Swing and a Kiss by Tina Gallagher

 

Chapter 1

Dale


I turnedinto the crowded parking lot and pulled into a spot toward the back. I’m late. I hate being late. Especially to events like this. It makes me feel like people think I’m trying to make a grand entrance or something. Which I’m definitely not.

Grabbing my cell off its mount, I texted Jack to let him know I’m here then opened the door and stepped out of the car. I’d planned on arriving before everything started, but my flight was delayed. According to the schedule I was given, dinner started a half-hour ago. At least it’s a buffet so I won’t be tiptoeing through tables during a formal dinner service.

Laughter and an occasional screech breached the sound of the surf so the event must be as casual as Jack said. Then again, it is a beach bash. It’d be kind of difficult to make it too serious.

I walked through the parking lot and spotted Mrs. Garrett sitting behind the registration desk at the entrance. She heads the Citizens Against Drunk Driving committee that hosts this annual event. I’ve met her and some of the other volunteers when they attended spring training games.

“Mrs. Garrett, it’s nice to see you again,” I said as I approached the table.

She stood and shook my hand.

“Thank you so much for coming,” she said. “It’s been wonderful having Jack these past couple years and we’re thrilled you’re able to make it this year.”

“I’m happy to be here and I’m sorry I’m late. There was an issue with the plane so they had to bring in another one and that took a few hours.”

“Thankfully they figured out there was an issue before you took off,” she said and I nodded in agreement. “We’re not very formal here. I’ve already given my speech so you can be thankful you missed that.” She chuckled. “The buffet will be out for the next couple hours.” Picking up a neon orange band, she removed the tab covering the adhesive, wrapped it around my wrist, and secured it in place. “This gets you in and all you can eat. You can help yourself when you’re ready.”

“Thank you.” I walked toward the festivities but stopped when I spotted the crowd in front of me. Stepping back to Mrs. Garrett, I asked, “Do you by any chance know which direction Jack is in?”

“He’s sitting over toward the buffet area.”

“Thanks. You just saved me from wandering around for an hour.”

Stepping into the sand, I took a minute to admire the jumbo slide, bouncy house, and assorted games to the right. Most of the attendees were seated but a few die-hards took advantage of dinnertime to get in a few extra runs. Jack volunteered to sit in a dunk tank and he’d also mentioned a speed throw so I figured there were more activities hiding behind the slide. It’s definitely a great setup.

I turned left and walked toward the buffet and spotted Jack and Hannah seated directly across from it, three tables in. Hannah saw me and waved as I wove through the tables and walked toward them.

“Glad you made it,” Jack said as I approached.

“Can’t let you have all the fun.”

He smirked. “If that’s the case, then I’ll tell Mrs. Garrett you volunteered to sit in the dunk tank.”

“You know I would but I didn’t bring a change of clothes.” I rested my hand against my stomach. “But I did bring a huge appetite. I haven’t eaten since breakfast so I’m gonna hit the buffet before I sit.”

I glanced around as I walked to the buffet, telling myself I wasn’t looking for anyone in particular. Just taking in the sights.

Grabbing a plate, I made my way down the line filling it as I went along, making small talk with the man in front of me. If he recognized me, he didn’t say and I sure as hell didn’t introduce myself. I wasn’t lying when I said I was hungry, so I was hoping to get some food in my stomach before I had to put on my game face. I’ve been lucky so far. Everyone seems to be too busy eating to pay attention to me.

I backtracked to the bar and got two glasses of water before heading to the table. I sat next to Jack, and Hannah introduced me to the others sitting with us. I’m pretty good with faces, but none of them looked familiar. Maybe they didn’t attend the games with the rest of the volunteers the past couple of years.

Mr. Hanover, the owner of the Waves, is very community-oriented and he likes his players to have a lot of fan contact. Which my friends and I enjoy and we tend to do more than is expected. Case in point, this event tonight. This beach bash fundraiser is one of Jack’s pet projects. I’m just along for the ride.

A few years ago, one of Jack’s ex-girlfriends wrote a tell-all book about him. It was relatively tame as far as that kind of thing goes, but Mr. Hanover decided Jack needed to improve his image to combat any bad publicity. So he had him work with Hannah Adams from the public relations department and she set up a variety of events like this for him to attend.

Even though the book is long forgotten, Jack still attends the events and holds meet-and-greets at the stadiums both here in St. Pete and at home in Myrtle Beach for people he’s met along the way. Besides the fact that he really enjoys meeting fans, he also credits the whole PR blitz for the fact that he fell in love with Hannah and she’s changed his whole life.

They got married last year so I’m the last man standing in my small friend group. Dan tied the knot the year before that and Cal just took the plunge last week down in the Keys.

“How were your extra days in the Keys?” Jack asked.

“Good. Relaxing.” I took a bite of swordfish, eager to change the subject. “Mmm, this is really good.”

“Yeah, Mrs. Garrett does it right.” He stood. “In fact, I’m gonna go get seconds.” He looked at Hannah. “I’ll grab you another drink. Do you want anything else?”

“Some of that fried shrimp would be great.”

“You got it.” He leaned down and gave her a quick kiss before heading to the buffet.

I continued to eat, looking around between bites.

“Looking for anyone in particular?” Hannah asked.

I winced at her all-knowing smile.

“No.” I shook my head. “Just taking it all in.”

I focused on my plate as I shoveled food into my mouth. I felt her still watching me and glanced over and raised my brow.

“You doing okay?”

I nodded and swallowed. “Sure.”

Hannah looked like she was about to say more but Jack returned and sat between us.

“Here you go,” he said, handing her a virgin strawberry daiquiri with an insane amount of whipped cream on top.

She took it from him and rolled her eyes, but then they shared an intimate smile. I’ve seen something similar between the two of them dozens of times since they’ve gotten together. Dan and Sabrina have the same type of secret language and now Cal and Barbara do, too. Not to mention my sister Penny and Kenny Hanover.

I’ve never had a deep enough relationship with a woman to share anything so special. Lord knows I didn’t live like a monk for most of my career. I had women to spend time with wherever I happened to be in the country, but things were always pretty superficial.

Then a couple years ago, I decided I wanted more than casual encounters. I’m sure watching my friends settle down had something to do with that. Especially Jack. Before Hannah, his relationships were as shallow as mine. But now he’s head over heels in love and so happy it’s almost shocking.

Jack pulled me from my thoughts, bringing me into the conversation he was having with two men across the table. Apparently they’d asked about the upcoming season and I was happy for the distraction.

We answered the usual questions about the health of our teammates and what we think our chances are of winning the series this year with our standard answers. Everyone feels great after winter break and if we all stay healthy and the baseball gods smile down on us, we believe we can win it all.

Jack’s phone buzzed and he silenced the alarm then stood.

“It’s time for me to get to the dunk tank,” he said.

Hannah and the woman next to her had just finished a conversation so she decided to join him.

“I want to get some pictures for the Waves website,” she said.

“I’m coming too,” I said. “I don’t want to miss this.”

We excused ourselves from the table and walked across the beach toward the dunk tank. Thankfully Jack had given us enough time to chat with people who approached us along the way. Hannah had a never-ending bag of Waves swag with her and we handed that out as well.

“Hey Jeremy,” Jack said as we walked toward the speed throw.

The two met and bonded when Jack first attended this fundraiser two years ago. Jack has made it a point to stay in touch with the boy since then and Jeremy and his mom Karen are regulars at spring training games and whenever we play Tampa.

Jeremy introduced his two friends, Mark and Tyler. At first, their mouths hung open as they stared at Jack and me, but then they relaxed and started talking. We chatted for a few minutes and it took all my willpower to stay focused on the boys instead of looking around for Jeremy’s mother. There are a lot of people here, but it’s inevitable I’ll run into Karen sooner or later.

“They’re waving me over to the tank,” Jack said and we followed him over.

The previous volunteer was climbing out as we approached. He shook Jack’s hand and warned him about the cold water in the tank.

“I’m going over to the other side to take pictures and video,” Hannah said.

“Do you want me to take some from this side?” I asked.

“That’d be great. Thanks Dale.”

She walked through the people standing in line who were ready to pay for the opportunity to dunk Jack.

“Did you want to get in line?” I asked Jeremy, Mark, and Tyler as I reached for my wallet.

“No, I think I’d rather just watch,” Jeremy said, but the other boys took me up on my offer. I handed each some cash and they ran over to the back of the line.

I pulled out my phone and took a few pictures as Jack climbed the ladder, stepped into the tank, and sat on the board, dangling his feet over the water. Then I switched to video and taped as person after person stepped up to the line and threw their ball toward the target.

Jack talked smack to the people wearing Tampa jerseys and they teased him back, but it was all good-natured.

“It doesn’t seem like that target would be so hard to hit,” Jeremy said.

“They’re aiming too much and most are throwing too hard.”

Just after I said that, a man stepped up to the line and wound up then sent the ball sailing over the target and into the tarp hanging behind it.

The next person hit the edge of the target, but it wasn’t enough to trigger the mechanism. Jack hammed it up, pinching his nose closed and dramatically holding his breath.

Two more people were unsuccessful and I started thinking about getting in line myself if this didn’t end soon. At least it’s raising money for a good cause.

Mark and Tyler each took a shot and missed.

A teenage girl stepped up to the line and after studying the target, stepped back then forward in a windmill windup, throwing a perfect strike. The ball hit the center of the target, sending Jack splashing into the water. The crowd cheered and Jack laughed as he came up for air, slicking his hair back.

I turned off my video and looked at Jeremy.

“See, she relaxed and studied her target then made a natural throw. Nothing crazy.”

“That makes sense.”

“Are you coming to the game next week?” I asked.

“Yeah and I can’t wait. I love spring training games. I mean, regular season is awesome but spring training is so chill.”

“Yeah, it’s nice down here. Different for sure.” We watched two people climb the ropes to the top of the big slide. “Hey, want to race?”

He blinked then nodded. “Sure.”

“Let’s go.”

We ran to the line, which surprisingly wasn’t too long.

“So, did your season start yet?” I asked while we waited.

“Travel ball has. We had our first tournament two weeks ago.”

“How’s it going?”

“Good. I’m getting a lot of playing time and I really like my coach.” He smiled up at me. “He’s even been having me practice pitching. Since there’s only fourteen of us on the team, he wants me ready just in case.”

“That’s great. I loved pitching.”

“You didn’t always play first base?”

I shook my head. “When I was your age I played shortstop and pitched. In high school, they moved me to first base on the days I wasn’t pitching and those are the positions I played in college. When I got drafted, it was for first base and I’ve been there since. I like it because I get to play more, plus I get to bat. But I do miss being on the mound.”

He was about to ask another question but it was our turn. When the attendant told us to go, we both ran toward the huge slide and I grabbed at the ropes and climbed, letting Jeremy stay a half a step ahead of me. We reached the top and sat then I waited until he pushed himself down before shifting forward to start my own descent. He stood just as I reached the bottom.

I know I must look like an idiot laughing with a huge smile on my face, but that had been awesome. What a great ride.

“It’s been a while since I did anything like that. Thank you,” I said to him.

“No, thank you,” he said in one breath and in the next said, “Hey mom.”

I glanced over my shoulder and saw Karen Walsh, looking just as beautiful as she had the last time I’d seen her, if not more so. My stomach tightened and flipped more than it had when I was coming down the slide.

Damn, it’s like getting hit in the gut with a bat.

Karen


“Hi Karen.”

“Hi Dale,” I stuttered, feeling like an idiot. How hard can it be to say two words?

But in my defense, I'm shocked that he’s here. He’s never attended before.

I tucked a stray piece of hair behind my ear, wishing I’d taken some extra time with my appearance instead of coming straight from work. Why? I have no idea. Sure he’s asked me out in the past, but last time we’d seen each other, he basically ignored me. Although I guess that’s to be expected since I’ve never agreed to a date.

Being turned down would be a blow to any man’s ego, and Dale Montgomery isn’t just any man. He’s a professional athlete, sexy as hell, and a nice guy. Talk about a hotness trifecta. I’m probably the only woman crazy enough to say no to him about anything.

But I’m not stupid. Life isn’t like a romance novel. If it was, I would have had my happily-ever-after with Jason. Instead he was killed by a drunk driver and now I’m a single mother trying to keep it together for my son. I like my life orderly and something tells me letting Dale into it would make it anything but, even if it was just for one date.

“Is it okay if I go find the guys?” Jeremy asked.

As much as I don’t want to be alone with Dale, I can’t expect Jeremy to stay by my side the entire night. He’s getting too old for that.

“Sure. Just make sure your phone is on.”

“Thanks mom. See you later, Monte.”

I watched him run off then turned to look at Dale. He scratched his chin with the back of his hand drawing my eyes to his mouth. His bottom lip is slightly plumper than the top and from the moment I saw him, I’ve wondered what it would feel like to kiss him. The last time I had thoughts like that about anyone was back in middle school when I first met Jason.

“He’s getting tall.”

It took me a moment to refocus and realize he was referring to Jeremy.

“Yeah, he had a growth spurt this past fall. He’ll be passing me out soon.”

“And by next year I won’t have to slow down so he can beat me on the slide.”

He chuckled, a deep rumble that vibrated through my body making my nipples perk up. I crossed my arms over my chest hoping he wouldn’t notice.

“I’m surprised to see you here.”

“Jack asked me to come last year but I needed to be in Aspen and couldn’t make it. This year worked out well. Cal’s wedding was last week in the Keys and we don’t have to report until Tuesday. So here I am.”

His biceps bulged when he held his arms out to the side.

I cleared my throat. “So you live in Aspen off season?” I asked, as if I didn’t know the answer. Just because I won’t date him doesn’t mean I didn’t do some cyber stalking.

He nodded. “I have a small ranch there. Have you ever been?”

“No, but I hear it’s beautiful.”

“It is, especially in the fall. But I’m fortunate that my job takes me all over the country so I get to see a lot of cool places.” He glanced at me. “What?”

“What?”

“You looked surprised or something.”

“It just sounded strange to hear baseball referred to as a job, even though that’s what it is at the level you’re playing.” I glanced around. “In fact, I’m surprised we’ve been speaking this long without someone interrupting.”

“The key is to not make eye contact.”

I’d managed to get my nipples under control but his sexy smirk and bobbing eyebrows had them standing at attention again. I looked around, in the hope that taking my eyes off him would help and I noticed a young boy approaching with a man I assumed to be his father.

“Looks like I spoke too soon,” I said, nodding my head in their direction.

Dale looked at them and smiled, which gave them the courage to approach. He stooped down, putting him at the boy’s level and introduced himself, as if that was necessary. The boy handed him a ball to sign and they carried on a conversation. Their interaction didn’t go unnoticed and soon a small crowd gathered.

I was about to excuse myself when Jack and Hannah joined us. After that, even more people approached.

“Come on,” Hannah said. “Let’s go get a drink and let these guys do their thing.” She handed Jack the tote bag she’d been carrying. “I expect this to be empty next time I see you.”

“Yes ma’am.” He gave her a kiss and smiled and I couldn’t help but feel a pang of jealousy for the pure love flowing between them.

We wove through the crowd toward the tables and the buffet. Thank God because I haven’t eaten yet and I’m starving.

“I’ve stayed with Jack the past couple years but I think he and Dale can handle things together.”

“They’re both so good with fans. The Waves must do some heavy-duty PR training.”

“The players do receive training, but there are some things you just can’t teach. Jack, Dale, Cal, and Dan are all amazing with fans. They make my job easy.”

We walked up to the bar and Hannah ordered a virgin strawberry daiquiri. I opted for an orange creamsicle slushie.

Hannah took a sip of her drink. “This is my third one but I can’t help it, they’re so good.”

“I’m jealous. I love strawberries but I’m allergic.” We walked by the buffet and my stomach growled at the amazing smells. “Thank God the buffet is still out. I’m so hungry.”

“Here, give me your drink and go grab a plate. I’ll meet you at the table.”

I did as I was told and joined her at the table with a full plate in my hand.

“The food is always so good here.” I forced myself to take human bites.

“You and Jeremy are definitely coming to the first game, right?”

“MmmHmm,” I muttered around a mouthful, then swallowed and added, “Jeremy really looks forward to it. Thank you so much. You and Jack have been so good to him, to us.”

“He’s a great kid.” She smiled. “And you’re a great mom.”

I smiled at her compliment and continued eating.

“There they go,” she said, looking toward the slide.

I spotted Jack sliding down about a foot behind the boy on the other side.

“Poor Jack. How many times did he do that slide last year?”

“I don’t know, but he was feeling it the next day,” she said. “At least this year he has Dale to split the runs with.”

Sure enough, Dale was the next one down, across from a young girl.

And so it went with the two guys alternately appearing on the slide. I eventually lost count of how many times they each slid down.

“I’m getting exhausted just watching them.”

“It looks like they’re slowing down now,” she said when the next three runs were people we didn’t know.

Dale appeared at the top again but when he reached the bottom, instead of disappearing around the back, he walked toward us.

“Holy hell, that’s a workout.” He plopped into the chair next to me.

“You were warned,” Hannah said.

“That I was, but it was fun. I’m glad I was able to make it this year.”

“Me too.” Hannah stood. “I’m going to grab some dessert.”

“That sounds great,” I said and started to stand.

She placed her hand on my shoulder, holding me in my seat. This isn’t the first time I’ve gotten the feeling she’s playing matchmaker.

“I’ll get a variety we can share,” she said then shifted her eyes to Dale. “And I’ll grab a pitcher of water for you and Jack.”

“That would be appreciated,” Dale said then looked at me. “Jack is taking one last run with Jeremy and then they’ll be over.”

I caught a glimpse of rock-hard abs when he lifted the bottom of his shirt and used it to wipe his face.

Take a deep breath, girl.

I did as my inner voice directed but it only filled my lungs with the mouth-watering scent of Dale Montgomery. How he could smell so clean, like fresh air and sandalwood, after the workout he just had is beyond me.

Thankfully I spotted Jack and Jeremy on the slide reminding me that my job is to focus on my son, not the insanely attractive man sitting next to me.

Now I just have to convince my libido to let go of the first man who’s piqued its interest in years.