He turned to find a pretty blonde he didn’t recognize approaching him on the sidewalk. When all he could muster was a nod, she laughed.
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
“Can’t say that I do,” he responded, without matching her smile. “Should I?”
Her composure faltered, along with her stride, but she recovered fast. “Well . . . we went to high school together. Tracy Gallagher. I sat behind you in homeroom senior year.”
“Oh, right,” he said tonelessly. “Sure.”
Port Jefferson was a little bubble of a town. What happened out in the world only mattered insomuch as it directly affected the residents. But the familiar mixture of interest and censure on Tracy’s face made one thing pretty obvious: his reputation as an unrepentant womanizer had penetrated the bubble. She stood there waiting for him to elaborate on his monosyllabic answers, maybe even make a pass at her, and she was about to be sorely disappointed.
“Um,” she continued, seemingly unfazed. “You’ve been back in town for a month and I haven’t seen you around. Were you . . .” Cheeks turning pink, she squared her shoulders. “Did you want some help reacquainting yourself with the town?”
“Why would I? Nothing here has changed.” God, he was being a complete dick. As little as six months ago, they would have already been on their way back to his place. Good old Two Bats, always up for a lay. Until he wasn’t worth a damn anymore. Everyone had wanted a piece of him until shit got heavy, right? After the trades started and his stock went down, his phone stopped ringing. Here was a woman showing him some interest. Hell, she seemed nice enough. Maybe her intentions were pure. But after the fleeting smoke-and-mirrors lifestyle he’d led for the last five years, he could no longer muster an ounce of excitement. None of it ever meant anything. “Look, I’m about to meet with a friend . . .”
“Tracy. I work at the boutique.” She pointed south. “Down on the other end of Main Street. Glitter Threads.”
He forced a tight smile. “If I ever need the perfect little black dress, I’ll let you know.”
She laughed as if he’d made the joke of the century instead of a sarcastic jackass comment. “Why wait to hang out? There’s a new park down on the water, actually. If you wanted to check it out, I could pack a picnic lunch, or . . .”
His laugh was toneless. “A picnic.”
Finally picking up on the fact that he wasn’t interested, Tracy paused and her expression went flat. Irritated. Part of him felt bad for being impolite, but the other half? It felt good to not be the charming ladies’ man who took nothing seriously except his batting average. “You know—”
“Hey, Travis,” said a voice behind him. The sound reminded him of dripping Popsicles and skinned knees, but it had changed some. Grown huskier, lost the slight lisp. Georgie came into view, a ball cap pulled down low on her forehead, hair escaping in every direction. “Are you ready?”
He gave Stephen’s little sister a bland look. “For what?”
“Uh. Your doctor’s appointment, silly.” Georgie poked him in the ribs. “Come on. We’re going to be late.”
Was Georgie swooping in to save him from Tracy? Yeah. It appeared she was. And he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. The idea of a picnic with anyone—especially this woman who probably expected him to dazzle her with stories about meeting celebrities—was right on par with water torture. “Right. My doctor’s appointment.”
Georgie sent Tracy a wince. “When I described the symptoms to his doctor, they asked me to bring in a stool sample right away. Whatever he’s got, they haven’t seen it since the nineties.”
Tracy raised a skeptical brow. “He looks fine.”
“That’s how it starts. One second you’re feeling fine . . . and then . . .” Georgie made an explosion sound, clapping her hands together. “Pus everywhere. You wouldn’t believe the pus. You can’t get it out with regular detergent.”
“You took it too far,” Travis muttered to Georgie. “Way too far.”
“I’m new at this,” she shot back, out of the side of her mouth.
Obviously onto the impromptu ruse, Tracy jerked her purse higher on her shoulder. “I can take a hint, Travis Ford. And by the way, you’re not as hot in person.”
“Aw, give him a break. He’s had a rough month.”
That comment earned Georgie a glare. “Don’t ever come into the boutique, Georgie Castle. Your legs are too short—even for the petite sizes.”
Georgie’s confidence dipped, but she lifted her chin to make up for it. “They don’t treat me this way at Gap Kids—you could learn a thing or two from them.”
Travis realized he was frowning down at Georgie. The top of her head only reached his shoulder. Small but fierce. Again, he marveled over the quiet girl who’d barely been capable of eye contact, once upon a time, becoming this scrappy defender of . . . him. Why the hell was she even bothering? Travis didn’t know, but he felt compelled to return the favor in some small way. Probably because she was Stephen’s little sister. “Your legs are normal-sized.”
She stared up at him as if he’d given her a way better compliment. Just as quickly, though, she rolled her eyes. “Oh, shut up.”
Tracy turned tail and stormed down the sidewalk. “Know what? I hope you do get some disease from the nineties, Travis Ford,” she called over her shoulder. “I don’t know why every woman in town is determined to throw her hat into the ring. You’re not even worth a midweek leg shave.”
“Points for originality.” Travis and Georgie watched the blonde until she was out of earshot. “Although, did I really hear her asking you out on a picnic?”
He sighed. “You did indeed.”
“Would she have shown up with a Yogi Bear wicker basket? Would she have packed a giant cartoon ham hock? I’m disappointed you didn’t say yes, just to satisfy my curiosity.”
Travis knew he should say thank you, but he didn’t want Georgie getting the impression he wanted or needed any more of her interventions. God forbid he formed an obligation to her. No one relied on Travis for anything now and he relied on exactly nobody. Commitments were temporary, and thus he didn’t bother making them. When he’d landed in the pros, he’d allowed himself to trust teammates, coaches, managers, despite the lesson he’d learned at a young age. He wouldn’t make that mistake a third time. The only exception to the rule was waiting for him inside the office, and even Stephen was kept at a comfortable distance.
“I’m meeting with your brother, Georgie.” He turned and opened the door, air-conditioning rushing out of Brick & Morty to greet him. “Run along.”
Georgie followed him inside. “What brought you out this fine summer day? It wouldn’t have anything to do with me—”
“Are you sure, because . . .”
Travis turned on a heel and the brim of Georgie’s hat drilled him in the chest, the impact knocking it off her head. He opened his mouth to tell her, no, nothing she’d said or done was responsible for his leaving his cave to meet with Stephen. It was pure coincidence. But the fallen hat had allowed her deep brown mass of hair to spill out everywhere. Over her shoulders, down her back, across half of her face. One of her green eyes peeked out through the wave of it all and he got distracted from his speech.
Yeah, she’d definitely . . . changed.
Georgie broke their stare, stooping down to grab the hat and yank it back down over her head, pulling her wealth of hair through the back opening. “What are you here to speak with Stephen about?”
The husky tone of her voice perturbed him even more, though he couldn’t say why. “Can you go play outside while the adults talk?”
She looked bored, but Travis got the impression it was an act. “It’s not my turn for the swing.”
The sound of a phone hitting the cradle ricocheted through the office.
“Georgie,” Stephen called behind Travis. “That’s enough. We’ll talk later.”
“Right,” she muttered, her smile tight. “I can take a hint, too.”
An uncomfortable sensation moved in Travis’s chest as Georgie backed toward the door. When he’d been patronizing to her like an asshole, it hadn’t sounded as bad as when Stephen did it, right? Yeah. Probably. And so be it. Making this girl feel welcome wasn’t his job, especially if her own brother didn’t see a reason to do so.
“Oh!” Georgie stopped and spun, keeping one hand on the doorknob. “Stephen, I’m starting a new tradition this weekend. Saturday brunch at my place. Can you come?”
Travis turned to find his friend scribbling on a legal pad, barely giving his sister the time of day. “Sure, sure. I’ll talk to Kristin.”
“Great.” She seemed to brace herself. “Travis, you’re invited, too.”
“Don’t count on me.”
She sent him an exaggerated wink. “It’s the blue house at the end of Whittier. Big elm tree in the yard. I’ll see you there.”