“Come on. I have one more place to take you tonight.”
She started to ask him where they were going, then decided against it. Let him keep his surprise—the last one had been more than worth waiting for.
But when they stopped in front of a huge sports complex, she glanced at him, puzzled. “We’re going to watch a kid’s baseball game?”
“Nope. No game tonight.” But he went through the front gate anyway.
“Well, if there’s no game, then what are we doing here?”
“We’re going to hit a few.”
“Hit a few what?” she asked blankly.
“Balls.” His wicked grin was back, the one he’d used to convince her to plan his party and check out his house and go on this date with him. “We’re going to have a go at the batting cage.”
Of course they were. Because, really, where else would Shawn Emerson finish up a date but at a kid’s athletic complex? And how odd was it that she was actually excited by the prospect? It had been a long time since she’d put bat to ball—just about three years to be exact—and until they’d shown up here, she hadn’t even known she’d missed it.
“Come on. You can pick out a bat while I get us a cage.”
“You make it sound like we’re at the zoo.”
“That description isn’t as far off as you might think, especially on Saturday mornings.”
“Really? You spend enough time here to know that, hmm?”
“I coach a kids’ baseball team. Our games are here on Saturday mornings. So yes, I do spend more than my fair share of time here.” He winked, then headed off to the cashier’s booth at the front of the park.
She watched him go, bemused. Though she’d figured out that he was a big kid at heart, she never would have pictured Shawn as the type to donate his time to a kids’ baseball league. Yet, the more that she thought about it, the less it surprised her. His gentle, generous treatment of her had already convinced her he was a stand-up guy.
She walked over to the bats, ran her hands over a few as she waited for him to come back. But the sad fact was she wasn’t overly skilled at softball, never had been—even in school. Which meant that she had no idea what she was testing the bats for. Though some felt heavier than others, she didn’t have a clue which one would work for her.
When Shawn returned a couple minutes later, she had picked out a shiny blue and silver bat. “Is that the one you like the feel of?” he asked curiously.
“I don’t know. I picked it because it was pretty.”
“Not a big baseball fan, hmm?”
“I don’t mind watching it, but I think I was fourteen and in Freshman P.E. the last time I held a bat. I can’t say I’ve missed it.”
Shawn picked up a few bats, wrapped his hands around their bases and held them up as if he was actually going to hit a ball with them. “So, that’s what you meant by testing them?” she asked.
“Yeah. What did you think I meant?”
She shrugged. “I didn’t have a clue.”
“We’re going to change all that.” He held a bat out to her. “Here, try this one.”
“It’s not as pretty as the one I chose.”
“True, but the one you picked is meant for a ten year old kid. You’re a little too tall for it.”
“Yeah. Now come on. I promise to go easy on you.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
But as Shawn led her to a nearby batting cage and cued up the ball machine, Rhiannon found herself looking forward to taking a turn at bat. While softball had never been her sport, she’d spent most of her life swimming and playing tennis. She hadn’t done either in the last couple of years-- hadn’t done much of anything to be completely honest-- and for the first time she found herself missing the thrill of physical activity. There was something to be said for the feel of well-used muscles at the end of a work-out session.
“Now, hitting a ball really isn’t that hard,” Shawn said as he lined her up directly across from the batting machine.
“They sure make it look hard in the Major Leagues.” She held her bat to her shoulder and got ready to hit.
“That’s because they’re trying to hit off professional pitchers. I’ve got the machine set on slow pitches, so you shouldn’t have any problem.” He took a step back, looked at her, then shook his head with a laugh. “Okay, you wouldn’t have any problem if you actually knew how to hold a bat.”
“I know how to hold a bat!” she exclaimed, insulted.
“If you say so.” He moved behind her, placed his hands on her hips. Her heart started beating triple-time, and the urge to flee—and to fight—was so strong within her that it took all her concentration not to act on it.
It’s okay, she told herself. It’s just Shawn. You’re safe. You’re fine. It’s just Shawn. He won’t hurt you. You’re safe. She repeated the words to herself over and over again until they became her mantra, the one thing she could hold onto as the world around her pitched and rocked.
“You’ll have a much better shot of hitting the ball if you turn a little more to your right,” Shawn continued, oblivious to her panic. She must be getting better at hiding the freak outs—six months before, there was no way anyone could have missed her as she started to lose it.
“Now, choke up a little on the bat ...” He continued speaking in a slow, easy tone that did more to ease her worry than anything else could have and by the time he finally moved away from her, Rhiannon not only had herself back under control, but she had a pretty decent batting stance as well.
“I’m going to turn the machine on now,” Shawn called as he headed towards the other side of the cage. “Just relax and let yourself swing at the pitches. Have fun.”
Squatting down like he’d told her, Rhiannon held the bat up and prepared to connect with the ball as the machine fired. She waited, waited, then swung right when the ball was in what Shawn referred to as “the sweet spot.” She waited to hear the crack of bat meeting ball, and was shocked when she realized the ball had hit the fence behind her.
“That’s okay. Don’t worry about it. Try swinging about one second earlier.”
She did as he suggested, and still the ball soared right by her. Again and again, until Rhiannon was sweaty and more than a little frustrated and Shawn was trying his best not to laugh.
“Maybe baseball’s not your game,” he said with a grin. “We can go do something else if you’d like.”
“Turn the machine back on,” she snapped. “I’m going to hit one of these balls if it kills me.”
“Are you sure? I didn’t mean to—“
She glared at him. “Are you going to turn that thing back on or am I?”
“All right. All right. But maybe you should loosen up a little, take off your coat. It’s a little tight and might be preventing you from swinging through.”
“Yeah, that’s what’s preventing me from hitting. My too-tight coat, not my completely abysmal lack of talent at the sport.”
“Still. Try it and see if it helps. God knows, it couldn’t hurt.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, even as she shrugged out of her coat and tossed it on the ground. “You know, payback’s a bitch.”
“I’m looking forward to it.”
She added her suit jacket to the pile then grabbed the bat and got ready to hit, or rather to try to hit. “Go ahead. Turn that stupid thing back on.”
But Shawn didn’t move, didn’t so much as acknowledge that he’d heard her. Wondering what had distracted him, she followed his gaze with her own, then cursed under her breath as she realized that she was what had distracted him. Or at least her scars had. She’d gotten so caught up in the game that she had forgotten herself, had stripped down to the thin silk tank top she wore under her suit and now her scar-riddled arms were on display for the whole world to see.
For Shawn to see.
She waited for him to say something, to ask her how she’d damaged her skin so severely, but he didn’t say a word. He just stared at her for long seconds, his eyes cataloguing the damage. Then he turned away, flipped the switch on the ball machine.
“Get ready,” he said. “The balls will start in a minute.”
But how could she get ready when inside, she was imploding? Crumbling? He was the first person to see her scars in nearly a year, the first person besides her doctors and family—and Logan-- that she had ever let see them. How could she have been so careless? How could she have forgotten herself so completely?
A ball whipped past her, one she hadn’t even bothered to try to swing at.
“Rhiannon,” Shawn called, his voice unusually firm. “Swing the bat—you’re going to end up getting hit by one of these balls if you’re not careful.”
“I don’t want to do this any more,” she said, dropping the bat onto the astro turf. She knew she sounded like a spoiled child, but she didn’t care. Couldn’t care. All she wanted was to escape.
She reached for her suit jacket, shrugged into it quickly. It was stupid—the damage had already been done—but staying in just her shirt wasn’t an option. She was far too vulnerable that way. Far too exposed.
She reached for her coat and purse. “Can we go?”
“Rhiannon.” He jogged over to her, tried to touch her but she shrugged him off.
“I have an early meeting tomorrow that I forgot about. I should get home and prep for it a little before bed.” She started walking away.
“Stop what?” Her smile was brittle when she turned to him. “Stop talking? Stop caring about my job? Stop …” Her voice broke and she turned away, determined that she would not embarrass herself in front of Shawn any further.
He grabbed her elbow, turned her until she was facing him. “Stop pushing me away.”
“I can’t. I’m sorry, but I just can’t.”