Brittney checked the clock on the stove and reached for the oven mitts. She heard a car door slam. Perfect timing. Her boy was home and, from the sound of his footsteps hurrying up the front stairs, he was excited about something.
He probably hit a homerun at baseball practice today. If that was the case, she’d be sorry she’d missed it.
“Mom, they’re coming. They’re coming here!” Dustin ran into the house, almost slamming the screen door in Julia’s face. The girl shook her head and followed him into the kitchen.
“Whoa! Slow down.” Brittney laughed. “You’re going to hurt someone.” She set the oven mitts aside and reached for her purse. She was dying to hear his news, but first she had to pay Julia.
“Thanks.” Brittney handed the seventeen-year-old a twenty dollar bill. “You have no idea how much you taking him to practice for me helps me hold onto my sanity.”
Julia laughed. “It’s not a problem. Dustin is awesome.”
“You’ve got that right,” he concurred, reaching for the cookie jar.
“Modest too.” Brittney put her arm around his shoulder and pulled him to her. She mussed his hair. Dustin squirmed to be released.
The two afternoons a week Julia picked Dustin up after school and took him to the ball diamond for his little league practice were supposed to give Brittney precious ‛me time’—time to get her hair done, go shopping, have a manicure or pedicure—do the kind of things her ten-year-old son would find too boring for words.
More often than not, they were spent trying to get through the backlog of files on her desk at work. Brittney loved her job working in the Nashville Social Services Office, but some days, there just weren’t enough hours to handle all the clients on her case load. Working extra hours was hard to do when she had to be home by five-thirty. She hated imposing on anyone even for an extra hour here and there. Today had been an exceptionally rough day at work. Tonight, she needed time alone with her son, so instead of putting in the overtime, she’d come home to make his favorite meal.
A car horn sounded outside.
“Lewis must be getting impatient. I’d better get going before he tries to drive himself home.” Julia rolled her eyes and Dustin giggled. “See you Thursday. Call me anytime you want me to watch Dustin.” Julie left the house and headed back to her car, the horn blaring once more.
“Thanks again,” Brittney called after her, but she doubted the girl heard her.
Brittney gave Dustin a quick kiss on the head and released him. He seemed to be growing up so fast. She crossed to the stove.
“Okay. Now, tell me what’s got you so wound up.”
She donned the oven mitts she’d removed earlier and pulled the lasagna out of the oven. Dustin danced around the kitchen unable to contain his excitement. She smiled. His enthusiasm was contagious.
“The Nashville Tornados are playing the New Orleans Ravens in two weeks. It’s the only time they’ll play this season unless both teams make the playoffs, and that’s never going to happen. The whole team is going to the game. Can I go, Mom? Please?” His huge amber, puppy dog eyes pleaded with her.
Her heart stopped, and she almost dropped the lasagna. The moment she’d dreaded for over ten years had arrived. Her hands shook. She placed the hot dish on the trivet on the counter, swallowed the lump of fear in her throat, and hoped Dustin didn’t notice her agitation.
“Do parents have to accompany their children?” She tried to keep her voice steady and prayed the answer was no.
“Nope. The coach is going to take the team.” Dustin pulled another chocolate chip cookie out of the cookie jar.
“Hey! Supper’s almost ready,” she scolded.
He took a big bite of the cookie and turned to look at her, all innocence, as if he hadn’t heard her. She smiled and released some of the tension in her shoulders. He could always get around her with that look, the same ‘devil may care’ look his father had used.
“So, can I go?”
Though the thought of him in the same ballpark as the New Orleans Ravens made her sick, the chances were good that, if he went with his team, the life she’d built for them wouldn’t be at risk. He’d just be one of the fans. Somewhat relieved, she smiled warmly at him.
“If Coach Brian is willing to take the team, I don’t see why not. It sounds like a great opportunity. Let me know how much you need for the ticket. I can give you extra money for food and perhaps a souvenir or two.”
She walked over to the fridge to collect the ingredients for the Caesar salad. Dustin’s silence made her pause. She thought he’d be over the moon about being allowed to go to the game and see his favorite team play. He’d certainly been excited enough a few minutes earlier. What had changed?
“I don’t want to go with the team. They’ll all be cheering for Nashville.” He made a face that clearly showed his distaste. “I already get teased about being a Ravens’ fan. I want to go with you, Mom. You’re as big a fan as I am. We can wear the jerseys you bought us last Christmas. It’ll be epic!” The pleading in his voice tore at her heart.
Brittney wished she could share his enthusiasm, but all she felt was terror as her carefully orchestrated world seemed about to come crashing down around her. There was no way she could explain any of this to him—not yet—not ever.
She took a deep breath, uncertain how to begin. He wasn’t going to like this, but what he asked was more than she could give.
“Honey, we’ve been to two games already this year. You’ll have more fun with your teammates than hanging out with your boring, old mother. You’ll do guy things.”
She gave a half-hearted laugh trying to keep the conversation light. Dustin could never know the reason why she couldn’t go to the Ravens’ game. She’d found a way to avoid taking him to the New Orleans’ game each season these last three years, but she didn’t know how she’d get out of it this time. Why did the Ravens have to be his favorite baseball team? Why was he drawn to Justin Harris rather than one of the other players? Did the heart instinctively recognize its own?
“You’re not old, Mom. You’re the biggest baseball fan I know—besides me, of course. I really want us to go together. Please? It won’t be any fun listening to my team cheering for the Tornados.” He shook his head as if such a thing was unthinkable. “You won’t be the only parent there. Some of the other kids’ fathers are going. Besides, you promised to take me to a game I chose. This is the one I’m picking.”
Why can’t he love the home team like everyone else?
There was that dreaded ‘F’ word again. Her mind and her heart screamed this would be a mistake. Why was it kids knew exactly what to say to undermine a parent’s confidence? She wouldn’t let him guilt her into giving in this time, but this was a problem she’d created. When he’d won the team MVP last year, she’d foolishly agreed to give him a special gift of his choosing. He’d opted for tickets to the game of his choice next season. They’d already gone to games, but those hadn’t been his choices.
Why did I ever agree to such a thing? Sometimes I just don’t think.
Dustin was a good kid, and she hated denying him anything since he so rarely asked. He never begged for outrageously expensive things like some of the other kids did. He seemed to understand, that as a single parent family, some things were a bit harder for them. The only things he asked for were baseball-oriented, and as much as it hurt her to admit it, she wasn’t sure she could honor this request.
“I don’t know, Dustin. I’ll have to think about it. Go wash your hands. We’re ready to eat.”
“Mom,” he groaned, dragging the word out as if it had more than one syllable and standing his ground. “I don’t see what the big deal is. I want to go and watch our favorite team play. I want to see Justin Harris, and I want to do it with you.” He glared at her, every ounce of stubbornness he possessed on his face. “Just say yes.”
To hide the tears in her eyes she turned away from him. With more force than necessary, she cut into the lasagna.
“I can’t do that. It isn’t that simple. We can discuss it after supper.”
“I’m not hungry. I’m going to my room to do my homework.”
“Dustin, you have to eat.”
He ignored her, stalked off, and slammed his bedroom door.
Brittney waited a few moments, hoping the smell of the lasagna would entice him back to the table. When it didn’t, she went down the hall to his room.
Knocking gently on his door, she said, “Dustin honey, I know you’re upset, but you have to eat something.” No reply.
She opened his door. He was lying on his bed throwing his ball up in the air and catching it in his glove. She hated it when he did that. She’d had to clean up a few bloody noses when he was younger.
“Come eat. It’s your favorite.”
He stopped tossing the ball and sat up, looking straight at her. “You know what my favorite things are? The New Orleans Ravens, Justin Harris, and watching baseball with you. I thought you’d be happy to come with me, but no. So, guess what? I’m not going at all, and I’m not coming out to eat either—ever!”
He lay back on his bed and started tossing the ball again.
Her heart broke. “I’m just so busy, Dustin. I don’t know if I’d have the time to take you. You can still go with the team. I don’t want you to miss the game.”
“I’m not going and that’s final. Leave me alone, Mom. Please?”
“Dustin, don’t be like that.”
She clenched the doorknob hoping he’d say something, but he ignored her. Defeated, she closed the door leaving her son alone in his room.
He hates me.
* * * *
She sat at the kitchen table alone, picking at her salad and cold lasagna. A bad day at work had become a nightmare at home. As a single parent, raising Dustin hadn’t been easy, but she had an excellent job in the field she’d chosen, and they didn’t lack for anything. Although she had no extended family, she owned the small bungalow in a quiet neighborhood where they lived. In the last few years, she’d managed to make a few improvements, including the state-of-the-art kitchen where she spent far less time than she’d like.
The neighbors were always willing to lend a hand. Mrs. Watson next door didn’t seem to mind keeping an eye on Dustin when she was held up at work, and her husband graciously mowed the front lawn when he did his. Brittney’s car was a newer model, safe and reliable, and Sam the mechanic across the street kept it in top condition. She had good friends and she was happy, wasn’t she? It might be a bit lonely at times, but she was proud of the life she’d created for them all by herself. She didn’t want it to change.
She pushed her plate away. Sometimes it was hard to believe that the part of her life when she met Justin had ever happened, but each time she looked at Dustin, she had her proof. The seven-day-vacation in the Big Easy had been her graduation present to herself. She’d worked herself to the bone the previous four years—two part-time jobs and a full course schedule. Finally, she’d graduated with honors and had landed a position with Nashville Social Services. She’d been on top of the world.
Frustrated, she sighed and stood. Who was she kidding? Here she was crying into her milk over something that was dead and buried. Justin had forgotten her long ago. She just had to look at the latest tabloids to see him with his newest squeeze. She was breaking her son’s heart for no reason. Enough was enough. Slightly uneasy with the decision she’d made, Brittney headed down the hall to Dustin’s room to give him the news.
She knocked on the door and peeked into the room. Dustin was still lying on his bed tossing the ball into the air and catching it. It’s wasn’t very often he didn’t have that mitt attached to his hand. He loved it and insisted he had to have it because it was the same brand as Justin Harris’.
“Are you still angry with me?” She sat down on the bed.
“Yes.” He didn’t look at her but continued to focus on the ball.
“Well, that’s fine then. I guess I won’t have to go online and buy two tickets to that game, especially since you don’t like me and all.”
Dustin grabbed the ball out of the air and sat up. “Are you serious? We’re going to the game? You’re going to go with me?”
“That depends on whether or not you love me.” She tried not to smile at the joy on his face.
“Of course I love you. You’re the best mom in the universe.”
“Since I’m the best in the universe, then yes, we’re going to the game.” She stood up and crossed to the door. “Come have something to eat.”
Dustin jumped off the bed and threw himself at her giving her one of the best hugs she’d ever had. She fervently hoped this wasn’t a mistake, and this hug wouldn’t be one of the last ones she’d ever get.
Together, they returned to the kitchen. She reheated his meal and sat quietly listening to him spout statistics about his hero. She smiled at his passion for the game. Of all the sports out there, baseball had been the one to claim his heart. She’d valiantly enrolled him in little league. Since he insisted on playing catcher like his hero, all she could do was hope he wouldn’t get hurt. According to the coach, he was a natural. Wouldn’t you know it?
* * * *
“Mom, show me where our seats are again,” Dustin repeated for the millionth time. The anticipation of the upcoming game had him driving her crazy.
She took a deep breath. “Seriously, Dustin, I’ve shown you a dozen times.”
“Just once more? I have practice tomorrow, and I want to explain it to the guys. I still don’t know why we didn’t get seats closer to them.” He carried her laptop over to her. He wasn’t giving up.
“Fine, but this is the last time.”
“Okay. I just want to make sure the seats aren’t too far away. I want to be able to see the players.”
She clicked a few buttons on her laptop, brought up the stadium seating plan, and pointed at their seats.
“Look, this is where we’ll be sitting. They’re great seats, honest. We won’t miss any of the action. The team is sitting over here.” She pointed to another section of the diagram. “Our seats are much better. Now, stop worrying. You’ll see everything, I promise.”
“I hope you’re right.” He didn’t sound convinced.
“I’ll tell you what. Let me print it out for you, and you can show your teammates.”
His worried look disappeared and he smiled. “Great.” He ran toward the wireless printer as it clicked and hummed indicating his sheet was printing.
Brittney sighed, still unsure of her decision, but if her son was happy, that was all that mattered.
To hell with Justin Harris. She went back to preparing supper.
As game day approached, Dustin’s excitement increased. Getting him into bed the night before the big day was almost impossible. He hummed with anticipation.
“Maybe I’ll catch a foul ball.” He nestled into his blankets, his catcher’s mitt in the bed beside him.
“I don’t think so, but if one comes your way, I’m sure you’ll be ready.”
She fervently hoped the seats she’d purchased would prevent that from happening. She pictured the ball racing at them at an incredible speed and flinched. “Unfortunately, I think we’re too far over for that.”
“A homer,” he mumbled as he drifted off to sleep.
She sighed and tucked the blanket under his chin.
“Maybe,” she whispered, but he was already asleep. Normally she left his room right away, but not tonight. She looked down at her son, tears filling her eyes. He was her whole world. What would she do if anything happened to him? How could she live without him? She’d lost half her heart almost eleven years ago; she couldn’t lose the other half now.
Seven days under the Louisiana stars with major league catcher Justin Harris left Brittney James broken hearted and pregnant. Ten years later, her son has baseball in his blood and idolizes the last man Britt ever wants to see again. When she reluctantly agrees to take her son to a game, the worst possible thing happens . . . he catches his hero’s grand slam ball. Justin asks for a meet and greet, but Brittney is terrified. How can she face him knowing the secret she’s kept from him all these years?
Justin Harris’s first grand slam is one for the record books, but his biggest shock comes from seeing the woman he loved and lost ten years ago up on the stadium screen. The fact that her son caught the ball gives him an opportunity to renew an old friendship. How will he react when he learns Brittney’s secret?