One month later

SPORTS AGENT YANK MORGAN sat in the backseat of his Lincoln and rubbed a hand over his scruffy beard. Scruffier now since his wife, Lola, had thrown out his razor to prevent him from accidentally slitting his throat. Dang woman had also somehow discovered where he’d hidden his spares. Apparently an almost-blind man had no privacy in his own bathroom.

Normally he’d be angry, but considering his eyesight had gotten worse, he was forced to admit Lola had a point. Macular degeneration was messing with the balance of power in his marriage. Telling a woman she was right about anything, though, especially his woman, would be the equivalent of relinquishing his throne. And that wasn’t happening at home or at work.

“We’re here, Mr. Morgan,” J.D., the ex-football player he’d hired as his driver, said. “Want me to walk you inside?”

Yank shook his head. “No, thanks. It’s bad enough you had to drive me here. I don’t need you as my guide. I got Noodle for that.” His Labradoodle sat beside him and Yank patted her furry head. He’d got the dog when she was a pup, but now she was the size of her standard poodle mother.

“Be careful. I don’t want to end up at the emergency room again because you tripped over something you and the mutt didn’t see.”

“She’s not a mutt, she’s a mix of two pure breeds,” Yank said proudly as he opened his car door.

“I still say you should have bought a real guide dog and not a pet.” J.D. came around and met him.

Yank frowned. “Keep sounding like my wife and you’ll have to find yourself a new job.”

J.D. merely laughed. “You say that every day,” he said as he helped Yank out of the car.

Yank did his best to ignore the indignity of needing aid at basic tasks. A man accepted what a man had to accept. “You remind your father we’re playing poker tonight,” Yank said.

Nobody asked how Yank played without being able to see the cards, and Yank refused to discuss it. He’d rather lose money every month than give up the things he loved. And J.D.’s father, Curly, had been in Yank’s poker game for years, even before Yank had become his nieces’ guardian when they were little girls.

J.D. scratched Noodle’s fluffy fur and helped Yank pull the dog out of the car. “You think I need to remind Dad of something he’s been doing every month for most of his life? At least now with Lola around I know he won’t be smoking. You and my father. Neither one of you listen to your doctors,” J.D. muttered.

“Wait till you get older before passing judgment. I’ll only be about fifteen minutes.” Yank pulled his heavy jacket tighter around him and let the dog lead him toward the door of the gym.

Part Labrador retriever, part poodle, completely dense when it came to being in charge, Noodle wasn’t the guide dog Yank should have gotten, but he enjoyed the pretense. It was fun making people think he was a little bit crazy. There were worse ways to spend his life, he thought, laughing.

He made his way to the weight room in the back of the gym. The trainers and employees were used to him visiting clients and bringing Noodle along. He headed for where he knew he’d find John Roper, letting years of experience lead the way. The main part of the gym was noisy and crowded, but as he approached the private rooms in the back, Yank could hear that there weren’t as many people there.

Which Yank figured was the reason his not-so-star baseball player client John Roper chose to work out here and now. Unfortunately, the televisions were on and the sound coming from the speakers told Yank that morning sports talk-show host, Frank Buckley, was spouting off at the mouth as usual.

“Spring training is around the corner and this New York Renegade fan still hasn’t gotten over John Roper’s disastrous last season or his role in the Renegades Game 5 World Series loss. Call in and let me know if your lack of expectations match mine for the highly overpaid hero. The Buck Stops Here, folks.”

The television station went to commercial at the same time Roper yelled aloud, “Somebody shut that damn thing off before I rip the speakers off the wall.”

When nobody moved, Yank added his two cents. “Can’t you hear the man? Shut off the noise or we’ll sue you for intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

The weights clanged hard as Roper dropped them to the floor. “Morgan, what are you doing here?” he asked.

“Visiting the dumbbells.” Yank laughed at his own joke.

Roper didn’t.

“You still upset over Buckley the Bastard’s tirade? Grow up and get over it,” Yank said. He’d already tried coddling Roper through his rough patch and it hadn’t worked. He was moving on to tough love.

“Someone dropped off a Roper bobblehead doll with my doorman. Damn thing had a knife stuck in the shoulder.”

Yank groaned. The fans wouldn’t let Roper forget his nightmarish last season. He hadn’t been able to hit or throw, and to make things worse, he’d sprained his shoulder in a failed attempt to stop a game-winning home run by slamming it into the center field wall. This in addition to striking out earlier when the bases were loaded and the Renegades had a chance at the go-ahead run. Their team had lost, the fans needed a scapegoat, and they’d chosen the highest-priced center fielder in the game to sacrifice. Not that the man wasn’t in a slump, but losing had been a team effort.

Now Buckley insisted on continuing the torture in the off-season. Roper had every right to be pissed. He didn’t need Buckley riling up the fans against him in his daily tirades.

“Are you sure Buckley doesn’t have a personal grudge?” Yank asked.

Roper rose to his feet, looming large over Yank. “I screwed his ex-girlfriend. She just didn’t see fit to mention she was no longer his ex on the night in question.”

Yank chuckled. “He oughta let it go.”

“She’s his wife now,” Roper said.


“Yeah,” Roper agreed. “You do realize that if this was a lesser market, nobody would pay attention to anything Buckley said?”

Yank shook his head. “But it isn’t a lesser market. It’s New York.” And that said it all.

Athletes were like movie stars here, back-and front-page news and fodder for gossip. “You used to love the attention,” Yank reminded him.

Prior to his funk, Roper had been known for being a high-maintenance outfielder. ESports TV, Magazine and Radio named Roper among the top metrosexual athletes of the year. Yank didn’t get why grown men like Roper spent good money on the best clubs, gyms and hairdressers. What normal man had his back waxed? Yank had no idea. But Roper’s good-looking mug had made them both a boatload of money, so Yank wasn’t about to complain.

“I did love the attention,” Roper said. “Until my talent went south.” Roper leaned forward on the bench, elbows on his knees, and stared ahead at nothing in particular. “So what are you really doing here?” Roper asked.

“I came to cheer you up. I don’t want the media to see you down and I sure as hell don’t need you taking a swing at one of them, no matter how much they provoke you.”

“That sounds like a message from Micki.”

Yank’s niece, Michelle, was Roper’s close friend, as well as his publicist. She was the resident expert at the Hot Zone for keeping her high-maintenance client out of trouble and out of the press.

Then again, maybe some good press was exactly what Roper needed. “I have a present for you. Here’s a gift certificate.” Yank pulled a piece of paper from his back pocket. “Go get yourself a massage and a manicure.”

“Not in the mood.”

Yank didn’t know what else to do in order to help his dejected client. “Don’t you want to look your best for the annual Hot Zone New Year’s party?”

“I’m not going.”

Yank smacked him upside the head. “You sure as hell are. You’re going to hold yourself up and make like life’s grand. Attitude is everything and right now yours sucks.”

Yank couldn’t see well but he figured Roper was scowling at him about now. “I’m sure you’re having a rough time after the series, but obviously something more has you bent out of shape. The happy-go-lucky guy I know wouldn’t be sulking like a pansy.”

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