Susan Crosby.

Marriage On His Mind






Exasperating Woman, He Growled, Hauling Her To Him For A Final Stormy Kiss. Letter to Reader Title Page About the Author Dedication Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Epilogue Copyright

Exasperating Woman, He Growled, Hauling Her To Him For A Final Stormy Kiss.

Reluctantly Jack let her go, then watched as she slowly walked away. He shook his head, irritated with himself. He wouldnt blame Mickey for shying away from him now. Hed told her they would play by her rules; then hed forced the issue when he shouldnt have. He was the one with the marriage timetable, after all.

Okay, so she hadnt resisted. Okay, so she had pushed him as much as he had pushed her. Still, it was his responsibility to be in control. A true Prince Charming would be the epitome of patience, wouldnt he? And a true Prince Charming would never lose control.

He just had to stay patient and keep control. Simple, right?

But Jack didnt think his life would ever be simple again.

Dear Reader,

The celebration of Silhouette Desires 15th anniversary continues this month! First, theres a wonderful treat in store for you as Ann Major continues her fantastic CHILDREN OF DESTINY series with Novembers MAN OF THE MONTH, Nobodys Child Not only is this the latest volume in this popular miniseries, but Ann will have a Silhouette Single Title, also part of CHILDREN OF DESTINY, in February 1998, called Secret Child Dont miss either one of these unforgettable love stories.

BJ Jamess popular BLACK WATCH series also continues with Journeys End, the latest installment in the stories of the menand the womenof the secret agency.

This wonderful lineup is completed with delicious love stories by Lass Small, Susan Crosby, Eileen Wilks and Shawna Delacorte.

And next month, look for six more Silhouette Desire books, including a MAN OF THE MONTH by Dixie Browning!

Desire...its the name you can trust for dramatic, sensuous, engrossing stories written by your bestselling favorites and terrific newcomers. We guarantee handsome heroes, likable heroines...and happily-ever-after endings. So read, and enjoy!


Senior Editor

Please address questions and book requests to:

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Marriage on his Mind

Susan Crosby

www.millsandboon.co.uk

SUSAN CROSBY

is fascinated by the special and complex communication of courtship, and so she burrows in her office to dream up warm, strong heroes and good-hearted, self-reliant heroines to satisfy her own love of happy endings.

She and her husband have two grown sons and live in the Central Valley of California. She spent a mere seven-and-a-half years getting through college and finally earned a B.A. in English a few years ago. She has worked as a synchronized swimming instructor, a personnel interviewer at a toy factory and a trucking company manager. Involved for many years behind the scenes in a local community theater, she has made only one stage appearanceas the rear end of a camel! Variety, she says, makes for more interesting novels.

Readers are welcome to write to her at P.O. Box 1836, Lodi, CA 95241.

To Linda and Lee, whose friendship caught fire.

We should all be so blessed.

One

Crack!

Foul! the umpire called.

Jack Stone heaved a sigh of relief from his position at shortstop on the baseball diamond. One less catch muffed. What the hell am I doing here? he asked himself for the hundredth time. Midlife crisis, remember? his mind whispered back.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, he muttered as the pitcher tossed another softball underhanded to the batter.

Crack!

Oh, God, it was headed toward him. Please, let me catch it. Please. Otherwise, The Mouth

The ball hit the hard infield once before magically bouncing into his glove. Stunned at his luck, he stared at the white orb nestled in oiled leather until the second baseman yelled at him to throw it to first. Jack cranked up his arm and threwand missed the first baseman by six feet, the ball skittering to the fence as the runner chugged into second standing up.

Hey, Ponytail, whaddaya need, a map? a woman yelled from the stands of the small stadium hosting the mens recreational league game.

The short, neat ponytail Jack sported suddenly felt as inconspicuous as Rapunzels hair, but he wouldnt let The Mouth provoke him into cutting it, not after hed gotten it long enough to stop using gel to hold it in place. After a years time, he could finally just pull it back and fasten it.

The ponytail served as a symbol, an important one. He saw it as a sign of his new independence and a reminder to be patient with the world, and he refused to buckle under to some loudmouthed, self-appointed bleacher coach whod decided to make him her cause. This was only the fifth game of baseball hed played in twenty-two years, since being thrust into the role of provider for his seven-year-old brother, Dan, when Jack had been only seventeen himself.

He hadnt had time to play. Not just baseball, but anything. Hed been changing that, though. If only The Mouth

Strike three, youre out! the umpire called, ending the inning and Jacks mental wandering.

Sorry, he said to the first baseman as they shuffled into the screened dugout.

Turned out okay, his teammate Scott Lansing replied. They didnt get any runs out of it. That woman in the stands making you nervous?

I dont know what The Mouths making me feel. If shed yell at someone else once in a while, it probably wouldnt bother me so much. I just cant figure out why shes chosen me as her personal project. Stacy said shed try to talk to her tonight. Envy burrowed in as he watched a teammate knock the first pitch deep into left field, a skill Jack hadnt mastered yet. The woman was right about my switching positions with Drew. Im more effective at short than I was at third. I needed that extra split second of reaction time. And Ive almost gotten two hits since she told me to drop my front shoulder before I swing. I just wish shed kept on passing instructions through Stacy instead of yelling at me on the field.

I give you credit for rising to the occasion, Jack. Most guys wouldnt.

He pulled on an earlobe as his gaze wandered to where The Mouth sat. Unfortunately, shes right too often to ignore.

And you abhor mediocrity, especially in yourself.

Jack grinned as he stood and hefted a metal bat over his shoulder. Some things I cant change.

Mickey Morrison watched the man shed dubbed Ponytail stroll from the dugout to home plate. Keep your shoulder down, she ordered him telepathically as he sliced the air with the bat a couple of times. She tugged the bill of her L.A. Seagulls baseball cap a little lower on her forehead, grasped the wooden bench under her tightly with both hands and leaned forward in concentration, ignoring the person taking a seat beside her, jostling the bench.

Strike one!

Mickey groaned. Both eyes, Ponytail. Watch the ball with both eyes, she yelled at her self-appointed prot?g?. She saw him flinch, then bear down, his lanky frame hardening visibly as he focused on her instructions.

Strike two!

Hed missed the ball by a mile, she thought, frustrated. Shed seen such potential in him. A few weeks ago hed been rawthe rookie of all rookies, doing everything wrong. But hed obviously been working hard in the interim. That pickup hed made in the field last inning proved he was keeping his eye on the ball more. Now if he would just focus as hard on the one being pitched to him.

Crack!

Mickey sprang up. Hed hit it! Hed actually hit the darn thing!

The ball caromed off an invisible divot in the field and angled past the center fielders legs.

Crank it up, Ponytail. Take second, she hollered as he hit first at full stride. She watched approvingly as he made a wide swing and pumped toward second. The outfielder snagged the errant ball, then fired it to the infield.

Slide! Slide! Mickey screamed, crouching, her arms extended in front of her as if she were on the field coaching him.

An explosion of dirt rocketed above the heads of the players near second. When the dust cleared, Ponytail lay stretched along the base line spitting dirt, his fingers digging into the base.

Out! the umpire shouted.

The call brought raucous cheers from the opposing team and supporters, and cries of outrage from those who thought Blue needed glasses. The man sprawled in the settling dust dragged himself to his knees, then uncurled slowly upward, wobbling a bit before taking a step. He brushed off his hands, Chung Lis Pizza T-shirt and filthy jeans as he started a slow jog to the dugout.

Hey, Ponytail! Real men slide feet first!

Silence descended. Shed gone too far this time. She hadnt only maligned his athletic ability but his masculinity, as well. Holding her breath, Mickey watched as he stopped, swept off his cap to whack dust against his leg, then pinned her to the bench with his direct look, his chest heaving from the exertion of the run. He changed direction and headed straight toward her, not stopping until he stood at the base of the stands, ten feet from where she sat.

Why? he queried, panting.

Mickey gulped, grateful she could read the single word on his lips, because the sound was swallowed up by her thundering pulse. Why what?

Why should I slide feet first?

The question penetrated the rhythm section in her head, and she straightened a little in relief. Shed been afraid he was asking why she was picking on him, and she didnt have an answer to that, except that she admired his gritand he seemed self-confident enough to take it. Because you can ruin your hands going head first, either by jamming them into the base or by the baseman stepping on em.

His fists propped low on his hips, the hat dangling from his little finger, he cocked his head as if considering her words. When his gazedeep blue, she noted, a nice contrast to his ebony-colored hairbored into hers, she tugged her cap down even farther.

Can you teach as well as criticize? he asked.

What?

Can you teach me to slide?

She shifted uncomfortably. I guess

Monday at six oclock, here?

Im sure many of your teammates could give you the same instructions

Im asking you.

Play ball! the umpire called.

Monday at six, he repeated, a man obviously accustomed to having orders obeyed. Be here.

Mickey watched him trot into the dugout, then make a comment to a teammate who laughed uproariously.

Well, she didnt have to obey his command, she thought militantly. She hadnt committed herself to anything. But if she didnt show up, she couldnt come to any more games, she argued with herself. And she wanted to keep coming. Needed to. She hadnt felt so alive in years. Two years, to be exact.

Hi.

At the simple greeting, Mickey turned her head toward the young woman seated beside her. She recognized her as the one shed spoken to the first game shed observed, last month when shed been in town looking for a place to rent. Always drawn to baseball games, whether professional or little league, she had found a seat and watched, then had become increasingly frustrated at the third basemans ineptness. She had sent him suggestions on how to improve, using the young woman as intermediary.

Mickey eyed her now, noting she wore a summer shift, as she always did, this one a tiny flowered print. Mickey returned the greeting, then asked, Have you been sent to question my intentions?

Howd you guess?

The male ego is a fragile thing, she said, drawing a grin and a nod from her companion.

My names Stacy.

A soft, feminine name to match her clothes and long, silky hair, Mickey thought with an inward sigh. The kind of woman every tomboy dreads. I dont have answers for you, Stacy.

Not even a name?

My name would mean nothing to him.

I see. You just dispense advice to the baseball-lorn. Sort of a Dear Yogi Berra.

Mickey smiled. Actually, this is the first time Ive given advice uninvited.

Why wont you at least tell us who you are?

Because Im trying not to lean on anyone. I need to find happiness alone, she thought. She forced herself to ignore Stacys friendly overture. Standing, she looked at the field briefly, then returned her gaze to the curious woman seated beside her. Tell Ponytail

His name is

I dont want to know his name. Just tell him to lose the jeans and buy some baseball pants by Monday.

Thats it? Thats all you could get out of her? Jack queried Stacy, his voice rising above the din at Chung Lis Pizza Parlor, where the team had gone after their losing effort. Buy some baseball pants?

Im not skilled at interrogation like you, Jack. She obviously doesnt want to make friends.

He drummed his fingers on the lacquered wood tabletop. How old is she, can you tell?

Around thirty, I guess.

Wedding ring?

Stacy smiled. No-o-o.

She uses that baseball cap like a shield over her face.

Are you asking if shes pretty?

He turned to face her directly and noted the humor sparkling in her eyes. All right. Im humbling myself. I want to know everything you can tell me.

Ive never seen her without sunglasses, but from what I can tell, shes passably attractive in that woman-jock kind of way.

Jack leaned back, resting an ankle over the opposite thigh. Youre enjoying the hell out of this, arent you, Stace?

Her glee-filled laugh made him frown.

Ive just never seen you thwarted, Stacy said, the grin not leaving her face. Or frazzled. To be honest, it fascinates me. In all the time we were married, I rarely saw you not in control. Impatient maybe, but in control. Not that I saw a whole lot of you, given your obsession with work.

Im changing, he said, gritting out the words.

Yes, you are. Okay, I can tell you this much. Her hair is almost as military short as you used to wear yours. Its kind of palomino blond, looks pretty straight around the edge of the cap. Her front teeth are white and even. I didnt ask her to open her mouth

Stacy, he warned.

Well, gosh, Jack. If Id known I was supposed to be inspecting her like a horse at auction, I would have attempted to get more information.

Do you have any idea why shes singled me out?

Could be your hunky body.

Jack snorted. Yeah. All five-eleven, one hundred and eighty pounds of me.

And shes about five-four. Perfect height difference. In bed and out, she added.

He straightened. Im not interested in her as a bed partner.

Arent you?

Im curious. And I dont like unanswered questions.

Ha! Youre attracted. Youve never been challenged by a woman before, and it intrigues the heck out of you.

He sipped from his mug of beer before responding. Maybe.

At a signal from her husband, Drew, the teams third baseman, Stacy stood. Weve got to relieve the babysitter. Good luck Monday.

Thanks. Give Dani a kiss from me.

Mickeys decision to rent the cabin she now occupied had been based on several factors, the first being the town itself, Gold Creek, which was a forty-five-minute drive from the community college where she would soon be teaching algebra. Nestled in the foothills of Northern Californias mother lode country, Gold Creek was large enough to offer reasonable anonymity and small enough to feel like a home, not just a place.

Another lure was the stream that backed the property about fifty yards from the cabin. More than a trickle, less than a fishermans paradise, its appeal lay in the soothing sounds of nature, at rest and at play. Having lived her thirty-two years in the city, the adjustment had been a challenge, especially since she couldnt hear traffic or sirens or even children playing. Her only neighbor within earshot was her landlord, who owned a huge log house just out of sight from her smaller version, his guest house.

The cabin itself shone in the natural setting like a topaz in gold. Newly remodeled by the owner, it was a house designed for easy living, amounting to a large studio apartment, with rooms hinted at by creative use of furniture or cabinets. A big pine bed sitting atop a raised platform pretended to be a bedroom, the bed cocooned by curtains on a ceiling runner, blocking it from the living quarters, although she never bothered pulling the curtains. She looked forward to winter, when she could enjoy watching the fireplace while she lay cozy in her bed. The bathroom, a rustically elegant large room containing not only a shower but a whirlpool tub as well, was tucked away on the sunset side of the building.

But the deciding factor in her choosing the cabin had been the window seat. Built into the back wall overlooking the stream and pine trees, it was a huge half circle of crystal clear glass that started two feet from the floor and ended at the ten-foot knotty pine ceiling. The pillows stacked on the oversize wooden seat invited snuggling. It had become her refuge, the place where she prepared her syllabus for class, wrote letters, daydreamed, escaped nightmares and faced her aloneness.

She burrowed there an hour after the game, watching the early-August sky darken and wondering what to do about Monday. She hadnt wanted to get involved, with anything or anyone. This would force involvement when for the first time in her life she so wanted to be wholly responsible for herself.

Shed lost so much, and she needed to be free to grieve. Shed also given up a lot to embark on this quest for self-forgiveness and acceptance.

Eyes closed, she leaned her head against the window frame and pictured the tall, dark man whose ponytail proclaimed him a rebel. She didnt want to find him attractive, or desirable, or even interestingbut hed challenged her when shed been a verbal tyrant to him, and that intrigued her.

She didnt want to be drawn to him, and she wondered how she could stop the wheels she had unintentionally set in motion.

Two

Okay, his pride was stung. He admitted that much to himself. Jack glanced at his watch again and frowned. Ten after six. Hed made assumptions from a minuscule amount of contact. Assumption number one, she was gutsy. Two, she genuinely wanted to help improve his game. Three, and he acknowledged this as wishful thinking, she was drawn to him in a way she could neither understand nor control.

Over the past four days, hed gradually come to feel flattered at her interest. Nowat eleven minutes after sixhe realized his mistake. He brushed an imaginary speck of dust from his generic gray polyester baseball pants and ignored the unfamiliar feel of cleats under his feet. A pair of lightweight leather gloves burned through his back pocket. He had invested time and money preparing for his lesson, and she had the nerve not to show up?

He crouched at first base, or rather where first base would be if a game were on. Scooping up a handful of dirt, he rubbed the gritty stuff between his fingers as he debated how long to give her.

Plop! He looked up as a heavy white square cushion with a rigid tube attached landed beside him, shooting up a halo of dirt.

Ram that into the pipe at second, she called. Cant practice without a base.

Jack fought to control his relief, which came swift and unapologetic at the teacherlike sound of her voice and the sight of her ever-present L.A. Seagulls cap. He trotted down to second and shoved in the square, then walked back. Id about given up on you, he said toward where she stood leaning against a railing, obviously as close as she planned to get to him.

I debated, she admitted. I decided your team needs you to learn this.

So, youre doing it for the team, not me?

Im doing this for baseball, Ponytail.

He repressed a chuckle. Ah. Ive lowered the standards of the whole game, have I?

I think theres hope, or I wouldnt be here.

He wandered closer, noting how she tugged her cap down defensively the nearer he got. When he saw she was about to take flight, he stopped. I cant keep calling you The Mouth. Whats your name?

She seemed to grab a smile back just before it could escape. Coach.

He shook his head slowly. Why doesnt that surprise me?

Ready to get to work, Ponytail?

I think Im going to regret this, he muttered as he returned to first base and awaited her instructions.

First of all, move to the outfield so you can practice on the grass. When youve teamed how to slide where you cant kill yourself, youll move onto the dirt.

You gonna just stand there and yell instructions to me? he called over his shoulder as he jogged out to the grass.

Yep.

How do I know you can do this if you dont demonstrate it?

A person doesnt have to be able to do in order to teach, Ponytail. She walked parallel to him, one hand on the railing, stopping when he did. Close your eyes. Visualize what Im describing. Go through it in your head. If a part isnt clear, well do it again until it is. Dont hesitate to stop me and ask questions. Okay?





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