Excerpt from Her Second-Chance Hero

Chapter One

Red Sox Training Camp, Ft. Myers, FL

April 2012

 

His D-Day had arrived.

Mike Romano’s shoulder ached with every pitch. Standing on the mound, he glanced left then right, buying time before hurling the next ball. He knew how to hide pain. Every player did, at least for awhile. Now he needed to wear a cop face like Chief O’Brien’s from Pilgrim Cove, Mike’s hometown. That man knew how to scare a teenager. He borrowed O’Brien’s mask and wound up again.

Releasing the next pitch, he bit his lip. The team manager, doctor, and catcher watched his every move while a few hitters stood ready to bat against him. The empty stadium felt weird. Mike wished the seats held a slew of fans to energize him.   

After he’d spent three years in the organization’s minor league, moving up to the majors had been the turning point he’d worked toward every single day. And two years ago, Mike’s efforts had paid off. He’d gotten in one full season of elite play. One full season on the starting roster of the Boston Red Sox. Mike had achieved the dream of almost every little boy in America. One of the few who made it.

And then a rotator cuff injury, the bane of all pitchers, had put him on the inactive list in post-season play. Surgery and a year of physical therapy hadn’t provided the magic. Mike knew it—he felt it—each time he threw the ball. With a glance at the blank faces of those in the stadium, Mike knew something else. They were going to cut him from the team.

His dream career was over before catching fire. His chest tightened as he walked toward the officials, but he managed to produce a weak smile. And then it was done. Except for the phone call to come.

Less than an hour later, he put personal stuff in his car and hit a familiar number on his cell.

“Dad?”

“Mike! How’s my favorite son?”

An old joke. Mike was Paul Romano’s only son, only child. He swallowed hard. They’d shared the dream, and his dad would be disappointed.  

“Not so good. Is my old room still available for a while? Seems like I’m a has-been at the ripe old age of twenty-eight.”

Silence. “You get up here as soon as possible. You can help me in the business until you figure things out. And I know you will.”

Mike had never had a Plan B, and he wasn’t sure about how to “figure things out.”  It seemed, however, that his dad had enough confidence for both of them.

 

Pilgrim Cove, eight months later

December 2012

The threat of snow and his flaring arthritis didn’t stop Bart Quinn from bringing a huge welcome basket from Quinn Realty and Property Management to Alison Berg-Martin, the newest permanent resident of Pilgrim Cove. His partner and granddaughter, Lila, had worked closely with him to find the perfect rent-to-buy property.

The young widow from Boston, had given them a punch list of criteria, beginning with safety. No house with beach or bay access. Her baby son had started walking and would want to explore. Bodies of water were too dangerous. Much too dangerous. As were busy streets and cars. Could he find a quiet area?  He and Lila had done their best, but the more private, the more expensive. Alison couldn’t afford that luxury, not while living on a death benefit from her husband and small trust from her grandfather.

Bart exited his reliable old Town Car, reached for the gift, and waited for Lila to join him from her own vehicle.

“Glad you’re with me, today,” he said as they walked toward the second house from the corner of Neptune Street. “Alison needs to make friends her own age.”

“Maybe. But don’t push her, Granddad. She needs to find her way.”

“I never push, darling. I just…uh…”

“Manipulate? Arrange?  I love you dearly, but I’ve been around you a long time and know exactly how you work.”

Bart chuckled. His lassie was right. Normally he manipulated the young people living in Sea View House, but he’d walked softly with this young woman. Alison had stayed there only a month last June with her infant boy before deciding to relocate permanently. He glanced from Alison’s new house to where the Romanos lived across the street. Father and son together full-time as of eight months ago. A disappointment for the boy, to be sure. But just perfect now. Mike Romano would be exactly what Alison Berg-Martin needed…in just a little more time.

He and Lila rang the bell.

 

At the sound of the doorbell, one-year-old Joey crawled faster than Alison walked, despite the cartons and boxes littering the floor. She ran to her son, scooped him up, and grabbed a light blanket. “Peek-a-boo,” she crooned while draping it over him. She had to protect him from the cold, especially his head. Wasn’t that in the baby books?

When she spotted Bart and Lila through the sidelight, she opened the door and smiled. “Welcome to my mess.”

“We won’t stay but a minute,” said Lila, closing the door behind her. “Just wanted to bring some sunshine on a gray winter day.” She took the basket from Bart but addressed Alison. “Your arms are full. Where…?”

“The dining room table should do it. It’s a beautiful bouquet. Thank you.”

“Welcome to Pilgrim Cove,” said Bart. “Now let’s see who’s hiding under that blanket.” He pulled the covering off. “Peek-a-boo!”

The child squealed with excitement and bounced in his mother’s arms.

“He’s adorable,” said Lila, “and look at that hair! Like a copper penny.” A smile grew as she glanced at Alison. “Mother and son are unmistakable.”

“You should have seen his father,” said Alison. “Spitting image except for the hair.” She’d heard the hair comparison often. Redheads were the rare breed, and Joey and she were a match. But that left Peter out of the conversation. Oh, Peter. You are missing so much.

She blinked away tears that still came too easily. Not even unexpected guests could distract her enough. She tried to smile, however, as she led them farther inside.   

“Thank you very much. Not only flowers but cookies, candy…”  The basket held a full array of temptation.

“A small token to say you’re not alone,” said Bart. “New to town? Aye. But you’ve got friends, lassie. Right here.”

The man reminded Alison of her dad. He also reminded her of Peter. Big men. Blustering men. Loving hard and spewing reassurances as if they could protect all in their care. But who protected them?

“I’ll be fine as long as Joey is happy. And safe.” She kissed the baby on the cheek and bounced him in her arms. “No more big cities. Ever again.”

The ensuing silence was broken by Lila. “I grew up in Pilgrim Cove, fell in love here, and suffered heartache here, too. But it worked out.” She patted her stomach. “You can’t tell much yet, but Jason and I are expecting our second at the end of May.”

“It’s the magic,” said Bart. “And you’ve been sprinkled with it, too, lass. You stayed in Sea View House last June and came back to stay for good.”

Magic?  More like black magic. Mr. Quinn was quite the character.

“Granddad, enough drama!” Lila rolled her eyes. “What I’m trying to say, Alison, is that we’re a good town, but we’re not Shangri-La. We’re real people. Just like anywhere else.”

Alison had liked Lila Parker from the beginning of the house-hunting experience. Open and honest. Maybe they’d become real friends. “I’ve done my research,” she said. “Crime is low here. Schools are good. Joey’s grandparents are all in Boston, which is a manageable ride, and that’s good enough for me.”

“Ah, then they’ll be sure to come down for Christmas,” said Bart.

Without Peter?  No. No holidays this year. No Christmas. No Hanukkah. No nothing. But her decision was nobody’s business. She shrugged. “We’ll see.”

“The ROMEOs are all in town,” said Bart, extracting a business card from his inside coat pocket. “No snowbirds running south for the winter. So if you need anything at all, have questions, want a referral…you can count on us. We know everyone.”

Alison took the card listing Bart’s buddies, all Retired Old Men Eating Out, with phone numbers and specialties. “If I need an electrician, I’ll call Ralph Bigelow. But right now, I need a pediatrician, and I don’t think the ROMEOs have the answer!”

“But I do,” said Lila. “Actually Doc Rosen, who’s on that list, recommended her years ago, and we’ve all been very happy, including my ten-year-old daughter, Katie.”  She scrambled through her purse for pencil and paper. “Here you go.” Turning toward the door, she said, “And now we’ll leave you to unpack in peace.” 

Alison sensed the instant Lila spotted the cello case lying on its side. Saw the interest illuminating the woman’s face. Knew she’d be asking questions, and her own stomach tensed. She had to cut the conversation off before it began.

“I haven’t played it in a very long time.” With a casual wave of her hand, she added, “Maybe I’ll give it away.”

As if. The instrument had been a gift. A three-hundred-year-old Italian-crafted gift worth more than the house she’d just leased. She hoped, however, that she’d diminished Lila’s enthusiasm.  

“Wow. If you really mean that, please keep me in mind. The kids in my family are incredibly talented. Another instrument would be a happy challenge for them.” She stepped closer and grinned. “As my husband learned—the hard way, of course—and now says, ‘talent is not to be trifled with. Nurture the gift. ’”

Alison shivered from head to fingertips to toes. Echoes from the past. Nurture the gift. Lila’s husband must be the real deal. Her mind raced through the Boston area musicians she knew, relieved not to recognize the name Parker. She was starting a new life. “I-I’m sorry…?”

“Jason. Jason Parker.”

It took a moment before the aha. Lila’s husband was definitely the real deal. At the top of the pop charts—composer, singer, performer. A piano man.  Thank God their lives wouldn’t cross musically. Maybe she’d rethink a friendship with Lila.

The bell rang just as Alison and her guests reached the door. She pulled it open, looked up, a long way up past the scruffy beard, and stared into the bluest eyes she’d ever seen.   

“Mike Romano,” he said, thrusting a package at her, “from across the street.” A delicious aroma emanated from the bag. “It’s shepherd pie. My dad likes to cook, and you probably need some supper.”  He stared at her, then glanced at the others. “The snow’s started, and we’re going to have some wicked weather. You’d better get on home. Want me to drive you, Bart?”

The older man glared. “Ask me again in twenty years, boy-o.”

Romano smiled, a sweet, crooked, one-side-of-his-mouth smile, and a corner of Alison’s heart tore. So familiar.

“Thank you, and thank your dad,” she said, now watching her other guests walk to their vehicles. Romano hadn’t lied. The snow was starting to fall in serious fashion.

“Here’s my business card, Red. The home number’s on it. If you lose electricity in the storm or need anything, give us a call.”

Joey had fallen asleep in her arms, and she gave him a kiss. “I’ve got to put him down. He’s getting heavier every day.” She placed the baby carefully in his porta-crib and once more turned to her neighbor.

“My name’s Alison. Don’t call me Red or Lucy or carrottop.”

Mike Romano’s attention traveled from the baby to her. “My hearing’s not too good, Red. But I come in handy from time to time.”

If he was trying to be funny, he’d failed. “I’m not laughing, Mr. Romano.” She looked at his card. Romano Landscape and Design. “Nice. So are you on vacation all winter?”

That crooked grin appeared again. “I manage to keep busy. Street plowing…firefighting…planning landscape designs for spring installation. We cut and trim trees for the county to keep the roads safe. No time to loiter.”

Impressive. “Sounds like you handle everything but the kitchen sink.”

He winked. “For that you call a plumber.”

She burst out laughing. It was the weirdest thing, the juxtaposition of her and the baby in a god-awful messy house, talking with a bunch of strangers, and a guy calling her Red. Nothing made sense. Especially her giggles.

Nerves. Stress. Relieved by a lame joke. Mike Romano’s stupid joke.

“I think you’ve broken the spell,” she gasped. “I haven’t laughed since my husband died.”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah. I-I’m very sorry for your loss. But not for the laughter. They say it’s the best medicine.”

“A cliché, but maybe…” She shrugged.

Mike scanned the house, left and right and behind Alison. “Looks like you’ve got a load of work ahead. So I’ll let you at it.” He opened the door, then paused. “Got my number, just in case?”

Oh, she had his number. A born flirt with a sense of humor hard to ignore. Probably picked up women wherever he went. At least she didn’t have to deal with that. She held up his business card. “Got it.”

He waved and left.

She glanced at her son, then at the door. “He couldn’t get away fast enough.”  Shrugging, she made her way to the kitchen and began to unpack.

Mr. Blue Eyes didn’t matter. Her music didn’t matter. Against the advice of her symphony friends and Maestro Bekker, she’d resigned her second-chair cello position from the South Shore Philharmonic.

Nothing mattered to her anymore. Except little Joey.

 

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