Back then, I had it all.
Wicked fastball. Killer instinct. Cocky grin. Full package.
(And believe me, I knew how to score.)
My senior year, I was a first round draft pick with a two-million-dollar signing bonus. Before I could even legally buy myself a beer, I made my Major League debut.
Point is, I was invincible.
Until one day I wasn’t.
After tanking my career—during the World Series, no less—the last thing I want to do is return to my hometown, where every jerk in a ball cap has an opinion about what went wrong with my arm. So when my sister drags me back to town for her wedding, I vow to get in and out of there as quickly as possible.
Then I run into April Sawyer.
In high school we were just friends, but I’d always wanted her, and I’d never forgotten her—the red hair, the incredible smile, the crazy, reckless thing we did in the back of my truck the night we said goodbye. It’s been eighteen years, but one look at her and I feel like my old self again. I can still make her laugh, she can still take me down a notch, and when the chemistry between us explodes, it’s even hotter this time around—and I don’t want it to end.
But just when I think I’m ready to let go of the past and get back in the game, life throws me a curveball I never saw coming.
Release date: May 4, 2020
Publisher: Independently published
Print pages: 329
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Listen to a sample
Once upon a time, I might have been the hero of this story.
After all, I had everything a hero needs.
Wicked fastball. Killer instinct. Cocky grin. Full package.
(And believe me, I knew how to score.)
I even had a nickname—they called me “The Rifle” because I pitched with such relentless speed and accuracy. Back then, I could dot a gnat’s ass from two hundred feet away. From sixty feet, six inches, I could break the webbing on the catcher’s mitt—and I did. Plenty of times.
At my high school, I held the record for strikeouts and home runs. They retired my number and hung my jersey in the gym. My coach said I was a once-in-a-generation player. My senior year, I was San Diego’s first-round draft pick with a fucking two-million-dollar signing bonus.
Did you catch that?
Two. Million. Dollars.
That night, I signed autographs for kids in Little League uniforms at the ice cream shop on Main Street—then I paid for all their double scoops. Three months later, I was in Arizona for Instructional League. A few months after that, I was in spring training. And before I could even legally buy myself a beer, I made my Major League debut.
I had a locker in the clubhouse. A uniform on the hook. My entire future ahead of me . . . a future I wanted, a future I’d earned, a future—I was convinced—I deserved.
Point is, I was fucking invincible.
Until one day I wasn’t.
* * *
FORMER LITTLE LEAGUE COACH: Sure, I was watching that game. Who wasn’t? It’s not every day a hometown kid plays in the World Series. I just wish I knew what happened. One minute, he can throw a baseball; the next, he can’t. I mean, what the hell?
HIGH SCHOOL TEAMMATE: It was the curveball. He hung onto it too long. Or maybe he rushed it. But he was done after that. I mean, six wild pitches in one inning? In the World Series? Damn. You gotta feel bad for him. Poor bastard.
CHEMISTRY TEACHER: He lacked discipline. That was his problem.
LOCAL CHURCH LADY: He lacked Jesus.
HIGH SCHOOL RIVAL: His ego brought him down, plain and simple. Tyler Shaw thought his [bleep] didn’t stink, but what stinks now is his arm. They shoulda drafted me instead—I coulda thrown better that day. Hell, my dog coulda thrown better that day.
LOCAL BARBER: You’d think with all the millions they paid him he could just throw straight. I mean, why couldn’t he just throw strikes like he used to? I ever see him around these parts again, I’m gonna ask him.
CLIENT CURRENTLY IN BARBER’S CHAIR: I bet his underwear was too tight. That always makes me anxious.
RANDOM GUY AT THE CORNER BAR: I saw him pitch his senior year. He struck out the first nineteen batters in a row. Nineteen! [Bleep] unbelievable. Sad what happened to him, with millions of people watching too. I heard he’s some kinda recluse now. Lives alone, won’t talk to nobody.
RANDOM GUY AT THE CORNER BAR ONE SEAT DOWN: I dunno, maybe he can make a comeback or something. Do some hypnosis. See a shrink.
RANDOM GUY AT THE CORNER BAR TWO SEATS DOWN: Nah, a shrink can’t help him. And no team will touch him. The yips are a death sentence, and everyone knows it. That guy’s finished in baseball. He’s a cautionary tale.
* * *
Of course that fucking documentary was on in the airport bar. No matter where I went, I couldn’t escape it.
Changing my mind about a post-flight beer, I pulled my ball cap lower on my forehead and kept my head down as I moved through Cherry Capital Airport. Chances were that nobody was going to recognize me—I hadn’t been back to my small northern Michigan hometown in years—but I didn’t want to risk it.
There was a time in my life when I’d loved being recognized. I’d lived for it. People would stare, and I didn’t mind one bit. They asked for selfies, and I obliged with my signature cocky grin. They asked for autographs, and I happily signed whatever napkin, hat, or ticket stub they handed me. They’d raise a glass to me across a crowded bar.
“Great game against Atlanta!”
“Congrats on Rookie of the Year!”
“You’ve got an arm like Koufax!”
“Fuck, you can throw the ball.”
“Jesus, you’ve got a gift.”
“You’re a phenom, Shaw.”
“You’re a genius.”
“You’re a god.”
I rode that high for a goddamn decade, completely addicted to the rush.
Man, it was some life. I had millions of dollars in the bank. I had women trying to sneak into my hotel room in every city in the country. I drove a car that cost more than the house I grew up in—which I paid off for my dad, who refused to move to something bigger. I put my sister through college.
But three years ago, I blew it. I didn’t even have the dignity of a torn rotator cuff or fucked-up elbow to blame—just the faulty wiring in my own head.
The goddamn yips got me, and I couldn’t throw a strike to save my life. I went down hard and took my entire team with me, during the World Series.
Did you get that? The World Series.
After that, the narrative about me changed—I went from hero to head case.
“What the fuck, Shaw?”
“Why can’t you just throw the ball?”
“Are you injured?”
“Are you drunk?”
“Is it because of your mother?”
“Is it because of your father?”
“Is your jock strap too tight?”
“No comment,” I repeated over and over to the sports reporters greedy for the scoop.
“Get the fuck out of here,” I said to the pushy cameramen jostling for the shot.
“Just leave me alone,” I said to teammates who offered to play catch where no one would see. “I’ll fucking figure it out.”
And I’d tried. Every single day, all I’d wanted was to wake up from the nightmare and feel like myself again—I wanted my arm back, not this alien stone limb attached to my body at the shoulder that wouldn’t do what I told it to.
But it never came back. My pitching career was over.
Which meant my life was over.
Humiliated and pissed off, I quit baseball and spent most of my time hiding out in a cabin I bought in the mountains, brooding about what the fuck I was supposed to do with the rest of my life. I had money, sure, but I also had time stretching out like a fucking eternity ahead of me. I wasn’t even forty yet.
Then, as if the universe hadn’t crushed me hard enough, that damn documentary came out, the one about stellar sports careers that ended because of mental breakdowns, and the spectacular implosion of my career was plastered all over the media again. Not a day went by when some jackass didn’t see fit to give me his opinion on what I’d done wrong, what I should do to fix it, or just generally tell me I sucked.
People. I wasn’t a fan.
“Tyler Shaw?” The guy at the car rental desk looked down at my driver’s license and then up at my face.
“Yeah?” From beneath the brim of my cap, I gave him my meanest stare, the one I used to give batters before throwing a fastball right by them.
He turned his attention to his monitor. “And you’re renting . . . an Elite Luxury SUV for five days? Returning on Sunday?”
“Yeah.” I relaxed a little. This guy didn’t recognize me. He was just doing his job.
“Great. Just give me one minute.”
His fingers tapped away on his keyboard for about fifteen seconds. And then, “You’re not the pitcher Tyler Shaw, are you?”
“Yeah,” I said through clenched teeth.
“Oh, shit.” The guy shook his head. “I saw you play all the time in high school. I was only in Little League back then, but my brother and I used to go to all your games. You were amazing.”
“We just saw that documentary about you. Brutal, man.”
“Can we just finish up with the rental please?”
“Oh, sure. Sure.” He went back to typing again, but kept talking. “It’s just so crazy, you know? One minute you’re, like, one of the greatest pitchers in the game, and the next minute, it’s all gone.”
“I mean, what happened?”
My hands curled into fists. My left eyelid twitched. “Wish I could tell you, buddy.”
“Seriously, that had to suck so bad.”
Fighting for control of my temper, I took a breath. “Look, do you need me to sign something? I’m in kind of a hurry.” Actually, I wasn’t—I didn’t have to be anywhere until six o’clock and it was barely four, but fuck this guy.
“Yeah, it’s printing now.” He gave his keyboard a final tap and looked at me again. “Did you ever try meditation? That worked for my mom when she kept forgetting where she put her car keys.”
I glowered at him. Steve, his name tag said. “Yes, Steve. I tried meditation. And I tried tapping and hypnosis and psychoanalysis and cognitive behavioral therapy and celibacy and Jesus. Nothing worked. I didn’t forget how to pitch—I just can’t do it anymore. Now, I’m happy for your mom, but right now I’d really like you to mind your own fucking business and give me a set of car keys so I can get the hell out of here!”
Steve looked offended. “Geez. Maybe you should try anger management.”
I backed away from the counter so I wasn’t tempted to throw a punch. “I’ll be outside.”
* * *
The second I walked into Hop Lot Brewing Co., I heard my name. I took off my sunglasses and saw my little sister Sadie rushing toward me. When she reached me, she threw her arms around my neck and held on tight.
Although we didn’t see each other often enough, my sister was the most constant presence in my life, the most supportive, the most loyal. She could read me better than anyone, even over the phone, which was both annoying and reassuring. I’d been fiercely protective of her since the day she was born, and she’d idolized me. We’d lost our mom in a car accident while Sadie was still in diapers, and we’d lost our dad to pancreatic cancer eight years ago, so she was the only family I had left.
I hugged her back, lifting her right off the ground. “Hey, you. Long time no see.”
“That’s because you never come home anymore.” On her feet again, she stepped back from me with tears in her eyes. “God, I missed you, you asshole.”
“I missed you too.” I hooked an arm around her neck and ruffled her dark hair the way she’d hated when we were young. “You know, you can always come visit me more often. Planes do fly both ways.”
“Stop it!” Laughing, she tried to swat my hand away. “Don’t make me sorry I invited you to my shotgun wedding.”
“Are you even old enough to get married?”
She rolled her eyes. “Tyler, I’m twenty-eight.”
I pretended to think about it. “No way. That would make me thirty-six.”
“Exactly. You grumpy old man.” She grinned, suddenly looking exactly like the pigtailed, gap-toothed, dirt-under-her-fingernails little girl who used to play in the park on summer afternoons while I was at practice. Before games, she used to give me a shamrock she’d plucked from the ground, telling me it was for good luck. No matter how many times I told her that four-leaf clovers were good luck and shamrocks only had three, she’d insist her gift would be my lucky charm that day and made me promise I’d keep it in my pocket. I always did.
When I left home at eighteen, she’d given me a shoebox full of them as a going-away present. I probably hadn’t cried since elementary school, but that day, I came damn close.
“Come on,” she said, tugging at my hand. “We’ve got a table already. I can’t wait for you to meet Josh.”
I let her drag me toward the back of the place, where her boyfriend—now fiancé—sat at a picnic-style table with long benches on either side. He stood up as I approached, looking a little nervous for a guy with so many tattoos. Then again, I could be pretty intimidating. I might not have had my pitching arm anymore, but I was tall, broad-shouldered and muscular, with a menacing glare honed by years of staring down men from sixty feet away. Just to be an asshole, I decided to give Josh here a little taste of it—he was more than likely a perfectly good guy, but he had knocked up my kid sister. I wanted him to know he couldn’t mess with her—or me.
“Tyler, this is Josh. Josh, this is my brother, Tyler.” Sadie looked on anxiously as her fiancé held his hand out and I waited just a second longer than necessary to extend mine.
“Nice to meet you,” Josh said. His grip was firm, his smile tentative but genuine. He met my eyes squarely. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Oh yeah?” I cocked a brow at my sister, wondering what her stories about me were like.
“All good stuff,” she said, gesturing to the bench across from Josh. “Why don’t you sit there?”
I did as she suggested, and Sadie sat next to Josh, scooting close enough to loop her hands around his heavily inked bicep. She gazed up at him adoringly, and he planted a kiss on her forehead. I was simultaneously grossed out, baffled, and happy for them. I mean, I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to do the whole ’til death do us part shit, but good for them, I guess.
The server came by, and we ordered drinks—beers for Josh and me, water for Sadie—and while those were being poured, we looked over the menu. Josh recommended the tacos, and Sadie loved the turkey club. I decided on a burger and fries, but mostly I just wanted that beer. When it arrived, I tipped it up and took several long, cold swallows.
“So Ty,” my sister said, “there’s something I want to ask you.” She glanced at Josh. “Something we want to ask you.”
She took a deep breath. “Will you be the baby’s godfather?”
I froze with the beer glass halfway between my mouth and the table. Then I lifted it again and took another drink. “Me?”
“Of course, you.” Sadie smiled at me and shook her head. “How many big brothers do you think I have?”
“You really think I’m qualified?” I looked from one to the other. “Josh, you don’t have a brother?”
He shook his head. “Just a sister. She’ll be the godmother.”
“I don’t even go to church,” I told them.
“That’s okay.” My sister shrugged. “It’s not so much a religious thing for us. We just like knowing that if anything happened to us, the baby would be taken care of. We want someone we can trust.”
My chest grew tight, and I quickly took another sip of my beer.
Trust. I used to have trust. In my arm. In my mind. In the knowledge that a baseball would fucking land where I threw it.
But I did my best to smile. “Of course I will. I don’t know the first fucking thing about babies, so you better stick around, but I’m honored. Thanks.”
Sadie beamed, her eyes tearing up. “God, I was so scared you’d say no.”
“She wasn’t even going to ask,” added Josh.
“Well, it’s a lot of pressure.” My sister wiped her eyes. “Sorry, I’m emotional these days. It’s hormones.”
“A lot of hormones.” Josh lifted his beer to his lips.
Sadie elbowed him and went on. “Anyway, it’s a big ask, and I didn’t want you to feel obligated to say yes. Wait.” Her gaze turned suspicious. “Did you say yes because you feel obligated?”
“No,” I lied, praying that this one time she wouldn’t see through it. “I said yes because I wanted to.”
My sister sighed with relief. “Oh, good. So tell me what you’ve been up to.”
“’Scuse me.” A kid maybe ten years old stood at the end of our table holding a pen and a scrap of paper in his hands. He was looking at me. “Are you Tyler Shaw?”
“Can I please have your autograph?”
“Sure.” I took the kid’s pen and paper and scribbled my name on it. “You a ball player?”
The kid nodded. “I’m a pitcher, too. My dad says you were the best there was around here.”
“It’s true,” said Sadie proudly.
“He says you’re a bum now,” the kid went on, scratching his head, “but he said back in the day, no one could touch you.”
Scowling, I handed him the autograph. “Well, here you go.”
“Thanks,” he said and wandered off.
“What a little shit.” Josh stared after the kid.
I grabbed my beer and took another long drink. “I’m used to it.”
“Well, we’re going to raise our children with better manners,” Sadie said defiantly.
“It’s fine.” I tipped up my amber ale again, nearly finishing it. “Josh, what is it you do? Sadie said something about boats?”
“I’m the head mechanic at Miller Boat Works.”
“Must be getting busy this time of year. Summer right around the corner and all.”
He nodded. “Yeah, we’re swamped.”
I looked at Sadie, who taught fifth grade at our old elementary school. “And how about you? School’s almost out, right?”
“I’ve got one month left. I just hope I can keep the belly hidden until then.” She glanced down and shook her head. “I’m wearing looser and looser clothing, but I feel like the kids are starting to look at me funny.”
“So tell me about the wedding.” I finished my beer and looked around for the server so I could order another. “Since you dragged me all the way back here for it, I should probably know when and where to show up.”
Sadie sat up tall and pouted. “It’s Saturday night at Cloverleigh Farms, you big jerk, which you should know, because I sent every single detail to you already in an email.”
“Sorry. I’m avoiding my inbox.”
“You also got an invitation in the mail.”
“I’m avoiding my mailbox too.”
She sighed heavily. “I’ll text you.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You brought a suit, right?”
“You mean I can’t wear jeans?”
“No. A dark suit.” Clearly not in the mood for jokes, she frowned, studying my head. “And could you get a haircut?”
“Is that really necessary?”
“Yes, please. And maybe a little closer on the shave?”
I looked at Josh. “This is why I’m never getting married.”
“Who’d marry you anyway, you grumpy old man?” Sadie nudged my foot beneath the table. “Oh, by the way, April Sawyer said to say hello.”
My fist tightened around my empty beer glass. My stomach flipped over. “You saw April Sawyer?”
“Yes. She’s the event planner at Cloverleigh Farms, so she’s doing our wedding.”
“I didn’t realize she still lived here.”
“She was in New York City for a while, but she moved back home a few years ago.” She looked at Josh. “If he came home more often, he’d know these things.”
I swallowed hard. April Sawyer . . . I hadn’t heard that name in years.
“Old friend?” Josh wondered.
“April was the best babysitter ever,” Sadie told him. “She and Ty went to high school together.” Then she looked at me. “And didn’t she help you with math or something?”
“English.” Which I never would have passed if she hadn’t written half my papers. School had never been my thing, especially writing, but somehow April could ask me a few questions and turn my sparse, fumbling answers into sentences that made sense but still sounded like I’d written them. She always said I was smarter than I thought, and if I put half the effort into my homework that I put into my biceps, I’d be a straight-A student.
I’d dumped an entire bag of microwave popcorn over her head for that one.
And she was so good with my sister. Our dad worked long hours at multiple jobs—roofer, truck driver, handyman—to support us, and I was too busy with baseball to look after Sadie, so April was a godsend. She’d pick Sadie up after school and help her with homework. She’d make dinner on school nights. She’d get Sadie to bed. Then she’d stick around if I needed help with an assignment, or sometimes we’d just hang out and talk. I could make her laugh so hard she’d cry, and she had this way of rolling her eyes at my egotistical crap when any other girl would—and did—fall at my feet.
It was easy with us. No pressure. No bullshit. No games. It wasn’t always easy to keep my hands to myself, but I did.
Right up until I didn’t.
“So she’s a wedding planner now?” I asked.
“Yes, and she’s amazing. She’s working her ass off for me. She looked at all my dream ideas and came up with ways to make them work on a smaller scale. And she called in favors from a bunch of vendors to get everything done fast, because of course, I’m doing everything last minute.” Sadie laughed. “You’re not really supposed to plan a wedding in three weeks.”
“Do you need money?” I asked, still distracted by the thought of seeing April Sawyer after so many years. What did she look like now? Did she still have that cool red hair?
Sadie shook her head. “We’re okay. It’s a small wedding, less than a hundred guests, and Josh and I want to pay for it ourselves. But thanks for offering.”
“Just let me know,” I said, finally flagging down the waitress and ordering another beer.
When it arrived, something about the amber ale’s rich auburn color reminded me of April Sawyer’s hair. While we waited for our food, I found myself glancing at the door every time it opened, wondering if by chance she’d walk in and what I’d do if she did.
I couldn’t get her out of my head.
On the drive back to my hotel, I wondered if she was married. If she had a family. If she was happy.
While I undressed and turned back the covers, I wondered if she ever thought about me.
As I lay on my back in the middle of the king-sized bed, I recalled little things about her I’d liked—the sound of her laugh, the dimples when she smiled, the sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of her nose, the surprisingly loud way she could whistle with her fingers, the smell of this lotion she used to wear that reminded me of birthday cake.
Was it that scent that had finally gotten the better of me that night? Was it the long red hair? The way she’d listened to me ramble on about my major league dreams while we sat in the back of my truck under the stars? Was it the fact that I was leaving the next day, and we had to say goodbye?
Or was I just a typical eighteen-year-old kid, fueled by a couple of beers and a fuck ton of testosterone?
Even now, I wasn’t sure.
What I’d told my sister and Josh was true—I didn’t know the first fucking thing about babies.
But I knew that eighteen years ago, April Sawyer had given birth to one.
And it had been mine.
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