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Puppy love

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The first thing Mike did after he retired was buy a motorcycle.

Less than a week later, Ginny showed up at his house looking unbearably hot in skintight jeans, a tank top and a leather jacket, and asked him to take her for a ride.

At which point Mike’s brain completely short circuited for about twenty seconds. Then he remembered the motorcycle, and the reason he hadn’t bought it until now. “Baker, your contract doesn’t allow that,” he reminded her when he could actually form words again. She was leaning against his doorway, hip cocked and a challenge in her eyes. Mike wanted to give her every damn thing she wanted.

“Seriously?” she asked, her sexy little smirk turning into a pout.

Reluctantly, Mike nodded. “Paragraph 4b, rookie.” Athletes had a long history of doing stupid things in their off-time: breaking a hand while riding an ATV, rupturing an ACL playing basketball, or in one case blowing off a couple of fingers with firecrackers. That little clause allowed teams default on the rest of a player’s contract if he got hurt during a banned activity.

She slumped a little, chewing her lip. “That sucks.” Ginny looked up at him hopefully. “Show it to me anyway?”

That much Mike could manage. Ginny followed him eagerly into the garage, made all the appropriate noises over the Harley he’d purchased, and mounted the damn thing just to get a feel for it. “Couldn’t we just go around the block once?” she asked, reaching for his extra helmet.

Mike almost caved. He could practically feel Ginny pressed against his back, her arms around him. Instead he found himself asking, “What are you doing later?”

Which was how he ended up taking Ginny to the animal rescue fundraiser Blip had conned him into attending. Ginny looked spectacular in an aqua halter-top pantsuit with an open back, and for the first time Mike didn’t have to pretend he wasn’t looking at her. So was everyone else, and Evelyn quickly whisked her off to mingle and get the usual round of selfies out of the way so she could enjoy the rest of the evening.

Mike lost track of her sometime after dinner, while an investment advisor from L.A. was trying to sell him a condo on a man-made island in Mexico. The whole thing was clearly a scam, but Mike enjoyed asking the guy more and more detailed questions and watching him scramble to bullshit an answer.

When Mike finally disentangled himself from the scam artist, he ordered another scotch at the bar and scanned the room for Ginny while he waited for his drink. The Sanderses were chatting with another couple near their table, but he couldn’t find Ginny. Then he realized that the staff had opened up another room off the main one. His drink in hand, Mike made his way over to see if she was in there.

The room was filled with dog exercise pens, short metal gates arranged in a circle. Each contained a dog or two, or a few cats. Guests mingled among them, cooing over imperious cats and dogs with sad eyes and wagging tails.

Mike didn’t spot Ginny at first. She was sitting on the floor, heedless of her undoubtedly expensive clothes, with a ball of chocolate brown fur curled up in her lap. She was idly petting the little fur ball and talking to a woman who crouched beside her.

He finished his drink and left the glass on an empty table. As Mike approached he heard Ginny ask, “How big do you think she’ll get?”

“Around 50 to 60 pounds. A nice, solid dog, happy to snuggle on the couch or go for a hike,” the woman replied, clearly sensing an easy mark in Ginny. She smiled and added conspiratorially, “And they’re great with kids.”

“Baker, does your building allow pets?” Mike asked, dropping down to a crouch beside her and immediately regretting it. His right knee started protesting and Mike shifted some weight to his left leg.

Ginny turned and looked up at him with that stubborn set to her jaw that meant trouble. “No, but you could use a dog. Just look at her.” Ginny scooped up the little bundle and held it up to him.

Dark eyes opened and peered up at him, the little face pushed right up in front of his, the rest of its body dangling from Ginny’s hands. “Gin, I’m not getting a dog just because you want one.”

“But you’re all alone in that big house,” Ginny persisted, pushing the dog into his arms and somehow managing to rise to her feet gracefully.

Mike rose less gracefully, with a groan he mostly held in. The dog squirmed a little and bumped its wet nose against his cheek, snuffling around in his beard. The dog sneezed.

Ginny laughed. “See, Lawson, she likes you. And I’ve got the perfect name for her.”

Mike rolled his eyes and turned his attention to the woman with the bright smile and the Pacific Beach Small Animal Rescue polo shirt. “Would you please tell her that pushing someone to get a pet is a bad idea?”

The woman’s smile dimmed. “That’s true. Pets are a significant commitment.”

Ginny bumped his arm with her elbow. “You got a problem with commitment, old man?” She was grinning again, leaning in close and letting the puppy lick her nose.

“No,” he said through gritted teeth, “but I’m not the one who wants a dog.” This dog just kept squirming in his arms, so he handed it to Ginny.

Ginny tipped her head and looked at him quizzically. “Do you like cats better? Huh, I would have pegged you for a dog person.”

Mike folded his arms so she couldn’t push the dog on him again, but she just smiled and tucked the pup more snugly against her. The little thing made a satisfied little huff and rested its head under her chin. “I like dogs just fine, but I don’t need one.”

“I’ll just leave you two, then,” the woman said to both of them. “Put Fudge back in her pen when you’re done.”

Ginny made a face as the woman walked away. “Terrible name,” she muttered.

Mike agreed, but he wouldn’t tell her that. “What would you call her?” he asked, not quite sure what to expect from the woman who’d nicknamed him ‘old man.’

She grinned and turned her head to drop a kiss on the dog’s soft, fluffy head. “Well, she’s got this sort of woolly fur, so I thought Woolly Pipp.”

Mike snorted. “Woolly Pipp?” He couldn’t possibly put more disdain in his voice. “Baker, no. That’s just as bad as Fudge.”

“Like you have something better,” she grumbled, but her eyes were mischievous. As if he didn’t know exactly what she was doing.

Even so, Mike couldn’t help but answer. “Chewbacca.”

Her grin widened and she looked back and forth between the dog and Mike. “See, I told you he would like you,” she stage-whispered to the dog, who whined softly and licked Ginny’s cheek.

“I’m not getting a dog.” Mike tried to glower as he said it, but he couldn’t quite manage it.

Ginny sidled closer, and the dog squirmed around to sniff at his jacket and collar. “I’ll help,” she promised.

“You’ll be gone for weeks at a time,” he grumbled, letting more of his irritation with that show than he’d meant to. Retirement wasn’t half as bad as he’d expected so far, but once the season started he knew it would be harder. He wasn’t used to being alone in San Diego without his friends. He’d lost that knack years ago, when he spent all his time with his teammates and Rachel.

“Which is why I can’t have a dog,” Ginny agreed, her smile fading. “Come on, Lawson, I always wanted a dog when I was a kid, but Pop wouldn’t let us. He said it would be a distraction. Didn’t you ever want a dog?”

Somehow this didn’t feel like the right time to tell Ginny about his dog, and finding what was left of Jedi in the desert behind their house in Chula Vista. “Baker, do you know what puppies do? They piss on things. They chew up your furniture and your shoes.”

Ginny adjusted her hold on the little fuzzball until she was nose to nose with it. “You can eat any of my shoes you want, Chewie,” she promised solemnly. “Nike will send me more.” She turned to look at Mike, and the puppy sniffed and nuzzled her cheek and her hair. “Come on, Mike. Please?”

Between calling the damn dog by name and hearing Ginny actually say ‘please,’ Mike was wrecked. “You’re housetraining it,” he said gruffly.

Ginny grinned and turned back to the dog, hugging it a little too tight. “Did you hear that, Chewie? You’re gonna live in Mike’s big house and I’m gonna come play with you all the time.”

She surged up on her toes suddenly and wrapped Mike in a one-armed hug, the dog squashed between them. Her lips brushed his cheek. “Thank you!”

Mike couldn’t make his mouth work to respond before she was dashing off to find the woman from the rescue.

Blip sidled up out of nowhere. “So this is where Ginny disappeared to?”

Mike nodded and brushed a few stray dog hairs off his jacket.

“How’d she end up coming with you tonight?” Blip tried to make the question sound casual, but it wasn’t. Especially the last few months, Blip had doubled down on playing older brother to Ginny, interrogating Mike whenever he felt pitcher and catcher were spending an unusual amount of time together.

“She stopped by, I invited her,” Mike said as simply as possible. Details invited more questions, he knew from experience.

Ginny looked back and flashed both men a smile. She passed the dog over to the rescue woman, then nearly skipped back to them, looking hopefully at Mike. “She said there’s a Petsmart still open a few blocks from here that should have most of what Chewie needs. Do you mind if we go now?”

“Okay, first of all, Oscar would shit a brick if you two set foot in a Petsmart. And second, Chewie?” Blip snorted. “Ginny Baker, tell me you did not adopt a dog.”

Ginny shook her head. “Of course not. Lawson did.” She bumped Mike’s arm. “Hey, they need you to sign some paperwork before we can go.”

Blip crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow, while Mike took the opportunity to duck his friend’s questions. A few signatures and a hefty donation later, Mike had adopted a three-month-old Labradoodle, the runt of a litter confiscated from a backyard breeder shut down by animal control a few weeks earlier.

A Labradoodle. Mike would never be able to say that with a straight face, but he accepted the dog placed in his arms and brought Chewie straight to Ginny, whose face lit up at the sight of them. Or maybe just the dog, which even Mike had to admit was kind of cute, if you liked that sort of thing.

An hour later, they were driving home from the pet store with his backseat crammed full of things he suspected the dog would never use: a wire crate, a fancy memory-foam dog bed, and stuffed toys filled with irritating squeakers. Beside all of that sat a bag of puppy kibble so heavy he tweaked his back just loading it into the car.

The puppy snored happily in Ginny’s lap while she read Mike comments on the Instagram pictures she’d posted of a scowling Mike holding the dog and of herself with Chewie’s fuzzy face smushed against her cheek.

They pulled into Mike’s garage next to his Harley, the first decision he’d made post-retirement, and the one that inadvertently forced his second decision, getting Ginny a dog.

The dog was definitely Ginny’s. Otherwise he wouldn’t have tolerated that the dog did piss in the house a few times, barked incessantly at anyone who came to the door, was terrified of thunder, and refused to sleep anywhere but the living room couch or Mike’s bed. Chewie also did, in fact, live up to her name, gnawing on the occasional pair of   Ginny’s Nikes or Mike’s boots.

But Chewie also brought Ginny around more, so much that Mike gave her a house key. After that he often came home to find Ginny dancing around his living room with the dog barking and cavorting around her feet, or the two of them cuddled up on the couch napping.  

At first, Mike was sure it was just the dog bringing Ginny over so often, and he liked having her around enough that he wouldn’t risk making waves by asking her about it. He wanted to ask, especially on those nights when she borrowed one of his button-downs and slept in the guest room down the hall with Chewie, who always picked Ginny when given the choice. Mike didn’t blame the dog. Given the choice, he’d pick Ginny over Chewie’s snoring and kibble breath every time.

But it couldn’t all be about the dog, he hoped. Her disastrous attempts to cook Mike dinner only benefited Chewie because the pup didn’t mind eating burnt steak or mushy vegetables. And the dog’s only interest in Mike’s game room was the prime patch of sunlight to lie in each afternoon, so Chewie ignored them while Mike taught Ginny how to play pool.

The day after Thanksgiving, they were walking on the deserted beach near his house, giggling as they recounted their separate conversations with one of Evelyn’s eccentric cousins. Mike tossed a stick for Chewie to fetch, and the dog barrelled right past it to chase a pair of seagulls. Ginny walked close enough that their arms brushed.

Mike felt more at peace than he could ever remember being. He wrapped an arm around her waist, turned his head and pressed his lips to Ginny’s temple.

“What was that for?” she asked, a touch of amusement in her voice. They’d been creeping slowly toward more casual displays of affection for months, but this one failed the “would I do this to Evelyn” test he usually relied on.

“I love you.” That wasn’t what Mike meant to say, but it was the truth.

Ginny stopped, turning to stare at him so intently it was almost uncomfortable. “Don’t say that if you don’t mean it,” she warned.

Suddenly Mike remembered that Trevor Davis had spoken those words to her even while he lied to her, and Noah Casey had tried to hold onto her with a public declaration of love. “I mean it,” Mike promised.

Ginny’s expression softened, and she let Mike draw her into his embrace. He dropped soft kisses on her temple, her cheekbone, the tip of her nose, stopped with their foreheads touching and her breath washing over his lips. “Let’s go home, and I’ll show you.” He kissed her softly and drew back.

“You’ll show me all your moves?” Ginny asked with a smirk.

“Or you can show me yours. I’m not picky.” Mike swatted her lightly on the ass. “Go get your dog, Baker.”

Ginny laughed at that, but before she went to fetch back their dog, she pressed herself against him again and whispered in his ear, “I love you, too, Mike.”