Brooke cursed her pinching high heels and straightened her pencil skirt. What did a person normally wear to the reading of a will in which she’d been named? She tugged at her blazer, wishing the Virginia sun would slip behind a cloud to cool her. She’d prefer not to be both nervous-sweaty and hot-spring-day-sweaty when she walked into the lawyer-filled room sans lawyer. Looking stupid and amateurish. Like prey.
Her phone rang. She checked the screen: Quirt.
“Yes, I should have listened to your wife and found a lawyer,” she said instead of hello. “It’s looking like a pond of piranhas here. But I’m going in now, and it’s too late.”
“I have to get back to class— testing week— but I just wanted to wish you good luck. Maybe you’ll see someone you know,” Quirt said.
“I don’t even know the deceased.” No way was Brooke going to know a soul here so many miles from home, and even farther out of her life’s element.
Brooke ended the call and stashed her phone in her purse as she came up to the registration desk and presented her ID.
“Miss Chadwick.” The clerk scanned a printout. “Yes.” Huh. An approved list. “Counsel?”
“None.” Brooke’s stomach flipped, tugging at the chain to the neon light that flashed above her head reading, Eat me alive, you legal wolves. I’m unarmed.
What had she been thinking, coming alone? Lawyer or none, she should’ve brought a friend to lean on because—
“Oh, Miss Chadwick, isn’t it?” A booming voice came from the short man entering the room, and Brooke’s veins emptied of blood. Sarge LaBarge. Charli LaBarge’s dad. Make that Charli LaBarge Crosby’s dad.
Why did Quirt have to be right that she’d see someone she knew? And why did it have to be Sarge LaBarge?
LaBarge rolled on, like the Sherman tank he was. “I recall when you were named Miss Chesapeake. Runner-up at Miss Virginia, as well, right? The judges had a very difficult choice that night, I say.” He scanned her up and down, and Brooke’s skin prickled against the intrusion.
“I’m at a disadvantage, I’m afraid,” she lied. “Have we met?” She knew him by reputation and sight— the deep red of his fat lower lip was unmistakable.
“Sergeant Faro LaBarge, heh-heh, though most people call me Sarge.” He extended a hand, and she took it, a cold lake filling those emptied veins of hers as though she’d shaken hands with the devil. “I’m really looking forward to item number sixty-three today.”
Sixty-three? How did he— “You know what’s being bequeathed?” Was that a word? It seemed right. Oh, it was like she was walking around with her slip showing. Not that she wore a slip— likely to her late mother’s chagrin.
“Your attorney should have received a listing. Oh, you didn’t bring counsel?” He sported a smug little pity-frown. “Oh, but maybe you’re acting as your own lawyer. So many of those Miss Virginia contestants claim they’ll attend law school. Did you?”
He didn’t give her time to answer. “Now, my daughter Charli chose design school after triumphing in the beauty pageant world. I’m sure she could have won at Miss America if …”
He rambled while rising panic shut out all sound to Brooke’s brain. She was alone, and if there was preparation she should’ve done for this reading, she had no idea what it even was. Now, here stood this man, her mortal enemy basically, if she had one. And he was trying to psych her out.
Attorney-less, Brooke was so far out of her depth she couldn’t even see the surface above her.
“…which is why I’ll be serving as my own attorney today. Just like you. We’re twinners.”
“Twinners?” Brooke spluttered. That was the last word she’d have expected to come from Sarge LaBarge’s too-red lips.
“And yet I’m the only one of us with a law degree, Miss Chesapeake.” His eyes narrowed to slits and a hiss emanated forth. “You’ll be just an also-ran today. Again. Just like at Miss Virginia.” His forked serpent tongue flickered out from those lips, the serpent. “Just like you were last year in the competition for marriage to Ames Crosby, as I always planned.”
The back of Brooke’s throat collapsed, and she couldn’t draw breath for a moment. Sarge LaBarge turned and strode off on his short legs, chest puffed out, triumph in his gait.
“It’s okay, Brooke,” a voice said beside her. “Some people have to belittle others to make themselves feel bigger.”
She looked up and saw the familiar deep dimple, accompanied by a knowing twinkle in his eye. Dane— the most welcome, beautiful thing she could have seen at this moment. Quirt had been right in a good way, at last.
“What are you doing here?” She tore her eyes from him when the clerk directed her toward the area for the reading. The room gaped before her, a chasm filled with upholstered folding chairs and a long table at the front, where the Fawn & Zimmerman attorneys were already setting up.
“It’s a big legal deal, this reading.” He pointed to Sarge LaBarge, who was shaking hands with some other unlucky named-heir, who was frowning even deeper than Brooke had done earlier. “See? He’s off threatening someone else now. Try not to take his attention too personally. He spreads his charm around like sunshine— the farming kind.”
Manure, he meant. Brooke’s mood lightened for the first time all day.
They found seats toward the edge nearest the door. Dane looked tired. Brooke wondered why he was really here. Representing someone? A client? He probably couldn’t say. Attorney-client privilege or something.
Two men took seats in front of them speaking loudly enough that though Brooke didn’t try to eavesdrop, they demanded she hear them.
“Did you see item number fifty?”
“The Lladro nativity scene? Nice, but nothing compared to number sixty-three.” Sixty-three— that was the number LaBarge had mentioned. Brooke listened in closer.
“Oh, I got bored after Lladro. What’s sixty-three?”
“Uh, hello. The reason we’re all here.” The guy pulled a paper from his blazer’s pocket and unfolded it for his neighbor to see. “Impressive.”
Brooke tried to nonchalantly glance at the paper, but she couldn’t see it clearly. All she could see was what looked like an old baseball. She could tell it was old because of the stitching. Blue and red. Dead giveaway. So, Harvey Jarman had an old baseball, huh?
But then she about fell off her chair as the man’s friend filled in the blanks for her.
“Not the Called Shot. Wait. Really? As in Babe Ruth’s home run ball? From the World Series?”
“That’s the one.”
Every other noise in the room muffled to nothing. Brooke reached over and grabbed Dane’s knee and pressed it hard. This couldn’t be happening.
“What’s wrong?” Dane asked. “Are you—”
“Shh!” Brooke hissed.
The list bearer tucked it into his pocket, and Brooke’s soul stretched after it in vain. Frustration bit at her.
“The very one. Impeccable provenance. Never been out of the family. Whoever gets it is going to be very happy. It’s why every single person named in the will is sitting here today on pins and needles.”
“And why the whole plaza is filled with reporters?”
Brooke’s head started buzzing. The Called Shot Ball. It couldn’t be. No one had ever claimed to have had it in the past. Collectors of baseball memorabilia would list it on par with the Holy Grail. If Aunt Ruth had known it even existed, she probably wouldn’t have rested day or night until she’d at least seen it.
Aunt Ruth would offer up one of her kidneys and possibly her left eye to get it for Left Field.
Called Shot Ball. Called Shot Ball. The words fluttered above her head, making her covet, truly covet, a material object for the first time in her life.
Whoever got item sixty-three had it made. Brooke had to decide whether she was above begging. Well, she wasn’t. Nor was she above groveling. What extent would she go to, though, for Aunt Ruth and Left Field’s sake? How low would Brooke Chadwick stoop?
Her heart started pounding.
“You okay?” Dane stretched an arm around her, and she unconsciously leaned into him, her breathing getting steadier in his embrace.
“The last item listed in the will. It’s—” How could she explain? “— hefty.” She was in shock, especially knowing it couldn’t possibly become hers. She didn’t even know Harvey Jarman. Probably half these people here were related to him, and the other half— like Sergeant Faro LaBarge— he’d probably owed some favor.
“Important, huh? Want me to go pull a few strings with the lady from Fawn & Zimmerman?”
“You can do that?” Hope lit her for a second, until she realized he was joking. “Stop it.”
They say it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. But now, Brooke knew, from the wrenching longing inside her for that singular object, she was better off never having known it existed.
“The last item?” Dane asked. “It’s making you look a little green.”
Did he mean with envy or illness? Didn’t matter. If emotions were colors, she was neon green.
“Thanks, pal. No, it’s just I overheard something,” she said as low as possible. Brooke needed to get a look at it herself. “You don’t have a list of what’s being bequeathed today, do you?”
Dane tugged something from his own pocket and smoothed it before handing it to her. It probably belonged to his client. “I snagged it from an empty chair.” He leaned in, a little close, to the point she could smell the spice of his aftershave. Her upper lip tingled. “What’s going on that’s so important? Jarman secretly owned a lost Van Gogh?”
Brooke scanned the list. “Lots of important stuff.” There was number fifty, the Lladro nativity scene, sure enough— as she’d overheard. There was a classic Italian sports car; a sailboat now harbored at Mobjack Bay, not too far from Maddox; a 5,500 square-foot house in Naughton; fly fishing equipment; stock in a mining company. Not a single kitschy thing, unless she counted the Lladro ceramic figurines from Spain.
But if a figurine cost more than her car, it didn’t count as kitsch.
“Fancy stuff. Check out the time-share in New Zealand.” He pointed at number fifty-eight. “I wonder if it comes with tickets to one of those Hobbit villages.”
Her eyes fell on the last item, sixty-three: the alleged Called Shot Ball. She pointed to it and tapped her finger on it a few times.
Finally, Dane noticed. “What’s that? Called Shot Ball? A short whiskey glass?”
“Don’t tell me you’ve never—” She shook her head. “If it’s authentic, and that’s a big if, it’s the single most important artifact in baseball history.” Her voice was so low Dane had to lean his ear right up to her lips. She breathed his scent. This guy was all man. “If it’s real. And like I said, that’s a big if.”
The attorney for Fawn & Zimmerman stood and cleared her throat, and Dane sat up straight, leaving Brooke missing his aftershave.
“We will begin in an orderly manner.” She clipped a little microphone to her lapel, and Brooke decided to refer to her as Fawn, no matter what her real name was. “Once all sixty-three items have been declared, you may collect your bequest at the secure area.” She continued giving instructions, while Brooke alternately bated her breath and felt faint.
The listing began.
For Brooke, the number sixty-three suddenly sat much closer to infinity than it ever had before as the reading continued. Tension built with every passing bequest, as Brooke silently dreaded hearing her name called. Not yet, please. Twenty items floated past, all to dispassionate response. To Brooke’s surprise, no beneficiaries reacted much when named— not until number fifty, the Lladro. Then, a little old lady gasped and began crying.
“I knew he’d remember our trip to Spain when we were young,” she said, sniffling.
Fawn waited until the outburst calmed before continuing.
Brooke still hadn’t been named. Sarge LaBarge looked smug, like a toad who’d swallowed a gallon Ziploc full of flies. He’d been named as recipient of both the Italian sports car and a legacy box seat at Yankee Stadium.
A fan. Huh. Aunt Ruth considered all Yankees fans bosom friends, unexamined, but Brooke bristled under his slimy gaze when he turned it on her. If only he’d received the timeshare in New Zealand. He could go and overstay his two weeks’ vacation indefinitely.
But then it occurred to her— some people were receiving more than one item.
LaBarge could be in line for the Called Shot Ball.
The thought sickened her. First Miss Virginia. Then Ames Crosby. If he were to also finagle the Called Shot Ball away from her when she had it in her grasp, it would be a killing blow.
Numbers forty, fifty, sixty passed. Brooke’s face started getting hot with the anticipation. “Maybe it’s a mistake,” she whispered to Dane. “I got the letter in error. I’m not really in the will.”
“That’s not generally what happens.”
Fine. She’d just sit here letting her heart pound out of her chest for the duration, take a heaping tablespoon of disappointment and go home empty-handed.
Or with a nice set of sterling silver flatware at number sixty-two. That was all that stood between her and the explosion of possibility for Left Field if the Bambino’s ball ended up in her hands.
“Thank you for your patience. This is the final item.”
She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t even blink. Speak, Fawn. Put me out of my misery.
Fawn shushed the crowd and went on. “And now, item sixty-three, a 1932 A. G. Spalding and Brothers baseball, stamped ‘Official National League,’ along with all documents of authenticity and provenance.” A reverence fell over the room as she said those words. So far it all sounded legit. The year of that fated World Series game was right, as was the brand name— pre-Spalding.
If, like the picture, it had both red and blue stitching…
Oh, if this item was real, her whole day just skidded sideways and slid into home plate with leg extended, a fraction of a second before the tagging catcher caught the ball.
Because even Trae Earnshaw couldn’t deny this item was enough to warrant fully funding the opening of Left Field.
Across the room, Sarge LaBarge got up, rubbed his palms down the front of his stomach and acted as though he was ready to give everyone a beatific wave of triumph. He thinks he’s getting it.
Brooke’s heart plummeted to the basement.
“Perhaps some of you in this room are familiar with the original Jarman will. For those close to the case, it is probably not standard procedure for me to divulge this information, but it might be best as an explanation.”
A cold quiet settled over the room’s occupants who had been lightly murmuring before as the long event wound down. All eyes were glued on Fawn.
“Mr. Jarman’s original will was altered last Christmas, with a holographic addendum regarding this final item— sixty-three in your printout.”
“Altered!” The word snaked through the assembled group, with “Holographic!” following close behind.
“What’s holographic?” Brooke asked, suddenly aware she had Dane’s information at her disposal and grateful for it. All she could picture was a vague image of a pop singer and some hologram friends or a Star Trek special effect.
“Hand-written by the benefactor.”
“Is it more or less valid than a typed will? I assume those are notarized.” Brooke didn’t know much about any type law, but she’d learned a bit about contracts while trying to get Left Field up and running. She and her notary public were on a first name basis nowadays.
“More valid. Nothing is more valid than a handwritten document. That is, if the handwriting in that addendum is verified to be authentic.” He frowned. “That will be the crux for whoever is lucky enough to get your precious Called Shot Ball, or whatever they’re calling it.”
Brooke shot a glance at Sarge LaBarge. Smugness had fled, apoplexy taking its place. His head might pop off, red as it had gotten and swollen with steaming rage. He’d clearly thought the ball was his— before this twist.
Fawn called the room to attention again with a tap on her microphone. All quieted down.
“Item sixty-three, as of last year’s addendum, is bequeathed to Brooke Chadwick of 125 Water Street, Maddox, Virginia.”
Brooke’s adrenaline spiked. She must have misheard. Hope infinite had played a trick on her ears.
“Me?” she eked out.
Polite clapping followed, and all heads craned around looking for the unexpected winner. “Me,” she whispered, petrifaction setting in to all her muscles.
“Hey, that’s pretty cool.” Dane gave her a squeeze.
“Please come and claim your inheritances from the secure area, ladies and gentlemen. Be prepared to show ID again,” Fawn directed.
Brooke couldn’t react. This had to be an elaborate prank. But then she knew it wasn’t when over all the din of people’s chairs sliding on the tile floor, a singular howl rose, like that of a trapped and wounded animal.
“Zimmerman! Zimmerman!” Shoving his way through the crowd toward the front chugged Sarge LaBarge. “Hang you if you don’t get Zimmerman out here this instant. I demand to know what is the meaning of this. How could such a thing be allowed—”
Security pounced on him, but he protested. “I’m not called Sergeant LaBarge for nothing. I’m sarge in charge of this county, and I’ll be answered— now!”
“That lunatic is a pressure cooker about to blow.” Dane took Brooke’s hand and moved them toward the secure area with the bequests Fawn had indicated earlier.
That lunatic was Ames Crosby’s father-in-law. For the first time, Brooke felt a twinge of pity for Ames.
Sarge LaBarge spun around, his eyes stabbing at the crowd. “This gross error will be repaired, and the Called Shot Ball will be in the hands of its rightful owner. And by that, I mean— me.” A wide circular berth formed around LaBarge. His words were a bellowing howl. His fat, red lips drizzled with spittle. “Brooke Chadwick. I know you’re here. Believe me, I know where you live.”
Brooke slid behind Dane’s tall frame and broad shoulders.
“Let’s go,” he said. “Better grab your loot and get out of here.”
Dane had no idea what the Called Shot Ball meant, but clearly Brooke valued it almost as much as that fruitcake with the red lips did. Sarge LaBarge. Dane, like everyone else with a pulse in the Chesapeake area, had been bombarded with his political signs and ads and bluster. Boy, howdy, did that guy dig that ball. Enough to threaten Brooke over it. He knew where she lived? Dane’s protectiveness skyrocketed to Quirt levels.
“Now, don’t go playing catch with it,” the man had said when he signed the paperwork and gave her the lacquer box containing the famous ball.
“No, sir.” Brooke had clutched it to her heart. Then she handed it to Dane while she put away her ID. It was sweet how much her face beamed with a joy he hadn’t seen there since before the accident.
The second they had the ball in hand, Dane pulled Brooke from the building, his pinky finger hooked through hers. He practically tugged her down the sandstone steps of the fancy Fawn & Zimmerman offices. “It’s not safe for you in there. Here.” He handed her the lacquer box, which she clutched to her chest again. No one could take it from her. Not now. Not even the sarge in charge of this county.
Brooke’s breath came fast as they charged across the plaza toward the parking structure. “Seriously, their initial letter shouldn’t have recommended legal counsel— it should have suggested a bodyguard.” She kept pace with his long strides and looked up at him, her brown eyes alight. “Thanks, Dane. I’m glad you were there.”
Hero. The word resurfaced. She needed him. At least for that moment.
“You’re glad about that ball, I take it.”
“Glad!” A radiant glow emanated from her countenance. In that moment, Brooke Chadwick was the most beautiful, holy thing he’d ever seen. It stirred a place inside him he’d forgotten existed, if he ever knew it in the first place, a desire to be more, to be his best— for her.
Man, what a contrast to any other woman he’d ever met. Particularly that hideous encounter he’d endured the other night. How could anything so disgusting even exist in the same universe as Brooke Chadwick?
“Well, the ball is yours now,” he said. “Maybe we should defy orders and play catch with it after little league practice tomorrow.” At her look of abject horror, he softened the joke. “Kidding, kidding. Geez. I can see it’s a big deal.”
Still, he didn’t get it. “I mean, yeah. Babe Ruth— I get that. But from the quick glimpse I got, it isn’t even signed.”
“It doesn’t need to be. It’s far better if it’s not, actually.”
“Okay… That LaBarge character sure blew his top over it. What a buffoon.” Dane wanted to downplay how dangerous LaBarge might seem, just to keep her from being afraid. But the jury was still out. LaBarge might be a maniac. He sounded like one. Dane should tell Quirt— right about the time he thanked Quirt for giving Dane his big break. Quirt wouldn’t like it, but Dane sure didn’t mind the view here, Brooke Chadwick’s hair swirling beside her neck in the spring breeze, her face brilliantly happy, her lips looking so hungry to be kissed by her hero.
“Buffoon is right.”
“So help me understand why this Called Shot Ball is the most important artifact in baseball history. That’s a pretty big claim, when you consider all the possible moments in baseball history. Surely you’re forgetting the moment the Maddox Mustangs’ brilliant catcher-pitcher team made a triple play to defeat the Cove Pirates?” He aimed his best smoldering look at her.
“Quirt’s and your little pennant win doesn’t count.” She quenched the smolder with an eye-roll, but he deserved it. They got to the parking lot, where his truck sat parked beside her car.
“Fine.” They arrived at his truck. “Tell me on the drive to Maddox.” If only he’d vacuumed out the Dodge anytime in the last year or so. Sheesh. There might be a hundred fast food wrappers composting on the passenger seat.
“I’m fine to drive home.”
“Maybe, but not with that expensive thing,” he said, holding the door for her. “Not alone.” No telling what might happen to her en route. She looked up at him, a little shaken.
“Get in. We’ll figure out what to do with your fancy prize. It needs to be somewhere safe.” He cleared away some debris and she got in.
“Like a museum? Because I know just the place.”
“Uh, more like Fort Knox. Or at least a safety deposit box. That brand of Sarge-LaBarge-crazy wasn’t the passive aggressive kind. You saw it yourself.” LaBarge wasn’t the most powerful man in Naughton for nothing. While Dane hadn’t personally tangled with LaBarge’s shenanigans, he’d heard tales of them at Tweed Law. Like when LaBarge went after a Naughton retirement home for landscaping violations, shutting the thing down; then took personal possession of the building and opened a bar there with a liquor license that materialized out of thin air.
Stuff like that.
A few miles down the road back to Maddox, he said, “Tell me about this here ball.” He tapped its box with a knuckle.
“I can’t believe you don’t already know, but,” Brooke got dreamy-voiced, “Yankees versus Cubs at Wrigley Field in Chicago. 1932. Babe Ruth was sick of getting heckled by the Cubbies fans and said a few choice words to the Cubs’ pitcher, then allegedly aimed his bat at center field right before knocking a home run to exactly that place on the next pitch. It propelled the Yankees to a big win and the Cubs to another loss in their eighty-eight-year dry spell before they won the Series.”
She was gorgeous when she was talking baseball, the way her voice sparkled and her energy spiked, but something bothered him. He flexed his fingers on the steering wheel.
“You’re telling me you think it could possibly be authentic? The actual ball from that series? The one that went over the stands?”
“I’ve seen a lot of fakes in my day. Trust me. Aunt Ruth and I have been down that road getting the museum ready.” Her brows knit with worry. “Almost had the tires of our lives punctured on it with a fake Mickey Mantle jersey Aunt Ruth invested far too heavily in last fall. We got our hopes but, but then its authenticity got blasted and we skidded off the road for a while. Some might describe me as cynical, but I prefer cautious.”
“Trust, but tie up your camel. Gotcha.”
Dane remembered hearing through the grapevine about their efforts to get a museum going. It was a gargantuan dream, a Herculean effort. But worth it, as he knew how much it would please Quirt’s Aunt Ruth to honor her father’s collection. She’d talked about nothing else when he was a kid.
“My instinct is always to suspect a phony first.” Brooke cracked the box open half an inch. “It’s probably a fake.”
Dane processed the possibilities as they sped through the curved, wooded roads that soon opened up with a view of the shore near Maddox.
“Yeah. Maybe,” Dane reluctantly agreed.
“Because…how could it be real?” Brooke was clearly trying to dial down her expectations. “Something this important, it couldn’t be hidden all this time. Word would have gotten out. Even the recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken has been leaked.”
“It has?” Dane suddenly craved fried chicken. “You mean the Original Recipe?”
“That’s beside the point.” Brooke clipped the box shut again. “Nothing this important could be kept secret for nearly a century. Some person, somewhere in that family, would tell.”
“So it has to be a fake. Or it would have been common knowledge.” He repeated her reasoning, letting it distill. “Proof?”
They rode along in silence for a mile. Brooke’s energy seemed flag and she sat back against the seat, her fingertip caressing the top of the box.
“I don’t know,” Dane said after a while. “I mean, I’m a lawyer. My training makes me question everything, take nothing at face value, but—”
“But?” Hope resurged in her voice, like she’d been waiting for him to counter her argument.
“But if it was fake, why the uproar?”
“Oh. LaBarge’s meltdown.” She nodded. “Right? That was epic.”
“It was Three Mile Island.”
She pressed a hand to the center of her belly, as if to quell a quaking there. “Dane. If it’s real, I want it more than anything else on earth.”
Dane let those words sink in. “Well, it’s yours.”
“Only if I can keep it.”
Reality hit him like a cold splash of water. She was exactly right. Brooke may have possession of the ball, but in order to keep it— against the likes of Sergeant Faro LaBarge— she was going to need a bodyguard. Because, as Sarge said, he knew where she lived. And no way would that red-lipped weirdo let today’s legal proceedings go unchallenged.
Brooke needed a lawyer.
A heroic one.
Dane Rockwell intended to be that guy.
They shut away the ball in a safety deposit box at the Maddox First National Bank. Brooke hated watching the ball slide into its morgue-like chamber, like a death had occurred. At least Aunt Ruth should be able to see it.
“But,” Dane explained, “you— and the ball— are a whole helluva lot safer if the ball is somewhere out of your direct possession.”
“At least until Left Field gets its security measures up to snuff,” she said, knowing at this point they were in no way able to adequately protect something as valuable as the Called Shot Ball.
What was the value of something like that? Tens of thousands? Hundreds?
“And let’s not forget Aunt Ruth.” Dane raised a knowing eyebrow as they headed into the fast food place on the corner.
“What about her?” Nobody criticized Aunt Ruth on Brooke’s watch. Not even Dane Rockwell. “She’s perfect.”
“But she’s not perfect when it comes to secrecy.”
“Oh.” True. “If you want everyone in Maddox to know something, tell Aunt Ruth it’s a closely held secret. She’s perfectly consistent in that way.”
“I’ll give you that.”
Dane knew her family and their quirks, and he sometimes recognized them even better than she did.
But— her resolve. When things went so far sideways last year, after that awful ordeal with Ames and the kiss on the giant screen that had half the town talking, and then Dane’s kiss at church that catalyzed the other half, she’d made some decisions about her life. Did Dane Rockwell stir some innermost part of her? Absolutely. She’d be the lyingest liar in all the Chesapeake Bay area if she denied that. But could she trust that anything he did was sincere? After what Ames Crosby did to detonate her trust in basically all mankind for a while, she hadn’t necessarily applied that lack of trust in guys to Dane Rockwell.
“This way you give Aunt Ruth protection,” he said over a shared Dr. Pepper, “in the form of plausible deniability.”
“You mean, if she doesn’t actually know where it is, she can’t tell everyone and their cat at the Bob and Weave?”
Especially if LaBarge or his meanies came knocking on Brooke’s door. It hadn’t escaped her when he menaced with the words I know where you live. She shuddered off the thought.
Dane’s eye twinkled, and she almost got sucked in by it. Still, nobody in a fifty-mile radius would fault her for hesitating to trust Dane, based on his family’s record of trustworthiness.
And while Dane had been there for her at key points, he’d also pushed things a little far— all in fun, most likely. Playful joking around, kissing her, getting her all hot and bothered, making her think he meant it. For two seconds. Yeah, super fun.
Fun for him, sure. He clearly enjoyed kissing her. And he would try to kiss her again, that was obvious.
But when the gossip mill started dragging its heavy millstone to grind the wheat of Maddox, Brooke Chadwick and her salacious kiss in front of Pastor Walden and Mrs. Proust and all the world had been ground to the finest flour ever milled in Maddox.
She wasn’t sure if she was ready to open herself up to getting ground into dust again.
Not if Dane was only in it for a makeout roll in the hay.
I have to know.
“Truth or dare?” she said, taking a french fry from the sack. “Come on. Play along.”
“I’m always willing to play.”
That’s what she was afraid of.
Good. She’d expected him to say dare. Leave it to Dane to do the unexpected thing. Always. “Fine. Why were you really there today? You didn’t have a client named in that will-reading. The heirs had to be present to win, as they say on raffle ticket rule lists.”
Dane gave her a long, hard stare. He ate three fries, and then said, “Well, let’s just say Vonda, my clerk at Tweed Law, didn’t have Harvey Jarman’s will reading on my official calendar for today.”
Hmph. Just as she expected. “Who put you up to it?” Then without waiting for a response, she knew. “Olivia. And Quirt.” Quirt! No wonder he was at the dunes before practice yesterday.
“I owed him a favor.”
“You owed him several punches in the solar plexus.”
Brooke couldn’t believe it, on several levels, not the least of which was Quirt’s never-ending opposition to her being anywhere in Dane Rockwell’s personal vicinity.
“Was he paying you? Was this a monetary arrangement?” If not, this meant she was a mercy case. “What favor, exactly?”
Dane shrugged it off, and then with a touch more intensity, he set down his food and said, “The Chadwicks are family. All of them. At least I’d like them to be.” At this, he made steady eye contact with her. A searing beam from his eyes penetrated all the way to her heart.
“Oh.” What all was that supposed to be?
Brooke swallowed hard. He’d skipped work. He’d prioritized her personal emergency. He’d come in her moment of need.
Dane’s phone sounded a text. This was about the fifth one he’d ignored.
“You need to get that?” she asked when the slurp of only ice left in the glass sounded at the bottom of her straw. “Somebody wants you.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I hope so.” The flirt.
But he checked his phone, and the flirtatious Dane disappeared, replaced by a businessman.
“It’s work. I have to go soon,” was all he said, allaying her instant suspicion about a city girlfriend.
“I can walk from here. Left Field is only a block.”
He should have gotten up to leave. It was time. His office was calling.
“I’ll figure out a way to get your Honda back by your shift in the morning,” he said, tweaking her nose, his fingers a little rough. Masculine. What she really wanted was for him to kiss her mouth. Four out of five days in a row she’d been inches from him, smelled his cologne, felt his breath on her skin, and still no kiss.
Traitorous chemistry. To protect herself, she’d better keep a healthy distance from him. Dane saw her as a pleasant pastime. Someone to flirt with during baseball community service. He had a real life, probably a real girlfriend, back in Naughton, whether that text came from her or not.
She’d better work on rebuilding the wall he’d spent the past several days demolishing with that dastardly dimple of his.
The clock tower at Thunder Chadwick Field chimed four o’clock, and Brooke’s brain shifted into high gear. She dragged her eyes away from Dane’s dimple. He was supposed to leave, but he hadn’t yet. Her stomach stirred, and not just from the Dr. Pepper’s carbonation.
“You’re still here.”
“Okay, then.” Brooke pulled out her phone and started to dial. “You want to stay for a meeting with money?”
“I like money.”
Everything that had happened today— from the ball to getting such personal attention from Dane Rockwell— floated her balloon of hope for the first time in over a year. Maybe the lucky streak would extend to an interaction with somebody who’d been waiting for this moment almost as much as Brooke had herself.
“Mr. Earnshaw? I may have good news. How soon could you meet me at the Maddox First National Bank?”
Twenty minutes later, Earnshaw rolled up to the bank in a silver sedan, which was possibly made of real silver, knowing the depth of Earnshaw’s pockets. He’d been in Naughton for the day, so the trip was quicker than if he’d had to come in from Richmond or D.C., his two bases of operation. Luckily, this time Brooke was already in her business attire from the will reading, so she looked far more professional than at their last meeting. Success floated in the springtime wind.
And Dane, her lawyer, was at her side. Talk about leveling up the professionalism.
As Earnshaw strode into the bank in his overabundant Polo cologne and boots, Brooke projected her most confident smile, the kind she’d practiced for her pageant interview.
“I hope this isn’t some stunt, Miss Chadwick.”
Uh-oh. She hadn’t expected a cranky mood. Well, this would lighten it.
“Come with me, Mr. Earnshaw.” She took him to the safety deposit boxes, where the bank employee held one key and Brooke the other, and from a long metal drawer, she pulled the day’s acquisition. “I haven’t had time to look at all the provenance myself, and we’ll still have to research to verify its authenticity, as I just received it today. Serendipitous might be the right word. Never saw it coming.”
From the black lacquer box, she carefully pulled the baseball. Maybe she should have on protective white gloves. She didn’t know. “It’s coming up on a century old, so I imagine handling with care is in order.” But instead she tossed it to Earnshaw, who caught it with a slap.
“1932, eh? An old ball? Nice, but still not a big monetary draw, I’m afraid.”
“Think, sir. World Series.” She pointed to the printing on the side of the ball, and Earnshaw examined it while she pulled several documents from their slot in the velvet lining of the box. She scanned the first one, and Dane read it over her shoulder as her heart rate doubled.
This wasn’t just good. This was excellent. She blinked about fifty times. “Uh, I—” She handed it to Earnshaw. “I knew we had something, but …”
Earnshaw set down the piece of documentation he’d been holding, the one Fawn had read earlier describing the ball.
“Is this for real?” Earnshaw looked up, humility and shock in his face. “This— Brooke! I had no idea this even existed.” He used her first name, yanking shut the professional gap. Two Yankees fans now stood eye to eye.
“Until today, neither did I.”
“How— ?” Earnshaw shook his head, and Brooke explained about the will.
“You ever hear of Harvey Jarman?” She figured Earnshaw might know. “Because I’m in the dark.”
He just shook his head and murmured, “Never,” while he marveled at the ball, turning it over and over in his hand. “I mean, this is the biggest find in the history of baseball.”
“That’s exactly what Brooke said,” Dane chimed in. “She recognized its importance instantly.”
“Who wouldn’t?” Earnshaw was still starstruck, or at least dollar-sign struck.
Brooke handed him the next paper she’d just pulled out, the provenance. “Oh, but there’s more. Check this attached letter.”
Dane read it aloud.
This certifies that I saw Parley Jarman retrieve a homerun ball from the fifth inning of the October 1 World Series game in Chicago. I saw this as an eyewitness.
“It’s signed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” Dane gulped visibly. “FDR is part of the provenance?”
Brooke choked a little, too. It was too much. Their eyes met, and Dane’s sparkled as much as Brooke’s soul bubbled, an equal ratio. He was finally catching on to just how big this thing could be.
“Astronomical.” Earnshaw wagged his head back and forth slowly. “You realize…this intersects with multiple areas of collecting: baseball history, Yankees fans, political history, fans of FDR, collectors of Depression-era memorabilia. Big dollars in all those. Big, big dollars there, Miss Chadwick.”
Brooke clenched her stomach and asked the salient question. She gripped Dane’s hand hard as she said to Earnshaw, “So, you’re in? Financially? You’re ready to back Left Field?”
Three ticks of the clock elapsed, while the man holding the purse strings also held and admired the Called Shot Ball. Brooke couldn’t breathe. It was so close. Aunt Ruth’s dream lived or died in this moment.
Earnshaw looked up. “Watch for the paperwork. I’ll have my secretary send it over.” Earnshaw set the ball down and took Brooke’s hand to shake. “We have a partnership.”
As soon as Earnshaw left the safety deposit area and the sound of his heel-clicks faded, Brooke couldn’t contain her elation another second.
She threw her arms around Dane and buried her lips against his neck, breathing in his scent, all while jumping up and down and hugging him at the same time.
He tugged her up against him. “I like it when you get excited like this. We should arrange for more millionaires to invest in your museum.” He lifted her up and placed her, seated, on the viewing table in the safety deposit room.
Brooke ignored his “It happened! It really happened!” She buried her lips against his neck. “I can’t believe it. He agreed to partner up.”
“I know how he feels,” Dane said, his eyes sly and happy and full of mischief, and she slowed down and let herself bask in his gaze and his embrace. “Partnering up with Brooke Chadwick sounds like a dream come true for a lot of different men.”
Firecrackers shot through her tummy. At long last, the kiss that he’d been teasing her with since they met at the rainy ballfield— it was going to materialize and she’d get to see whether the insane volcano of chemistry that had erupted in that church house last year was only a fluke or whether it still curled her toes.
“Dane, I—” she breathed. “Are we— ?”
His phone screamed a three-alarm signal.
Brooke exhaled, frustration tearing her lungs out.
“Sorry.” He extracted himself from her embrace and pulled out the screen. “Bat signal. I’m needed downtown.” An apology on his face, he smirked and went for the door.
“Go save Gotham, Bruce Wayne.” She buried the disappointment in a chipper quip, but she followed it with, “But come back to me. I’m waiting.”
Dane halted, and he glanced over his shoulder. “That’s a guarantee.”