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Eva Harlowe had been many things at work. Happy, bored, sad, stressed, excited. Occasionally pissed off. She’d never before been 100 percent mortified.
She looked down at the security pass she’d just run through the laminator and resisted the urge to flee the building.
That was whose face stared back at her from the otherwise innocent piece of plastic.
Finn Castro. Baseball player. Tall, dark, and trouble. Not to mention six years younger than her.
But despite his age and the fact that he apparently had a penchant for bar fights and partying, and leaving aside the fact he was a baseball player—an occupation that was firmly on her do-not-date list—Finn Castro was the man that Eva had had an unreasonable, melting-underwear-level, unrelenting crush on for, oh, at least a year.
She blamed that on his stupidly handsome face.
Of course, there was nothing wrong with having a crush. Countless women swooned over actors and singers and, yes, athletes every day. Having a celebrity crush was harmless. Safe. They could live in your head and cheer up your day and maybe, occasionally, when you were having one of those days, spice up your nighttime fantasies.
One hundred percent A-Okay.
Until, of course, you found out that the object of your crush was coming to work where you worked.
Then it was mortifying. Totally, excruciatingly, horrifyingly mortifying.
So she was mortified because, exactly six weeks ago, just after New Year’s Day, the New York Saints had announced that they were sending Finn Castro to play a season on their Triple-A team, the Preachers.
Where Eva was the administrative manager. Which was a glorified title for “does anything that really needs to be done and keeps things from falling apart at an inconvenient moment.” Including getting new players set up with all the administrative things they needed to be set up with and, usually, giving them a quick tour of the place before they were handed over to the coaching team.
Which meant that any minute now, Finn Castro was going to come waltzing through her office door and she was going to have to act like a normal adult woman around him.
She’d seriously considered calling in sick to avoid the whole thing. She never called in sick. Besides, avoiding him for one more day was only putting off the inevitable. The universe, it seemed, had decided that Eva was to be its source of entertainment this week.
The universe should pick on someone else.
She stared down at the picture and Finn’s gorgeous face smiled back at her. A smug smile. Like he knew her secret.
He was never going to know her secret.
Thankfully no one at the Preachers did. She’d worked there for a long time. Close enough to fourteen years. She wasn’t dumb enough to admit a crush on a ballplayer to anybody on the premises, let alone a player from their parent team. She never would have heard the end of it. Nope, she’d kept her secret to herself and instead pretended to share her best friend Jenna’s infatuation with Tom Hiddleston.
And she’d tried to get over the Finn thing, as she had dubbed it.
Tried desperately. Ever since Don Mannings, the Preachers’ manager, had made the announcement that Finn was coming to Saratoga Springs at a management meeting back in January.
She had deleted every photo off her home computer. She unsubscribed from the hotties of baseball blog she’d been guiltily following. Stopped scanning the sports pages for mentions of him. Then she’d gone on a mad hunt for another guy who might distract her brain. She’d watched every TV show and movie she could think of. She’d scrolled through Pinterest boards for hours. And yes, there’d been a few guys who’d caught her attention. Men with beautiful faces and bodies sculpted to perfection. Men who made her girl parts happier just looking at them. She’d thought her plan had been working.
Until the photographs had leaked.
The ones from the sponsorship deal that Finn had lost when he’d gotten into a fight in a Brooklyn nightclub. A nightclub owned by Raina Easton who was married to Mal Coulter, who was one of the part owners of the Saints, what’s more. Long Road Home, a company that made fancy fitness gadgets, had made polite public noises about wishing Finn well and then dropped him like a hot potato from being the face of their forthcoming ad campaign.
But somehow the pictures of Finn they’d taken for that campaign had leaked.
They were amazing. Finn being athletic and manly with a big black masculine Long Road Home fitness band clamped around his wrist, each shot showing off his well-honed body to perfection. Climbing rocks and sweat-drenched in gyms and riding a motorcycle. But it was the last shot that had gotten her. Finn standing thigh-deep in the ocean. Wearing a wet white T-shirt and dark jeans, a storm brewing behind him.
Moody black and white and gray. Except the eyes. Those they’d left enough color in to let you guess they were brilliant green. Predator eyes. Dangerous eyes to go with the dangerous body outlined in wet fabric. It was a magnificent photo. She’d taken enough photos in her lifetime to know that. It was brilliant. The perfect embodiment of the male animal, barely contained.
The picture had been everywhere. Impossible to avoid.
It had reignited her crush like a match put to gasoline.
The image was burned in her brain. Popped into her head at inconvenient moments. Made her pulse race and her body want.
Want things it could never have. Because she did not date baseball players. Particularly not bad boy, only in town because it was a pit stop back to the major leagues, never going to stay baseball players. She’d seen enough of those in her time at the team to know one when she saw one. Finn Castro was definitely one. Sent to the Preachers in disgrace. Sent to redeem himself.
She didn’t need a Taylor Swift song to know trouble was walking in her door.
So she would be rational and adult and treat him exactly the same way she treated all the other men here. Off limits. Not an option. No crushes allowed.
It was the only sane thing to do. Even though she was planning on leaving the Preachers at the end of the season, there was no reason to go crazy.
Except, as the door to her small office opened and the man himself walked through, she realized that the picture had, it seemed, done little justice to the real thing. His green eyes seemed to pierce her, like a physical blow, and her pulse stuttered. There was a pink scar bisecting the corner of his right eyebrow—probably a remnant of his bar fight—that he hadn’t had when the Long Road Home photos had been taken. But not even a scar could detract from the fact that the man was almost inhumanly sexy.
And that a whole world of trouble had just landed in her lap.
* * *
Finn Castro looked down at the face of the woman behind the desk and got the feeling he’d done something to piss her off. Dark-blue eyes studied him through narrow black-framed glasses, their expression distinctly cool. Not the first impression he’d been hoping to make. Or rather needed to make. He’d been told to report to Eva Harlowe at the Preachers’ headquarters today. The first day of his exile, as he’d been trying not to think of it.
What it was, really, was the grown-up version of a time-out. Because he’d done some dumb shit last year. Dumb enough to give himself a wake-up call.
Dumb enough to make Alex Winters, Lucas Angelo, and Malachi Coulter, the owners of the New York Saints, decide that he wouldn’t be playing for the Saints this season. That he needed to prove himself all over again. The thought made his jaw tighten. He’d spent most of his life trying to prove himself when it came to baseball. And here he was starting from the fucking beginning again.
But he was the one who’d fucked up, so he was the one who had to suck it up. Keep his head down, work hard, get back to the Saints.
Be on his best behavior and make a good impression.
But here he was, apparently screwing that up already. Or maybe he was just reading her wrong. He tried a smile. His smile usually worked on reluctant females. His looks were an asset. He knew that. So it would be dumb not to use them when he needed to. “Hi. I’m Finn Castro. Are you Eva?”
“Just like the sign on the door says,” she replied, pushing back from her desk to stand. Her voice was slightly husky. But still cool.
Definitely unhappy about something. He studied her a moment. Dark-brown hair pulled back into a bun, black sweater buttoned over a crisp white shirt. Dark liner highlighting the eyes that weren’t impressed with him. But despite the demure attire, he got the feeling she wasn’t all that demure. Because the lips that were painted a very neutral shade were full and the body beneath the clothes curved like a racetrack. Not that he let himself study it in any detail. She was already unimpressed. Staring at her chest wasn’t going to improve the situation.
A trio of thin silver chains of varying lengths looped around her neck, and thin small silver hoops hung from her ears. Except in her right ear, the loop wasn’t alone. Next to the hoop was a small silver shape. At first he thought it was just a stud, but when she moved her head he realized it was actually a tiny skull.
Definitely not demure.
More like … intriguing.
But, nope. He wasn’t here to be intrigued. Let alone be intrigued by the woman whom Maggie Winters—wife of Alex and currently chief operating officer of the Saints—had told him was the heart of the Preachers’ operation. The one who knew how things got done. The woman who had the respect and the ear of the coaching team and management. Not to be messed with.
And now they’d been staring at each other just that little bit too long.
“Well, they told me to come find you when I got here,” he said, to cut off the silence and any potential to grow more intrigued.
“Nice to see you can follow instructions, Mr. Castro,” she said. She bent and scooped something up off her desk, held it out to him. “This is your security pass. It gets you into the building, the training complex, and the parking lot.”
He took the pass. It was clipped onto a white lanyard with the Preachers’ logo stamped in black along its length. Preachers. Not the Saints. His jaw tightened again and he relaxed it with an effort.
Suck it up.
“Now,” Eva continued as she passed him a plastic folder that had a matching logo on the front cover. “This folder has the map of the complex, your IT login, and your schedule for this week as well as the plans for the first week of spring training next week. I’ve emailed you a copy of everything. Your schedule will be emailed to you once a week, and it and most other information is always available on the team’s internal website. We have all your paperwork from the Saints, so unless you need to update any of the details you gave them in relation to your banking arrangements or uniform sizes, that should be all set up.”
Was he imagining things or had she just given him a quick once-over when she’d said “uniform”? He must have been imagining it. Her tone was definitely not enthusiastic. “Everything the Saints sent you should still be up to date,” he said, aiming for enthusiastic and in no way going to be trouble for you in his tone. Her expression didn’t shift at all.
“The only information we don’t have is your address here in Saratoga,” she continued. “Did you find an apartment or house yet? Or are you in a hotel for now?”
“I have an apartment.” He’d rented a place not far from the Preachers’ home field, Hennessee Park. His Manhattan apartment was sublet for six months. Alex Winters had told him he’d be in Saratoga Springs for a year but he was determined to get back as soon as possible. So he didn’t need anywhere flashy to live. Just somewhere close where he could crash. He wasn’t here to party, after all.
Not that Saratoga Springs was much of a party town, at least not the kind of party there’d been in Manhattan. The place seemed full of spas and, well, horse racing. He didn’t know jack about horse racing and couldn’t see himself getting interested anytime soon. But the spa part might mean there were plenty of women around who might be looking for some discreet no-strings fun if he got really bored. He was going to keep his nose clean—he wasn’t an idiot—but not even the Saints could expect him to be a monk, after all. Still, right now he needed to focus on the woman in front of him—who was definitely not a candidate for no-strings fun. Which was a pity, but hooking up with someone at the Preachers wasn’t going to convince the Saints he was a whole new man. “It’s close to Hennessee,” he said, realizing they were staring at each other.
“Great,” Eva said, not sounding at all like she meant it. “Once you log onto your email, send me your details and you’ll be all set. Now I’ll show you around and then deliver you to Coach.”
* * *
Finn kept his head down for the first few days. He went to his training sessions. To the gym. To team meetings. Took long runs around Hennessee Park and the area near his new apartment, trying to learn his way around. Spoke to his parents and his sister, Em, back in Chicago. Then he went home to his very boring apartment and slept. Focus, that was the key.
Head down, do the work and be so damned good at his job that the Saints would have to call him back. No distractions. No thinking about the interesting Eva Harlowe.
Play it smart.
No trouble. Not so much as a hint. It was already clear that he had some ground to make up with most of his new teammates. Who knew he’d been sent here in disgrace. Knew he’d blown it at the Saints. None of the Preachers’ players had exactly welcomed him with open arms. It was only the two real rookies, fresh out of college, who had spoken to him much at all. They were all enthusiasm, convinced they were going to conquer the world of baseball, eager to hear about his time in the majors. They reminded him of his idiot younger self. Which was kind of painful. But it was a start. The rest of the guys he’d have to prove himself to.
Work for it.
So head down and definitely no flirting with Eva, who was clearly a central part of the Preachers’ organization. Someone the players regarded as part of the family. He knew a little about how guys reacted when other guys tried to date their sisters, having a sister himself. Eva was off limits. He would just have to ignore the fact that she kept popping into his mind and that the few times he’d seen her during the week, his attention had zeroed in on her like she was a lifeline and he was drowning.
It was an excellent plan until he tried to log into his email on Thursday morning and the computer declared he didn’t exist. Or rather his password didn’t. Which meant he was going to have to go see the very interesting Eva after all.
No flirting, he reminded himself as he headed toward Eva’s office thirty minutes later. Nice. Friendly. Cooperative—that was the key. She’d been all-business when she’d given him a tour of the complex on Monday. Nothing but the facts. No shift in her demeanor despite his attempts to get her to relax. He hadn’t figured out if it was him or if she’d been having a bad day. Hopefully the latter. Though she probably knew exactly how he’d washed up on her shores, so to speak. Knew all about his fall from grace at the Saints. She must have come across plenty of other players who’d been demoted. Maybe she gave them all the cold shoulder.
He deserved the cold shoulder. It would remind him that he was walking the line, to steal a phrase from Johnny Cash.
He hadn’t ended up in prison last year but he’d been lucky to escape charges after that dumb bar fight. Luckier still that the Saints hadn’t just sacked him and had instead sent him to a six-week program that wasn’t exactly rehab … the consensus being he wasn’t an alcoholic … but had definitely been in Dude, you need to get a handle on things territory. No booze, more health food than he ever wanted to see again, and daily sessions with both a sports psychologist and the regular kind.
It had given him some clarity. Shown him what needed to change if he was going to be successful in MLB.
Now he just had to prove that he could do it.
So Eva Harlowe might just be a good test subject. If he could convince her he’d changed, maybe he might actually succeed at getting back to the Saints.
He knocked politely on her half-open door, waited for her to say, “Come in.” When she did, he pushed the door open carefully.
Eva stood at one of the file cabinets behind her desk, rummaging through a drawer. Her dark hair was piled up and she’d stuck a pen through it at some point. She was smiling absently as she flicked through folders. It made him wonder what she was thinking about. The deep-blue sweater she wore with a black skirt highlighted some very nice curves. He pulled his eyes back to her face as she turned her head.
The cool look that quickly replaced her smile when she saw that it was him clarified something else. She hadn’t been in a bad mood on Monday. It was him she had a problem with.
He couldn’t really blame her. She had to know his history. How badly he’d screwed things up to end up here. In her place, he’d have a problem with him, too. Which meant that he was just going to have to work a bit harder to prove that her low expectations were wrong.
“Mr. Castro,” she said as she pulled a file from the drawer. “What can I do for you this morning?”
“It seems that your IT system has decided I don’t exist. I couldn’t get into my emails this morning.”
“Did you try resetting your password?”
“Yes. But I got an error message. Plus even if it worked, I can’t log in to get the reset link.”
She looked at him over the top of her glasses, expression suspicious. “No one else has mentioned having an issue.”
He held up his hands. “I swear I didn’t do anything to it. I logged in fine yesterday.”
“I’ll get the IT guys to reset the account. Was there anything in particular you wanted?”
“I wanted to check the schedule again. Coach said last night that there had been changes to the travel arrangements for Tuesday.” Their first game of spring training. He rolled his shoulders, suddenly nervous. He’d done fine in the training sessions this week. No reason for that to be any different when he got onto the field next week.
“Well, you’re in luck. I just printed out a few copies to post in the locker room.” She walked to her desk, lifted a big expensive-looking camera that was sitting on a pile of printouts, and picked up a piece of paper. “Here.”
He took the paper. “Nice camera.” He had no idea whether it was nice or not. Or whether it was hers. The Saints had a staff photographer who traveled with the team. He had no idea whether the Preachers’ budget ran to that sort of thing.
She hitched a shoulder. “It does the job.”
He nodded at the camera. “Do you like photography?” He knew he should really just take the schedule and leave, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to make that first move toward the door.
“I dabble. I take shots around here to post to our social media.”
“I’ll have to check them out.”
She frowned slightly. “You didn’t list any social media accounts on the profile information you gave us.”
“I closed them all last year when…” Exactly how much did she know about what had happened to him last season? Probably all of it.
“When you got in that bar fight?” she said coolly.
Yup. She knew. “Yes.” No point trying to bullshit his way through, or put any spin on it. “Haven’t really missed them much. But if you want me to set something up again, I can.”
She shook her head. “It’s not team policy that you have to have them, it’s up to you.”
He shrugged. “Trying to keep things simple. Keep my head clear.”
Her brows lifted, just a fraction. “Well, like I said, it’s not team policy.”
He smiled and just for a moment he thought she was going to smile back. But then she looked away, reaching out to adjust a bright-red photo frame on her desk. He knew he should leave, shouldn’t get in her way. Not give her any reason to dislike him any more than she apparently already did. But his eyes followed the movement of her hand.
The photo was Eva and three younger women. All dark-haired except the youngest, who was sporting cropped platinum blond. All with the same deep-blue eyes as her.
“Sisters?” he asked.
For once she actually smiled as her gaze dropped to the photo. “Yes. Kate, Lizzie, and Audrey.”
“Eva, Kate, Lizzie, and Audrey?” he asked. His mom was an old Hollywood movie fan. “Tell me, is Kate short for Katharine?”
“Yes,” she said. She shrugged. “My mom loved old movies.”
“Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn. Elizabeth Taylor.” He ticked the names off. “But wait, I assume you’re Ava Gardner? Didn’t she spell her name with an A?”
“My dad wasn’t such a movie fan. He filled out the birth certificate and spelled it with an E. My mom almost strangled him when she saw it but the deed, so to speak, was done.”
“So that’s why you’re Ay-va not Ee-va?” He looked from her to the photo again. Her mom had obviously been psychic. All four of her daughters were gorgeous. Though Eva had that something … more than mere prettiness.
“Yup. There you go, the great mystery of my name solved.” She stroked a finger over the photo and then turned it slightly again so he couldn’t see it clearly. “Now, is there something else I can do for you, Mr. Castro?”
Copyright © 2016 by Melanie Scott