Read A League of Her Own Online

Authors: Karen Rock

A League of Her Own

He was attractive, talented...and way off-limits.

Heather Gadway may have been a world-class college pitcher and a top university coach, but she’s a rank amateur when it comes to managing the Falcons, her father’s struggling minor-league team. And when it comes to managing her aggravating attraction to Garrett Wolf, their talented new pitcher. It’s going to be difficult enough to make it as the first female manager in the league and prove to her overly critical father she’s worthy. No distractions. No missteps. And certainly no romances with players. Everything stands between them—including their troubled pasts—even as Heather’s world falls apart and Garrett’s the one who’s there to catch her...

“What do you have in mind?”

Heather stepped closer, and Garrett breathed in her subtle citrus scent.

“A contest. If I get more strikes out of twenty pitches than you do, you stay. If you have more, then I’ll release you.”

He stared at her. Processing. She couldn’t be serious. Sure, he had control issues, but he was still better than a college-level player. She was making this easy. But if she was foolish enough to offer him this out, he’d take it.

They eyed each other for a long, tense moment before he jerked his chin at her.

“You’re on.”

Dear Reader,

Growing up, I sported scraped knees instead of bows, spent my days prowling through the woods playing “war” rather than dressing up dolls, and learned to shoot BB guns before mastering the art of mascara application. Never a “girlie girl,” I still fell head over heels for Harlequin romance books in my preteen years and am thrilled to write for this wonderful company. I’ve never questioned those different sides of me, and accept that I’ll always be as excited to watch a ball game as I am to watch
The Bachelor
.

A League of Her Own
is dear to me because Heather embraces her competitive, sports-loving side, as more and more women are doing today. When I watch or attend games, I hear women cheering as loudly as the men. I enjoyed writing a romance for female sports enthusiasts, like me, who have sentimental hearts—even if we yell for blood when our team loses a run/basket/touchdown/goal. I’m excited to showcase strong female characters like Heather, and give readers a different kind of romantic heroine that they can relate to and root for in the story.

I would love to hear from you about your favorite sports experiences and teams as well as your thoughts about the novel. To contact me, email
[email protected]
.

Thanks!

Karen

A League
of Her Own

Karen Rock

KAREN ROCK

is an award-winning YA and adult contemporary author. She
holds a master’s degree in English and worked as an ELA instructor before
becoming a full-time author. Her Harlequin Heartwarming novel
Wish Me Tomorrow
has won the 2014 Gayle Wilson Award
of Excellence and the 2014 Golden Quill Award. When she’s not writing, Karen
loves scouring estate sales, cooking and hiking. She lives in the Adirondack
Mountain region with her husband, daughter and Cavalier King cocker
spaniels.

www.KarenRock.com

Books by Karen Rock

HARLEQUIN HEARTWARMING

13—WISH ME TOMORROW
37—HIS HOMETOWN GIRL
59—SOMEONE LIKE YOU

Visit the Author Profile page at
Harlequin.com
for more titles

This novel is for all “sports moms” and especially my
wonderful mother-in-law, Bernice Rock, the greatest, most dedicated of
them all. Your seven sons and daughter are blessed to have had your
unfailing support as you cheered them on at games and worked hard behind
the scenes to keep their hectic lives running smoothly. Most important of
all, you gave them your unconditional love. They couldn’t have had
their amazing childhoods without you.

CHAPTER ONE

I
F
H
EATHER
G
ADWAY

S
cell phone hadn’t already been dead, she would have killed it.

She peered at the blank screen, then squinted at the sun overhead, picturing her frowning father getting sent straight to her voice mail...again. Ever since she’d moved to California, he’d insisted they speak every morning. He’d probably left his version of a warm-and-fuzzy message, one she imagined sounded like this:

“Heather. For Pete’s sake. Charge your phone. Next time put the cord next to your makeup. Then you’ll actually remember the darn thing needs juice.”

After a silence punctuated with grumpy noises, he’d end with, “
Call me back so I know you’re alive
.”

She grabbed another softball from a nearby bucket and tossed it to her rookie Morro Bay University pitcher. If she asked to borrow her player’s phone, she could probably shoot off a text to her father, but a part of her rebelled at the thought. She hadn’t remembered to charge the phone again, but it wasn’t the end of the world. In fact, it was possible that she’d been ducking her cell lately, and half-forgetting to charge the battery, because she wanted a little breathing room from her dad’s too-frequent check-ins. She was twenty-seven, not seven. She’d earned the right to go twenty-four hours without a call.

“You’re spraying the ball,” she pointed out to Alicia as other girls in bright blue uniforms stretched or ran plays around the wide green field outside the chain link bullpen. A few lined up near the plate, taking hitting practice with their batting coach. “Watch that release point.”

Heather took off her visor and swiped a hand across her wet brow. It seemed as if they’d been at this for hours, and she was melting right along with the ice in the cooler. But she wouldn’t give up on Alicia, even though her father needed reassuring. As the pitching coach, Heather realized the team’s newest recruit depended on her. She’d been in those cleats nine years ago and knew how nervous the first-year student felt.

Alicia pulled off her sunglasses and squinted at Heather from the mound. “Too early or too late?”

“Depends on the pitch. Stay consistent.” Heather smiled encouragingly despite her unease. Ideally this phone lapse would earn her only a lecture for missing their daily check-in, an important routine her father had stuck to since nearly losing her fourteen years ago.

She twisted her wrist sweatband. With twenty minutes left in this session, Dad would have to wait. Not exactly his strong suit. As the owner of a Triple-A Minor League baseball team, he almost always got what he wanted. Few said no to Dave Gadway. Definitely not Heather.

“We need to replicate that point of release every single time,” she added, forcing her attention back on Alicia. “Feel where the ball is coming off your fingertips.” She pantomimed a pitch, arcing her arm back and then sweeping it forward, her fingers unfurling at her waist.

The girl’s blond brows came together. “Am I going to be ready for tomorrow’s game?” She tossed the softball to Heather.

After snatching it from the air, Heather twirled the familiar sphere of white, seamed leather in her palm, loving the feel and the good memories that came with it. For much of her life, playing sports had been her escape. The one place in her chaotic childhood she’d had some control. But as a former Red Tails pitcher herself, she knew that pitching was a high-pressure position.

Heather pasted a confident look on her face. Instilling self-assurance in her players was important, especially with the young ones like Alicia.

“Of course. We’ll keep pitching until we get it. Let’s slow it down a little. Put you back in the strike zone. We need to get the feel back for the release point.” She flipped the ball to her player.

“Got it.” Alicia’s shoulders lowered, and the first smile of the day ghosted across her lightly freckled face.

Their bullpen catcher, Bucky, stood and waved from the opposite end of the fenced-in area. He might be over forty feet away and wearing a mask, but Heather could picture the older man’s scowl. “We playing catch or pitching? Haven’t got all day here.”

Heather cupped her hands around her mouth. Despite years on the field, she’d always been soft-spoken, her words clinging to the back of her throat before she forced them out. It was a holdover from time spent tiptoeing around her volatile mother. “Sorry, Bucky. All set now.”

Bucky swatted the air with his mitt and crouched again, pounding his fist into the leather’s center. “Let’s go, girlies!”

Alicia’s brow furrowed and her fingers gripped the ball as she peered down the line. Good, thought Heather. She wasn’t letting well-meaning but crotchety Bucky get to her. Sports were as much a mental game as they were a physical one. Alicia had to focus, or no amount of speed—and the first-year student was fast at nearly seventy miles an hour—would help her win games.

With a breathy grunt, Alicia wound up and released the ball off her fingertips. Slower this time, waist-high, perfect form, Heather observed before she heard the satisfying crack in the catcher’s mitt.

“St-eee-rike!” hollered Bucky, jabbing the air with his fist before hurling the ball back toward the mound. “Keep it there, sweetie pie!”

Heather bit back a smile. Bucky worked with nationally ranked athletes, but it didn’t stop him from using endearments that made some of the girls blush. If there was a “sweetie pie” in the bullpen, it was crusty Bucky. The Red Tails were lucky to have this veteran assisting and warming up pitchers during practices and games.

“Way to go, ace!” Heather exclaimed as she scratched her eternally peeling nose. No matter how much sunscreen she slathered on it, she resembled Rudolph year round.

Alicia nodded without turning her head, her eyes on Bucky. The low buzzing of a lawn tractor grew louder as it neared, mowing diagonal green lines in the outfield, where it wouldn’t interfere with the infield practice. The smells of freshly cut grass and the honeysuckle growing up the fence mingled in the soft spring air. Heather hoped Alicia noticed none of this and was, instead, zoned in on getting another strike...not preoccupied with issues off the field like Heather was. Argh. Even thousands of miles away in North Carolina, her father still stirred the pot of her life.

She gnawed the inside of her cheek. His letting go was about as likely to happen as her actually wearing makeup, something he’d know if he paid attention to more than her mistakes.

Alicia wound up and released the ball, snapping Heather out of her thoughts. She grinned before she heard the catcher’s mitt pop. Nice! Right down the middle.

“St-eee-rike!” roared Bucky, and he winged the ball back at the mound. “You split the plate in half with that one, doll face!”

Alicia’s mitt folded around the ball, and she brought it back to her chest before turning to Heather. “Same speed?”

Heather gave her a fist bump, then raised her radar gun. “No. Let’s put a little something more on it.”

Alicia’s teeth caught her lower lip. Then she nodded and faced forward, her back straight.

A blur of white exploded from Alicia’s side and smacked straight into Bucky’s mitt.

“Sixty-eight.” Heather glanced up from the digital display and gave a thumbs-up. “Excellent control and speed. Let’s get a few more over the dish, and then we’ll go for the corners.”

“Sounds good.” Alicia grabbed the ball Bucky winged at her and began again, her determination exactly what Heather had hoped to see when she’d brought her out for this one-on-one session.

The young woman had the makings of a standout athlete: a strong work ethic, a positive attitude and talent. It was why she’d lobbied for Chris, Morro Bay’s director of softball operations, to recruit Alicia, despite her small size and inconsistent arm. Growing up around her father’s team had taught Heather a lot about spotting potential, and Alicia had it in spades.

Twenty minutes later, Heather lowered her radar gun and waved at Bucky. “All set, thanks!” she called.

The older man pulled off his mask, his red face wet with sweat, his helter-skelter gray hair defying the laws of gravity. He headed up the line with a rolling gait and grabbed a sports drink from the cooler. After a long swig, he lowered it and pointed the bottle at Heather.

“Alicia reminds me of you. Mark my words. She’s small, but she’s got a big future. Might even beat that record of yours.”

A gasp sounded beside Heather, and she glanced at a round-eyed Alicia.

“No one is ever going to win more than one hundred and fifty games,” Alicia said reverently. “Coach Gadway’s a legend.”

Heather popped the top off a drink and handed it to her flushed, tired-looking player. Sometimes young athletes forgot the simplest things, like staying hydrated. “Oh. I wouldn’t be sure about that. Records are made to be broken.”

After Heather’s sharp glance prompted her to throw back a long gulp, Alicia blurted, “Not yours. You were my idol growing up. I cut out all of your articles when you played here.”

“Thanks, Alicia. That means a lot. And you—” Her throat closed around the rest of her sentence, something that happened whenever her heart spoke instead of her brain. “You inspire me, too.” She returned Alicia’s hug, then busied herself packing up their gear, never comfortable with praise. It touched her that she’d been a role model for Alicia. Sports were character building, especially in young women. They’d certainly saved her.

But if there was one thing she’d learned as a baseball team owner’s daughter, fame was fleeting. Her real legacy, she hoped, would be helping other players, like Alicia, reach their potential.

“You’re awesome, Coach,” Alicia exclaimed as she grabbed the bucket of balls Heather passed her.

For a moment, Heather imagined how great it would have been if her father had heard that compliment, then shook the thought aside. If he had, he would have grumped that she should have pushed Alicia harder or some other criticism. It was his nature to point out faults, and he often found them in her. According to her childhood counselor, it was his way of showing he cared. If only it hadn’t hurt more than it’d helped.

Behind them, Bucky hefted the cooler, and they headed for the exit. Sparrows took flight as they swung open the squealing gate and entered the large field, which was nearly ready for tomorrow’s game. Heather paused for a moment and drank in the neatly raked and marked baselines, imagining the seats packed, the crowd cheering for Alicia and her first win. It’d be a great moment, and she hoped it came true.

Bucky snapped the padlock shut, breaking her out of her reverie. With a wave, he strode off toward the office area.

After Heather reassured the girl she’d do just fine in the upcoming game, Alicia went to the changing room, and Heather headed toward her office. She’d done solid work with Alicia today. In her gut, she knew she’d been right to recommend her, but ultimately, it all came down to the athlete’s psyche. As much as she wished she could be in control, when it came to people, you couldn’t count on anything. She’d learned that lesson the hard way.

Inside her small office, she sank into her flex-back chair and glanced up at the shelf holding her two USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year trophies. It’d been a long time since she’d felt the high of an achievement like that. As the youngest member of the coaching staff, she had a lot to prove.

She glanced at a picture of her father wearing his Triple-A Falcons team jacket and dropped her head into her hands. She wanted to show her dad she could succeed, too. It still stung that he’d vetoed her offer to come home to Holly Springs after college and work for the team, an institution that’d been in their family for three generations.

“You’re not experienced enough, Heather,” he’d said. “There’s more to running a team than just being a great player.”

And so far, without a recent division title, she hadn’t proven him wrong. Although she worked with Morro Bay’s head coach, helping him with roster moves and recruiting, they still hadn’t put together a winning team.

With a sigh, she grabbed the landline. It was noon here, three o’clock in Holly Springs. He’d be out of the office, watching practice, no doubt.

An hour after leaving voice mail and text messages on her dad’s cell, worry twisted her gut. Why wasn’t he returning her call? Watching practice wouldn’t stop him from getting back to her. She’d expected a lecture, not silence.

She punched in the number for Pete, the Falcons team manager. Fear fluttered inside her when the outgoing message stated that his number had been disconnected or changed. What was going on?

Scrolling through her contacts, she found Reed’s cell number. Surely the Falcons hitting coach could give her some answers.

“Reed,” he answered, curtly.

She relaxed at the sound of his familiar, scratchy voice. “Hi, Reed. It’s Heather. I’m trying to get a hold of my—”

“Heather. We’ve been calling you.” His voice grew louder, and in the background an overhead PA system crackled, announcing a code blue.

Her heartbeat sped as she checked her missed calls and saw his number. Was Reed in a hospital? Was her father? “What’s going on? Is Dad okay? Where’s Pete?”

“Pete didn’t renew his contract, so he left a week ago. As for your dad, I’m waiting for the doctor, so I’m not sure. Wait. Here’s somebody in a white coat.”

Heather’s fingers tightened around the handset. Oh. God. No. At sixty, her bull of a father had never been sick a day in his life. It had to be serious if he’d agreed to go to the hospital. Or—she squeezed her eyes shut—worse yet, there’d been no choice.

“I’m putting the doctor on, Heather. Hold on.”

There was a moment of silence, and then a woman’s voice came across the line.

“Heather Gadway?”

Heather’s answer seemed sucked into the cleft between her collarbones. After a long moment, she gasped out, “Yes?”

“This is Dr. Freeman. I’m afraid your father suffered a heart attack today that’s damaged his left ventricle.”

“Is he going to be all right?” Her voice cracked. Suddenly she was eighteen again, leaving home for California, looking at a world that, for the first time, would not include her father. Back then she’d feared the distance separating them. But this...this could be permanent.

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