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Bride and Doomby Deborah Donnelly
Boris the Mad Russian Florist held me close. As his massive arms enfolded me from behind, a warm whisper teased at my ear and sent goose bumps rippling down my spine.
"Gr-rip with fingers, my Kharnegie," he breathed. "Not with palm."
I obeyed. I'd done this before, plenty of times, but tonight was different. Tonight I was in the hands of a master.
"Perr-fect." He tilted his head aside to get a better look at my legs, and his voice rose with authority. "Be ready to move heeps. First heeps, and then-"
"Enough about her hips!" Aaron Gold called out, amid hoots of male and female laughter. "For crying out loud, Nevsky, let her hit the ball already."
With a huge and comical shrug, Boris Nevsky lifted his hands from me and stepped out of the batting cage that arched like a giant clamshell over the home plate of Seattle's Yesler Field. Whether or not Boris had pinch-hit for the Red Army as he claimed, he was almost as good a coach as he was a floral designer. And that was saying something.
I cocked the bat over my shoulder, blew a kiss to my fiancé Aaron-our engagement wasn't public yet, but how I savored that word fiancé-and nodded to the pitcher that I was ready.
If this had been major league batting practice, the pitcher would have been way back on the mound, protected by a shield in case the ball was belted back to him at a dangerous speed. But he was in no danger. The regular season was over-the World Series opened tomorrow in Minneapolis-and this was just a major league engagement party.
Of course Gordo Gutierrez, the bridegroom and our catcher tonight, wasn't "just" a baseball player. He was the Home Run King, the man who had just smashed the all-time record for home runs in a single season with a spectacular seventy-five. The Navigators might have drifted out of Series contention after the All-Star break back in August, but their season had ended on a higher-than-high note with Gordo's feat.
The Navigators' owners, cannily sensing yet another PR coup in Gordo's engagement, had decided to play fairy godfather. The franchise was footing the bill for the wedding and making it an open-to-the-public extravaganza. And they were hosting tonight's engagement party as a media event-with batting practice as one of the party games.
So tonight the pitcher's windup looked impressive, but that was just for show. He was taking it easy on the guests, and when he released the ball, it lofted toward me quite gently. Also quite deceptively-my bat fanned the air, and the ball plopped into Gordo's catcher's mitt unscathed.
"Strike one!" he called, then said to me, "Good try, though."
This big-league baseball wedding, taking place in just over a week on this very diamond, would normally be out of my league altogether. I'm Carnegie Kincaid, owner of Made in Heaven ("Elegant Weddings with an Original Flair"), but I was on duty tonight as a temporary employee of Beau Paliere, celebrity wedding planner and my occasional rival.
Beau and I had certainly had our differences in the past. But when he suddenly needed a local assistant for this wedding, I just as suddenly needed his hefty commission to finance my own nuptials. My partner Eddie Breen had grumbled, but then he always grumbled. It was one of his job skills.
I told Eddie I'd get back to work for Made in Heaven the day after Gordo's ceremony-after I'd made myself a nice pile of cash. My wedding plans were still vague-Aaron and I hadn't even picked a date yet-but people would expect the owner of Made in Heaven to put on an unforgettable event. Something elegant, something grand . . . something extravagantly expensive.
Though nowhere near as expensive as the union of Gordo Gutierrez and a very hot, very young rock singer-so young that Beau had directed me to keep an eye on her. Baseball fans would attend the wedding because of Gordo. But some other Seattleites, who couldn't tell a bunt from a batting helmet, would come just to see the bride. She had just released her first album, and she went by the name of Honeysuckle Hell.
Still others-female baseball fans-would be here on Sunday to sigh over Rob Harmon, Gordo's best man and our pitcher tonight. Recently retired from the Navs, Harmon was a sure bet for the Hall of Fame when he became eligible next year.
Originally from Virginia, Charmin' Harmon had a soft drawl and thick fair hair and a power of concentration like a laser beam. They said he could X-ray batters right from the mound and decide how to pitch to them in the time it took to pull back his formidable arm. They said if Harmon stared at you, you'd be the one to blink.
But his athletic skills were matched, if not surpassed, by his good looks and southern charm. Those unblinking eyes were so blue you could swim in them, and every time he started for Seattle, the stands were packed with women and girls. I myself had gotten his autograph once, about ten years ago, and the way those unblinking blue eyes looked into mine . . .
The second pitch sailed by, jerking me out of my reverie.
"What was wrong with that one?" demanded a male heckler in an arch, plummy voice. "Not good enough for the girl?"
"Take your time, Stretch," Aaron countered from the other side of the cage. "Look 'em over."
Instead I looked around at the crowd outside the batting cage. The guests drifting back and forth between the diamond and the owners' luxury suite tonight made quite a see-and-be-seen assortment: ballplayers, rock musicians, sportswriters, general-assignment reporters like Aaron, management types, baseball groupies, big names from the city's football and basketball teams, and various friends and family.
At least a hundred people in all, a motley mix but an impressive one-and they were certainly trying to impress each other. But even the VIPs wanted to play fantasy baseball, it seemed. It was hard to say which was the bigger draw, the lavish buffet and bar upstairs, or the chance to come down on the diamond and bat against yesterday's star Rob Harmon, with today's star Gordo Gutierrez catching.
It was pretty casual batting practice. The Navs were staying out of it, leaving the fun to the civilians, so Gordo wasn't in full protective gear and Harmon wasn't at risk of a belted ball. None of the other guests were likely to hit very hard, if they even connected at all.
Certainly I wasn't. I'd only offered to bat first to break the ice for the guests. Or so I told myself as I got ready for the next pitch. I really should have been upstairs in the suite babysitting the bride, but I just couldn't miss this opportunity. Not only had I followed the Navigators for years, but I'd once had a terrific crush on Rob Harmon.
I took my stance carefully, recalling Boris's advice and determined not to embarrass myself in front of my onetime idol-not to mention all these glamorous and important onlookers. I was about to nod at Rob that I was ready, but then the same heckler called out again.
"Come on, dear, speed it up, and let the men have their turn!"
Oh, yeah? Pointedly defying him, I signaled for a time-out and stepped out of the batter's box. Just as I did so, a train whistle sounded from out behind center field, probably an Amtrak run coming into Union Station. As if in response to the whistle, the stadium lights sprang on, outshining the October twilight above us and weirdly transforming all the colors.
Suddenly the infield was a violent green, the baselines so bright white they were almost blue, and the foul poles at either corner of the outfield turned a quivering acid yellow. The faces of the party guests were illuminated too, clustered among all that green.
With the stadium's retractable roof open and its forty thousand seats empty, we made a little island of gaiety in that vast emptiness. I could hear the tinkle of ice cubes in glasses amid the bantering voices and smell the perfume of the women that mingled with the green scent of dewy grass.
The glasses were plastic, of course. No breakable glass, no smoking, no high heels on this precious turf. The design of Yesler Field was a tribute to the ballparks of yesteryear. Even the name, instead of being a paid advertisement for some corporation, was a reference to an early Seattle ballfield and an even earlier city pioneer. And just like back in Henry Yesler's day, baseball here was played out in the open air, on real live grass.
And what grass! The infield was precisely mowed into cross-hatched strips that showed electric green in this artificial sunlight. Rob's white shirt gleamed against the green, and his white teeth gleamed in that well-known smile. It was a knowing smile, the kind that invited a woman to come just a little closer . . .
Down, girl. It was heady stuff, standing at home plate in a big-league ballpark, let alone in the presence of Charmin' Rob Harmon. But I tried to shut it all out as I stepped back in the box, rolled my shoulders, and dug in for the next pitch. Steady now, eye on the ball.
Of course my performance at the plate hardly mattered tonight. The success of the party was far more important, and so was my image as a gracious, competent, in-control wedding planner. So what if I couldn't get a hit? I told myself to just make a reasonable try, laugh off my strikeout, and walk away with my dignity intact.
That's what I told myself, but I guess I wasn't listening. Suddenly the visceral cues of the bat in my hands and my feet in the dirt transported me even farther back into my own history. I was in high school again, gawky and vulnerable and hell-bent on a home run.
Smash it, my high school self insisted. Surprise them all. Smash it hard.
The ball floated toward me quite gently, a nice fat pitch right over the plate. Leading with my wrists, I brought the bat around with all my might-all the way around, as I spun full circle and fell flat on my butt.
"Good effort," said Gordo, over the laughter of the onlookers. He helped me to my feet and brushed me off with his broad brown hands. At least I was wearing slacks. "Good strong swing."
His hands didn't linger on my backside, the way Boris's would have. Gordo was a gentle giant, a shy and quiet Dominicano, one of the drove of talented baseball players who'd come to the States from the Dominican Republic. How he'd gotten himself engaged to a Goth rocker who called herself Honeysuckle Hell was something I had yet to discover. Meanwhile, though, he was a sweetheart of a groom.
"Take another try," he said, in a light tenor voice with a heavy Spanish accent. "We're not counting strikes tonight. You'll get it this time, no worries."
But I'd come to my senses. My professional worries were up in the luxury suite, and now that the party was rolling down here, I needed to attend to them. And I didn't care to mortify myself again.
"Thanks, Gordo, but I'd better get back upstairs. Have fun."
I waved my thanks at Rob, handed the bat to Gordo's uncle Julio, next in line, and headed toward the dark gap in the empty stands that would take me to the suite's private elevator.
I glanced around for Aaron as I went, but instead I encountered the plummy-voiced heckler, who planted himself right in my path.
"Quitting so soon?"
Digger Duvall was a big man, muscle running to fat, with a tight helmet of curly silver hair and a broad florid face surrounding oddly small, almost babyish features. He wore a white dinner jacket and a heavy dose of cologne. And speaking of babes, he had a blonde on his arm whose eyelashes were longer than her skirt.
Apparently the high-heels ban on the party invitation hadn't gotten through to her-or maybe wearing flats in public was too much of a hardship-because she had taken off her stilettos and come barefoot across the grass. The shoes dangled from her hand in a lethal tangle of straps and spikes, while the other hand hung quite possessively onto Digger.
According to the hype on ESPN.com, Digger Duvall was a sports commentator extraordinaire, with a huge audience for his online columns and his weekly radio show. The Sage of Summertime, they called him, a shrewd analyst of baseball and the men who played it, a power broker, a maker and breaker of careers.
According to Aaron, who once worked with him on the Boston Globe, Digger was an old-school womanizer and a four-season pain in the ass.
"You know what they say, little girl," said Digger, pursing rosebud lips. " 'Quitters never win, and winners never quit'."
"Is that what they say?" I gave him and the blonde a tight smile. At six feet in heels, I'm hardly little, and being patronized makes me feel anything but girly. "I always wondered what they said."
"You've got that redhead's temper, eh?" Digger blinked slowly, like a toad, then glanced around as someone touched his elbow. It was a paunchy man with a face like a basset hound, mournful and apologetic.
"Here's your drinks, Digger," said the man, and handed each of them a tumbler of something dark on ice.
"About time," Digger muttered. He returned his attention to me as the other man shambled away. "Females simply don't have the upper body strength to swing for the fences," he said. "Next time just try to tap the ball."
He tapped my admittedly scrawny biceps as he said it, and I tried not to show my distaste at his touch. Beau had informed me in no uncertain terms that the Navs' owners wanted Digger treated with respect, after they'd cajoled him-if not bribed him-into covering this party and taking a red-eye to Minneapolis afterward. And the owners were the client here, not the bride or the groom.
The client is always right, I told myself, and manufactured another smile. Then the smile turned genuine as I spotted a rangy, boyish brunette in jeans and sneakers coming toward us.
"Hey, Carnegie," she called with a mile-wide grin. "My hero!"
Holly Crider covered sports for the Sentinel, Aaron's paper, and she seldom wore anything but jeans. Except for her wedding, which I'd helped her out with a few weeks ago. Not as an official wedding planner-Holly's budget was minuscule-but just as a friend lending her expertise. I hadn't seen her since the honeymoon.
"So how was San Francisco?" I asked. "Did you kiss on a cable car?"
"You bet. We did all the corny tourist stuff. And that package deal you found us saved a ton of money." She turned her grin to Digger and Co. "Hi, there."
Duvall deigned to nod at her but didn't introduce the blonde, and after an awkward moment the two of them moved away. Holly rolled her eyes.
"What is it with him? We're in the same line of work, and he treats me like pond scum."
"Don't quote me," I said, "but could it possibly be gender bias? Just a theory."
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