After a few rounds of goofy cheers that shouldn’t have made me smile, but did, Maggie walked over to Luke and took the baby from him. I took one look at her holding that baby and fled for the concession stand. I bought a snow cone, not caring what flavor. I just had to get my eyes off her holding a chubby-cheeked infant and beaming. It did things to me. I shoveled shaved ice in my mouth as a girl in overalls and a yellow shirt walked up.

“Hey, you should come sit with us. I saw you clapping a beat earlier. You’re qualified.”

“I work for Hadley,” I blurted out like an idiot.

“I know who the hell you are,” she said. “I’m Layla. Health department counselor, vintage clothing lover, sex toy expert. At your service.”

“I’ve never had a sex toy expert at my service. I don’t believe I require your services, but it was nice meeting you.”

“I’m Maggie’s friend. She deserves better,” she said flatly.

“I’m not going to argue with that,” I said.

“Good. Awareness is the first step to rehabilitation. You have potential,” she said.

“To what, join the cheerleaders?” I asked.

“To be good enough for her. She’s the hardest worker I know, and one of the most loyal friends you’ll ever met. You’d be lucky to get her,” she said.

“Unfortunately my job here doesn’t allow me to be good enough or lucky enough to get to be with her.”

“Then, Mr. Leeds, it is most certainly your loss.”

Layla shook her head at me and then started to walk away. She stopped, turned around and gave me the finger. I chuckled. Returning to my seat, I saw Maggie and her friends laughing. They knew how to have a good time. The game went eleven long innings of Maggie and her friends firing increasingly hilarious heckles and cheers at the teams and me sweating through my clothes just from looking at her. God, that shirt should come with a warning label. I felt like I could see straight through it.

The Feathers lost, and Sarah Jo stood up and announced that we were all invited back to Cecil’s for the Loser’s Lounge after-party. I was ready to pass on that and go get in another workout, maybe blow off some tension. Then Maggie showed up at my side and hooked her arm through mine.

“You gotta come to Loser’s Lounge. Get the full experience. How can we win you over if you slink off to pout in your hotel room?” she laughed. “Come on!”

She rode over with her friends, and I parked down the block from Cecil’s. The place was packed with factory people, players and spectators. Families with kids sitting in the grill area, Loser’s Lounge over by the big TV’s on the other side of the bar. Baskets of wings and platters of chips and queso were passed around, and a huge bread bowl of artichoke dip came out. I made a beeline for it unapologetically. It was delicious, just the right amount of garlic. I was gobbling it happily when Sarah Jo came over.

“You know my husband whipped that up just for you. The queso here is the best, but he heard you liked artichokes,” she said.

“So he is a spy,” I teased.

“We all are. We’re on the same side. We want our town to stay prosperous and wholesome and good.”

“And I’m on the dark side?”

“Apparently, although I’m not sure Maggie’s convinced of that. You should talk to her.”

“No, she’s asked me to stay away.”

“That’s because she’s loyal to a fault. She thinks it’s a betrayal to family, factory, and the flag to consort with the enemy. But once upon a time, I was up the same creek. Now I’ve got Luke and baby makes three.”

“Are you two like the walking billboard for forbidden love?”

“Yes. We’ve thought about putting it on the sign at the city limits. Home of the Hadley Chicken Processing Plant and Forbidden Romance.”

“Catchy,” I said.

“Trust me, dude, breaking the rules is a lot more fun than toeing the line. Nobody’s going to thank you for giving up your own happiness.”

She walked off in a trail of unsolicited advice and left me hunched over the artichoke dip and scanning the crowd for Maggie. There she was, bright and laughing, high-fiving the friend who’d flipped me off earlier. I stepped away from the dip and went right over to them, interrupting.

“Great game today,” I said.

“We lost,” she said.

“I wasn’t talking about the score. I liked the enthusiasm, the infectious cheer.”

“Not a softball fan?”

“My first game. You initiated me,” I said, every word laden with meaning.

“I’ll leave you two to talk… sports,” Layla said archly and went for more wings.

Maggie passed me a plastic cup. “We’re all having one. It’s the official drink of the Loser’s Lounge. Rum and cola.”

“What’s the official drink when you win?” I said.

Tags: Natasha L. Black Romance