Fake dating Georgie could not have anything to do with getting her sexy curves underneath him again. And it certainly couldn’t have shit to do with wanting to simply be around her. Or with the fact that letting his guard down around her gave him the same sense of peace as the ballpark.
Temporary. It would only ever be temporary. Baseball was forever.
At the sound of gravel crunching, Travis turned and looked out the window to find Stephen arriving in his god-awful minivan. His baby-brained friend hopped out of the van with a tray of coffees, stopping to talk to Dominic. Energy snapped in Travis’s shoulders the way it hadn’t in months. That drive that had been missing was back, breathing oxygen into his body, which had felt flat and sluggish since getting cut from the league. The catalyst for the change had to be the possibility of a new job. A new purpose. That’s where he needed to put his focus. Getting his name to the top of the short list.
He’d been given a way. Taking it sure as hell wasn’t going to be easy.
A moment later, Travis stepped off the new porch, his work boots landing in a mixture of dirt and construction debris. Stephen nodded in greeting, a smile breaking across his face. Travis could only grimace in return as he went to join the men, guilt slithering like a serpent in his belly. There had been a lot of truth to Georgie’s complaint yesterday. She was more than someone’s little sister. A lot more. That didn’t change the fact that Travis had stepped over a clearly drawn line. There would be consequences.
“Brought you one,” Stephen said. “Black, right?”
His best friend tugged the collar of his shirt. “I was just telling Dominic my theory.”
Travis raised an eyebrow. “What theory?”
“There’s been a shift in the universe.” Stephen shook his head. “Kristin is keeping a secret. Gossiping with my mother on the phone.” He dropped his voice to a dramatic stage whisper. “There’s something up with the womenfolk.”
Dominic got a far-off look on his face. “Rosie has been stuffing newspapers under the mattress. Does that bolster your theory?”
“Maybe.” Stephen frowned. “Why’s she doing that?”
Dominic’s answer was to shrug and light a cigarette, blowing smoke into the afternoon haze.
Of course, Travis knew what that was about. The Just Us League. Any other time, he would have kept the intelligence to himself, but today was not the day to lie to Stephen. Not when he already had so much shit piled on his head. “They started a club. Far as I know, it’s only Rosie and your sisters. I don’t think it was formed to fuck with your heads, though, boys. More like . . . an adult sorority.”
“My wife is in a club,” Dominic muttered, his jaw flexing. “Women only, you said?”
Travis nodded and Dominic relaxed.
Stephen, however, was tense and staring at Travis, probably wondering how Travis knew about the club. Knowing the confession couldn’t be put off any longer, Travis addressed Dominic without looking at him. “Would you excuse us for a minute, man?”
He felt Dominic shift a glance between them. “Sure.”
“Might want to take the hot coffee.”
That gave both men pause, but Stephen seemed to shake off whatever suspicions he’d racked up. “What’s going on with you?” he asked, setting the tray of coffees on the roof of his minivan instead of handing it to Dominic. “You haven’t looked this nervous since you broke my bike axle trying to jump that trench in seventh grade.”
“I made it eventually.” Travis waited until Dominic walked away but noticed he didn’t seem inclined to go too far. Smart man. “Stephen, something happened with Georgie.”
His friend’s face turned white. “What do you mean? Is she okay?”
“Yes,” Travis rushed to say, realizing he’d phrased that statement in the worst way possible. “Christ. Yes, she’s fine.” His own heart was up in his throat at the imaginary scenario where Georgie was hurt or worse. So much so that it took him a minute to continue. Even then, his pulse continued to hammer from worry. “At least, she was fine when she left my place yesterday.”
“What?” Stephen asked quietly, his voice taking on a dangerous quality. “You better be joking.”
“I’m not joking. She gave me a ride home from town and . . .” He dragged a hand down his face so he wouldn’t have to see the betrayal etched in Stephen’s features. “It didn’t go as far as it could have, but that’s no excuse. I take full responsibility.”
When he opened his eyes again, Stephen was pacing in a circle. “What the fuck, Travis? Why? It’s open season on you in this fucking town and you pick Georgie? You could have anyone else.”
“She’s not like anyone else.”
Stephen put his hands up. “Whoa.”
Travis shook his head. “I didn’t mean that how it sounded.” He hadn’t, right? “That came out wrong. I just meant to say, I’m not interested in anyone. Especially not the women hunting me for sport. Georgie and I . . . we became friends. And trust me, I’m as fucking surprised by that as you are.” A memory of Georgie sliding into his apartment with groceries and a smile forced Travis to pause. “One thing led to another. I didn’t see it coming.”
Was he talking about their friendship or the hookup?
Or something else entirely?
“I know.” Shaking off the wayward thought, he squared his shoulders. “Take a good, hard swing, just miss my face. I’m in line for a commentating job on a wholesome television network and they’ll never let me on camera if they think I’m going to show up with busted eyes.”
His friend showed a spark of reluctant interest. “Commentating job?”
Travis nodded, grateful the guy was still talking to him at all. “Voice of the Bombers’ home games. I’ve got a few guys to beat out. I’m working on it.”
Right here, right now, he could confide everything in Stephen. Maybe even solve Georgie’s problem in one fell swoop. You don’t treat her like an independent, grown-up woman. No one does. It would save her having to go through the ruse of dating him. Telling Stephen Georgie’s reasons for proposing the arrangement felt like a betrayal of her trust, though. He physically couldn’t make himself do it.
No. Georgie’s family was her main problem. If Travis implored Stephen to start treating Georgie with more respect, it could backfire. Maybe even earn her more of that famous Castle ridicule. He would not be responsible for that. In fact, the very prospect of anyone giving her shit made his blood rise several degrees. The only way to keep Georgie’s confidence was to let her family believe the ruse, too. No way around it. No way to assuage the guilt of lying to his best friend, either. “We’re seeing each other. It’s casual.” He fixed Stephen with a look. “She understands I’m not looking for anything serious.”
Stephen’s mouth fell open. “Travis, are you really this fucking stupid? My little sister has been in love with you since she hit middle school.”
Light streaked across his vision. He was dropped into a vacuum of no sound, as if he’d fallen into a lake. But he kicked to the surface as fast as possible, because surely he’d misheard. “No, she’s not.” His voice sounded funny. Hoarse. “Georgie? You’re full of shit.”
“She stole my yearbook so many times to pledge her undying love to your senior picture, I finally just let her have the damn thing.” He grabbed a coffee off the roof of his van and drained half of it. “Had your rookie year poster on her ceiling and everything. And don’t get me started on game day. If anyone talked while you were up to bat, she’d bite their head off.”
That image of Georgie sitting in the bleachers with nachos in her lap came back through a totally different filter, accompanied by dawning understanding. Oh yeah. She’d had a thing for him back then. No doubt about it. How could he have missed it? Or maybe he was so used to being the center of attention back then, he’d acknowledged it as his due and kept moving.
He almost wanted to cancel the whole arrangement, right then and there. No way was he going to be this girl’s boyfriend, fake or not, if she was in love with him.
But Georgie wasn’t in love with him. The notion was ridiculous. She’d had a crush on the superstar, a childish infatuation. He was no longer that superstar. Far from it. And she was no longer a middle schooler with awkward limbs, either. If he treated Georgie like she was still that young girl with braces, he was no better than everyone she wanted to prove wrong. They were both adults. Different people from whom they’d been when she stared up at that poster. Hell, he’d fallen way too far to earn that kind of hero worship from anyone, let alone Georgie. She’d probably laugh at that old torch she used to carry. Before she found him facedown in a hangover and tempting the rat population.
He chose to ignore the thorn in his throat when thinking of Georgie laughing off the past infatuation. “Listen, I don’t do serious. And I’ve been up front with your sister about that. If she chooses to ignore the warning, that’s on her. But I don’t think you’re giving her enough credit. She’s old enough to listen.”