I never thought the indiscretions of my youth would return to bite me in the butt by walking through the door of the Susie Buddha Café in Syracuse’s trendy Armory Square district, but they did. Or rather, one did. Winslow Winthrop Winston the Whatever, commonly known as Win.
I don’t know if I lost my ability to breathe because I was terrified he’d recognize and expose me or because he was just so darned good-looking. Probably the result of both. Win had always had a paralyzing effect on me.
Chuck somebody or other, one of the Syracuse Saltboilers baseball team board members, accompanied Win. They headed straight for our table.
There was no escape. Life as I knew it was about to end.
“James!” Chuck greeted my father.
Dad stood, shook Chuck’s hand, and then turned to Win. “Welcome to Syracuse and the Saltboilers, Winston.”
Win’s gaze, however, fixed on me. “Carrie? Carrie Thorpe?”
I held my breath. It had been seven years. Surely I’d changed enough that Win couldn’t be certain of my identity. “Caroline Maplethorpe,” I corrected in a tight voice.
That might have been the end of it except for my father’s ego. People don’t usually ignore him. He liked to think of himself as the George Steinbrenner of Triple-A Baseball, even though he owned only a few shares of the Saltboilers. And Win had ignored him.
“Do you know Caroline?” Dad asked.
I blinked and waited to see what Win would say.
Chuck interrupted. “Win, this is James Maplethorpe, one of the Saltboilers’ shareholders.”
Win’s gaze jerked away from me and focused on Dad. “Nice to meet you, sir,” he said as he gripped Dad’s hand.
“Why don’t you join us?” Dad invited. “Then you can tell me how you know my daughter.” He looked around the table, as if searching for an empty seat or two.
Of course, there weren’t any. Dad had called us all together for this dinner meeting at the minuscule Susie Buddha Café, and there was barely room for the ten of us at the table.
I briefly thought about vacating my chair. I already didn’t want to be at a family dinner. Win’s appearance put the cherry on my resentment.
“We don’t want to intrude,” Chuck said.
Win nodded at me, and the two of them continued to a tiny table crammed into a remote corner of the café.
“How do you know Win Winston?” my father asked me once the other men were out of earshot.
I picked up my glass of water and sipped. I couldn’t tell him the truth, especially not with the entire family and its satellites sitting there. Waiting. “What makes you think I know him? He didn’t even get my name right.”
I glanced at Chandler Goodeve, my date for the evening. He seemed unperturbed. He was one of the Blandroids, the men our father had chosen for my sisters and me. Beige hair, beige eyes, beige skin, well-bred, and boring. Even their names were banal: Brandon Cummings, Andrew Armstrong, and Chandler Goodeve. The Blandroids.
I wondered what it would take to provoke a reaction from Chandler. Setting him on fire? A knee in the privates?
My answer seemed to satisfy my father. At least he dropped the subject. We were supposed to be having dinner to plan a tribute to my mother during the Syracuse Saltboilers baseball game on Mother’s Day. The Saltboilers always staged their Breast Cancer Awareness Day promotion on Mother’s Day. Dad decided the Kathryn Maplethorpe Foundation should participate. Dear old Dad would do anything to make himself look good to the community. Never mind the truth. As long as the result reflected positively on James Maplethorpe, he was content.
My old resentment against him preened for a moment. Then I reminded myself I’d outgrown my rebellious teenage furor, and I was a civilized woman now. I might never forgive Dad for what he’d done, but he was still my father. And I loved him.
Besides, I had bigger things to worry about. Like Win Winston showing up in Syracuse.
My head throbbed. My appetite fled. I forced myself to ignore the twosome at the corner table. For all of Syracuse’s size—one of New York State’s “Big Five”—it’s an incredibly small town. Six degrees of Kevin Bacon could take lessons. If Win was pitching for the Saltboilers…
“What’s wrong?” my sister Victoria whispered in my ear when the server whisked away our salad plates. Across the table, my younger sister, Alexandra, watched me with solemn eyes.
I shook my head and made sure I smiled. “I don’t know why Dad has to make a big production.”
“To assuage his guilty conscience,” Victoria assured me.
She and I were close, but even she didn’t know everything about me, especially about the summer I’d met Win. That was my secret. My shame.
I glanced around the table, wondering what these people would think if they knew the truth about me. My father would blow a gasket. Polly, my stepmother, would be shocked. Her mother, Marsha Lee, would smirk and gloat. Victoria would be appalled. Alexandra would be curious. Polly’s brother, Marc, would want the prurient details, and the Blandroids would probably not react at all. They were expected to merely marry James Maplethorpe’s daughters and be appropriate husbands, as long as they used my father’s definition of “appropriate.”
Winslow Winthrop Winston the Whatever—and yeah, “whatever” really was part of his name—had it in his power to expose all my secrets and destroy the life I’d so carefully pulled back together after that summer. The summer I went crazy. It had been seven years, but there is no statute of limitations on shame.
I barely touched my pumpkin chili. I usually loved the hearty vegetarian fare at Susie Buddha’s, but tonight I couldn’t force it down.
My father droned on about his plans for the tribute to my mother. Some of the players would use pink bats. Dad was donating money for pink baseball caps for the first five thousand women. There would be booths on the promenade distributing literature and selling merchandise, such as Second Base Club T-shirts. He wanted the Kathryn Maplethorpe Foundation to do something specifically in my mother’s name and solicited ideas from us.
So why include Polly and her family? It had to have been awfully awkward for Polly to listen to Dad ramble on about Mom.
Why include the Blandroids? They’d never met Mom.
I very nearly suggested that we include Win but caught myself in time. He’d have a lot more to contribute than the Blandroids because he’d dealt with the mess that was me after she’d died. But then, he didn’t know that. He didn’t know anything. Not even my name.
I needed to get out of there.
I stood. “I’m sorry, but I’m not feeling well.” It wasn’t exactly a lie.
Dad didn’t even pretend to be concerned. Victoria promised to have my uneaten food boxed and would bring it to the office in the morning. Chandler decided it was his duty to escort me home.
I couldn’t help but glance at the corner table as Chandler helped me with my coat. Win’s dark gaze fastened on me.
I hadn’t fooled him at all.
Cold April air slapped my cheeks as I stepped out of the café. Chandler gripped my elbow.
“This isn’t necessary,” I said as I punched in the security code to my apartment. I lived over the café. Walking me home was ridiculous.
“Don’t be silly,” Chandler said. “My mother raised me better than that.”
The door opened, and Win stepped out. He nodded rather curtly at us and then took off down the street. A few stubborn snowflakes danced in the chilly night. Apparently, the weather hadn’t heard opening day of baseball season was less than twenty-four hours away.
I opened my door and flipped on the stairwell light. Chandler followed me up the steep, narrow stairs to my second-floor apartment. I unlocked the door at the top of the landing. “Thank you,” I said. My mother had raised me right too.
He leaned in for a kiss, but I averted my face. “I might be contagious,” I muttered.
In reality, I didn’t like kissing him, although he kept trying. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. My father’s blessing seemed to be enough for Chandler.
“Thank you,” I repeated. “Good night.” I slipped into my apartment and closed the door before Chandler could follow me inside. I leaned against the door in the dark and finally let myself collapse. I’d been so tense since seeing Win that my muscles ached.
I inhaled and exhaled deeply, concentrating on my breathing. My father’s foolishness had already infused the evening with devastating emotion. Add Win to the mix, and it was a wonder I wasn’t a screeching, drooling maniac.
I snapped on a light, greeted my terrarium, hung my coat in the entry closet, and made my way to my bedroom.
Ten minutes later, I wore a flannel nightgown and velvet robe. A heavy afghan acted as armor against drafts in the window seat where I curled to watch the night. The scent of chamomile tea wafted from the mug I cupped in my chilled hands, the fragrance battling with the vanilla candles I lit throughout the room.
This was my life now. Calm. Orderly. Mundane. I had this great Armory Square apartment, I was on speaking terms with my family again, and I had a job I enjoyed. It was enough.
The intercom buzzed, but I ignored it. Drunks stumbling out of the multitude of bars often amused themselves by annoying the residents. Chandler would have either returned to the café or gone home, and my family always called before they visited me.
A lone figure lurched into view, shoulders hunched against the cold. Snow swirled around him. He stood under the streetlight, looking up at me.
Our gazes met. I swallowed hard. Just like that, he knew where I lived, and that was not a good thing. He stared at me for what seemed like forever, then ambled away.
My intercom belched again. I uncurled from my perch and stumbled to the speaker. “Yes?”
I still heard that voice in my dreams. I was going to have to speak to Win eventually. Might as well get it over with.
I buzzed him in. Then I opened the door and watched him lumber up the dimly lit stairs.
He was larger than life, filling my doorway with his height and bulk, bringing the cold and the scent of winter with him.
I didn’t offer to take his coat. “What do you want?”
His dark eyes glittered in the flickering candlelight. Flakes of snow melted in his black curls. “Carrie Thorpe.”
“There’s no such person,” I said.
“No wonder I couldn’t find you.” His deep voice rumbled through me. “I looked, you know. For years. On every form of social media I heard of. But no Carrie Thorpe ever popped up.”
“She doesn’t exist,” I repeated, not believing him.
“Caroline Maplethorpe slumming it in Cortland.” His tone was bitter.
“Caroline Maplethorpe trying not to trade in on her father’s name,” I retorted, stung by his accusation. The truth was far less dramatic.
Win still had the power to annihilate me, but I’d never let him know how vulnerable he made me. Survival. That was my priority.
“You’ve done well for yourself,” I said. I’d followed his career to the majors, his injury two seasons ago, and the subsequent surgery that led him to a rehab stint in Syracuse.
“If you mean better than Flash, then yeah.”
Flash. Jordan “Flash” Gordon. He’d introduced Win to me, in a manner of speaking.
“I got called up for three games, and you disappeared,” Win said. “I went a little crazy.”
“It was time for me to leave. College was starting. The timing had nothing to do with your getting called up.”
That was the truth. Part of it anyway.
He stared at me. Through me. He’d always been able to peer into the crevices of my soul.
“What do you want?” My voice shook.
The intensity of his gaze never wavered. “I don’t know.”
That was new. Seven years ago, Win Winston had always known what he wanted.
“I thought I wanted you, but now you’re telling me you don’t exist.”
There were many things I could have said. I could have asked if he’d never had a meaningful relationship with another woman, but that would imply he’d found our relationship meaningful. While it was certainly memorable, I doubted it had much meaning for him.
Didn’t he understand the rules? What we’d had that long-ago summer was a fling. He was a young, good-looking, up-and-coming pitcher, and I was a young, out-of-control, self-destructive girl on the run from emotions I couldn’t handle. I would have done anything to be able to feel.
I did everything I could in order to feel something. Anything.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
“I’m pitching for the Saltboilers until I’m ready for the majors again.”
“I meant, why did you follow me out of the restaurant?”
“Why are you surprised I did?” he countered. “Although I guess that should tell me something.”
We stared at each other for several silent moments.
“You sent your boyfriend home,” Win finally said. His voice was husky, and his gaze flicked to my left hand. “A husband wouldn’t have left, so I know you’re not married. You should have known I’d be knocking on your door.”
I struggled for cool. A third party had never stopped him—or me—in the past. “I think you’d better leave.”
Was it the muted light, or did his expression darken? I couldn’t tell.
“I meant what I said to you that summer,” he said.
The problem was that he’d said a lot of things. We both had. I hadn’t meant much of what I’d said, and based on the facts, I’d assumed he hadn’t either. Besides, the spoken
words hadn’t defined the rest of my life.
I wasn’t prepared for his hand to hover over my cheek. Heat from his palm drew my face like night-vision goggles to prey. His thumb flicked a strand of hair off my brow. When his lips brushed mine, a shock of familiarity, of yearning, bolted through me.
“You’re right,” he said, his voice a harsh rasp in the quiet of the room. “I’d better leave while I still can.”