Megan leaned over the railing. She stretched her arm out toward the tall guy with the crooked smile and waved the program at him. Please. Please. Please. Pick me. Come on. She repeated the mantra in her head, all the while feeling perfectly ridiculous standing in a crowd of pre-adolescents begging for an autograph. To top it off, she wasn’t even sure she was waving her program at the right guy. She’d studied Christopher’s baseball card, knew the face she needed to find, but unless she missed her guess, the guy had a twin brother, and they both played on the same team. Just her luck.
There wasn’t anything she could do about it now. She continued to wave the program at the one closest to her, and prayed he was the pitcher – Christopher’s idol. In retrospect, it had been foolish to promise the kid she’d get the autograph for him, but she’d made the promise, and she was going to honor it – somehow.
An endless supply of excited youngsters replaced the ones who had gotten an autograph and left. Megan held her ground amidst jostling bodies and annoyed looks from the other autograph seekers. So what if she was an adult? It wasn’t like she wanted the autograph for herself – even if the guy was hot. Seriously hot. She’d thought he was good looking when Christopher handed her the baseball card he kept with him twenty-four/seven. But the card didn’t come close to capturing the real Jeff Holder, or was it his brother?
“Hey Jeff!” the kid beside her yelled. The man on the field turned toward her. So this one was the one she sought. Good thing because the other one had his own admirers at the rail. No way would she be able to fight her way through the crowd to get to him in time. Now that she knew she’d had the right guy all along, she renewed her bid for his autograph, waving the program with new enthusiasm. The kid next to her elbowed her in the stomach, accidentally she was sure, and despite being half her size, shoved her hard. Megan made a grab for the seat behind her to keep from falling.
She straightened and turned back to the railing, coming eye to eye with Jeff Holder. Holy cow! The man was gorgeous. Sinfully gorgeous. Cream her panties gorgeous. It had been a long time since she’d had that kind of reaction. Hell, if she were being truthful with herself, she’d never felt that jolt of awareness before. It was as if her body recognized his, and responded.
“Are you all right?” he asked with genuine concern in his deep, testosterone-laden voice.
God, he had beautiful blue eyes, surrounded by dark lashes that contrasted with his blond hair. His eyes focused on hers with pinpoint accuracy while taking in the broader picture all at once. It was more than a little unnerving – and arousing. Megan shoved the thought out of her head as quickly as it had come. She didn’t have time in her life for a relationship – not that one was possible with someone like Jeff Holder. A girl could fantasize though.
“Uhm…yes. I think so.” She grabbed the rail with her free hand to steady herself.
“Good.” He smiled and held out his hand. Megan stared at his even white teeth and his full lips she instinctively knew would feel wonderful on hers. “Did you want an autograph?”
“Autograph. Do you want one?” He tugged on the program in her hand, and she snapped out of her lustful stupor.
“Oh! Yes, please.” She studied his face as he bent his head to scribble his name on her program. Get a grip. Megan chastised herself. She wasn’t here to ogle the man. She was here to get an autograph for Christopher.
He thrust the program toward her. His gaze raked over her again, as if sizing up an all you can eat smorgasbord. She swallowed hard and pressed the program over her fluttering heart with both hands. “Th…thanks,” she stammered. And then he winked at her. Winked. She blinked in surprise as he turned his attention to the new crop of autograph seekers.
She hadn’t planned to hang around for the game, but that wink must have scrambled her brains because here she was holding onto the railing with a white knuckled grip as she made her way to her seat. Who knew you needed mountain climbing gear at a baseball stadium? One wrong move, a slip of the foot, and she’d tumble all the way down to the field. Yeesh! She dropped into her seat and closed her eyes to stay a wave of dizziness. Megan counted ten deep breaths and concentrated on bringing her heart rate down to an acceptable level before opening her eyes. Below her, waaaay below her, the playing field sparkled like an emerald, accented with red-orange and white. It was a spectacular view, as was usually the case from a mountaintop, even if the players were nothing more than ants on a beautiful picnic blanket.
She took in the spectacle. Families filled the seats around her. Kids with hot dogs and mustard stains on their clothes, parents passing napkins and juggling soft drinks brought a smile to her face. This was what baseball was about – fresh air and fun. She waved a hot dog vendor over and decided to forget the mountain of laundry waiting at home, and the fact that her cabinets were empty. If she hurried after the game, she could still get the grocery shopping done and do enough laundry to get her through the next few days. It seemed the one day a week she managed to get off work amounted to nothing but more work – without pay. It wouldn’t hurt to spend an afternoon at the ball game.
Megan reasoned herself into staying, and to consuming at least one of every treat offered by the stadium hawkers. How long had it been since she’d eaten a hot dog, or cotton candy? Years, it seemed. She refused to feel guilty about the extra calories or the dent in her wallet. Between the ticket, parking and gluttony, she probably could have taken a weekend cruise. None of that mattered. The sky was too blue, the grass impossibly green, and…she had Jeff Holder’s autograph in her bag.
Thoughts of Christopher slowly wasting away in his hospital bed brought a tear to her eye. Here she was, surrounded by happy, healthy children enjoying one of life’s simple pleasures with their families, and reminded Megan of the good she and others did for critically ill children. She loved being a nurse, and her usually upbeat manner made her a favorite among the kids in the special wards. It wasn’t easy keeping a smile on her face, even harder to keep the tears from showing when she looked into the hopeful eyes of a sick child, or the worried eyes of a parent, and knew there wasn’t a thing modern medicine could do to help them. Her work was gut wrenching at times but then there were the success stories. Those were the ones that kept her going, kept her doing whatever she could to give a child a fighting chance against the injustice of sickness.
She pulled the program out and wiped away the sudden rush of tears before they could ruin the autograph. If Jeff Holder’s signature could bring a smile to Christopher’s little face, Megan would give up every one of her precious days off to make it happen.
Megan tried to focus on the signature through blurry eyes. She fished a tissue from her purse and dabbed at the corners of her eyes until she could see clearly again. She blinked. Then she blinked again.
“No!” she shouted. Everyone around turned and glared at her. Megan apologized for her outburst, and tried to explain it away by saying she’d spilled something on her program. She received a few sympathetic comments before everyone returned their attention to the game.
Her heart sank as she read what Jeff Holder had written. She couldn’t give this to Christopher! Fresh tears threatened to spill over as she curled the program into a glossy weapon.
Of all the…
How could he?
What was he thinking?
What am I going to do now?
Disappointment roiled around in her stomach along with hurt and anger until she thought she might be sick. Or it could have been all the stuff she’d eaten. Either way, she’d wasted an entire day in pursuit of an autograph. And what did she have to show for it? A pick-up line. That’s what. Did he really think she was going to show up at the restaurant he’d indicated, at the time he’d indicated? Who did he think he was anyway? God’s gift to women?
The crowd surged to their feet and a deafening roar pushed her budding headache over into full-fledged pain. She stuffed the now useless program into her bag and stood to see what was going on. Absolutely nothing. Except for the one guy throwing pitches to the catcher, everyone else was standing around in groups of two or three, chatting.
She bent and yelled at the kid next to her so he could hear her over the clapping and cheering. “What’s going on?” He looked to be about Christopher’s age, ten or eleven. He’d hardly taken his eyes off the field the entire game, so it was a safe bet he knew what was happening.
“Are you kidding? The Terminator just came in to pitch. All we need is three outs to win.” His enthusiasm allowed his voice to carry above the din. If he’d been at home, his mother would be scolding him to use his indoor voice.
“Who’s the Terminator?”
“Jeff Holder. He’s the best in baseball!”
Megan looked closer at the guy on the pitching mound. From this distance it was impossible to tell if he was the same man who’d made her heart flutter, then crushed her dreams, and Christopher’s, with a few pen strokes.
“Why is everyone standing?” she asked. The entire stadium was on their feet, clapping and cheering.
“Because it’s the Terminator!” he yelled, as if that made perfect sense. Then he turned back to the game, dismissing Megan as only a kid could do.
Her head pounded in rhythm to the clapping, and the foot stomping that rocked the upper deck. With every pitch, every strike, every out, the crowd grew impossibly louder, and Megan grew increasingly angrier. What was she going to do? She’d promised Christopher, and she couldn’t bear to see his face when she told him she’d failed. He’d be crushed, and the last thing the little guy needed was more disappointment in his life.
Before the Terminator threw the last pitch, she pushed her way to the aisle and picked her way down the almost vertical steps with as much grace as a mountain goat that just discovered a patch of locoweed. If she beat the crowd, she might get home in enough time to change clothes and meet Jeff Holder at the restaurant he’d written on her program. She had one last chance to get the autograph for Christopher. She’d meet Jeff Holder, get the autograph, and then she’d tell him what a despicable low-life he was.
* * * *
He would pick a place where parking was nearly impossible. Megan’s headache hadn’t completely gone away, and thoughts of her wasted day didn’t do anything to help. Now, here she was playing musical parking spaces, instead of buying groceries to get her through the week. One more thing to heap on Jeff Holder’s head.
She expected a restaurant filled with players and fans what she found was a cozy place with oilcloth- covered tables and dripping candles jammed into empty Chianti bottles. The wood paneling was dark with a combination of age and garlic fumes, and there wasn’t a Texas Mustangs T-shirt in sight. Megan spotted Jeff at a table against the back wall, and she felt a jab to her gut, only this time there wasn’t anyone else around. How could he do that to her? He looked right at her and motioned for her to join him. She sucked in a deep breath and tried to remember why she’d come. Christopher. She’d come for an autograph, and as soon as she got it, she’d leave.
He stood as she approached. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come.”
Megan sat and he signaled for the waiter. He ordered a bottle of wine as if he knew exactly what he wanted. Megan interrupted. “Please. Don’t. I can’t stay.”
Jeff placed the order anyway and rested his crossed forearms on the table. “Why did you come?”
For a split second, looking into his extraordinarily blue eyes, she couldn’t remember why she’d come. A slow burn started somewhere near her heart and melted everything from there to her core. “I...I need your autograph,” she blurted out.
He leaned back and studied her. “I signed your program.”
The waiter returned with Jeff’s wine, two glasses and a basket heaped with fragrant bread. Jeff took the bottle and filled his glass. Megan covered hers with her hand.
“One glass. It won’t hurt to have one glass while you tell me why you’re angry with me.”
She moved her hand and watched the ruby liquid swirl into her glass. Just because he’d filled her glass didn’t mean she had to drink it. The interruption allowed her to wrestle some control over her wayward body, enough to find the program he’d signed and slide it to his side of the table. “I’ll tell you why I’m angry. How dare you? What kind of man does something like this? All I wanted was your autograph, and instead, I get a pick-up line. The only reason I came here tonight was to get your autograph, and only your autograph.”
Jeff picked up the program and looked it over while he sipped his wine. Megan could almost hear her wristwatch ticking in the silence that hung between them. Eventually, he tossed the program across the table at her. “So?”
“So?” Anger boiled her blood. “So? That’s all you have to say? I used my day off to go to the game just to get your autograph, and this is what I got?” She stabbed the cover with her index finger. “Now, here I am, still trying to get the autograph of a man I can’t stand the sight of, when I should be doing all the things I put off so I could go to the game.”
He set his glass on the table and for once, she thought she might have his full attention. “Why is my autograph so important? I’m pretty sure you don’t want it for yourself.”
“Darn right I don’t. I don’t know you from Adam, but I know someone who thinks you are the best thing since sliced bread. I can’t take him this.” She flicked the program toward him again. “What would I tell him?” She shook her head. “As it is, I don’t know how I can act like you’re still a hero when he’s spouting off about you, without hurling. Anyway, I promised I’d bring him your autograph, and I’m going to do it.” There. She’d said what was on her mind. Maybe it wasn’t eloquent – who said hurling anymore anyway? Judging from the furrow between his eyebrows, and the way he’d narrowed those magnificent eyes at her, she’d gotten her point across.
“Hurling? I can’t believe you said that. Who are you? And why don’t you tell me who your friend is, and why he sent you to get my autograph. Why didn’t he come himself?”
“My name is Megan Long. I’m a Pediatric Nurse at Southwest General. Christopher is one of my patients. I can’t go into specifics, but I can tell you he isn’t well enough to come to a game, but he watches you on TV. He has your baseball card, and he keeps it with him twenty-four/seven.” As she spoke, Jeff sat up and listened intently. Perhaps she was going to get that autograph after all.
“Do you have something you want me to sign?”
“Uhh. No.” Damn. Why hadn’t she thought of that? “I didn’t think that far ahead.” She knew there wasn’t anything in her purse she’d cleaned it out before she went to the ballpark. She glanced around the restaurant – nothing. Absolutely nothing.
“Okay. I’ll make a deal with you. I’m hungry. Stay while I eat – I’ll even buy you dinner. When we’re done, there’s a sporting goods store down the street. I know the owner. We’ll go there, get something suitable, and I’ll sign it for Christopher.”
Something in his tone of voice calmed her. Maybe he wasn’t as bad as she thought. “You’d do that?”
“Sure. Why wouldn’t I? Look, Megan, I’m sorry about the program. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have done that. In my defense, I don’t get all that many beautiful women trying to get my autograph.” His smile was a ray of sunshine in the dim restaurant, and Megan’s insides turned to liquid. “Not that I mind signing for kids. I like kids. But a beautiful woman? It was a calculated risk, but one I’m glad I took.”
“Well…I guess I understand, but I’m not entirely sure I believe you.” She picked up her wine glass and took a sip, glad her hand was steadier on the outside than she was on the inside. “So, what’s for dinner?”
Jeff signaled the waiter again, and a short time later they were served an authentic Italian dinner the likes of which Megan had never tasted. “This is wonderful. Do you come here often?”
He urged her to take another slab of garlic bread from the basket in the center of the table. “Once a week, when we’re in town. If I ate like this all the time, I’d be as big as a barn.”
Megan closed her eyes and savored the burst of rich flavor. She swallowed, licked her lips to get every delicious drop, then opened her eyes. Jeff sat frozen, his fork halfway to his mouth. His eyes smoldered with unmistakable desire. Every female cell in her body reacted to the barrage of pheromones coming from across the table. She reminded herself she didn’t really know this guy, and he’d lured her here, admittedly for his own reasons. It took some doing, but she wrestled her hormones under control. “I’m not sleeping with you.”
“You sure about that?” He popped the morsel on his fork into his mouth and chewed, all the while watching her watch him. “I think you’re as attracted to me as I am to you. But that can wait. Tell me something about yourself.”
“You know everything you need to know. I’m a nurse. I work with sick kids.”
He was persistent she’d give him that. It was one thing to be evasive, another to be downright rude, so when he began to ask specific questions, she answered – as vaguely as possible. Still he managed to find out more about her than he had a right, or need, to know.
“Your job must be difficult. How do you do it?”
“I like kids. I like being a nurse. The two go together.”
He sat back from his empty plate and sipped his wine while the waiter cleared the table. “It’s more than that. I think it takes a special person to do what you do. I’m sure Christopher has plenty of nurses who take care of him. None of them took their day off to hunt up an autograph for him.”
He was right about that, but that didn’t mean the other nurses were any less caring. They all put in long hours and gave up personal time in one way or another. “No, they didn’t. But they care about him every bit as much as I do.”
“I’m sure they care about his physical self, but the autograph won’t make him well.”
“There’s more to getting well than just medicine. A smile can heal too.”
Jeff signed the check and stood. “Let’s go. You held up your end of the bargain. Now it’s my turn.”
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