Background: Braden Winters got captured as a prisoner of war in Syria for two years and everyone thought him and his unit were dead. Several CIA agents managed to rescue him, and this book is his life trying to readjust to his freedom. However, with bad PTSD and no one who truly understands what he had gone through in Syria, he feels more alone than he wants to.
There was something so calming, so peaceful about traveling across the country by bus, by hitchhiking, by walking. Every step he took felt like another step away from his horrifying past and his shoulders felt just a little bit lighter.
Braden had ended up in Mobile, Alabama and rented an apartment there for the time being. Thankfully, it was a month-by-month plan instead of a contract. That way he could leave whenever he needed to and he didn’t have to worry too much about it. Besides, in another week, surely he’d be off on another adventure. Maybe he’d even make his way up to Virginia to see his sister, Alex. After all, he owed everything to her for helping him get out of Syria. Without her, he’d probably be dead by now.
Wandering around the park, Braden caught sight of a crowd gathered at the baseball diamond, immediately piquing his interest. What was going on here?
He walked a little closer and his eyes lit up. They were about to start a game. Good. He didn’t want to miss this. He loved baseball.
A grin spread over Braden’s face as he glanced around at the excited crowds that had gathered to enjoy a good healthy dose of baseball. From what it looked like, it definitely wasn’t professional teams, but more like a scrimmage of guys who used to play baseball in their day. This should be fun.
Braden secured his hat over his head so the wind couldn’t blow it away as he watched both teams gather their men together before starting the game. In fact, he loved baseball. He had played in high school and then in college too. If there was one thing he felt more passionate about than guns, it was definitely baseball.
His eyebrows furrowed together when he saw confusion out on the field, honing in his listening to see what was going on.
“Jimmy can’t make it,” one of the players said. “He broke his wrist earlier this morning and had to get rushed to the hospital.”
“You’re kidding!” the other player groaned. “And he waits till now to tell us? He’s our only pitcher! Get Stewart on the phone. Maybe we can convince him.”
“He can’t. He’s out of town for the summer.”
Braden recognized the sound of opportunity when he heard it. He quickly hopped down from the stands and shouted over to them, “Hey, you need a pitcher? I can stand in.”
The guy with the sandy-blonde hair eyed him suspiciously. “I’ve seen you before. Where have I seen you?”
His heart rate skyrocketed. Surely they wouldn’t know him from his position on his college team in South Carolina. It had to be all the tabloids from when his time in Syria got leaked to the press. Oh please, no. He wanted to put that behind him.
“Can you pitch?” the other guy asked, thankfully interrupting the awkward moment. “Auditions start now.” He tossed a baseball to Braden and motioned with his head toward the pitcher’s mound. Braden stepped up, feeling a sense of a thrill at standing in the middle of the field once again. It had been a good three years since he had played for real. This felt extraordinary.
Half of Braden’s mouth pulled up into a grin as he eyed the umpire, taking one deep breath and then another, and then he let the baseball fly. With perfect dead-aim accuracy, the ball flew from his hand and lightning quick, struck center of the empire’s glove. Perfect shot.
“What the…” the guy with sandy-blonde hair said, his mouth agape. “You can throw as fast as a professional!”
Braden just shrugged and looked back at the two guys expectantly. “So am I playing or not?”
“Definitely. Welcome to the team. My name’s Mike,” the sandy-blonde haired guy said as he shook Braden’s hand.
The other guy with dark hair shook his hand too. “And I’m Kent. Alright, let’s get this game started!”
The crowd let out a whoop, clapping their hands as they cheered. This should be fun.
After putting on an extra baseball glove. Braden stepped up to the mound and eyed the first batter. Tall. Lean. Broad-shouldered. Dark brown hair. Dark brown eyes. He didn’t like the guy already. Just from his stance alone, his jaw set, and the look in his eyes, Braden could tell that this guy was a cocky bastard. Cocky. Arrogant. Probably had everything handed to him in life. And Braden was about to whoop this guy’s ass.
Braden smirked as he took position, took aim, and let the ball fly. The batter made a swing for it, but it flew right past his bat and into the umpire’s glove. On the second pitch, the exact same thing happened, only causing the batter to glare right at Braden. Oh, he wanted a pitch to be handed to him too? Poor little baby.
He grinned as he took aim. He had already seen this guy swing his bat twice now. If he aimed just right, the ball should fly right toward Braden…
Sure enough, once the ball had been thrown, the batter hit it, but it soared right toward Braden’s head. All he had to do was lift his glove a couple inches and catch it. The batter glared at Braden and it was all Braden could do not to give this guy the birdie. He hated the guy already.
Alright, next batter. Braden went a little easier on the next guy. Even though these guys seemed decently good, he could track their intentions with their body language. They were too easy to read. He could strike them all out at once if he wanted to, but what fun would that be?
He chuckled to himself as he realized how much his Army training had kicked in. If he knew back then what he knew now, he would have been unstoppable as a baseball player.
With first and second base loaded, one of the players on the other team got off a lucky hit and the ball went soaring way out into the field. A player on Braden’s team dove after the ball and threw it to third, getting one of their players out. One more out and they’d be up to bat.
Mike threw the ball back to Braden and Braden turned toward the next pitcher, but he wasn’t watching the next pitcher. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as the guy on second tried to steal a base.
He took aim toward the umpire to lure the base stealer into a false sense of security before spinning around and throwing the ball to second, catching the player on his team completely off-guard, but he still managed to catch the ball.
The crowd cheered and Braden got a lot of pats on the back.
“Okay,” Kent said, beaming ear to ear. “You have to keep playing with us. I mean, you’re amazing! I can’t believe what you just did!”
Braden grinned even wider as he started making his way back to the batter’s cage. Maybe after these past six months of wandering, he finally found somewhere he belonged. This was good. He could start here.
He froze in his tracks as he met a pair of beautiful blue eyes watching him from the stands, and his heart felt like it stopped beating for a good five seconds. The girl looked gorgeous. Flawless fair skin. Perfectly curled brown hair. And eyes that Aphrodite would kill for. She looked just like a porcelain doll, but there was a fire in her eyes that he would never have expected to see from someone like that.
“Are you making eyes at my girl?” the very first batter growled as he shoved Braden hard in the shoulders.
“Luke, stop!” the girl shouted, her eyes wide.
“Why don’t you go back to where you came from?” Luke growled once more as he shoved Braden again.
Braden forced his face to remain impassive even though every fiber in him screamed to beat this guy to a pulp. “Careful who you pick fights with,” Braden warned with dangerous undertones in his voice.
“You want to fight, do ya? Maybe that will teach you to stay away from my girl.” Luke shoved Braden again, but the interesting thing about it all was that no one tried to break them up. Luke was alpha.
“I don’t want any fights. Let’s just keep playing ball.”
Luke shoved Braden again and again before he lashed out with his fist. But Braden easily deflected the punch, twisting Luke’s arm behind his back, and smashing the bastard’s face into the dirt. No matter how hard Luke struggled, he couldn’t free himself.
“I’m not looking for any trouble,” Braden growled. “I didn’t realize your girl was spoken for, and I have enough honor to leave her be. You are a lucky guy to be dating a rare gem like that. But don’t get your panties in a wad over something stupid when there are other things in this world that you should be worrying about more. Now leave it be.”
Braden shoved his face into the dirt one more time for good measure before stalking back to the batter’s cage. He couldn’t stand guys like Luke who thought they owned the world. People like that didn’t know anything. They didn’t know about little kids in Syria who starved and didn’t have a place to call home. They didn’t know about how many lives it took to protect the freedom that they enjoyed so much. They didn’t know squat, and that’s exactly who this Luke kid was. Only one encounter with him, and he already hated the guy’s guts.