It had been a long time since Ginny last set foot in the Peoria Sports Complex. Then, she’d been 18, fresh out of high school, with her father’s legacy to preserve and a world of naysayers to disprove.
Now, she was 24 and had finished her first season in the bigs on the DL. Still had all the naysayers, though.
She was, perhaps, the worst of them all.
She still felt weak. Weak and foolish for refusing to leave that last game.
(Honestly, the 36 hours preceding that game hadn’t been shining moments for her, either, but better to focus on baseball right now.)
Her game didn’t feel up to scratch, not that she could say for sure. The only throwing she’d done was with her physical therapist, the Padres pitching coach on hand to monitor her mechanics.
Ginny still hadn’t decided if it was a good or bad thing that her first outing on an actual mound would be in the first pitchers and catchers workout of spring training. On the plus side, if things went badly, only the other pitchers and catchers would see. On the negative, she wouldn’t have Blip around for moral support. He was the only Padre she’d seen on a regular basis in the off season.
To be fair, most of them didn’t even stay in the city once the season was over. The few who did, she saw at her workouts at Petco, and that was it. Livan, Melky, and Sonny came in to work every so often, but everyone else either trained offsite or headed home for the winter.
She was still trying to make up her mind as she pushed into the Padres Clubhouse, nerves nearly making her want to hurl.
“Hey, Baker,” came her first greeting and she flashed a grateful smile at Sonny.
After that, as her teammates and a few prospects she hadn’t met greeted her, Ginny’s stomach started to settle and she began to feel less like an interloper.
She was still a Padre. She wasn’t a fraud. She’d earned her place here.
Still, she was uncomfortably aware that she had yet to greet at least one Padre. One Padre who’d gone radio silent the whole off-season.
Not that that meant she didn’t hear about him.
Or his wife.
(No matter how many times she told herself she was happy for him, something in her stomach always roiled at the sight of Mike and Rachel splashed across glossy magazine spreads or taking up time on Entertainment Tonight.
And yet, Ginny always found herself tuning in and picking up tabloids when she knew they’d be featured. Maybe she was a masochist or something.)
One Padre who happened to be sitting at his locker, his back to the room and firmly ignoring the hubbub behind him.
Ginny hadn’t realized she’d been counting on him to set her at ease. To make things feel normal again. How often she’d dismissed the unreturned texts and phone calls as understandable: he wasn’t really her captain in the off-season, after all.
(That she had to keep choking back the questions to Blip—Is this normal for him? Does he always just disappear at the end of a season?—was something that only she knew.)
In spite of that, she’d thought that spring training would be some kind of magic reset button. The reporting dates would come, and they’d go back to the way things had been. Maybe not all the way back, considering the awkward tension that had sprung to life the moment his trade fell through, but somewhere close.
That hope died, slow and agonizing and shrieking all the way down, as it became clear that Mike had no such intentions. He wasn’t going to greet her. He wasn’t going to joke. He wasn’t even going to turn around.
He knew she was there and wasn’t going to acknowledge her.
Ginny’s smile went brittle, but she couldn’t afford to shut down the way she wanted. The way the suddenly frozen hunk of flesh inside her chest wanted her to. She turned away from him and forced herself to grin. “So, where are they putting me up around here? Do I get my very own broom closet?”
That prompted a wave of laughter and a clubby to step forward to show her the way.
Before she went, though, there was one thing she had to do. Like ripping off a band aid.
“Lawson,” she greeted as she passed him by, grateful that her voice remained steady in spite of the raging ocean of uncertainty swirling inside her.
He twitched, like he thought about spinning his chair to face her, and ultimately didn’t deem it worth the effort. “Baker,” he replied instead, addressing his half-full locker.
Neither of them said anything else, trying to adjust to the new reality they’d stepped into.
Before stepping into her closet, though, Ginny allowed herself a glance over her shoulder. The sight of Mike Lawson’s back, expected now but jarring all the same, set something aside from her hope for normalcy shriveling inside her. Ginny stared until Mike’s shoulders hunched, like he could feel the weight of her gaze. Still, he didn’t turn. Didn’t shift. Didn’t look.
With a sigh, she shut herself in her dressing room and tried to ignore the way she felt completely hollow.
Somehow, Ginny managed to convince herself that things would change once the rest of the team showed up. That Mike just needed time to get used to her again as a teammate.
She endured three days of painfully awkward workouts. Mike hardly looked in her direction once, so Ginny naturally drifted to Livan, mostly happy to leave her captain to figure himself out. Maybe pull his head out of his ass.
She was here to play ball, not make friends.
(Particularly with someone who she’d thought was already her friend.)
Not that Lawson seemed to appreciate that.
Several times, she caught him frowning as she and Duarte went through drills together, teasingly pushing each other to be better, work harder. He didn’t say anything about it, but on the second day, Besner, fresh off the DL himself, snagged her as a workout partner before Duarte even arrived.
Ginny wouldn’t have thought anything of it if Lawson hadn’t acted particularly smug at the sight, gleefully informing his back up, “If you wanted to play footsie with Baker all day, you should have gotten here earlier.”
By the time the rest of the squad reported the following day, Ginny had never been so happy to be even more outnumbered. The extra people would make for excellent buffers between her and Mike. With just the pitchers and catchers around, it had become increasingly obvious that they were avoiding each other. Or that he was avoiding her and she followed his lead.
Since no one had a death wish so early in the season, it remained an unspoken truth, but that almost made it worse. The silent, assessing scrutiny of her teammates piled on top of Mike’s avoidance had Ginny’s frustration building, slow and steady.
She was confused and hated it. It shouldn’t matter that Lawson had pulled a 180 between last season and this. Ginny was used to that; guys that she played with all through her childhood suddenly turning on her for whatever bullshit reason.
Those dismissals never spurred the roiling, insidious indignation and fury that Mike Lawson’s did. Every time he looked pointedly away from her or brushed off her questions, that bubbling stew of frustration boiled up, never quite subsiding. It would almost be better if he were obviously mad at her. Ginny could deal with anger, had been since she was a kid.
It was easier to handle than pain.
But Mike was just—blank. Blank stares and bland responses every time he couldn’t avoid talking to her.
And when she decided to just leave him alone, he’d trip her up with snide, sniping comments like he couldn’t stand not being the goddamn center of attention for once.
Ginny started needling him, just to get a reaction on her terms, not that he often fell for it. When he did, it was nothing like their easy, teasing rapport from just months ago. It fell just short of vicious, but it was better than the yawning, gaping distance.
She didn’t know what the hell to do. Just that something had to change.
Ginny wasn’t sure whether Al didn’t notice the cold war—in that they hadn’t come to physical blows, there’d already been plenty of damage—raging between his captain and number five starter or if he noticed too much and was trying to nip it in the bud. Either way, her first start of spring training was with Mike behind the plate. They hadn’t worked together much in the bullpen and in spite of herself, Ginny would admit to some curiosity about whether or not any of their synergy from last season had survived.
Any hope she’d been harboring was dashed when, before the game, he didn’t even bother going through the line up with her, just asked gruffly, “You check the scouting reports?”
“No,” she replied mulishly, though she’d spent at least two hours the night before watching game tape from last season.
This in spite of the fact that Noah’d asked about a skype date. Several times in fact. Ginny’d complained about it to Evelyn, who’d tried to be sympathetic, but didn’t really see the problem.
He didn’t even crack a grin. “Don’t be smart. You’re not here for your brain.” What would have been a joke last season, capped with a cheeky grin, was just a snide implication now. “You go over the reports?”
Ginny rolled her eyes and watched his jaw clench in annoyance. “Of course I went over the reports.”
“Glad you managed it with your busy social schedule.”
What the hell was he talking about? Before she could demand answers, though, he’d stalked off, probably to go have his spine prodded and pounded into the shape most humans, let alone pro athletes, required. Maybe cavemen were different, though.
She didn’t talk to him again until the top of the fourth, when she didn’t put quite enough curve on her slider and one of the Athletics really got a hold of it, driving in two runs.
“Thought you went over the hitters,” he drawled, practically a taunt, as he finally dragged himself up the mound.
Ginny bit her tongue to keep her mouth in check. She didn’t need a blow up with her captain her first game back. She held her glove out silently, waiting for him to relinquish the ball.
Thankfully, he didn’t have much else to say and went back to the plate in time for the next batter.
She shook off his first three calls, unconvinced that Lawson had gone over batters for all he’d pestered her about it. Ginny knew Rachel was in town, had seen the redhead hanging around the complex. Had seen the soft grin Mike gave her when he caught sight of her, too. If it felt like a punch to the gut, that was only because Ginny’d nearly forgotten what Mike looked like when he smiled.
Anyway, Ginny clearly wasn’t the one with the “busy social schedule.”
Well. Mike Lawson could try and shift the blame onto her all he wanted, but Ginny was having none of it.
After the fourth rejected call, Mike straightened from his crouch and stared her down. Ginny lifted her chin, jaw set.
In defiance of the umpire—who was calling, “Lawson get back here!”—he stalked the sixty feet, six inches straight up to Ginny.
For once, she could understand what made him such an intimidating figure to play against. He practically loomed over her, big forearms crossed over his chest protector. He looked big and fucking mean, ready to tear off someone’s head.
Might as well do something to deserve it.
“Can I help you?”
He glowered. “You wanna remind me who’s captain here? Who makes the calls and who follows along like a lost little duckling?”
If he’d looked her in the eye while he said it, Ginny might have let it slide, might have fallen in line. After all, his anger was nothing new. But his eyes were firmly fixed on a point over her shoulder, like she was beneath his notice, and she was spoiling for a fight.
Barely remembering to get her glove in front of her mouth, she answered, “Maybe I’d follow your calls if they weren’t fucking terrible.”
“What’s fucking terrible is that thing you call a slider.”
“Sorry the pitch I’ve only been working on for six weeks isn’t already up to your high standards. Although,” she paused, tapping her glove against her chin like she was thinking, “maybe you’d’ve known that if you took a look at it when I asked last week, captain.”
“Watch the lip, rookie,” he snapped, though Ginny knew it was just because she was right.
“Not a rookie, Lawson,” she spat back.
“No? Well, you’re fucking acting like one. Pitching like one, too. Never thought I’d wish for Miller to come back. Maybe Oscar’ll come to his senses and put an end to the Ginny Baker circus, then we can get a pitcher who won’t leave every other ball hanging over the plate.”
Ginny ground her teeth, but bit her tongue. She told herself that was why her eyes were burning. The umpire looked like he was about to storm the mound himself and put an end to their jawing. Though she had half a mind to let him come out and chew out her captain, Ginny shook her empty glove at him instead. “Gimme the ball.”
Mike stared her down and smacked on his gum. Ginny would swear her blood began to boil, but he finally slapped the ball into her outstretched glove and stalked back to the plate.
He put down the sign and Ginny shook him off again.
Across the sixty-odd feet, it was startling easy to see Mike’s eyes narrow in teeth-gnashing frustration..
Fucking good. The feeling was mutual.
Ginny and Mike’s cold war quickly heated.
Rather than the stilted silence and avoidance that characterized the first weeks of spring training, Mike and Ginny were at each other’s throats. Constantly. About anything and everything.
Ginny’s lackluster batting average: “You do any better back in T-ball or did you always strike out then, too?”
Mike’s three errors out at first: “All those foul tips must’ve scrambled your brain, old man. The goal is to field the ball, not let it roll through your legs.”
The huge bouquet of roses delivered to the clubhouse: “Are we finally putting Baker’s decorating tips to use? The place could use a woman’s touch.”
The four separate autographs Mike signed across women’s barely covered chests in one day: “You don’t have to pretend to be pissy, I’m sure that made your day. Or did you suddenly remember you’re not supposed to be enjoying the groupies anymore?”
It so easily could have been easy, light teasing. The kind of banter traded between two players to keep each others’ egos in check.
It was sharp and direct, things said to cut deep into insecurities that only two people who really knew each other could hit. There was no pleasure in it, not for Ginny. Her gut churned with sick guilt every time she launched a barb and watched it burrow under Mike’s skin.
Guilt because she was hurting him and guilt because it felt like she was betraying the friendship they’d built.
(Sometimes, she wondered if she’d made it all up. If last season was just a dream she’d created to deal with the constant, low-level hostility coming from her team captain.
Which was worse though? If their camaraderie and connection last season had been real, and this was what they’d become, or if it had never existed at all?)
There were lines they didn’t cross, but Ginny knew that the day was coming where one of them said something they couldn’t take back.
She didn’t want to know who it would be, just hoped it wasn’t her. Hoped it wasn’t something that would end up being the final straw, the thing that got her sent packing.
What Mike had said on the mound—”Put an end to the Ginny Baker circus.”—had wormed its way into her brain and started spinning a dense, complex web of insecurities. Insecurities she suddenly felt foolish for not having considered before.
After all, Ginny was just a number five starter for a team that finished last season at the bottom of the division. To make matters worse, she was a woman—a black woman—whom many still thought was a disgrace to the game. Hell, some of her teammates probably still thought that, even if most of them wouldn’t say it to her face. She was under no illusions that Mike and Blip had sheltered her from the worst of it last season.
And now, it seemed, she was down an ally.
Ginny’s place on the team—last starter coming in off an injury—was tenuous enough without being labeled a “distraction” again. It wouldn’t take much to get her sent back down, especially with fewer people paying attention. Ginnsanity was finally wearing off, apparently.
It was freeing, in a way, but didn’t do much for her sense of security.
Sentimental as baseball was, it was a game rooted in tradition, and Ginny was about as untraditional as it could get.
Still, she’d always assumed that it didn’t bother Mike.
The way he was acting, now, though, maybe she’d been wrong.
The more Ginny thought about it, the less it made sense. And she’d been thinking about it far more than she’d ever admit. It ate at her, churning somewhere in the pit of her stomach. The more she tried to rationalize it, the less she had to focus on that growing pit and the steady, draining ache that lived inside it.
Mike was supposed to be happy. His wife had taken him back and he had a chance at a family again. The team was, well, not great, but it was only spring training; they’d figure it out. It was still his team, at least. He was supposed to be happy.
And yet, he was acting like a miserable fucking bastard.
Case in point:
He’d just gotten through yelling at her for stopping at third rather than trying to score the run that would have tied the game. She ended up being stranded on base when Voorhies grounded out on a 3-0 pitch.
Should she have run? Sure.
Was she the only reason the Padres lost? Hell fucking no.
Ginny did not need to sit there and be scolded like a child. And it was a scolding. Every single one of her teammates had slunk out of the room when Mike started up, which probably said something about how vicious he’d been lately. And how little they wanted to get caught in the blowback of her response.
“Are you done?” she asked, cold and dismissive.
“Am I done?” he sputtered, face turning red. “Oh, I’m just getting started, Baker.”
Ginny rolled her eyes.
Mike did not appear to appreciate that. At all. “What was that? I think you’d wanna show your captain a little respect, there,” he growled.
“Yeah,” she replied, that one word dripping in condescension. “’Cause nothing earns my respect like being yelled at for a simple mistake.”
“I don’t earn your respect, Baker, I should have it automatically! I’m your fucking captain!”
Shoving to her feet, Ginny barely restrained herself from shoving him away. “God, you’re such a— such a—”
“What?” he taunted. “What am I, Baker? Spit it out!”
“You’re a fucking asshole!” she exploded, jabbing a finger against his chest. Ginny was so livid, she wasn’t really paying attention to what came out of her mouth. “I can’t believe that I thought—”
“That I was your hero?” he sneered. “Your goddamn poster boy? I bet you’re really regretting all those years you wasted, huh?”
That wasn’t what she was going to say, but the truth was more embarrassing. Crueler, too.
I can’t believe that I thought you were worth breaking my code.
Ginny wanted to say it, wanted to make him hurt as much as he’d made her over the past few weeks. She was pretty sure it would feel good, too. At least show him that she wasn’t without her defenses.
But she wasn’t going to bring that night from last August into this. If only because she didn’t want the soft glow it could still evoke—the warmth she sometimes wrapped herself up in when this new status quo threatened to break her—tainted by Mike’s ugliness.
That didn’t mean she was just going to roll over and let him think he’d won, though.
“I can’t believe I thought you were anything other than what I see.”
“And what exactly do you see?” he growled, drawing himself up like that would intimidate her into shutting up.
Think again, asshole.
Before she could lay into him, Buck wandered in. He stopped in his tracks, gaze darting between pitcher and catcher in halfhearted confusion.
“What’s going on here?”
“Nothing,” Ginny replied, but she kept steady, unflinching eye contact with Mike, refusing to look away until she was sure he understood her.
I see nothing.
“What the fuck is your problem?” Ginny demanded, whirling on her scowling captain.
It’d become an increasingly common question in Ginny’s internal thoughts, 99% of the time directed at the man in front of her. This was the first time she’d voiced it, though.
He’d been making sneering comments all night, drinking more than she was used to seeing. Every time she spoke with a man for more than 10 minutes or smiled at someone more than twice, his voice would raise, lamenting another poor schmuck who’d fallen for the Baker trap.
After that last fight, they’d gone back to ignoring each other. Things were so civil that the rest of the team stopped holding their breath whenever they were in the same room. There were still moments where Ginny would think of something to say to him, open her mouth, and look up only to realize that he didn’t want to hear it. Since she wasn’t going to be the one who sent them back into DEFCON 1, she kept her mouth shut and got along with doing her job.
If, sometimes, she could taste blood from biting her tongue so hard, she figured it was worth it for a shot to stay in the majors. She wasn’t about to give up her and her father’s dream for something as inconsequential as a guy disliking her.
(If the hollow, sucking ache in her stomach was a lesson, Ginny could learn to live with anything. Even the constant, bitter taste of disappointment that coated her tongue along with the iron tang of blood.)
Apparently, though, Mike had had enough of their self-imposed silent treatments. Things were finally starting to approach a new normal, but who cared about team dynamics when Mike Lawson was missing out on a chance to be a dick?
Finally, she’d had to ask him for a private word outside through clenched teeth. He’d taken a measured pull from his beer before agreeing and following her out a side door into a narrow alley. At least they’d been sheltered from prying eyes before Ginny let loose.
“Don’t you have a boyfriend?” he responded spitefully.
Ginny was at a loss.
On the one hand: no, she didn’t have a boyfriend. Noah still called and he’d come out to Arizona a few times and they fucked a few more times than that, but they never discussed terminology. Ginny almost felt bad using him, but he was a really great distraction from her problems.
Most of which were tied up in the man standing in front of her.
Which was the other hand.
Not that Mike deserved to know any of that.
“How’s that any of your business?”
“If tabloids decide to start running stories about you messing around and it fucks up your concentration, it’ll be my business,” he reasoned. Clearly, he’d put a lot of thought into this.
“That’s a big if, Lawson,” she ground out.
“Besides,” he barreled on, like she hadn’t spoken, “I bet your whiz kid wouldn’t really appreciate finding out his girlfriend’s getting some on the side.”
“Getting some on the side? I talked to two separate guys in there for maybe ten minutes each. One of them said his boyfriend was a fan,” she spat, shaking her head to clear it. It didn’t work. “And anyway, Noah’s not my boyfriend!” Mike blinked, but didn’t respond, so Ginny kept going. “We’re seeing each other, I guess. Casual. I like him, okay? He’s—fine. None of your fucking business, but fine.”
Mike took a prowling step closer and Ginny felt her eyes go wide, annoyance bubbling over into something very different.
“He doesn’t even rate a good?” he breathed, pressing into her space. Ginny backed up, but he kept coming, right up until her shoulders hit cool stucco. Her heart raced, like she was a cornered rabbit.
That was why she wanted to lick a stripe up the tense column of his throat, too, right?
“The idea of you settling for anything less than fucking phenomenal, it kills me, Ginny,” he murmured hoarsely. There was still a current of anger running beneath everything; the set of his jaw, the rasp of his words. It licked against the seeds of frustration that had taken root in her, urging them into bloom.
“What the hell do you care what I settle for, Mike?” she hissed, finally letting go of months of bitterness. “You have a wife at home. You’ve made your choice very clear. That’s why you’re retiring at the end of the season, right?”
That, almost more than feuding and the words they’d never be able to take back, was what finally convinced Ginny to give up on getting Mike back on her side. When Al made the announcement to the team, she’d looked around in shock, but it didn’t seem like many other people were thrown for a loop. The new guys, mostly. Blip just shook his head in disappointment.
“I tried,” he’d mouthed at her apologetically, which was when Ginny realized.
Mike had told them. Maybe individually, maybe as a group, but he’d given most of them a heads up of what was coming. Even Livan didn’t look all that excited at the news. Because it wasn’t news. They all knew.
But not her.
“You’re leaving the game for her. You’re leaving your team for her. You’re leaving m—” here, she stumbled, hating the impassive look on his face but equally unwilling to let him off the hook, “me for her.”
She shook herself, raised her chin. “It’s not fucking fair, Mike. For you to treat me like shit for weeks. Months, even. For you to say these things to me when you have no intention of doing any—”
Apparently, Ginny was wrong. Because Mike did intend to do something about it.
His lips crashed against hers, one hand coming up to cradle the back of her head just before it thudded into the unforgiving stone behind her. The other clutched desperately at her waist, an anchor to drag his body into hers. His mouth moved hungrily against her and Ginny surged into him, weeks of frustration and anger spilling into the desire that she’d never quite managed to talk herself out of.
While she’d had plenty of opportunity to think about the first time she kissed Mike Lawson, none of those fantasies even began to resemble reality. Ginny never thought he’d be kissing her in an alley or that she’d have been yelling at him just seconds before. She didn’t think that she’d hate him more often than she liked him, either, but that wasn’t enough to make her pull away.
No, her hands wandered, stroking up his solid, broad chest, over his shoulders. Her nails bit into the flesh there, hard enough to draw a growl from Mike. In retaliation, his hips rutted up against hers, one thick thigh insinuating itself between hers until he could grind it against her aching core.
Ginny nearly lost herself in the clash of teeth and tongue, his heavy weight crowding her into the wall, her fingers threading through slightly sweaty hair.
What she couldn’t get over was the almost overwhelming taste of alcohol on his tongue. She wasn’t sure what it was, but she couldn’t forget that it was coursing through his bloodstream, hazing his thoughts. There was no way that Mike, sober Mike, would want to do this.
Would want her.
Thankfully, because Ginny wasn’t sure she’d have been able to do it herself, not if this wasn’t going to ever happen again, Mike pulled away. Just far enough to drag air into his protesting lungs.
Her eyes flicked up to his, both their chests heaving as they caught their breath. It was too dark to see anything clearly, but Ginny knew she’d find a bleary, dreamy look. When Mike moved to close the distance again, she planted one hand against his shoulder and stopped him.
He jerked back, clearly surprised, and Ginny burned with shame. Had she been so fucking obvious with this stupid crush? This ridiculous infatuation that refused to die no matter how awful they were to each other.
Why couldn’t it just die?
Why did she have to come so close to exactly what she wanted and have to say no?
“We can’t,” she murmured, aching with the desire to just plaster herself against him and say screw the consequences. Screw the fact that Mike was clearly running from something, not to her.
Screw the heartbreak that would eventually come.
“Can’t we?” Mike grinned wolfishly and leaned in again. Ginny’s hand remained rooted against his shoulder.
“This was a mistake,” she breathed, her lips buzzing with both the residual warmth of him and the words they’d just formed. They were true, but they still shredded open the ache somewhere in her stomach. No more manageable discomfort; this might end her.
Ginny felt, more than saw, Mike tense, his face scant inches from hers. He jerked away.
Had it always been so cold out here?
His laugh, when it broke into the space between them, held no mirth. It shattered like glass and cut just as deep.
“Right,” he sneered. “A huge fucking mistake. Won’t happen again.”
Ginny swallowed and squared her shoulders. She raised her chin and looked him square in the eye. Like hell would she show him her pain. “Good.”
His gaze roamed over her face, inscrutable. Finally, he nodded, one jerk of his head. A death knell. “Good,” he echoed, backing away.
Before she could say something else, anything else, he’d turned and stalked off.
Ginny didn’t watch him go. Why bother when he was already out of reach and had been for a long time?
Instead, she leaned against the cool stucco and tried to convince herself that the hole eating away her insides didn’t mean anything.