I’m about to meet with a friend . . .”

“Tracy. I work at the boutique.” She pointed south. “Down on the other end of Main Street. Glitter Threads.”

He forced a tight smile. “If I ever need the perfect little black dress, I’ll let you know.”

She laughed as if he’d made the joke of the century instead of a sarcastic jackass comment. “Why wait to hang out? There’s a new park down on the water, actually. If you wanted to check it out, I could pack a picnic lunch, or . . .”

His laugh was toneless. “A picnic.”

Finally picking up on the fact that he wasn’t interested, Tracy paused and her expression went flat. Irritated. Part of him felt bad for being impolite, but the other half? It felt good to not be the charming ladies’ man who took nothing seriously except his batting average. “You know—”

“Hey, Travis,” said a voice behind him. The sound reminded him of dripping Popsicles and skinned knees, but it had changed some. Grown huskier, lost the slight lisp. Georgie came into view, a ball cap pulled down low on her forehead, hair escaping in every direction. “Are you ready?”

He gave Stephen’s little sister a bland look. “For what?”

“Uh. Your doctor’s appointment, silly.” Georgie poked him in the ribs. “Come on. We’re going to be late.”

Was Georgie swooping in to save him from Tracy? Yeah. It appeared she was. And he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. The idea of a picnic with anyone—especially this woman who probably expected him to dazzle her with stories about meeting celebrities—was right on par with water torture. “Right. My doctor’s appointment.”

Georgie sent Tracy a wince. “When I described the symptoms to his doctor, they asked me to bring in a stool sample right away. Whatever he’s got, they haven’t seen it since the nineties.”

Jesus Christ.

Tracy raised a skeptical brow. “He looks fine.”

“That’s how it starts. One second you’re feeling fine . . . and then . . .” Georgie made an explosion sound, clapping her hands together. “Pus everywhere. You wouldn’t believe the pus. You can’t get it out with regular detergent.”

“You took it too far,” Travis muttered to Georgie. “Way too far.”

“I’m new at this,” she shot back, out of the side of her mouth.

Obviously onto the impromptu ruse, Tracy jerked her purse higher on her shoulder. “I can take a hint, Travis Ford. And by the way, you’re not as hot in person.”

“Aw, give him a break. He’s had a rough month.”

That comment earned Georgie a glare. “Don’t ever come into the boutique, Georgie Castle. Your legs are too short—even for the petite sizes.”

Georgie’s confidence dipped, but she lifted her chin to make up for it. “They don’t treat me this way at Gap Kids—you could learn a thing or two from them.”

Travis realized he was frowning down at Georgie. The top of her head only reached his shoulder. Small but fierce. Again, he marveled over the quiet girl who’d barely been capable of eye contact, once upon a time, becoming this scrappy defender of . . . him. Why the hell was she even bothering? Travis didn’t know, but he felt compelled to return the favor in some small way. Probably because she was Stephen’s little sister. “Your legs are normal-sized.”

She stared up at him as if he’d given her a way better compliment. Just as quickly, though, she rolled her eyes. “Oh, shut up.”

Tracy turned tail and stormed down the sidewalk. “Know what? I hope you do get some disease from the nineties, Travis Ford,” she called over her shoulder. “I don’t know why every woman in town is determined to throw her hat into the ring. You’re not even worth a midweek leg shave.”

“Points for originality.” Travis and Georgie watched the blonde until she was out of earshot. “Although, did I really hear her asking you out on a picnic?”

He sighed. “You did indeed.”

“Would she have shown up with a Yogi Bear wicker basket? Would she have packed a giant cartoon ham hock? I’m disappointed you didn’t say yes, just to satisfy my curiosity.”

Travis knew he should say thank you, but he didn’t want Georgie getting the impression he wanted or needed any more of her interventions. God forbid he formed an obligation to her. No one relied on Travis for anything now and he relied on exactly nobody. Commitments were temporary, and thus he didn’t bother making them. When he’d landed in the pros, he’d allowed himself to trust teammates, coaches, managers, despite the lesson he’d learned at a young age. He wouldn’t make that mistake a third time. The only exception to the rule was waiting for him inside the office, and even Stephen was kept at a comfortable distance.

“I’m meeting with your brother, Georgie.” He turned and opened the door, air-conditioning rushing out of Brick & Morty to greet him. “Run along.”

Georgie followed him inside. “What brought you out this fine summer day? It wouldn’t have anything to do with me—”


“Are you sure, because . . .”

Travis turned on a heel and the brim of Georgie’s hat drilled him in the chest, the impact knocking it off her head. He opened his mouth to tell her, no, nothing she’d said or done was responsible for his leaving his cave to meet with Stephen. It was pure coincidence. But the fallen hat had allowed her deep brown mass of hair to spill out everywhere. Over her shoulders, down her back, across half of her face. One of her green eyes peeked out through the wave of it all and he got distracted from his speech.

Yeah, she’d definitely . . . changed.

Georgie broke their stare, stooping down to grab the hat and yank it back down over her head, pulling her wealth of hair through the back opening. “What are you here to speak with Stephen about?”

The husky tone of her voice perturbed him even more, though he couldn’t say why. “Can you go play outside while the adults talk?”

She looked bored, but Travis got the impression it was an act. “It’s not my turn for the swing.”

The sound of a phone hitting the cradle ricocheted through the office.

“Georgie,” Stephen called behind Travis. “That’s enough. We’ll talk later.”

“Right,” she muttered, her smile tight. “I can take a hint, too.”

An uncomfortable sensation moved in Travis’s chest as Georgie backed toward the door. When he’d been patronizing to her like an asshole, it hadn’t sounded as bad as when Stephen did it, right? Yeah. Probably. And so be it. Making this girl feel welcome wasn’t his job, especially if her own brother didn’t see a reason to do so.

“Oh!” Georgie stopped and spun, keeping one hand on the doorknob. “Stephen, I’m starting a new tradition this weekend. Saturday brunch at my place. Can you come?”

Travis turned to find his friend scribbling on a legal pad, barely giving his sister the time of day. “Sure, sure. I’ll talk to Kristin.”

“Great.” She seemed to brace herself. “Travis, you’re invited, too.”

“Don’t count on me.”

She sent him an exaggerated wink. “It’s the blue house at the end of Whittier. Big elm tree in the yard. I’ll see you there.”

“You won’t.”

“But I think I will,” she said in a drawn-out whisper, edging into the sunlight.

Travis watched in exasperation as Georgie passed in front of the plateglass window, while pretending to be on a down escalator. “Is she always like this?”


Again, that weird roll of discomfort tried to pass through him, but he batted it away. “Your sister.”

“Oh, Georgie? Pretty much.” Stephen’s voice came from right behind Travis, prompting him to turn and shake the other man’s hand. “You still look like shit, but you’ve moved to a step above corpse.”

“Yeah? I’ll rebound.” He forced a grin. “You’ll look like shit forever.”

Tight-lipped and grim-faced, Stephen wasn’t a man given to laughing. His snort was his closest mirth indicator. With a chin jerk, he stomped back toward his desk and took a long sip of what appeared to be a fruit smoothie. “Saw you talking to a girl outside.” His stare was baleful. “Did she land the coveted first date?”

Travis dropped into the chair facing Stephen’s desk. “Come again?”

“Kristin tells me there’s something of an informal competition brewing in Port Jeff. Now that you’ve finally emerged from your hovel, I’m guessing it’s game on.”

A vein started to pound behind Travis’s eye. “Let me get this straight. There’s a competition and the object is to date me?”

“About right.”

“What I do is the opposite of dating. I do not date.”

“I didn’t either until I met Kristin.” He nodded, obviously preparing to tell Travis the same story he’d related several times over the phone and would probably tell another nine hundred times throughout his life. Christ, his best friend was already such a dad. Travis couldn’t even commit to a toothpaste brand. “She was on vacation in New York, visiting from Georgia. Saw her crossing an intersection in Manhattan. I pulled over, asked her to lunch, and she never went home.”

“I told you before, bro. That sounds more like kidnapping.”

Stephen let that go without comment. “What can I do for you, Travis? I’m guessing you didn’t come here looking for a job.”

There was a pinch in his chest at the prospect of signing on for a daily grind. Forming a routine. Those things meant devoting himself. Having people count on him. Being on a team. When a man’s usefulness ran out, Travis knew very well what happened, but he had no choice. Rotting away in a one-bedroom wasn’t an option, no matter how much he wanted it to be. “Actually, I did. Come here to look for a job.”

His oldest friend sat forward in his chair. “I know how many zeroes were attached to those contracts you signed, man. You don’t need the work.”

“Need? No.” Georgie’s voice caught him off guard for the tenth time that day. The guy we all looked up to is a drunk slob. “I just need something to keep me busy until I figure out my next move,” he said quickly, trying to dispel the words in his head. “Wasn’t so long ago I used to swing the hammer for extra cash during summer vacation. Your father taught us carpentry at the same time. Anything I forgot, I can relearn on the fly.”

“I hire serious candidates only.” Stephen steepled his fingers. “Men looking to grow with the company and be in it for the long haul.”

“I don’t offer the long haul to anybody.”

A muscle twitched in his friend’s cheek as they faced off across the desk. Finally, Stephen picked up a pen and wrote something down, sliding the piece of paper across the desk toward Travis. “Here’s the address of our current flip. This is where you’d be working to start.”

Travis held up the note, giving it a cursory glance. And then he read it again, a pit yawning wide in his stomach. “This is across the street from . . .”

Regret darkened Stephen’s eyes. “I know. It’s a pretty fucked-up coincidence,” he said. “That going to be a problem?”

“Nope. Ancient history.” He shoved the paper into his pocket and stood. “See you there.”

He knew if he turned around, Stephen’s expression would call bullshit, so he kept walking, doing his best to ignore the foreboding in his gut.

Chapter Three

Georgie gave her blueberry compote a final stir and stepped back from the counter, wiping sticky hands down her apron. Bacon warmed in the oven alongside Belgian waffles. She’d stayed up late whipping cream with her new hand mixer and had taken only seven finger swipes out of it since waking up this morning—but who was counting? In an exciting twist, she’d timed everything right for her first time cooking for more than one—painfully single—person.

It was her first time entertaining in her new home, period.

Georgie still couldn’t believe it. She had a house now. Granted, the Castle family business thrived on the art of sniffing out real estate deals, so she’d bought the two-bedroom ranch for a song and it still needed a lot of work. But it was hers. Not bad for a birthday party clown. Speaking of which, she had a dozen phone calls to return as soon as this brunch ended. Port Jefferson had exactly one clown and she was in high demand. It was how she’d managed the down payment on the house. Unfortunately, half the calls were from new customers who wanted a cotton candy machine, pony rides, magicians, princesses.

And she’d have to turn those jobs down.

A familiar hint of panic crept into her throat. Her fledgling clown business, along with some help from her parents, had put her through college, but it no longer seemed as sustainable. She did her best to keep the act fresh and cater to new trends, but kids’ birthday parties were a competitive racket. Parents wanting to outdo each other were beginning to look outside of Port Jeff for their entertainment needs. What was Georgie going to do about that? With a mortgage to pay, the future of her one-woman show had begun weighing more and more heavily on her mind.

Don’t worry about it now. Not when there’s compote to be consumed, parents and siblings to impress, and mimosas to drink. And Travis.

As if she could forget about Travis and his big, beautiful, brooding self.

Would he come?

No. Of course he wouldn’t. He’d barely given her the time of day when she was a kid. What made her think this guy who’d been wined, dined, and invited to the White House would be interested in having brunch with a girl who’d chucked rotting food at his head? Still. It didn’t hurt to imagine him waltzing through the swinging door of her kitchen with that amazing animal grace, that tongue tucked into his lower lip as if he just had to utilize it at all times. Guh.

Pressing her hand to her pounding heart, Georgie checked the clock on the oven. She would find out if he’d show soon enough. There was only ten minutes to go until everyone started to arrive.

Telling her nerves to hit the road, Georgie took the pitcher of mimosas out of the fridge, arranging it at an artistic angle on the kitchen table. She couldn’t stop herself from taking her cell phone out and snapping a few pictures in portrait mode.

“Okay,” she muttered under her breath. “I’m one of these smug foodie people now.”

Before she could post the picture to Instagram, the phone dinged with an incoming text message. It was from her sister, Bethany.

B: Can’t make it. That asshole community theater director broke up with me during the appetizers last night and I self-medicated with Cuervo. Rain check next week?

Georgie slumped into a kitchen chair, her fingers poised to reply. She typed a message imploring her sister to come, then deleted it and sent a thumbs-up instead. No big deal. Stephen and Kristin were coming, weren’t they? Her brother could eat enough to feed a small village—a way better brunch guest than Bethany, the perpetual dieter.

Fifteen minutes later, the pitcher of mimosas had started to sweat. A check of the waffles in the oven confirmed they were beginning to dry out. She paced the kitchen with her cell in hand for another five minutes before sending a text to Kristin.

G: You guys coming to brunch?

Ten seconds later her phone dinged.

K: What brunch, sweetie?

Georgie’s eyes closed slowly, the phone dropping to her side. The brunch had been so unimportant to her brother, he hadn’t even remembered to tell his wife. God, now if her parents showed up, her father would shuffle the floor like a loose end. Without Stephen around for Brick & Morty shop talk, his restlessness would be obvious, even if he tried to pretend otherwise. Her mother would poke her husband and send him dagger eyes until he relaxed, but did Georgie want to inconvenience them?

Quickly, she fired off a text to her mother.

G: Mom, we’re moving brunch to next weekend. I overslept.

She tacked on a befuddled emoji for good measure.

Her phone buzzed.

M: Are you sure, honey? We’re halfway there. I can help whip something up.

Georgie hesitated.

G: I’m sure. Go split your favorite pancakes at the Waterfront, instead ;)

That was it. All that work and no one was coming.

She pressed the pads of her thumbs into her eye sockets and sighed. She’d been holding out hope that buying the house would force everyone to recognize her as a fellow adult, but maybe such a feat was impossible this late in the game. Her parents loved her, but they’d been exhausted by the time their third child came along. Whereas her siblings were given careful attention and had their paths carved into the family business, Georgie had been left to figure shit out on her own. Since they’d always thought of her as the family clown, she’d embraced it. Whether she loved her job or not, maybe her career choice had guaranteed their seeming lack of esteem.

Her empty kitchen seemed to agree.

Not bothering to swallow the lump in her throat, Georgie moped over to the compote and prepared to knock it into the trash, cheap bowl and all. But then the doorbell rang before she could.

Who . . . ?

No. No way.

It couldn’t be Travis.

Georgie’s gaze darted around the kitchen looking for a place to hide. Letting in the local baseball god to witness her humiliation was so not an option. She paced to the kitchen window and peered through the lace curtain—

He was glowering right at her.

Right, okay. No way to avoid this. His body language could not be making it clearer that he’d prefer to be a million light-years away, so Georgie would merely send him packing, then spend the rest of the afternoon eating bacon and regretting it.

She sucked in gulping breaths all the way to the front door, fingers twisting in her apron. Oh my God. Travis Ford was standing outside her door. Five feet away. Maybe less. She should probably take a moment to savor that, since she’d been dreaming about it since puberty, but she couldn’t stall any longer. With an inward groan, she opened the door and leaned a casual hip on the frame. The picture of complacency. Hopefully. “Hi. So sorry. Brunch is canceled.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder and winced. “Ye olde oven cut out on me last night. I didn’t have your number or I would have texted you. I mean, I wouldn’t abuse the privilege of having your number or something.” Her laugh sounded painfully forced. “But I would have sent a courtesy text.”

His eyes were hidden behind gold-rimmed sunglasses, but she could feel the assessment in them. “If the oven cut out last night, why are you wearing an apron covered in fruit and batter?”

“You can tell that from there, huh?” Playing it cool in the face of having her bluff called, she pursed her lips. No option but to dig deeper. “I haven’t washed it in a while?”

“I can smell what’s happening in there.” He tucked a tongue into his cheek. “No one showed up, did they?”

Oh, this was not the time for that knot to expand in her throat. Not at all. But it formed with a vengeance, pushing out at all sides. Her eyes started to burn—and this was a disaster. Her siblings had flaked out, her parents had barely protested when she canceled . . . and they’d all confirmed what she’d already known. That they didn’t take her seriously. She was going to cry in front of her childhood hero turned mega-crush turned object of her every sexual fantasy. Seriously, Travis was the reason she couldn’t hear “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” without getting horny. Meanwhile if she cried right now, he’d probably lose his boner next time he smelled blueberries. Of course, while all these thoughts raced through her head, she said absolutely nothing, simply stared up at the former Hurricanes shortstop while her eyes ached.

“More food for me,” Travis said finally, stepping over the threshold. “Move it.”

“What?” She couldn’t hide the wistfulness in her tone. “You’re staying?”

“I’ve been eating takeout for a month.” He turned and pointed at her, letting that sink in. “That’s the only reason I’m here. We clear?”

She jogged to keep up with him. “To be fed. Yes.”

“I guess it smells pretty decent, too.”

“I was about to throw it all in the garbage,” she breathed, wiping an eye with her sleeve.

He caught the action as they entered the kitchen and sent her a scowl. “You need a minute or something?”

“Why? Because there’s no crying in . . .”


“I’ll help you. It’s baseball.” Georgie walked to the oven and took out the heaping plates of bacon and waffles. “That was called a segue. I’m being a good hostess by seamlessly bringing up topics of mutual interest. You love baseball. I love Tom Hanks. If we meet in the middle, we get A League of Their Own.”

He slid into a chair and stretched his long legs in front of him, like a prince preparing to be entertained. “I just want to eat bacon.”

Georgie heaped a plate full of waffles, whipped cream, compote, and bacon and slid it in front of Travis. “Okay, fine. We won’t talk about how underrated Geena Davis is.”

“Thank God.” He picked up a piece of bacon, pausing with it halfway to his mouth. “Because Lori Petty was the standout.”

“Don’t.” She shook her head slowly. “Not in my kitchen.”

Travis snorted and threw the entire strip of bacon into his mouth, before picking up the fork, cutting off a giant bite of waffle, slopping it through the compote/whipped cream combination, and tucking it into his mouth. “Fuck. That’s good.”

Until he spoke around the giant bite of food, Georgie didn’t realize she was staring at his mouth the way a charmed snake stares at a dangling pocket watch. She backed away from the table and started to cobble together her own plate, pleasure flooding her over his compliment, gruff though it was. “Thanks. Mimosa?”

He seemed to think about it. “Nah, I’m good.”

“No longer looking for the answer in the bottom of a bottle?”

“See, I knew you were in there.”

“What do you mean?”

The strong column of his throat worked as he swallowed a bite. “The girl who threw lo mein at my naked ass is not the same girl who answered the door.”

She fell into her spot at the table, stabbing her waffle in the heart with a fork. “My brother and sister abandoned me and my parents are probably relieved I gave them an out. Excuse me for having a weak moment.”

“I know a thing or two about being abandoned.” As if he’d caught himself off guard by telling her something so personal, Travis rolled one of his shoulders. “You get used to it.”

Georgie’s heart skipped. “I don’t want to. You shouldn’t be used to it, either.” Just like the morning she’d confronted Travis at his apartment, Georgie was struck by the possibility that he wasn’t the flawless, invincible giant her younger self had perceived. He knew about being abandoned? How? He must have been referring to the professional teams who’d furiously traded him before that final cut. “The Hurricanes were idiots to trade you for Beckman. He couldn’t find the ball swinging three bats.”

His hand paused on its way to grab a napkin, but she thought she caught a spark of interest before he hid it with a shrug. “Nah, he’s decent.”

“Tell that to his batting average.” It took her a few beats to notice Travis’s amusement. “What?”

“Nothing.” He rested his fork. “Not many people bring up the trades to my face.”

“Oh.” Heat tingled at the base of her neck. “I didn’t mean to—”

“Didn’t say I minded,” Travis cut in smoothly. “How long have you been in this place?”

“Four months.” Relieved he hadn’t taken offense to her word vomit, Georgie forked a blueberry into her mouth and leaned back, casting a glance around the kitchen. “There’s so much I want to do, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.”

He made short work of a second piece of bacon. “You are aware your family owns a remodeling business, right?”

Remembering the text from Stephen’s wife, she waved off his comment. “They’re busy.”

When the silence stretched, she looked up to find Travis watching her. Thoughtfully. Had he ever done that? “What would be your first project, if you could pick anything?”

“The fireplace.” She laughed, a little amazed. “I didn’t even know my first choice until I said it out loud. But definitely the fireplace. It’s this old, faded brick—”

“Show me.”

“But you’re eating . . .” Every remnant of food had vanished from his plate. “Oh.”

Travis pushed back from the table and, without waiting for her, left the kitchen. She found him in the living room, running a big, long-fingered hand over the old mantel of the fireplace. “You looking to do some stone work, cut it with a floating mantel?”

She couldn’t hide her surprise. “That’s exactly what I’m thinking,” she murmured, brows drawing together. “Why are you asking? You’re not going to do it for me, are you?”

“No, but I can talk to your brother about getting it on the schedule.” A sardonic smile ghosted around his mouth. “I’m on the payroll. For now. And I can bitch at him without getting fired. If he does fire me, I’ll tell everyone he used to get emotional over Designing Women reruns.”

“You’re working at Brick & Morty?” She breathed a laugh. “Why the sudden need to work? Is this because of me coming to your apartment and—”

“Nope. Keep dreaming.”

“It is,” she said, hopefully to herself. “I know it is.”

“It’s not.”

“Agree to disagree. Do you want to see the rest of the house?”

His expression said no, but he gestured at her to lead the way. Sort of flustered and a lot prideful, Georgie took his wrist—oh my, so thick—and tugged him through the living room. “The backyard is through here,” she said, presenting the sliding glass door and backyard beyond with a grand sweep of her arm. “I’m going to get a big, sloppy dog someday and this is where I’ll throw his ball.”

Was it her imagination or did that make him smile a little?

“You might want to adjust your aspirations to a medium or small dog.” He swept her with a look. “A big dog would walk you.”

“Sorry, my mind is set on Beethoven.”

She waited, hoping he would remember watching that movie several times together on her parents’ couch all those years ago, neighborhood kids sprawled on the floor munching popcorn. When recognition meandered through his expression, Georgie’s heart kicked.

“‘Any kind of weirdness and Beethoven is gone,’” he drawled, quoting the movie.

“‘Weirdness? What should I watch for, hon? Wearin’ my clothes around the house?’”

“Classic.” He made an impatient gesture for her to keep moving, but she caught his lips twitching. “Show me the rest. I don’t have all day.”

“Okay.” She had to force herself not to skip down the hallway, but her steps faltered the closer they came to the bedroom. Travis Ford was going to look at her bedroom. See it. Be near it. Were the fantasies she continually had about him going to be visible, like vines hanging from the ceiling? “Um. This is my room.”

“Oh, uh . . .” He gave a tight nod, barely glancing through the doorway. “Great.”

“Moving right along,” she said too quickly, directing his attention to the tiny, closet-sized room across the hall. “This is my magic zone.”

“Magic how?”

“I keep my performance equipment inside.” His narrow-eyed interest tickled her pulse. “Normally I would charge for a show, but since you braved my cooking I owe you at least one magic trick.”

He propped a shoulder on the hallway wall and crossed his arms. “Fire away. But be warned, I’m a skeptic.”

Georgie gasped in mock surprise. “You? A skeptic?” Lips pursed, she opened the door slowly, slowly, as if it held the secrets to the universe. Maintaining eye contact, she slipped into the room and moved behind the door little by little until disappearing from view. “I’m building the drama,” she said, ducking down to retrieve a few items. “Are you intrigued?”

“On the edge of my seat.”

Georgie came back into the hallway and closed the door, holding a blue scarf in her hand. As she expected, Travis eyed the silk with suspicion. She threw it up in the air, let it flutter down, and caught it. “Just your average, ordinary, everyday scarf that I stole from my sister.”

“Okay. What are you going to do with it?”

She tilted her head and frowned. “Do you hear the pitter-patter of rain? I think it’s raining outside.”

Even when Travis was patronizing, he was the sexiest man on the planet. She swore his eyes twinkled as those sensual lips tilted in a smirk. “I don’t hear anything.”

Really? Not even my heart? “Just in case, you should take an umbrella.” With a twist of her wrist and a sleight of hand, a rainbow-colored umbrella bloomed beneath the scarf, sending it fluttering to the ground. Oh, he struggled not to be confused, but failed, quite possibly making her life complete. “I know what you’re thinking. Will I perform at your birthday party? I usually only book children’s events, but I’ll make this one exception.”

He shook his head, studying her for a moment. “You weren’t always like this, were you?”


“Sure.” He graced her with a too-brief smile, then pushed off the wall, moving in that long-legged stride back toward the living room. “We’ll call it ‘delightful’ instead of ‘weird.’”

Georgie caught up to him in front of the fireplace, just in time to watch his hand run over the brick.

“You haven’t, uh, heard anything about some competition in town . . .”

“The competition to go on a date with you?”

His head fell back with a groan. “Oh God, it is real.”

“And you’re not thrilled about it?” Georgie mentally reviewed the conversations she’d heard around town all week. In the bakery, at a birthday party, simply walking down Main Street. “I mean, even if you’re not thrilled, you’re at least used to this kind of attention from women, right?”

A shadow passed over his face. “Yeah. Something like that.”

A jealousy fountain tried to bubble up, but she stuck a rock in it. The green monster was useless where Travis Ford was concerned and always would be. Instead, she focused on what his body language was telling her. The stiffness in his shoulders, the bunched jaw. “You’re not thrilled about it.”

He stared straight ahead at the fireplace. “No.”


It took him a moment to answer. “I guess I don’t want to be a novelty anymore. A good time. Something easy, not to be taken seriously.” He ran a rash hand through his dark auburn hair. “It’s no one’s fault but mine. I made myself the punch line of a bad dirty joke, didn’t I?”

“I don’t think of you that way. You could never be a joke,” she whispered, taken aback. “I’m sorry if the mean things I said in your apartment made you feel this way.”

“No. What you did was different. I needed that.” He reached over and tweaked her nose. “There. You finally got me to admit that throwing food and calling me on my shit is why I’m back among the living.”

If he hadn’t just played gotcha with her nose like she was five, Georgie might have kissed him then and there out of pure joy. But he had. So she didn’t. “You’re welcome.” She curled her fingers into the edges of her apron. “Ignoring the competition is only going to up the stakes, you know. Long Island women take betting seriously.”

“Let me worry about that.” As if becoming conscious of time and place, Travis cleared his throat hard and headed for the door. “I’ll talk to Stephen about the fireplace, all right? Thanks for breakfast.”


He stopped with a hand on the knob, but only gave her a half-turn of attention.

“Thank you for staying.”

The door closed in reply.

Chapter Four

Take off your shirt!”

Ignoring the shouted suggestion, Travis clamped his teeth around the pencil in his mouth and focused on the laser leveler in his hand, eventually lowering it to make notations. The major downside to renovating a house was definitely the lack of windows—there was nothing to muffle the outdoor noise. A crowd of around a dozen women and a handful of men had gathered on the curb outside the flip, snapping pictures of Travis with their camera phones—and if the portable Dunkin’ Donuts coffee dispenser was any indication, they were planning on getting comfortable. Yes, safe to say the Date Travis Ford competition was in full swing.

Out of the corner of his eye, Travis watched a petite redhead break from the pack, approaching a clipboard-holding Stephen with a casual air. “So . . . I’m thinking of doing some work in my kitchen this fall.” Her smile broadened. “Do you think I could ask Travis a few questions? I’m trying to decide between vinyl and ceramic tile.”

Blessedly clueless that he was being played, Stephen slapped the clipboard against his thigh. “Look no further. I could talk flooring for hours.”

The redhead’s smile transformed into more of a baring of teeth as Stephen launched into a presentation, complete with hand gestures and his iPhone camera roll.

“Yo, Ford,” one of the freelance workers said, wiping plaster onto the front of his T-shirt. “There’s enough people wanting to see you naked out there, you could crowd-surf over them. I’m personally offended by your bored attitude.”

“And here I thought I was being polite by not showing you up.”

“Please show me up!” He gestured toward the growing crowd. “You are mocking a gift from the Lord God himself.”

With a snort, Travis went back to making measurements. Once upon a time, he would have been front and center, absorbing the attention. Basking in it. As soon as he’d been let go from his final team, he’d learned pretty fucking fast that that kind of superficial admiration was cheap and fleeting. The women who’d once flocked to him had moved on to the next big thing, just like his coach, the team managers, and the fans. None of it had ever been real—and it wasn’t real now.

There was one advantage to having an audience outside. He either ignored them or encouraged them—and it would be a cold day in hell before he did the latter. Pretending he didn’t see the pack of admirers prevented him from looking outside. Across the street to the ramshackle old house of his youth.

Really, there was no need to look. He could picture every square inch of the place. If he lifted his head and glanced out the window, his catcalling fans would be outlined by the drooping roof. The overgrown, sun-scorched lawn. Pretty ironic, wasn’t it? At their backs stood a reminder of how the world really worked. In his parents’ case, love had bred resentment and eventually eaten it whole. For Travis, affection had been given based on his success. Once that was gone, he’d been left alone. Again. Even his stardom hadn’t changed the rules.

Hours later, Stephen had managed to disperse the crowd by lecturing them to death on insulation, allowing Travis to escape the flip without having to turn anyone down for a date. Going from a chauffeured SUV to carpooling in a minivan was a kick in the ass. Travis resisted the urge to hide his face as Stephen took a right turn, bringing them trundling straight down Main Street at happy hour. Port Jefferson natives were either picking up dinner or heading into one of the pubs for the liquid version. After spending the last few days working across the street from his childhood home, Travis wouldn’t have minded a few slugs of whiskey, but he’d have them in the privacy of his own home or not at all. He might have escaped the uncomfortable public interest unscathed today, but its presence had mentally exhausted him.

“Mind telling me why you have a fucking Dodge Grand Caravan?”

Stephen adjusted the air-conditioning from high to higher. “I have a truck I use to transport building materials.”

“Why aren’t we in it?”

“Did you always complain this much?” Travis decided that didn’t need an answer and Stephen wasn’t waiting for one anyway. “I’m trying to get Kristin to give . . . strong consideration to children. I thought this might encourage her.”

Travis frowned as a woman waiting to cross the street blew a kiss at him. “This conversation is above my pay grade.” He could feel Stephen wanting to say more and sighed. “She’s not considering having kids? Isn’t that the first thing a married woman living on Long Island considers?”

“Kristin is complicated,” he explained patiently. “She wants me to work for it.”

“Jesus. She wants you to work for something that will be nothing but work?” Travis chuckled. “How many hoops did you jump through to get a yes to the marriage proposal?”

Stephen growled. “You don’t want to know.”

“You’re right, I don’t. I’ll just be over here thanking God it’s not me.”

“Famous last words,” Stephen murmured, nodding his head at a group of waving women on the sidewalk. “You could be looking at your future bride right now.” He laughed when Travis shivered. “It’ll happen. As long as it’s none of the women in my life, we’ll be good.”

The idea of him settling down was so far-fetched, Travis didn’t even bother addressing it. The mention of the women in Stephen’s life did bring a certain face to mind, though. Georgie’s, to be exact. Over the last couple of days, she’d popped into his consciousness at the weirdest times. Her red nose and damp eyes when she’d opened her front door. That sunny yellow apron she’d forgotten to remove the price tag from. It didn’t seem right that her family hadn’t shown more enthusiasm over her stupid waffles when even Travis had managed to drag his ass out of bed to be there. He’d told himself it wasn’t his place to bring the oversight up to Stephen, but now it was Wednesday, and it was obvious that Georgie wasn’t going to give her brother hell over it.

He thought she might be . . . too hurt. Or something equally unpleasant.

How annoying that it should bother him at all. He just wanted to put his head down, sweat through the depression he’d landed in after getting cut from the league, and move forward without looking left or right. He shouldn’t be concerning himself with the hurt feelings of his friend’s little sister. They were almost to his apartment. If he could just get through one more day without bringing it up, he’d eventually forget about all that food she’d probably spent hours making for no one.

“Speaking of the women in your life, you forgot Georgie’s brunch on Saturday.”

Christ. Had he actually said that out loud?

“What brunch?”

A little spike poked up under his skin. “I was standing right there when she invited you to it, man. We were in your office . . .”

“Right.” A line formed between Stephen’s brows. “And it was last Saturday?”

Travis snorted. “Forget it.”

“Did you go?”

He coughed into his fist. “Yeah.”

“You were alone with my little sister?”

Travis couldn’t roll his eyes hard enough. “Stop clutching your pearls, Grandma. I didn’t go there knowing I was going to be alone with her. I left after half an hour.” He sent his friend a look. “Give me some credit. I’m not in the market for a woman at all, let alone the girl who used to spy on us through binoculars from the tree in your backyard. Your sister’s blessed virtue was safe the whole time.”

Stephen popped his jaw. “I trust you.”

Travis let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. It was one thing to be the manwhore of the sports world and another to have his best friend distrust him because of that well-earned image. Was it too much to hope that one person found him redeemable? Once again, he couldn’t seem to prevent thoughts of Georgie from popping up. You could never be a joke. “You can make up missing brunch to Georgie by fixing her fireplace. She wants to replace the brick.”

The calculations Stephen was performing in his head were almost audible. “I want to, but we’re on a tight schedule with three flips running at once. Two of my best guys won’t be back until the summer is over, so we’re short-staffed even though you’re gracing us with your moody presence. It’s going to have to wait.”

Travis nodded. There. He’d fulfilled his job by asking. Done.

They pulled off Main Street, traveling down one of the side streets to a three-family house, of which Travis was renting the top floor. The elderly owners who lived on the first floor left him alone, and the middle apartment below him was empty. A far cry from the crowded luxury high-rises he’d lived in all over the map, but right now, the quiet was exactly what he wanted.

“I’ll meet you at the job site tomorrow,” Travis said as they pulled up along the curb. “I can’t ride in this estrogen trap another day and maintain my self-respect.”

Stephen shrugged. “Suit yourself. Don’t be late.” He rubbed his hands together. “Tomorrow is demo day.”

“I won’t sleep a wink,” Travis droned, closing the passenger door behind him. “Thanks.”

The horn tooted as Stephen drove off, making Travis shake his head. He entered on the first floor, climbing the stairs to the top and unlocking the door to his apartment. He’d only managed to shuck his work boots, strip off his dusty shirt, and crack open a beer when a knock sounded on the door. Who the hell? He’d paid the rent a couple months in advance, so it couldn’t be the owners. Unless maybe there was a leak coming from his place? Travis plowed a hand through his hair, unlocked the apartment door—and found Georgie staring back at him, holding two armfuls of groceries.

A different ball cap hid her eyes this time, her standard ponytail sticking out through the back. She wore overalls with a loose T-shirt underneath. He almost closed the door in her face when he saw the script across the front. CLASS OF 2012 RULES!

This veritable girl-child was trying not to look at his bare chest and failing miserably. The combination of her high school memorabilia and the freckles scattered across her nose made him feel like a lecher for offering her the view, whether it had been intentional or not.

Fuck’s sake. He didn’t have time for this. Couldn’t he just drink his beer in peace and forget he’d landed back in his hometown working a construction gig? Getting up in the morning and putting on work boots was enough of an effort when his heart was back in the dugout and aching to be lacing up cleats instead. At the moment, there was no energy left to give.

“Why are you here?”

“Um.” She slipped past him into the apartment before he could stop her. “First of all, hi. Second, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but it’s very hard to cook for one person. They sell things in two portion sizes: family smorgasbord, and enough for two. So I keep ending up with leftovers.” She snuck a nervous look at him over her shoulder and started to unpack the first bag, setting foil-covered plates out on the counter. “You can only eat so much Chinese takeout, right?”

Her comment brought on the memory of her chucking a carton at his head. The damn apartment wasn’t in much better shape than the last time Georgie had been there. His laundry was still spilling out of the hamper in the bedroom doorway, unopened mail and glossy advertisements were scattered on every surface, sticky beverage rings, dust, clutter. It was nasty.

“Are you going to close the door, Travis?”

“No.” He jerked his chin toward the hall. “Because you’re not staying.”

She turned and propped a hip against the counter. “Afraid I’ll drop some more truth on you?”


“Because we need to talk about your rat infestation.”

His neck prickled. “I don’t have rats.”

“Not yet.” She went back to unloading food. “This close to the water, though? You’ll have roommates within a week. They’ll be even more annoying than me.”

For some reason, Georgie calling herself annoying made him close the door.

The brim of Georgie’s hat didn’t quite hide her smile. “Okay, so there’s meat ravioli—”

“That works,” he grunted.

“Or chipotle meatloaf.”

His beer paused on the way to his mouth. “What the hell is that? Never mind, I’ll eat it.”

“Both things?”

He gestured to her tiny frame with his beer bottle. “A portion size for you is not the same as a portion size for me, baby girl.” The endearment rolled off his tongue like butter, and Georgie almost dropped one of the plates she was unloading. Why the hell had he called her that? Pet names weren’t unusual for Travis, although he’d never called anyone by this one before. Still, Georgie wasn’t one of the women who’d come and gone from his life at the speed of fastball pitches. She shouldn’t even be here. And he damn sure shouldn’t be calling attention to their size difference or making references to her body type. Not that he could make out a single curve with those overalls hanging loose around her, head to toe. He found nothing about that disappointing. “Look, thank you for stopping by with the food. But I don’t think your brother would appreciate us hanging out.”

Her nose wrinkled. “Why?”

Travis raked a hand down his face. “Come on. You have to know I’ve got something of a . . . reputation where the opposite sex is concerned.” He waited until Georgie looked at him. “Let’s just say it’s well earned.”

“Yes, Two Bats. I’m aware.” She shrugged as if she hadn’t just called out the size of his cock. “But it’s not like we’re going to—”

“No, definitely not.”

“I mean . . .” She winked at him. “I think I’m safe.”

“You are one thousand percent safe.”

“Okay, you don’t have to be quite so adamant. I do have a thimbleful of vanity and I’d like to keep it.”

Travis laughed. An actual laugh that reached his stomach. How long had it been since that happened? Months. Usually he found nothing funny about someone invading his personal space, but having Georgie in his apartment was . . . surprisingly easy. He didn’t even have to be nice to her and she just stuck around anyway. If he’d been required to entertain or charm someone, they would have been sorely disappointed, but she didn’t seem to expect that. Maybe he’d let her stay for a few more minutes.

Ten tops.

“Okay, don’t get weird, but I found this DVD . . .” As if she were unveiling the new iPhone, she pulled out a copy of A League of Their Own with a flourish. “We can put it on in the background while we clean this rat hole.”

Travis plunked his empty beer bottle down on the counter. “You’re insane if you think I’m cleaning tonight. I just spent eight hours framing a two-story addition . . .” He backed away. “Don’t look at me like that, Georgie. My ass is tired.”

“There’s no crying in construction.”

“That’s not funny.”

“You’re right, it was pretty weak. I’m tired, too.” Giving Travis her profile, she hit a couple buttons on the oven, opened the door, and then slid two of the plates onto the center rack. “So I performed at a birthday party this week. The youngest Miller kid?”

Travis went to the fridge to retrieve another beer. “No clue who that is.”

“Really? The parents graduated your year, I think. He’s a ginger. She smokes menthols and always insists she’s quitting tomorrow.”

A long-buried memory from high school trickled in—a group of seniors standing outside the homecoming dance passing around a brown bag with a forty-ounce inside. He could almost smell the cigarette smoke, mint coasting down his throat when he bummed a drag. Travis’s mouth jumped at one end. “That actually rings a bell.”

“I overheard them talking at the party. Ginger Dad is the school principal now, and they’re hoping you’ll come do a demonstration for the team. You know, for inspiration.”

A weight dropped in Travis’s stomach. “Oh yeah?” He pressed his tongue to the inside of his cheek until it hurt. “A bunch of kids? That’s not exactly my kind of thing.”

“Funny,” she muttered. “That’s precisely my thing.”

“Right.” He massaged his eyes. “The birthday parties.”

“Not just birthday parties.” Georgie shrugged. “I love kids. They’re basically magic little balls of optimism that love you unconditionally. I can’t wait for my own.” As if realizing she’d been speaking out loud, Georgie hastily set a spoon down. “Um. Kids don’t have to be your thing to run a baseball clinic.”

Still a little stuck on Georgie’s announcement that she wanted children, Travis asked, “Aren’t you a little young to want kids so bad?”

“Some people dream about playing in the major leagues, others dream about finger paintings drying over the kitchen sink.” She paused. “I want a career, too, but . . . yeah, I want a big, noisy, happy family. You’ve never wanted that at all?”

“No,” Travis said without hesitation, wondering why the word dropped like an anvil between them. Frankly, the idea of being responsible for a child unnerved him. Already here he was, back in Port Jeff, his professional baseball career a thing of the past. Going nowhere. The similarities were too reminiscent of his father to think he wouldn’t fuck up fatherhood, too. He tried to shake himself back to the topic at hand, but it took an effort.

Run a baseball clinic? Damn. He was surprised by how much he didn’t want to pick up a bat. Jesus, he could barely fathom trying to play the sport he used to live for. Why make the effort when he’d lost too many steps to resemble a shadow of his former self?

“Your brother was just saying it’s the busy season right now.” Feeling Georgie’s searching eyes, he paced into the living room, snagging dirty socks as he went. “Everyone is remodeling before fall temperatures set in, and he’s short a couple guys. I can’t leave him high and dry.”

“You could teach them more in an hour than they’d learn in months from someone else. It wouldn’t have to be right away, either. There’s plenty of time before the season starts.” She smiled at him over her shoulder. “They love you. It would be like a dream come true.”

“Drop it, Georgie.”

Hurt danced across her features before she could turn away and hide it, and she continued to load his fridge with enough food for the next few nights. Travis leveled an inward curse at himself. Hadn’t he wanted people to talk to him about baseball and stop walking on eggshells? This girl had done it twice without any prompting. Where did he get off snapping at her for poking a sore spot he hadn’t even been aware of having?

They could be friends, him and Georgie. That’s what was wrong. He didn’t want one—especially her. She was too young, too positive, and too related to his best friend. For some reason, he couldn’t stop himself from thanking her, though, in his own way. For thinking he was worth her attempts to wave away the gloom. “Listen . . .” She turned hopeful eyes on him and he frowned back. “Pick a day next week and I’ll come take some measurements on that fireplace.”

Her hands flew to her chest, flattening there. “You’re going to redo my fireplace?”

“If you don’t make me clean,” Travis said, crossing his arms.

Georgie threw open the cabinet beneath his kitchen sink and started rooting through whatever cleaning supplies the last tenant had left behind, since he sure as shit hadn’t bought any. “I’ll clean this whole place top to bottom if I’m getting a fireplace out of the deal. Does Tuesday sound good for our appointment?”

“Tuesday, fine. But do you understand the ass kicking I’m inviting from your brother, having you cook and clean for me? Not happening.”

She straightened, examining a bottle of Windex. “You seem to be suffering from the delusion that my brother cares how I spend my time. He just wants me out of the way.”

None of his business. None. “He cares about you.”

Her mouth moved into a little O, and Travis found himself staring at it longer than he should. Apparently this was what happened when he didn’t get laid for months. The closest woman started to look good. That was the only reason his fingers were tingling to unsnap Georgie’s overalls and get a good goddamn look at her. Relieved by that iron-clad reasoning—almost—Travis turned away.

“Fine, let’s both clean this fucking place. That’s the only way this doesn’t bite me in the ass.”

Georgie tilted her head. “You mean rats. It’s the only way rats don’t bite you—”

“Shut up, Georgie.”


She got started shoveling garbage and takeout containers into a black garbage bag while Travis ate yet another round of her amazing cooking, not bothering to hide his exasperation when she snuck A League of Their Own into his DVD player. A few times, when she caught him watching the screen and lifted her chin in sarcastic reproof, Travis got the urge to tickle her. Or ruffle her hair. Things he never would have hesitated to do when they were younger. Something made him keep his hands to himself this time, though. Intuition told him an innocent touch could lead down a distinctly not innocent path—and he wouldn’t be questioning that instinct or exploring it any further.

“Have you managed to avoid the dating competition?” Georgie asked while shoveling old magazines into a trash bag.

“Sort of,” he droned, catcalls from the construction site echoing in his head. “Come to think of it, how do I know you’re not a spy? Or worse, a contestant.” When she came up sputtering, Travis winked to let her know he was joking. “What about your dating situation?”

Before he could berate himself for asking Georgie about something that was damn well none of his business, she laughed. “In a word? Dire. Most of the men I come into contact with are off-the-market fathers. Not a lot of young single men hanging out at princess parties.” She picked up a petrified sock and tapped it against the wall, raising an eyebrow at him. He shrugged. “Maybe you should let the dating competition contestants take a tour of your place. Problem solved.”

“If you’re suggesting we stop cleaning, I’m in.”

“You wish,” she said, dropping the sock into her garbage bag. “We soldier onward. Especially now that you’ve drawn attention to my lack of dates. I have to keep busy now or wallow in pity.”

“Stop.” Travis wiped an unknown substance off the coffee table. “I’d say the problem is everyone in town knows your brother and doesn’t want to piss him off.”

“Again, I assure you, my brother wouldn’t even notice if I started dating.”

Travis watched her work for a moment, remembering not only brunch but the conversation with Stephen in the minivan. “Is it that bad, Georgie?”

She straightened, looking so young and vulnerable that he wondered what was wrong with him, spending time alone with her. Noticing things about her. “Is what that bad?”

Why the hell was he involving himself in this? Travis didn’t know, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself. “You, uh . . . seem to get left out a lot. Or not considered as much as you should.” He went back to cleaning the table. “Starting to think you weren’t exaggerating.”

When Georgie was silent for a few beats, he looked up to find her staring into space. “Remember when you were at my house the other day and you said it’s no one’s fault, you made yourself a joke?”

“Yeah,” he rasped.

“It’s a little like that for me, too. The family was already solid when I was old enough to be part of the conversation. Like all little kids, I got shushed a lot, so I had to be persistent and annoying to be heard. A pest.” She shrugged. “I’m older now, but the dynamics are the same. I guess it’s easier to let them remain than to try to change them. Because what if I failed? Or what if I really am a pest?”

Travis wanted to tell her she wasn’t a pest, despite his own treatment of her. The words were right there on the tip of his tongue, but what if saying so made her comfortable around him? Made her rely on him or view him as a friend? He didn’t want a friend right now, did he? Didn’t want anyone too close. “Families are complicated,” he said, even though it didn’t sound good enough. Wasn’t reassuring in the way her words had been for him. “They probably don’t even know they’re hurting your feelings, baby girl.”

She sighed. “No, I think you’re right about that.”

“I’ve been on teams where one voice always seems to get passed over. When I played on the Hurricanes, they brought a guy up from the minors. A vet. I mean, this guy was in his forties and still grinding. He was dismissed by all the new talent, including me, as an old man. A guy who took decades to be relevant.” He rolled his shoulders. “Right after the injury, I sat beside him in the dugout for several games, and I realized . . . this guy knew more about the game than all of us combined. Pointed out things I never would have seen on my own.” Georgie watched him silently from across the room. “You shouldn’t give up or stop demanding to be heard,” he said, needing to leave her in a better place and having no idea why. “Maybe you just need a different way to make them listen.”

Georgie gave a slow blink. “Thank you for that.”

Refusing to acknowledge his relief that he’d apparently said something right, Travis grunted and went back to tidying. A couple hours later, the credits rolled on the movie to the sound of Madonna’s voice, and Travis realized he’d been standing in the middle of his living room, broom forgotten in hand, for the last twenty minutes. The apartment was pretty damn close to spotless. Where was Georgie?

He found her sprawled facedown on the foot of his bed. Fast asleep.

Travis expected to be annoyed. Instead, he stood there noticing her lack of one sock, as if she’d kicked it off in her sleep. No toenail polish. Her face was pressed to the bedspread and turned to one side, smooshing her face into a pout. If he had any kind of functioning heart left in his chest, he might have found the whole picture she made kind of adorable. Since he didn’t, though, he really needed to figure out how to get her the hell out of there. They had already spent way too much time together. Letting her stay the night at his place crossed a line—and no one on God’s green earth would believe Two Bats had done nothing more with Georgie than clean.

“Hey.” Swallowing a surge of guilt, Travis nudged her shoulder. “Georgie. Wake your ass up.”

“Have you seen Dale?” Georgie muttered in her sleep, clearly nowhere near awake. “I need Dale.”

“Who’s Dale?”

Georgie’s eyes flew open. Her legs scrambled, but she was too close to the edge of the bed, so her knee found no purchase. She flopped onto the floor before Travis could drop the broom and catch her. “Ouch.”

All right. There might have been a dime-sized portion of heart left rattling around inside of him, because the sight of a sleepy, disoriented Georgie with half her ponytail loose had him kneeling before he could think better of it, one of his hands lifted to run over her hair. “You all right, baby girl?”

She yawned so big, he could see her tonsils. “Are we done cleaning?”

For the second time that night, he got the urge to laugh. “We’re done.”

“I should go.”

He swallowed hard. “It’s for the best.”

Travis helped Georgie climb to her feet, having no choice but to grip her waist when she swayed. Not speculating on what’s under her overalls. No, sir, not me. He was ready to insist on driving her home, but she reanimated by the time they reached the front door, like she’d never been asleep at all. It was kind of freaky, actually. Before she could walk out, she turned back and threw him a smile. “I saw you watching the movie.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“Good night,” she called, going down the stairs. “The rats should leave you alone now.”

He sighed. “Thank you, Georgie.”

“Me and my fireplace will see you Tuesday.”

When Travis closed the door, he could feel the grudging smile trying to mar his face.

Shaking it off with a curse, he stalked off to bed.

Who the hell was Dale?

Chapter Five

Georgie circled a garment rack, browsing through hangers of old clothing. When she came to a gray T-shirt with the Port Jefferson High School logo, she tugged it out of the jam-packed row and held it up to face the woman behind the register.

“Hey, I think this used to be mine!”

She got a thumbs-up in return, before the thrift shop owner, Zelda, went back to reading her romance novel. Thus was their dynamic. Sometimes Georgie wondered if Zelda would rather have a completely empty store than have to deal with a customer interrupting her book. In a few minutes, the older woman would finish her chapter, dog-ear the page, and be ready to talk. That was just her process. Georgie was well used to it, considering Second Chance Zelda’s was where she’d been buying her clothes for years.

Being the youngest of the Castle family meant Georgie’s wardrobe growing up consisted of hand-me-downs, from Bethany and Stephen. She’d attended school in patched-up jeans, faded sweaters, and sneakers from five seasons ago. Not that her parents couldn’t afford to buy her new clothes, but Morty Castle came from humble beginnings and didn’t believe in fixing something that wasn’t broken. His credo was what made him so successful in the house-flipping business. Making necessary changes only, focusing on curb appeal and sprucing existing features, had served him well.

Had that logic served Georgie well? Classmates had definitely poked fun at her oversized or unfashionable clothing more than once, but as with most small towns, the past popularity of her siblings had helped curb the bullying. It didn’t hurt that local phenom Travis Ford was a close friend of the family. And finally one day, Georgie reached a point where there were no more hand-me-downs. They’d literally all been handed.

Almost five years had passed since she’d ridden shotgun in her mother’s station wagon on the way to Zelda’s for the first time. The back of the wagon was loaded with decades of Castle kid clothing, ready to be donated. They’d planned to venture to the mall afterward to finally buy Georgie some threads of her own choosing, but she got no farther than the overloaded racks of Zelda’s. It was too late. Secondhand clothes had become her comfort zone. Soft, old camp T-shirts, flannel, discontinued jeans. What could be better?

Lately she’d begun to wonder this very thing. What could be better?

Georgie had two uniforms: a clown costume and thrift shop rejects. Was that part of the reason her family didn’t take her seriously? Because she still dressed the same way she had in elementary school?

She ran her finger down the pleat of a floor-length skirt, letting it drop.

After chewing her lip for a minute, she slipped her cell out of the pocket of her jeans and pulled up her contacts, running her thumb over Bethany’s name. Asking her effortlessly chic sister for fashion advice wasn’t high on her to-do list, but she didn’t have anyone else to call. After graduating from high school in Port Jefferson, people had two options: stick around and marry someone local, or leave for college, club your mate over the head, and drag them home. If you were Port Jeff born, you always ended up back on its shores. Unfortunately, both of Georgie’s closest childhood friends hadn’t quite managed to club an unsuspecting gentleman yet and were still living single in vastly different zip codes.

On the other hand, Bethany worked as a stager/decorator for Brick & Morty, meaning she got the bat signal only when a house was completed. Most of her time was spent ordering materials online or hunting down unique pieces at antique malls on Long Island. There was a good chance she’d be around.

Georgie bit the bullet and tapped Bethany’s name.

G: Hey, can you meet me? I need help.

B: With what?

G: Clothes. For . . .

Georgie’s thumbs paused on the screen. She should have had a better game plan. Her reason for wanting new clothes had more layers than a Super Bowl Sunday snack dip.

Most importantly, the clown business was waning. Those phone calls she’d returned last Saturday? She’d booked only two jobs out of them. Her birthday parties were top-notch, those eight noes had assured her, but they were looking for something . . . bigger. Georgie knew it would take a lot of hard work to turn a fledgling one-woman operation into something respectable. An actual business that advertised and made bids. As of now, she relied on word-of-mouth referrals and repeat customers who knew her, knew her reputation, and, in most cases, were friends of the Castle family.

The Castle family. They didn’t take her seriously. How could she expect anyone else to?

She looked down at her faded 501 jeans that had probably belonged to a deceased lumberjack. Her scuffed boots peeked out under the frayed hems, taunting her. What did people see when they looked at her? Not a businesswoman.

Not a sexually desirable woman, either. And maybe, just maybe, when Travis came over to measure her fireplace on Tuesday, she wanted him to see one. Someone worth polishing the family jewels over. Georgie shot a cautious glance at Zelda, as if that inappropriate thought had occurred out loud. She’d been saying a lot of things out loud lately.

Have you seen Dale? I need Dale.

Had she really called for her vibrator in front of Travis Ford?

She buried her face in a fleece-lined jacket. Oh God, that had simultaneously been the best and worst night of her life. Her intentions had been pure. She’d only wanted to drop off some leftovers for the man who had no family left in town and had just watched his career burn to the dust. Even if she hadn’t been nursing an infatuation with him for a long, long time, she would have done that.

Instead of doing the noble thing and leaving, she’d spent two hours watching a shirtless Travis Ford bend over to pick up trash and stretching to dust off high surfaces. There was no movement he could make where something didn’t flex. There was nigh constant flexing. She’d meant to lie down for only a few seconds after changing his sheets, because who can resist freshly laundered sheets? Turned out all that athletic muscle observance had revved her subconscious, because she’d dropped right into a sex dream. As with all her naughtiest fantasies since time began, they starred Travis Ford. However, since most of her fantasies involved use of Dale—and not the real deal—she’d called her Day-Glo orange pal’s name instead.

There had been a split second when she woke up where she swore Travis was looking at her with something like . . . tenderness. A figment of her imagination, obviously, but she continued to go back to it, replaying how warm it made her feel. How warm Travis made her feel in general. Not in the simple hot-for-jock kind of way, either. He’d let his guard down on accident a couple of times when they were alone and showed her someone different from the infallible superstar of her dreams. He was so utterly human. She should be worried that it did nothing to detract from her admiration of him. No, it only seemed to heighten it. Why?

Georgie’s phone buzzed again.

B: You need help with what? Have you been kidnapped?

G: No. Never mind. I’m just looking for outfit advice.

B: I’d let you borrow something, but all my clown suits are at the cleaners.

There it is. Shouldn’t have bothered. Georgie shoved her phone back into her pocket with a grimace. The dismissive texts from her siblings were nothing new. But this desire to prove to them she was a capable adult only grew stronger. And maybe, just maybe, it had something to do with Travis noticing her as more than his best friend’s annoying little sister.

“I’ll catch you next time, Zelda,” Georgie said on her way out the door.

Zelda merely turned the page in response.

Travis sat down on the stoop of the four-bedroom Cape, smacking the demolition dust off his jeans. Trying his best to ignore the house across the street, he cracked open a ginger ale and drank deeply. When Stephen had told him the address of this renovation, why hadn’t he declined? Out of anyone in Port Jefferson, Stephen would have understood. But it would have been admitting a weakness, and Travis had too many of those right now, didn’t he? Still, living in this town meant being surrounded by his past. He didn’t need to have it staring him in the face morning until night. No. He damn sure didn’t need that.

Travis’s father no longer lived in the ramshackle Colonial across the road, but since it had never been sold, all the signs of neglect were still there. The eaves drooped like sad, sloping eyebrows over grime-covered windows. Once upon a time, the trees surrounding the home were tall and proud. They hadn’t been trimmed in so long, though, they’d formed kind of a leafy green barrier around the house. A blessing, since it partially blocked everyone’s view of the house from the street. A breeze blew past, smacking a shutter off to the side of his old bedroom, just like it used to when he slept inside, scaring the shit out of him in the middle of the night.

If he closed his eyes, he could remember his mother pulling up outside the house in her old white Ford Explorer, dropping him off for the weekend. She’d sigh and hesitate. He’d pray she would bring him home and not force him to endure his father’s turn, custody agreement be damned. But she never caved, telling Travis to get out and go wait on the porch until his father returned home. Sometimes he’d sit there until the middle of the night, waiting.

A can cracked open behind Travis and he turned to find Stephen leaning against the wrought-iron rail, draining his own ginger ale, the work site drink of choice since they couldn’t have beer. Not on Stephen’s watch. “Got about another hour here before we head.” He shook some dust from his hair. “I want to get that wall opened up in the dining room and see what kind of structural support we’re dealing with. Could fuck up the open concept unless we want to knock it down and add a support beam.”

“Ouch. A beam will cost you.”

“Something always does.” Stephen took a slow sip and rolled it around in his mouth. “Been weird working this close to the old house?”

“That’s putting it mildly.” Travis stood and strode into the house. “Let’s get back to work.”

“Don’t you own the place now? Why not knock it down?” Stephen said, following Travis into the renovation, where the third member of their crew, Dominic Vega, was repointing an exposed brick wall, his movements slow and methodical. Focused. “Might be cathartic.”

Or it could enable the demons to run amok.

“We don’t share the same definition of ‘cathartic,’” Travis muttered.

“Are you referencing sex?” asked Stephen. “I drive a minivan part-time, so I need dirty jokes explained to me now.”

“If I’m talking about sex, you’ll know it.”

Dominic set down his trowel and crossed his arms, his legs braced in a military stance that meant business. “What are we talking about?”

“Nothing,” Travis answered, ignoring the impulse to look back out the window at the shrine to his childhood across the street. “The boss can’t mind his own business.”

Stephen sighed. “Having all the answers is a burden, but I press on.”

Dom coughed into his fist, the blue tattoos on his knuckles covered in dirt and specks of mortar. “Why not sell the place? Make it someone else’s problem?”

“Maybe being proactive with the house will prove he can still give a damn about something,” Stephen said, punctuating his statement with a superior sniff. “God forbid.”

Travis didn’t care for the hollowness of his own laugh. There was no chance he was going to tell Stephen and Dominic that while he did own the house, his father’s name was also still on the deed. And the last thing he needed was to bring that old fucker back into his life. He’d be keeping that to himself, though, because to an outsider it might seem like Travis was scared to confront his father. That wasn’t the case. It wasn’t that easy. The last time he’d seen his father, he’d beaten the odds and gotten scouted by Northwestern. He merely wanted to avoid hearing I told you so at all costs now that he’d failed.

“I don’t give a damn about anything. You should both try it sometime,” Travis finally responded. For some reason, Georgie’s face popped into his mind. The odd timing propelled him into picking up a sledgehammer and burying it in the dining room wall. “Come on in, boys. The water’s fine.”

“No, thank you.” Stephen inspected the wall through the hole. “I like the hot water Kristin is boiling me alive in. Keeps me young.”

“Keeps you on the verge of a stroke, you mean.”

“Maybe.” Stephen almost smiled, but whatever he saw in the wall made him frown. “We’re going to need to bring in a support beam.”

Dom came up behind them. “Shit.”

“Yeah.” Stephen massaged the bridge of his nose. “But if I’ve got a post in the middle of Bethany’s open concept, she’ll have to change the whole design.”

“And you’ll have to replace the balls she’s going to rip off,” Dom muttered.

“If she hasn’t changed since high school, that sounds about accurate.” Travis dropped the sledgehammer and started to gather his tools, knowing it would be pointless to move on until they brought in a crew to bolster the structure. “You guys up for a beer?”

“I’m in,” Dom said, taking off his work gloves and shoving them in his back pocket. “Rosie is taking some exercise class tonight, so I’m fending for myself. Again.”

A deep trench formed between Dom’s eyebrows. Growing up, Travis remembered those two being a solid couple who seemed to speak their own language, no one else in the room existing when they were together. They’d had each other’s backs, named their future children, and were voted Most Likely to Get Married. After graduation, Dom made the yearbook prediction a reality and proposed to Rosie, right there in the center of the football field, both of them in caps and gowns. Months later, having parked a ring on Rosie’s finger, he’d joined the marines and spent time overseas—but he’d come back quieter. More serious.

Travis didn’t intend to diagnose Dom the way Stephen might, but there definitively appeared to be trouble in paradise where Dom and Rosie were concerned. Even Travis, who thought marriage was an unrealistic institution, didn’t want to see the couple drift apart. Back in the day, everyone had been so positive they’d be the ones to beat the odds.

If Dom and Rosie were going to separate, Travis could only be grateful they didn’t have children. He knew too well how divorce could turn a child into a pawn in an ugly game of chess. After all, he was standing across the street from the hell his own parents had created for him.

Yeah, definitely time for that beer.

They each took their own truck into town, parking in the lot behind Grumpy Tom’s and piling in through the back door, reserved for regulars. Port Jefferson was a small town, but it had become an increasingly popular destination over the years. Most of the sightseers stayed near the water where the ferry let off or shopped on Main Street. Every once in a while, some of them wandered into Grumpy Tom’s, but most of the bar’s patrons were locals. Some blue collar, some white collar, and all with one goal: to watch the ball game and unwind. Tonight in particular that was exactly what Travis needed.

Before they could order drinks, a man slid in beside them at the bar, pounding a fist on the wood and drawing attention with a booming laugh. “There he is. I knew Two Bats would get back on the prowl if we just gave him time.” The man scanned the bar. “Slim pickins tonight, but once the ladies hear you’re around, it’ll be standing room only. We all stand to benefit.”

Having his sordid past glorified didn’t sit right. Over the last year, he’d been traded to Chicago, San Diego, Miami. During nights out, or even in professional settings, men would approach him and ask for details of his exploits. Travis usually satisfied their curiosity without actually imparting any real information. The old I never kiss and tell routine. But even that felt wrong now. He wasn’t up for it anymore. And the reminder of his reputation was bothering him more than usual tonight, having Stephen within earshot—the man whose little sister had fallen asleep on his bed last week.

Travis sent the patron a vague smile, hoping he’d take the hint and fuck off. “All right, man.”

“The boys were saying you haven’t picked up one skirt since coming home, and I said . . .” He paused to swig his beer. “I said you’ve probably been going into Manhattan for the high-quality pu—”

“Okay, buddy. I’m going to stop you there.” Travis slid off the stool, avoiding Stephen’s eyes. “Order me a beer. I’m going to make a phone call.”

Stephen was eyeing the idiot with disgust. “Sure.”

Travis didn’t actually have a phone call to make; he just needed some air. Salt and humidity filled his lungs as he stepped out the back door of the bar. Wind kicked up from the distant water, blowing his hair around. Thankfully, the alleyway running behind Grumpy Tom’s was empty so he could have a minute to himself. He tugged his cell out of the back pocket of his jeans to check the time, surprised to find a missed call from his agent.

Hope straightened his spine before he could stop it. Was it possible a shortstop position had opened up and he was being called to suit up? They’d exhausted all options weeks ago, his agent telling him playing professional ball again was hopeless. What if something had changed, though? Maybe an overseas option?

He hit the call back button, holding the phone to his ear as he paced in a circle.

His agent picked up on the second ring. “Ford. My man.”

“Donny.” He tried to shake off the hope and failed. “What’s up?”

“First of all, it’s not what you think. Sorry. Nothing has changed.” Donny rambled right over the thick slowdown of Travis’s pulse. “But I’ve got a line on something better.”

Travis pressed his palm to the bridge of his nose. “Better than playing ball?”

“Fuck yes. Do I have to remind you about ice baths, road fatigue, and B12 shots in the ass? I know, I know. You’re going to tell me that sounds like heaven. But what if I told you, Ford, you could sit in an air-conditioned box at the stadium in a suit and commentate?”

The idea was so out of left field, Travis could only shake his head. “What?”

“The New York Bombers are looking for a new voice. Fresh, young, easy on the eyes. They’ve got a short list of candidates and you’re on it.” He could hear his agent punching computer keys in the background. “It pays in the two-comma neighborhood and you only have to work home games. National television. Who knows where it could lead? Look, man. It’s the next best thing to being on the field. You’ll be at the field, talking about the game you love. What do you say?”

Travis found himself thinking about the old Colonial with sagging shutters. The echoes of voices from the past in the kitchen, the feel of the coarse wooden porch underneath him. The man who’d told him he’d come crawling back as a disappointment eventually. Travis might have failed to achieve the kind of career he’d dreamed about, but this? This could be a way to salvage it. Commentating had never even occurred to him. Now it was this bright, shiny thing that made the chance to prove himself attainable again.

“You said I’m on a list. How do I get to the top?”

Donny sighed. “You know how it goes. There’s always a rub, my man.” His agent stopped typing, probably adopting his all too familiar let me level with you pose. “This is network television. They want wholesome. They want someone who isn’t going to show up hungover with panties hanging out of his pocket.”

“That happened once.”

“At a children’s hospital charity event.”

A jab of regret made Travis close his eyes. Just one of the many times he’d lived up to the Two Bats hype. “I’m not that guy anymore.”

“Right now you’re not—you’re in a rut. But a leopard doesn’t change its spots.” A calculated beat passed. “We just need to make them think you did.”

Travis shook his head. “How am I supposed to do that?”

“I’m working on getting you an invitation to dinner with the head of the network. Might be a couple weeks. Lie low until then. Or better yet, settle down and pop out a kid or two.”

“Not even if the Bombers offered me a ten-year contract, Donny.”

His agent snorted a laugh. “Worth a shot. Seriously, though. Find a way to prove some stability and we’re a shoo-in. You’re great on camera. Recognizable.” Another phone went off in the background. “I have to take this. I’ll keep you posted on that dinner invite.”

“Yeah. Bye.”

Feeling a little like a sleepwalker, Travis returned to the bar. It was too early in the game to tell Stephen and Dominic about the potential commentator job. He didn’t want to jinx himself, so he slid back onto his stool and picked up his beer, glad to see their unwanted guest had returned to his side of the bar. Travis’s mind should have been filled with the possibilities of getting a job involving baseball—something he’d stopped thinking of as an option over a month ago. Instead, something else was niggling at his subconscious. Like he’d shown up for a game without his favorite glove.

“Hey, what day is it?”

“Tuesday,” Dominic replied.


The few sips of beer in Travis’s stomach went sour.

He’d forgotten the fireplace appointment.

Poised to ask Stephen for Georgie’s number so he could call and reschedule, Travis took the phone back out of his pocket . . . and stopped. Let’s recap. You’re getting ready to ask your best friend for his little sister’s phone number. Are you fucking insane?

Yeah. He was. They never should have been spending time together in the first place. This was exactly what he needed—a wake-up call. If Stephen knew they’d been hanging out, he’d deck him. Travis would deserve it, too. He’d apologize for missing the appointment next time she showed up to pester him. Then he’d send Georgie on her way. For good this time. Still, when he put his phone back in his pocket, the guilt and unease refused to fade.

Chapter Six

Georgie tightened her hoodie strings as she walked into the torture palace, also known as Fun ’n’ Flirty Fitness. She’d been inside this place once before for an introductory yoga class—and that time had also been her sister-in-law’s fault. Kri