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  the fixer-uppers so you can eventually let go of them for not being The One.”

  “Are you saying that Mark is perfect as is?”

  “Mark is oh-boy-howdy perfect,” Lena said.

  “No, he’s not. He’s bossy and domineering, and way too alpha.”

  “Mmm-hmm,” Lena said dreamily. “I bet he likes to be in charge. Especially in bed, right?”

  Rainey felt her cheeks go hot. They hadn’t made it to a bed.... “You’re as impossible as he is.”

  Lena laughed and scooped up a big bite of ice cream, moaning in pleasure. “Some things just need to be appreciated for what they are, even the imperfect things. Like men. Hell, Rain. You accept the kids at the center every single day, just as is. Why not a man?”

  Rainey stopped in the act of stuffing her face with a huge spoonful of ice cream and stared at Lena. Most of the time Lena’s comments were sarcastic, but once in a while she said something so perfect it was shocking. “How did you get so wise?”

  “Practice,” Lena said. “And lots of kissing frogs before I found my prince. And you know what else? I think you found yours.”

  “I’m not going for Mark, Lena.” It was a terrible idea.

  Terribly appealing…

  She’d once read an article about him that said his talent in coaching came from the fact that he didn’t so much inspire awe as he discouraged comfort.

  She knew that to be true. Her comfort level was definitely at risk when he was around.

  THAT AFTERNOON AFTER working on the construction site, Mark gathered his team on the bleachers and looked them over. Twelve teenage girls, with more attitude than his million-dollar players combined.

  Casey and James had their team on the far field. Boys. Boys who could really play, by the looks of them. How the hell his in-the-doghouse players had ended up with the easier task was beyond him.

  Okay, he knew what had happened.

  Rainey had happened.

  And he knew no matter what the girls dished out, last night had been worth every minute.

  His team wore a variety of outfits from short shorts that were better suited to pole dancing to basketball shorts so big they couldn’t possibly stay up while the girls were running bases. Shirts ranged from oversized T-shirts that hung past the shorts to teeny tiny tank tops or snug tees. “First up,” he said. “Everyone back to the locker room to change into appropriate gear.”

  No one moved.

  “Ladies, I just gave you a direct order. Not obeying a direct order will get you personally acquainted with push-ups.”

  “We’re already dressed out,” one of them said, and when he gave her a long look, she added, “Coach, sir.”

  “Just Coach,” he said, and went to the large duffle bag he’d brought with him. It was the warm-up T-shirts, shorts, and practice jerseys he’d had over-nighted. He had new equipment as well; bats, batting helmets, gloves… He handed the clothing out, then waited for them to run back to the building. Instead, they all stripped and dressed right there. “Jesus,” he muttered, slamming his eyes shut. “Some warning!”

  “Hey, we’re covered,” Sharee called out. “We’re all in sports bras and spandex.”

  “From now on,” he grated out, “you change inside. Always.”

  “Prude,” someone muttered, probably Sharee.

  Prude his ass, but swallowing the irony, he risked a peek and found them all suitably dressed. “Ground rules,” he said. Now he sounded as anal as Rainey. “No ripping or cutting the sleeves off, no tying the shirts up high, no bras showing, and all shirts need to be neatly tucked in. And no sagging. There will be no asses on my field.”

  “We’re not allowed to say asses.” The timid voice belonged to the same girl who called him sir. “We’re not supposed to swear.”

  Mark slid her a look. “Pepper, right?”

  She gulped. “Yes.”

  “Well, Pepper. No swearing is a good rule. Tuck your shirts in.”

  More grumbling, but there was a flurry of movement as they obeyed. So far so good. “I want to see how you hit,” Mark said. “Later, I’ll get someone out here to videotape you so we can analyze your swing. We’ll get stats both on you and also on the teams we’re going to be playing so we can strategize, not just for your season but for the big fundraising game between us and Santa Barbara.”

  They were all just staring at him, mouths agape. Pepper raised her hand.

  “Yes, Pepper.”

  “We don’t have a video camera. Or stats.”

  “You have them now,” Mark said.

  “We’re going to play Santa Barbara?” someone asked.

  “We’re going to beat Santa Barbara,” he said. “The boys’ teams too.” He pulled a clipboard from his duffle bag. “Come on, move your asses—” Shit. “Butts. Move your butts in close so you can see.”

  “You need a swear jar,” one of the girls said to him. “By the end of the season, you could probably take us all out to dinner.”

  There were some giggles at this, and he looked at the amused faces. “How about this,” he said. “I’ll put a buck into a swear jar every time I swear, and you ladies have to put in a quarter every time you don’t give me your all. Deal?”

  “Deal,” they said.

  Mark spent the next twenty minutes outlining what he wanted to see, and then lined them up for drills. He started with them quick-catching the pop flies he sent out. Or theoretically quick-catching, because he didn’t have much “quick” on his team. Three of the twelve could catch. Well, four if you counted Pepper, who tended to catch the balls with her shins, which made him doubly glad he’d brought shin guards. He had five or six who could hit, and a bunch more who tended to keep their eyes closed.

  And then there was Sharee, who’d already dropped and given him push-ups for being rude and obnoxious to her teammates.


  He put them out in the field for field practice next. “Wait for your pitch,” he told the first girl up. “Take two, then hit to the right.”


  “Sharee’s pitching, right?” he asked.

  “Yeah. So?”

  “So she gives it her best from the beginning, but she’s only got two good ones in her.”

  “Hey,” Sharee said from the mound. “I can hear you.”

  “Good. Learn from it.” Mark turned back to the batter. “Take the third pitch and hit to the right.”

  “Why the right?”

  He gestured to their first baseman and right fielder, both engaged in a discussion on what their plans were for the night. “They’re not even looking at you. If you get any ball at all, you’ll get all the way to second.”

  Which was exactly what happened.

  Sharee threw down her glove in disgust.

  “There’s no temper tantrums in the big leagues,” Mark told her. Which was a lie. There were plenty of tantrums in the big leagues, all of them, and you only had to watch ESPN to see them. “Here’s a strategy for you, too. Watch the signs from your catcher instead of winging it. She’ll be getting a signal from me on which pitch to throw. If you listen,” he added as she opened her mouth to object, “you’ll be a great pitcher. I can promise you that.”

  “And if I don’t listen?”

  “Then I’ll bench you and put in Pepper.”

  Pepper squeaked, and he smiled at her. “You have an arm and you know it. You start practicing more, and you’ll be ready to pitch at the game this weekend.”

  “I’m pitching at the game,” Sharee said.

  “Maybe. If you listen.”


  At the end of practice, Mark gathered the girls in and looked them over. Bedraggled and hot and sweaty. “Decent effort,” he said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

  They all made their way toward the building. He turned to gather his gear and found Rainey sitting on the bleachers, watching him.


  MARK HADN’T SEEN her since the night before when he’d left her looking de