The light was on in the living room when Jennifer, Moira-Selene, Claudia-Michelle, Danie, Samantha, Gretchen, Chris and Orlando returned to the Tiger House. An unfamiliar car was sitting in the driveway, but no one really noticed.
Jennifer used her key and unlocked the door. Everyone drifted inside, chattering. Orlando was trying his best to keep away from Claudia-Michelle.
Unfortunately, his plan was foiled because Jennifer paused in the middle of the hallway, causing everyone behind her to bump into each other. He bumped right into Claudia-Michelle.
He could smell her intoxicating scent, feel the silky texture of her long black hair. Lust coiled in his gut, and he tried to will the sensation away. He opened his mouth to apologize for bumping into him but his eyes drifted into the living room and found what had made Jennifer pause.
Jessica was standing in the living room, locked in a passionate embrace with a tall, dark-haired man. Chris whistled and they broke apart, faces flushed.
“Well, well, well,” said Samantha, arms over her chest. “What do we have here?”
Jessica glared at her cousin. “Kai came over to see me. Got a problem?”
Samantha simply smirked, said nothing. The guy named Kai came up and greeted the girls and Chris. Gretchen introduced him to Orlando and they shook hands. Moments later, Orlando, Gretchen, Samantha, Jennifer, and Chris sat in the living room with Jessica and Kai. Moira-Selene and Claudia-Michelle excused themselves while Danie had simply disappeared without a word.
“So how was it tonight?” Jessica asked. She and Kai were on the loveseat, and she had her legs draped cozily over his thigh. “Did Moira-Selene have a good time?”
Chris blew a loud breath. Jennifer bit her lip and Samantha shook her head.
Jessica’s eyebrows raised. “What the hell happened?”
Silence. Jessica’s eyes narrowed.
Samantha, Jennifer, Gretchen, Chris, and Orlando shared glances. Samantha punched Chris in the shoulder, so he was elected to tell.
“We were having a good time at the Party Palace,” Chris told Jessica, rubbing his sore arm. “And then Loverboy shows up.” He flicked a glance over his fellow Englishman. “Not to mention Orlando here didn’t exactly make a good first impression.”
Jessica switched her perceptive gaze upon Orlando. He groaned.
“He just got jealous because Moira-Selene was paying more attention to me than she was him,” Orlando explained. “I didn’t go up to him and knock his teeth out or something.”
Jessica exhaled. “I think you should have. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a man who thinks of a woman as his property. And I don’t care what you guys say. I think Brian thinks Moira-Selene is his.”
“He loves her,” Jennifer pointed out. “And she nearly died. How do you expect him to feel?”
“But she told him that she didn’t want to be with him,” Orlando countered. “She told us that earlier. He should love her enough to respect her wishes.”
“Orlando does have a point,” Kai broke in, his voice a calming balm over the tension in the room. “The last thing you need when you’re faced with your own possible death is someone who reminds you every minute that you’re dying by clamping on to you.”
“Yes,” declared Chris earnestly, determined to keep the male rapport in the room since they were outnumbered by the women. “I sincerely agree.”
“Try explaining that to Brian Matthew Williams,” Gretchen said. “He’s been after marrying Mo for years.” She looked at Orlando. “Are you sure you want to be at the game, Orlando? We could always get a replacement for you.”
Orlando shook his head. “I’m not letting that bloke run me off. I’ve gotten this far without running off haven’t I?”
Kai choked on his drink and started coughing to cover up his choked laughter. Jessica declined to pat him on the back, just glared at him with narrowed aqua eyes.
“I hope you choke,” Jessica said.
Kai regained his composure and grinned wryly. “Ain’t love grand?”
“Oh, shut up.”
Kai nipped her chin and Orlando noticed the mirth in her eyes. It was strange to see Jessica with a guy, looking like she was happy and in love…and normal. It seemed to be another revelation among many. But it softened his heart, and he realized what Jessica was: completely and shockingly human.
Gretchen yawned at that moment, breaking through his thoughts. “I think it’s bedtime.”
“I agree,” Jennifer said. “We’ve got a big day tomorrow. Gotta fit the bridesmaids’ dresses.” Jessica, Samantha, and Gretchen grumbled. “It won’t be that bad, I promise.”
“Those words always signal the coming of something sinister,” Chris remarked as they rose to go upstairs.
* * *
When he got back to his room, Orlando found this note on his pillow:
He smiled dimly, remembering the relief on Moira-Selene’s face when he stood up to Brian Williams. Undressing for bed, Orlando mulled over the softball game tomorrow morning. It was an annual thing, Chris had told him on the way home.
“A Battle of the Sexes, if you want to think of it that way,” Chris had said. “Everyone comes out and the proceeds are donated to a charity chosen by the winning team.”
“Who won last year?” Orlando had asked.
The smirk on Chris’s face had been more than telling. It hinted at pride, a bit of shameless pride. “Who do you think, mate?”
Orlando didn’t get it at the time, but now he thought he understood. Apparently, since Chris had dubbed it a battle of the sexes, the girls had won. And his smirk indicated that he had been on their team. Orlando dimly wondered why Chris hadn’t played on the team with the other guys. But his mind was falling prey to fatigue. He turned out the light, sleep on the brain. He shifted in bed, trying to get comfortable. He slipped his arm underneath his pillow and felt something strange.
And there was another note under his pillow.
He turned on the lamp beside him so he could read it.
Before, he had been ready to sleep. His mind and nether regions were at rest. But now, lust hummed in his blood as he imagined what could possibly happen when he was alone with Claudia-Michelle. It made him itchy.
Needless to say, Monday night was a sleepless night for Orlando Bloom.
* * *
The Tigers (Black and Gold)
Jessica Thomas, team captain, third pitcher and first base
Gretchen Thomas, second base
Danie Thomas, first pitcher and shortstop
Orlando Bloom, second pitcher and shortstop
Samantha Dunne, third base
Nicole Smith, catcher
Jennifer Dunne, left field
Rachel Smith, left field
Megami Takumi-Hill, right field
Melanie Smith, right field
Chris Parker, mid-field
The Lions (Blue and Maroon)
Lawrence Williams, team captain, second pitcher and second base
Andrew Williams, first base
Brian Williams, short stop and third pitcher
Eric Thomas, first pitcher and third base
Daniel Williams, second base
Miyori Arashi, catcher
Luke Williams, left field
Benjamin Lewis, left field
Josh Merrell, right field
Heath Mallone, right field
Danny Holmes, mid-field
As soon as he set foot on Esperanza Field with his team and saw Brian Williams with his brothers, he knew it was going to be a long day.
It was trying his patience, though. Orlando was tired and a bit irritable. An erotic dream about Claudia-Michelle had turned into a nightmare that ended with Jessica barreling in with a baseball bat. He tried not to imagine what would have happened if he hadn’t woken up abruptly.
As if sensing his irritability, Gretchen threw an arm around his shoulders and grinned. She stared at him with the idiotic smile until he had no choice but to return it.
“There,” Gretchen said. “That’s better.” She pinched his cheek with her free hand. “You’re so much cuter when you smile. Though, I have to say, you are pretty handsome when you’re scowling.”
“Is that your way of telling me I look cute when I’m mad?” Orlando asked, slightly amused.
Gretchen shrugged. “I guess. So cheer up.” She playfully kissed him on the side of the mouth. “And think about how totally cool you are right now. Most men would give their eyeteeth to be surrounded by beautiful, active women in short shorts and tall socks. Isn’t that something out of a fantasy or something?”
“Well, we can certainly try it out when we get home, love,” Orlando joked. He found that focusing of Gretchen’s mirthful green eyes made his irritation melt away. He suddenly became aware of the sounds of laughter coming from the stands, the smell of hot dogs, popcorn, and the sweetness of Coke and candy. A reporter from one of the local news stations talked with her cameraman as a photographer with the Gracia Journal loaded his camera with film. Orlando was suddenly determined not to let anything ruin his day.
However, Orlando glanced up long enough to see that Brian Williams and one of his brothers were scowling at him. He didn’t miss the proprietary way Brian’s brother looked at Gretchen. It bothered him intensely, but he decided the best thing to do was not to react.
The Tigers gathered in the dugout. Jessica gave her team their positions and informed them that they were going to be in the outfield first.
Jessica pulled Danie and Orlando aside as everyone else gathered their gloves and caps. She stared at them until Orlando started to fidget. Danie just looked mildly irritated.
“Alright, you two,” Jessica began. “I don’t know what’s up, and I don’t wanna know. Whatever it is, squash it until the end of the ninth. After that, you can hold whatever grudge you want.”
Danie’s mouth set in a grim line, and Orlando opened his mouth to protest, but Jessica gave them hard looks before walking off. Over her shoulder, she yelled at Nicole Smith to get her catcher’s mitt and start practicing with Orlando and Danie. Nicole inflated a bubble of blue raspberry Bubbilicious but said nothing in response, trotting off with her mitt under her arm to the grass along the third base line. Danie sighed and followed her. Orlando shook his head and fell into step behind Danie.
As Nicole shrugged into her shin guards, she looked to Orlando and asked, “You ever played this before?”
Orlando had to stop and think, making Danie roll her eyes. “Well, there was once when I was visiting a friend of mine…”
Nicole shrugged her shoulders and tossed him the ball. “How cute.” She crouched, in position. “Now pitch the ball. You do know how to do that, right?”
Danie snickered. When Orlando gave her a glare, she looked at him defiantly.
“What—you think I can’t do it?” Orlando demanded.
Danie raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know. Why don’t you prove me wrong?”
“Fine. I will.” With that, Orlando turned toward Nicole. He took a second to get his bearings, and then he reared back and launched the ball into Nicole’s mitt. It landed so solidly, that Nicole stumbled a bit, landing on her butt.
Danie, standing beside Orlando, and Nicole, sitting dumbfounded on the grass, shared a surprised look.
“Well,” Nicole simply responded. “Looks good enough to me.”
Orlando gallantly walked over and held out a hand. The gentlemanly gesture brought a smile to the young woman’s face. “Aw, shit,” Nicole drawled. “That’s really sweet of you, man.”
As Orlando pulled her up, Danie looked over and saw Brian Williams talking to his brothers. They watched the scene with Nicole and Orlando suspiciously, as if it was an indication of something to them. She didn’t know why, but the way they looked at Orlando made her irritated.
She shook the irritation away as Jessica called out her name. Pursing her lips together, she answered her sister’s call and decided to ignore them. They were just being immature. It wouldn’t be that hard to bear through nine innings, would it?
* * *
Unfortunately, as the game wore on, Danie felt an undercurrent of tension between Brian Williams and her British backup pitcher.
Her extrasensory skills picked up the mounting exasperation coming from Orlando. She could see it in his eyes even as he tried to joke around with Chris, Samantha, Jennifer, and Gretchen.
As the game wore on, it became harder to ignore Brian’s rancor for Orlando. Danie knew how tight the Williams brothers were, particularly the three youngest sons, Luke, Daniel, an ex-boyfriend of hers, and Brian himself. Danie’s relationship with Daniel Williams ended on a sour note despite their many years of friendship, and she found it hard to condone his behavior.
It was the fifth inning. The Tigers led by one point, making the Lions tense. Well, some of them. Observing from the dugout, Danie noted the charming bow Miyori Arashi gave a cache of adoring female fans when he caught a pop fly. There was nothing tense about his movements. Her lips curved—a little.
Gretchen marched out onto home plate with a bat in hand. Jessica was on first base, Chris on second. Eric had not succeeded in striking his big sister and Chris out, but Melanie’s pop fly had inched the Lions one out closer to the infield.
Seeing a possible conflict of interest or perhaps wanting to appease his brother’s desire to pitch against the Tigers, Lawrence called for a time out. A few moments later, Brian stood on the pitcher’s mound in Eric’s place. Eric seemed a bit miffed, but said nothing.
Rachel Smith, Melanie and Nicole’s big sister, raised an eyebrow. She, being a lawyer and very shrewd, had not missed the undercurrent of tension Danie had noticed. “Well. This could be interesting.”
Danie watched as her little sister got a double on the second pitch, bringing Chris home and adding another point to the Tigers’ score. The Tigers cheered for their teammate as Jessica clapped for her little sister while standing on third base.
Seeing that it was her turn now, Danie squared her shoulders and took the bat Chris handed to her. On the way out, she passed Orlando. They shared a look, and at the last minute, he patted her on the shoulder.
“Good luck, Danie,” he remarked. “Knock the bloke dead.”
Softening a little, Danie gave him a nod before trotting off to home plate. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all.
While standing over the plate, Danie heard her teammates cheering for her. She narrowed her eyes at Brian and concentrated on hitting the ball.
Crouching on the ground, Miyori Arashi remarked, “Hey, Thomas. Got some nice legs there.”
Danie gritted her teeth. “Thanks. I’m sure they’ll get me a homerun in a minute.”
“Fat chance of that.”
Danie’s grimace transformed into a feral smile. “Famous last words, Arashi.”
Miyori snickered, but Danie had already forgotten him.
In the dugout, Chris plopped down next to Orlando with bottled water. He glugged down half of the bottle before speaking.
“Whew,” Chris said breathlessly. “What a game, eh, mate?”
Orlando didn’t speak. He heard the familiar and satisfying ping of ball against metal and saw the ball fly though the air and land in right field. Jessica dashed for home plate and made it, earning cheers from the other girls. Gretchen hit homebase soon after, intensifying the applause. Danie got to second before the ball came in from the outfield. Not a homerun, but damn good enough.
When Gretchen made it to the dugout, she launched herself comedically into Orlando’s arms as he was coming out and let out a loud whoop. That earned laughter from the audience.
Luke Williams, however, who had adored Gretchen for years, was not happy with that.
“I’m sure it’s about to get even more interesting,” Orlando muttered to himself as he saw Brian lower a glare upon him.
* * *
Much to Brian’s dismay, Orlando got a double, bringing Danie home. Samantha, like her raven-haired cousin, hit on the first pitch, but fancy footwork on the part of the outfield landed the Tigers their third out when Samantha tried to take second base. And so the Lions ended up back in the infield.
Andrew Williams got a single and that frustrated Danie some, but she figured she had bigger fish to fry. He didn’t make it home and the Tigers still led, after all. And sure enough, Brian Williams walked out of dugout and confirmed her suspicions. She looked at her older sister meaningfully. It was time to switch pitchers and tip the balance a little.
Jessica gestured to Orlando and he trotted up to the pitchers mound. He frowned at Danie, confused.
“Are you doing what I think you’re doing?” Orlando asked.
Danie looked at him from under the bill of her black and gold baseball cap. “Yeah, I want you to take this one,” she said to him.
Meanwhile, Brian stood over home plate, watching them. He stood poised to swing, but Orlando hesitated a little too long for his liking. Irritated, he dropped his stance and yelled at Orlando.
“Come on!” he shouted. “We don’t have all day.”
“Hey!” Danie exclaimed. “You can wait a second. It won’t kill ya.” She turned back to Orlando, violet eyes firm. “You strike him out, alright? That sonofabitch deserves it.”
She patted him on the shoulder, much to his surprise. Orlando’s eyebrows disappeared under his hat. “You’re being nice to me now?”
The right side of her mouth tilted up. “Maybe,” she said evasively.
Brian, meanwhile, was vibrating with anger and impatience. He couldn’t wait to upstage that womanizing British idiot. “Stop wasting time! You can play your little Casanova games later.”
Orlando’s eyes narrowed slightly, but he said nothing. Danie noticed the set of his jaw, the mounting anger in his brown eyes, and realized that maybe she had underestimated him all along.
Her realization was further confirmed within the next instant.
Brian muttered something rather unsavory about Danie’s relationship with Orlando under his breath, but Orlando heard. It was indecent enough to have Nicole on her feet, ready to protest.
“Hey man,” Nicole said to Brian. “You need to watch what you say about my peeps there. Don’t think I won’t take off this shit and you won’t catch a beatdown.”
“Oh shut up,” Brian snapped back. “That sonofabitch is only after some Thomas sister ass, not to mention one of your exalted teammates is nothing but a low-down dirty—”
The next few moments happened as if in slow motion. Danie tossed Orlando the ball. Later, she would say that she didn’t know what was going to happen, but eventually she would understand that somewhere, deep inside, she knew. Brian almost came to the conclusion of his remark, sparking a flash of intense anger inside of the second pitcher for the Tigers.
The ball fell into Orlando’s left hand, but, as fury usurped the control of rationality, he shifted expertly. The ball left his hand at an alarming speed, and it didn’t give Brian much time to move out of its path.
The crowd, on its feet, gasped with astonishment as Brian dropped the ground, yelling and swearing in pain. The video camera rolled, reporters scribbled rapidly. Nicole flipped off her catcher’s helmet and face guard to reveal her astonished expression, and Matt Chambers, the umpire and one of Jessica’s good friends, went over to the writhing young man to check his injury as his team members gathered around.
The Tigers stood out on the field in stupefaction.
Danie stood beside Orlando, mouth wide open. She looked to him as he stalked furiously off of the field. A moment later, she went after him.
“I guess we’re taking a break,” Jessica remarked, taking her hand out of her baseball glove.
* * *
Danie ran after Orlando as fast as her long legs could take her. Needless to say, it didn’t take long before she caught up with him.
“Orlando,” she began.
“I can’t do this anymore,” Orlando snapped out. “I’m going back to the House. I obviously didn’t make a good impression on your childhood buddies and they have some idea that I’m dating all of you or something. Oh, no, wait. They think I’m fucking you all.”
“Dammit, Orlando,” Danie huffed before he could ramble on more. “Would you stop for a moment? I don’t get it. What did Brian say to make you so mad? This is not like you.”
Orlando whirled around so fast that Danie nearly ran into him. She had to put on the brakes quickly before she stumbled into him. His brown eyes were filled with fury again. A lesser woman would have flinched under his intense gaze, but she stared at him back, waiting for him to speak.
“Do you honestly want to know what he said about you?” Orlando demanded.
Danie was slightly taken aback. “He said something about me?” Her voice came out small.
“Oh yeah, he sure did, love,” Orlando responded, tone hard. “He said that you were nothing but a whore and I was your bloody john. And there I was, defending your honor with a bloody baseball and I barely know you. As a matter of fact, it seems that you don’t like me at all and what I did out there was a fucking waste of time.” Frustrated, he slipped off his hat and ran a hand through his damp brown hair.
Danie’s face slowly went bloodless as Orlando ranted. Seeing the hurt in her eyes, Orlando felt himself deflate, the anger pouring out of him. Danie’s hurt eyes had poked a hole in his rage. He scrambled to think of something to make that look go away, but it was suddenly her turn to stalk off.
“Shit,” he muttered. Louder, he yelled, “Danie!”
Danie didn’t stop. She barreled through the metal gate, back to the field. Metal clanged against metal as she crossed the diamond, obviously heading for Brian. The injured player was currently being held up by Lawrence and Daniel. Brian’s eyes were red and his face was pale.
Daniel noticed her first. He started to say her name, but she glared at him, stopped him short. She looked to his older brother.
“Brian? Are you listening?” she said in a deceptively sweet voice.
Brian cracked open one eye in reply. Orlando paused a few feet away, feeling powerless to stop whatever was about to happen.
“Good. Because I have something to say to you,” Danie told him primly.
Daniel raised an eyebrow. Each and every one of the Tigers, who were standing by, looked on in complete and utter astonishment. They had no idea what was going to happen next.
“What the hell is she doing?” Samantha wondered aloud.
A moment later, they saw Danie punch Brian in the mouth. The crowd gasped again, and Danie marched off angrily with a haughty hair toss and her chin in the air. Reporters greedily snapped pictures and took notes for tomorrow’s newspapers.
Danie paused only on the pitcher’s mound to grab Orlando and kiss him full on the mouth.
Jennifer was so shocked, she swooned. Samantha and Gretchen caught her before she fell to the ground, but it was apparent that enough damage had been done.
* * *
An hour later, Jessica ended the cell phone call and turned to her little sisters. Her face was expressionless.
The den at the Tiger House had been invaded by Jennifer and her bridesmaids’ dresses. A full-length mirror was propped up on one wall. Rebecca helped Moira-Selene with her dress as Claudia-Michelle scrutinized herself in the mirror while Irene nodded approvingly from beside her. Jennifer was taking in Danie’s dress, admonishing her about losing more weight while Gretchen had been staring at her big sister expectantly.
“What did Matt say, Jessica?” Gretchen wanted to know.
Jessica moved to put the cell phone away. Samantha, who had been recruited to go get drinks, entered the room with bottled water and juice and frowned at the silence. Jessica nodded at her, and she threw her cousin a water. Jessica downed half of it before she spoke.
“Brian is fine,” Jessica told them. “Orlando’s aim, lucky for him, had been slightly off, and it hit mostly his inner thigh, but his”—she cleared her throat because she was not speaking to strangers and she just couldn’t say the word testicle in front of her mother and aunt—“nether regions did take a hit. They don’t think the damage will be permanent.”
“What about Orlando?” Samantha inquired, sensing Gretchen’s anxiety. “I mean, it’s not a secret that he inflicted the blow.”
“Brian is not going to press charges,” Jessica informed her. Gretchen relaxed, relieved, and perched on the arm of the couch. “Matt talked him out of it. Besides, it would be pretty stupid considering Danie and Orlando could both sue him for slander.” Seeing Danie’s back stiffen, Jessica rose to her feet and walked to her younger sister. She stared at Danie’s bared back before talking again. “Matt told me what he said about you, Danie. I would have done what you did, too, if I had been in your shoes.”
Jennifer straightened, gripping pins with her fingertips, and stared sadly at her younger cousin. As tears welled up in her deep blue eyes, Jessica swallowed. Jennifer was a sympathetic crier, so it was obvious that Danie was crying, too.
Jessica saw the tearstains when Danie turned around. But her eyes were hard.
“I’m so fucking sick of people thinking horrible things about me,” Danie said in a voice that wavered. “I wish they all knew the truth.”
Jessica shook her head before Danie could continue. “That is not an option and you know why, Danie. You wanted it that way, so we stick to it.” She moved closer, almost eye-to-eye with Danie. She was getting taller, Jessica noted, and soon would be taller than all of them. It was a humbling thought, so she ran with the feeling.
“You are not doing this for you,” Jessica reminded her. “There are two little lives out there that are going to be better because of what you did. The life that you gave to them will not be wasted.”
“Yeah,” Samantha agreed. “Screw what that jerk Williams thinks. His information probably came from an unreliable source anyway. And besides, you totally kicked his lying, slandering ass.”
Rebecca was exasperated with her eldest, but Irene snickered.
Danie wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and sniffled. “You’re right. I…” She exhaled. “I did the right thing. And when the time is right, maybe I’ll see them again.”
“You will, mija,” Irene assured her, bringing her close. “You will.”
A sense of balance was restored in the room, and everyone felt the tension that had been choking them since the game ended floating away.
“I guess I have a lot to make up for, huh?” Danie remarked. She suddenly sounded more like herself than she had the past several months.
“Um, yeah,” Samantha affirmed. “I think you should probably apologize to Max for your behavior at SLL the other night…”
“Not to mention to Orlando,” Jennifer pointed out. “You were pretty mean to him when he first got here. He almost went to jail for you.” That made Danie laugh. “You ought to thank him.”
Danie’s eyes clouded again. “I know. He reminded me of Alex a little when I first saw him. Well, with his eye and hair color. I can tell that Orlando’s not a lying, cheating jerk with enough libido to topple the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”
“We may not know that for sure,” Jessica warned, and they laughed.
“Typical Jess,” Claudia-Michelle said, shaking her head in amusement.
“I was just saying,” Jessica insisted. “Who knows what’s on that guy’s mind?”
They joked and changed the subject to a more lighthearted topic. But Claudia-Michelle thought that she knew that answer to Jessica’s query. And if her estimation of Orlando was right, his mind at the moment was on her younger sister.