Over the years, the Welsh Children’s Center took hold of my heart thanks to a little red-headed boy with glasses and a lisp, who told me I was the prettiest girl he’d ever seen one Christmas morning as we helped to pass out presents to the hundred or so children finding temporary refuge and housing at the center.
Now, I volunteer as head of their outreach department. Technically, I’m employed there, but I negotiated a salary of one dollar just to keep things above board for their non-profit paperwork. I also mentor and tutor several young people on math, life skills, career prep…anything and everything I can offer for those that were given a far less fair and secure upbringing than me.
“I’ll be back. Just practice throwing,” I say to my team as I head to the sidelines, my stomach doing this wiggly, clutching thing like I’m some schoolgirl.
I’ve never been attracted to the men in my father’s world. Bad boys. Dangerous men. That fascination has never been my thing. Those men are not my type. In fact, I have never really found my type.
In fact, I promised myself at a very young age that if and when I decided to pursue any sort of romantic life, I would be choosing from the top side of the law.
Doctor, maybe. Teacher, possibly. Maybe an astrophysicist.
But definitely not some morally gray, under the table business type.
I grew up in that world and as much as I love my father and my family, I would never wish that life on my own kids. You grow up too fast. See too much. My childhood was a frenzy of mobsters and gangsters coming and going from our house. We had security guards and security systems but that didn’t stop my father from getting two bullets in his chest when I was ten and my brother coming home beaten to within an inch of his life when some deal went south and he had no back up.
Although none of that stopped my brother from loving that life. He moved to Chicago to branch out the family business, and he becomes more entrenched in the darkness as the years go by.
I told myself my life would be orderly. Charities and truthful 1040’s. W-2 jobs with health benefits and 401K’s.
Unfortunately, none of that matters to my father, who is applying an inordinate amount of guilt and pressure for me to accept an engagement to one of his old business partner’s sons.
Arranged marriages in my family are as old as time itself and even my mother is not backing me up on this one.
I’ve used every stalling technique in my arsenal, but next weekend there’s a special ‘dinner’ planned at our house and, reading between the lines, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be an engagement party.
I do my best to push away the thought of being a sort of broodmare, sold off to secure the family fortune or whatever, and narrow my eyes at the magnificent if not somewhat frightening Cyrus Saman.
“Niko sent me,” he says in a voice that could melt a diamond, and I curse at my Judas nipples for tingling and standing up front and center, poking through my jersey.
The hairs on the back of my neck prickle as he eyes me like I’m the creamy center of his favorite eclair. His day-old beard is obnoxiously sexy, as is the crooked angle of his nose and the glint of white teeth behind annoyingly kissable lips.
“I know who you are.” I toss the softball into my mitt a couple times, snapping my gum against my teeth. “You know how to play, I take it?”
“Yeah. State champs all through high school. Played all four years at college.”
“Why didn’t you go pro?”
“Took a line drive to my temple during the last game of my senior year. Was out for two days. Took me a couple months to recover. No one wanted to touch me after that. Too risky.”
“Huh.” I stand, crossing my arms, tapping my mitt on my left shoulder as a pulsing in my core has me trying to squeeze away the growing flutter down low. “Risky. I can believe that.”
I toss a look over to the other team, who have been giving mine condescending looks since they arrived. I smile and wave, which seems to deflate them. I may look like a pampered princess but I have a competitive streak as wide as the Montana sky and a stubborn streak that’s as tall as Everest.
When I turn back, Cyrus makes no attempt to hide that he’s checking me out. His dark eyes lap up and down, and I try to pretend I’m not thinking of how it would feel if it was his tongue doing that instead of his eyes—not that I would know firsthand what that feels like. But, suddenly, I’m pretty sure it would be amazing.