I’m great at pretending. It’s what I do best, even when my actions break my own heart. Okay, the heartbreaking is a little overdramatic, but it feels the same. From the first time I saw Cooper Bailey staring at me this morning, right up until he asked for my number, I felt good about myself. Someone was actually interested in me. It’s a satisfying feeling when you catch the eye of a good-looking man, but that’s all it can be.
When he came over and stood by me to seal our first and only meeting with a photo, I thought I was having an out-of-body experience. My entire being gravitated toward him while my brain reminded me to be pleasant. That it’s my job to be nice. But my version of nice went way too far when I smiled at him, not once, hell, not even twice, but every time I’ve seen him today. I couldn’t help it. I don’t know if it was the way he entered the zoo, with an air of confidence, or the way he looked at me like he’s known me forever. Things became bad when I saw his five o’clock shadow and turned even worse when he went to adjust his hat and inadvertently flexed his arm.
Cooper Bailey, or any other athlete, is off limits. They’re trouble and not just with a capital T. It’s the whole damn word that needs to be capitalized. It’s been my rule for as long as I can remember, and living in Fort Myers makes my point even more valid because most of the baseball players march around town like they’re God’s gift to women. Some of us fall for them, but there are the few of us who are immune to their charms.
A few of us call them the spring flings. They’re here to entertain us, make our streets look damn fine with all the man candy, and bring in the revenue we need to kick off our summer. Many of my friends belong in this category. I, however, am not one of them.
Then they leave. And in their wake, they leave broken hearts, pissed-off husbands, and a few unlucky, or maybe lucky, depending on how you look at it, pregnancies. I’ve been here long enough to know that you don’t mess with the baseball players. It’s safer for all those around you.
So when my body becomes a traitor and my heart is beating five times faster than normal, I expect my brain to be the voice of logic, and it was, for the most part. It was easy to say no to Cooper when he asked if he could call me sometime, because I don’t want the heartbreak come April when he leaves. I’m too old for a relationship that is only going to last a few months, or even a few dates. I want to settle down. I want that house with that stupid picket fence and a mailbox out front, with flowers growing along the walkway and the sense of love inside my home. You can’t get that when you date an athlete. I should know.
As I hear the chartered bus pull away, I sigh in relief, knowing that I’ve done the right thing. Would it be fun to date a man like Cooper Bailey? Probably. I’m sure he could show me a good time, but having a predetermined expiration date is like having a neon sign over your head that reads “loser.”
Of course when I sit down, the Boston Renegades baseball roster, complete with the photos and bios that I needed for media day, is sitting right on top for my viewing pleasure. None other than Cooper’s profile is highlighted, by my stupid yellow marker. His résumé is impressive, but that doesn’t negate the fact that he’s an athlete, and that is a road I will not travel down.
My co-worker and overall best friend, Stella, slams the office door, getting my attention. Stella is by all accounts a spitfire, live-on-the-edge type of girl with her long blond hair and green eyes. She’s been untamable since I met her back in middle school.
“What has your panties all twisted around?” I ask.
Stella stands in front of me with her hands on her hips, rosy red cheeks and a scowl that would make anyone cower, except for me. I’ve been on the receiving end of a Stella tirade before; they’re not fun, but I’ve learned to work through them.
“You’ll have to be a little more specific, Stella. We had forty men, not including coaches, here.” As slyly as I can, I slide a piece of paper over Cooper’s face. The last thing I want is for her to see me looking at his picture or notice that I’ve spent time focusing on him specifically.
“You’re right, but not all of them are good-looking. I mean a few of them…” She shakes her head as if she’s laughing at her own inside joke. “Anyway, I gave him your number. You can thank me later.” Her words are to the point and without pause as she d
igs into my candy dish to take a handful of Starbursts.
My mouth opens and closes, only to open again. When I try to speak, nothing but a squeak comes out. With my nails biting into my palms, I prepare to ask the question I already know the answer to and so does my heart.
“You gave who my number?”
“The cute one.” She thumbs over her shoulder, pointing toward the window. Five minutes ago, she would’ve been pointing toward a slew of buses, but they’re gone now, and the parking lot is empty except for the employees’ cars.
“Well, that narrows it down. I’ll be sure to ask the caller if he’s cute if and when he decides to call me. Do you mind giving me a name so I know who I should be expecting?”
“The one. I don’t know his name. Let me see the roster.”
“I don’t have one,” I lie, strategically placing my arm over the hidden roster.
“I smell a pile of stinky shit. Give it to me, Ainsley,” she says with a bite of authority and her hands on her hips.
“We work in a zoo. We often smell odors we wish we didn’t.” I’m being childish in the worst way, but I can’t help it. I don’t want Cooper Bailey or any of the other Renegades calling me, except I do and I shouldn’t feel this way.
Stella leans over my desk, and my fingers press down on the stack of papers. Yet my eye contact with her never wavers. If I don’t look down, she’ll never know what I’m hiding. Everything moves in slow motion. The closer she inches, the more my heart races. I don’t understand what the big deal is. If I wanted him or any of the others to have my number, I would’ve given it to him. She didn’t have to do it on my behalf.
Her fingers come in contact with my upper arm, tickling me until I have no choice but to use my hands to defend myself. She grabs the papers and doesn’t even have to sift through them, since the paper on top gave way in her bid to humiliate me.
“This one,” she says, pointing to Cooper’s picture. “I don’t know why you’re playing coy. I saw you talk to him, and you’ve highlighted his picture. I don’t see any of the others with yellow lines boxing them in. Shit, the only things missing are little hearts and stars.”
I want to add that I looked at him—stared at, really—thought about him and imagined what it’d be like to have his arms hold me, but I refrain. I don’t need to give her any more ammunition.
I snag the roster back and toss it into my drawer, slamming it closed. The logical thing would be to throw it away, but I’m not logical right now. I’m determined. “You know I don’t date athletes.”