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“Did I give you permission to move? No, I didn’t. Stay where you are.”
Teeth clenched, Alia forced her arms back by her sides. A lifetime spent trying to fit in had taught her to keep her emotions to herself, but the man staring at her wasn’t making it easy.
He shrugged as if dismissing her and turned his attention to the clipboard held in hands nearly as large as her beloved baseball mitt. Leaving her to curl her toes in her well-used tennis shoes, he read what she had no doubt held her stats complete with height, weight, batting average, and how accurately she could wing a fast ball. She was tempted to tell him she struck out more batters with her curve, but he either already knew that or soon would. No need to interact with him anymore than necessary.
“The stats lie.” He cocked his head and studied at her like she was some horse he was contemplating buying. “No way do you weight a hundred and thirty pounds.”
More like one-twenty, not that ten measly pounds matters. I’m the best you’re going to get, or I would be if I was of a mind to put out for the likes of you.
“Is pitching all you do?”
“Hell no,” she snapped. “I also play short.”
“Short takes quick reactions. I’ll make the decision.”
He placed the clipboard on the ground and started toward her. The closer he got, the bigger he became in her mind. Just last night while she was packing for the assignment she had no say in, she’d told herself she was certain the person in charge of her future would be some fifties-something rich bastard with a gut and receding hairline who didn’t know a ballpark from a bar. How wrong she’d been at least about the physicals. This man, this giant of a mass of muscles had to weigh twice what she did, none of it fat. Faint lines at the corners of his gray eyes led her to conclude he was in his mid-thirties. His stride alone said I know how to intimidate. She should have given into the impulse to run when she’d had the chance.
But if she had, she’d have to spend the rest of her uncertain life hiding from the Society’s Elite and those under their command. She was no coward. She just needed to make it clear to him.
“I purchased your contract,” he said when less than three feet separated them. “I’m stating the obvious because you need to realize I get what I want.” He folded his arms, straining the fabric over rock-like muscles. “I will make you perform to the best of your ability. You have promise, but you haven’t begun to tap into your potential.”
“How’d you come to that conclusion?” As a child, the world had been an imposing and sometimes mysterious place, but she’d learned to depend on her physical ability. It was all she had. “I’m guessing whatever you read about me only scratches the surface.”
“Because you won’t let anyone go deeper.” He waited while she ran what he’d said through her mind. He was right, not that she’d admit it.
“Maybe there’s no depth to me. I wasn’t much of a student.”
“Not when it comes to academics, but that’s not what I’m after.”
He extended one of his mitt-sized hands and closed his fingers around her upper arm. Fighting the impulse to jerk away, or at least try to, she stared at his baseball-jersey clad chest. If she looked up into his dark gray eyes, the act would point out the difference in their heights. Let the man who thought he could teach her something about baseball try to intimidate her. She refused to let it happen.
Neither would she give the slightest hint the man was doing seldom-felt things to her libido. Their relationship was owner-player, their positions within the Society defined and unchangeable. He was in charge—at least he was until he tried to make her do something she didn’t want to.
Holding in a smile, she forced herself to relax. She hoped he’d let go before the impulse to try to break free became too much. Unfortunately, so far he showed no inclination of doing so which led her to the conclusion he was determined to define their relationship on the first day.
You play your game. I’ll play mine.
“You’ll meet the rest of the team in the next day or two,” he said, “but I decided to start with a private one-on-one. All girl baseball has become crazy popular. I decided to get in on the action.” He squeezed her arm until it went a little numb then let up on the pressure. “There’s more muscle in there than most owners and coaches think which I suspect is part of why you didn’t get picked up in the first round.”
She’d thought pretty much the same thing. Her slight size was deceptive, but when and if she wanted to prove she deserved to be a starter, she’d shift into overdrive. She just didn’t see the point in this situation since everything about The League was out of her control.
“Here’s what’s going to happen today.” His fingertips stroked where they’d pressed. “You’re going to bat for a while. Then I might have you demonstrate what you can do on the mound.”
He expected her to concentrate on words and commands when his touch was digging ever deeper into her consciousness. He had to know what he was doing to her, damn him. Hopefully, probably, he’d turn her over to one of his coaches and go back to doing whatever members of the power class did.
She’d already looked around what she’d concluded was the practice field. There was considerable money behind it all right, far nicer than anywhere she’d played before. One thing she hadn’t seen was a pitching machine. Neither had she spotted anyone who could pitch to her. It was just her and—what was the owner’s name anyway?
Finally he released her arm, leaving her to try to ignore the heat he’d left behind in addition to trying to conjure up his name. She was used to blanks in her mind but it didn’t make dealing with them easy to accept. Two days ago her minor league coach had announced she was about to go pro as a member of a team known as the Outlaws. Until then she’d only had the suspicion she might be considered for the next step in her prescribed role in life. Her coach didn’t know much about the man who owned the team beyond his name. Why hadn’t she held onto the simple piece of information? If she had she could she’d address him as an equal though they both knew better.
When the man who in essence owned her pointed toward the batter’s box, she reached for her bat which was one of the few things she owned. Gripping it, she jogged to where he’d indicated. She didn’t look back to see if he was eyeing her bare legs beneath her shorts. A man like him must have no shortage of female attention. He had no need for the likes of her, not that she’d ever be interested.
After positioning herself with her legs spread and the bat cocked as she’d done countless times, she acknowledged the man. He stood on the pitcher’s mound with a large bucket of balls next to him. The strangeness of everything that had taken place over the past few days faded. There was only this black-haired, big muscled six foot something man wearing a blue jersey and tan shorts that barely covered the essentials getting ready to pitch to her. He wasn’t handsome. Neither was he clean-cut. A faint haze covered his prominent cheeks and chiseled chin. She couldn’t picture him in charge of a vast enterprise but that’s what the Society’s Elite did and he was one of them.
She’d probably never fully resign herself to the forces in charge of her life, but she loved this sport and took pride in her ability to play it. Maybe he understood what devotion to something felt like. Maybe she and the rest of the Outlaws were nothing more than dollar signs and bragging rights to him, but for as long as the world consisted of the two of them, she could believe they shared something.
God but he was arresting in a hard, rough, and intimidating way. She had no doubt that most of the time he dressed in the finest clothes and lived in something she’d consider a mansion. Despite those trappings, there was something harsh about him, raw.
When they’d been close together she deliberately hadn’t allowed herself to judge him as a woman judges a man, but he was far enough away he’d become almost human. His size and build was nearly more than she could comprehend, but the suddenly damp place between her legs didn’t care. He was sex on a stick, male to the max, all primitive and prime.
Double doses of both.
His hair was too long for a board room and too short for a street gang. His shirt wasn’t tucked in and just long enough to draw her attention to a certain bulge, not that she needed encouragement when it came to acknowledging that part of his anatomy.
He could be dangerous to her sanity.
To her determination to hold her own in a world where so much about her life had been decided before her birth.
Pushing down the damnable fact, she squinted and lifted her chin to let him know she was ready for the best he could heave her way. If his fast ball hit her, it would leave a bruise, but she refused to back away. Instead she crowded the plate and became something not quite civilized. She might pay for letting her wild side loose. It wouldn’t be the first time. It might also be worth it.
His big, broad fingers swallowed the ball. He wound up and fired, the ball a blur as it charged toward her. Her mind’s eye caught and held the blur, transformed it into a white round hunk of leather and lacing. She recorded every inch, every spin, even the sound it made as it pushed at air. Her upper body muscles griped and held then fired, timing her swing perfectly. The connecting sound was ageless music as was how the ball screamed as it slashed past him on his right. She’d hit a liner destined for the middle outfield beyond the outstretched gloves of non-existent fielders. If this had been a game, she’d be credited with a single, maybe a double if the ball made it to the fence.
He dipped his head a little but she couldn’t tell whether she’d impressed him. She wanted to and not just because he represented her chance to prove herself as an athlete. She couldn’t say where her determination came from. It felt good, wonderful, like being free.
Ball after ball came her way. He was good, damn him. Accurate and fast. They became locked in a competition with each of them trying to best the other. He was determined to throw a ball past her while she’d dislocate her arm before she let him do that. Concentrating on movement left her little time to keep score, but she knew she was connecting well over half of the time. Given her size, she wasn’t a home run hitter, but she had an instinct about ball placement. She seldom hit a foul. Her batting average was high because she knew where fielders couldn’t get. She let instinct play today.
Finally he ran out of balls. Instead of telling her to collect what she’d peppered all over the outfield, he strode toward her. The day was in the mid-seventies with a slight breeze, but she was sweating. In contrast, his cheeks hadn’t taken on more color. He again folded his arms in a take-charge way she had to get used to.
“What happened?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“In there?” He pointed at her head. “You locked into what you were doing in ways I’ve seldom seen.”
“Luck?” she sidestepped because she’d be damned if she’d let him inside her brain.
His mouth became a hard line. “That’s no damned luck. How do you get into that mental space?”
“It isn’t me.” The way he leaned forward, she figured he intended to intimidate her which made her even more defensive and determined. “You offered up some sweet stuff. I seldom get to work with a pitcher with your accuracy.”
“I’m not after a compliment. Can you do that at will?” He again cocked his head. “If you want to, can you become a hitting machine?”
“I haven’t tried.”
Warned by his spreading nostrils, she pondered what he would ask next in his determination to get her to expose herself to him. Instead, he unfolded his arms and placed his hands on her shoulders. The weight trapped her. If he wanted her to stand like this indefinitely, she’d have no choice. More unnerved than she wanted to admit, she shrugged.
“Don’t ever try to dismiss me,” he warned. “Listen to me little one. Listen and learn. I did more than draft you. I paid for you. The Society glosses over the truth of what takes place by calling what draftees earn salaries, but you and I both know you won’t receive anything you can place in a checking account. Instead I spend your salary to house, clothe, transport, train, and display your talents in countless games. In exchange for a roof over your head, food in your belly, and a decent future, you give me loyalty.”
She knew those things, always had. It didn’t mean she didn’t resent what the Society dictated. Her boss and owner had everything going his way. He’d been born into wealth. Unless he wasted that wealth, he would never experience want. She, however, was one of the Others, the countless people who spent their lives dependent on the Elite.
“What do you want me to say?”
“Honesty about everything you do and think.”
“You can’t mean it.” She twisted. At least she tried to. His hold tightened. “My thoughts are mine. You have no right to control every moment of my life.”
A chill deep down inside warned her to keep her mouth shut, but their relationship was brand new. She had to establish boundaries. Bottom line as far as she was concerned, his filling her belly gave him no right to her thoughts and emotions.
“Where’s the contract? If you drafted me, there must be a document spelling out the terms.”
He laughed. “Our relationship is predetermined. There’s no need for contracts.”
“Not until I’m ready to and I’m a long way from that.”
His tone reminded him of how her teachers had sounded when they insisted she sit at her desk and study until she could pass their damnable tests. She hadn’t been able to do those things then and wasn’t about to cave now that she was an adult.
“Trade me to another team. What do you need with someone who refuses to follow your stupid rules?”
“You’d like that wouldn’t you? Undoubtedly you’ve heard of owners who don’t give a damn about winning as long as the players show up and fans fill the stands. It isn’t me.” He pressed down on her shoulders even more. “You made the mistake of showing me what you’re capable of. I love a challenge. You just became my newest one.”
“Yes, you will.”
One instant she was staring at his chest. The next he’d hoisted her onto his shoulder and was stalking toward the bullpen where pitchers waited until they were called to the mound. Furious and a little unnerved, she pounded his back. If he felt the blows, he gave no sign. When she realized her breasts were smashed against him, she tried to arch up, but it was too awkward. Besides, want it or not, her nipples were responding to his hard warmth. The same could be said of her belly and thighs to say nothing of her ass where his arm rested. This wasn’t supposed to happen, but it was. Might as well enjoy for a few seconds.
He sat on the bench and stood her on her feet between his legs. Warned by a glare, she forced herself to stay where he’d placed her. His inner tights brushed her legs. She shuddered. Hopefully he didn’t feel the involuntary gesture. He didn’t scare her. At least she firmly told herself he didn’t. He was going to deliver a lecture and wanted her where she’d have no choice but to pay attention. It would hardly be the first time she’d had her shortcomings detailed. Some of her teachers—
“You are mine,” he said almost conversationally. “Slavery as traditionally defined doesn’t exist because the Society says it doesn’t, but certain elements of it are in place. I intend to take full advantage of the rules and standards which I don’t need to point out favor me. Your task, like it or not, is to abide by those dictates.”
She didn’t give a damn what words he threw at her. The only thing that mattered was she’d be damned if she’d submit like some indentured—
“Pull down your shorts.”
“You heard me. Pull down your shorts and whatever underwear you’re wearing.”
“I will not! This is insane.”
Insane or not, there was no denying the intensity of his glare. She could touch him by barely extending her arms, not that she would. If anything, he appeared larger than he had earlier. Of course recently having had her belly and breasts in intimate contact with him might have something to do with her reaction. Her nipples were still hard. He’d probably noticed.
“I don’t allow resistance or disobedience. In a moment you’ll experience the consequences of your actions. I suggest you do as I ordered before I double your punishment.”
“What are you going to do?” Like I can’t guess.