Bottom of the Ninth

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Chapter 1—Strike Out


He’d been traded to fucking Seattle.

Zeke Wolfe still couldn’t believe it, even though he’d made a few trips to the rainy city since the deed had been done, and he’d been wearing the Seattle blue and green during spring training.

Hell, he hadn’t come to terms with his new reality even as the Boeing 737 banked a steep turn to land at Sea-Tac Airport. He caught glimpses of Puget Sound and the Space Needle through the dark, oppressive clouds hanging over everything, including his life as of late.

Why did God hate him so much that he’d done this to him?

Truthfully, he probably didn’t hate Zeke. More likely, God didn’t know he existed. The big guy hadn’t been there for Zeke any more than his brothers had. At least he’d had his sister—until he didn’t have her anymore, either.

Zeke disembarked, hating the place that was his new home. It was bad enough he’d been yanked from sunny California to this dark, dreary place where the sun never shone and mold grew in every crack and crevice, but even worse, his brothers both lived here and played for Seattle’s professional hockey and football teams. Maybe God did hate him after all and was laughing his ass off at this latest cruel twist of fate.

Turning on his phone, he frowned as message notifications blipped across the screen. Them again. Why couldn’t they justeave him the hell alone? He’d just changed his number a month ago. Now he’d have to change it again.

Despite being irritated, Zeke put on his happy face in case anyone with a trigger finger on their cell camera happened to recognize him. Grabbing his bag from the baggage carousel, he found his recently purchased silver Jaguar F-PACE SUV, parked exactly where Al, his agent, promised it would be. The bastard was thorough. He’d give him that.

Relaxing into the plush leather seat, Zeke allowed himself a moment of forced calmness, then he pulled onto the wet streets. He listened to the GPS as he navigated to the house his agent had also bought for him in a quiet Seattle neighborhood of older but upscale homes. Al promised the house boasted views, views, and more views. Zeke didn’t give a shit about views right now, but he’d kill for something more substantial than airplane food, along with a blissful night’s sleep.

He stopped at a takeout place and grabbed a couple pizzas, before continuing his journey. The aroma of pepperoni and melted cheese merged with the new-car smell. His stomach growled, and he pressed harder on the accelerator.

Cutting the corner as he turned onto a side street, Zeke hit a deep mud puddle, hydroplaning and throwing water in all directions, including his windshield.

Shit. He couldn’t see a damn thing.

Slowing, he noticed a bedraggled woman standing on the sidewalk completely drenched—thanks to him. The hood of her ancient car was up, and she held the hands of two equally bedraggled and drenched little kids while a third stood nearby.

Well, crap.

Judging by their piece-of-shit car piled high with crap, they were probably homeless. He fully intended to drive on by. They weren’t his problem. At the last minute, he made the mistake of glancing in their direction. His gaze connected with the pleading, soulful brown eyes of the woman. She was young, but not too young; probably his age, yet way too young to have children this old unless she’d had them when she was just a kid herself.

Despite her miserable state, she was beautiful, with long blond hair and a cute figure. She looked like the girl next door, sweet and kind and needy.

Zeke so did not do needy.

Well, not too much. At least, not to the point he couldn’t extricate himself without some messy drama to go along with the neediness.

With a sigh, Zeke glanced at the time and pulled over. Pizza and sleep would have to wait a little longer because of his damn pesky conscience.

* * * *

Paisley Madison gripped the cold, wet hands of her nieces while her nephew, Brayden, stood off to the side looking as angry as she felt. His little hands were clenched, and his face was red and blotchy. He looked ready to kick some major ass. They were drenched; all four of them, and the kids were shivering, teeth chattering.

Wonderful, just wonderful.

Welcome to Seattle, kids.

And the dick who’d cut the corner and drenched them drove right by. If she hadn’t been holding the kids’ hands, she’d have flipped him off and set a great example.

She was so not cut out for the role of substitute mom and dad, but no one else had stepped up, and foster care for her sister’s kids wasn’t an option she could live with. The court had granted her temporary custody because their worthless father was in jail, not that she’d ever leave them with him if she could help it.

She was all they had, and she’d do right by her sister and them. After all, her older sister had been there for her—as best she could.

She bit back the tears of frustration at the futility of their situation, but the kids couldn’t see her lose hope. They’d been real troupers, not once complaining or whining over their circumstances, overall keeping their mouths shut, except for Sophie, who didn’t believe in silence and chattered nonstop about anything and everything. Only right now, even upbeat, positive Sophie was at a loss for words. Sadie, Sophie’s quiet, stoic twin, stood still as her lower lip quivered. Tears filled her eyes. Not a good sign.

Just before the asshole’s taillights faded in the distance, he hit his brakes. He’d stopped in the middle of the empty street. His backup lights lit up the rain-slicked pavement. Paisley tensed, fearing the worst but putting on a brave front for the kids. She had bear spray in her purse, and she knew how to use it.

His car stopped in front of hers, and he emerged inch by delectable inch. Long legs came first, followed by strong thighs, a lean but muscular chest, broad shoulders, and a face made by angels. Paisley’s mouth dropped open. For a brief moment, she forgot about their crappy situation and allowed herself the luxury of appreciating the sheer male beauty of this man. She almost fanned herself despite her frigid body. He walked tentatively toward her, as if he expected her to switch into crazy-ass-bitch mode at any moment—a good and savvy assumption on his part.

He was tall—really, really tall—with short dark hair and a golden tan, both signs he’d spent a lot of time in the sun, and surely not in this city. He couldn’t be much older than her—early to mid-twenties. His eyes were an intense blue, almost turquoise. She’d never seen eyes like that, mesmerizing and almost scary in their intensity. He wore a hooded sweatshirt with “Seattle Skookums” emblazoned on the front. She knew her baseball, and the Skookums were Seattle’s beleaguered pro baseball team.

The man moved with the athletic grace of a lean panther. She briefly wondered if he was associated with the team in some way. She cast a quick glance at his luxury SUV and noted its temporary license plate and Jaguar emblem. She hadn’t realized Jaguar made SUVs. Whoever he was, he had money. Firmly believing all things happened for a reason, she decided to go with the situation and see where it led her.

Armed with a new resolve, she refocused on their predicament rather than his physical attributes. Hugging the girls close to her, she wished for an extra arm to pull Brayden close also. He believed he was the protector of the family, but he was just an eight-year-old little boy forced into an adult role way too early in his young life.

“Bray,” she said and jerked her head to indicate he needed to step closer to her. He ignored her, instead perching his hands on hips and glaring at the tall man.

The man stopped a few feet from them, glancing down at Brayden before leveling his penetrating gaze at her. She read the recrimination in his eyes. He wondered what the hell she was doing alone at midnight on a dark street with three little kids, other than the obvious broken-down car issue.

“Hey, I’m really sorry.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and shifted his weight from one foot to the other, as if he were out of his element. He kept glancing over his shoulder at his SUV as if wishing he were in it and away from them. Paisley couldn’t see anyone else inside, though the windows were pretty heavily tinted.

When she didn’t respond, he spoke again. “Can I help you with something? Is someone coming to pick up you up?”

“No.” Paisley bit back tears as the weight of her situation bore down on her.

“Uh, do you know what’s wrong with it?” His gaze slipped to the car and back again.

She shook her head, fearing she might break into tears at any moment. Brayden sensed her distress and moved closer, standing in front of her.

The gesture wasn’t lost on the stranger, and his lips twitched as he suppressed a smile, but he quickly sobered. “Is there somewhere I can take you?”

“No,” she croaked, her voice rising to a desperate pitch.

“You need to get out of those wet clothes.” She saw his gaze flick to the car packed with boxes.

“I’m cold,” Sophie wailed, silent no longer. Sadie sniffed, and tears ran down her face as she hiccupped. Her little shoulders shook with silent sobs.

“Jesus.” He ran his hands over his face.

“We’re fine.” Paisley lifted her chin, but they weren’t fine. She was down to her last five dollars. The cousin who’d invited them to Seattle was in jail, and his girlfriend had booted them out on their asses before they’d stepped one foot in the door. She was in a strange city, with no job, no money, no running car, and three hungry kids. If that wasn’t beyond desperate, she didn’t know what was. So, no, actually, they weren’t fine. He peeked under the hood and squinted at the motor, shaking his head. “There’s so much oil everywhere, it’s hard to tell.”

“Are you a mechanic?” she asked hopefully.

He snorted and grinned. He had a really nice smile and gorgeous white teeth, the kind only money could buy.

“Look, I’m new to town, and I really don’t know where stuff is. I could try to find you a hotel.”

“We can’t afford a hotel, or even a stick of gum.” She met his gaze and made a brave attempt to hold hers steady. Only she couldn’t. She saw a mixture of panic and concern in those blue eyes. Oddly, she sensed he didn’t want to care but couldn’t quite suppress the good guy underneath. He managed a lopsided smile, and she lost it, literally lost it. Tears streaked down her face, and sobs overwhelmed her to the point she couldn’t talk. The three kids had never seen her break down. They gaped at her with huge, shocked eyes, but she couldn’t stop. Her usual positive, sunny attitude caved into a blubbering, defeated mess.

Her shoulders shook. She couldn’t stop the hiccupping sobs pummeling her body. Tears flowed down her cheeks in rivulets of abject surrender. Paisley wasn’t cut out for this. She had no clue how to take care of herself, let alone three little kids. Sniffling, she tried to get a handle on her emotions. Wiping the tears with the wet sleeve of her sweatshirt, she met the man’s gaze.

He looked horrified.