“I’m tired, but I’m faking it.”

“You couldn’t have faked it a few days ago.”

“I guess a mother’s soul is always lighter when she has her child home.” She motions with her chin toward the practice area.

I return my attention to the center of the gym to see Mr. Compton’s sleeves rolled up, his tie loose, as he demonstrates a pitching stance to Joey, his knee high to his chest, posture perfect.

“I didn’t think I’d ever see that again, after his injury,” Dana murmurs.

“I didn’t know he was injured.” Somehow that doesn’t feel big enough for Mark’s reaction to coming here tonight.

“Well, it wasn’t really an injury. More . . . an event.”

“I kind of thought so.”

“He hasn’t told you?”

“No.”

“You aren’t going to ask me?”

“It’s his story to tell when he’s ready. If he ever is.”

Her eyes soften and she takes my hand. “That’s a perfect answer, and he’s getting there. Tonight shows that.”

“I hope so,” I say, my attention returning to Mark as he demonstrates the way Joey should set his leg.

“You love him,” Dana says softly, and my gaze jerks back to her.

“What?” I ask, trying to figure out what I’d done to bring on such an observation.

“You love him.”

“I . . . Dana, I—”

“It’s okay. I love him, too, and I haven’t seen him this relaxed in a long, long time. I wasn’t sure I ever would again. I believe you’re the reason.”

“No. No, it’s not me.”

“You’re just a coincidence?”

“It’s Rebecca. He loved her. He lost her. I’m here, and he needs me to get to the other side.”

“The other side is you, Crystal. You can’t see it, but I do.”

“I don’t know what I am, or what we are. But I don’t want to lose you if I lose him.”

“Well, my vote is for you keeping us both, but I won’t let you lose me if you don’t. Not because of Mark, and not because of damn cancer.”

I drape my arm over her narrow shoulders, her thin body downright frightening, and I nudge the shake to her mouth. “I’m going to hold you to that.”

“I’ll drink. I’ll drink.” She draws on the straw. “I expect you and Mark to stop pretending you aren’t seeing each other now.”

“Happily. And I guess this is a good time to tell you he’s staying at my apartment.”

“Even better. Now I know where he is at night.” She takes my hand. “Oh, honey, please hold on to him.”

I’m not sure I could let go if I wanted to.

Seventeen

Mark . . .

I’m surprisingly removed from the past as I stand next to my father and watch Joey throw a few improved pitches. There seems to be a freedom in facing this that I didn’t expect, and I’m embracing it to the fullest.

I’m about to walk over to Joey and give him a pointer when Crystal stands and begins to sashay toward me across the gymnasium, looking like a blond bombshell in her red dress, with curves from here to Texas. I don’t miss how every male head in the room turns to watch her the way I am, the same way everyone had turned to look at Tabitha. The truth is that Crystal’s fiery, sexy, and defiant nature is very much like Tabitha’s had been, only ten years more mature.

My father nudges my arm. “She’s a looker, that one. Like your mother.”

“Yes, she is,” I say. “And so is Mom.”

“Have you told Crystal?”

I don’t have to ask to know he means the events of ten years before. “No.”

“Are you going to tell her?”

My answer comes with remarkable ease. “Yes.”

He claps a hand on my shoulder. “That’s a good choice. She’s a good choice.”

“Yes,” I say in agreement again. “She is.”

Crystal stops in front of me and hands me my main cell phone. “Your phone was ringing.”

“Who was it?” I ask, thankful I’d stuffed the disposable in my pants pocket.

“I respected your privacy and I didn’t look.”

“Your mother would have looked,” my father says, “even way back in our dating days.”

Crystal grins. “I find that so easy to believe.”

My father turns somber. “How is she?”

“Good,” Crystal says. “Tired, but the best I’ve seen her in weeks.”

“Did she drink the milk shake?” I ask, tabbing through my missed calls.

“With a little needling I was happy to provide,” Crystal responds.

“I’m sure that was difficult for you,” I reply dryly. “Because you’re so soft-spoken and hesitant about pushing people.”

Crystal’s blue eyes twinkle with good humor. “And here I thought you didn’t know me.”

My father yells something at the catcher and I take the opportunity to softly say, “I do know you—but not as well as I plan to.”

“That boy needs to pay attention,” my father mutters, settling back into our conversation.

“I need to step away and take a few phone calls,” I announce.

Crystal’s brow furrows. “Problems? Who called?” The urgent lift to her voice tells me it killed her not to look at my phone, but she’d still resisted.


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