Brynn Langtoine crossed her fingers so tightly her knuckles shone white. Six-year-old Cayden had already been through so much in losing his father, he just had to make a home run for his little league tryout. Or, she prayed, for once come close to at least hitting the ball.
The metal bleachers were the only remotely cool thing on this muggy mid-April afternoon. Ruin Bayou, Louisiana, had its nicer points, but an agreeable climate wasn't one. Fanning herself with the parent information sheet the coach's wife had distributed to all team hopefuls, Brynn tried shifting to a more comfy positionno easy feat at eight-months pregnant.
"Relax," her friend Vivian urged.
"Easy for you to say. Dom not only hits home runs, but sinks soccer goals and makes touchdownsand that's all before breakfast. Meanwhile, poor Cayden" Brynn cupped her bulging belly as her son tripped on his way to home plate. "Well, let's just say when it comes to athletic talent, he unfortunately inherited my family genes."
"Stop. Little Cayden's just going through a rough patch. Losing his dad like that" She added a few clucks to her shaking head.
As was usually the case when recalling Mack's untimely demise, Brynn threw up a little in her mouth.
When Cayden looked to her for reassurance, Brynn blew him a kiss. He might be trying out for abig boy team, but he'd never be too old for some good, old-fashioned mommy sugar.
As the pitcher wound up for his throw, Brynn's stomach churned. Please, please, please, she prayed to her disaster of a dead husband, who had also happened to be one of the most celebrated hitters to ever come out of the state.If you ever had so much as a shred of decency in you, send your sweet son a smidge of your batting skill
Not only had Cayden missed the ball, but he'd cowered when it came near him. Having grown up watching his dad play from a box seat in Busch Stadium III, Cayden had worshipped the man and the game, literally wearing a Cardinals baseball cap nearly every day since he'd been born. Any sane person would've thought Mack spent his free time playing catch with his son, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The pitcher threw again.
This time, Cayden had ducked to avoid the ball. Vivian let loose with a low wolf whistle. "Who is that?"
Brynn's gaze drifted to where her friend pointed. A giant of a man strode to the outfield, kneeling to talk to a pint-size player. His faded jeans, white T-shirt and Geaux Saints baseball cap didn't mask hard-edged masculinity. A certain larger-than-life, take-charge essence emanated from the man even as he had a simple conversation with a child. The way the man leaned in, seemed to genuinely listen to whatever the distraught child had on his mind, told a different story from the guy's tough outer shell. His body language said he cared like a father, but Brynn was familiar with most of the little league crowd and was sure she'd have remembered a dad who looked like him.
"Whew" Vivian was also using her info packet as a fan. "What I wouldn't give to be single right about now."
"Excuse me?" Sean, Vivian's husband, nudged her shoulder. "I'm sitting right here."
"Oh, yeah." She apologized with a kiss. "Looking at that hunk, I temporarily forgot."
Brynn fought not to roll her eyes. Vivian had it all. A great husband who adored her and a perfect son and home. She had everything Brynn had once taken for granted, but now knew she'd never have again.
The pitcher wound up for Cayden's third and final try as he'd already had four other turns and failed to hit a single pitch. In the span of a heartbeat, the ball flashed straight for her son, only to clang the chain-link fence behind him.
"Strike three! You're out!"
As he scuffed his little sneakered feet off the field, Cayden dropped his chin to his chest. Brynn's heart ached for him. Why, at this age, did Ruin Bayou's team have to be about competition? Why couldn't it be purely about fun and learning good sportsmanship? Once Cayden was old enough to learn the facts about his father, he'd receive harsh truths no child should ever learn. Until then, Brynn wanted to shelter him and hold him close. She'd tried a dozen times to talk him out of even going for this team, but he'd insisted.
He'd been so despondent ever since Mack's death, Brynn hoped maybe for once luck would be on his side.
"He gave it a good try" Brynn resented Vivian's stab at comfort when she slipped her arm around her for a supportive squeeze. "He's a full year younger than a lot of these other boys. You wait and see, next year at this time, Cayden's going to set this field on fire."
"Give it a rest," Sean said to his wife. "Coach hasn't even posted the team yet. Let's not count Cayden out until this is official."
Though Sean's words were kind, Brynn wasn't delusional. Boy after boy strode to home base, swinging and hitting for all they were worth. Six home runs had been made. Twelve triples. Not only didn't her son make a single hit, but no catches.
When tryouts were over, the coach, surrounded by players and parents, called the numbers of the kids who'd made that season's Ruin Bayou Mud Bugs.
Cayden's number wasn't called.
While around him, his friends gave each other high fives, Cayden's eyes welled and lower lip trembled.
Brynn took his hand, leading him away from the crowd. "You did a great job, sweetie. Your dad would be proud."
"No, he wouldn't." Her son kicked the dirt in the parking lot. "I'm a loser. Dad hated losers. That's why he left us. He hated me."
Stopping short of their SUV, Brynn knelt in front of her son. "Don't you ever say that about yourself again," she said fiercely. "Baseball is just a stupid game, you hear me? Life is about much more. Your dad"
"Baseball isn't stupid!" Cayden cried, pitching his bat and glove on the ground. "You are!"
Brynn reached for him, trying to grab the red T-shirt that had been so thoughtfully provided in return for the Mud Bug's fifty-dollar tryout fee, but he was too fast. He took off across a weed-choked field.
She started after him, but a male voice behind her called, "Let him go. He'll be all right."
Brynn turned to find the man she'd seen earlier in the outfield. Up close and personal, he was as intimidating as he was impressive. He'd also inserted himself smack in the middle of an intensely personal conversation to which he hadn't been invited. "If you don't mind, I'll be the judge of what's best for my son."
"By all means." The stranger held up his hands. Hyper kids and their parents made their way to their cars. An audience compounded the awkward factor. "Sorry. Last thing I want is to get into your family business, but I remember the sting of being cut from my grade-school team. Only by my senior year, I'd filled out a little and we went on to win the AA State Championship."
Mack had been on that team. Had this man known her husband?
"Anyway," he went on to say, "your boy might think this is the end of his world, but he'll turn out okay."
With everything in her, Brynn fought a flippant comeback. This stranger had no idea what Cayden had already been throughnot to mention the baseball legend he'd had for a father. It was a cruel twist of fate that a sporting talent that should've come to the boy as naturally as breathing had escaped him.
"Thanks for your insight," Brynn muttered, "but instead of letting my six-year-old run away, I'd rather handle this loss by the traditional mom methodwith plenty of ice cream and hugs."
"Sure." Hands tucked in his jeans pockets, the guy backed off. "And for the recordI never said either of those things were bad." Then as abruptly as he'd appeared, the stranger melded into the crowd.
Brynn was again alone, worrying about her son, only she now carried the additional burden of being embarrassed by her snippy attitude toward someone who was undoubtedly a friend of a friend and had meant well. She never used to be this angry, bitter shell of a woman, but then Cayden never used to run off crying, either.
Glad she'd worn jeans with sneakers, Brynn chased after her son as quickly as her pregnant belly allowed. "Cayden! Come here, sweetie!"
"Leave me alone!"
The closer she got, the deeper into the boggy woods he ran.
With sunlight fading, Brynn's stomach knotted. Not only were the woods home to whining mosquitoes, ticks and other biting bugs, but poisonous snakes and gators. "Cayden, sweetie, I know you're upset, but this is getting dangerous."
"Go away! I wanna be alone!"
Brynn wasn't especially prone to panic, but she honestly was at a loss as to what to do. Hands to her temples, she urged her mind to think and her pulse to slow. Her single-parenting books frowned on rewarding a child's poor behavior, but it wasn't as if Cayden had run off with malice in his heart. He was understandably hurt that his friends had the God-given skills to play baseball and not him.
The ground squished beneath her rubber soles and the air smelled dank. Darkness was closing in, accompanied by a cacophony of foreign sounds. Though the ballpark wasn't that far behind them, they might as well have been in a different world.
"Cayden, please, come here!" she called. "This isn't funny!"
When he failed to answer, her blood ran cold.
Anything could've happened.
Brynn now trekked through sloppy mud, making her footing treacherous. The vegetation was dense, choked with brambles and vines.
"Cayden! Answer me!"
If something happened to her son, Brynn wasn't sure how she'd survive. Aside from a smattering of friends, she had no one. Prescandal, at the height of his fame, it'd seemed she and Mack were never alone. They'd been the golden couple everyone wanted to be with. Postscandal, she'd become a pariah. Assets frozen and beyond broke. If it hadn't been for Mack outright owning his old family home, Brynn and Cayden wouldn't even have a roof over their heads.
"Cayden!" Deeper and deeper into the now dark woods Brynn crept.
"Mommy." His voice barely carried.
"Sweetie, call me again so I can find you!"
She heard her son, but also a low, guttural grunt.
Panic set in and the faster she tried reaching her son, the tougher time she had finding solid footing. Her feet and the hems of her maternity jeans were cold-soaked, yet her upper body was sticky with sweat. The stench of rotting leaves turned her stomach. The humidity was as unbearable as her storming pulse.
"I know, angel." She trudged forward. "Do I sound closer?"
"I don't know."
Foliage clawed at Brynn, making her every move torture. The grunt came again, filling her mind's eye with horrific images of her baby boy clamped between an alligator's jaws.
"Mommy, please hurry! It's gonna eat me!"
Panic surged through Brynn, making her strong but stupid, chasing after her boy without a clue where to find him.
"Thanks for helping me out."
"Anytime, man. Looks like you're going to have a great team." Tristan Bartoni shook Jason's hand. They'd been friends since Mrs. Fleck sat them next to each other in the second grade. A week later, he remembered with a chuckle, she'd separated them for talking too much.
"What's caught your funny bone?" Jason hefted the last of the equipment into his truck bed. The vehicle had come along with his recent election win as Ruin Bayou Chief of Police. Not only was the rig equipped with flashing lights and a siren, but tires that could handle damn near any terraina good thing considering the whole town was practically a swamp. His wife and toddler son had already long since gone home.
"Just thinking how much trouble we used to get in. Hard to believe where we are now."
Jason snorted. "Yeah. Back when we used to sit in detention every afternoon, who'd have thought we'd now be in charge?" He elbowed Tristan. "Well, me anyway. I don't know what you fancy navy SEALs do."
"Yeah, yeah." Tristan took out the keys to his own more modest black Ford pickup. "Just keep tellin' yourself that. You might keep Ruin Bayou safe, but my jurisdiction's the world."
"Modest much?" Jason had climbed behind his wheel.
"Nah." Tristan slipped his key into the ignition when he noticed the SUV the crabby pregnant woman had stood alongside was still parked at the far end of the lot, only with no one inside. She hadn't chased after her kid on her own, had she? Mother Nature was a full-on raving bitch in these parts. "Hold up a minute. We might have a situation."
Cayden loved his mom a whole, big bunch, but right now he wanted his dad. His mom said his dad died, but most times Cayden wasn't even sure what that meant. All he really knew was that his dad was gone and ever since they left their house in St. Louis, all his mom ever did was cry.
Now he was stuck up in a tree and his big toe hurt really bad and he was pretty sure something giant was trying to eat him.
He barely heard her say, "I'm coming, sweetie!"
He usually hated it when his mom called him sweetie pie and stuff like he was a little kid, but out here, it was kind of nice, knowing how much she loved him. He worried once the baby came, she'd only love his new sister, then he'd be all alone.
Cayden started to cry, and he hated crying.
Crying was for stupid babies.
He called out for her again and again, but this time, heard nothing. Forever and ever he sat alone in the tree, until even his own breathing sounded scary.
"Cayden?" Who was that? Sounded like Coach Jason. "Mrs. Langtoine?" Was he coming to tell him he made the team?
Light bounced through the dark trees, making everything look waaaay more spookier. "Coach? I'm up here! All my bones are broke bad! And there's an alligator trying to eat me!"
"You mean this guy?" Coach held up a loudmouthed frog.
"Guess it could've been him." Coach asked, "Where's your mom?"
"Don't know. II think she's lost."