#SampleSunday: HARDBALL by V.K. Sykes

For #Sample Sunday, here’s another excerpt from Hardball, the sexy contemporary romance I wrote with my husband under the pen name of VK Sykes.  Nate, a superstar baseball player, and Holly, a serious and rather shy pediatric surgeon, have been dating for several weeks – and it’s been hot and heavy.  Although thrilled with how things are going, Holly can’t help being a little worried.  After all, she and Nate lead such different lives. In this excerpt, Holly is talking to the very pregnant Maddie, the wife of Nate’s best friend, Jake.  Holly is about to find out that perhaps some of her fears are justified.

The crowd in the stadium came to its feet, roaring its approval as Nate struck out yet another in a long string of batters.  Holly cheered along with everyone else, swept up in the excitement of the game and the display of Nate’s power and control.  She’d never suspected a baseball game could be such a turn-on, but that was before she’d started sleeping with Philadelphia’s number one sports hero.

Maddie turned in the next seat and gave her a playful smile.  “He’s really something, isn’t he?”

Holly removed her sunglasses and grinned back.  “And you’re not just talking about his pitching, are you?”

Maddie was right, of course.  Nate was something special, and Holly hadn’t taken her eyes off him since he’d stepped onto the pitcher’s mound.  She had a good view, too, as they were seated in the field level seats behind the Patriots’ dugout.  That allowed her to study his rugged profile from the side—the strong jaw, the high cheekbones, and the dark, two or three day growth of stubble.  Even from a distance, he looked so tall.  Dominating.  Overpowering.

Just like in bed.

A hot, sensual shiver moved through her body.  Holly clamped down on the mental image of Nate’s hard, naked body looming over her as they made love.  Now was not the time or place for sexual fantasies, especially with Maddie sitting right there next to her.

Pay attention and concentrate on the game, silly.

Watching Nate play was exciting on its own terms—a righteous display of athletic power and skill.  When he fired the ball in an impossibly violent yet somehow graceful motion, Holly had no hope of following the blazing pitch.  She’d see the ball in Nate’s hand as he whipped his lanky arm forward, and a split-second later she heard the hard, leathery smack as it hammered into the catcher’s glove.

Wearing a knowing little grin, Maddie nudged her in the side.  “He’s all man, that’s for sure.”

Not long ago, that comment would have made Holly flinch with embarrassment.  But in the three weeks since she and Maddie had met at the golf banquet, they’d fashioned the beginnings of a solid, lasting friendship.  Maddie had invited her over for dinner the first night the team had hit the road for Atlanta.  Holly had reciprocated by taking her to lunch in Little Italy, and they’d met for coffee three times since.  Today, when Holly finally could rip herself away from work, they’d agreed to meet at the stadium to watch Jake and Nate in action.

Holly gave a sheepish laugh.  “Tell me about it.  I think I may have had more sex in the past three weeks than in the rest of my days put together.”

“You’re not complaining, are you?”

“Complaining, no.  Feeling a bit overwhelmed, yes.  But in a good way.  Nate was calling me all the time from Atlanta and Chicago.  And when he got back…well, let’s just say I’m pretty sure he missed me.  A lot.”

Maddie’s eyebrows arched.  “I can’t get my head around the calling all the time part.  Our Nate?”

Holly felt a little twinge of satisfaction.  Nate’s attentiveness had surprised her, too.  “He’s been so great.  We’ve done something together every day he’s been in town.  Fabulous restaurants, strolls through the park, a trip to the zoo.  On one of his off days, I even managed to drag him to a Philadelphia Orchestra concert.”

Maddie shifted her very pregnant body in her seat, changing positions as she’d been doing throughout the game. “And here I thought you’d be spending every minute of your free time in bed,” she said with a deadpan face.

Holly adjusted the Patriots visor that kept the bright afternoon sun out of her eyes.  “Close enough for me to realize how much I didn’t know about sex.”

“I’m glad you used the past tense,” Maddie said dryly.  “Otherwise, I’d have been disappointed in our boy.  But listen, Jake said something last night that surprised me.”

Holly gave her a curious look.

“He told me he’s seen a change in Nate.  And, trust me, Jake knows the man like a brother.”

Holly’s stomach fluttered.  “What kind of change?”

“Everybody knows Nate’s never been one to miss a post-game party.  He likes to unwind with the guys after a game.  This trip, in Atlanta and San Diego, he and Jake would go out with a bunch of other players to get a beer, but then they’d both head straight back to the hotel.  A beer, Holly.  One.  Jake said it didn’t take a genius to figure his mind had to be back here with you.”

Holly exhaled a wistful sigh.  “I really missed him when he was gone.  Crazy, isn’t it?  I’ve only known him such a short time.”

Maddie gave Holly’s knee a little pat.  “Not crazy at all.  I felt exactly the same way about Jake when we started going out.  Plus, I was insecure and a little jealous, because as a sportswriter I know exactly what life is like for players on the road.  Especially super-hot guys like Jake and Nate.  I watched women hound ballplayers everywhere they went.  Some would troll the hotels, knocking on doors if they managed to figure out the team’s floor or floors.  Hell, I’d lie awake at night thinking about it, even though I knew Jake is as straight an arrow as I could ever find.”

Suddenly, Holly heard a loud crack followed by another roar from the crowd.  Maddie pointed toward the outfield and Holly swung around to follow the ball.  The Patriots’ third baseman had hit a long drive that had the centerfielder running back as if he had a pack of rabid dogs on his tail.  As he neared the wall, he leaped high, his glove arm fully extended.  But he came up a couple of inches short and the ball bounced off the very top of the wall, landing in the bleachers for a home run.

With a grunt, Maddie heaved herself up.  Holly, seeing everyone else around her standing, rose to her feet, too.  But her mind wasn’t really on the home run, or anything else about the game.  She wanted to continue their discussion.  As the cheering faded, Holly put her arm around Maddie’s back to give her support as her friend lowered herself into the chair.

“Maddie, I’m glad we’re talking about this,” she said, restarting the topic.  “I’ve been thinking about it all week.  I’m pretty taken with Nate, even though it’s way outside my comfort zone.  So I’m really encouraged by what happened when the team went on the road.”  She paused for a moment, struggling to find the right words.  Maddie was so close to Nate, and the last thing she wanted to do was offend her in some way.  “But I can’t stop thinking about…you know…his reputation.”

Maddie gave her a puzzled stare.  “We already talked about that.  I told you that stuff is mostly exaggeration, or even outright bullshit.”

“I know.  And I believe you.  But like you said, he’s still going to have women running after him in every city.”  Holly’s stomach pulled tight with anxiety at the thought.  Maybe this discussion wasn’t such a good idea after all, but she didn’t really want to stop, either.  “He’s a single guy, and he has every right to sleep with whoever he wants.  And I don’t much care what he’s done in the past.  In fact, it’s none of my business.”

She stopped for a moment, worried that this was starting to sound like a speech.  Maddie waited patiently, although she looked a little wary.

Holly sucked in a deep breath.  “I know it’s still early days for the relationship.  But I know myself.  I know I’m not the kind of person who can be with a guy who’s even thinking about fooling around, much less doing it.  I’m just not built that way.”  She shook her head.  “I guess what I’m saying is that I’m scared I’ll get in too deep and it’ll all come crashing down on my head.”

She wondered if Maddie could really understand the stakes.  “I’d be a damn hot mess, that’s for sure.  And I can’t afford to be.  Not ever.  Not when kids’ lives depend on me not being an emotional wreck.”

Maddie didn’t speak for a moment.  Then she nodded, and gave Holly’s hand a gentle squeeze.  “I get it.  And I don’t blame you for having those fears.  Nate’s a wonderful man and a class act, Holly, and as far as I can tell he’s totally into you.  But we both know there are no guarantees, as much as we might like to believe otherwise.”

Holly swallowed hard.  Sure, there were no absolute guarantees.  But with some guys there could at least be some kind of lasting comfort level.  “What about with Jake?  Not even with him?”

Maddie gave her a crooked smile.  “Jake and Nate are both idiots in their own way, but they’re totally different animals when it comes to women.  Jake is as straight as they come.  But, like I said, it still took me a long time to stop having those little niggling worries when he went on road trips.  And the first spring training after we got together was even worse.”

“So, you’re saying that with Nate, I’d better get used to insecurity?”

“I’m saying worrying won’t change anything.  Don’t let your insecurities and fears torpedo a relationship before it gets a chance to take root.”

Holly let Maddie’s words resonate for a few moments.  Thankfully, it felt like the right path to take.  “That won’t be easy for me, but I’ll try.”

“Have you said anything to Nate about how you feel?”

Holly shifted her eyes back to the field as the crowd roared yet again.  A Patriots’ batter was jogging toward first base, shooting snarling glares at the Cardinals’ pitcher.  “Not yet,” she said.  “I’ve thought about it, but everything’s been so wonderful that I haven’t found it in me to bring it up.  I guess I’m being a wimp, but why should I risk scaring him away right at the start?”

Maddie grimaced.  “I’m afraid I can’t give you much advice on that score.  It’s obvious the insecurity is really getting to you.”

Holly sighed, embarrassed.  “Stupid, huh?”

Maddie rubbed her huge belly again, as she’d done dozens of times that afternoon.  A little pang of jealousy shot through Holly.  Her friend had a fine husband, and would be a mother in a few weeks.  Plus, she had a great career that she’d be able to return to whenever she wanted.  Maddie really did seem to have it all.

“Let’s take a step back,” Maddie said, looking thoughtful.  “This discussion started by me saying that Jake claimed to be seeing a change in Nate.  I think you should take that at face value, because it’s a good sign for your relationship.  And, at this point, I don’t think there’s too much more we can know for sure, but you shouldn’t assume the worst.  Just take things as they come.”

Holly read between the lines.  “I think you’re telling me that we’re hoping Nate changes his ways, but what we’ve had so far is a long way from some kind of future together.  The kind I want, anyway.”

“Something like that.  I really like you, Holly, and I don’t want you to get hurt.  But that doesn’t mean I think you should run away, either.  For my money, Nate Carter is worth the risk.”

“My heart agrees with you,” Holly said, that same heart suddenly much heavier than it had been a few minutes ago.  What in God’s name had she been hoping to achieve from this discussion?  “Now I just have to convince my stubborn brain.  That might take some doing, but I’ll keep working at it.”

Maddie looked suddenly restless as she fidgeted with the bracelet on her left arm.  “Since we’re talking frankly, I really should ask you something else.”

What now?  “Go ahead,” Holly said cautiously.

“Has Nate mentioned anything to you about a possible trade to another team?

Holly’s chest tightened.  Suddenly, she had to concentrate hard just to draw a full breath.   Heart pounding, she averted her eyes from Maddie’s gaze, willing the sharp spike of panic to subside.

She swallowed hard.  “No, he hasn’t said a thing.”

Maddie’s words had felt like a hammer blow.  Holly instantly pictured what would happen if Nate had to spend the interminably long baseball season hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

It wasn’t good.

Hardball is available on the Nook, Amazon and at Smashwords for $2.99.  You can read all about it, including another excerpt, on my VK Sykes website.

Have a great Sunday!

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