* * *
“I can’t believe he did all of this!”
Josh Graham thanked the bartender for his beer and turned to face his best friend, Erin. Her initial shock had worn off and now she was coming to him for answers. She narrowed her eyes and placed her hands on her hips, which only made his smile grow. Her long blonde ponytail bobbed up and down as she tapped her foot against the cement.
“Did you expect anything less from Chase Montclair?” he asked. Although her fiancé had the money to rent out the entire Phillies’ ballpark tonight for their surprise engagement party, Chase had known what Erin preferred. Small, intimate get-togethers were more her speed. Josh had learned quickly during college that Erin was a low-maintenance, sneakers-and-jeans type of girl.
And nothing would ever change that, even if she was engaged to a multimillionaire.
“I mean, I refuse to believe he was able to pull all this off behind my back. Renting this place and getting all our friends here? He must have had some help.” She raised an accusatory brow and gave him her familiar smirk.
“He may have had an accomplice.” A few accomplices, actually. Since Chase had his hands full with a trial and the circus that surrounded it this past summer, he had called on his friends for help. After Chase had decided that the engagement party that should have taken place months ago was going to be held at Citizens Bank Park, home to his and Erin’s favorite baseball team, his friends happily took over. Josh was in charge of booking one of the park’s Club Decks. Nothing too fancy. Just a place to watch the game, hang out with close family and friends and enjoy some beers. Chase’s future brother-in-law, Paul, had pitched in by setting up hotel accommodations for the guests who didn’t live close by. Paul’s girlfriend, Mia, had sent out the invitations and ordered the baseball-shaped sheet cake. Josh gave Erin a wink, earning him a punch to his arm.
Josh looked over at Chase. He was in the middle of talking to Paul, but his eyes were on Erin. Josh suspected that Chase would always be protective of Erin, which put Josh’s mind at ease. Chase shifted his attention to Josh. He smiled and lifted his beer in the air. Josh returned the gesture.
“You sneaky bastards,” she said.
Josh gave her ponytail a gentle tug. “How are you feeling, sweetheart? Are you getting enough rest? Drinking enough water?”
“Yes, and I’ve increased my calorie intake, just like my favorite med student instructed.”
He pulled her into a hug, though he was careful not to hold her too tight. She was four months along and sporting a baby bump that stretched her red cotton Phillies t-shirt. “You’re going to name at least one of those little ankle-biters after me, right?”
She gave him a squeeze and stepped out of his embrace. “And if Chase and I are having twin girls? What then?”
Twins. An image of a little boy and girl flashed in his mind. Both were covered in sand and playfully being scolded by their grandmother. He dismissed the memory and focused on Erin.
“My middle name is Dylan, which is gender neutral…just saying.”
Erin laughed and rolled her eyes.
“Dylan Whitley,” he said, trying out the unborn child’s name.
“Dylan Montclair,” Erin said, nudging his chest with two fingers.
“Ah, that’s right. In just a few weeks, the beautiful Erin Whitley becomes Mrs. Chase Montclair.”
“Josh, please tell the hormonal mess in front of you that you’ve ordered your tux by now. You promised, man of honor!”
He forced his smile to stand down. “Oh shit! Between classes and exams, I forgot. But I have time, right?”
Her eyes widened. “You better be kidding or, so help me God, I’ll drag you down to that tuxedo shop first thing tomorrow morning, pregnant and all!”
He had always gotten a kick out of seeing her so riled up. “Black tux, white shirt, gray tie. Unfortunately my measurements were taken by a man named Eli, not the hot redhead who waited on Paul.” He raised her chin with two fingers. “It’s taken care of, boss.”
She swatted his hand away. “You’re lucky I love you. You know that?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest, trying her hardest not to smile.
Being friends with Erin was easy. She accepted him for who he was and made him laugh on a daily basis. And she could pull off smartass and sweet with little effort.
Just like someone he used to know.
Suddenly the roar of the crowd dialed down to a whisper, the smell of hotdogs and Chickie’s and Pete’s crab fries faded away, and the vibrant green baseball field gave way to a long dark road, Bob Dylan on the radio, and his twin sister singing in the seat beside him.
The memory shook him but somehow he managed to respond. “Yeah, I know.”
“You bet your pretty little ass.” Erin stood on her tippy toes and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “But I’m still going to make you pay for teasing your pregnant best friend…but not tonight. It will be when you least expect it,” Erin said. He plastered on a smile, even squeaked out a wink before she left and made her way over to Chase.
What the hell was wrong with him? Josh had a beer in his hand and was at a baseball game with his friends, people he considered to be his true family, and he felt like he could crawl out of his skin at any minute. He needed to get his shit together. Josh weaved his way through the small gathering. He glanced to his right and gave a chin lift to Paul’s friend, Rick. To his left he spotted Chase’s best man, Sam. Josh barely managed a nod and continued walking until he heard his name being called. Mia was practically skipping her way over to him. And flashing him a smile that made him feel guilty. He needed to get out of his funk and quick. He silently willed his lips to curl into a wide grin and his arms to encircle the woman he had really grown fond of over the last four months.
“Between Erin finding out that Paul and I secretly moved in a few streets over from her new home in New Jersey and walking into an engagement party she knew nothing about, I think it’s safe to say that we shocked our girl shitless today.”
A chuckle escaped his throat. “Erin’s had quite a day,” he said, releasing her.
She took a step back and her expression turned serious. “And the day’s not over yet.” Mia looked past him and then to her right and left.
“Looking for someone or am I just that boring to talk to?”
She immediately met his gaze and smiled sheepishly. “Sorry, just keeping an eye out for my friend Carina. We haven’t seen each other for a few months. We kind of drifted apart…I let us drift apart,” Mia said with a sigh. ”Chase was gracious enough to let me extend an invite to her. But I was a little nervous that Erin may not…”
“I’m sure Erin doesn’t mind at all that your friend is going to crash this engagement party.” Though he meant for his comment to be lighthearted, her face drained of all color and worry consumed those dark blue eyes of hers. “Honey, trust me. Erin gets it. I bet she’s excited to meet your friend. But she’s probably, like I am, really happy for you.”
Josh knew why Mia had basically withdrawn from the world, cutting off her friends and those who loved her, and lived like a functional hermit for the last several years. But she was better now. The fact that Mia had invited one of her best friends to meet her new ones was proof of that.
“So how did you two reconnect?” he asked.
“Just this morning Carina called me and asked if she could come to New York to visit me. That she wanted to get away and hang out like old times. She sounded kind of down over the phone, like something was wrong. So I seized the opportunity and sprang the news on her that Paul and I had moved to New Jersey and that we were now just a twenty-minute drive from each other. My ear is still ringing from her squeals and screams.”
“Well, be sure to snag me when she gets here. I’ll catch Carina up on what she’s missed. Confirm that you’re still a brat, shit like that.”
“You’re a jackass,” she said.
“I’ve been called much worse,” he bragged.
She shook her head at him and feigned annoyance. “I’m going to go look for Carina. I left a ticket for her at the main gate, so I’ll head in that direction.” She knocked that smug smile off his face with an elbow to his ribs and left.
The second Mia disappeared from sight, that on-edge feeling he had been able to suppress somewhat while they spoke came raging back, leaving him agitated and pissed off.
He needed a distraction.
Josh walked over to the railing and stared at the crowd in the section just below him.
“Cold beer, get your cold beer here!” called a vendor.
Josh watched a man signal the vendor. He dug a few bills out of his wallet and handed them over. He received two beers in return and gave one to the woman beside him. She rewarded him with a smile and a kiss fit for the Kiss Cam. A few rows over a little girl was going to town on her cotton candy. Most seemed to reach her mouth, but some had found its way into her long brown hair. Her mother whipped out a baby wipe and tried to work the sticky, sugary goo out of her curls, but after a minute she gave up. People-watching was suddenly interrupted by the crack of a bat, forcing Josh to look up and see the Phillies tie the game with a solo home run. The fans cheered, high-fiving and screaming the name of the man who rounded the bases.
By the end of the fifth inning, Josh felt like he could breathe again. The muscles in his neck had relaxed. He no longer found it difficult to grip the metal railing due to sweaty palms. He was back. Back to being the carefree college student, the guy who enjoyed hanging out with his friends and didn’t let the past intrude.
He was fine. Everything was fine.
Josh inhaled the warm September air and decided it was time to rejoin the land of the living. Feeling more in control of his thoughts…of those damn emotions that he kept tucked away, he turned and started to walk in the direction of the bar when he caught a glimpse of the one person he didn’t know at this party.
Silky, chestnut hair limited his view at first, forcing his eyes to navigate away from her face and explore her ample curves and toned legs. She tossed her hair over her shoulder and his breathing hitched. Green haunted eyes locked onto his.
Something told him to keep walking. To dismiss his quickened heartbeat and the fact that he felt like his throat was closing up. But instead, he just stood there and stared at this woman. And ignored the voice that begged him to get the hell out of the ballpark…away from her.