Liza Sutherland would much rather be in a ballpark than a
ballroom, and tonight's black–tie charity gala had
gone on way too long. She hoped the who's–who patrons
at her table hadn't noticed her fidgeting, rolling the tiny
beads on her dress between her fingertips. Which baseball
teams had won and lost while she'd listened to
big–band music and eaten fancy banquet food? She'd
have been fine with a foil–wrapped hot dog with
mustard and onions and an umpire calling balls and strikes.
Instead, the emcee stood onstage, waving a large white
envelope, teasing the audience. The envelope was the last of
a big stack, and everyone was wondering whose name was in
it. Everyone but Liza. The gala was almost over, and that
was all that mattered to her.
Hopefully she'd get home in time to catch a few
highlights on the postgame shows.
The emcee cleared his throat loudly. "And the winner of
the grand prize in our silent auction tonight—an
evening with the Washington Nationals' All–Star first
baseman, Cole Collins—is..." The audience murmured
with hushed chatter, while seemingly every woman there
secretly fantasized that her name was about to be called.
The emcee tore open the envelope. With a dramatic
flourish, he removed the card inside. "Congratulations
to...Miss Liza Sutherland."
Liza's stomach did a backflip. What the...?
After a split second of stunned silence, the crowd
erupted with applause and wolf whistles. She quickly shook
her head, heat rising in her face. "I didn't even bid. There
has to be a mistake," she said, but the only person who
heard her above the noise was her mother, who sat next to her.
Sylvia Sutherland's knowing look immediately solved the
mystery for Liza. "You. Did. Not."
Of all people, her mom should understand that she wasn't
interested in dating. Not now or ever again. But her mom had
probably thought she was doing Liza a favor, encouraging her
to get out and "meet another nice young man." In fact, she'd
been "encouraging" for much of the last two years. An
excruciating two years when Liza had grieved Wes Kelley, her
former fiancĂ©, who had been a dedicated Secret Service
agent. So dedicated that he'd taken a fatal bullet for a
visiting third–world dictator...who was assassinated
five months later.
The band began another brassy tune that sounded the same
to Liza as all the others they'd played tonight. Thankfully,
it sent people hurrying toward the dance floor, diverting
attention from her.
"It was for two good causes," her mom said proudly.
"You." She squeezed Liza's hand and despite her frustration,
Liza relished the warm comfort she'd relied on through her
grief. "And the BADD Athletes Foundation."
Her mother had founded the organization several years
ago, shortly after she'd been appointed to Major League
Baseball's Health Policy Advisory Committee. She practiced
sports medicine, loved baseball, and hoped BADD—"Be
Aware of the Dangers of Doping"—would make a
difference in the lives of young athletes.
Liza felt the same way, and she even worked for the
foundation, but she wished her mom would've kept her money
to herself tonight. She leaned closer so she wouldn't be
overheard. "For starters, I'm not a cause. And I don't think
it's appropriate for someone who works for BADD to win the
grand prize. That wasn't the point of the auction." It was
hard enough for her to go to work every day and have to
prove she was more than capable of doing her job, regardless
of whom her parents were. Now there was this.
"Nonsense." Her mom waved her hand airily. "The point of
the auction was to raise money and have a little fun." She
"But you and Dad would have given that money to BADD
anyway. If someone else had won the stupid date, we could've
had double the funds." Liza was sensitive about
fund–raising. It was the part of her job she liked the
least and struggled with most.
Her mom grinned. "But you won the stupid date, sweetheart."
She just doesn't get it. Liza didn't want a date. She'd
had a once–in–a–lifetime romance with Wes,
and she'd lost him. Everyone expected her to move on, but
grief had its own timeline, and Liza's heart still ached for
him. Living with his memory would be her ever after, and she
was satisfied with that.
"What makes you think I'd even want to go out with Cole
Collins?" The idea alone tied Liza's stomach in a knot.
"Because ever since you met him at your father's camp,
you've cherished that autographed baseball he gave you like
it was a diamond the same size." Of course her mom
remembered all of the most embarrassing times of Liza's
awkward teenage life, and seemed determined to remind her of
Liza scrunched her face. "I packed that ball away years
ago." But she remembered vividly that day at the camp, where
she'd hung out for weeks just to watch Cole Collins breathe.
Her father had been a professional baseball player. After
he'd retired, and before he became co–owner of the
Orioles, he ran a summer camp for promising young players.
Cole had attended three summers straight.
"I was all knees and elbows, and he was all
full–blown ego." Liza shook her head. "The only reason
I kept that ball was I hoped it'd be worth something
someday." She took a deep breath and blew it out loudly. "I
should sell it on eBay."
"You don't need the money, sweetie," her mom said. "And
you and Cole aren't teenagers anymore. You've both had your
struggles. Maybe he's changed—you certainly have. Just
go out with him and have a nice evening."
Liza toyed with one of the straps of her
peridot–green cocktail dress. It had been Wes's
favorite because it matched her eyes, and it fit "just
right." She remembered wistfully how he'd sometimes called
her Goldilocks—despite her dark–red
hair—because everything about her was "just right" for
him. After the love she'd shared with Wes, how could she
even think about going out with a guy like Cole
Collins...even to raise money for charity?
"I'm not interested in dating, Mom—especially a
player like Cole. He's lucky he didn't get arrested last
weekend with Nikki Barlow."
Her mom pursed her lips. "I think Cole just happened to
be with the wrong wayward starlet at the wrong time. Nikki
was the one driving under the influence, and they found the
drugs in her purse. She's the one who was charged, not Cole."
After the well–publicized drug–related drama
Cole had been involved in, there had been some debate at
BADD about pulling from the auction the "evening out" grand
prize he'd donated. But considering the funds the item was
expected to raise, and that Cole hadn't actually been
arrested, the auction committee had decided to move forward.
Besides, all of the advertising for the gala and auction had
included the high–profile listing and had gotten BADD
plenty of press.
"You seem pretty quick to defend him," Liza said, careful
not to sound accusing. She just wondered why.
"He's hanging around with the wrong people." Her mother
was always good for a classic mom–quote. "But I'm
giving him the benefit of the doubt." She pulled at a lock
of Liza's long hair. "And trying to reintroduce him to a
nice girl who used to think he was pretty special."
"He's interested in movie stars and models." Liza
shrugged. "Not women like me."
"So you've been keeping tabs on his social life?" her mom
"No. All I have to do is flip on E!, wait five minutes,
and they'll run a clip showing him with some Victoria's
"You're as beautiful as any of those girls. And smart, too."
Liza smiled, appreciating the compliment and
wishing—not for the first time—that brains
translated to curves. "But no one's ever paid me to model
sexy lingerie and wear angel wings."
Her mom shook her head, her expression turning serious.
"Wes would want you to find love again. He'd want you to be
Liza swallowed the lump in her throat. "What's Dad going
to think? The Nats are our rivals in the Battle of the
Beltway." She always talked about the Orioles as if she were
one of them. "And there's a real possibility the Os and the
Nats will go to the World Series this year. That makes
things even more uncomfortable right now."
Her mom swept a section of her ash–blond bob from
her face and shrugged casually. "It's a friendly rivalry,
and your dad will be fine—especially if the Os make
the Series." She put her arm around Liza and pulled her
close. "He'd be pleased to see you happy."
Happy hadn't been in Liza's emotional repertoire for a
long time. She couldn't imagine a date with Cole Collins
changing that. "I can't," she said.
The hurt in her mom's eyes tugged at Liza's heart. "If
you won't do it for you," she said gently, "will you do it
for me?" She gazed at Liza with all of the hope and great
expectations that a mother has for her daughter, and Liza
knew her mother had suffered, too. Surely she'd felt
helpless as she tried to ease Liza's grief in so many ways.
From mother/daughter weekends to coming over in the middle
of the night to listen and dry Liza's tears. If she could've
figured out how to bring Wes back to life, she would have,
and sacrificed herself to do it.
Liza really wanted to say no to the date with Cole, but
the look on her mom's face wouldn't let her. With a sinking
feeling in her stomach, she squeezed her mom's hand and
said, "Okay. I'll go."
Cole Collins glanced up from his menu and caught the
too–cheery young waitress staring at him. He gave her
a lazy half smile and left it at that. She was cute enough,
and he was all about flirting, but this wasn't the time.
For starters, it was way too early, and he was still half
asleep. He didn't have a game until tonight, and he could've
slept in if his agent hadn't insisted on meeting for
breakfast. So here he was at Ted's Bulletin, an incredibly
popular upscale diner on Barracks Row in DC's Capitol Hill.
Cole glanced across the booth–for–two at Frank
Price, knowing he'd set up this seven thirty breakfast to
try to keep Cole from staying out too late last night.
It hadn't worked.
"Are you guys ready to order?" the waitress asked.
Cole nodded at Frank, who was built like a bear and took
up every bit of the space on his side of the booth.
"I'll have the beer biscuits and sausage gravy." Frank's
Virginia–gentleman baritone carried up into the rusted
pressed–tin ceiling. He took a gulp of his Bloody
Mary. "With two eggs sunny–side up and hash browns."
"And you, Mr. Collins?" the waitress asked.
Cole bunched his lips. He would have liked her a lot
better if she would've just let him enjoy his breakfast
"I'll have the Walk of Shame burrito," he said.
"Fitting," Frank muttered.
Cole had hesitated to order his favorite breakfast,
knowing Frank would have something to say about it, but the
sirloin steak, egg, and cheese burrito seemed like the best
way to fortify himself against what was coming. He handed
the waitress the oversize old–newspaper–style menu.
"Coming right up," she said and headed toward the
open–air kitchen at the back of the dining area. Cole
would swear she'd put a little extra in the sway of her hips.
Frank's salty remark still hung between them. Cole
understood that his agent was pissed about his brush with
the law last weekend—hell, he was pissed at himself.
This was their first time face–to–face since
then. Frank had been remarkably quiet about the situation at
the time, and then the Nats had gone on a road trip the next
day. Since Frank wasn't one to hash out sensitive issues on
the phone, Cole expected to hear what–was–what
from him this morning. Frank had always had his back, so
Cole felt like he owed the guy the respect to sit and take
the ass–chewing he deserved.
It helped that Frank was a seasoned agent—not slick
and fake like some of the younger ones—but smart and
experienced and wise. The guy could also wrangle some pretty
impressive deals. Cole had needed plenty of wrangling to
keep himself employed over the years—and possibly over
the last week. No doubt Frank's negotiating skills had gone
a long way toward keeping him from the front of a
mug–shot camera that past Sunday.
"Last night was our lucky night, son," Frank said, his
intense gaze leveled on Cole.
Cole couldn't imagine what had been lucky about it. The
Nats had lost to the Giants after eleven innings, and with
the playoffs right around the corner, this was no time to be
losing. But if that's what Frank wanted to discuss, Cole was
willing. Talking about last night was a heck of a lot better
than talking about last week.
"Lucky how?" Cole asked.
"You see the tweet about the Sutherland girl?"
The guy never missed anything. Sometimes Cole wondered if
Frank kept up with him better than he kept up with himself.
Sutherland girl? Cole shook his head.
Frank pulled his iPhone from his pocket and put his beefy
fingers to work. He handed Cole the phone just as the
waitress arrived with their breakfast.
BADD Athletes Foundation @BADDAthletes
@LizaSutherland wins silent auction date with Nationals'
All–Star first baseman @ColeCollins. #nowthatsaprize
"You look confused," Frank said, wasting no time digging
in to his heaping plateful of food.
Cole stared at the tweet and let his breakfast sit. "I
forgot all about this."
"Well, the timing couldn't be better, considering the
stunt you pulled last week." Frank swiped his napkin across
his mouth and scowled. "Who would've thought you'd be
needing some positive publicity from an antidrug program? I
hope BADD took out a front–page ad in the Post."
Cole set the phone on the table and rubbed his forehead.
This was the conversation he'd been expecting. "The drugs
were Nikki's, Frank. Sure, I might've had one too many
drinks. That was obvious." He shook his head. "But no drugs.
You know that. My test came back clean."
"I know it." Frank stabbed his fork toward Cole. "You
know it. And the Nationals know it. But it's the optics,
son. And the Nats don't need your kind of trouble. The
girls, the booze, the drugs—whether they're yours or
not. You're in too deep with all of it."
Cole took a slug of his coffee to keep himself from
saying anything else.
"We've got contract negotiations coming up," Frank said.
"On the field, you've set yourself up fine—two seasons
running. But I was getting questions even before last week
about your shenanigans off the field. The Nats' bigwigs
think you might be wearing yourself out with all that
carousing." He piled his fork full of eggs and hash browns
and held it just above his plate. "Then you went and pulled
that stunt with Nikki what's–her–name, and
almost got yourself arrested. You're giving 'em plenty of
reason to worry that you won't be a good investment
"They're seeing things as worse than they are," Cole said
defensively, knowing he was wrong. The Nats were big on
high–character players, and a lot of his teammates
were settled with wives and kids. The owners worked hard to
keep everything classy, from the front office on down. They
were all like one big family, but Cole was the black sheep
"I think they're seeing things twenty–twenty,"
Frank said firmly. "And they're the ones with the ball club.
They can contract whomever they want. They've come across
guys like you before, and they've been burned once or twice."
"We can go to a different team," Cole said without
Frank lowered his thick eyebrows. "The Nats might be
heading to the World Series this year—I'm seeing a
pennant at worst. You want to leave a team on that kind of
Cole shook his head. He and Frank both knew he didn't
want to leave the Nationals. They'd all busted their asses
to get as far as they had, and he was lucky to be there with
them. Plus, he'd practically grown up with the Nats. He'd
been totally alone after he'd been drafted, but he'd found a
home with his team, and the closest thing to a family he'd
ever had. He'd struggled for seven frustrating years, but
they'd kept him around anyway, and now he was finally
He'd figured that's all it would take for them to keep
him, but clearly he'd figured wrong.
The reality he'd ignored hit him like a
hundred–mile–per–hour fastball: he needed
the Nationals. He'd never admit it to anyone, but he didn't
want to be alone again.
Frank picked up his phone, tapped the screen, and glanced
at the tweet. "That's why this date with the Sutherland girl
sets up perfect for us."
Cole finally took a bite of his burrito. He couldn't
argue that this was a good time for him to be associated
with the BADD Athletes Foundation, but he wondered why Liza
Sutherland had surfaced all of a sudden.
He hadn't seen her since they were teenagers—and he
was curious how she'd grown up. "Let me see that tweet
again." Frank handed him the phone. He tapped the link to
Liza's profile, and her picture came up. One glance at her
and his pulse fired like a home–run hit headed for the
The woman he saw looked nothing like the girl he
remembered. She had long dark–red hair, sparkling
green eyes, and a pretty, genuine smile. Cole figured her
for a city girl, but she had a kind of small–town
innocent look that was hard to find anymore. He couldn't
believe she was the same girl who'd hung around her father's
baseball camp for weeks, just for him.
He read her profile: Manager of camp operations for the
BADD Athletes Foundation.
So she worked organizing the same kind of camps where
they'd met. Cole totally respected that, especially
considering all the more glamorous opportunities her parents
could've hooked her up with. He winced at the thought of
John and Sylvia Sutherland, but he knew better than to dwell
on it. His rocky past with Liza's folks had nothing to do
"You don't look too thrilled," Frank said. "The way I
see it, we coulda done much worse."
"For sure." Cole stole another glance at Liza's picture.
"I'm okay with it." And why wouldn't he be? Liza Sutherland
was smokin' hot.
Frank nodded. "The girl's a looker. She's got a good job,
a solid family. We can forgive 'em this once for being in
the tank for the Orioles." He smiled. Anyone who liked
baseball was all right with him—they kept business
going and money streaming in.
"No need to worry about her job or her family," Cole
said. "It's just one date." He took a bite of his burrito,
enjoying the tender steak and creamy cheese, until Frank's
raised–eyebrow look made him stop chewing. "What?" he
murmured through a mouthful.
"This Sutherland girl works for drug–free BADD."
Frank took a swallow of his Bloody Mary and licked his lips.
"Going out with her will make it look like you're cleaning
up your act. Besides, she's our chance to prove you're
settling down, at least until we get your contract negotiated."
"Whoa. I'm not sure what you mean by that, but I'm sure I
don't like the idea." He gave Frank a serious stare.
"Listen, we've already gotten the positive publicity from
the BADD donation, and the timing couldn't have been better.
One date—we're good. I promise I'll behave after
that." He winked.
Frank shook his head and grimaced. "We're talking about
your future, son. Seven years you've spent toiling your way
to the top. You're twenty–nine, and not getting any
younger." He shrugged his broad shoulders. "But with two
All–Star seasons under your belt, a Gold Glove, and a
Silver Slugger, we can name your price—as long as you
make it look like your partying–and–playboy days
Cole flinched. "I hear you." And I know you're right. He
let out a long, labored sigh. "It needs to look like I'm
settling down." At least for a couple of months.
"Bingo." Frank stared him in the eye. "And it wouldn't
hurt your cause if you went and did something traditional
like fall in love...propose...get married. "
Cole groaned as his stomach knotted. He'd sat down at
this breakfast free and single. Before he could even eat a
burrito, Frank had him set up on a date, faithful to one
woman, in love, engaged, and married. "You're getting way
ahead of yourself, man."
Frank splayed his hands on either side of his plate,
straightened his back, and leaned forward. "How badly do
you want a new contract with the Nats, son?"
Cole raked his hand through his hair and grabbed a
fistful of it in the back. After a moment he said, "There's
nothing I want more."
Frank tossed his napkin on the table and relaxed in his
seat. "Well, there you go."
The waitress stopped by and asked, "Anything else for you
Looking pleased with himself, Frank nodded and smiled.
"I'll have a homemade
peanut–butter–and–bacon poptart to go."
The thought of eating peanut butter and bacon in the same
mouthful made Cole a little queasy. So did the idea of
settling down. But after the waitress left, he pushed his
plate aside and propped his elbows on the table. "You've
never steered me wrong before, Frank. So I'm willing to play
along with your plan." He cleared his throat. "But we've got
to find a different girl." Because things are a little
complicated between Liza Sutherland's folks and me. "Liza
would never go for this."
"No can do," Frank said without hesitation. "I coulda
personally recruited a bunch of ladies and not come up with
a more wholesome gal—she's perfect for what we need."