Unedited Chapter 1 of Bottom of the Ninth

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 still hadn’t come to terms with his new reality even as the Boeing 737 banked a steep turn to land at SeaTac 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 even 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.

Yeah, that was him. The forgotten brother. The inconvenience. The unwanted child. The pain-in-the ass little brother who hadn’t been a pain in the ass. In fact, he’d gone out of his way to be the perfect son and brother in hopes someone would love him.

No one had, and no one did.

And now he flat out didn’t give a shit. His give-a-damn was busted, and his family could no longer hurt him because they’d ceased to exist the night their sister Karen died.

But then so had Zeke.

The only person who’d ever loved him next to a barely-remembered mother was gone, leaving Zeke with no one but himself. One thing his dysfunctional win-at-all-costs childhood had taught him was what didn’t kill him made him stronger, and he was one strong son of a bitch. He didn’t need anyone because he hard it all—fame, fortune, good looks, and to hell with the rest of the world.

He disembarked the plane, hating the place which 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 Zeke was forced to endure.

Grabbing his bag from the baggage carousel, he picked up his rental car, a white, nondescript SUV which suited him just fine and pulled onto the wet streets. He listened to the GPS as he navigated to the house his agent had purchased for him in a quiet Seattle neighborhood of older homes. Darrel insisted the house boasted views of the Space Needle and the water beyond. Zeke didn’t give a shit. Right now he just wanted something to eat and a bed.

He stopped at a takeout pizza place and grabbed a couple pizzas, continuing his journey. The smell of pizza permeated the SUV, and his stomach growled. He pressed down on the accelerator.

Cutting the corner as he turned onto a side street, he hit a deep mud puddle hard, throwing water in all directions, including his windshield. 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 the state of their car and their clothes, they were probably homeless. He fully intended to drive on by. They weren’t his problem, but 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 in her teens.

Despite her obvious discomfort, she was beautiful with long, honey blonde 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 wait a little longer because of his damn 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 with teeth chattering.

Wonderful, just wonderful.

Welcome to Seattle, kids.

And the dick who cut the corner and drenched them drove right by. If she wouldn’t have 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 stepped up, and foster care for her sister’s kids wasn’t an option she could live with. 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 troopers, not once complaining or whining over their circumstances, overall keeping their mouths’ shut, except for Sophie who didn’t believe in silence and chattered non-stop about anything and everything. Only right now, even upbeat, positive Sophie was at a loss for words. While her quiet, stoic twin Sophie’s lower lip quivered and tears filled her eyes, Not a good sign.

Just before the asshole’s tail lights faded in the distance, she saw his brake lights. He’d stopped in the middle of the empty street. His backup lights lit up the rain-slicked pavement. Grace 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 got out. Paisley’s mouth dropped open. For a brief moment she forgot about their crappy situation and allowed herself the rare luxury of appreciating the sheer male beauty of the man. She almost fanned herself despite her frigid body. He walked tentatively toward her as if he expected her to go ballistic at any moment—a good and savvy assumption on his part.

He was tall, really, really tall, with dark blond hair streaked with gold strands and a dark 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, so mesmerizing and almost scary in their intensity. He wore a hoody sweatshirt with Seattle Skookums emblazoned on the front. She didn’t have a clue what Skookums were, but obviously some local sports team. His shoulders were broad and his waist narrow. He moved with the athletic grace of a lean panther.

Forcing herself to concentrate on their predicament rather than his physical attributes, she hugged the girls close to her, wishing she had an extra arm to pull Brey close also. He liked to pretend he was the protector of the family, but he was just an eight-year-old little boy forced into the protector role way too early in his young life.

“Brey,” 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 glared at the tall man.

The man stopped a few feet from them, glancing down at Brey, before levelling 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.

“Hey, I’m really sorry.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and shifted his weight from one foot to the other, clearly uncomfortable with the situation. He kept glancing over his shoulder at his large 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 Paisley 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 of futility.

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

She shook her head, pissed at herself that she might break out in tears any moment. Brey 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.” Grace lifted her chin, but they weren’t fine. She was down to her last five dollars. The cousin who’d invited them to stay with him was in jail, and his girlfriend made it clear they weren’t welcome. She was in a strange city, no job, no money, no running car, with three hungry kids. If that wasn’t beyond desperate, she didn’t know what was. So, no, actually, they weren’t fine.

“What’s wrong with your car?”

“I don’t know.”

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 blues 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.

The man looked horrified.

* * * *

Well, fuck.

Zeke wrung his hands, not sure what to do. The little boy who couldn’t be much more than seven or eight, stepped forward, ready to take him on.

“You made Paisley cry.” His combative tone would’ve been amusing if it weren’t for the obviously dire situation.

Paisley? That was a new one. He turned to regard Paisley. Her blond hair hung in wet strands, falling across a nice pair of breasts that he couldn’t help notice considering the drenched state of her sweatshirt. He forced his gaze back to her face. She wasn’t looking at him but sobbing into her hands. His heart clenched.

She glanced up and met his gaze. It’d been a long time since anyone had looked at him like that.  Despite her eyes being red and puffy and her face blotchy, she sucked him in so completely, he couldn’t resist the draw between them. Normally he had no problem resisting a woman unless he wanted her. He certainly didn’t want a waif with three children. But she was cute as hell. He was a guy, so of course he noticed such things. She reminded him of Carrie Underwood, and he’d always had the hots for the cute little country singer. Too bad that hockey player had snagged her before Zeke had a chance.

He wondered if Paisley could sing.

She blinked her big brown eyes a few times, and he realized he’d been lost in them. He dragged his gaze from hers and shook his head, feeling strangely off-balance.

The little boy still glared belligerently at him, while the two little girls regarded him with wide eyes as if he were a serial killer.

Zeke did as he often did in weird-ass situations like this one. He asked himself what Karen would do. Karen had been the conscience of the family, the good one of the bunch, kind and compassionate. She’d been the glue who’d held them together until big brother had killed her, not directly, but through his drunken actions.

Zeke shook his head, banishing those memories back to that deep, dark place inside him where they usually lurked.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to splash all of you.” he told the little boy, holding out his hands palms up to show he meant no harm. The child glared at him, his gaze full of mistrust and disillusionment. Zeke knew that look. He’d seen it in countless pictures of his own face throughout his childhood. He recognized a kindred spirit when he saw one.

“You need to fix it. Paisley never cries.”

Zeke raised a brow as Paisley now sniffled and hiccupped behind the boy. He made a split-second decision that he’d most likely regret, but he did it anyway.

It was what Karen would’ve done, though he tried to justify it by rationalizing that the good-guy of Major League Baseball’s image would be severely tarnished if he left this woman and her bedraggled children to the mercy of the elements, including the city’s unsavory ones.

“You can come home with me. We’ll deal with stuff in the daylight.” He was dragging butt, starving, and he couldn’t think straight right now.

Paisley found her tongue. “I don’t know you.”

“Do you have a better option?”

“Uh, no.”

“I have a huge old house up on this hill somewhere. There’s plenty of room, if you don’t mind sleeping on the floor. I haven’t unpacked.”

“We don’t mind,” the boy answered for her.

“It’s settled then.” Zeke motioned for them to follow him to the SUV. The kids didn’t hesitate. They ran for the warmth of the car. Grace fidgeted and stared after them.

“We still don’t know you.” She challenged him with a lift of her chin and drew herself up tall, as tall as a woman no more than five-foot-four could.

“I’m perfectly harmless. I assure you, and If I’m not, you can use that pepper spray you’ve been gripping as if it’s your lifeline.”

She stared down at her white knuckles wrapped around the small canister. “I don’t even know your name.” She was stuck on this knowing him stuff. He’d gotten a woman naked many times knowing less than he knew about this woman.

He held out a hand. “Zeke, Zeke Wolfe.”

She refused his hand. “Grace Madison.” She turned to the children. “That’s Sophie and Sadie, they’re five, and Brayden, he’s eight.”

“Well, then now we know each other.” He managed a smile. “Are they yours?”

“They’re my sister’s.” She wasn’t about to volunteer any more information. “This is so not a good idea.”

He didn’t respond but turned to the car, leaving her no choice but to follow. He should’ve taken them to a hotel and paid for one night then walked away. After all, he excelled at walking away from tough situations. He just couldn’t do it this time, and he didn’t have a damn clue why. Maybe it was the woman called Paisley’s tears or the little boy’s bravery or maybe his give-a-damn wasn’t actually dead but dormant.

Most of all, he knew why he’d done it.

Karen would be proud.