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“You were on a date with her,” she says. “Why would she even have to ask?”

“Because it wasn’t a date. We’re just friends. And she couldn’t believe women throw themselves at me so she said I must have moves. Then she told me my moves sucked and we made it a competition to see who was better at it.”

Murphy laughs. “Sounds like a risky game if you ask me.”

“You have no idea.”

“Just friends, huh? Even after last night?”

I sigh. “I think so. But I’m not sure. I guess I’ll find out at my PT appointment on Monday.”

She snorts loudly into the phone. “You slept with your physical therapist?”

I lower my head. “I didn’t intend to. I mean, I wanted to, but I never thought she would because she’s so smart and responsible and then things just got out of hand with the flirting and the falling and the laughing.”

“Wait. What falling? You didn’t hurt your arm again, did you?”

“Thanks to Rylee, I didn’t. But I fell twice and then I dropped her on the floor.”

“Were you drunk?”

“No. Slightly buzzed maybe, but not drunk.”

“Sounds horrible,” she says. “Maybe she won’t care if you don’t want a repeat.”

“It wasn’t horrible, Murphy. It was fun. Like, really fun. And I don’t have to worry about a repeat. She told me it’s not happening again.”

Laughter dances through the other end of the phone. “Oh, Brady. Maybe you’ve finally met your match.”

“Mmm,” I mumble.

“Oh, I see.”

I roll my eyes. “What is it you think you see?”

“You do like her. And what you thought would be a roll in the hay has turned into something else. It’s okay to have feelings for someone, Brady. It’s good even. You can’t go your whole life without opening yourself up to someone else.”

“Quit shrinking me, Murphy. You don’t know a thing about it.”

“That’s right, I don’t. But someone should. You can’t keep it all bottled up inside. It’s not going to help you.”

“I don’t need help. Listen, is there another point to this phone call?”

“No. Not really. I just wanted to say hi and tell you to go easy on Caden and the boys. They’ve been on the road for a while.”

I nod, remembering how taxing it could be on long trips. But I miss the hell out of it. I’d go on long trips every damn week if I could just play again.

The game is about to start and the camera pans the visitors’ dugout. I think I see something and use the remote to rewind it so I can look again. “Oh, man,” I say.

“What is it?” Murphy asks.

“They just showed the dugout. All the players were there, but nobody was sitting in the seat I always sit in.”

“Yeah. Caden told me that’s how it’s been. They love you, Brady. They miss you. You hold that team together like glue and everyone knows it.”

“But what if I—”

“You’ll be back. I know it and they know it.”

I look down at my hand, endlessly squeezing the stress ball. “I hope you’re right.”

“How much longer do you have there?” she asks.

“Five or six weeks.”

“Are you getting out at all? I mean, with the exception of last night?”

“Not really. I tried hanging out with a few guys from the A-team, but it’s just not the same.”

“Well, your friends will be able to entertain you for the next few nights, so that’s something. And you never know what else could happen.”

“What does that mean?”

“Nothing. Just that you never know. Hey, the game’s starting. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Okay, thanks for calling.”

“I’m here for you anytime you need to talk. About anything, Brady, I mean that.”

“Bye, Murphy.”

I order room service then put down my phone and turn up the volume on the TV. Then I retrieve a bottle from the mini-bar and proceed to drain it while I watch my friends play the only game I’ve ever loved.

Three hours and a half-bottle of Jack later, I stumble my way back to my bedroom and into the shower. Then I walk to my closet and look for a t-shirt to wear when I eye something on the shelf.

I’m not even sure why I brought it with me. It’s not like I ever wear it when I’m not pitching. It’s my lucky shirt from Bumbershoot. The one I’ve worn under my jersey in every game since I was eighteen years old. It’s old and faded and has been sewn up more times than I can count.

I take it with me to the bed and lay it on the pillow next to mine. Then I lie down beside it, wet towel and all, and I pass out.

“Best senior trip ever!” someone shouts over the crowd while a group of us are watching a band on one of the smaller stages.

Nat grabs my hand. “It really has been,” she says. “I still can’t believe my parents let me come. Four whole days away from them with only a few chaperones for the entire senior class. Who’d have thought?”

“Well they better get used to it, because when we go to Nebraska next year, they won’t be able to tell you what to do any longer.”

She looks up at me with that wrinkle in her nose that tells me she knows something I don’t.

“What is it, Nat? You are still going to Nebraska with me, aren’t you?”

“Of course I am. It’s just that my dad said that if I get into UNL and move there with you, he might open up an office in Lincoln or Omaha.”

I step back from her to gauge her seriousness. “You have to be fucking kidding me.”

She shakes her head. “I’m not kidding, you know how protective he is.”

“Shit. I’m not sure I could take four more years of Dennis Maddux. No offense.”

“It’ll be fine. He loves SoCal. He’s been happier the past two years that we’ve been there than I’ve ever seen him. So he’d probably only show up in Nebraska occasionally to check on things.”

“By check on things, I assume you mean check on me, and how I’m treating his daughter.”

She wraps her arms around my neck. “You treat his daughter better than she deserves.”

“Not even close,” I say, picking her up so she can wrap her legs around me. “You deserve more than this. More than me. You deserve the world, Nat.”

“You are my world, babe. I love you.”

“I’m going to marry you one day, Natalie Maddux. You know that, don’t you?”

“Know that?” she asks. “I’m counting on it. I’m going to be the wife of the best major league pitcher who ever lived. We’re going to have a perfect life.”

A guy walks by selling t-shirts. I whistle at him to get his attention then I point to myself. He looks through his shirts, finding one large enough to fit me and then he holds it up. It reads ‘Bumbershoot 2009.’ I dig a twenty out of my wallet and exchange it for the shirt. “You want one, too?” I ask Nat.

She shakes her head. “I’d rather just wear yours from time to time.”

I thank the guy and throw the shirt over my shoulder. Natalie pats it and says, “Now you’ll always remember this day, being part of the greatest arts festival in Seattle.”

“With the greatest girl in the universe,” I add. “Maybe it’ll be my lucky shirt.”

She smiles. “As if you need any luck. But I’ll bet you’d look damn sexy if you wore it under your jersey.”

“How would I look sexy if you couldn’t even see it?”

“You’re always sexy, babe. But knowing you’re wearing it would be like a tribute to me, us, our love. And you’d be sure to score – with me anyway.”

I laugh as she reaches around my neck and pulls me into a kiss.

“I’ll never wear anything else under my jersey,” I tell her when we break apart.

Chapter Thirteen

I smile from ear-to-ear when I hear a knock on my door. I hop off the couch and stride across my hotel room in three seconds flat. When I open the door, I see the hall is jammed with my teammates. Everyone yells their greetings. It’s a boisterous hello resulting in a few doors opening down the way to see what the ruckus is all about.

I invite everyone inside, but most of my teammates shake my hand, offer a few quick words, and then retreat to their own rooms. All but Caden and Sawyer.

“They are a bunch of pussies,” Sawyer says, coming in and making a bee-line to my mini-bar.

“It’s been a long week,” Caden offers. “You can’t blame them.”

“You don’t have to babysit me, you know. We have three more nights to hang out.”

Caden pats me on the back. “We’re happy to be here, man. I know it must be hard being away from your family.”

He doesn’t mean Nat and Keeton. He doesn’t mean my parents. He means him – them – my team. They are my family.

“I’m fine.”

Caden eyes me with one raised, questioning brow.

I shake my head. “You and your fiancée talk too much.”

He laughs. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

Sawyer picks up the stress ball I was incessantly squeezing and throws it at me. Instinctively, I put my left hand up to catch it. I’m able to catch it and grip it just enough so it doesn’t fall out of my hand.

“You look fine to me, bro,” he says.

“What do you know?” I throw the ball back at him. Then I realize something. That was the first time I’ve thrown something, anything, since my injury. It felt good. It felt damn good. But lobbing a toy across the room and throwing a one-hundred-mile-per-hour fastball are two very different things.

“How’s it really going?” Caden asks, motioning to my arm.

I shrug. “Slow as shit. My elbow’s healing fine, but some of my fingers are still numb. Everything’s still up in the air at this point.”

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