Getting Wound Up

By: Jennifer Bernard

Bryan addressed the camera first. “Dude, sorry for the ambush. But we thought it was the best way. Didn’t want to give you a chance to pussy out. Sorry Caitlyn, if you’re listening.”

Caitlyn rolled her eyes.

Ty stepped in. “Eli, man, we never said this before because…well, we’re guys. But out of the three of us, when it comes to athletics, you’re the best. You have the most natural skill, and you’re the best competitor. We took our shots. Now it’s your turn.”

Bryan leaned in to the camera. “You had to quit because of your dad, and that’s cool. We both admire the hell out of you for that. But he’s better now; at least he’s better enough so you can make it work out. So we all got together and came up with this plan. Don’t blame Caitlyn. She’s just the messenger.”

“She’s more like a chauffeur than a messenger,” Ty pointed out.

“Actually, she’s more like a babysitter. She has our authorization to do whatever it takes to get you to that tryout. So watch your back, because you know how she is.”

“Good luck, man.”

“Knock ’em dead,” added Bryan.

“Win or lose, might as well go down swinging, right?”

“It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

“’Til the fat lady sings.”

Bryan scowled. “And he doesn’t mean you, Caitlyn, so don’t get all touchy about your butt.”

Caitlyn reached over to snatch back the phone. “They go on like that for a while, but you get the gist.” She wet her lips, looking a bit nervous. “Any questions?”

Eli was quiet for a long moment while his stomach churned like a freaking spin cycle.

Ever since he’d first picked up a baseball, it had felt like his thing. The right thing. The only thing. His father had taught him to play, even coached his Little League team. Like everyone else in Sapphire Falls, they’d rooted for the Kansas City Royals. He and his dad had even gone down to spring training a couple of times. He’d won a baseball scholarship to the University of Nebraska. He and his father had spent hours discussing his chances of playing for the Royals, and what he would do if—God forbid—the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him. Giving up the dream of pro baseball had been like cutting out a piece of his soul.

But he’d done it. And now he was supposed to just turn a one-eighty and pretend he still had a chance? Compete against guys who’d been training for this? Who had actually planned to be there tomorrow?

“Eli.” Caitlyn’s soft voice interrupted his panicky thoughts. “You can do this. And I’m not just saying that to make you relax. I’ve seen you working out. I’ve seen you throw. You. Can do this.”

“I don’t know, Caitlyn.” With anyone else, he might have trouble expressing his self-doubt. But Caitlyn was different. “I don’t want to go out there and make an ass out of myself.”

“You won’t. They’re going to be blown away. Anyway, so what if you do? It’s in Kansas City. No one will know except me. And if you’re worried about making an ass out of yourself in front of me, you might want to rethink that booger wall next to your bed.”

“I was nine. Are you ever going to let that go?”

“How can I? It’s burned into my brain. It would take surgery to get it out. Which seriously might be an option. It was so disgusting.” By now they were both laughing, and Eli realized all his anxiety had drained away. He shot her an appreciative look.

“You did that on purpose, didn’t you?”

“What, re-traumatize myself to distract you? Yes.” Her smug smile was completely adorable. “Did it work? Are you ready to play ball now?”

He sat up straighter, fingers flexing on his thighs, longing for a ball to handle. Suddenly, he couldn’t wait to get on a mound, any mound, and show someone, anyone, what he could do. “Tell you what, Candy-girl. If I actually do this, if I actually pitch well enough to get a contract, we’ll celebrate big.”

“What do you mean?” She shot him a sidelong, nervous glance.

He winked back. “I’ll buy you a car on Craigslist. This hunk of rust is a blight on the automotive world.”

Sassy as ever, she stuck out her tongue as if she were six again. But damn…it had a whole different effect this time.

Little sister, he reminded himself. Immune. Besides, he had to focus on this amazing opportunity that had just sailed in from left field. Tryout camp. A chance to pitch before members of the Friars’ scouting staff. And at nearly twenty-six years old, it was very likely his last chance.

* * *

Oh, if only Caitlyn could reach across the seats and deck Mr. Celebrate-Big-by-Buying-a-Car-on-Craigslist. But Eli wouldn’t understand. And a bloody nose wouldn’t help him at the tryout, and Ty and Bryan would not be happy with her. How would she explain it? “Eli keeps treating me like his little sister when I’ve been crushing on him hard for the past…oh…year and no one has even noticed? Especially him?”

No. Those words were locked in the vault. Forever. Or at least until Eli showed some awareness of the fact that she was a female of date-able age, single and generally considered attractive. Why was it so hard to drill that into his oblivious skull?

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