Mask of the King

MASK OF THE KING

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Excerpt:

Tucker Alexander Gentry—Tag to the baseball world—rented a red sports car at Armstrong International Airport and plugged the address his former teammate had provided into his phone for directions.

God it felt good to be out of the wheelchair and independently mobile. Weeks without being able to walk, much less drive, were behind him. He still faced months of physical therapy, though. His last visit with the team doctor had sucked. Prognosis: Tag would miss the whole upcoming season.

If he ever got his hands on that punk from New York… The league could fine the little bastard who had plowed cleats-first into Tag’s leg all they wanted, suspend the son of a bitch for a couple of games, or ban him for life like Shoeless Joe or Pete Rose. Didn’t matter. No disciplinary action could give Tag back the World Series he’d missed. That theft burned worse than missing the spring training currently in session or sitting out the entire upcoming season.

So when Noah Nash, former pitching great for the Columbia Gems, invited Tag to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, Tag jumped at the chance. Figuratively.

Tag concentrated on the unfamiliar traffic patterns instead of on what the hell he was going to do if he couldn’t play baseball again. Noah had said he might have something for him. There were only so many broadcasting positions, only so many coaching and scouting jobs—but hundreds of retired players. Pathetic retired players. Lost without a stadium to define them. Tag vowed he would never be one of those players.

The rest of the Gems were at spring training while Tag had been stuck in Columbia. Stuck and feeling sorry for himself. He should have been in Florida with the rest of the guys. Red was.

And if he couldn’t be with his team, he ought to be able to do something else. Bungee jumping. Cave diving. Something. He was climbing the walls when he should have been rock climbing. Except his contract prevented him from doing anything that might endanger his rehab. If Terra, his currently off-again girlfriend, had been around, she could have amused him. But Terra was waiting for some volcano on some Pacific island to erupt. And they were off again. Probably permanently.

And Red? She was his new best friend. Who came with benefits. Came with— He could list a hundred ways she came and a hundred more ways he wanted to try. But Red was the team caterer and had been summoned to spring training along with the rest of the Gems.

So Noah’s hint of a future career only sweetened the New Orleans vacation concept.

Once Tag got off the highway and into the city improper—and New Orleans in February was definitely improper—he ran into traffic issues. Although Fat Tuesday wasn’t for another six days, the frenzied city throbbed with its Carnival celebration. Parades closed blocks of some streets the phone app told him to use. Costumed pedestrians clustered in inconvenient spots, where automobiles became intruders and had to yield to the citizens and tourists.

Everyone looked as if they were having a good time, something Tag hadn’t experienced in too long. Except for some increasingly rare interludes with Red.

Red. Celeste “Skye” Schuyler. Owner of Skye’s the Limit Catering. Damn it, he was trying not to think about her. The team had hired her to feed him while he’d been laid up. Once his cast had come off, she’d no longer made house calls. And with the cessation of house calls came the cessation of booty calls.

Tag missed her. He was loath to admit it, even to himself, but he’d grown fond of their sparring. All the things he’d ever heard about feisty redheads were true. At least, in her case. Just thinking about her had his cock twitching.

Tag finally gave up trying to follow directions and called Noah. “Just stay on the line with me and tell me how to get to your place from where I am.”

Another half hour passed before Tag found the street in the French Quarter.

“You should have taken a cab,” Noah said.

“You should have suggested that before I got here,” Tag replied.

They were settled in Noah’s high-ceilinged den with drinks in their hands. The smooth whiskey relaxed Tag. Damn, he needed this. He hadn’t known how tense he was. The way life had been conspiring against him had done things to his insides he hadn’t known about until now.

“How are you liking life in the slow lane?” Noah asked

“I’m not.” The ice in Tag’s glass rattled as he brought it to his mouth.

“Retirement takes getting used to.”

“I’m not retired. I’m on the disabled list.” Maybe he was swallowing his bourbon too quickly, because the muscles in his throat felt as if they were rebelling.

Noah snickered. “According to the press, Crabtree did such a number on your leg you’ll never play again. You couldn’t even get a spot on an American League team as DH.”

Tag’s fingers tightened on his glass. “I wouldn’t believe everything I read—oh, I forgot. You can’t read.”

“I can hear just fine,” Noah shot back. “All the sports networks are saying—”

“My batting average might not be good enough to be a designated hitter, but for a catcher, I’m damned good with the bat.” The sports networks didn’t know shit. HIPAA laws kept his medical issues private.

“You keep telling yourself that.”

“Positive attitude is everything.” That was what Red kept telling him. If it helped him get back in the game, he would repeat the affirmation hourly. Red believed in that shit. All he knew was it couldn’t hurt.

“How are you going to catch with your knee messed up?”

That was a problem. Crouching behind home plate for nine innings strained a guy’s knees and thighs. In addition to breaking his tibia, Crabtree’s cleats had sneaked behind Tag’s leg guards to the vulnerable back of the knee. Torn a bunch of muscles and nerves. But people had their tendons, ligaments, and cartilage repaired all the time. No biggie. He could come back. Better than ever. So what if he’d lost sensation in the skin of his calf? Didn’t need to feel mosquito bites to play ball.

“I’ll manage. Thanks for your concern.” Tag couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

“And you’re getting old.”

Since when was thirty-five old? It was past time to change the subject. “What are you doing these days?”

Noah took another swallow of his drink. Flashed a look of discomfort. Maybe embarrassment. “Favors.”

Unless hell had frozen over or there was something in it for him. Noah Nash didn’t do favors.

“For anyone interesting?” Tag asked.

Noah shrugged. “I know a lot of people. People need things.”

That was an informative answer. “When you called me, you said something about—”

“Let’s not talk business.” Noah swallowed more bourbon. “You’re here to party, right? After being laid up all winter?”

“You got that right.” Mardi Gras in the French Quarter. A new experience. He’d been in spring training every February since he was eighteen. He had a lot of catching up to do.

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