“Auntie Brooke,” Hunter raced over me. “There’s a girl playing on my team.”
His tone was full of shock.
I looked over his head, seeing a girl with a blonde ponytail poking out of her baseball cap. “I think I remember reading somewhere that girls can—”
But Hunter had darted off again before I could finish my statement. The coach introduced himself, and a few dads volunteered to help with practice. The kids were grouped together to go through different stations: batting, fielding, pitching, and catching.
I opened my chair and took my seat off to the side when I noticed a man pacing the hill, his phone pressed against his ear. He stood out because he still wore pressed slacks and a button-down shirt. The other moms and dads were dressed casually in jeans and T-shirts.
I scanned the faces to try and figure out which kid was his. All the kids wore pants or shorts with T-shirts, and a few wore baseball hats. Other than the lone girl, no one stood out.
The man finally lowered his phone and turned back toward practice. With long strides, he ate up the distance between us. I couldn’t look away. Brown hair, neatly trimmed beard. It was Ben. What was he doing there? Was he visiting a niece or nephew like I was?
He casually scanned the group of parents sitting in chairs or standing and young siblings running around the area before he spotted me. I sucked in a breath, wishing the sight of him didn’t affect me so much. I told myself it was just a surprise seeing him after so much time.
He didn’t stop until he stood at my side. “What are you doing here?”
I nodded toward the field. “Same thing I expect you’re doing. Watching my nephew.” I assumed it was a nephew since there were mainly boys. “Or is it your niece?”
His gaze met mine. “My daughter.”
“Your daughter?” I croaked. How had I missed the fact that Ben had a kid? Was he married?
“Cameron. But she goes by Cammie.” He nodded toward the mound where she stood. One of the coaches was demonstrating how to grip the ball.
“She’s yours.” I was repeating myself because I was so shocked that Ben had a daughter. I couldn’t reconcile it with what I knew about him. We were both voted most likely to succeed. He had dreams of moving to a big city and becoming a CEO. Kids didn’t seem to fit with the picture I had of him in my head. I’d imagined him in some corporate office, kicking ass, not taking his daughter to practice.
He tipped his head to the side, considering me. “Why is that surprising?”
“I didn’t know you’d married.” Our mothers were friends when we were kids, but they weren’t close anymore.
“I didn’t.” His jaw tightened. “I moved here to be close to my parents. I need the help, and I hope living in a small town will be good for her.”
Something tightened inside me. “It was for us.”
I loved growing up in a small town and living close to my family. I couldn’t imagine not being able to help my sister out or attend most of my nephew’s games.
Ben shifted his weight, and I racked my brain for something to get him to stay. I was getting a glimpse into his life over the past ten years, and I wanted more. “You were living in Philadelphia before?”
That night at the garage, I remembered he’d told Jake he’d driven from Philadelphia.
He nodded. “That’s right.”
I wanted to ask where Cammie’s mother was, but it wasn’t my place, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. Even if Ben was single, our shops were in direct competition with each other. Nothing could happen between us. There was too much history there.
Ben tipped his head toward the field in a confident move that had my tummy dipping. “Which one is your nephew?”
“Hunter, the one in the Orioles uniform. He takes baseball pretty seriously,” I said jokingly.
Instead of smiling, he sighed. “Cammie does, too. She insisted on playing baseball with the boys. She couldn’t understand why girls would play a different sport. You should have heard her. ‘Why do girls play with a bigger ball?’ ‘Why is it called softball when the ball isn’t soft?’ ‘Why can’t girls play with the boys?’ And on and on. I had to google the history of softball, and now I know more than I ever wanted to know.”
I smiled at how he pitched his voice higher to sound like his daughter asking questions. “I don’t see too many girls playing at this age. She’s brave.”
He nodded. “She’s fearless.”
I heard the affection in his voice. The love for his daughter. It did something to me, but I wasn’t prepared to feel anything for him other than physical attraction. In high school, I disregarded it because he was my competition. A guy who pushed all your buttons shouldn’t be someone you were attracted to.
I wondered what he’d be like in a relationship. A flash popped into my head of him hovering over me in bed with that familiar glint in his eyes, the one that challenged me. He’d probably want to prove how good he was in bed. My core tightened at the thought.
“I didn’t think to bring a chair. I came straight from work,” he said as if he was worried I’d judge him.
Normally, I would’ve said something about his more formal attire at a kids’ baseball practice, but Ben having a daughter changed everything. I’d always seen him as a hard guy, driven and impenetrable, but he’d revealed something personal. He’d been vulnerable with me. It was unexpected, and I was still trying to wrap my mind around it.
He stood next to me as we watched Cammie throw a few pitches. Each time, the coach took the time to tweak her form.
“She’ll be okay.” And you will be, too. I wasn’t sure why I felt the need to soothe him when I never had before.
“I hope so. Hopefully, it’s not too late to put her in softball if she changes her mind.”
I laughed as Hunter ran up to me and breathlessly asked, “Coach said I need a cup.”
“I’m sorry, what?” I reached around for the water bottle I’d brought for him.
“Nooo,” Hunter said, drawing out the word. “If I want to play catcher, I need a cup.”
My brow furrowed in confusion, still not grasping what he was trying to tell me.
Ben crouched down to Hunter’s level and lowered his voice, “Boys wear cups to protect themselves while they’re playing. It could really hurt if you get hit.”
My face heated. Why hadn’t I thought of that? But I never had a brother, and I’d never dated a jock.
“I bet your dad could help you with that,” Ben told Hunter.
“Oh, he doesn’t—” What could I say in front of Hunter that didn’t put down his father but let him know he wasn’t in the picture?
“I’ll tell my mom,” Hunter said before racing off to the field, seemingly undisturbed by the mention of his absentee father.
“His father doesn’t come around much.” He certainly wasn’t involved in Hunter’s day-to-day needs. That was all Abby.
Ben grimaced. “Sorry, I didn’t realize.”
An awkward silence fell between us, mainly because my mind was still trying to catch up to the new and improved Ben. The one who had responsibilities and vulnerabilities. The one with a daughter. The one who’d just saved me from an uncomfortable conversation with my nephew.
“I’m going to take a seat.” He gestured to the small metal bleachers behind the backstop.
“I’ll see you around,” I mumbled. I would be seeing him around town and at my nephew’s baseball practices and games. I should have been irritated, so why did my skin tingle the entire time he stood next to me? Why did I care so much that he was a good dad?
None of it should have mattered because Ben was the same person at his core. Wasn’t he? No matter how much of a family man he had become, we had nothing in common. Except a love for kids, and that wasn’t enough to erase our history.
I’d seen his façade drop because he was around his daughter, but if I ran into him around town, he’d be back to his usual competitive self. He couldn’t help it.
The thought made me a little sad because I liked the guy I saw at practice. If he were any other single dad, I might have tried to get to know him better. But I could never go there with Ben.
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