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Perfect Game

(Chick-Lit, Liebe, Sports-Romance)

von Louis Saskia (Autor)

2017 0 Seiten

Leseprobe

About this e-book

Luke has a problem. The press keeps painting the baseball player as an irredeemable womanizer, and his management is not amused. What he needs is a straitlaced, boring, and genuinely average girlfriend … and who would be better suited for the job than that cute event planner from Germany, who has the words ›normal‹ and ›boring‹ practically stamped on her forehead?

Emma has no problems at all. That is, until the company she works for transfers her to Philadelphia, where she immediately runs into the only guy she’s ever had a one night stand with. What he forgot to mention is that he is rich and famous. And then he ambushes her with the crackpot idea that she should play his girlfriend, so he can whitewash his bad boy image. There’s no way in hell she would do a thing like that. But the man is really good at persuasion …

About the author

Portraet fuer EBookGrowing up with two older brothers, Saskia Louis learned early that most of the time, the only way to fight a physically stronger person is with words. Even though a strategically placed fist here and there shouldn’t be underestimated either.

Starting in fourth grade, she has been using her stories and books to immerse herself in other worlds, to daydream, and to take a break from the routine of her studies (a major in media management at the University of Cologne).

Copyright

DP_Logo_bronze_150_px

© Original German edition, July 2016
© First English edition, January 2017
dp DIGITAL PUBLISHERS GmbH
Made in Stuttgart with ♥

All rights reserved

Baseball Love-Logo

PERFECT GAME

ISBN 978-3-96087-138-5

Cover design: Antoneta Wotringer Grafikdesign

Picture credits: arizanko/123RF;Ievgen Onyshchenko/123RF;Fabio Alcini/123RF

Editing: Astrid Rahlfs

Translation: Claudia Rapp

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission of the publisher.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Baseball Love-Logo

PERFECT GAME


by Saskia Louis

Prologue

Seventeen years ago …

“Are you sure you want to do that, Luke?”

He nodded firmly. “I want to play baseball, Mama. In Germany, people only use a baseball bat when they want to frighten off burglars.”

“Okay.” His mother smiled and ran her hand through the dark curls on her son’s head, so they didn’t fall into his eyes anymore. Some day too soon, he would cut his hair short and start breaking girls’ hearts. Right now however, his heart was hooked on a ball and bat.

“You really don’t need to worry.” He pulled her hand away from his hair and shouldered his backpack. “Daddy’s going to take care of me. It will be fine.”

He gave her a wide grin. “I’ll send you my first autographed photo.”

 

Emma glared at her older sister, adjusting the fit of the newspaper veil on her head. “You’re the priest, Milla. All you have to do is ask, ›Do you take Max to be your lawfully wedded husband?‹ That is all.”

The Max in question was snuffling and starting to sweat. “We don’t have to get married, we could also just …”

“No.” Emma grabbed his hand possessively and pulled him closer to her side. “We’re getting married now! I planned everything out in detail. Nobody’s going to spoil that for me.” Her face was beet red, which made her hair look an even lighter blond.

“I think you don’t want to marry Max at all. You only want to have cake,” the priest said cattily.

“There’s cake?” Max was completely with her again, and his eyes brightened. “Okay. Let’s get married, Emma, shall we?”

Emma’s mouth opened, and her glassy eyes told him that she was thinking. Finally she heaved a sigh and shook her head. “We need to start over again. This is not how I planned it.”

“Jesus.” Milla rolled her eyes. “Everything always has to go the way you planned it. That’s so annoying, Emma!”

“You’re annoying.” She dragged Max with her as she went back down the hallway, turning around and striking a pose, before she intoned the wedding march once again in a loud and bossy voice.

“You’ll never get married, Emma!” Milla screamed at her.

“If my priest is as stupid as you are, then I won’t!” Emma yelled back angrily, before turning to her husband-to-be. “And please don’t breathe so loudly this time, okay? The back rows can’t hear what I’m saying if you pant like that.”

one

A little more than a year ago …

“Of course I’d like to see you again. I just didn’t call because … I lost your number.” How did women still actually believe that line? It had to be as old as the oldest profession.

Well, he wouldn’t complain. Luke couldn’t call back each woman he went out with. What did these girls think? That he had a lot of spare time next to his job?

He should have hired an assistant after all. She could have handed out flyers that explained what a one night stand meant.

But after he’d slept with the last assistant, his manager no longer liked the idea of hiring another one.

Luke looked out the window and caught a final glance of the Philadelphia skyline, before the taxi turned on to the Interstate 95, and the driver stepped on the gas. Well, the American version of stepping on the gas, of course. Dear God, he was looking forward to the Autobahn.

The woman on the other end kept talking without pausing to catch her breath, so Luke placed the phone on his knee for a moment, while checking whether he’d really put his passport in his inner coat pocket. When his knee stopped vibrating with the sound of the woman’s voice, he picked the phone back up and held it against his ear.

“Listen, Bev–”

“Brit–”

What was her name again? Beverly? Brittany? Some stripper name. “Listen, honey,” he said instead, “I promise you that we’ll go out again … when?” He ran an irritated hand through his short-cropped hair. Why did women always want to control everything? That was so incredibly annoying.

“No, today is impossible … I’m on my way to the airport. I’m sorry. I’ll be out of the country for the next few weeks, visiting my mother and some friends.” He congratulated himself for his timing. There was a beeping in his ear. “Sorry, honey, but there’s another call coming in. I’ll call you once I’m back from Germany, okay?” He didn’t wait for her answer, but pressed the button to end the call. He didn’t want her to further get on his nerves.

“Luke Carter,” he said to the next caller, while the taxi was leaving the Interstate, following the signs for the airport.

“Read any papers today?”

“Good evening to you, too, Wes.”

“Well did you?”

“No, I did not. Anything interesting?”

“Oh, very interesting indeed. As a friend, I could say, way to go, dude. But as your agent: Stop fucking around. And I mean that quite literally. The world is not your private fun fair! You’re the idol of thousands of kids, and therefore also their role model. You need to start behaving like one, Luke!”

“Wesley.” Luke sighed deeply and rubbed his face with the palm of his hand. Today was a crap day. He was hung over, ready to step on a plane and sit tight for eleven hours straight, and his patience was virtually nonexistent. “Kindly tell me what this is about, before you start giving me a hard time, okay? Maybe then I’ll have an answer for you.”

There was a brief silence on the other end.

“Do you recall what you were doing between one and four a.m. last night? It’s no biggie if you can’t, for all of America can now remind you what it was.”

Luke frowned a little. Last night …

“What time did you say?”

“Wait, I’ll read it to you. You’re going to love the headline: Can Luke Carter still be saved from himself? Last night, after the 5:2 victory against the Boston Red Sox, the Delphies star pitcher could once again be seen bar hopping and partying all over town – listen up, this is my favorite part now – After he handed a can of beer to a minor in the street outside The Haunted, he was welcomed into the club, where he partied until four in the morning, when the bouncers persuaded him it was time to hit the road. It seems that he wasn’t quite ready to call it a night though, since he took home two scantily-clad women. We were unable to ascertain whether he was paying for their services. There’s even a nice little photo to go with that. Of course the tow ladies aren’t wearing any underwear.”

“I was not paying for anything,” Luke flared as he stared up at the sky, which was crisscrossed by several vapor trails from planes. “I never had to pay any of them.” Why would the press spread such crap anyway?

“That is your reaction to the article?” Wesley did not sound amused at all. “Luke! This is the third time this month that we’re greeted with shit like that. Your management is putting pressure on me.”

Luke sank deeper into the seat and groaned. “Wes, you know the tabloids, they’re always blowing things out of proportion. The article is a total exaggeration. They would write the same crap if I behaved like a saint.”

“A minor, Luke. Beer in the street for a minor!”

“He looked older.”

“He was nineteen.”

“I never agreed with the law that you have to be twenty-one before you can drink alcohol. It’s bullshit. Take it as a statement to that effect: America isn’t as free as many people claim it is.”

“This isn’t Germany, Luke.”

“It isn’t? Thanks for the reality check, Wes.”

“Just watch your step for a while, okay? Think before you do stuff. You’ll be under the radar in Germany, so you can have a good time over there, but try to act like a decent human being once you’re back. Happy Holidays, man. I’ll buy you a drink when you get back.”

And with that, he hung up. As an agent, he could be a pain in the butt, but as a friend, he was the best Luke could have wished for.

The taxi stopped before the entrance to the first class gates. “Sir, we’re here.”

“Thank you. How much is it?”

The driver tapped the taxi meter and smiled in the rearview mirror. “And would you mind giving me an autograph for my son, Mr. Carter? He’s a huge fan.”

Luke nodded tiredly, closed his eyes for a few seconds, and then looked up again. “Sure. What’s your son’s name?”

“It’s a boy!”

“Oh no!”

“What?”

“Uh …” Emma held the phone against the other ear and turned up the collar of her warm winter coat. Maybe that wasn’t the reaction her sister had hoped for, but honestly – a boy? A boy would grow up to be a man, and she felt that her nephew simply didn’t deserve that kind of nature’s punishment.

“I mean, yeah, that’s great!” she said, despite her misgivings. “We simply need more strong women in the world, that’s all.”

“If you want more strong women, I suspect you’ll have to start producing babies yourself,” Milla laughed. “I’m done for a while. But I can tell you I’ve never seen a more handsome baby in my life!”

Emma refrained from pointing out that all mothers would say that. Of course in her sister’s case it had to be true. “He has first-class genes after all.”

“That’s true. Though Steve says he takes only after me.”

“All the better.”

“Hey, my husband is totally hot!”

Emma considered the allegation for a moment.

“Not as hot as you are, but I guess you could call him lukewarm.”

“You’re impossible!” Milla’s chuckle morphed into a sigh. “I really miss you.”

“I know.” The snow started to fall, and Emma turned right at the corner. “I hate the fact that I cannot simply drop by and admire your son. Send me as many photos as you can, okay? I want to be able to picture him in 3D.”

“I will. But he looks incredible in 2D as well.”

“Maybe, but we live in the twenty-first century, where we want to have everything in 3D,” Emma argued with a laugh, but she couldn’t help that the thought of Milla’s life compared to her own stung. Her sister was a mere two years older, and yet she already had an amazing, lukewarm husband, and an incredibly handsome son. Emma wanted the same – and there had been a time when she’d believed she could have all of it, too.

“I’m so proud of you, Milla,” she whispered, hoping the tears wouldn’t freeze on her cheeks. “You’re going to be such a great mom! Call me as soon as my nephew asks what his aunt is doing, okay? I don’t care how much it costs to call from the States. We have Skype and WhatsApp, and smoke signals …”

Milla chuckled. “Though I’m already convinced that my son will be an intelligent wunderkind, I’m afraid it might take a while before he can speak.”

Right. He was a boy. Emma sighed. Poor kid.

“Alright, then call me once you guys have agreed on a name. I heard Emmo is really a hip name these days …”

Milla snorted. “I’m sure high school would be a real blast with a name like that!”

“Hey, at least it’s better than calling your child after a fruit! I’m telling you, Americans are crazy – your husband is one of the few exceptions, of course. All those poor Apple-Melons running around!”

“We’ll come up with a perfectly normal name,” Milla assured her cheerfully. “The birth certificate issue is putting some pressure on us … why does a child need a name right away? I’m sure it takes a few years before you can tell whether you’re raising a Kevin.”

Emma guffawed and flexed her cold hand.

“As my professor used to say, Kevin is not a name, Kevin is a diagnosis! But Milla, I have to go now. Work is calling.”

“Are you still working a thousand jobs, despite your shiny degree?”

“I’m still waiting for the right company.”

“You keep waiting, while I’ll raise a child.”

“You’re mean! But I still love you, and I’m going to hang up now.” Emma peeked into the window of the fancy Italian restaurant, where she worked part-time as a waitress.

Enrico, the maître d’, waved at her through the window. “I think my boss is waving at me … or maybe he’s only trying to shoo away a fly. Anyway, give my nephew a kiss and say hi to your lukewarm husband.”

“Steve isn’t …”

“Yeah, I know, he’s super hot and super sexy, and I’m dying with envy. Talk to you soon, Milla.”

“Yes, I’ll call you,” her sister said goodbye and hung up.

Emma stared wistfully at her phone for a few seconds; then she sighed heavily and climbed the steps that led up to Giovanni’s.

The warmth that enveloped her was so welcome that she almost moaned loudly, in an X-rated fashion.

Ciao, bella, are you doing alright?”

“Now I am,” she sighed and took off her coat, trying to hang it on one of the pegs. “And stop calling me ›bella‹ – you say that to all of the girls, which is why it only makes me feel cheap.”

“But you are the only one where I mean it,” Enrico professed, while he took the coat from her hands and hung it on the coat rack, which was positioned too high on the wall for Emma to reach. Yes, she was short – but she still thought the coat rack was an instance of discrimination.

She looked around the dim room and registered that there weren’t a lot of guests yet. That didn’t surprise her however, for the rush would only start in about an hour.

She smoothed the black blouse with her hands, and adjusted the red blazer she was wearing on top of it. That was her work uniform. When she was satisfied, she noticed that Enrico was still staring at her.

“What’s wrong?” she demanded. “Is there a giant ›L‹ on my forehead?”

“What? No, I just thought that I might have something for you …”

“No more matchmaking attempts, Enrico!” she cut him short with her hand raised to stop him. “While your relatives are really nice, even Italian men are still men.”

Enrico grinned. “You haven’t gone out in two years, bella. That can’t be healthy. It engenders stress. And all because of a little breakup, come on …”

“My fiancé canceled our wedding. ›Little‹ isn’t the correct word for that.”

“I still think you should risk your heart again … but that was not what I was talking about this time. No, I heard of a job opening in an event management agency – that is what you majored in, isn’t it?”

If that finally was a good position, Emma might even be inclined to forget that he’d just reminded her of her former fiancé. And that he was a man as well. She ought to feel pity for him anyway, for he had to live with that handicap every day of his life!

“How lovely that it only took you four years to find out what I majored in! So what kind of job are you talking about? What agency?”

He shrugged his shoulders, while Emma went around the small desk, which would be her realm tonight. “I don’t recall. Something with ›event‹ … Events & More, or maybe Make More Events, or something like that?”

She stopped in her tracks and gave the maître d’ a wide-eyed look. “There’s an opening at More & More Events?”

“Yes, that’s it. That was the name of the company. So you know them?”

Did she know them? They were the rock stars in the event agency world! If they were a cell phone, they’d be the iPhone. They were the pineapple of fruits, the lawnmower of nail cutters!

More & More Events has a job opening?” she repeated. She hated herself for it, but her voice was a high-pitched squeal. She couldn’t help it. While her structured thinking and organizational skills were amazing, her way of dealing with new information was more like that of a kid in a ball pit.

If she could score a job with More & More Events, she could easily start her own agency in about two years. Their reputation was so stellar that it would rub off on her almost automatically.

She rushed into Enrico’s arms and hugged him tightly.

“That’s incredible, Enrico! I’m too excited to even ask you how the hell you’ve heard about it in the first place!”

Enrico patted her back awkwardly. “You really have a talent for getting very excited, bella.”

“How else could I be working here?”

two

It was fascinating, Luke thought. He got on a plane in one world, and stepped out in a completely different one.

At Cologne Airport, nobody asked for his autograph. Nobody knew his name, nobody had read the stupid article, and nobody went on his nerves. It was a holiday from his life.

His mother had barely changed. A few more lines in her face, but she still cosseted him like she’d done when he was thirteen. He’d had to practically tear his suitcase from her hand, to prove that he could carry it on his own.

After he’d gotten some sleep, and tried to ignore the jetlag as much as that was possible, his mother had cooked him the best lunch Germany had to offer: roast, dumplings, red cabbage, and the typical dark rye bread to go with that.

Now he was standing in the cold with his friends, debating where to go. They were four guys, two of them married – the poor sods, not even thirty and already married – which narrowed their search for a fitting place.

For reasons unclear to him, they did not want to go to a strip club.

It was weird. He hadn’t seen his buddies in over a year, but they treated him as if they saw him every day, as if he was still one of the gang. After sixteen years. In Philadelphia he had no friends he knew from high school. When he became a pro baseball player, people had split into enviers and those who wanted to bask in his glory. Or maybe Luke had simply turned into an asshole. He wasn’t exactly sure yet.

“How about Club Casanova?” Daniel – married – suggested.

“Are you insane? At eight in the evening, the place is empty. And we’re too old for it anyway.” Meik looked at his friend as if he’d inhaled his daughter’s diapers for too long. “What do you want to do, Luke? You’re the guest of honor today, sort of. That means it’s your choice.”

“I’m hungry. How about some Italian food? I don’t want to talk about the stuff they call pizza in America.” The crust of the gluten-free pizza consisted of ground meat. That was plain wrong.

They all nodded, and Finn, the fourth in the gang, who was already blessed with three children – how suicidal did anyone have to be for that – clapped his cold hands.

“Italian sounds good to me. Giovanni’s?”

“I’m sure it will be packed,” Daniel said. “But we can try.”

“Is it far from here?” Luke wasn’t in the mood for a long march through the biting cold.

“Just around the corner,” Meik reassured him.

The group started walking, and stood before the restaurant a few minutes later. The place had a wide glass front, through which you could see the elegant, and fully occupied dining tables, and the rather tweedy-looking bar.

“That doesn’t look promising at all.” Meik craned his neck, and Luke had to agree. It looked as if there were already twenty people too much sitting around the tables.

“We’ll check anyway,” Finn decided.

The cold air pushed the men into the foyer, where dozens of coats were defying gravity on the coat rack. Several couples and a small family were standing in the waiting area before them, slowly inching forward into the restaurant proper. There was a dark wooden desk, where apparently the tables were assigned. Luke couldn’t see who was behind the lectern-like desk, because there was always someone in his line of vision. Plus the person behind the desk couldn’t be very tall.

“Oh, it’s a woman. We’re in luck.” Finn laughed and gave Luke an encouraging look.

“We’re in luck?” he repeated his friend’s words. “Why are we in luck?”

In the meantime the crowd had thinned, and Luke was finally able to catch a glance at their hostess. A blonde woman in her mid-twenties, clad in a red blazer that reminded Luke of the elevator ladies in some of the better American hotels, who pushed the buttons for the guests. She was looking at a list and checking off names. Her hair kept falling into her face, and she tucked it back behind her ears approximately every other second.

She was really short. Her head would most likely not even reach his chin, and her fist looked as if Luke would be able to wrap his hand around it easily.

“She’s rather cute, Luke.” Meik punched him in the arm. “Don’t you think?”

Cute was probably the right word to describe her. She was no stunning beauty, not like the women he’d been photographed with the other night, but her face could be described as pretty. As for her body … well, you couldn’t expect everyone to spend their life at the gym and be a size four, or even six.

“Puppies are cute, too. But you haven’t pointed out any of those so far. So why …?” Luke narrowed his eyes at his three grinning buddies. “Oh no!”

“Come on. All you need to do is flirt a little. We’ll be seated in no time,” Daniel pointed out.

Luke raised his eyebrows. “Then why don’t you do it?”

“I’m married,” he said defensively. “It wouldn’t be proper for a married man to flirt with another woman, would it?”

Finn patted Luke’s shoulder. “You’re the best-looking one of us, plus you’re an athlete, so you’re always in peak form. I think that settles it.”

Luke groaned loudly. “Is that your usual shtick? Sweet-talking people until they give in?”

“It’s the German way, dude.”

“I grew up here, Finn. I’m sure it’s absolutely not the German way. Much more of an American thing.”

“But you want to eat dinner here, don’t you?” Meik asked slowly, his grin widening.

Yes, these guys really treated him as if they went out together every day.

Right, so why not? It wasn’t as if Luke had a problem with flirting. He didn’t need to go to bed with the little wallflower afterwards.

“Okay, I’ll do it. For the gang. And drinks are on you later.”

What the devil was with those guys loitering in the foyer? They reminded her of a bunch of oversized puppies, waiting to be adopted. And now they were patting each other’s shoulders and chuckling. Emma corrected herself: They looked like Neanderthals, waiting to be adopted.

One of the cavemen approached her. He seemed to be in his late twenties, and his sheer size should have intimidated her. But when she saw the smarmy smile on his face, she was certain she could take him on if necessary.

His brown hair was cropped short, and the chiseled face might have been attractive, if it wasn’t for the telling smile, which branded him as far too self-confident. Judging from his physique, he was also one of the guys who spent their spare time in a stuffy gym, just to be able to show off their muscles at the beach.

Not her type at all.

And she was lying only a tiny little bit.

“Hello, pretty woman.” The man leaned on the desk, and Emma forced herself to smile at him.

“Hello, stranger. Can I help you?”

“Yes, you can.” He fixed his gaze on Emma, and she had to admit that at least his blue eyes were rather likeable. Maybe he was a nice enough man. By no means did she want to pass a hasty judgment on this vainglorious egomaniac. Nope.

“My friends and I would like a table for four.” He nodded in the direction of the other Neanderthals, who seemed to think this was extremely funny.

Maybe they had seen the smarminess of his smile, too?

“Did you make a reservation?”

“I’m afraid we did not.”

Emma raised her eyebrows and pressed her lips together briefly. He expected to get a table for four right now, during rush hour?

That seemed a tad too optimistic.

“Okay.” She leafed through her list, concluding as expected that the restaurant was fully booked. She tapped her pen against the sheet of paper and shook her head. “I’m sorry, but we don’t have a table for you.” She shrugged her shoulders in apology. “We’re fully booked for the rest of the evening.”

“Fully booked?” The man was still smiling as if that would change anything about the available seats.

“Fully. To capacity.”

The tall man slowly shook his head and nestled at the collar of his white shirt. “Well,” he leaned forward as his fingertips brushed her arm, “we could move closer together. Squeeze in, you know …”

Her arm was instantly covered in telltale goose bumps. Alright, so maybe he was her type, at least a little bit. Was it her fault that she was attracted to muscles and a handsome face?

Fortunately he was still sporting that fake, incredibly sleazy smile – it prevented her from losing her head.

“Well, if you and your friends are not prepared to sit stockpiled on top of each other, we still don’t have a seat for you.”

The man sighed heavily. “This place is huge; I’m sure your pretty head will be able to figure something out.”

Emma was getting impatient, and gritted her teeth accordingly. “My pretty head tells me that tomorrow will be Christmas Eve, and at the same time it wonders how your smarmy head could expect us to have a table for you in the first place, on the busiest day of the month and without a reservation.”

“Mhm. That’s very interesting, but … Has anyone ever told you that you have a beautiful mouth?”

Perplexed, she blinked at him. “Uh, what?”

“Yes. Very pretty – but it would be even prettier if your lips would form the words, ›we’ll have a table ready for you in a minute‹ now.”

Incredulous as his nerve, her jaw dropped. “What do you call this weird thing you’re doing? Flirting?”

He grinned. “Yes. Nice of you to notice.”

She shook her head and looked up at him. Once again, here was proof: The better-looking a guy was, the dumber. “You call it flirting, I call it embarrassing. My goodness, don’t you have a shred of self-respect? For the last time: We don’t have a table for four! Simply try to be less spontaneous next time.”

The smile vanished from the man’s face, and he narrowed his eyes at her. “Listen.”

He leaned against the desk. “It’s not my fault that you’re on your period right now, so would you just–”

“Oh my God!” She almost burst out laughing. “Why are you still standing here? We’re fully booked – and if I were on my period, my fist would already have punched you in the face. So you’re lucky you were wrong about that.”

The man didn’t budge. What did it take to get rid of him? Did she have to throw a shoe at him?

He leaned forward again, and his coat rustled, as if there was money hidden in the pocket.

“So you still don’t have a table for us?”

Annoyed, Emma wanted to open her mouth again, when he pulled something from his coat pocket and placed it on the desk in front of her.

Emma looked at the wooden top, eyebrows raised. So he actually had hidden money there. “What’s that?”

“A fifty-Euro note.”

“I can see that, but why is it on my desk?”

“I thought that maybe with this banknote in front of you, you might see another angle of the reservation situation.”

Emma crossed her arms. If flirting wouldn’t get him anywhere, he tried bribery? She’d like to have a word with the pastor who held his conscience.

“Do I look corrupt?” she demanded slowly.

“No, of course not. You look adorable – and yet I imagine you’d like to buy a new pair of shoes maybe …”

Emma considered that. It had been a long time since she last went shoe shopping. She reached out and took the money, put it in her pocket. “Thank you very much. I’ve never gotten such a generous tip from a man who didn’t even get a seat in our restaurant.”

The dark-haired man gave her a disbelieving look. “You’re still not giving us a seat?”

She sighed. “Oh, I’m sorry, are you Angela Merkel?”

“Excuse me?”

“Maybe Barack Obama then? Or Madonna? Oh, I know: you’re a boss of the local mafia! No? Not even a Teletubbie?” She shrugged her shoulders in theatrical exaggeration. “Then I’m sorry to tell you one final time: There will be no seat available in this establishment for the next three hours.”

The man’s expression changed. He frowned at her. The frown suited him, she thought. More honest.

“Fine,” he growled, “then please give me my money back.”

Emma gave him a look that professed confusion. “Your money? What money?”

“The money I slipped you a minute ago, lady,” he replied, no longer pretending to be charming.

“Slipped me?” Emma put a hand on her chest. “But you didn’t slip me any money. Because that would be attempted bribery, and thus a penal offense. Nope, I don’t know anything about that.”

The man straightened with a jerk. “Fine. Keep it. Take it to a decent hairdresser, or buy a friendlier disposition with it.”

Emma nodded in mock seriousness. “Thank you, I’ll take that advice to heart. And you should buy yourself a telephone, so you can make a reservation next time!”

Either he didn’t hear her last comment, or he simply didn’t want to react.

He was probably just embarrassed, because he didn’t know how to buy a phone. Poor caveman.

Finn, Daniel, and Meik didn’t even try to hide their grins.

“I’ve never seen a woman look at a guy with so much disdain.”

“I have. My wife sometimes looks like that when I forget to buy groceries.”

“Very funny, guys,” Luke said dryly. “I flirt like a maniac, lose fifty Euros in the bargain, and now you’re making fun of me?”

Meik laughed even louder. “You let her get a fifty off you? Someone once told me you were a woman whisperer!”

“I am a woman whisperer! But that was not a woman – she was a fury! I don’t speak her language. What has the world come to, huh, refusing a bribe like that?”

He was losing faith in this shady humanity. First he was criticized for giving alcohol to a nineteen-year-old, and then this woman had treated him like a piece of gum stuck to the sole of her shoe.

The world was quite obviously out of joint.

“Ah, it feels great to be able to laugh freely like this,” Finn rhapsodized, before he shook his head. “And you, my dear, seem to have no idea what women want. Women only want money in the form of chocolate, flowers, or alimony.”

Luke snorted. There was really no reason to doubt his prowess … or did the women in the States only fall for his lines every time because they knew he had a lot of money?

That was a far too deep topic for tonight, he decided, and shook off the thought. The blonde waitress must have had a bad day. That was the only plausible explanation.

“Shall we go to Blackbox then?” Daniel suggested. “Maybe there Luke can regain his confidence.”

“What? Did you just say I’m free to punch you in the face once we’re there?” Luke grinned with a show of confusion.

Daniel laughed and patted his shoulder. “Don’t get butt-sore, princess. We still think you’re a man. A sad man maybe, but still a man.”

three

“I hate people who think their money can buy everything.” Emma hung up the blazer and exchanged it for her warm coat. “For a smile and a fifty, they expect you to kiss their feet.”

And his feet were really the last thing she wanted to kiss on the arrogant jerk. Wait, no. She didn’t want to kiss any part of this man! Except maybe his fifty-Euro note. That was a handsome piece of paper after all.

Enrico leaned in the doorway and grinned at her, while the rest of the waiters brushed the last remaining crumbs from the tables. “You should have gone into politics. The working class would love you.”

“Thank God,” Emma sighed as she wrapped her scarf around her shoulders. “I really don’t know what I’d do without the support of the working class!”

“Smartass. Are you going to apply for that job now?”

Of course she would, and then she would spend the next few weeks hoping and praying that she’d get it. “Maybe. I’ll look into it.”

She glanced at the clock. It was just past midnight, and she was still wide awake. That was just as well, for she had a date coming up.

“Hey, Enrico, do you want to come along for our girls’ night? We’re meeting at Blackbox, and I’m sure Jenny and Mira would invite you for a Christmas tequila.”

Enrico shook his head. “I have a wife and a lot of obligations.”

“You could simply have said you’re too old,” she grinned. “But if you reconsider, you know where you can find us.”

“You spend too much time in bars, bella.”

“Nah, just in the Blackbox,” she protested promptly. “That’s hardly a real bar. It’s more like a … restroom. Don’t you agree that a woman should take all the time she wants in a restroom?”

She hugged Enrico briefly, before stepping out into the cold. Snow covered the ground, giving away where people had come and gone.

That was what Emma liked about winter. That things appeared softened. All things, really.

And the Christmas tequila; she was partial to that, too.

The bar called Blackbox was only two streets away from the restaurant, and it was packed at this time of night. Luckily Mira and Jenny had already occupied a table, and now they took their coats from the remaining chair, so Emma could sit down.

She hugged both her friends, and their ruddy noses made Emma suspect that they’d already had a few shots before she arrived.

“So?” she asked with a smile, and Jenny reacted by putting a shot glass into her hand.

“Tequila?”

“Bring it on.” Emma felt that she needed to put her tequila goggles on. She was still wearing her black work clothes, and she smelled of melted cheese.

“Set your sights on anyone yet?” she asked before she bit down on the slice of lemon. The point of the evening was to drink tequila, rate men, and exchange information of the kind that couldn’t be fitted into their frequent phone calls.

“Hello?” Jenny waved her left hand and pointed at her engagement ring. “There’s no setting sights here.”

Emma guffawed and looked at Mira. “She’s playing sanctimonious again.”

Her friend rolled her eyes at her and flipped her silky brown hair back over her shoulders. “Fine. We’ve spied a group of guys who were all pretty cute. Two of them married, unfortunately.”

Emma made a face as she swallowed against the acidity of the lemon. “I knew it. Where are they?”

“At the bar. We’ve already allocated our points, and there’s a clear winner, but maybe you can change that with your rating.”

Emma shrugged her shoulders and grinned. “Well, we’ve always had a similar taste, but we’ll see.”

“Another round?” Mira raised another shot glass and gave the others a questioning look. They both nodded and grabbed a glass each. “Here’s to us.”

“To us.”

“Oh, there they are.” Mira pointed in the direction of the bar, and Emma turned her head, glass already at her lips. She promptly choked on her tequila and coughed into the crook of her arm. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she mumbled under her breath. Of all the bars in this town …

“Do you know them?” Jenny asked, perplexed.

“Yeah.” Emma’s face was beet red when she set the shot glass back down on the table. “See the tall one? Let’s say I disburdened him of fifty Euros a few hours ago.”

“You stole his money?” Mira’s eyes widened.

No, she hadn’t stolen his money. She had merely taught him a lesson, though Emma wasn’t sure that the stranger would see it that way as well. “He irritated me,” she said and raised both hands in a show of innocence. “You know I have little patience with people who get on my nerves.”

Her friends both tilted their heads to one side. “And how does that justify stealing fifty Euros?”

He was a man! In her opinion, men should be made to pay a certain lump sum to the world. Why not pay it directly to her? She was part of that world, wasn’t she?

“Was he very angry?” Mira wanted to know, looking worried all of a sudden.

“Yeah, relatively,” Emma admitted and bit her lip.

“Oh. That’s bad then.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s coming over. Oh, Lord, he is hot!”

“What?”

Oh God, why was he coming over? She hoped he wouldn’t hit a woman.

“Don’t turn around, Emma.”

Emma’s head jerked around and hit a wall of steel abs. She hadn’t been intimidated back at Giovanni’s, but now, sitting in her chair, she reconsidered.

“Ladies.” The charming voice had turned into a brusque snap.

“Hi,” Mira and Jenny mumbled, and could hardly suppress their giggles. Emma didn’t say anything, but moved her chair away from the body of the ogre. Was it wrong to register that he smelled great?

“Do you play darts?”

The three women exchanged puzzled glances. “Darts?”

“Yeah. Darts. Round board, which you try to hit with the darts.”

Emma rolled her eyes. What was he after? Did he want to entice her to a game of darts, so he could steal his money back, lift it from her purse?

“Why? What would happen if we played darts?” Jenny asked, curious.

“Then my friends and I would challenge you for a round.” He nodded over his shoulder, where three men were grinning at them.

“Oh, I see.” Emma started to laugh. “You want to win your money back fairly. But does it have to be with darts?”

The man’s jaw tensed, almost imperceptibly. “Do you have another suggestion?”

Emma thought for a second as her eyes roamed the room. “Pool,” she finally said with finality. “That way you can’t try to fleece my friends. Or bribe the balls.”

“Oh, but I could bribe the darts, couldn’t I?” he growled.

She grinned. “Nope. But I’m a lot better at pool. Or do you guys yearn to play a round of darts?” she turned to her friends.

“God, no,” Jenny answered promptly. “We’re fine here, with our bottle of tequila.”

“What about you?” Emma fixed her gaze on the contender. “Do you need the support of your boys’ squad, or can we settle this on our own?”

How could any woman be this skilful at needling people? Luke couldn’t fathom that she hadn’t been clubbed and buried under a bridge somewhere long ago.

He simply couldn’t imagine what was going on in this girl’s head, and that in turn made it impossible not to want to know what the devil she might be thinking.

“Fine,” he finally said with a slow smile. “Then it’ll be just the two of us.”

“Great.” She rose and held out her hand. “I’m Emma and I’ll ask you to stop smiling like that. It looks smarmy and fake. You grin and talk like a person you simply can’t be.”

She had just insulted him. A woman had offended him. That had never happened to him before. And she was brazen as anything.

“Luke,” he introduced himself. “And you really need a new haircut.”

“Insults won’t help you win the match.”

“Accusations won’t help you either.”

“Was that a genuine smile?”

“Nope.”

“Then it wasn’t an accusation, but a verified fact. Are we playing or what?”

They had reached the pool tables, and Emma had already grabbed a queue, which she tapped on the floor impatiently.

“Are you so eager to lose, or why are you fidgeting like that?” Luke asked, before he began sorting the balls in the plastic triangle that was already on the pool table.

Emma reacted with a grin, and placed the white ball in the designated spot. “You go first.”

She said it in such an assured voice, as if she was certain how the game would end. He shook his head slowly. “You sound as if you’re about to lead me to the slaughterhouse.”

Emma started to laugh. He hadn’t noticed it before, but when she laughed, her whole face was laughing, and her body, too.

How could anyone laugh like this, and not appear unnatural at all? He really believed her that she had thought him funny just now. That didn’t happen very often. Most of the time, the women in his company threw back their heads, swished their platinum blonde hair, and giggled in voices that sounded as if they’d inhaled too much helium.

But what could be the reason that Emma was trying to get him to like her?

“Maybe I am,” she replied with a smirk, before gesturing for him to go ahead and make the first shot. He lined up and hit the white ball, right into the triangle.

“Ten …

twenty …

thirty …

fifty. I can’t believe it.”

Luke handed her the money, and couldn’t remember the last time he’d lost so spectacularly at anything. Actually he couldn’t remember ever losing so miserably, and the worst thing about it was that his defeat was entirely undeserved. No, Emma had manipulated him to the moon and back. Starting with the moment she had exhaled loudly into his ear, right when he was about to hit the ball, and ending with the various animal noises she had made. The fatal thing was, when he tried to distract her in similar fashion, he had failed every single time. She wouldn’t even be fazed when he’d waved his queue in front of her face during her shot. Also, she had chugged down at least four more shots of tequila while the game lasted. With her alcohol level, she should have asked which of the two identical balls she was seeing was the real one.

“You’re kind of a sore loser, aren’t you?” Emma asked cautiously and bit her lip. She had really pretty lips, the color of strawberries.

“I’m not a loser at all,” Luke protested. “That just doesn’t happen. I never lose.”

The girl before him cleared her throat. “Well. A minute ago …”

He scowled at her. “You didn’t play fair.”

“Oh, but you did?” Her brown eyes twinkled with smug amusement.

“Fine.” He crossed his arms and looked at her. “Double or nothing. Table soccer this time.”

“You want to salvage your manly reputation with a table soccer match?”

“I …”

But Luke couldn’t finish his sentence, for someone tapped him on the shoulder.

“Dude, we’re leaving.” Finn and the others stood right behind him, studying Emma with curious glances. “Are you coming?”

They were leaving already? Luke looked around, only to realize that the bar had emptied considerably. The clock on the wall said half past one.

Emma craned her neck and frowned. “Where did Jenny and Mira go?”

“You mean your friends?” Daniel raised his eyebrows. “They left half an hour ago.”

“Without letting me at least know?”

Daniel shrugged his shoulders. “They said something along the lines of, if anyone interrupts you at pool, you’re prone to stabbing them in the eye with the queue.”

“Oh.”

“Luke, are you coming?” Finn narrowed his eyes, as if he already knew the answer.

Luke shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I guess I need to defend my honor here, before I can leave safely.”

He didn’t want to leave now. He hadn’t had this much fun in a long time. His friends merely nodded, not bothering to inquire further. They understood defending one’s honor; they were men. That’s what men did. Period.

“I’ll drop by over the holidays though, okay? Before I leave, anyway.” They shook hands, and the other guys headed for the door.

“Before you leave?” Emma asked with genuine curiosity, while she put the queue back on the pool table. “Are you going on vacation?”

He smiled and shook his head. “Nope. This is my vacation, basically. I’m visiting my mom.”

“Oh, okay. Where do you live?”

“I work in Philadelphia.”

“Seriously?” She gave him an incredulous look. “That’s funny. My sister lives there, too. Well, not in Philadelphia proper, but in a suburb close by. What do you do for a living?”

“I …”

Luke looked into her expectant face and blinked. He didn’t want to tell her. He couldn’t have said why, but he didn’t want to let her know what he did for a living. He didn’t want to provide her with a stereotype. He had the feeling she wouldn’t like the idea that he was a professional baseball player.

Dear God, since when did he care whether she liked something or not?

He didn’t want women to like him; he wanted to sleep with them!

But with her … he wanted both.

“Uh … I work in a stadium. A baseball stadium.”

She gave him a look that told him she had no idea what that might mean.

“Well, you could say that my job is to make sure that the game goes smoothly,” he added cryptically. “It’s my responsibility to ensure that everything works as it should.” He mentally patted himself on the shoulder for this way of phrasing it.

“Ah, I see. You’re basically the most important guy in the whole stadium. Indispensible.”

“Exactly,” he grinned. “I’m sort of famous.”

She clucked her tongue and laughed. “Alright, Mr. Wichtig, then let’s see whether you can also play a mean table soccer. It is one thing to lose one game against a girl, but two …? I doubt your pride would ever recover from that.”

So did he.

“You let me win.”

Emma threw up her hands and shook her head in dismissal. “You’re never satisfied, are you? First you lose and get huffy, then you win and get huffy again. What happens when it’s a draw? Do you get huffy as well?”

Luke chugged down the rest of his beer and put a hand in his neck, which was still stiff from the long flight. “You let the last ball go through on purpose. That was totally obvious.”

“No, that’s what you saw, Mr. Wichtig, nobody else!” Emma protested. Her eyes held an earnestness that reminded him of an elementary school kid, professing that their hamster had peed on their homework. “I don’t lose on purpose. You’re not my grandpa, who might have a heart attack if he doesn’t get what he wants.”

Luke pressed his lips together.

Emma frowned at him. “Are you laughing at me?”

He shook his head silently. Well, maybe a little bit. But it really was funny, watching her try to defend herself when it was blatantly obvious that she was lying. She even had her fingers crossed behind her back, and her eyes were so wide that he could have bet her vision was blurry.

Luke couldn’t stop himself; he burst out laughing. “I’m sorry. Fine, I won the match; you can give me my money back.”

“Yes. That was an honest match, which means that you earned it.”

Her gaze flickered to the clock on the wall behind the bar, and Luke’s followed suit. It was after three a.m., and the barkeeper gave them a tired look, tapping his wrist.

“I guess that is his polite way of saying we should leave,” Emma murmured softly and smiled. “Let’s not annoy him any more than we have to. I come here all the time, and I’m not sure I could distinguish between tequila and spit.”

Outside the snow was still falling. The sidewalks lay untouched and pristine before them, which made Emma feel that it was a crime to start walking. Luke on the other hand had no such qualms. He trudged through the snow as if he was stomping on a murderous animal.

Emma followed him and studied his back.

Her friends had been right. He was hot. Now that he wasn’t acting like a dipshit anymore, she could see it as well. And when he raised his arm earlier, to rub the back of his neck … oh my goodness! How much time did the man spend lifting weights? Emma had no explanation why, but strangely enough, she thought that the arms were among the most attractive parts of a man. They could hold you. And that was everything anyone should be able to do with their arms: Hold you.

And by the way, yes, she had actually let him win.

So what? What did it matter? Though it was fun, she didn’t make it her hobby to hurt a man’s pride, so she had allowed the final ball to go through, past her keeper. She was certain that he didn’t know. At least he couldn’t be sure. She was usually a very good liar. Her mother had always believed her when she’d said she hadn’t eaten the chocolate cookies. And she couldn’t count the times she had denied that she’d taken any clothes from her sister’s closet – always with a completely straight face.

“What are you doing back there? Studying patterns in the snow?”

Not quite. Not the snow …

She caught up with him and tilted her head back, to catch some snowflakes with her mouth.

“Have you ever considered letting your hair grow longer?” she finally asked, when her face was beginning to get numb with cold. “I think that would suit you.”

Luke gave her a skeptical sideways look. “Do you really mean to give out hair advice, with your cut?”

“What’s wrong with my hair? You keep saying that. It’s okay as it is.”

“You need a new cut. It’s all grown out.”

“Every hairdresser I tried got it wrong. So I gave up and had Jenny cut it.” Emma shrugged. “I think she did a good job.”

“Even I could do a better job.”

Now it was Emma’s turn to give him a skeptical glance.

Returning her gaze, he started laughing. “What are you thinking?” he asked.

“I’m wondering whether it would be a good idea to hand you a pair of scissors. And based on your pool skills, I’m concluding that no, it wouldn’t be a good idea.”

Luke’s arm moved swiftly, and shoved her into the piled-up snow right in front of them.

The air was knocked from her lungs, and she almost inhaled snow. Panting a little, she turned and looked up at him. He looked back warily, as if he expected her to jump up and punch him, or at least rant at him, but Emma burst into laughter.

Maybe because she knew she had somehow earned it.

She lay in the cold snow, stretched her arms out over her head, and leaned back.

“Boy, your pride is your Achilles heel, isn’t it?”

“Sorry. There was this sudden urge …”

She laughed even harder. “As if you were sorry!”

She had never been shoved into a pile of snow by a man, but if she considered it now, she might even like it.

Which probably depended on the man who did it.

“As if you didn’t let the last ball through on purpose.”

She narrowed her eyes briefly, debating whether it was worth sticking to her lie. She thought it was worth it. “I’m not saying anything without my lawyer. Help me get up.”

He held out his arm, and she grabbed his hand. When he braced himself to pull her back up, she jerked his arm hard, with a force she didn’t know she possessed. He lost his balance and fell, face-forward, landing half on top of her and half next to her.

He rolled over and started laughing as well. His laugh was lovely – at least when it was genuine.

She looked up at him and watched as the wind blew the snow across his face, as it melted on his lips.

“Hey,” she said breathlessly and chuckled. The cold crept into her neck, which she pressed into the snow so she could look up at him. Had his face been this close before? “Now we’re even.”

Luke stared at her. He didn’t seem to agree with her tally. His eyes wandered to her lips, which were starting to tingle a little.

Oh my, she was in trouble.

What was a girl to do in such a situation?

Don’t think about it; dig a deeper hole.

Before she could actually start to think it through, she wrapped a hand around his neck pulled him down towards her, and kissed him.

His lips were warm, and they barely touched hers, but it was enough to let Emma know that she might like more about this man than being shoved into a pile of snow.

She let her head sink back on top of the snow again, and felt a little shocked at herself for taking the first step. She’d never done that before! She made a face. “I’m sorry. I … it just came over me, so I–”

She couldn’t finish her fumbling sentence, and it was hardly necessary. Nor did she have to take the next step.

Luke put his hands on her face, and the cold was instantly driven from her body.

Oh God, what was she doing here? She was lying in the snow, kissing a man she didn’t know, whom she had practically robbed of fifty Euros, and who was a loser at table soccer!

She didn’t normally do any of that, starting with losing on purpose, and ending with rolling around in the snow kissing strangers.

A stranger who was way too tall for her. She measured about five foot five inches, and she felt even shorter lying down, which in turn made him seem like a giant. A giant who kissed like a God, which made her forget about the snow part …

Where had he learned to kiss like that? He’d probably practiced on a lot of women. She probably was only one of many. Probably …

Stop it, Emma, she chided herself. She couldn’t will her mind to stop thinking, but she had to …

Luke rolled up on top of her, and she hardly noticed the many layers of fabric between them. Then he ran his thumb across her lower lip.

She had lost her train of thought.

“You talk while you kiss,” Luke chuckled.

“Really?” Thankfully her face was already red with cold, so she hoped he wouldn’t notice that the blood rushed to her face with embarrassment. “Well? What am I saying?”

“You were murmuring: What am I doing here? What am I doing here?”

“Well? What am I doing here?”

“If you don’t know that, I’m obviously not doing it right. Wait, let me explain it again …”

He started kissing her again, caressing her cheek with his thumb, until Emma began to chuckle softly.

“Thanks for explaining it in such a graphic manner,” she murmured. “Now it’s a lot clearer.”

He kissed her jaw; let his hands trail down her throat, down her scarf. “Calm down. It’s not as if we’re hopping into bed right away.”

She laughed. “Right.”

four

Today …

“You know, I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but I’m proud of you, Luke. Five months without any negative headlines in the press – and your mom was only here during three of the five, to keep an eye on you.”

Wesley slapped him on the shoulder with a melodramatic flourish. “Watch out, or you’ll buy a house in the suburbs in no time, in the area with the good schools, so you can have kids!”

Sure. Luke would start looking tomorrow. After he’d bashed his own brains in with a baseball bat.

He crossed his arms in front of his chest and leaned back in his chair. “Was that it, Wes? You summoned me here to tell me you’re proud of me? Or did you merely want to ask me whether our periods are finally synched, and we deserve the ›best friends forever‹ badge?”

He grinned. “I can’t even make fun of you anymore, huh? You’ve become such a diva! This was meant as a genuine praise.”

Luke snorted. “If that is the case, I can hurry home now, and paste a gold star in my praise booklet. Right next to our ›best friends forever‹ badge.”

He rose and pushed the chair under the table with a lot of unnecessary noise. He’d spent the last six hours running around the diamond like a madman, and giving autographs to little kids, whenever he had a break. Now he wanted to get to his apartment, take a shower, and never get up again.

“Wait a sec,” Wesley called him back.

Luke turned around, his impatience plain to see. His agent was sitting on the edge of the desk in his expensive Hugo Boss suit, and for a brief moment, he looked like a young Will Smith, ready to delete his memory, so he couldn’t tell anyone about the aliens he’d seen.

“There really is something else I wanted to talk about.”

“Then why don’t you finally open your otherwise big mouth?! I want to go home.”

Wes cleared his throat. “Okay, I’ll make it quick: Are you aware of the fact that your contract with the Delphies will run out once the season is finished?”

Luke nodded. Of course he knew that. He might detest figures, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t remember a simple date.

“What are you getting at?”

“Well. It depends on the current season, whether they’ll renew your contract or not, right? And I don’t mean to offend you, man, but last year wasn’t too great. I also need to know whether you want to stay at all, or whether you’re thinking about switching teams? You’d have a few options as a free agent. I have several lucrative offers already … and apart from your dad, there’s nothing here to keep you.”

Luke closed his eyes and groaned. “Do we have to go into this today, Wes? I’m already emotionally exhausted, after you’ve finally granted me the ›best friends forever‹ badge …”

“Stop it with your stupid badge, Luke! This is serious!”

But that was exactly Luke’s problem.

He tended to avoid the serious stuff. The past weeks had been bad enough, with his mother bunking in his apartment. Nothing could be more serious than a woman who asked him if he would ever settle down and have children.

“Wes, I’m really not in the mood for this now.”

His agent raised his hands defensively.

“I simply wanted to make you realize that you should give your best, so you will have the best possible options. You should have the opportunity of choosing, and that only works if you play really well.”

Luke gave him a dark look. As if he didn’t know that!

“Wes, I know that the last season was rather underwhelming. I’m well aware that my strikeout rate has fallen, and my curveball was lousy. I don’t need a whining agent to tell me, because he fears that his bonus might go down the drain.”

Luke put himself under a lot of pressure already, and the press always made sure to pile their expectations on top of that. He certainly did not need Wes stabbing him in the back now.

“Well, it’s a damn large bonus …”

“Wes!”

“Alright, alright. Jesus, you really are sensitive today! We’ll talk about it later. I didn’t mean to give you a hard time.”

“Forget it. You’d better save all your hardness for your woman anyway.”

Luke twirled the car keys round his fingers. “And don’t worry. I’m fit and I’m well-prepared, ready for the season to begin next week. That is all I can do, right?”

“Of course. I’ll still forward you the offers from the other teams in an email, okay? Nothing wrong with taking a look at what’s on tap.”

Luke nodded. He actually liked Philadelphia. He liked the team, he liked the coaches, and he liked the fact that his father lived right around the corner. But Wes was right – it would be stupid not to at least take a look at the other offers. “You do that. I’ll call you again in a few days … and if not, I’ll see you at your wake next week, won’t I?”

Wes snorted. “Getting engaged doesn’t mean that you have one foot in the grave.”

Their opinions on this subject differed. “Yeah, yeah, sissy boy, whatever you say. But your engagement party is still on, isn’t it? Or have you already managed to scare Michelle away?”

His friend grinned. “That’s not going to happen, my dear. You’re just waiting for me to make a mistake, so you can make your move.”

Luke shrugged his shoulders. “Hope is the last thing to die.”

“I can tell you one thing: If you try to hit on her, you’re the first one to die. I don’t care what happens to hope.”

Luke laughed out loud and went to the door. “I want to see you try to kill me.”

“Oh, I know that you’re nothing without your bat.”

Luke grinned at him. “You tell that to yourself, buddy … but my bat is bigger than yours”

“You know, I’m flying to Philadelphia on business. I’m starting a new job there.”

The man next to Emma raised an eyebrow and remained silent.

“I work for a leading event management agency. More & More Events, does that ring a bell?”

The second eyebrow followed.

“Well, in any case, I’ve just been transferred! It’s only for a few months, mind you, but … that’s such an amazing opportunity for me – and such a lot of responsibility! I’m going to be the boss, more or less … I’ve never been the boss of anything. My sister used to be the boss, because she is the older one, the prettier one. But anyway, she lives in the region as well.”

The man grunted grumpily, rummaged through his bag, which lay crumpled at his feet, and then he put headphones over his ears.

Oh. Right. She was on a plane, and nobody was interested in her life.

But she was so very excited! The past years had been one of the best in her life so far. She had gotten her dream job, had come one step closer to her dream of starting her own business, and she had begun to forgive men for the fact that their brains were located in their pants. She hadn’t forgiven them enough to be ready for a new relationship, but it was a start.

Nothing could throw her off the track now.

The plane bucked a little, and Emma flinched.

“Creepy, them planes, huh?” she turned to her neighbor again. “If God had wanted us to fly, he’d have given us wings, don’t you think?”

The man put a sleep mask over his eyes.

Emma was beginning to think that he didn’t really want to talk to her. This would be a long, long flight.

It was a start, Luke thought as he took a towel to his hair and rubbed it dry. A few strands were always in the way. Six-to-three was a solid victory, and solid was something he could work with.

The changing room was stuffy, but the mood was exuberant. A victory in the first game of the season was exactly what the team had needed, and the fact that Luke had scored two of the six points was what he had needed.

“Did you see Dyson’s face when he botched the pitch for the fourth time in a row?” Jake asked with a smirk. He was the youngest in their team, but also the fastest. “He looked ready to pick up a bat and hurl it at me.”

Dexter, one of the basemen, laughed out loud. “If the umpire hadn’t looked, he’d definitely have done that.”

“Very likely.”

“Jake?” Sam Parker, their new PR manager and a close friend of Dexter’s, if Luke remembered correctly, stepped into the changing room and waved the young player over. “Here’s someone who wants an interview with you. Put a jersey on and come outside.”

The player nodded and slipped his shirt over his head. “Duty calls, guys,” he said and disappeared from the room.

“Duty calls,” grumbled Ray, one of the oldest players on the team. “Barely out of his diapers, and he’s already bragging about duty.”

Luke wondered whether he’d been just as tiresome five years ago. He decided that it was better not to ask the others, for he suspected he wouldn’t like the answer. “Carter,” Ray addressed him now. “You’ve been working hard on your curveball, haven’t you, man?”

Luke grinned. “I had nothing else to do.”

“Yeah. Just don’t get any better now, or my wife makes good on her threat, and pins your picture to our fridge, to get me to put in as much effort as you do. Her words.”

“But I haven’t even slept with your wife yet, so how does she know that I put in effort?”

“You better shut your trap, Carter, or I’ll tell her what you said, and she’ll come here and beat you up.”

Luke grinned and patted Ray’s shoulder. “Good for you that you found someone who can defend and protect you. I’ve always taken you for the smaller spoon anyway.”

Ray snorted. “It’s obvious that you’ve never been with a real woman in your life, Luke. I look forward to the moment when you beg me on your knees to give you some advice, because you have no idea how to keep such a woman!”

“Ah, Ray. You know that in my case, it’s the women who get down on their knees …”

Ray shook his head and turned his back on him. “Someone should really punch you in the gut … preferably a woman.”

It was far more likely that Luke would be punched by an angry husband – though he made it a rule to stay away from married women. The only problem with that rule was, women were sometimes just as blatant liars as men. Which was absolutely fine with Luke. He was all for equality of the sexes.

The changing room was almost empty, and Luke pulled the t-shirt over his head quickly. He should be going.

“Hey, Luke.”

Luke turned around and gave Dexter a questioning look. “Yeah?”

“Ray, Sam, me, and a few others are thinking of heading to Eve’s Bar for a round of drinks. Are you in?”

He shook his head and closed his locker. “Sorry, I’m meeting my dad for a beer.”

“Did your agent enforce curfew again?” Dexter grinned.

He was a decent guy, most of the time. More decent than himself, all things considered. But that didn’t change the fact that he could be very annoying sometimes.

“Shut up, Dex. No need to get personal, just because you can never score without me as your wing man.”

“Someone’s jealous because he has to be in bed by midnight! How cute. I’m blushing. Tell you what, Carter. If you ask me nicely, I might call Wes and ask him if I can chaperone you one night soon … How does that sound?”

“I’d say if you ask me nicely, I won’t sleep with your sister for that.”

Dexter’s face crumbled in an instant. His sister was his only weak point. She was no longer a child, but Dexter hadn’t realized that yet. “You keep your dirty paws off my sister! Chloe has enough on her plate at the moment, so back off!”

Luke shouldered his bag and fished for his car keys. “Geez, Dexter. Don’t get your panties in a bunch, okay?”

“Then leave Chloe alone!”

As if Luke was stupid enough to make a pass at Dexter’s sister. She’d probably appreciate knowing that Dex forbade everyone to even look at her.

“See you tomorrow, Dex,” he grinned and sauntered out.

He turned up the collar of his coat against the cold and the press hounds. The right decision, as he found out a second later.

Outside the exit, a large crowd of reporters awaited him, armed with their flashing cameras. That was not unusual for the first game of the season, but Luke could have done without it. He hated the press – but unfortunately that feeling was not mutual.

“Mr. Carter, Mr. Carter!” the photographers yelled, pushing against the bleachers to get the best shot.

Luke was almost sorry that Wesley had coaxed his promise not to give them the finger anymore. Where was the fun in all of this, if he couldn’t even flip them off?

“Carter, Carter! Look over here!”

With a soundless groan, Luke forced himself to give them a blank, impassive face. If these people had no private life, he could at least try not to give the impression that his was more interesting.

“Carter, Mr. Carter!” the hounds kept yelling, and now there was an entire TV team, and someone stuck a microphone in his face.

Jesus, all he wanted was to get to the underground parking garage, get into his car, and be off!

“Luke,” a thin woman in a gray coat and skirt called, holding her microphone in his direction like a pistol. “What is your reaction to your father’s engagement to the daughter of media tycoon Alberto? Does he have your blessing?”

Luke stopped abruptly and blinked in confusion. Engagement to … what?

He looked back over his shoulder at the female reporter, dumbstruck and frowning. His father had gotten engaged? With whom? Why was he hearing this for the first time now? He hadn’t even known that his father was going out with anyone.

“Does he have your blessing, Mr. Carter?” the woman repeated with an expectant, prodding look on her face.

Luke forced himself to shake off the daze. “No comment,” he mumbled and hurried on to get to his car.

Luke would never describe himself as hotheaded, but that was just because he was very good at lying to himself.

But … could his father really be engaged? Luke didn’t even know about a girlfriend!

He couldn’t imagine that his father would keep such a vital piece of information from him. Especially since his parents were still legally married, at least on paper.

Still, he owed it to the old man to let him explain what was going on.

Luke didn’t trust a lot of people. If you were rich, it was hard to distinguish between the good and bad people – since ostensibly, everyone was always nice to you. His father had been the one person in his life Luke had trusted blindly. Until today.

five

He had driven to his father’s place prepared to act like the grownup man he was, and tell his old man that he was a lying bastard. But when Paul Carter opened the door, he had forgotten all of his good intentions.

“You’re engaged?!” he barked, shoving his father aside to enter the apartment. “You’re getting married without telling me about it!?”

“Nice game, Luke, why don’t you come in?” Paul asked dryly.

“Cut the crap! I just had a reporter ram her microphone in my face and ask me whether I’ll give you my blessing!” He was more in the mood for a crucifixion right now.

Luke marched through his father’s spacious apartment, opened the fridge, and grabbed a beer.

Paul Carter had followed him, and Luke registered the guilty look on his face. “So it’s true?” he flared. “You’ve really gotten engaged?”

“Yes, it’s true. And of course I would have told you, but it’s just …”

“Does Mom know?” Luke twisted the bottle cap, but it wouldn’t come off, and bit into his palm. Fancy beer that needed a bottle opener. He finally opened it with the help of the edge of the kitchen counter and his hand. “You’re still legally married after all!”

“No, we’re not.”

Luke choked on his beer and coughed loudly. “What?”

“We got divorced a month ago, when she was here. She’s already met Nadia – and she says she’s happy for me.”

He had told his mother, but not him?

“What the hell, Dad? Don’t you think the detail is too important to keep it from me? Or were you scared that I couldn’t handle my parents’ divorce, after twenty years of separation?” His knuckles turned white as he clutched the sideboard.

“Calm down,” his father said in the calm, collected voice the lawyer usually reserved for his clients.

“I don’t want to calm down right now! You’re getting married, and you didn’t tell me shit!”

“I would have told you …”

“You would? When, for fuck’s sake? After it has already been a US Weekly headline?”

He started to swear in German and kept shaking his head, and then he chugged down half his beer quickly. His father had only a rudimentary command of the German language, which made it highly likely that he didn’t recognize all of the swear words. He did understand the crudest bits though.

“If your mom was here, she’d cut out your tongue.”

“Mom would at least have told me if she was getting married!”

His father looked him straight in the eye now. “I’m sorry you didn’t hear it from me first. I asked you to come by tonight to tell you. How could I know that the press would beat me to it? I only proposed to her yesterday. This didn’t go according to plan …”

Luke didn’t care what his father’s plan had been. “But you must have known her before!”

Paul nodded slowly.

“Of course I have,” he said, somewhat sobered, “and believe me, I wanted to tell you earlier, but she didn’t want to shout it from the rooftops. You are constantly in the limelight, so she was worried it would be touted by the press right away.”

Luke snorted and drank the rest of his beer. “Worked out really well, your little scheme, did it? And … who is this woman anyway? How long have you known her?”

“A little more than six months …”

“Six months? And you’re ready to marry her? Dad, are you crazy? I sure hope you’re getting a pre-nup and–”

“Luke.” His father took the empty bottle from his hand, which Luke had just used to gesticulate wildly, and set it down out of reach.

“I understand that you’re angry. I’d have preferred to tell you in person. But as I said, we had good reason not to say anything …”

“Because of the goddamned press? Because you thought I would babble to the press?”

“Of course not!” Paul protested, his voice now raised as well. “But have you ever read a paper within the last two years? They run an article about you virtually every day! Those reporters have set their sights on you, and no matter how hard you try to keep your private life private – it obviously doesn’t work. That is why I didn’t tell you anything yet!”

Luke pressed his lips together. The press circled him like vultures their carrion. But that didn’t change the fact that he couldn’t simply calm down and move on. He barely had any people he could rely on. If he could no longer trust his own dad to be honest with him … who was left that he could trust?

“You haven’t answered my earlier question,” he ground out. “Can you trust her? Are you sure she doesn’t just want to use you? And did you draft a pre-nup …”

Paul Carter sighed and went around the counter. He was only an inch or two shorter than his son, so he could easily put his hands on Luke’s shoulders.

“Luke, I know that you have zero faith in relationships. Maybe it’s because people were only with you, or wanted to be your friend if they thought they could get a piece of your cake. You’re deeply suspicious, even wary of people who tell you they love you – and I sincerely hope that that will change someday soon. But the fact is that I love Nadia and she loves me. Deeply and sincerely. And I really wish that you and she will get to know each other soon.”

Luke uttered a dry laugh. “So you became a liar and a psychologist at the same time?”

Paul gave him a pleading look. “I didn’t lie to you – and yes, she would really like to meet you.”

Of course she would. Everyone wanted to meet him. She would have to wait her fucking turn! “You know what, Dad? Why don’t you start reading US Weekly? I’m going to let the reporters know once I’m ready to meet your fiancée!”

And with that, he left the apartment without looking back.

“Oh God, I love that you’re finally here, I love it, I love it, I love it!”

Emma’s sister hugged her so tightly that she could hardly breathe. But she didn’t care. She had missed Milla so badly, she didn’t care about the skeptical glances one of the airport security guards was giving them. He would yell at them any moment now, “Move!”, or something like that. If sisterly love was really too dangerous for the U.S. of A., she didn’t want anything to do with the country.

“Will I have to listen to you ladies go on in German from now on, with no chance of following what you’re saying?” Milla’s husband Steve piped up from behind the stroller.

Milla laughed and pulled away from her sister. “Your loss, my dear. You didn’t want to learn my language. You’ll have to live with the consequences.”

He groaned and pulled Emma into an embrace to welcome her. “I did want to learn German, trust me,” he whispered. “And I’m sure I’d have persisted if it wasn’t so damn hard.”

Emma hugged her brother-in-law, whose cow-lick blond hair, glasses, shirt and tie made him look like the prototypical American banker, which in fact he was.

“You would not,” his wife chimed in and socked him in the ribs. She turned to her sister and added in German: “And it’s better that way, too, because I can always point out the cute guys to you, without him noticing anything.”

Emma grinned. “Alright, you keep your eyes open, sister. But first of all,” she said, turning to face the stroller and squatting before it, “I have to gobble up my nephew, because he is just that sweet! You’re going to be a real heartbreaker one day, won’t you? Yeah, I can see it in your eyes.”

She kissed his soft baby cheek. “He really looks like you, Milla.” She had switched back to English, for she didn’t want to irritate Steve unnecessarily. “And I’m really glad you decided against naming him Ron Ronsen. He’ll have an easier time in high school as Randy Ronsen.”

Milla rolled her eyes. “Nobody has an easy time in high school. That’s an international rule. I think it’s even set down in the constitution and in our Grundgesetz.”

“I’m sure it is,” Emma chuckled. “The American Dream: Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Happiness, plus the same psychological damage for everyone, administered through high school attendance. I think that is written down in the Declaration of Independence.”

Steve shook his head and grabbed Emma’s suitcase, heading for the exit. “I see, education and history are taken very seriously in Germany.”

“You’re a fine one to talk; you don’t even know when the Wall came down!” Emma defended her home country.

“Isn’t it sufficient to know that there was a wall at all?”

Milla shook her head in a show of pity, took over the stroller, and kissed her husband on the cheek. “Honey, don’t let Angela Merkel hear that.”

“Angela who?”

She sighed. “Let’s go already.”

Milla and Steve had parked in a lot not too far away from the exit, but Emma wouldn’t have cared if she’d had to walk ten miles. The sun was shining, she was with her sister, and tomorrow she’d start her new job, which would earn her a third more each month than what she had received back in Germany. Life was beautiful, and so was Philadelphia.

When they reached the car, Milla’s husband hefted her baggage into the trunk, before buckling Randy into his gigantic car seat. Emma was happy to get into the backseat with him. She had a mere five months to teach him to say, “I love you, Aunt Emma.” She should start right away, she thought.

Her sister’s remark, namely that it would take another while before Randy was ready to speak in complete sentences, didn’t faze Emma at all. Randy possessed the necessary intelligence, she could see that. And she’d be satisfied with something along the lines of “Da, da, Emma.”

“Where do we need to go?” Steve demanded as he turned onto Route 95.

Emma fished a small piece of paper from her pocket, and tried to read her own handwriting. “12, Paddington Road, Philadelphia,” she read, “that’s where they have a furnished apartment waiting for me. They said all I should bring was myself.”

“You didn’t bring anything else from Germany? No furniture or anything?” Steve asked and stepped on the gas.

“Well, yes, I brought a suitcase full of clothes … and myself.”

The rest of the drive, Milla kept talking about all the things they’d need to do together, and she kept slipping into German, and Steve kept clearing his throat to remind her that he wanted to be part of their conversation. His wife excused herself saying that she never had a chance to speak her native tongue.

Emma thought that that was a rather weak argument, since her sister taught German at Philadelphia University, but she didn’t say anything.

They stopped at the address she’d given them, and Milla apologized for the umpteenth time, because she and Steve couldn’t come in and help Emma get settled. They had an appointment with a realtor to see a house, and they couldn’t let that go by.

Emma knew the tiny apartment they were living in, so she hoped and prayed they would find something more spacious soon. Preferably before Milla and Steve were at each other’s throat in their cramped surroundings.

“I’ll come by your office at lunch time tomorrow, and we can eat together,” Milla promised, before the car pulled away from the curb again, and Emma was alone.

But she didn’t feel lonely. She felt free! She had always wanted to spend a longer period abroad, and she could barely believe that she was really here now – and she would even make a nice amount of money!

She cheerfully breathed in the stuffy air, which didn’t feel half as unhealthy as she had imagined it would. Then she went up to the front door of the tall building that bore the number twelve, and unlocked it. The bell panel gave away that the house held about a dozen apartments, and when Emma pushed the door open and stepped into the hallway, one of the other occupants approached her from the other end of it.

A woman in her late thirties, the mousy brown hair fashionably bobbed, gave her the once-over, nosy and suspicious at the same time. She wrinkled her nose. “You must be the new neighbor.”

Emma smiled and nodded. “I’m Emma Sander, hi.”

“And I’m late, so could you please get out of the way with your suitcase?”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Emma stepped aside quickly, letting the door fall shut behind the harried-looking lady.

Well. She guessed her welcome party would be held another day …

But even that could not put a dent in her exuberant mood, and when she saw her apartment, which was approximately half the size of her place in Cologne, but possessed a lot of atmosphere, she felt that she had finally really arrived.

Nothing could throw her off track in this town.

six

Luke’s head hurt, and it wasn’t the alcohol. He had spent the preceding night searching the web for “daughter Alberto” and “media tycoon,” and he was anything but satisfied with the results.

Nadia Alberto was neither far too young for his father, nor had she undergone plastic surgery. She had never been seen kicking a dog or laughing at a child with cancer, and she didn’t go about deforesting the rainforest either.

On the contrary: She was a member of the humane society, and made large donations to the Philadelphia Hospital on a regular basis. She was a widow, and there was no evidence that she might have poisoned or stabbed her late husband, or that she’d had any kind of hand in his passing. He’d died of heart failure. Nobody had seen it coming, and it had happened more than seven years ago. She had no kids, but a lot of money, and still all her teeth. What bothered Luke the most however was her genuine, personable smile.

The woman was bound to have an awful personality; Luke was certain of it.

He was also well aware that he was overreacting. The only way he could have justified his antipathy for the woman was if he’d received a blow to the head recently.

He rose and took a cold shower, which didn’t kill his headache, but at least his desire to hire a private detective. He should be focusing on his game. They had two more games against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the coming days, before they’d fly to Atlanta for another series. For Saturday, Wes had marked his calendar with the initials ›CG.‹ Luke had no idea what they stood for, but he assumed it was important.

He stepped out of the steam shower – his first big investment after buying the loft – and wrapped a towel around his hips. His phone rang, and he picked it up from the edge of the sink with a sigh.

“Yeah?”

“Luke,” a voice purred, “I cannot believe that I finally got you on the phone.”

Luke frowned, but didn’t say anything. It was a woman’s voice, but beyond that, he had no clue. “Hey, who’s this?”

An outraged cough was the answer. “It’s Brittany, of course.”

He should have checked the caller ID before picking up. Why hadn’t he done that? That was what that feature was for, damn it. “Hey, Brittany. Long time no talk.”

“You can say that again. And yet you promised you’d call me.”

Had he? He had promised so many things over the years, like supporting Greenpeace, and adopting a dog. Promises were overrated these days.

“I must have missed that somehow,” he stated.

“Well, no biggie. That’s why I’m calling you now.”

Hallelujah.

“Right,” he murmured as he clumsily pulled a t-shirt over his head with one hand. What kind of woman called a baseball player at nine a.m. on a Monday morning?

“So I was wondering if you have some time this week to meet with … an old friend?”

Dear God, he really didn’t have the patience for this right now – so he simply hung up and threw his phone on his bed, which was big enough to host an entire daycare group. Brittany would tell herself that the connection had somehow been severed. These things happened far too often.

Or better yet … he switched his phone off. His battery might have been low after all. If she was so eager to talk to him, she’d have to drop by when the Delphies had a practice session that was open to the public – just like any other woman.

Bagel with cream cheese, scrambled eggs, a muffin, and a cup of coffee. That was the most American breakfast Emma could think of. But afterwards she felt so stuffed that she decided to skip the American eating habits for now. Still feeling a little queasy, she finally stepped into the lobby of the tall office building at nine thirty sharp. Her workplace for the coming weeks was on the third floor.

Everything looked the way you expected things to look in such an office building. Sterile-looking colors, sterile-looking furniture, a lot of desks, and a vaguely tense atmosphere. That didn’t change when Emma reached her floor. The only thing that was different was the fact that a young woman with a ponytail and friendly blue eyes came hurrying towards her, beaming, or rather grinning like a Cheshire cat.

Emma liked cats, but weren’t you supposed to be wary of the Cheshire kind?

“You must be Emma Sander.”

Her accent told Emma that she must be European as well. Judging from the dark hair, she guessed that she came from a Southern country. “Hello.”

She held out her small hand. “I’m Linda, your assistant, and I’m really thrilled that you’re here. I’m going to spend the next few days introducing you to the branch here, and to your tasks. I’ll try to help any way I can.” She fell silent, giving Emma an expectant look.

Emma wasn’t really sure what the woman expected; maybe she was supposed to jump with joy, or do a little celebratory jig? She merely smiled and took the proffered hand. “You’re right. I’m Emma Sander, and I’m just as thrilled to be here.”

The answer seemed to satisfy her new assistant, for Linda let out a little giggle, before she marched quickly down the corridor that ran past the reception desk. Emma followed her and stared at Linda’s heels. That looked like at least five inches – why wasn’t Linda lying on the floor with an open fracture?

“Alright. Naturally there’s not meeting scheduled for you yet, since it’s your first day and you need to acquaint yourself with a few things first, but tomorrow you’re set to meet the local managing director, so you can get to know each other. And then of course there are the appointments you need to schedule so you can organize the event this weekend.” Linda was such a fast talker that Emma struggled to follow everything she was saying.

She could rightfully claim that she was fluent in the English language, not the least since she had spent an au pair year in Los Angeles, and she’d had no problem communicating with Steve, who only spoke English, but now she had to strain her ears and her brain more than she had expected. It had to be that accent with the swallowed vowels …

“… but I’ll explain that in more detail later, if that’s okay with you. Here we have your office now.” Linda smiled and took a step forward to open a door for Emma. Beyond that, there was a square, spacious room, which held nothing but a desk, chair, and a lamp.

“It seems that my predecessor liked it cozy.”

Linda giggled. “Indeed your predecessor wasn’t what I would call a domestic soul, but I could organize a painting or poster or something like that, to make it a little more homely, if you wish.”

Emma smiled. She thought she might learn to like being boss.

“It’s not pressing, but thanks for the offer. I might take you up on that at some point.”

“Sure. Why don’t you take a quick look around; I’ll be back in a second.” She raised a finger as if she expected Emma to jump out the window, and marched back down the corridor.

Emma grinned at nothing in particular and looked out the window. She had a great view on a concrete high-rise. That screamed freedom. She slowly approached the desk and ran her fingers across the surface.

There wasn’t a speck of dust on it. The top was smooth as glass, even though it was polished wood. The desk held a hole punch, some pens, a computer, and a small box filled with thumbtacks. When she sank into the large office chair, she found that it was flexibly adjustable. Much to her excitement, you could almost lie back horizontally. She’d be able to sleep and still look busy! With a grin, she leaned forward to pull the backrest back up, and when she straightened, she faced a smiling Linda, who dropped a stack of files and folders on her desk.

“These are your assignments for the next four weeks. I thought you might want to know in advance what’s coming up … and then I have this …” she added, opening another folder and putting it on top of the others. “This is the info for Saturday. The Delphies Bowling Charity Gala to fight bone cancer.”

A slight feeling of panic started crawling up Emma’s neck. “Saturday?” she echoed. “As in … this Saturday?”

Linda nodded excitedly. “Yes. But don’t worry. The better part has already been organized; you’re just responsible for fine-tuning things, and of course you need to be present at the event on Saturday, to make sure that everything goes according to plan.”

“Okay.” Emma scanned the topmost page in the file. “Charity Gala, you said?”

Her assistant nodded again. “Yes, exactly. A big event; the entire high society of Pennsylvania will be there.”

Which translated as: nobody Emma was likely to have seen on the cover of a magazine before. “Okay. And … why Delphies Charity Gala?”

What the hell was a Delphies? An energy company? A candy bar? It sounded like a candy bar, like something sweet and sticky. Snickers, Delphies, Twinkies.

Linda giggled and waved her hand dismissively. “You’re funny.”

Emma raised her eyebrows and blushed. She hadn’t tried to be funny.

“Oh.” Linda’s penny dropped. “You really don’t know what the Delphies are?”

The way Linda looked at her, you might have thought Emma had said she didn’t know what the Titanic was. She felt stupid, but she shook her head truthfully. “No. I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of them.”

“Of course not! I forgot that you’re from Germany.” She slapped her forehead and grimaced apologetically. “The Philadelphia Delphies are our local pro baseball team,” Linda explained slowly and smoothed her pencil skirt.

Baseball? Dear God. The only things Emma was less interested in were water polo and dog shows. A bunch of men hitting a ball with a stick, and then running after that ball, or away from it, as the case might be – how was that supposed to be fun?

“Ah, I see, and what’s the deal with this baseball team?” she prodded.

“They’ve been hosting the gala for several years now, after one of their promising rookies was forced to stop playing, due to bone cancer.”

Rookies? Had she heard that word before? Emma didn’t want to make a fool of herself by asking Linda what it meant.

“Okay, got it.”

A bunch of athletes would be there, bowling for charity. The only stipulation for the catering read that the appetizers should contain lots of meat. That was all she had to know.

“Alright. Thank you.” She picked up a pen and wrote down the bits of information she’d gathered on the top page. “I think I’m going to start by going through these files, to get an idea of what will be expected of me.”

Linda nodded. “Do you want me to put your calls through?”

“Uh, yes, please. But always let me know first who’s on the line.” She wanted to be able to google people, if necessary. Right after she had looked up what the term ›rookie‹ meant.

“Sure. Please don’t hesitate to call me back in, if you have any more questions. As my teacher in high school used to say: There are no dumb questions – only dumb answers.” She winked at Emma and closed the door behind her.

Emma stared first at the door and then at the file folders before her. Seven folders, if she’d counted correctly, not counting the charity thing this weekend.

Methodically, she went through each of them. An engagement party, the corresponding wedding, an auction, the presentation of a new car model, and an annual hunter gathering – Emma snickered – seemed to be the most important ones. She could deal with all of those starting next week. The charity event was the most pressing thing she had to take care of now.

With a sigh she turned the page. What she saw was very similar to what she was used to from her job in Germany, the only difference being that everything was written in English.

The venue had been booked – since they would be bowling, a large, fancy bowling alley was the obvious choice – the catering had been hired, and the bar stocked. The invitations had been sent out, the press informed. All of that would have been too short-noticed if she had been supposed to do it four days before the actual event. When she realized that there was actually hardly anything left to do, Emma’s pulse slowed down to normal again. But the she noticed a side note that said simply ›black tie‹ and her heart sank a little.

She had left her Cinderella dress in Germany.

So you’ll be at this party, mingling with all the stars, and technically you could flirt with anyone that crosses your path?” Milla stepped on the gas, and in this moment, nobody would have thought that she’d had a baby only recently.

“Well, first of all, I have to work. Not a lot of time left for flirting, I assume. Plus I don’t know any stars anyway. I know who Brad Pitt is, but that is about it, so how am I supposed to distinguish local celebrities from regular people?”

Milla shrugged her shoulders. “You don’t have to. You simply flirt with everyone that crosses your path.”

“Are you trying to hook me up, Milla?”

She sighed and pulled into the parking lot of a mall. “No, I just miss dating once in a while. It was so exciting.”

“Exhausting.”

“No, exciting.”

“Boring.”

“And then, when your heart started to beat faster …”

“Or when you started salivating, because your date told you about their stamp collection.”

“Oh Emma. You’re far too pessimistic about it all.” She parked next to a blue Chevrolet and turned the engine off.

“Ha,” Emma replied as she opened her seat belt, “it’s you who’s too optimistic, because you have the perfect husband and the cutest baby in the world. All the women who are still looking for a man are much more realistic when it comes to dating.”

They got out and shouldered their purses. Milla had to buy a book for Steve, so she was headed to Barnes & Noble, and then she wanted to invite her sister to lunch, which shouldn’t be too American, Emma had asked after her opulent breakfast.

“So is there anyone in Germany, for whom you’d consider giving up the dating game?” Milla asked nosily, while they walked towards the entrance. She wore an expression that said: All I want is for my little sister to be happy.

But said sister was currently happy enough without a testosterone victim at her side.

Emma hugged her sister impulsively. “Milla, I always tell you everything over the phone. There is nothing you don’t know.”

“That’s too bad. I thought maybe you had saved a few things to tell me in person.”

“No, I haven’t. And since when is everything about starting a family and planning your future?”

Emma loved planning things, but only if she could plan other people’s affairs! She couldn’t plan her own life five years in advance. Who would do such a thing? You couldn’t be a control freak in every aspect of your being.

And the last time she’d already pictured herself in a white dress, things had not gone well at all. It was entirely possible that not all men were idiots, but if she didn’t start anything with anyone, she was merely playing it safe, wasn’t she?

“No, of course it’s not. I’m sorry. Since I had Randy, I keep thinking about it, that’s all. And I just know that you would make a wonderful mother!”

“Thank you. But I hope I can still be that in five years.” Emma was twenty-eight years old. She still had a lot of time to overcome her current distrust of men, and make one to three babies. Three years for the man issues, three years for the babies.

“Of course you can. Okay, I need to go in here quickly.”

They entered the bookstore, and Emma felt overwhelmed by the sheer size of the store. Not only did it extend over several floors, it also seemed designed like a maze, where customers would get lost and never find their way home again.

Milla laughed at her sister’s astonished face. “Yes. It’s a big store. Get used to it. Why don’t you browse for a few moments while I find Steve’s book?”

Emma didn’t doubt that her sister would find the book, but she was worried that Milla would find her again. But Milla had already disappeared in one of the aisles, so Emma couldn’t point out the problem.

Alright then, she would venture into this labyrinth of the printed word. Emma strolled through the store, picking a random course through the aisles, fascinated by the range and variety on offer.

At the very back of the store for example, there was a row of shelves that held only bibles. The Barbie Bible, the Boy Scout Bible, The Animated Bible, the My Little Pony Bible, and of course the bible in extra large print for older people.

Crazy. Emma walked on, and was suddenly surrounded by blue and red. “The Delphies,” a large sign heralded what this section of the store was about.

Emma chuckled and shook her head at the range of items on display. All the better to educate herself in preparation of her Saturday event.

Goodness, there was such a lot of stuff. She had always thought the soccer hype in Germany was bad, but it was a joke compared to this baseball cult. There were jerseys, pennants and streamers, playing cards, umbrellas and dog blankets, but also toilet seat covers and barbecue grills.

The most fascinating item however was located on the top shelf: a row of miniature versions of the players. At least that was what it looked like. A bunch of different baseball player figurines with bobbing heads. Emma didn’t recognize any of the faces.

She laughed as she strolled past the shelf. How could a person be so obsessed with this sport; obsessed enough to buy a plastic bobblehead player? She sort of understood the jerseys, but those figurines? Unfathomable.

“Oh, so you want to immerse yourself in American culture by getting an athlete for your bedside table?!”

Milla had materialized next to her, triumphantly waving the book she had sought.

Emma rolled her eyes. “Exactly, I’m going to get me …” She grabbed a random figurine. “This one. He looks kinda cute.” She turned the bobblehead in her hands and looked more closely at the face. “Yes, quite handsome.”

She held it in front of her face and started grinning. This one reminded her a little of Luke, the guy she’d beaten at pool and let win at table soccer a year ago … the guy she’d slept with afterwards. Her only ever one-night stand. He had been damned worth it.

Weird. The last thing she’d seen of him was his naked butt, since he’d stepped into his jeans without bothering to put on his boxers. And then he’d asked her if he’d see her again … my, my. The likeness was almost disconcerting.

“Oh, great choice, sister.” Milla took the figurine from her hands. “Hey,” she laughed, “your taste in men is impeccable. He’s one of the cutest in the team. Luke Carter, star pitcher and … are you okay?”

Milla gave her sister a concerned look, because suddenly all the color had drained from Emma’s face.

And Emma stared at the bobblehead in shock. That couldn’t be true! He couldn’t be … He had told her …

“What’s his name?” she asked, her throat dry as sandpaper.

“Luke Carter,” Milla repeated slowly and took a step backwards, probably out of fear that her sister might puke on her pretty shoes. “He’s a pitcher with the Delphies. Uh, wait …”

Her eyes scanned the shelves, and then she grabbed a large picture book and opened it. “Here. That’s him.”

She pointed at one of the photos in the book.

Emma leaned forward and clapped her hands over her mouth. “Oh God! I slept with a guy who has his own bobblehead effigy!”

“You … what?!” Incredulous, Milla stared at her. “When? You only arrived yesterday!”

“It’s been a while. Last year, in Cologne.”

“You slept with a celebrity last year and never told me? Didn’t you say there was nothing in your life I didn’t know about?” Milla seemed miffed in earnest.

“Jesus, I didn’t know that he was sort of famous!”

“Sort of famous?” Milla looked pointedly at the figurine, before waving it in front of Emma’s face. The head bobbled like crazy. “Emma, he’s a bobblehead! Every child in this country knows his fucking name, and every playmate has slipped him their G-string!”

“He didn’t tell me he played baseball!” Emma defended herself. She felt a little dizzy. “I didn’t know I would turn into a groupie or anything. He said … he told me something about a stadium, and that he was indispensible … I don’t remember. It’s been a year! But he didn’t mention that he is famous.”

Milla opened her mouth and then closed it again. She repeated that action several times, before taking a hasty breath and asking: “So? How was he? I’ve always been curious whether a baseball star is good in bed.”

“Yeah, why don’t you say that a little louder still?” Emma groaned. A baseball star. She’d been in bed with a baseball star! Holy crap, there was everything wrong with that picture!

“Bullshit, nobody understands us here anyway. Spill the beans, come on!”

Emma raised her eyebrows and turned away with ostentation. She would not talk about it. “Let’s go.”

“Don’t do that to me!”

“Don’t forget to pay for your book. I’m sure theft is a crime in every country.”

“Emma! You cannot tell me a thing like that and then leave me high and dry!”

“It was a long time ago and I don’t remember.”

“Oh, that’s a big fat lie!”

It was. “No, it’s not.”

“I bet it was incredible.” Milla sighed. “He has such beautiful muscles. The only reason I watch sports is those bodies. I bet he was the best you ever had.”

He was. “Mhm.” Emma shrugged her shoulders and got in line for the cash point. “He was okay.”

Milla grinned at her. “You little liar.”

seven

Clapping and cheering erupted when Luke stepped into the changing room, causing him to stop in the doorframe with his eyebrows raised.

The game was still to be played, and he wasn’t looking that good today.

“Congratulations!” Jake sprang forward and patted Luke on the back. “What an honor to have such a star among us!”

Something was up. A half-naked baseball player normally thought twice before touching another one.

Luke shook off the hand on his back and walked to his spot, in front of his locker. “What’s up? Anyone care to let me in on the joke?”

Ray, who was already wearing his jersey, shook his head and stepped forward. “Dude, you really never read the papers, do you?”

“Why should I?” He got his share of lies, allegations, and speculation from all sorts of sources, so who would he open a newspaper to get more of those?

“Here. That’s why.” Ray pulled a magazine from his locker. From the cover, his own face grinned at Luke.

The winner: this is our bachelor with the worst taste in women

“What the …?”

“Page 43,” Ray murmured, before heading for the door.

Luke stared at his face for a moment, before he opened the mag at the page Ray had given him.

Baseball heartthrob Luke Carter (30) has been living the high life for years. It seems that half of America’s cadre of starlets and itty-bitty it girls has shared a bed with him, but what’s most conspicuous about that is the ultra bad taste he’s shown again and again. Quite obviously, he has a clear penchant for bottled blonde and silicone. The Delphies player declines comment, but we’ve rounded up our cheeseball top ten of Carter’s conquests for you anyway.

Luke flipped the page and scanned the ten photographs of his alleged date blunders. They were mostly blonde, kooky broads, pouting at the camera, puffed with conceit. Brittany, who was still harassing him with her phone calls, was one of them.

Luke crumpled the tabloid mag in his fist, aimed, and threw it into the trash. With at least five out of the ten girls featured in their damn list, he was rather certain that while he had indeed been out with them, he hadn’t slept with them. And he was also rather certain that he had in fact slept with the other five, but those ›dates‹ had taken place at least four years ago.

Shit. It was really unbelievable!

He took off his t-shirt and threw it into his locker with an angry huff.

He was finally being a good boy in public, and what did the press do? They dug up his past to find more crap they could print, so he was still on their front pages.

Wes would be thrilled. Luke was actually surprised that his manager hadn’t called yet. Maybe he was busy with his upcoming wedding.

›The Delphies player declines comment‹ – what a bunch of fucking baloney!

Luke would have loved to provide comment. Preferably with a punch to somebody’s face.

Why was everyone so damned curious about his life anyway? Sometimes Luke had the feeling that his fans knew more about him than he did.

“Luke, don’t sweat it.” Dexter patted him on the shoulder. “Those vultures write whatever they want. Tomorrow it’ll be someone else’s turn again, and the world will have forgotten all about you.”

The world, maybe. His management, not so much.

“Thanks,” he murmured as he slipped his jersey over his head. “My taste is impeccable, by the way.”

Dexter gave him a pitying look. “Your taste is abominable, dude. I’m really surprised that none of your lovely conquests has keyed your car yet.”

“Oh, my car has been keyed several times. But as long as they scratch my itch before they scratch my car, I’m fine with that …”

“You know, I agree with Ray. Someone should punch you in the face one day!”

Luke smiled mechanically. “So tell me, Dex: How is your sister doing these days?”

“Maybe I’ll take care of it myself, fix your face for you,” Dex murmured. “I’d be doing a favor to all of womankind …”

“Let me guess, we’re slaughtering our own cow, and then barbecue it in front of our car?”

Emma stood in front of her sister’s car, frowning at Milla with her eyes narrowed. When Milla had suggested they should treat themselves, she had thought about a spa day, not … this.

“Not exactly, no.”

Emma looked around. She spied at least a dozen men, doing an impromptu barbecue in front of their car, eating what looked like an entire cow. “Oh, okay. We’re slaughtering our own pig then, putting that on the grill?”

Milla laughed. “Nope … we’re going in there.”

She pointed with her arm outstretched, at a gigantic building that Emma had identified as a stadium. Talk about foreboding.

“Please don’t tell me we’re watching some sports tournament,” she begged, tilting her head back in despair. Emma and sports had met a few times before. They had smiled politely, shook hands, and decided that going their separate ways was the best strategy.

Watching a game or match was not what Emma would have filed under ›relaxation.‹

Her sister gave her a wide grin and threw up her arms in a V, which looked as if she was cutting a caper, without actually jumping. “We’re going to watch a baseball game!”

Emma groaned loudly and put a hand over her eyes.

“Milla, I hate sports. Sports are boring!”

“Humbug.” She locked her car and linked arms with her sister. “We have great seats, way up front and with a view of the home plate. It’s going to be fun.”

Emma didn’t share her sister’s confidence.

She didn’t understand why people enjoyed running after a ball or whatever – and who was the idiot who’d had the idea of paying them for doing that?

“You can file it under research,” Milla laughed as they crossed the street together.

“Research?” Emma grumbled and shook her head. “What sort of research?”

“Well, you’re organizing this charity thing tomorrow, and today you have the chance of getting to know the hosts, the Delphies.”

Emma snorted. “Getting to know them? I’m going to see them from several hundred yards away. I wouldn’t exactly call that getting to know people.”

“Alright then, let’s say I’m giving you the opportunity to memorize a few celebrity faces, so you won’t have to ask everyone if they’re famous tomorrow. Because that would sound stupid.”

Granted, that sounded rather clever. She was really a little scared she would make a total fool of herself the following day.

They reached the security gate, were asked to open their purses and show their tickets. The bouncer nodded at Emma, and she was allowed to pass.

“You owe me one after this,” she grumbled and craned her neck. The stadium was gigantic. It had several floors. She and Milla stepped into an elevator, rode up to the third floor, and found themselves in the midst of a crowd of hot dog, pretzel, and fan gear hawkers. Every other person who crossed their path was wearing a red-and-blue jersey with a name and a large number on the back. Emma felt as if she had landed in the inner circle of a cult, one that worshipped the colors red and blue, and really liked caps.

“Don’t make such a grumpy face,” Milla complained. “I thought you might be thrilled to see your one-night stand again.”

“Shut up, Milla.”

“Oh, come on, it’s going to be fabulous! Don’t you think it’s funny?!”

Yeah, a killer of a joke! She might literally laugh her head off. It was so funny that she felt a little sick at the thought of potentially seeing Luke again, even if it would be from far away. The night they had spent together seemed so surreal now. Not only because it was the only one-night stand in her entire life, but also because Luke had clearly been out of her league, and yet he had ended up next to her. Now that she knew he was famous, she felt even more uncomfortable. The man had his own bobblehead figurine, for mercy’s sake!

And of course he had never called again. Not that she had wanted him to. Not at all. Alright, maybe a little. A tiny little bit.

Emma blinked several times, trying to banish the memory of that night, and then stuck out her tongue at her sister. “Okay, Miss Wisenheimer. You’ll stop talking about that, and I’ll do my best to get something out of all this.”

Milla mimed locking her mouth and throwing away the key. “Gotcha. Let’s go sit down then.”

“Yes, by all means. We don’t want to miss the game, do we.”

“Oh,” Milla waved her hand dismissively, “who cares. Most people don’t even arrive on time. They only go to baseball games to eat hot dogs and pretzels anyway.”

The interior of the arena looked like a Quidditch stadium. Some of the tiers were so high up that they could only be reached by elevator – climbing the stairs would probably have killed some of the more corpulent patrons – and the seats were incredibly narrow and tightly packed. Seated in three overlapping tiers, the spectators could admire the green diamond below. Or maybe they couldn’t, for Emma doubted that you could discern anything at all from the topmost seats. She secretly wished the players would sail in on brooms, because then this game might even get really interesting.

At least Milla had been right about their seats, for they were pretty good. Emma was able to see the field, which had a strangely jagged form, as well as the giant screen, which showed everything that happened. If she had strained her eyes, she might even have been able to discern the faces of the players, who were already down there on the green, warming up, she guessed. But she didn’t want to do that. Nope, not recognizing any faces was her motto right now.

“Isn’t the atmosphere amazing?” Milla demanded Emma’s agreement, gesturing around the tiers, which were almost completely filled. “Imagine how many people are here right now!”

Emma imagined it, and wondered what would happen if all those people would join Greenpeace, or better yet, give her a dollar each.

“Yes, cool atmosphere,” she admitted reluctantly, and found herself clapping with the rest of the stadium, when the start of the game was announced through the speakers.

The Philadelphia Delphies were running against the Detroit Tigers. Emma thought that the latter name sounded impressive, but what did she know.

And then the game began. At least that was what the announcer had said, but in Emma’s opinion, nothing happened for a while. The screen showed the face of a player, and a bunch of numbers, but that was it, as far as she could tell.

She leaned closer to Milla, whose gaze was directed at a small mound, where a single man stood with a ball in his hand. “What happens now?” she asked, following Milla’s gaze.

“Now they throw the ball. That’s called pitching.”

“And then?”

“Then the other guy tries to hit it. That’s called batting.”

“And then?”

Suddenly the fans started screaming, and Emma looked around in confusion.

What had happened? As far as she could tell, none of the players had fainted. Had someone taken off their t-shirt? “Why is everyone screaming?” she yelled at her sister over the ruckus.

“The ball hit the outfield!”

Emma guessed that that was a good thing. She shrugged her shoulders and cheered with the rest of them.

Aha. The giant screen showed a man, who looked incredibly ridiculous with the wooden bat leaning casually on his shoulder now. He had brutally hit the ball with his bat, and it had landed somewhere on the lawn far out. She could also see the players of the opposite team rushing after it, trying to hit the player with the ball. Or maybe they were throwing the ball to the members of their own team, and then for some reason they beat the ground with their palms. Emma didn’t follow what that was supposed to achieve. Why would you put your hand down on the ground, right before another player came running? What if he stepped on your fingers?

“You look skeptical,” Milla laughed, her eyes already on a large green mascot, who came running across the green part of the field, doing a rather dumb-looking dance.

“Not skeptical. Perturbed, I’d say. What happens if such a ball hits a player in the head?”

“I guess then he needs a hospital.”

“Oh. And if it hits a bird?”

“Then you have a dead bird.”

“And if it hits a spectator?”

“Then you have a home run, an injured spectator, and a lawsuit against the team.”

“Ah.”

And who exactly would be running home?

Ninety minutes later, Emma still had no idea why the players beat the ground, but she knew that a game lasted nine innings, and they were only in the fourth one. Several players hat hit and caught and pitched and batted the ball, and the score was three to two for the Tigers.

But now it was the Delphies’ turn again. Emma didn’t know why exactly – something with offense and defense, and a switch after three outs … Milla seemed relatively well-versed in the confusingly many rules of the game.

“So was that an out?” Emma asked, watching a row of men run across the sandy part of the field, pulling a wide rake. So there were Zen gardeners, too, in this game.

“What was an out?”

“Well … the thing that happened just now. One guy batted, but didn’t hit the ball, and then they switched.”

“Yes. He missed the ball three times in a row, even though the pitcher threw him a nice ball, so that means he’s out.”

Emma nodded, pretending to pay attention, though she couldn’t memorize all of those rules anyway.

One hot dog each later, the players came out on the field again and took up their respective positions. And stayed put, for the most part, while nothing much happened. One player pitched the ball, and the man who stood behind the guy with the bat caught the ball.

How could this even be called a sport?!

Most of the time, the players seemed to rest, looking bored out of their minds, but when their moment came, they sprinted off to wherever they needed to go, and then stood around once again.

Emma thought that even in curling or golf, there was more going on. At least the giant screen was fun. During each break, the audience was asked to do something. Do the robot dance, do the freaky dance, kiss for the Kiss Cam. Whatever it was, it was always funny. Americans had no problem making fools of themselves, just to be on TV for a second, or at least on camera, as the case might be. But that wasn’t an American prerogative, she thought, more of a global phenomenon.

The crowd was screaming again, with people jumping to their feet. Emma craned her neck and looked up at the sky, which had gotten rather dark by now. “I don’t see the ball at all.”

“Yeah, sometimes it’s hard to see it, since it’s so white.”

“So where is it now?”

“Back there. Reynolds has it.”

Who was Reynolds?

“The one in the team’s colors,” Milla said with a private grin, reading her thoughts.

Emma rolled her eyes. “Why, thank you.”

“I can’t believe it!” Milla yelled suddenly. “Jake Braker was in with his foot. That was plain to see! No way he was out!”

Emma gave her sister a perplexed look. Milla’s face was reddened, and she was all but hanging over the railing. The only times Emma had seen her this emotional was at Monopoly.

“Are you fucking blind, umpire? The ball reached Reynolds after Braker!”

“Is he fucking blind? Jake had his foot on the base!” Luke yelled and rose from the bench. “He was first!”

“Out!” the umpire insisted, before admonishing the Delphies’ main coach to calm down. The man had started to scream cholerically. “Send out the next one.”

Luke began swearing in German, and the umpire threw him an angry look, but he couldn’t reprimand him. For all he knew, Luke might have recited his shopping list. The umpire could only speculate.

“Go on, Carter,” Coach Thompson barked, all but foaming at the mouth, “show the blind mole that this team deserves a victory.”

Luke was a pitcher, which meant that his batting practice wasn’t on par with that of the actual batters. Most of the time, pitchers were bad at the home plate. Most of the time.

“Aaaand we have Luuuuuke Carter on the diamond, with the number fourteeeeeen,” the exuberant voice came over the speakers, and then Luke’s face appeared on the giant screen. Immediately her heart started beating a little faster.

Stupid, awkward heart!

It shouldn’t feel anything. She didn’t even know the man. Well, she knew his body, but she did not know the rest – and that was the part that was important!

But her heart ignored that fact, even though her head knew it. And her hormones ignored the fact that Luke looked absolutely ridiculous with his helmet.

Alright, maybe hot and ridiculous. But for the most part, hot … uh, wait, ridiculous! That’s what she had meant to think. For the most part, ridiculous.

He looked like a … had he grown out his hair? Dark curls were visible under the helmet.

Emma noticed Milla staring at her, shaking her head. “I can’t get over the fact that you had sex with this man and didn’t tell me a single word.”

Emma blushed and turned her face away. She was totally focused on the game all of a sudden.

The pitcher threw the ball and – Luke didn’t even move his arm.

“Why didn’t he swing the bat?”

“Because it was a ball.”

“I know it is a ball; I can see it really well now.”

“No, it’s called a ball if the pitcher throws too high or too low. If Carter had batted that, it would have been his mistake.”

“I see.” Emma didn’t understand a word.

The pitcher threw a second time, and once again, Luke let the ball said past him.

“Wow, he really has a sharp eye.”

“Does he?”

“Yes, he does.”

“Okay.” Emma raised her hands apologetically. “I can’t see his eyes from up here. But I’m sure he has two, not just one.”

“Shh.”

Emma rolled her eyes and looked back down at the field, where the pitcher swung a third time, and threw the ball again. This time, player number fourteen hit the ball. He hit it full force.

The white smudge flew across the sandy part, across the lawn, and then it rapidly approached the tiers.

Oh God! The ball came right at the tiers … or not really the tiers … it came straight at her!

“I’ll get it, I’ll catch it!” Milla squealed and rose from her seat.

But she didn’t catch it. It flew right into Emma’s legs, causing her to lean back in fright, but she couldn’t evade the white bullet, nor the attendant bruises of the impact.

“You’ve got it!” Milla beamed and yanked up Emma’s arm, while the other spectators around them sank back down into their seats, disappointed that they hadn’t been the lucky ones. “I don’t believe it. It’s your first game ever, and you catch a ball. You’re such a lucky duck!”

Emma picked up the white ball with the red stitching. “Apparently I am.”

“Luke Carter reaches fourth base. This is his first home run of the season!” the stadium announcer yelled excitedly.

Luke brushed the hair away from his eyes and high-fived his teammates.

“See, I bet the press will have only nice things to say to you tomorrow,” Jake smirked and knocked on Luke’s helmet.

Luke socked him in the arm. “I sure hope so – and they’ll say that your jersey clashes with your hair color.”

“Bullshit,” the guy with the number six on his jersey griped. “According to InTouch, I’m the one with the best taste in women.”

Luke snorted. The stupid article wouldn’t destroy his grand moment. “I haven’t seen any stunners on your arm in a while.”

“And now let’s show the lucky girl once again who caught the home run ball!” the stadium announcer declared enthusiastically, and the crowd cheered in response.

“Her,” Jake grinned and nodded at the screen. “I’d take her any day. Really cute. Wow … look at those eyes. I bet I could make them darken with pleasure.”

Irritated by his bragging, Luke followed Jake’s gaze …

“Her body may be a little too sturdy,” Jake added thoughtfully, “but apart from that …”

“No,” Luke murmured, dumbfounded. “Her body is perfect. The hottest thing I ever …”

What the hell was she doing here?

She lived in Germany after all! Sweet Emma, who wasn’t all that sweet. The woman radiated pure sensuality, even over a stadium screen!

And Luke remembered everything about her. The way she talked, the way her lips moved while she yelled at him, how she waved her arms to get him to leave her apartment. Everything about her was … fascinating. Above all, the multiple personality disorder he’d diagnosed. She had possessed at least two selves, one in the bedroom, and one out of it. And the weirdest part was that he couldn’t say which of the two had bamboozled him more.

His teammate stared at him, mystified. “The hottest thing you ever – what?”

Luke’s head jerked up. “Shut your trap, Braker, and focus on the game, instead of ogling pretty women!”

Braker snorted. “Sure, if you can do the same!”

“I’m capable of multi-tasking,” he murmured and glanced up at the screen again. The day was getting more interesting by the minute.

“Oh, look, you’re on screen!” Milla squealed and pulled at Emma’s sleeve. Emma turned her head and was startled to see her oversized self on the giant screen. She smiled and blushed.

All the other people around her might want to be on TV, but she really didn’t.

Milla however loved every second of it. She beamed like a thousand watts and waved her arms wildly.

Then the image was replaced by another, and Emma sank back in her seat with relief.

eight

“And it’s really not a problem for you?”

“Go on home already.” Emma shut the car door. “Your son is waiting for his mom. We can go out for drinks another time. I need my beauty sleep anyway.”

Not that it would help any, considering that tomorrow night, she would be surrounded by a thousand fashion model types.

Milla rolled down her window. “Tell me once again that I was right.”

Emma scowled at her.

“Say it.”

“You were right. It was fun.”

“There you go! I’m always right. You should know that, after twenty-eight years of being my sister.” Milla threw her a kiss through the open window, before leaving the parking space with an elegant maneuver.

The big lot was blocked by a long line of cars wanting out, and Emma didn’t feel like getting in line, so she took a twenty-minute stroll around the stadium grounds instead, waiting for it to empty out.

Only when she saw that most people had left, she got into the car and entered her new home address into the GPS. She was tired and exhausted. She had conquered the jetlag by now, but never got her eight hours of solid sleep at night. Too much novelty and excitement.

She turned the key. The engine sounded as if it was on crack.

That was impossible! It was a company car; she had received it only yesterday.

She turned the key again.

The engine stuttered its apology and went dead.

“Good game, Carter.”

“You’re back, man.”

“If you go on hitting balls like that, nobody will care about your terrible taste in women.”

“I have good taste.”

Someone snorted. Maybe they all did. “Why don’t you stick with your curveballs!”

He sighed and sat down on the bench. He had given an interview, gallantly ignoring any allusion to the magazine article, speaking only about the game, not about his father’s wedding. Now most of the other players were already dressed and ready to leave.

“I hope it stays like this. It’s no fun playing with a sissy,” Dexter said and grinned at Luke, before slipping out of the changing room.

“I hope so, too,” Luke murmured, more to himself than to his teammates.

There was hardly anyone left in the room, and Luke had changed into his regular clothes again as well, when his phone rang and caller ID told him it was Wes.

Luke’s mood was still so good that the thought of another lecture didn’t daunt him.

“Hey, Wes,” he said as he slipped into his coat.

“Awesome game, Luke,” his friend greeted him.

Why was he so calm?

“Should I be worried that you’re not yelling at me?”

“Do you want me to yell that you delivered a great game? Would that be more reassuring?”

Yes, it probably would.

“Don’t be offended, but tell me why you’re really calling. You’d never pick up the phone just to congratulate me.”

“Of course not. If I called every time you strike, I’d have no more time for the other stuff.”

“Is it about the article?”

“Let’s forget about the article for now. The scribblers have you in their sights; that’s not your fault.” The day was getting weirder by the minute. Luke didn’t know that his friend possessed such clear-sightedness.

“No, it’s about the charity event tomorrow. I wanted to check whether I need to take care of the tux for you, or whether you’ve gotten one already.”

Luke stared at his locker and shut its door mechanically, before clearing his throat. “Charity event?”

Silence.

“Tell me you’re kidding me.”

Luke ran a hand through his wet hair and frowned. Charity event. Didn’t ring a bell. “I don’t know anything about a charity event.”

“What is wrong with you?” Wes flared. “I gave you the tickets months ago!”

Luke opened his wallet and found two folded tickets, which turned out to be for the ›Delphies Bowling Charity Gala to fight bone cancer.’

“Right. I have them.” He nodded. “I thought you gave me coupons for McDonalds.”

“Luke, don’t make me come by your house and pee on your doormat.”

“I simply forgot about it, Wes.”

“I put it in your calendar!”

“Oh, so that’s what CG means.”

“Yes, that’s what it means.”

“I see.” Luke shook his head, debating. “I’m not sure I should attend that.”

“You’re not sure?” The voice of his agent rose in disbelief. “It’s not up for debate, Luke! You’re going there, and I’m ready to send the dogs after you if you’re not sure. You need to show your face and let them snap loads of pictures, comprende? Because if you don’t, the papers will say you don’t care about bone cancer!”

“Jesus, Wes.” Luke grinned. “You’re too irritable. Didn’t I teach you anything? Don’t get stressed, I’m not paying you to play my chaperone.”

There was silence for a second, and Luke could picture the face his friend was wearing now. “Listen to me, smartass,” Wes finally hissed, “you will be there. Alone or with arm candy, I don’t care. I’d prefer if you didn’t bring anyone. Who knows what you will pick up before tomorrow night. Today’s article really wasn’t the best publicity for your taste in women, and there’s no need to stoke these fires, comprende?”

“Fine. I’m going alone.” Luke was more than fed up with everyone reproaching him for his taste in women. If he went alone tomorrow, at least that wouldn’t happen again.

“Great. I’ll be there as well, as will your father and his fiancée, so please don’t make a scene.”

Now that was going to be a fantastic night, he thought sarcastically. “I’ll do my best. You know me though; I’m really fond of drama.”

“Yes, I know you, and no matter how much you say you detest drama, you somehow always manage to generate some.”

No, he did not! It was the women who did it, throwing themselves at him as if he was a football, and they were at their own private Superbowl. But he didn’t want to argue that issue any further right now. “See you tomorrow, Wes.”

“See you, Luke. And it really was an awesome game.”

He hung up, and Luke shouldered his bag.

The underground parking garage was almost completely empty when he got to his Audi A8 – he didn’t need a status symbol, but there was nothing wrong with a nice, sleek car. It had been a good day, and Luke got in feeling that nothing could top his home run. But when he started the engine and drove past the visitor parking lot, he suddenly thought that his verdict might have been premature: There was a single car left in the lot, and a familiar-looking woman was raving ad kicking at it.

“I hate American cars, I hate them!” Emma kicked a tire and beat her fists on the front hood. “Why won’t you start? You stupid piece of junk!”

She had called a towing service and a taxi, but in both cases, the clerk had told her it might be a while before they had gotten through the busy traffic.

Headlights were coming her way, and Emma raised her head, hopeful. But when she shaded her eyes with her hand, squinting against the bright lights, she had to admit that the car was a little too fancy for a taxi. And her idea of a taxi driver was very different from the man who got out of the Audi.

Oh God. Her treacherous heart was already dancing a polka again, and her attempts at willing her blood to stay out of her cheeks was futile.

Her throat was dry as she crossed her arms and leaned against her car.

“You look familiar,” Luke grinned and shut the door of his car.

Emma’s smile was a little forced. “I bet you say that to all of the women you’ve slept with.”

He shook his head in mock seriousness. “No, I don’t. Sometimes I prefer to ask: Haven’t we met before?”

Emma snorted. “So I’m supposed to feel honored that you still recognize me?”

“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw you on the screen,” he admitted with a shrug. “I thought I had only imagined it was you … but when I heard you scream at your poor car, I knew it was you. I remember your screams very well.”

Emma blushed violently. Dear God, this guy drove her crazy – but she’d rather drop dead than let him see that. “The engine is lazy, doesn’t want to run. So I’m kind of stuck here.”

“Have you called a tow truck yet?”

“No, I’m hoping that Santa will ride by and let me borrow his reindeer.” That had come out a smidgen more sullen than she’d intended.

But Luke was standing there, talking as if they’d met only last night in the bar, to play a round of pool. How could he be so casual? Or was that simply a baseball player thing? Were they all experts at turning an awkward situation into something positive? Or was Luke maybe so drunk that his embarrassment radar had gone to sleep? Emma hoped it wasn’t the latter, since he was still driving.

“What are you doing here anyway?” he asked, ignoring her sarcasm.

“I watched a baseball game.”

Luke laughed. “Oh, really?! I’d be more curious to hear why you came all the way to the US to do that?”

Why was he curious at all?

“I’m working here for a few months,” she explained, wishing that the corner of her mouth would stop twitching nervously.

“Ah, I see … and then you thought, why not spend your day stalking your one-night stand from last year?”

Arrogant egomaniac!

“Apart from the fact that you forgot to tell me what it really is you do, I didn’t even want to come here today. I’m not interested in baseball. My sister dragged me here – seeing you in a ridiculous pair of pants wasn’t exactly at the top of my wish list.”

His grin widened. Apparently he wasn’t just immune against embarrassment, but also against insults. “Has anyone ever told you that you start offending random people when you feel awkward?”

“Random? No, I certainly don’t pick on random people. I focus on people who sort of deserve it.”

“Now you’re really insulting me! Sort of? Of course I fully deserve it! Nevertheless I’d like to play your shining knight. Need a ride?”

She rolled her eyes and shook her head. “I’m still waiting for the tow truck, and I’ve already called a taxi, but thanks anyway.”

Half an hour in a car with this man? No way! Emma wanted to avoid stressful situations at the moment.

“That might take ages. When did you call them?”

“A few minutes ago. They’ll get here soon, won’t they?”

Luke buried a hand in his pocket, pulled out his phone, and typed a few numbers.

“Hey, Larry, this is Luke. Yeah, thanks, the game went really well, I know. Listen, can you send a tow truck to the stadium … visitor parking? Yes, I know traffic is hell right now, but you’re the fastest. Thank you. It’s the silver Ford. Yes, just tow it, repair it, and deliver it to …” He raised his eyebrows and glanced at Emma.

“Uh … 12, Paddington Road,” she said. “Philadelphia.”

“You got that? Yeah, great. Let me know if your youngest would like to sit in the VIP lounge again, okay? Alright, bye.” Luke hung up, grinned at Emma, and nodded in the direction of his car. “It’s all taken care of, get in.”

“But what about the taxi?”

“What about it? The driver won’t demolish your car, just because he finds an empty lot.”

“But that’s impolite!”

“We’re in the States, honey. That’s the way it goes.”

He got in behind the wheel, and Emma resigned herself to getting her purse from her car, leaving the key in the ignition, and getting into his car.

Luke had already entered her address into his GPS. “Why aren’t you wearing a jersey?”

“Why would I?”

“To show your support for the team.”

She shrugged and stared straight ahead, while he pulled out of the parking lot. “What? Just because I slept with a baseball player by accident, doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a fan of his team.”

He laughed out loud and turned onto Columbus Boulevard. “By accident?”

“I didn’t know you were a baseball player!”

“And if you’d known? Would that have changed anything?”

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  • Louis Saskia (Autor)

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Titel: Perfect Game