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From New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Marie Force comes a steamy new contemporary romance about two strangers who find love in the most unexpected way—by saving a life.

Austin
Sitting at the top of my game, pitching for Baltimore and a single daddy to the most adorable little girl in the world, I’m living the dream. Until I get the dreaded call that Everly is sick. My entire world stops when the doctors say the only chance my baby has is through a bone-marrow transplant. My life becomes a living nightmare as I wage a war to save my daughter. Nothing else matters. Not my Cy Young Award, not my career, not my team or my talent. None of that can fix her. She needs a miracle. What we get is a stranger… and Maria just might save us both.

Maria 
My life in Miami might not be glamorous, but it is rewarding. I divide my time between working as a nurse at a free clinic and waitressing at my family’s Cuban-Italian restaurant. After being cheated on by my long-time boyfriend, I’m not exactly looking for Mr. Right but wouldn’t kick him out of bed if he suddenly showed up. Six months after I donated bone marrow to a little girl in Baltimore, I get an email from the child’s grateful father, but everything is anonymous until the one-year mark. I’m desperate to know more about him. The last thing I expect him to be is a gorgeous, famous ballplayer. One email becomes another, until we find ourselves caught up in a friendship neither of us expected, but both desperately need. I’m falling in love with a man I’ve never met.

Read the exciting sequel to How Much I Feel to find out what happens when Austin is scheduled to play in Miami, and the team arranges a meeting between Austin, Everly and Maria.

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How Much I Care

Miami Nights Series, Book 2

Chapter 1

Austin

I’m dead asleep after pitching a shutout against the Mariners when my phone rings with the tone I assigned to my parents. They’d never call me at this hour unless something was up with Everly, so I pull myself out of a deep sleep to reach for the phone on my bedside table.

“Hey.” As I move to get more comfortable, the ice pack on my shoulder falls off, making a squishing sound as it lands on the bed. My arm aches like it always does after I pitch.

“I’m so sorry to wake you, Austin.” Mom sounds frazzled. “But Ev has a fever. We’re at urgent care now, and I thought you’d want to know.”

I sit up, now wide awake. “What’s her temp?”

“One-oh-three.”

“Seriously? How long has she had it?”

“About eight hours now.” Which means they waited to call until after my start, knowing worries about Everly would mess with my concentration. “We were giving her medicine, but nothing was working, so we brought her in.”

“I’ll come home.” I’m required to travel with the team, even between starts, but exceptions can be made. The team’s management knows I’m a single father and are accommodating—to a point. Since I have four days until my next start, it shouldn’t be a problem to fly back to Baltimore.

“We’re so sorry to have to call with this news, but we thought you’d want to know.”

“You did the right thing. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” I end the call with my mom and place another to my manager, Mick Danvers.

“Why aren’t you asleep?” he asks, his voice gravelly with sleep.

“Sorry to bother you, Coach, but I’ve got a situation at home. My little girl has a high fever and is in the ER. I need to go home, and I’m hoping you won’t mind if I catch up to you in Oakland.” It’ll be a bitch to add two cross-country flights to my week, but I don’t care about that. Not when Ev is sick and needs me.

“Of course. Do what you’ve got to do. Let us know how she is.”

“I will.” I release a deep sigh of relief. Mick is fair but tough, so I wasn’t sure if he’d let me go.

“Hell of a start tonight, AJ. Everyone is very pleased.”

“Thanks, Coach.”

“Keep me posted.”

“I will.” My next call is to book a flight home as quickly as possible.

Seven of the longest hours of my life later, my flight—on a plane without freaking WiFi— touches down at BWI. I fire up my phone to a string of new messages from my mother, each more frantic than the last. They’ve admitted Everly. Something isn’t right with her blood.

My chest is so tight, I wonder if I’m having a heart attack as I run through the airport and grab the first cab I see, completely jumping the line. I don’t care. I need to get to my baby girl. She’s my whole world, and the possibility of anything being wrong with my angel is too horrifying to bear.

The thirty-minute ride to the hospital feels almost as endless as the flight did. By the time I join my parents in the pediatric ICU waiting room, I’m fairly certain I’m on the verge of a medical crisis of my own. How did she go from a fever to the pediatric ICU at Hopkins in the span of a few hours? My mother bursts into tears when I walk in. I drop my bag inside the door so I can hug her and my dad, who seems equally undone.

“Thank God you’re here, son,” Dad says.

As I look at them, I realize they know something I don’t, and judging by their expressions, whatever it is will rock my world.

“Austin,” Mom says tearfully, “Everly has leukemia.”

 

Maria

Fifteen months later…

I force myself to endure Sunday brunch with my boisterous extended family without checking my phone. I grocery-shop afterward and do a number of other necessary workweek preparation errands, while still ignoring my phone. Never has avoiding my phone been more painful than it is today, as months of anticipation have led to this day. I’m elated, excited, nervous and worried that the connection between myself and Mr. A, as I know him, won’t be the same once we’re no longer anonymous.

Just over a year ago, I donated bone marrow to save the life of a two-year-old girl who was battling leukemia in Baltimore. At the time, I knew nothing else about her or her father, except that my transplant saved her life.

As of six months ago, I know he loves her more than anything in his world, the child’s mother isn’t in the picture, and he’s thankful to me for giving his little girl a second chance. The child has since turned three, and her remission is holding, which is the most important part of this story.

But that’s not the whole story.

It began with a call on a Tuesday night from Be the Match, an organization that’d done a registry drive at the clinic where I work in Little Havana more than three years earlier. Honestly, I’d forgotten all about having my cheek swabbed until I got the call that I was a match for a child battling leukemia. Would I be willing to undergo further testing?

Of course I was willing, and the testing was scheduled.

That call from Be the Match turned my life upside down for a few weeks. My parents had freaked out about me going under general anesthesia to donate bone marrow to a stranger. What if something goes wrong? they’d asked. Thankfully, Nona intervened with them, after seeing how hell-bent I was on saving the life of a child I’d never met.

“Maria is a nurse,” Nona said. “This is what she does. You must trust her and have faith in her judgment.”

I’ve always adored my Nona, but never more so than I did then. She dealt with my parents, which gave me the space I needed to mentally and physically prepare for the procedure. After we attended information sessions and my parents learned there was very little risk to the donor, they came around to supporting my determination to donate.

My cousin Carmen, who along with my sister, Dee, is my closest friend, accompanied me to the hospital and kept the rest of the family informed throughout the day.

Nona and Abuela, Carmen’s grandmother and a third grandmother to me, cooked enough food to feed ten people and delivered it when we got home from the hospital. Really, it was more about confirming for themselves that I was truly fine than it was about food, but I appreciated their concern. Carmen spent two nights at my place, making sure I was okay before she went home.

I was stiff and sore for a couple of weeks after but went back to work a week later. I considered the entire thing a small price to pay to save a child’s life.

Six months after the procedure, I received an anonymous email from the child’s grateful father, through channels provided by Be the Match.

Dear Ms. M,

You saved my daughter’s life. There’s no way I can possibly tell you in mere words what you mean to my family and me or how much we appreciate what you did for us. I want to tell you about my daughter, E. She’s a little spitfire with blond curls and big blue eyes. She loves to dance and play dress-up. I’m a single dad, and she’s my whole world. When the doctors first told us she had leukemia, I thought I’d die myself from the idea of my precious love suffering in any way.

The next few months were pure hell. That’s the only word I can think of to describe it. They tried everything but couldn’t get her into remission. That’s when they decided she needed a bone marrow transplant.

I’m going to be honest with you—the whole thing was terrifying. Thank God I had my parents with me through it all, or I might not have survived watching my baby go through hell. And E, she was such a trouper, so brave and strong. She kept trying to comfort me. Imagine that—a two-year-old comforting a twenty-eight-year-old man. But that’s my girl. She’s amazing and full of love, and now, thanks to you, she’s in full remission and back to singing her nonsensical songs in her own particular language and dancing and playing and laughing. Her hair has grown back—curlier than ever—and her cheeks are pink again. Because of you.

I’ve never met you, and I love you like a member of my family. You are a member of my family. And when the required one-year waiting period is up, I hope we can meet and talk and share pictures, and you can see the life you saved for yourself.

Thank you. From the bottom of my grateful heart. Thank you. We love you.

Mr. A

I must’ve read that email a thousand times after I first received it and sobbed my way through the first, second and third reading of it. I was so moved by how his love for his child poured off the page. I’m going to be brutally honest here. I fell a little bit in love with him based on how he talked about his daughter. How could I not?

When I showed the email to Carmen and Dee, they had the same reaction. Dee said she actually swooned a little. Both of them cried.

Carmen, who’s madly in love with her pediatric neurosurgeon fiancé, Jason, didn’t completely freak out the way Dee did, but even Carmen agreed that Mr. A sounds dreamy.

It took me a couple of days, and several hundred more rereadings of his message, to settle myself enough to write back to him.

Dear Mr. A,

Your email touched me deeply.

No, you can’t say that! Why not? It did touch me deeply, and he should know that.

Ignoring my own internal dialogue, I poured my heart onto the page, refusing to give him anything less than he had given me. Until the one-year mark, we aren’t allowed to speak of anything more than the transplant and updates about the recipient’s condition. I can’t tell him, for example, that I’m from Miami with a large extended family or that I work at a free clinic in Little Havana. I checked, and I can tell him I’m a nurse, since it’s relevant to the transplant.

Your email touched me deeply. Hearing about your wonderful E reduced me to tears. I’m so, so glad to hear she’s doing well and is in remission. I’m a nurse, so I know what that means, and I share your elation that “our project” led to such happy results. I’m sure you’re being very careful with her in this first tender year, when you have to limit her exposure to others, but when you’re able to be out and about again, I’d love nothing more than to meet her and hug her and celebrate her return to good health. Thank you so much for sharing your joyful news with me, and I’ll look forward to hearing more from you when the time comes.

Sincerely,

Ms. M

I debated whether I should sign it Love, Ms. M, but in the end, I went with Sincerely.

Two days later, he wrote to me again.

 Ms. M,

I forgot to ask if you suffered any ill effects from donating. I really hope not. Please let me know that when you get the chance, and I will definitely reach out with more as soon as I’m allowed to.

Love,

Mr. A

Dear Mr. A,

Other than a few bruises and some stiffness for a week or two, the procedure was relatively painless for me. It was a small price to pay to help save your little girl. I’d do it again in a second. Thank you for checking on me.

Love,

Ms. M

Yep, you read that right. The second time I went with Love. Because I already love this father and daughter I’ve never met. I love the way he talks about her and how grateful he is for what I did for them. I’ve read the emails we exchanged so many times, I have them memorized.

His last email was short and sweet.

Ms. M,

I’m so glad to hear the procedure was almost painless for you. I’ll definitely write more to you the minute I can. Promise.

Love,

Mr. A

The transplant was one year ago today. For six months, I’ve been telling myself it’s not possible to fall in love with someone because of a few emails. But try telling that to my overly involved heart. All I can think about is Mr. A and Miss E. My active imagination has spent hours wondering about them as I counted down to today. I’ve tried to keep as busy as I could, volunteering for extra shifts at the clinic and helping Carmen with her wedding plans, but there are still far too many hours in the day for my liking.

And yes, I’m fully aware of how ridiculous it is to get all spun up over a guy I’ve never even met. I don’t even know his actual name, only his first initial. Is his name Alex or Anthony or Andrew? Is it possibly Asher, Adrian or Aidan? And little E, is she Emma or Emily or Emerson or Ellen?

I’m going to drive myself mad with the speculation. I want to know everything about both of them, and even realizing I might be setting myself up for a huge disappointment, I can’t stop myself from wondering if A is really as wonderful as he seems in his emails. Does he drink or party or chase women or—

“Stop it, Maria,” I tell myself as I drive home from the grocery store. I live in a garage apartment that belongs to Aunt Francesca and Uncle Domenic, my dad’s sister and brother-in-law. Thankfully, my aunt and uncle also rent out the main house, so they aren’t around to clock my comings and goings.

I never would’ve lived here if they were right next door. Not that I don’t adore them. I absolutely do, but I don’t want anyone keeping tabs on me—or reporting to my parents about what time I get home or who I go out with. No, thanks. I love my cozy little place, but more than anything, I love the privacy. A couple of years ago, Dee moved to New York City with our cousin Domenic Junior, both of them eager to leave the clutches of the tight-knit family that spends far too much time minding each other’s business.

I can’t wait to see them both at Carmen’s wedding, which is now just over a month away. It’s been very difficult to stay focused on work and the wedding or anything other than hearing more from Mr. A as I counted down to the one-year mark.

It feels like ten years have passed since that first email from Mr. A, six months ago today. When I get home, I put my groceries away and fix myself a cup of tea before I allow myself to sit at my desk and fire up my laptop to check my email. Mixed into junk mail and a note from my sister with a link to an article on home decorating she thought I’d enjoy is a message from a name that’s familiar to me, but I can’t say why.

Austin Jacobs.

I click to open the message and gasp as I read the opening.

Dear Maria,

I thought today would never arrive.

  

Chapter 2

Maria

Holy shit. His name is Austin. Austin Jacobs. Why do I know that name? It nags at me that I recognize his name, but I can’t take the time to figure that out now when there’s a whole email from him to be devoured.

 

I’m not sure why I’ve been so unreasonably excited to share more of our story with you, but over the last six months, I’ve thought of you every day, counting down until we could talk again, this time without limits. Bizarre, I know, but you saved my daughter’s life, and I’m dying to get to know you better. I was so excited to get your actual first name and direct email, and I swear I’m not a creeper! LOL. Although, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that I am. This situation with Everly has taken over my life in every possible way, up to and including my obsession with her bone marrow donor. 

His daughter’s name is Everly! He’s as obsessed with me as I am with him! Now I’m swooning.

I guess maybe my unreasonable excitement has to do with the bond we now share in the form of a wild little three-year-old who’s still here because of you. She’s thriving because of you. She has a chance to grow up and fall in love and have a life because of you. I get very emotional when I think about what you did and what it’s meant to us. I’m just so freaking grateful. I enclosed some recent photos of her so you can see her adorableness for yourself.

Okay, enough about me being a weird, creepy, grateful, stalker dad…

I laugh at his summary, loving him more with every word I read. I scroll down to look at the pictures because I’ve been dying to see the face of the child I helped to save. And oh, my heart. She’s absolutely perfect.

About me—I’m a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles.

That’s it! That’s how I know him! He’s not just a pitcher, though. He’s a Cy Young Award-winning pitcher who won twenty-one games two years ago, including a near-perfect game that was scuttled in the ninth inning when one of his teammates fumbled a routine grounder. I know this because I’m a huge baseball fan. My dad and I have been following the Miami Marlins since I was a little kid, back when they were known as the Florida Marlins.

My life is pretty crazy, and it became more so when my ex-girlfriend and I had Ev. That turned into a bit of a nightmare when I found out she was partying with other guys while I was on the road. The wife of one of my best friends on the team was able to prove that she was leaving baby Ev alone, sometimes for a couple of hours, while she went out. I can’t even think about that without losing my mind. That led to me getting sole custody of my daughter just as my career was really taking off. Good times, those were. Fortunately, my parents decided to retire early and move to live next door to us. They help me with Ev while I’m on the road. I don’t know what I’d do without them, especially since she got sick.

I lost almost all of last season due to her illness. My team was amazingly supportive, and I’m super thankful to them, too. Not only did they continue to pay me while I wasn’t able to play, they made sure Ev had the best of everything—from doctors to private nurses and every form of support they could think to throw my way. It’s funny how your priorities change when the person you love most is sick. Before her illness, I couldn’t imagine missing a start, let alone most of a season.

I have a whole new relationship with gratitude after what we’ve been through. My mom thinks I have a form of PTSD since Ev’s illness because I’m constantly worried about her relapsing or some other disaster striking. I hover over her to a ridiculous degree and overreact to every sneeze, sniffle and bruise. The team doctor hooked me up with a therapist, who’s been a big help to me as we adjust to life after crisis. As you mentioned in your last email, we were VERY careful this year. No one outside our family was allowed to be with Ev, and yes, today is also the day when we can lift those restrictions and get back to living. We’ll do so cautiously at first, of course, but we’re both ready to get back to “normal,” whatever that is. She can’t wait to go to the playground and to eat out in a restaurant, which is one of her favorite things to do.

I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this. I guess it’s because I feel such a connection to you, and not only because of what you did for Everly (and me), but because of our earlier emails.

Okay, I’ve probably said enough. Too much, actually. Haha. I won’t be offended if you decide to never respond to me again, but I’ll be sad to not have the chance to get to know you.

I’ll stop now. Please write back.

Love,

Austin

I devour his every word and am smiling like a loon by the time I get to the end. I look at the photos of Everly again, and then I google him because I can’t remember what he looks like.

When his picture pops up, I go stupid in the head as my eyes bug and my mouth hangs open. Thank God no one is there to witness my reaction to hot male perfection.

He has brown hair shot through with natural blond highlights, gorgeous blue eyes, a great smile and a body to die for, with sleeve tattoos on his arms and diamond studs in both ears. I can’t. I just can’t. Look away, that is. I stare at pictures of him in and out of uniform, with and without shirts. He has intricate tattoos on his chest that stop just short of the base of his neck and cover most of the available skin on his torso. I’ve never been a big fan of that much ink, but on him it’s just… Wow. My heart beats in a wild rhythm that has to be unhealthy.

Who cares about what’s healthy at a moment like this?

I call Carmen and put her on speaker.

“Did he write to you?” She and Dee are the only ones who know today is the day I might hear from him.

“He sure did.”

“What did he say?”

“Google Austin Jacobs, the baseball player.”

I hear her clicking away on her laptop. “Shut. The. Fuck. Up!

Right?” I’m screeching, but I can’t seem to stop any of this. It’s complete madness, and I don’t care. This is so not me. I’m always careful and reserved, especially since Scott, and here I am losing my mind over a man I’ve never met.

“He’s the father of the child she donated to,” Carmen says. “I’m filling in Jason.”

“He’s a superstar,” I hear Jason say. “I saw him pitch against the Yankees, and he was lights out.”

“Mari? Are you still there?” Carmen asks.

“I’m here.”

“What did he say in his email?”

I read it to her, absorbing every delicious word all over again, and copy the pictures of Everly to text to her.

“Oh, wow,” Carmen says on a long breath. “That’s amazing! And Everly is so cute!”

What do I do?

“Write him back!” Carmen says, laughing. “You know you’re dying to!”

“Ugh, I’m dying all right.”

“Do it, Mari. You have nothing to lose. The man adores you. How could he not after what you did for him and his daughter?”

“I’m all… invested. At an unhealthy level.”

“Of course you are! You saved his child’s life. Before you exchanged a single word with him, you were at a whole other level with this guy.”

How can I explain how his words have slayed me, the way he talks about his daughter, how big his love is for her… That’s what’s gotten to me the most.

“Are you going to write back?”

“Yeah, as soon as I calm the hell down and figure out what I want to say.”

“Say this. Are you listening?”

“Yes, I’m listening,” I say with a laugh.

“Dear Austin, I love you. I want to marry you and have more beautiful babies with you.”

“That’s not helpful, Car.”

She loses it laughing. “Think of all the time it’ll save you to cut straight through the bullshit.”

“I’m ending this call.” Mostly because my ovaries stood up to take a look around at her mention of having beautiful babies with him.

“I’m here if you need me.”

“Thanks, but I think I’ll be okay.”

“This is so cool, Mari. Imagine if it turns into something, and you met him by saving his kid’s life. God, that’s so romantic! It’s even more romantic than me falling for Jason when I helped to save his reputation.”

“Hey,” Jason says, “there’s nothing more romantic than that.”

“Will you guys please stop? It’s not going to turn into anything. He’s a nice guy who appreciates what I did for his child. That’s all this is.”

“Uh-huh. Okay.”

“Gotta go.”

“Invite him to the wedding!”

“Bye, Carmen.” I press the End button and stare at my laptop screen, where the photos of Austin are in the background with his email front and center.

I read it again.

Dear Maria,

I thought today would never arrive.

Releasing a deep breath full of swoon, I click on the reply button and stare at the blank screen for a long moment before I begin to type, the words pouring straight from my heart.

Dear Austin,

I’m thrilled to know your name is Austin and that Miss E is Everly! I love that name. After seeing her pictures, I’ve decided her cute name suits her perfectly. She’s beautiful. Thank you so much for sending the pictures. I appreciate them so much and am so happy to see her sweet, smiling, HEALTHY face. I’ve thought of you two every day over the last six months, and I, too, was counting down to today when we could finally talk freely. I’m so happy to hear that Everly’s remission is holding and that she’s bounced back from her ordeal.

Of course it’ll take a while longer for you. There’s nothing more difficult than seeing someone you love go through a serious illness. I can’t begin to imagine what it must’ve been like for you to have to face such a frightening diagnosis and treatment with your precious little girl. It had to be terrifying, and I think you’re wise to be in therapy to help you deal with the aftermath of that trauma. Everly is lucky that she probably won’t remember any of it. Whereas you’ll never forget it.

You asked about me… I mentioned I’m a nurse, but now I can tell you I work at a free clinic in Little Havana, which is the area of Miami where I grew up in a huge, loving, overly INVOLVED (haha) family. My parents, Lorenzo and Elena, own a firm that does accounting and legal work for tons of local businesses. My dad is an accountant, and my mom is a lawyer, so they make for a good team at home and at work.

My aunt Vivian and uncle Vincent (my dad’s brother) own a famous restaurant called Giordino’s, which is my last name (without the ’s). It’s a hot spot in Little Havana, and everyone who is anyone has stopped in there at one point or another. I waitress at the restaurant on Saturday nights because it’s fun, and it’s a nice supplement to my salary at the clinic. My aunt and uncle host family brunch every Sunday at the restaurant, which features Italian and Cuban menus, and separate sides of the house for each. My Nona oversees the Italian side, and my cousin Carmen’s Abuela is in charge of the Cuban side. They fight like cats and dogs, but Nona and Abuela are really the best of friends and would do anything for anyone. I refer to Abuela as my third grandmother.

I stop myself when I feel like maybe I’m rambling on with stuff that won’t interest him. But he did say he wanted to know me, and to know me, you have to know my family.

I have a sister we call Dee. Her real name is Delores, but don’t call her that unless you want her to punch you. She lives in New York City with our cousin Domenic Junior, and yes, he’s always called the full name “Domenic Junior,” to differentiate him from his father, Domenic Senior. His mother is my father’s sister, Francesca, and they have three other kids besides Dom Jr. I also have two brothers—Nico and Milo. Nico is older than me, and Milo is younger. You following this? Haha! Carmen is my best friend (and Dee’s), and the three of us have always run around together. Carmen is an only child, so she calls us her sisters, and we love that. She’s getting married next month to a pediatric neurosurgeon named Jason, who we all ADORE. He’s such a good guy. I really got to know him when he volunteered at the clinic, and I totally approve of him for my sweet cousin. This is her second marriage, after Tony, her first husband who was a police officer, was shot and killed on the job when they were twenty-four. That was such a tough loss for all of us, and to see her smiling again is just about the best thing ever.

I feel like I’m going on and on here, but hey, you asked…

True confession: I’m a huge baseball fan. My dad and I have season tickets to the Miami Marlins, and I’ve definitely heard of you. I think I might’ve seen you pitch a couple of years ago when the O’s played the Marlins in interleague play. Is that possible? I’ll ask my dad. He’ll remember for sure.

Well, you asked for more about me, and I wrote a book! I guess I’ll just end by saying I’m so, so happy to hear from you, to know your names and more about you both. Mostly, I’m so relieved to know that Everly continues to do well. I have prayed for her—and you—every night since the last time we talked.

Love,

Maria

I send the email before I can second-guess every word of it. I no sooner send it than I realize I didn’t tell him to write back. I really want him to write back. 

I open a new email to him with the subject line: PS

The message reads: Please write back.

I press Send before I lose my nerve. And then I try to figure out what the hell to do with myself while I wait to hear from him. I could reread his email again. I do that. Four times, actually, before I make myself get up, take a shower, finish my laundry, make my lunch for tomorrow, set up my coffee for the morning and stop obsessing about Austin Jacobs.

My phone chimes with a text from Carmen. Did you write back?

I did. I regurgitated my whole life story to him.

All of it?

Most of it about the family and the restaurant and you and Dee and the others. It was probably too much.

I’m sure it was fine. He said he wanted to know about you. Are you ok??

Yes, of course I am. I’m trying not to go crazy over a guy I barely know.

How’s that going!?!?! You already know him better than you knew Scott after a year.

Jeez, if that wasn’t the truth. Austin showed me who he really is with the first message he sent. I saw his heart, and that’s all I’ve been able to think about for six freaking months. And what I got from him today only confirmed my first impression.

I go to bed early and keep my phone handy. I try to only check my email for new messages every fifteen minutes, but in reality, it’s more like once a minute. Okay, it’s really every ten seconds, but don’t judge me. You’d be checking, too. Who am I even talking to right now?

“You need to chill the hell out, girl. You’re getting way down the road with this guy you’ve never met.” Staring up at the ceiling I painted a pale pink, I try to talk myself down off the high I’ve been on since receiving the new message from him.

I force myself to close my eyes and breathe for five full minutes.

When I open them, I see it’s actually only one minute later. Naturally, I check my email again.

Speaking of creepers.

A new message pops up from Austin, making me gasp as I give new meaning to the term all thumbs. I fumble to open the message without accidentally deleting it. Because that would be tragic.

Dear Maria,

I loved your message and hearing about your family. Is there a diagram you use to help new people keep them all straight?! If there is, I need it! Your family sounds amazing, and I love that you work in a free clinic. I imagine your work is essential to so many people in your community, and the restaurant looks awesome. (Is it weird that I checked out the menu online, and I want a Cuban sandwich like right now!?) I have two brothers as well—Asher and Carter. Ash plays for the Iowa Cubs, a farm team for the Chicago Cubs, and Carter is in college at Florida State, but he plays, too, and is hoping to go pro when he graduates next year. We grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and as you might be able to tell, baseball was a big part of our lives. (Duh—haha.) My dad was our coach, and his goal is to see all three of us in the majors. So far, he’s one for three, but my brothers have all the talent. Sometimes it’s more about luck and being in the right place at the right time than it is about talent. I’m so hopeful they’ll both get there eventually. And yes, I pitched in Miami three years ago. Were you there?! How cool would that be?

I’m really close to my brothers, and they, too, were a huge source of support when Ev was sick. We’ve also got an amazing group on the O’s. Many of them—and their wives—have become like family to us since Ev was sick. They stepped up for me and her in so many ways, big and small.

Anyway, see how it always comes back to Ev being sick with me? That’s the stuff I’m working through with the therapist. She says it’ll take time, and after a while, every road won’t automatically lead me back to the trauma anymore. As you can tell, I’m not there yet. I keep telling myself how lucky I am, and believe me, those aren’t just words. I’m incredibly lucky, most particularly because a wonderful woman named Maria Giordino in Miami was a perfect match for my baby. I’m thankful for that—and for you—every day. And I appreciate that you prayed for us. That’s so amazing to hear.

Couple of things you didn’t tell me—are you married? Do you have kids? Can you send me a picture of you since you can google me? Did you google me? Tell me the truth. LOL.

Well, I need to hit the hay, as my coach says. We’ve got an early flight to Detroit in the morning for a four-game series with the Tigers, followed by three games with KC and four with Seattle. I’ll do the math for you—that’s eleven days away from my baby. My parents stay with her while I’m away, but I miss her so much when I’m gone. Thank GOD for FaceTime!

Oh, and one more thing—if you write to me, I’ll always write back. Remember what I said the first time we “talked”? You’re family now. If you’d rather text me, that’s cool. See my phone number below. Feel free to use it.

Love,

Austin

Oh my God, he gave me his phone number, which I promptly program into my phone. I find the picture Carmen took of me when we were out shopping the other day. I don’t always like pictures of myself, but I don’t hate that one. My curly dark hair isn’t huge from the South Florida humidity like it so often is, and we’d had our makeup done as a trial run for the wedding. I look as good as I ever do, so I set up a text with the photo before I can talk myself out of it.

Will write back more tomorrow, but this is me. Not married, no kids, and yes, I googled the hell out of you. I enclose the laughing and kissy-face emojis and send the message. I’m giddy off the high of talking to him.

He writes right back with the eyes-bugging emoji on its own, followed by another text:

WOW. You’re BEAUTIFUL. But I already knew that. Write back to me tomorrow. I’ll be waiting. Love, Austin

Drop the mic. I’m dead. How will I survive until I can talk to him again? Better yet, how will I sleep?

 

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. 

~ Calvin Coolidge

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