Perfect Bastard by Terri E. Laine

ONE

Nate

Coming back hometo Mason Creek was temporary, or it was supposed to be. If I couldn’t change my image, my MLB contract worth over a hundred million would be canceled—just like me.

“Nate! Are you listening to me?” my younger brother and agent, Mitch, practically yelled into the phone.

“Yeah, Mitchell. I’m here.”

“You only call me Mitchell when I’m right,” he said. “Who is she? Can we keep her quiet?”

Last night, I’d done something I didn’t normally do. It had been open mic night at Pony Up, the bar in town that was owned by my best friend, Aiden’s wife, Emma.

I’d gone up on stage and sang a song I’d dedicated to them when a stunning woman joined me on stage. A single song turned into a mini concert before the beauty disappeared as quickly as she’d appeared.

I glanced heavenward, searching for patience. “You do remember you’re my brother and supposed to have my back?”

“I remember. That’s why I’m trying to do damage control.”

I pulled the phone away from my ear and glared at it before bringing it back. If I weren’t staying with my best friend, Aiden, I would have put him on speaker. “You should give me the benefit of the doubt. I thought you said you believed me about the others.”

A few women that I’d slept had joined together and formed a I hate Nate Bowmen club to make a name for themselves. They sold their stories to tabloids about how I’d bagged them and made them leave in the morning. That bastard was a common phrase among them. What they didn’t say was they knew the score before they took their clothes off. The public was ready to believe the worst of me. Guilty until proven innocence was my fate.

“It doesn’t matter if I believe you or not. It’s about public opinion.”

The political climate in the city I played in was focused on family values, which my critics said I didn’t embody.

“You’ve become the poster boy for why paying millions to athletes is a bad idea,” he continued.

“And the truth doesn’t matter?”

“Bro, your dick pic is out there.” There was that.

“I never consented to that.” I’d been asleep when the woman in question had taken the picture and tried to blackmail me. I’d refused to pay her, and she posted it. My brother wanted to sue her, but I didn’t want to do that either. It would have given her more of a platform.

“And if you hadn’t brought some random chick to your place to fuck, it wouldn’t have happened.”

“Like you don’t do that. Like millions of guys don’t do that.”

“Me and those other guys aren’t paid a hundred million dollars to play baseball. Plus another hundred million-plus in endorsements.”

“Yeah, whatever. The point is, I haven’t touched a woman in months. I’ve been squeaky clean and it’s still not enough.”

“Then why do you sound guilty?” he asked.

Probably because I couldn’t get a woman out of my head. The woman with golden strands like rays of sunlight streaked through her light brown hair.

“I’m not guilty. I sang a song or two at the bar last night and this woman joined me for an impromptu jam session. It’s nothing.” Mitch was quiet. “Are you still there?”

“That’s the thing. When have you ever willingly gone on stage and performed? You’ve never done that, like ever.”

Our mother had had star power and had given up her career as a budding country singer when she’d found out she was pregnant with me. We’d sang at home, and she’d taught my brother and me how to play multiple instruments. The few who’d heard me claimed I had star power, too. But baseball had owned my heart since the very first day I’d caught a ball.

“It was nothing. I sang a song for Aiden and Emma at Pony Up and it went from there. Trust me, I won’t be doing it again.” The gorgeous woman who had joined me had left without ever telling me her name.

“Uh-huh,” he muttered. “That’s where it starts.”

“She’s not interested, and neither am I.” That wasn’t completely true.

“So you say.”

“She left right after without a backward glance.”

Mitch let out a boisterous laugh. “That’s new for you.”

It was. From high school until now, I’d never been turned down by a woman. In fact, most of the time, the women hit on me. “Refreshing, actually.” Turning down women had become a necessary skill. I couldn’t piss anyone off unless I wanted more bad press, whether it was truth or lies.

“I hope so. But if it becomes a problem, I need to know. The sooner the better. I’ve got a call. I’ll catch you later.”

I put my phone down and stopped pacing the room. I couldn’t put off seeing my father any longer. Aiden had offered to go, but I had to do this alone. I hadn’t spoken to Dad in months because he refused to take my calls. Now I got in my car and made the trip to just outside Billings.

The drive went better than I’d thought. The weather had remained dry. My Porsche navigated the roads as easy as a Ford F-250, which was my dad’s preferred vehicle. When I arrived at Mountain Lodge Senior Care and Retirement Facility, I was as impressed as I’d been when I toured the place before putting my father here.

Dad had a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchenette, which I’d selected because of his diminishing mental state. A part of the package included a nurse who would check on him daily, and twenty-four-hour care was also available if needed.

After being checked in, I was given the go-ahead to pass through the security doors to enter the senior living part of the compound. They had homes and apartments for all levels of need.

I took an elevator up in Dad’s condo-style building and made my way to his door. After a knock, his grumbling voice could be heard muffled through the door, saying, “I’m coming.”

The door opened, but I had to push it all the way open to step in. Dad was already retreating to the easy chair I’d brought from the ranch. I closed the door and walked down the short hallway that opened into the living room. He ignored me in favor of the TV.

“Dad,” I said.

He didn’t react, but he’d heard. The tightening of his jaw was sign enough.

It was another minute before he spoke. “You can leave the same way you came.”

Something broke in me when he didn’t even look my way. The twelve-year-old boy who’d looked up to his father like he was a superhero came out when I said, “Dad.” The word cracked as I spoke it. “I just want to know how you’re doing.”

His head slowly swiveled my way. Eyes that used to be warm were empty. That I’m proud of you, son look he used to give me after each of my Little League baseball games was gone. “How do you think I’m doing, Nathaniel? I’m here against my will, put here by my very own son.”

“Dad—”

“Don’t bother to tell me all the reasons you put me here. I supposedly left the gate open on the pen and the horses got out. I fed the cattle lye, which is a lie. I didn’t pay the bills. And nothing I say will make you believe I didn’t do any of it.”

There had been witnesses to the first and the checks Dad said he’d mailed had never been cashed. The house had been in disrepair. With no livestock left and the business in ruins, I’d had no choice. He blamed me, but my brother had also agreed. He’d been the one to file for emergency guardianship over Dad. Only my brother had named me custodian. Thus, Dad blamed me for it all.

“Your mother would be ashamed of you.” That jab hit where it was meant to. Mom had died a few years ago from what the local doc had called a widowmaker heart attack. “As far as I’m concerned, I only have one son now. Best you leave. And don’t come back unless you’re taking me home.”

He shifted his gaze back to the TV. Everything else I tried to say fell on deaf ears. I hung my head and left, heavy with the burden that I’d broken my father more than Mom’s death had. But what choice did I have? The ranch house was uninhabitable until major repairs were done.

I didn’t remember the drive back to Mason’s Creek or how I ended up at Pony Up. The pub was owned by Aiden’s wife, Emma. My best friend had won the lottery with her. He’d crushed on her for so long before he’d finally won her.

Luckily, neither she nor Aiden were there. I filled the hole left by my parents with a couple of fingers of whiskey before I switched to beer. I was watching an NFL game playing on one of the many screens in the bar when Cinderella walked in.