No freaking way.
Georgette Castle tucked the stolen key into her pocket, wincing at the creak as she opened the apartment door. Empty beer cans skittered along the floor the farther she pushed, the stale stench of unwashed dude reaching out and throttling her. Her older brother had tried to warn her. Had she listened? No. Did she ever listen? Also a definitive no.
This time, though, Georgie had been positive Stephen was mistaken. It didn’t seem possible that the town’s baseball phenomenon could fall so far so fast. Just under two years ago, she’d watched Travis Ford hit a World Series grand slam on live television, along with everyone in town, gathered beneath the new flat-screen television at Grumpy Tom’s. There had never been a doubt Travis would go professional after his sterling college career at Northwestern.
No one saw the injury coming. Especially Travis.
After a year of physical therapy and being passed between teams like a hot potato, Travis had come home to Port Jefferson. Georgie could still see the heartbreak in his eyes during the sparsely attended press conference announcing his retirement at age twenty-eight. Sure, he’d been smiling. Joking about the chance to improve his golf game. But Georgie had been in love with Travis Ford since she hit puberty and knew his tells. Every expression on his face was categorized in her memory, his name scrawled on every other page in her diary, never to be discovered beneath the floorboards of her bedroom. Five decades from now, when she looked back on her youth, she would remember Travis standing at home plate on the high school baseball field, lifting his batting helmet to adjust it, allowing just a glimpse of dark auburn hair to catch the wind, before covering it back up.
Heroic, gorgeous, bursting with character, and cocky as sin. Travis Ford before.
What would the after look like?
“Hello?” Georgie called into the dark dwelling. “Anyone home?”
She kicked aside a plastic bag full of takeout containers and closed the door behind her, advancing into the apartment. Stephen had definitely been here to see his childhood friend. The untouched health shakes and UV sun lamp made that obvious. He’d at least tried to reach Travis. So had members of the church, old baseball coaches, and autograph seekers. Instead of being coaxed back out into the light, though, he continued to wallow.
Georgie had a better plan.
“Hey, dickhead!” Now in the living room, she stooped down and picked up a melted pint of ice cream, her lip curling in a smile. Perfect ammunition.
See, Georgie might have reached the ripe old age of twenty-three in Travis’s absence, but she would always be the pesky little sister. That wasn’t a label she’d given herself. But she’d heard it upward of a thousand times growing up and it refused to die. What was a girl to do besides give in and embrace it? Sympathy hadn’t worked with Travis. Now she’d try her own method of breaking through to him.
A floorboard groaned beneath her foot as she stepped into the bedroom, finding Travis facedown and naked on top of the covers, that signature deep auburn hair in a wreck around his head. She almost lost her nerve then, lowering the pint of soupy vanilla ice cream to her thigh. Ridiculous that her heart should kick into a gallop and the moisture in her mouth dry right up. It was just a butt. You could go on the internet and see butts by the . . . butt load. While she was thinking about it, God bless the internet. What an invention.
Still. Throw in Travis’s considerable height and naturally athletic frame, complete with ripped muscles and dark, manly hair . . . well, maybe his butt excelled over other butts. Every human in town with a preference for men concurred. Travis Ford was extraordinary.
Just not today. And not for the last month since his premature homecoming.
Georgie lifted the pint of ice cream and took a moment to contemplate the task in front of her. This wouldn’t be easy. Deep down in her bones, she wanted to throw her arms around Travis and tell him everything would be all right. He might not get another chance to be a star on the baseball field, but he’d never stop being a hero. The man who left this town and achieved dreams most men let go of as children.
Unfortunately, he’d never stop being the man whose face she’d pictured while Frenching her pillow in middle school, either. As a grown woman now, she pictured him during far less innocent endeavors, which usually required a charged device and twenty minutes alone.
But she digressed.
Her infatuation with Travis was impossible to miss. Even her siblings were aware of it, but they wrote it off as their pesky little sister’s silly crush. So be it. She’d be the best damn pest on this side of Long Island. An effective one, too. Hopefully.
“Hey!” Georgie reared back and threw the full container of melted dessert at Travis’s naked back, watching in fascination as it spread into a Rorschach painting on his shoulders. And hair. And headboard. It was almost beautiful. “Get up!”
Travis must have gone to bed wasted, because it took a full five seconds for him to register the liquid mess seeping down his skin and onto the bedsheets. His head came up, right wrist swiping at the ice cream on his forehead. “What the fuck?”
His gruff tone made Georgie think of teeth marks and massage oil—seriously, God bless the internet—but she ignored the reaction. “I said get up. You’re disgusting.” She bent down and picked up a pair of stiff boxers, dangling them at the very tip of her index finger. “Only two outcomes are possible here. Your face is eaten by rats. Or this place gets condemned by the fire marshal.”
“Georgie?” Facedown again, Travis turned a little to confirm her identity. There it was. An expression she’d had thrown at her since birth. The perfect combination of irritation and dismissiveness. It screamed, Go away, you are irrelevant! without making a sound. Georgie hated that expression but, somewhere along the line, had been given no choice but to lean into it.
If you can’t beat them, join them, right?
“I’m surprised you recognized another human being through your own self-pity.” Georgie sighed and sat on the edge of the bed, taking the opportunity to memorize his concrete-slab buttocks. “I saw a container of lo mein on the way in here. Figure I’ll throw that next. It’ll pair nicely with vanilla. Probably. I’m not a chef.”
“Get out, Georgie. What the fuck? I’m not even wearing clothes.”
“I’ve seen naked men. Tons of them.” On the internet, God bless it. “You used to be a nine point five, but you’re slowly bottom-ing—ha—into a seven.”
“Really? Because I can feel you staring at my ass.”
“Oops. I thought that was your face.”
Cool. Good one. Five minutes around this man and you’re ten years old again.
Travis’s snort sent Georgie back out into the living room. She toed open a bag of Chinese food, confirming the lack of vermin before extricating the lo mein. One step into the room and she let it fly, noodles and rotten chicken raining down on her brother’s oldest friend. “Might need a pinch of salt to bring it all together.”
“I can’t believe you did that,” Travis roared, sitting up and throwing his legs over the side of the bed. Anger radiated from every inch of his baseball player body, veins protruding from the sides of his neck, his cut biceps. She’d never seen him with a beard before, but the uneven state of it told Georgie the facial hair was definitely the product of laziness instead of a style change. “Go!” he shouted, dropping his head into his hands. “Don’t make me throw you out.”
She refused to acknowledge the sharp pain in her chest. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“I’ll call your brother.”
Travis surged to his feet, turning a storm of rage in her direction. The noodles in his hair would have been comical in any other instance but this one. Clearly remembering his naked status, he whipped a T-shirt off a nearby chair and held it over his lap. “What do you want?”
Now, that was a loaded question that could be answered in two parts. She wanted one person in her life to see her as more than the annoying hanger-on. As far back as she could remember, she’d always wanted it to be Travis who listened to her. Told her she was special. Right now, none of those hopes and dreams would be useful. Probably never would be. “I want you to stop being a selfish asshole. Everyone is worried about you. My brother, my parents, the local doe-eyed groupies. Spinning their wheels, trying to figure out how to cheer you up. Maybe you just enjoy being the center of attention whether it’s negative or positive.”
His arms shot wide, bringing the T-shirt along for the ride.
There he sat. Long and thick and crowned like a king. They didn’t call him Two Bats for nothing. Ever since he’d been snapped by the paparazzi in a compromising position with a Swedish pop princess during his rookie year, the media had been fascinated with Travis, documenting his never-ending one-night stands and notable conquests. “It Wasn’t Me” by Shaggy would play over the stadium loudspeakers when he got up to bat. Women would shriek.
All while Georgie watched from a cross-legged slump in front of the television back on Long Island.
The Player’s Player. The Other Home Run King. The Backseat Athlete. Gorgeous even in his dishevelment, the cocky charm was nonetheless missing at this very moment.