include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for Play Ball by , available in its entirety at Smashwords







Play Ball


Andi Marquette




















www.dirtroadbooks.com



Copyright © 2018 Dirt Road Books, Inc.


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording, print-outs, information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to persons living or dead or to business establishments or events is coincidental.


Cover design by Jove Belle





Play Ball

Andi Marquette


Riley found the house easily, not because she could tell what the number was, but rather because of the moving truck out front. She parked her car down the block and walked to the house, a nice-looking, and possibly historic, bungalow with a great covered porch. Hopefully the interior was good, too. If so, then Mari’s cousin had scored snagging this place.

Voices and laughter emanated from inside, and a couple of guys Riley recognized from Mari’s job were hauling a couch out of the U-Haul. Mari stepped onto the porch, said something over her shoulder, then came down the three steps to the walk. She wore a black snapback, brim to the back, black basketball shorts, beat-up Timberland work boots, and a form-fitting white tank.

“Hey, hey,” she said with a grin when she saw Riley. “Thanks for helping out.” She gave her a quick hug.

“Yeah. How are things going so far?”

“Not bad. We should be done in a couple of hours.”

“Cool. Put me to work.”

“Boxes in the truck. They’re marked. If you could start bringing ’em in, someone inside will show you where to put them.”

“Will do.” Riley went to the truck and peered into the back, assessing. The big furniture was out, which made it less difficult to maneuver in the cramped quarters of the truck. Someone had been really organized in packing, because similarly marked boxes seemed to have been grouped together. She grabbed one marked “kitchen” and carried it down the ramp and up the steps into the house, where she was greeted by the controlled chaos typical of moving.

Several people she recognized from Mari’s work were there, trying to put some order to the situation. She found the kitchen, a bright, airy room just past the expanse of the front room to the right, and set the box on the floor near a couple of other boxes. On the way back to the truck, she commandeered a dolly standing at the far end of the porch, and rolled it up the ramp.

It held three of the heavier kitchen boxes, and she backed carefully down to the street, steadying the top box with one hand while holding the dolly with the other. She pulled it carefully up to the porch, step by step, and maneuvered it to the kitchen, where she unloaded it then went back out, passing a woman who looked to be in her forties, bringing in another box. She wore a bright red headband that matched her shorts.

The woman stopped and smiled at her. “How about we do a team thing here?” she said, “I’ll bring the boxes out of the truck and you put them on the dolly outside so you don’t have to deal with going down the ramp.”

“I’m in,” Riley said. “Meet you out there.”

She flashed a quick smile, and Riley waited by the truck for her.

“I’m Cassandra, by the way.”

“Riley.”

“Okay. Let’s crank this party up.” She went up the ramp, handed Riley boxes from about midway down the ramp, and after about fifteen minutes, they had unloaded almost half of them.

Riley returned from yet another trip into the house, handed Cassandra a bottle of water, then leaned on the dolly, taking a break.

“Thanks.” Cassandra drank half of it and set it down inside the truck. “Ready for more?”

“Bring it.”

Cassandra laughed and did just that. Riley checked the labels on these boxes: “A’s room.” Someone inside would know what that was about. She pushed it down the short walk to the porch, turned around, and for probably the twentieth time, carefully pulled the dolly up the three steps and into the front room.

“Um, bedrooms?” she asked the first person she saw, a guy with a mohawk drinking from a bottle of Coke.

He pointed toward the kitchen, and she figured he meant past that, which she probably could have guessed, but you never knew. She took the dolly down the hallway and found three bedrooms, one bigger than the other two. And yeah, someone had done some nice work on the interior of this place. Good paint, updated light fixtures and electrical outlets. Which meant the wiring had probably been redone and most likely the plumbing. She made a choice and steered the dolly into what she had decided was the master bedroom, where she took the top box off and was about to set it on the floor near the bed when a child’s voice from the doorway interrupted her.

“Those go in my room,” she said.

Riley straightened, still holding the box. “Okay. And which one is that?”

The girl—Riley gauged her age as around seven—cocked her head, like she hadn’t expected an adult to go along so quickly, and she studied Riley in that way kids had, sizing you up. She was wearing low-cut Converse sneakers, jean shorts that she had rolled up right above her knees, and a blue and white softball jersey that looked a couple of sizes too big, but she had pushed the sleeves up past her elbows. Her long dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail.

“Over here,” she said.

Riley set the box back on the stack on the dolly and followed her, guessing that Mari’s cousin was the kid’s mom.

She led Riley farther down the hall to a room about half the size of the master. A single bed was already set up, and bunches of clothes lay on it.

“Where would you like these?” she asked, and again, the girl seemed taken aback.

“Here,” she said, pointing to a wall near the closet.

Riley placed them all directly on the floor next to each other. “A’s room,” Riley said, pointing at the label. “What’s the A stand for?”

“Ariela.”

“Cool. I’m Riley. A friend of Mari’s. And now I’ll go get more boxes, probably for your room. Be right back, unless you want to come and make sure we don’t screw up.”

Ariela looked up at her, and seemed uncertain whether she was joking or not.

“Ariela,” a woman’s voice said from the hallway, “where—” she leaned into the room and stopped when she saw Riley.

“Hi. I’m Riley, a friend of Mari’s. Ariela was just showing me where to put boxes that go in her room.” She gauged the newcomer as around thirty, and saw immediately where Ariela got her dark hair and eyes. And maybe underneath the caution in her gaze was amusement, but it wasn’t easily accessible.

“Jo,” she said with a tired smile. “Ariela’s mom. Mari has talked about you. You played college softball together.”

Riley nodded and smiled back. “Yeah. That’s me. Good to meet you. Great house.”

“Thanks. And thanks for helping.” She had a question in her eyes, like why the hell would someone willingly help move someone she didn’t know.

“Sure. Goes a lot faster, the more people you have.” Why wouldn’t she help? Mari had helped her move a few times. And she’d been there for her at some pretty low points in her life. That’s just what you did for friends and family, whether blood-related or not.

“Well, I appreciate it.” She paused. “Riley.” And she sounded like she was tasting every letter in her name and something stirred low in Riley’s belly. They stared at each other for a couple of moments, and Jo really looked good in those tight jean shorts and baggy tee.

“Okay. I’ll, um, just go get more boxes,” Riley finally said. “Ariela, will you direct me when I get back? I want to make sure I put them where you want.”

Ariela looked at her, then at Jo.

“Why don’t you go with her?” Jo said, and Ariela smiled. “Provided that’s all right with Riley.”

“Yeah. It’s fine.”

“Just try to stay out of people’s way,” Jo said. Riley glanced at her again, and a flush built under her T-shirt.

She then smiled at Ariela, and when she looked up again at Jo, the latter had an unreadable expression in her eyes, but looking at her made that same fluttery feeling in her belly, so Riley looked away first and instead guided the dolly out of the room, Ariela behind her.

“Okay,” Riley said, “we have to be careful and try not to run into people, like your mom said. This thing is kind of awkward.” She tapped the metal frame of the dolly and Ariela walked slightly behind her as they went down the hallway and out the front door.

Once at the truck, Cassandra again helped load three more boxes for Ariela’s room, and clearly, the two of them knew each other because they talked back and forth with an easy familiarity.

“Here we go,” Riley said when she had the boxes positioned on the dolly. “Careful walking in front of me.”

“Okay.” Ariela stayed close but slightly behind and when they got back to her room she again directed Riley, who set them down, both sad and relieved that Jo wasn’t there. She made Riley nervous, but not in a bad way.

Two trips later, all the boxes for Ariela’s room were done and Riley started to wheel the dolly out so she could relinquish it to someone else for a while.

“Thank you,” Ariela said, and Riley stopped.

“You bet. Thanks for helping out.” Then she waited, because she knew Ariela had more to say.

“Did you really play softball with Mari?”

“Yep. I played second base.”

Her eyes widened. “Were you good?”

She laughed. “I guess it depends who you ask. Mari and I played for San Diego State University. We did all right. Went to conference championships a few times.”

“So you were good.”

Riley smiled. “I practiced a lot, so I guess you could say that yes, I was good. I might be, since I still play, but it’s recreational, mostly.”

“I’m in Little League softball,” she said, voice soft. “That’s great. Do you like it?”

Ariela nodded and frowned. “I’m not very good.”

“When did you start playing?”

“Last year.”

“Well, it takes a while to get your softball skills going. When I first started—I was about ten—I practiced all the time and it still took a while. It’s a lot of work, to be good at something, but you should also enjoy whatever it is you’re doing. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

She seemed to consider that.

“Do you like playing?” Riley asked.

“Yeah.”

She leaned on the dolly. “So have you played different positions?”

“Yeah. But I like outfield most.”

“How’s your throwing arm?”

She shrugged and looked at her feet.

“Practice,” Riley said. “And your swing?”

She shrugged again.

“This is going to shock you, but…practice. It makes everything better. So does working with a coach who can make sure you have the right form.”

“Yo, Riles,” came Mari’s voice from the hall.

“In here.”

“Just looking for the dolly—hey, A. Have you been keeping Riley in line?”

Ariela smiled and shook her head.

“Too bad. Riles needs it.”

Riley made a face, and Ariela giggled.

“Anyway, we’re almost done, and then we’re going to order a bunch of pizza, and Jo’s got a couple coolers of beer and soda out back.”

“Sounds great. I’ll help finish up.”

Then Riley heard Jo’s voice in the hall and her stomach clenched with pleasant anxiety and it both excited and annoyed her to no end. Jo leaned in, and when she saw Riley, she smiled, and that made all kinds of things flutter in Riley’s chest.

“Just checking to make sure Ariela’s situated.”

“Yeah,” Riley said, maybe a little too quickly. “She’s been really helpful.”

Mari gave her a look, but Riley pretended not to notice.

“So have you.” Jo held her gaze while she pulled Ariela in for a motherly side hug. “Moving’s hard on everybody, but I think it might be harder on kids.”

“True that,” Mari said. “Meet me out front, Riles.” Nothing in her tone indicated anything out of the ordinary, but Riley wondered if she had picked up on something.

“Um, anyway, Ariela tells me she started softball.”

Jo gave Ariela another squeeze. “Yes. Mari suggested it.

She seems to enjoy it.”

“Well, since you’re new in this part of the city, I can hook you up with contacts at the Little League so she can keep it up.”

Jo regarded her, expression veiled, and again the air seemed to still as they locked gazes for a few moments until Jo broke the tableau and looked down at Ariela. “Do you still want to play?”

“Yes.” She was trying to low-key her excitement, but Riley heard it and she smiled.

“Okay.” To Riley, she said, “I’ll take you up on that offer.”

“Great. Just—um, when you get settled, have Mari give me a call.” Because it was way too…she wasn’t sure, but it was way too something to ask for her number so she could just call her directly.

The dude with the mohawk leaned in. “Your opinion is needed, your grace,” he said to Jo, who rolled her eyes and smiled again.

“How about you start taking your things out of the boxes?” Jo said to Ariela. “And then we’ll have some pizza later.” She kissed the top of Ariela’s head and nailed Riley with another gaze, then left with the guy.

“Can you get into your boxes okay?” Riley asked. Ariela went to her bed and held up a pair of scissors. “My mom showed me.” She used them to slice the packing tape, then pulled the flaps open.

“All right, then,” Riley said, making sure to watch so she didn’t hurt herself. “Come and find me if one of them doesn’t want to open, but I’m pretty sure you’ve got this.” She started to leave, then stopped. “I’ll make sure Mari gets information about Little League softball to your mom.”

Ariela nodded, but skepticism hovered in her eyes and Riley wondered if someone had let her down in the past.

“See you out there for pizza?”

“Okay.”

Riley made sure she was still okay with the scissors, then went out to help Mari and others get what was left out of the truck and into the house. A few minutes later she was drinking a beer in the backyard—nicely fenced and in okay shape—and talking with a few of the others who had helped.

When the pizzas arrived, she grabbed a slice of veggie and sat down on the floor of the front room, so she could catch a breeze from the ceiling fan. Mari joined her soon after, eating a slice of pepperoni.

“Thanks again for helping,” she said as she set her beer on the floor.

“Sure.”

“I’m having a barbeque next Saturday. My house. And you’d better show up. Unless you have a legit reason not to.”

“What time?”

“Come by around four.”

“Okay. I have a game at one, so I might be a little late.” She finished her pizza.

“Oh, hell. I thought it was Sunday.”

“Not that weekend.”

“Bring me a schedule. So are you playing at Norman Fields?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s close. Just swing by after the game and have a burger and a beer, then go home and crash.”

Riley wiped her hands on a paper napkin. “That sounds good.” She got up and pulled Mari with her.

“You outta here?” Mari asked.

“Yeah. I need to get some stuff done at home before work tomorrow.”

She nodded. “Thanks again for helping.”

Riley smiled. “We’re practically family.” She gave her a quick hug. “Talk to you later.” She picked up her empty beer bottle and Mari’s and handed the latter to her, which was still half-full.

“Trash can out back,” Mari said. “And then you can just go out the gate.”

Riley relaxed, because Mari always knew when too many people were getting to her. She headed to the backyard, smiling and nodding her goodbyes, and found a big industrial-sized rubber trashcan on the back deck, where she tossed her bottle and napkin.

The gate that led to the street stood open. She was almost there when she heard her name, and she knew exactly who it was and she was torn between pretending she didn’t hear and turning toward her. She opted for the latter, because the former would be rude.

“I wanted to make sure you got this,” Jo said as she approached, holding a small scrap of paper up. She handed it to her.

Riley glanced at it. A phone number.

“It’s just easier to call me when you have those Little League contacts for me than to bother Mari about it.” Her expression offered nothing beyond that.

“Yeah. It probably is.” She slipped the paper into her shorts pocket.

“Thank you again for helping. It does go faster, the more people you have.”

Riley nodded, a little uncomfortable under her scrutiny, but also wanting to talk to her more. “Sure. Anyway, I guess I’ll catch you later. Tell Ariela to keep practicing.”

“I will.”

Riley offered a little “see ya” wave and left, glad that a few other people were coming toward her through the open gate so Jo’s attention could shift to them. She imagined Jo’s gaze on her back all the way to the sidewalk, and the thought both unnerved her and made pleasant sparks zip around in her chest.

And she wasn’t sure what to do about it.


She wished she could have showered first, but Mari had been right last weekend. It was too far to drive to her own house from the field then back to Mari’s and if she had gone home after the game, she might as well have just stayed there. So here she was, pulling up in front of Mari’s ranch-style house, still feeling a little sweaty and gross from her earlier game. The clean shorts and tee she had changed into afterward helped a little, but probably not enough. Good thing Mari and her friends wouldn’t care. After all, she and Mari had played long, hard games together and Mari could empathize.

So she’d have a burger and head out. And even though Mari generally invited a lot of people to her barbeques, Riley knew who most of them were and her issue with crowds didn’t surface as much as in other circumstances.

Riley grabbed the six-pack of Mari’s favorite beer from the front seat, locked up, and went around to the back, toward laughter and voices and the smell of cooking meat.

“Hey, Riles,” Mari said with a grin when she saw her. “How’d it go?”

“We won.”

“Of course you did.”

The few guys standing on the patio with her raised their beers in a salute, as Mari flipped several burgers that were cooking. She looked back at Riley. “Oh, cool. Thanks for the beer. There’s room in the coolers and in the fridge. Want one of these?” She gestured with her spatula at the grill.

“Yeah.”

“Cheese?”

“Yep.” She walked over to one of the coolers and squeezed the bottles in, leaving one out that she opened and took back to Mari.

“Thanks,” she said, and Riley got a bun and burger fixings ready for the patty, which Mari neatly provided.

It wasn’t so bad, hanging out and chatting with the guys from Mari’s work, though she was tired. She finished the burger and sipped a diet soda, enjoying the evening and feeling fairly mellow.

Then the back door opened and Jo stepped out onto the patio.

“Hey, Mari, do you need anything?”

“Hey, cuz. Nah, it’s under control. Sodas and water in the coolers.”

“Great—oh. Hi, Riley.” Jo smiled.

“Hi,” she managed and she thought Mari shot her a look, but she wasn’t sure. “Have you gotten settled?”

She laughed. “Not quite. Moving is a bitch.”

Riley laughed, too.

“Oh, thanks again for the names and numbers. I called who you recommended, and I’m taking Ariela to meet them next weekend.”

“Good to hear. Is Ariela into it?”

“I’ll let her tell you.” She smiled again and went back inside and all of Riley’s insides flipped. She hadn’t been forced to talk to Jo when she called with the information—good thing, because she always felt like an idiot around women like Jo, who carried wisdom and secrets in their eyes but shared warmth with their smiles. And it would be way rude to bail now, so she steeled herself just as Ariela came out onto the patio, cradling a softball glove under her arm.

“Hey, squirt,” Mari greeted her and she gave her a quick hug. “Hungry?”

“A little.”

“Good. Want a soda?”

She shook her head and looked right at Riley. “My mom is taking me to talk to the Little League people,” she said, and she looked both totally excited and really nervous.

“So I heard.” Riley smiled. “I’m really glad.” She gestured at her glove. “Is that yours?”

Ariela nodded again and walked over to her.

“Can I see it?”

She handed it to her, and Riley inspected it. “You’re a lefty. That’s good.”

“Why?”

“Because if you end up pitching, you’ll have a different spin on the ball than righties, who are more common. But it’s a little harder to play infield as a lefty. You’ll just have to get faster on your turns than righties. The way the diamond is set up, it seems it favors righties. When lefties work the infield, they have to catch then spin fast to get the double plays.” She handed the glove back. “It’s all about practice and conditioning. Do you bat lefty, too?”

“Mostly.”

“Try to get comfortable hitting right-handed, too. That makes you unpredictable. That is, harder to read,” she amended, thinking Ariela might not know a word like that.

She nodded, expression serious.

“You said you liked outfield. Can you throw from there to the pitcher?”

She shook her head.

“It’ll come. You need to be accurate, too, when you do that. Work on accuracy first.”

“Ariela, come and get a burger,” Mari said. Ariela shot Riley an inscrutable look, then went to the grill.

“Hey, Riles, could you take this burger to Jo?”

Riley’s chest tightened, but she got up and took the plate Mari handed to her, already done up with bun, tomato, lettuce, and pickles. “Um, does she want mustard or ketchup or something?”

“Already on there.” She gave her a smile that suggested she was up to something, but she looked back at the grill. Maybe Riley had read it wrong.

“Okay.” She turned and went inside, heart beating a little faster than usual. She found Jo in the kitchen, speaking Spanish with Mari’s mom and grandma. She understood a lot of it, glad she had made the effort to learn more. They were talking about the move and she found out that Jo was short for Josefina.

“Mari sends you this burger,” she said to Jo when they all looked at her.

“And you get to be my personal delivery woman.” She took the plate. “I like this arrangement. Thank you.”

“Um, yeah. So…do you need anything to drink?”

“Got it.” She gestured at a can of soda on the counter.

“Okay.” Now she would just quietly get out of here—

“How is your family?” Mari’s grandmother asked her, and that meant she had to stay and talk longer. Which she did, hoping she didn’t fidget too much. Jo offered comments, too, between bites of her burger and several times during the conversation, Riley glanced at her, and ended up running into her gaze. It made her nervous, but in a good way.

Jo finished her burger and ate a few chips out of a bag on the counter. “I’m going to make some rounds,” she said, and with a quick smile at Riley, she went out back.

Riley tried not to watch her leave, and shifted her gaze to the refrigerator, which reminded her that she had the schedule of her softball games in her car for Mari, who always hung schedules on the fridge. A few other people had come in and were talking and laughing, so she ducked out the front of the house to go to her car.

Ariela was playing with a rubber ball and her glove, tossing the ball up in the air then catching it. She gave a tentative wave to Riley as she passed.

“Practicing,” she said, shy, and Riley gave her a thumbs-up as she went through the front gate to the sidewalk. She got the schedule then locked up again and started back to the house. She stopped, went back to her car, and opened the trunk and took her glove and a practice softball out, tucked both under her arm, and went to give the schedule to Mari before she went to the front yard.

“Hey,” she said.

Ariela caught her ball and looked over at her.

“Want to play some catch?”

Ariela’s eyes widened. “Yeah,” she said, maybe a little awed.

“Cool. Toss me your ball. We’ll play with a softball.”

Ariela did, underhand, and Riley set the rubber ball on the porch and put her own glove onto her left hand.

“Okay, this is a regulation-size ball for women’s fast-pitch. It’s a bit bigger than you’re used to, but you might as well start getting used to it now.” She grinned. “Ready? We’ll start easy.”

Ariela nodded and Riley tossed her a slow one, underhand. Ariela caught it, using her left hand to ensure it stayed in her glove. She threw it back, underhand, and it fell a little short, but Riley caught it on the bounce.

“That’s okay. You’re getting used to the new weight and feel. Just keep it slow for a while. Let it roll off your fingertips, like you’re pitching in slow-pitch.”

She nodded, expression eager, and Riley tossed it back. They kept at the easy pace for a while, and Ariela’s underhanded throws increased in velocity and distance.

“Good. You’re getting used to it. Go overhand, now,” Riley said as she tossed it back.

Ariela seemed to consider that, and she frowned. “It’s okay. Go slow with it, see how it feels.”

She did, and it arced over Riley’s head and hit the chainlink fence behind her. She stared, biting her lip.

“Nice.” Riley smiled. “You’re strong. We just need to work on control and making you even stronger.”

Ariela beamed.

“So ease up a bit and let’s see how you do.” She retrieved the ball and they tossed it back and forth overhand, Riley adjusting to catch Ariela’s throws until she was pretty much getting it to her every time.

“Good job. Let’s work on a sidearm throw, which I use a lot in the infield.” She demonstrated the movement. “You want to aim at the person you’re trying to get the ball to. So use your eyes to focus on your target and your arm will follow. When you finish your throw, you should be pointing at your target.” She grinned again. “I’m your target.”

Ariela’s eyes widened.

“It’s okay. Start slow. Get used to the feel of the motion.”

She did, and her first few were off, making Riley stretch for them, but she had good form. After a few more throws, she had settled into the sidearm and was getting it closer, though a few still went a little wild and hit the chainlink behind Riley.

“Nice,” Riley said after a series of about ten that were where they needed to be. “You’re a natural, the way you’ve adjusted to new movements and a new ball. Mari has a ball return net. You know, the net thing that you throw at and the ball comes back to you. I’ll bet she’d let you borrow it.”

“I sure will,” Mari said.

Riley looked up, startled. Jo was standing with Mari in the doorway into the house.

“Actually, I’ll do you one better and get one for you,” Mari said to Ariela, who practically bounced up and down with excitement.

“Is that okay, Mom?” she asked.

“Yes. We have a nice back yard, now, that you can use.”

Ariela practically whooped with joy and she ran over and hugged Jo, then Mari, and then bounded over to Riley and practically knocked her over with a hug. Mari and Jo laughed and Riley grinned as she hugged Ariela back.

“That’ll be great,” she said. “You can work on the new movements.”

“Will you practice with me sometimes?” she asked, and she stared up at her.

“Um—” she looked over at Jo, who nodded, also smiling. “Yeah. And if you want, maybe Mari and your mom will bring you to a couple of my games so you can watch.”

“Yes. Yes, yes, yes.” She was jumping up and down again.

“Definitely. Next Sunday?” Mari said.

“Sounds good.” Jo’s gaze was on Ariela, who had grabbed onto Riley again. Someone inside called for Mari.

“Let me check on that. And we’ve got ice cream sandwiches, A, if you want one.”

“Yes,” Ariela shouted as she ran after Mari, and it was cute because she still had her glove on.

But it also left Riley alone with Jo. She took her glove off, trying to think of something to say but she really wasn’t good in situations like this, with women who left her unsteady.

“You’re really good with kids,” Jo said, and she leaned against the doorframe.

“I have two nephews and a niece.”

Jo’s smiled widened. “So Mari said. But having kids in your life doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be good with them. Regardless, you are. And thank you so much for what you did today with Ariela. She’s been talking about you since last weekend.”

Riley cocked her head, surprised.

“It’s because you didn’t bullshit her and you didn’t treat her like a dumb kid.”

“I would never do that, particularly not to kids,” she said emphatically. “And girls, especially, need affirmation from women.” She joined Jo on the porch, making sure to pick up Ariela’s rubber ball, too. “She’s got a lot of talent. I hope she sticks with it.”

Jo smiled again. “I love hearing good things about my kid, but I’d also like to hear more about you.”

A flush worked its way up Riley’s thighs. “Um. Okay. What do you want to know?”

She laughed. “Whatever you want to share. And it’s not an interrogation. It’s a conversation. I invited Mari to dinner at the new place Friday. How about you join us?”

“I wouldn’t want to intrude—”

“You’re not.” Her eyes seemed to spark with amusement. “What you’ll soon learn is that I don’t extend invitations if I don’t mean them.”

She smiled, a little more comfortable. “I figured. But I tend to be kind of serious,” she added, almost apologetic.

“That’s not a bad thing.” She pushed off from the doorframe. “Let me know if you’d like to join us Friday. Text is fine, if it’s easier for you—”

“Yes,” she said before Jo finished her statement. “I would like to join you.”

“Great. Six good for you?”

She nodded.

“Good.” And she smiled, only this time it seemed to hold hints of something deeper. “So. Call or text if anything comes up.”

“Yeah. I will.”

Jo looked like she wanted to say something more, but instead they stood and looked at each other and as nervous as Riley was, it was really pleasant to be near her.

“Um. So…is it okay if I give this to Ariela?” She held up the ball they’d been practicing with.

“Absolutely. Are you sure?”

“Yeah. I have a ton of ’em.” She shrugged, sheepish.

“She’ll probably sleep with it under her pillow.”

“Whatever works to get the softball gods going,” Riley said with a shrug and a smile, and Jo laughed.

“I thought you said you tended to be serious.”

She shrugged again. “Maybe not always.”

“Mom,” Ariela shouted as she ran up to them from inside the house holding an ice cream sandwich. “Can I run through the sprinkler with Ethan and Katie from next door?”

“And this is why I brought your swimsuit. Are their parents here?”

“Their dad is.”

“Okay. Go get your suit. It’s in the bag in the guest room.”

“Yay,” Ariela shouted as she ran off to do that.

“Duty calls,” Jo said, apologetic but resigned.

“Yeah.”

“I’ll see you Friday, then.”

Riley nodded. “Yeah, but I’m not leaving here yet.”

“Oh?”

“Um, yeah. That conversation thing you were talking about earlier. I figured we could maybe start now?” That hadn’t been as hard to say as she thought it would be. Her pre-game jitters had dissipated.

“Definitely. See you out back.” This time, her smile was an invitation.

Riley watched her walk to the guest room then returned her glove to the car before she went inside. Ariela had left her glove on the couch and Riley stopped and put both the rubber ball and the softball into the pocket, gave it a little pat, and went out back, ready for the next inning.



Coming Soon from Dirt Road Books

Wild Rides

Sacchi Green


Sex, adventure, and wild rides—some literal, some journeys of the mind and heart. There’s something for everyone here. How about a mechanical bull at a country-and-western bar in the Amsterdam of the 1980s? An army jeep in Vietnam in the ’60s? A Chinese pirate ship far out in the Pacific in the ’30s? A hot air balloon soaring above post-Civil War Wyoming? These rides transport you through time, as well as space. In more contemporary settings, you can find (and feel) pent-up passion behind prison walls, a reunion of rivals in a steaming sauna, and a couple both wounded and bonded by modern warfare. There’s plenty of lust and banter, as well as mighty draft horses, at a county fair, and a visit with honeymooners in Paris with a fetish for gargoyles. Add to this mix a ghost story on a Montana ranch, a lovely vampire in the Old West, the occasional dragon, and a noir tale of sex, life, and afterlife in New York City. In Sacchi Green’s second collection of her own work, you have all the variety, intriguing characters, and seamless merging of sex and story that she’s required in the many anthologies she’s edited.


South Paw

Garoul Book 6

by Gill McKnight


As an introvert and a germaphobe, Elizabeth Wren is struggling in her new job, working for Martha Meeke, the flamboyant literary agent. Now their most famous client, best-selling Priscila Purloin, has gone AWOL, and Elizabeth is dispatched to South Paw, a skiing resort famous for its beautiful Christmas ambience, to track her down. Luckily, Elizabeth also suffers from OCD—obsessive Christmas disorder—so maybe South Paw will not be a washout after all. Naeva Garoul dreads snow season, when her tranquil mountain home becomes a Mecca for ski sport enthusiasts and Christmas- themed lunacy. Winter means family visits, too, and when your family consists of werewolves, it usually involves chaos. Werewolves want to hunt deer, run in the woods, and howl at the moon, while all Naeva wants to do is sit by the fire, write, and eat broccoli. It’s hard being a vegetarian werewolf, never mind a romance novelist who wants to be alone.


Rise and Shine

by Jove Belle


For best friends Emily and Sarah, a zombie outbreak seems like a pretty good reason to skip third period. And to skip town, for that matter. The girls pack up and start out on a 400-mile road trip to a bunker Emily’s survivalist dad built. With a little luck, they’ll survive long enough to make it to safety, and maybe fall in love along the way.


Queen of the Glens

by Gill McKnight


Alecka Kruche’s brother, Howie, has gone AWOL in Ireland. AWOL is not an unusual state for Howie, and his level-headed sister is dispatched to collar him and return him home. Again.

But this time, it’s different. Howie has fallen in love. As Alecka tries to extract him from the village of Inish Og in the beautiful Glens of Antrim on the north Irish coast, she instead finds herself drawn in. The folklore, culture, and sheer magic of the Glens begin to break down her reserve. She’s charmed—and entirely unsure what to do about it— by the villagers and by Johneen, a headstrong woman who isn’t nearly as charmed by Alecka.


A Matter of Blood

Far Seek Chronicles 2 (Second Ed.)

by Andi Marquette


Outlaw Torri Rendego can’t shake her past, which most often involves Kai Tinsdale, her former Academy bunkmate and now commander in the hated Coalition forces. Torri’s convinced that the Coalition is up to no good on Kai’s family holdings and decides to investigate. Problem is, the Coalition is definitely up to something, and Torri and the crew of the Far Seek have to pursue an outrageous plan to gather information and pass it along to Kai somehow.

But even the best-laid plans can go dangerously awry, especially where Kai’s concerned. Risking herself, her crew, and a tenuous tie to a shared history, Torri goes deep into Coalition territory to uncover a secret with far-reaching consequences for a distant and ancient culture. The stakes of this venture may prove way too high, even for a gambler like Torri.


Borage

Book 1 in Sisters of the 13th Moon Series

by Gill McKnight


Astral is the last of the Projector witches on a special mission to find an evil critter that is damaging her coven. Her search brings her to Black & Blacker, a company run by the enigmatic Abby Black. But who is bewitching who?


Hollister Investigations: The Shell Game

by Jove Belle


Since coming to work for Laila at Hollister Investigations, Trinity finds herself in a rut. She misses the excitement of being a hacktivist, and the tedium of investigating unfaithful spouses does nothing to stimulate her brain. But the inexplicable and undeniable pull of Laila Hollister keeps Trinity in her orbit, and she can’t leave until she figures out what that means.

Laila is happy. Or as close to happy as she can get. Her company is solid and growing, her employees are elite at what they do, and adding Trinity to the roster only increased their earnings. But she makes Laila crazy, in ways that Laila can’t understand. When rumors that Trinity might regret working there reach Laila, she lets Trinity work a case pro bono, just to make Trinity happy. Together they uncover layers of corrupt employees, identity theft, and bank fraud, and work to protect the vulnerable patients at the care facility where Trinity’s Alzheimer’s-affected mom lives.


Sweet and Sour

Book 1 in The Culinary School Series

by R.G. Emanuelle


Giovanna (Jo) Rossini is graduating from culinary school, but just as she’s about to realize her dream of opening up a restaurant, her six-year relationship with Brenda starts to fall apart. Afraid that Brenda is resentful of the financial burden that’s been placed on her, Jo begins to suspect that she’s having an affair.

Sofia Gibb is dubious when the owner of the lesbian bar she manages wants to turn it into an eatery. Reluctantly, she goes to several restaurants to review sample menus, including the one where Jo is interning. There’s an instant spark, but Jo is in a relationship and too preoccupied with her plans to deal with her feelings.

In the whirlwind of a restaurant opening, a fracturing relationship, and an attraction that she can’t do anything about, Jo tries to keep her business afloat and herself together. In this prequel to the novella Add Spice to Taste, we visit with Jo again and join her on the journey that leads her to The New York Culinary Institute.



Also from Dirt Road Books


The Potion

by R.G. Emanuelle


A secret formula. A mysterious blue potion. A woman determined to perfect an experiment that will change everything for women in an era when women are not free to choose. In the tradition of mad scientists, Vera Kennedy will stop at nothing to create the elixir that will give women the power to live according to their own desires. But when Georgette Harris comes to her with a plea for help in finding the key that could rescue her from destitution, Vera is pleasantly distracted. Together, they will unravel a mystery that includes ghostly elements and unscrupulous men.


Little Dip

Garoul Book 5

by Gill McKnight


It’s 1977, and Connie Fortune has an easy, freewheeling life as a wildlife illustrator. A contract with a periodical brings her to Little Dip, but a clash with Marie Garoul ruins the deal. Next year, Connie tries again—but Marie is waiting for her.


Friends in High Places

Far Seek Chronicles 1 (Second Ed.)

by Andi Marquette


Outlaw Torri Rendego and her crew are working to fulfill a black market contract on Old Earth, but they have to contend with hated Coalition forces. Kai Tinsdale, a part of Torri’s past she never expected to see again, shows up, and Torri’s survival depends on their ability to trust one another.


Bitterroot Queen

by Jove Belle


Sam Marconi and her teenage daughter move to Bitterroot, Idaho, to open a motel, but they find it in a derelict state. Sam posts an ad in town for someone to help her with renovations. Olly Jones, another newcomer to the area, is the only one who shows up for the job, even though her first meeting with Sam went badly. Sam hires her regardless, and eventually realizes that Olly is exactly what she needs to save the Bitterroot Queen. Will they find a way to build the life they’ve both been searching for? Or will they cling to the ties holding them to the past?



Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-26 show above.)