No One Expects a Curveball
For Rylan Cates, the gloriously sunny beachside town of Barefoot William may be home, but the pro baseball player needs to focus on spring training. Hiring a personal assistant to keep him and his four dogs organized for the next eight weeks is the first step—and Beth Avery is the perfect pinch hitter.
Beth is still looking for her place in the world, and a couple months caring for Rylan’s two dachshunds, his golden retriever, and a Great Dane named Atlas should shore up her finances before she moves on. Except it’s Atlas who won’t budge, pushing her toward tanned, scruffy, sexy Rylan every chance he gets. One more strike and she’s calling the dog out—unless she and Rylan admit that the attraction they’re feeling is a game-winning grand slam…
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She left Rylan standing on the crosswalk, not daring to turn around to see if he was watching her. She was already so embarrassed, she didn’t want to mess this up, too. No doubt he was observing her every move. His judging her did not sit well. People in her past had taken her to task, and she’d not enjoyed the criticism.
Jogging, she caught up with Atlas and Rue. Ry trailed behind them in the McLaren. Apparently he didn’t trust her to cover the three blocks alone. Not that she blamed him. What dog owner wanted to see his animals sprawled out and asleep on the asphalt? It was not a pretty sight.
Rylan’s two-story cottage sat west of Center Street on Manatee Way. The heavily wooded lot provided him privacy. Only hints of gray paint and white shutters could be seen through the trees.
Slowing to catch her breath, Beth followed the lime rock driveway that wound between tall hedges. She pulled in her gut and kept going. She was determined Atlas and company weren’t going to get the better of her. The problem was, they knew the terrain, and she did not.
She nearly turned her ankle on a loose stone in her attempt to keep up with the lead dogs. She winced, wanting to stop and rub her foot, but they had picked up the pace and were headed for their water bowls aligned in a row on the porch. The dachshunds squirmed in her arms, wanting down. Once on the ground, they scrambled up the steps.
Tires crunched on the driveway behind her, and she heard Coldplay on Ry’s car radio before the engine cut off. Exhaling, she pushed back the hair falling into her eyes and straightened her top. She barely had time to adjust her shorts before Rylan joined her at the front of the house. He looked down at her. She tried not to notice that his light eyes looked tired and he hadn’t shaved this morning. He seemed to have a lot on his mind. Perhaps the man needed an assistant more than she’d realized. She hoped it would be her.
“You made it back okay,” he said.
She nodded. “Just in time to—”
Be slobbered on. Oh, no. Atlas had drunk deeply, then jumped off the porch, coming straight to her. He wiped his muzzle on her denim hip. She was his towel. Drool spread from her crotch to her thigh. She flinched.
“Sorry about that,” Rylan apologized as he tugged off his T-shirt. “Let me dry you off.”
“No, I’m fine—”
He touched her. She should’ve remained wet. His hands were large and rough; the fabric of his shirt soft from wear. His bare chest brushed her breast as he bent toward her hip. The warmth of his breath blew across her belly. His rubdown was fast, thorough, and disturbingly intimate. He didn’t seem affected, but she nearly came out of her skin. Goose bumps rose.
She waved him off. “I’m okay, really,” she managed and moved away from him, only to walk into Atlas. The Dane still invaded her space.
Rylan smiled, appearing relieved. “He likes you.”
She found that hard to believe. “He wiped his face on me.”
“He’s playing with you.”
“Then why am I not having fun?”
“You’ll get used to him.”
His words gave her pause. He would have to hire her for that to happen. She wasn’t sure she could live with a dog the size of a pony and the stubbornness of a mule.
“I’m not certain this job is for me.” She was being honest with him and herself, even if it meant the interview ended right there. Being broke was no longer an option. She hated to let the job go, but she didn’t want to get in over her head. Been there. Done that. Her past hadn’t played out well.
Her hesitancy had Rylan narrowing his eyes. He did the unexpected. Throwing back his head, he released his inner beast. He howled. The sound cued the dogs to do the same. They howled so loudly, Beth covered her ears.
“What are you doing?” she asked once the racket eased.
“We’re talking you into staying.”
She shook her head. “You’re crazy.”
“I’m also smart, practical, and tend to be too serious, according to my family,” he told her. “I’m an animal lover and a decent ballplayer.”
Decent ballplayer? She’d Googled him before she applied for the job. Statistics showed he ranked among the best. He was a gifted athlete.
She needed to come clean with him. “I lied on my résumé,” she confessed. She figured her admission would put him off.
“I know,” he surprised her by saying. “I checked your previous employers and references. If you worked where you said you did, you were invisible.”
“Why did you let me slide?” she asked, confused.
He shrugged. “I’m honestly not sure. I trust my dogs’ instincts. Atlas is an excellent judge of character. He wouldn’t let anyone in the cottage who didn’t belong. He joined you on the sofa during your first interview and you didn’t freak out. I had one applicant leave the house screaming.”
“He is rather large.”
“Large, but harmless,” Ry assured her. “He’s still growing. He’s just two years old.”
Still growing. Her heart nearly stopped.
“The job is only for eight weeks. It starts a week before spring training and ends a week after,” he reminded her. “I have a permanent assistant in Richmond. She’s just gotten married. I gave her time off for an extended honeymoon in Cancun.”
The timing is ideal, Beth thought. Free of her previous obligations, she didn’t want to stay in one place too long. She had a lot of country to explore. She wanted to lose herself in her travels. Returning home was not an option. She wouldn’t be missed.
“It’s a busy time for me,” Rylan continued. “I’ll have personal and professional obligations. I’ll need someone to keep me on track.”
Beth swallowed hard. Some days she lived chaos, all on her own. Could she keep his life and her own running smooth? That was to be seen. Organization could be challenging.
To her surprise, he took her silence as holding out for more money. “You’ll receive a salary and a household budget. You’ll have a business credit card for emergencies. Should you come up short for any reason, just let me know.”
The man was trusting. Perhaps overly so. She didn’t want to disappoint him. She quickly gave the job a final assessment. The pay was enticing—she’d make more money in eight weeks than she had made the previous year. The cash cushion would be nice—she could take a short vacation once she left town. She wouldn’t be forced to immediately seek another position.
She had one final question for him before she accepted.
“You had far more qualified applicants. I couldn’t be your first choice. So why me, Rylan? Besides the fact your dog likes me.”
Because I’m not attracted to you. He didn’t admit that to Beth; he didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
Plain and simply put, she wasn’t his type. He didn’t have a lot of time to date, but when he did, he favored tall, slender, savvy blondes. The two other women he’d interviewed had turned him on. He didn’t need the distraction or the erection. No work would’ve gotten done.
Beth Avery had quirky written all over her. Her brown hair was curly and unruly. The tip of her nose turned up slightly. She pursed her lips a lot. She had a chin dimple. She couldn’t be more than five foot two.
Her style in clothes was mismatched. She’d shown up to her first interview wearing a lavender prairie flower print top, a flowing ankle-length green skirt, and white cowgirl boots with silver scrolling. Peace sign earrings had dangled from her ears, and a crocheted and beaded bracelet had wrapped her wrist.
Her amazing eyes had gotten her a second interview. Rain cast in color, the blue-gray reminded him of the Gulf of Mexico before a summer storm. He’d noticed that the hue changed with her mood. Blue dominated when she was relaxed. Gray indicated her frustration. Atlas had aggravated her greatly. Her eyes had turned gunmetal gray.
Ry was polite when he informed her, “I’m going on gut instinct alone in hiring you,” he admitted. “You seem nice, have an ability to adapt, and if you screw up, Atlas will let me know.”
“Atlas looks like a tattletale,” she agreed with a glance in the dog’s direction.
“I need someone immediately,” he added. “You’re standing before me. The job is yours if you want it.”
No hesitation. “I’ll take it.”
National bestselling author Kate Angell lives in Naples, Florida. She’s an animal lover, avid reader, and sports fan. Bookstores are her second home. She takes coffee breaks at Starbucks. Her philosophy: Out of chaos comes calmness. Enjoy the peace.
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