As the sun rose, Matt sat cross-legged in center field. He'd already eaten the sausage and biscuit he'd picked up at Minnie's Diner, and now he was lost in a book. He ran his hands over the dew-damp grass as he read, not caring that his fingers left marks on the edge of the pages when he turned them.
The boys would be there soon, and Matt would need to help herd them all on the buses. But for a few moments, he enjoyed the peace of the early May morning. Nothing to think about but the book in his lap, the field under his hands, and the sun in the sky.
He didn't raise his head at the approaching footsteps. He knew everyone in the little town, and everyone knew where to find him at seven a.m. He smiled when the person sitting next to him huffed in frustration.
"You're going to have to help me get back up. I'm too old for this shit."
Matt tore the corner off the paper bag from breakfast and closed it in his book. "Damn it, Emily, I was just getting to the good part, too."
Emily looked at the cover and rolled her eyes. "You've already read that one, you dork."
"Which is how I know I was getting to the good part."
"Whatever." She fell back on the ground, and Matt followed.
He wrapped one of her long blonde curls around his finger, just like he used to do when they were teenagers. "You know, I'll never understand why the guys in town aren't beatin' your door down."
Emily patted her stomach then her thighs. "You know exactly why. I'm no Daisy Duke."
"I figured some of these good ol' boys woulda grown up by now." Matt sighed. "I never did understand Daisy's appeal anyway."
Emily gave him an elbow to the ribs. "Well of course you didn't."
"Don't worry. Nobody here but us chickens."
Matt knew that he was the only real chicken. Still, he planned to keep himself to himself. There was no need for the town--especially his father's church--to find out things that were nobody's business. His family didn't need the shame. He was perfectly fine shouldering that on his own.
Matt's phone buzzed, and he reached into his pocket to silence it. "You ready to spend three days being mother hen?"
Emily dismissed him with a wave. "Oh, please, who do you think kept those hellions I call brothers in line? These boys are little angels in comparison."
"And they would so love to be called little angels." Matt silenced his phone again.
"That your dad?"
Matt nodded. "He's pestering me because I skipped church on Sunday. I just couldn't take a Mother's Day service," he whispered.
Emily sat up and shook the grass out of her hair. "I'm sure he understands. He probably didn't want to be there any more than you did." She gave Matt a shove. "Want me to come with you Sunday, like we used to?"
"We've discussed this. I don't want to scare off that guy who finally realizes how awesome you are."
"Sweetheart, I'm gettin' a little old to be believing in fairy tales. And you know Reverend Nate isn't going to stay off your case forever." She gave him that look, the one she gave her students who needed a little extra hand-holding. "How long are you going to keep this up? You can't spend your whole life as a 'terminal bachelor.'"
Matt scowled. "Did you really just use air quotes with me?" When Emily arched her eyebrow, he continued. "I will not hurt Dad and Jeanne. I made it this long--"
"Yeah, and you were gone for eleven years. Did you even come out in all that time? To anyone?"
"Come on, how many out baseball players do you know? None, that's how many. And yes, there were people. Other players. Guys in different places. I got by."
Emily leaned over him. "Don't you ever want more than getting by?"
Matt pushed her aside and sat up. "There's no point wanting what I can't have."
They sat in tense silence, Emily pulling up blades of grass and Matt chewing on the inside of his cheek. He didn't understand why she had to start this, today of all days. Emily knew her family would love her no matter what. She hadn't heard her father preach about the evils of homosexuality all her life. The only person who might have accepted him, might have loved him despite everything, was killed by a drunk driver a year ago. Now he just couldn't compound his father and sister's grief by scandalizing them. This town was their whole lives, and people here never forgot a damn thing.
"Coach Hawley! Miss Maxwell!" The tall, rail-thin boy ran across the field toward Matt and Emily, and Matt couldn't help being reminded of himself at seventeen.
Matt stood and held out a hand to help Emily to her feet. "Hey Robby. What's up?"
"Buses are here." Robby was practically bouncing. "Everyone's here but Ben."
Emily chuckled. "Ben's always late."
Like everyone else on Matt's team, Ben took one of Emily's home economics classes. The parents didn't understand why Matt had encouraged their macho baseball-playing sons to learn to cook, but Matt still remembered trying to figure out how to cook a frozen pizza his first night at minor league training camp. If a home economics class could prevent someone else from suffering the embarrassment of calling the fire department to put out a pizza, it was well worth it.
Matt patted Robby's shoulder. "Thanks. Run on back and get my bus lists off my desk."
"Yes, Coach!" And Robby was off again, running toward the school.
"God, that boy has the biggest crush on you," Emily whispered.
Petrified, Matt stared after Robby. If Emily could see it, others would too. Robby was a good kid, a star shortstop, and an excellent student. None of that would matter to the other kids--hell, if Matt was being honest, to the parents either--if they sensed Robby was different. His life would be hell until he fell in line or left.
Emily grabbed Matt's hand and squeezed. "It's okay. No one's talking. No one else has figured out. I doubt if he even has."
Matt picked up the remnants of his breakfast and his book. "Let's go. It's a long drive to Montgomery."
"Rene, what is taking you so long? David's here!"
Having his father living with him made Rene feel like a kid again. And having his father announce David's arrival just like high school made it worse. Rene laughed at himself as he threw his duffel over his shoulder.
David stood in the kitchen, and he and Rene's father clucked over the latest gossip, something about the principal's new arm candy. When Rene walked in, his father handed him a cup of strong coffee before returning to David's report. Some things never changed.
Rene blew on his coffee before taking a sip. "Considering we're headed to the championship today, you'd think you two would talk about baseball for once."
David laughed loudly, because he never did anything halfway. "I am. He's bringing her to the tournament."
"Figures." Rene threw his duffel on the floor. "That man is such a whore."
"That's what I was sayin'. Right, Mr. D?"
Rene's father nodded. "Yes, he was. Too bad this man isn't gay. Then you could be his date."
Rene cringed. "Ew, Dad. Just...no...ew. That's almost as bad as you telling me to ask David out." Which his father did. Often.
"Wait," David cried. "What's wrong with me? I tried to be gay for you."
"One kiss when we were fourteen is not trying to be gay. And it was like kissing my sister."
David winked. "Hey, your sister is hot."
Suddenly Rene didn't want his coffee, and he wasn't sure if he could stomach food now either. "Fuck you very much."
"I hope you two aren't like this around your students." Rene's father shook his head and motioned them toward the door. "Now go on. It wouldn't do for the coaches to miss the bus."
Rene gave his father a quick kiss on the cheek, and David kissed the other. His father followed them as far as the porch and waved as they drove away.
The high school was on the other side of Mobile, only a thirty-minute ride away. It was just enough time for Rene to lean back, close his eyes, and try to center himself. He mentally ran through the batting order and visualized how he would coach his players in the afternoon game. These few minutes were important to him; it would be the only peace and quiet he'd get for the next three days.
But David had other ideas. "So, you pack the condoms and lube?"
The imaginary game in Rene's head ground to a halt. "I think I'll be a little too busy to hook up this weekend. You know, state championship and all."
"There is no such thing as too busy to hook up," David chided. "You have been using that excuse since the beginning of the school year."
So much for centering peace and quiet. The last thing Rene wanted to talk about was the beginning of the school year and his lack of male companionship. "When the season is over--"
"When the season is over. When your dad's house is ready. Last time we had this conversation, it was when you finished picking the team. And before that it was when you were over that motherfucker."
"Don't you mean that physical-trainer-fucker?"
Rene was tired of having this conversation. He was definitely tired of David meddling in his sex life or lack thereof. Although he had certainly appreciated David's help in throwing all the physical-trainer-fucker's belongings in the front yard when the sorry excuse for a relationship was over. David was always there when Rene's latest infatuation didn't work out.
Rene laid his hand on David's shoulder. "Look, I know you're worried about me, and I'm sure Dad put you up to this again because he's worried about me too. When this weekend is over, I will find a nice guy or two to keep me occupied all summer, okay?"
Rene crossed himself. "Promise."
"That would mean more if you were actually Catholic." David laughed. "But, then again, they aren't fabulous enough for you, are they?"
Rene eased back into the seat without comment. He crossed himself because he'd seen his grandmother do it a million times and it gave him comfort. He certainly didn't feel the need to be part of anything--club, team, religion--that considered him a deviant or a pervert. He wasn't ashamed of who he was or who he loved. Fuck anyone who had a problem with it.
"How 'bout you?" Rene poked David's side. "Don't think Dad's matchmaking is limited to me. He's making a list of 'nice' girls for you. When he's not asking me if I'm sure you're not gay."
"The old man never gives up, does he?" David chuckled. "Seriously, I know we'd make the perfect couple--"
"What the hell makes you think I'd fuck you with a ten-foot dick?"
David waved Rene off with a dramatic flourish. "Please, bitch. Everyone is dying to get in my pants. As I was saying, even though we would make the perfect couple--your brains, my looks--I'm all about the pussy."
Rene shuddered. "Yuck. Don't need that mental picture this early in the morning."
"Surely some of the dozens of scouts there to watch the games will play for your team, pun intended. And you, my friend, need to get balls-deep, no pun intended, in one of them."
As he rolled his eyes and resumed his meditative position, Rene couldn't help but think about how nice it would be to share a bed, even if it was a quick hookup with someone he'd never see again. He'd been celibate since the season began, faithful to the players and the game. But the season would be over Saturday night. His seniors would be off to college or summer league ball, and the other players would take a well-deserved break until it was time to train for next season. Even his father would be off soon, moving back into a renovated town house. And Rene would be on his own again.
When the SUV turned into the parking lot, the buses were idling as the players milled around them. Several of them greeted Rene and David and immediately began loading bats and helmets into the back of the SUV. Rene grabbed his backpack and headed for the first bus.
The bus driver stood on the curb and waved. "Hey, Coach Dias! Ready to win another one?"
Rene shook the driver's hand. "We're always ready."
The clubhouse was sweltering, and Rene took his cap off to wipe his brow. The rows of lockers and wooden benches always reminded him of playing in the majors, where reporters wouldn't even wait for the players to get fully dressed before accosting them for quotes about that night's game. He'd never quite become comfortable with holding court while dripping wet and towel skirted. Then again, he'd never quite become comfortable with a lot of things he encountered his one year of major league play.
"Good afternoon, Coach Dias." The umpire walked toward him with an extended hand. "Good to see you again."
Rene shook the umpire's hand. "Good to see you again too. Hopefully you've had a good year."
"A very good year. Thanks for asking." The umpire nodded at David. "Hello, Coach Reynolds."
"Hey, Bob," David said, smiling. "No need to be so formal. We're old friends by now."
"Let's just say I definitely wasn't surprised to see your team back in the finals." The umpire smiled. "Gonna be a great series, that's for sure. Your opposition looks good."
Rene's ears practically twitched at the mention of the team from North Alabama. "Have you met their coach yet?"
"Met him this morning. He's quiet, seems pretty serious. Nice fella too." The umpire chuckled. "Speaking of which... Hello, Coach Hawley."
The gracious greeting Rene planned stuck in his throat the instant he turned and gazed into a pair of intense blue eyes. Rene forced himself not to gaze up and down the opposing coach's tall, tight body, but he couldn't help following as Hawley slowly licked his lips. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the man had the most incredible wheat-blond hair just begging to be pulled.
David cleared his throat. "Um, Coach Hawley, I'm David Reynolds, Mobile's first-base coach." He shook Hawley's hand. "This is Rene Dias, our head coach."
Rene finally remembered he was supposed to talk. "Nice to meet you, Coach Hawley." Rene held out his hand.
Coach Hawley wrapped his long fingers around Rene's hand and held on to it. "Nice to meet you too. Call me Matt, though."
"We've been looking forward to playing your team." Rene smiled when Matt's grip tightened. "I've heard great things about how you've developed the team since you took over this year. Congratulations on your first state final."
"Thank you. This is your school's third year in a row here. That's a sure sign you're doing something right down in Mobile."
If there was a sure way into Rene's good graces, it was to compliment his team. He could think of plenty of other ways the gorgeous Matt Hawley could impress him--most involving them being naked together--but they had a few baseball games to play. Rene released Matt's hand and tried to ignore David's bug-eyed look at his side.
The meeting with the umpire was a formality. They discussed the rules of the best-of-three series and the umpire's definition of the strike zone, and the coaches gave the umpire their batting order. Rene concentrated on each word of the umpire's speech and blocked out the coach next to him. Baseball was serious business, and he couldn't let Matt, however tasty he appeared to be, distract him. But as soon as the meeting was over, Rene found himself locked into that deep blue gaze again.
Matt swallowed slowly. "Well, Rene, it was nice meeting you. Good luck."
"Thanks." Rene could feel his cheeks heat. "Good luck to you guys too."
Taking two steps back, Matt pulled on his baseball cap and smiled before turning to walk away. Rene couldn't take his eyes off the slow sway of Matt's hips. For just an instant, he imagined digging his fingers into those hips and the kind of bruises it would leave on Matt's fair skin.
"Down, boy!" David punched Rene's arm. "And retract your tongue before you close your mouth."
Rene suddenly remembered where he was. "You think he noticed?"
"You're kidding, right? I would say he noticed you every bit as much as you noticed him."
"I meant-- Oh!" Rene stared toward the door. "Cool."
David shook his head. "Son of a bitch," he muttered as he stomped off. "Biggest game of the year, and now he decides to take the dick out of storage." He spun around and faced Rene again. "Just great!"
Rene jogged over to David and threw his arm around David's shoulders. "Aww, come on, baby. Don't be jealous." He guffawed when David shoved him away. "You're still my favorite guy, even if you kiss like a girl."
An extended middle finger was the only farewell David gave him. Still chuckling to himself, Rene pulled his cap down over his eyes, adjusted himself, and walked into the sunlight to begin batting practice.