Crystal grabs my wrist. “Mark, you can’t do that.”

I cut her a look before I can stop myself. “Why the fuck not?” I demand.


“I know you’re worried. But she said she’s learned that life is short, and she’s been by your father’s side far too little. She doesn’t want to have regrets. You have to let her go.”

The words send a shock wave through me, and my hands are suddenly on Crystal’s shoulders. “Has she decided she’s dying?” I ask hoarsely. “Does she know something I don’t know? Do you?”

“No! It’s not that—I promise. This is good. She says she’s decided to live, and I admire that. It’s something I haven’t always done.”

I push to my feet and cross the room, knowing what my mother’s doing. This is about me shutting out baseball and a past that was once my future. This is about her trying to bring me back home in every sense of the word.

But Crystal is right. I can’t deny her, no matter how painful this is for me. My mother just guaranteed that denial is no longer in the cards.

“What time do we need to be there?”

“Pitching practice starts at six thirty. I talked to Kara and she arranged to have someone she trusts here for closing. She’s going to escort your parents to the campus. Jacob said he’d drive us and stay with us the rest of the evening.”

“Isn’t my father worried about the press at the campus?”

“He’s had that handled for weeks now. It’s not a problem.”

I study her a long moment. “You decided we were going before you told me about this.”

She rises and walks toward me, sliding her arms under my jacket and around my waist. I pull her closer. “You told me once your mother was the only person you couldn’t say no to,” she reminds me.

I cup her head and lower my mouth near hers. “Apparently now there are two of you.”

“Should I say I’m sorry?” she whispers.

“I’m not sure why you would be.” I kiss her, losing myself in the sweetness that promises something more than the bitterness of the past when this night ends. “Just know this.” The look that I give her leaves no doubt that I have plans for her. Dark, hot, intense plans. “I’m going to need more than a simple fuck when I finally get you alone.”

She smiles. “One thing I never expect from you, Mark Compton, is simple.”

“Good,” I say. “Because it’s about to get damn complicated.”

Sixteen

Crystal . . .

A half hour after I leave Mark’s office I’m sitting at my desk, trying to finish up some important paperwork before we leave for the practice. Not an easy task, when I’m still a mix of nerves and arousal over Mark’s promise of more than a “simple fuck” when we get home. Even more, though, I’m worried about the past he’s facing tonight—which clearly provoked that promise. I know that his mother knows what she’s doing, so all I can think is that she wants to force him to heal.

My cell rings, with Kara’s number on the screen. “This is Crystal.”

“It’s Kara. I’m at the Comptons’ place now. I wanted to arrive early and scope out the building. Unfortunately, since I’m here, she wants to leave early. Something about keeping her husband from missing some sort of drills.”

“Is her nurse going with you?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Put her on.”

Dana begins by saying, “I’m not letting Steven leave his practice to come here. And if I don’t surprise him and go early, he will.”

“But Mark and I would both feel better if you had us there to take care of you.”

“I’m fine. Kara is with me, and I’m just going to be sitting. Not climbing the Empire State Building.”

“You weren’t fine yesterday.”

“But today I am.”

“What about your nurse?”

“I don’t need her, and she’s off anyway.”

The rest of the conversation pretty much goes her way. When we hang up, I make a beeline to Mark’s office. I knock, go right in, and motion for him to stand with my hands. “Up. Up. Hurry. We need to leave early. Your mother insisted Kara take her to the practice now, so your father won’t feel he has to leave to get her. She’s not taking her nurse.”

Looking puzzled, he doesn’t move. “Are you sure we’re talking about my mother? The one who could barely move yesterday?”

“I know. I thought the same thing. She says she’s fine today—and I can vouch for her being as feisty as ever.”

“Well, that’s good news, at least.”

“You still aren’t getting up! What if she gets weak and needs help?”

His intercom buzzes. “It’s your father, Mr. Compton.”

“Put him through.”

I perch impatiently on the edge of a chair, trying to follow the conversation.

“Crystal just told me,” Mark confirms to his father. “She’s worried Mom’s too weak to be there without us.” He listens a moment. “You’re sure? And you have security in place to handle reporters?” A few seconds pass before he nods. “Okay. Yes. If you’re sure.” His eyes meet mine. “I’m really coming, Dad.” Another pause, and this time Mark’s lashes lower, sheltering him from my probing stare as he replies, “I know. It has. I will.” He hangs up the phone, and I don’t miss the way he drags out the process, studying the desk a few seconds too long before he focuses an unreadable look on me. “My father says he’s not even involved in the earlier practice she’s trying to make sure he can attend. His base coach is running it. He’ll be free to take care of her.”

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