The Ringer

Nessa Russo was dropped off by her date just as a group of men came streaming out of her house. She said goodnight to Howie her date (it was their first outing and Nessa was pretty sure it would be their last too!) and she nodded her greetings to the departing men as she walked up the front walk to her house.

Nessa found her father sitting on the living room couch with a bunch of papers sprawled across the coffee table which he was intently studying. Several beer cans and half eaten bags of chips were strewn about, left behind by the departed guests.

"What was all that about?" Nessa asked her Dad as she stood in the living room doorway.

"Oh, Serguci League stuff," her Dad said with detachment.

"Already?" Nessa asked with surprise. "It's only February."

"Never too early to start," her father replied.

The Serguci League was an eight team amateur baseball league that played a 42 game season per team in Hillsboro's Beano Field from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day. Each team had various sponsors to help offset costs of running the league. Nessa's Dad (who owned Russo's Donut Shop) had been sponsoring the Beansboro Beansters for years.

Ned Russo was a loyal Beanster supporter and Serguci League enthusiast. It's what kept him going, it seemed, since Nessa's mom passed away five years ago and Nessa was glad that her lonely dad had a distraction in his life. He sometimes worked twelve hour days at the donut shop and she worried that he would keel over some morning carrying another batch of pastries from the ovens.

"Well, good luck with that!" Nessa said. "Good night, Dad." She started for the stairs.

"Wait a second, Ness," her father called. "We came up with a new plan and it could affect you."

"A plan?" Nessa frowned as she stepped into the living room and took a seat in one of the easy chairs. "What kind of plan?"

"Well, as you know, the Beansters haven't won a championship in thirty-five years and that was the only one since the heydays of the fifties," her father said.

"Yeah, it's been quite the drought," Nessa said, keenly aware of the team's long unsuccessful history. "You sponsor guys have been great hanging in there with the team."

"We haven't been half bad the last few years and we're thinking with a little extra help this could be the year we finally win again," her father reported.

"A little help?" Nessa asked with confusion.

"The nucleus is there," he said. "Some great guys like the two Sergucis, and Caisse and Bontempi and Benedetti and Siano but we need a couple of more arms and maybe one more big bat to put us over the top."

"Where you going to find those?" Nessa wondered.

"We're going to import them!" Her father said with a huge grin on his face.

"Huh?"

Nessa's father laughed with delight. "We've been networking with some old college buddies and other connections looking for some young talent we can bring to Blue County for the summer," he explained. "We'll give them jobs and a place to stay in exchange for them playing on the Beansters."

"Isn't that against league rules?" Nessa frowned.

"Nope!" Her father exclaimed with a broad smile. "Can't pay 'em to play ball but other than that it's pretty wide open."

"So, you found some guys?"

"Looks like it," her father smiled. "Brad McKay and Denny Donald, two pitchers, and Macro Cappucci, a big hitting first baseman."

"And how is any of this going to affect me?" Nessa wondered.

"Well, I agreed to employ and house one of the players for the summer," he said sheepishly.

"What?" Nessa asked with surprise. "You're going to let a guy we've never even met before live with us?"

"Just for three months," he reasoned.

"Which one?" Nessa asked.

"McKay, one of the pitchers," her dad revealed. "My old college pal Mike Henshaw found him for us."

"You're going to have him making donuts?" Nessa laughed.

"No, probably not, but he can help clean up and make some of the deliveries and that sort of stuff," he said.

"I don't know, Dad, all this sounds kind of suspect," Nessa replied.

"I don't care anymore," her father groaned. "I'd like to sponsor a winner just once in my life."

"And bringing in Three Ringers is going to do that?" Nessa challenged.

"Maybe," he said hopefully.

"Well, good luck with that!" Nessa laughed as she stood. "I can't believe my own father is going to let some boy stranger live with us."

"Think Championship, Ness," her father replied absent-mindedly as he glanced at some of the paperwork.

"'Night, Daddy," Nessa said with an eye roll as she headed for the stairs.

Nessa didn't spend a whole lot of time thinking about The Ringer or the Serguci League. She was focused on finishing her senior year of high school, the prom (not that she really wanted to go) and graduation. She hoped to enjoy the final months of her high school career and summer seemed a long time away. She worked the occasional shift at the front counter of the donut shop and she picked up a few hours at the community pre-school when she could (she had been accepted as an Early Childhood Education student at Green College in the fall) and all of that kept her busy.

Nessa's best friend Donna kept riding her about getting a prom date but Nessa hadn't been all that interested in the dating life. Since her Mom died, Nessa's attention and concern had been on helping her Dad around the house and making sure he was doing okay while also doing the best she could as a student so she wouldn't end up working at the donut shop full time after graduation.

Nessa's Dad mentioned The Ringer a few times during the next few months. They cleaned up the small third bedroom at the end of the hall for his use. Nessa went so far as to buy a new bedspread, sheets and towels for the room and she removed all the 'old lady' photos from the dresser and bedside table (her grandmother had once used the room for a prolonged period of time when Nessa was a small child). But overall, Nessa didn't think much about the guest to be or how having some random guy living in the house might be weird or different despite Donna's teasing and suggestive overtures.

"Now you'll have no choice but to give a guy the time of day!" Donna laughed.

Nessa rolled her eyes, annoyed with Donna's sometimes sappy attitude about guys and boyfriends. Nessa found the topic somewhat boring and immature. She had plenty of guy friends at school, boys she talked to – mostly about school stuff – but what was wrong with that? Why did she need to be somebody's girlfriend?

The month of May arrived quicker than Nessa had anticipated. Her platonic (and allegedly gay) friend Andrew agreed to be Nessa's Prom "Date" at the Sun Rise Lake Inn and they had a nice evening among friends but she was home by one a.m. Now the only hurdle left was graduation the first week in June. But before that was her father's much ballyhooed arrival of The Ringer, this guy named Brad McKay.

The Serguci League season opened on the Thursday evening of Memorial Day weekend and Nessa's Dad announced that The Ringer would be arriving on that Tuesday once he was done with finals at the junior college he was attending in Rhode Island. It was after seven o'clock that evening when Nessa and her Dad heard a car pull into the driveway.

"He's here!" Nessa's Dad exclaimed with excitement, making it sound like Santa had just arrived.

Nessa laughed at her father's giddiness. "Calm down, Dad, I'm sure he's not Pedro Martinez."

"You never know," her father winked as they headed for the front door.

It was nice to see her father looking chipper again. He had put on thirty pounds since Nessa's mom died and his hairline was rapidly receding as well as prematurely turning gray. He was only in his mid-forties but he looked sixty, the weight and sorrow of his wife's loss taking its toll on him physically and emotionally. If The Ringer gave her Dad something to hope for, Nessa was okay with that.

There was a fancy sporty late model black Lexus convertible in the driveway when Nessa and her father came out of the house. A tall, thin blond haired guy was lifting a couple of duffle bags out of the back seat. He was wearing khaki shorts, a polo shirt and sandals. An expensive class ring was on his finger and some sort of locket hung loosely around his neck.

"Your Ringer appears to be Richie Rich," Nessa whispered to her father.

"Nobody's going to smash into my car if I park it here, right?" The guy asked with concern, glancing up the driveway to where Mr. Russo's sedan and Nessa's mother's old mini-van that Nessa now drove were both parked.

"We'll be sure to drive around your chariot," Nessa assured him.

"It's not supposed to rain tonight, is it?" the guy worried.

Nessa glanced up at the clear skies. "I doubt it," she said.

"You can park in the garage from now on," Nessa's dad informed the guest. "Hi," he said, welcoming The Ringer by extending his host hand. "I'm Ned Russo. This is my daughter, Nessa. Welcome to Hillsboro."

"Thanks," the guy smiled. "I'm Brad McKay but I'm sure you already knew that."

"Yes, we did," Nessa said sarcastically.

Mr. Russo took one of Brad's bags and started for the house. "Be sure to make yourself at home," the older man encouraged. "I sleep like a hibernating bear so you won't disturb me."

"Thanks," Brad replied, checking out the outside of the house as they walked.

"Have any trouble finding the place?" Mr. Russo asked.

"No, GPS made it easy," Brad noted.

"Did you happen to drive by Beano Field on your way in?" Mr. Russo asked with interest as they entered the house.

"No, missed it, I guess," Brad replied.

Nessa tried to keep the house the way her mother left it five years earlier. It was neat and orderly, clean and presentable. The rugs were starting to fade and the furniture was the same as when her parents bought the place but it still looked like home to her.

Mr. Russo gave their house guest a quick tour of the first floor (living room, small dining room, moderate size kitchen, closet, half bath, small drawing room, back screened in porch) and Nessa took the guest upstairs to show him his digs for the summer. The second floor consisted of her father's master bedroom, her second bedroom, the full bath, a linen closet, and the smaller bedroom at the end of the hall.

"This is where you're staying," Nessa announced as she brought the smaller bag she had taken from her father into The Ringer's new room.

"Quaint," Brad replied as he stuck his head through the door and glanced around. "But I'd rather have your room."

"Sorry, already taken," Nessa replied.

"We could always share," he grinned.

Nessa was momentarily offended but then she quickly realized that this was his shtick - the ball player was a player! Of course, made sense. Richie Rich talented ball player foolishly believed he was a celebrity in a small town, a hunk in the eyes of the naive high school girl.

"What the hell are you doing?" She frowned, staring at him with disbelief.

"What do you mean?" He asked innocently.

"You're in my father's house for three minutes and already you're hitting on his teenaged daughter?" Nessa asked with disgust. "How 'bout I go downstairs right now and tell him? You want to head back to where you came from before you even throw a pitch?"

"Newport."

"What?"

"I came from Newport," he said.

"Who cares?"

"I know you do," he smirked.

She winced. "You really are pathetic, aren't you?"

"I bet your Dad won't get angry with me even once this summer," Brad Richie Rich McKay predicted. "He wants to win a championship so bad he wouldn't care if I took naked photographs of you out on the roof in front of the entire neighborhood."

"Don't demean my father," Nessa warned.

"The Beansters haven't won since 1980, right?"

"Right," she admitted.

"And before that it was 1962?"

"Oh, you've been doing your research on the team and the league," Nessa realized. "Good for you. So you also know that the league started in 1948, founded by Benjamin T. Serguci in the old Army Supply Depot ball park in honor of his son Benardo 'Beano' who was killed in World War II?"

"Yep," Brad replied as he began to unpack his bags and put his clothes in the dresser. "The Hillsboro Beansters were pretty good that first decade or so, winning the most championships with all those Serguci brothers and cousins and friends playing together."

The flagship team of the league," Nessa said.

"But then those guys started aging out, the league expanded, competition improved and teams like the Giants, Mudhens and Browns all enjoyed their own dynasties over the years," Brad said.

"Mostly the Giants and Browns the last few decades," Nessa revealed.

"Well, I'm here to get the Beansters back to the promised land," Brad grinned.

"All by yourself?" Nessa asked sarcastically.

"You haven't seen me pitch," He smirked.

"That's all you've been doing since you got here," Nessa frowned. Then she crossed her arms across her chest. "You know, I've seen countless guys pitch in the Serguci League. And my father has had plenty of Beansters here in the house over the years. Trust me, I'm not some baseball groupie and if you think I'm going to be swooning over you all summer you really are delusional. You're here to play baseball and help my father and the team. You'll make your fourteen starts and then you'll head back to Newport and life will go on no differently than it would have had you never come in the first place."

"Except that the Beansters win," Brad grinned.

"We'll see," Nessa said.

"Yes we will," Brad said confidently. "And you'll love me for it."

"I already think you're the biggest fraud I've met in my life."

"Be cool," Brad told her, amused by her reaction to his presence.

Nessa rolled her eyes and left the room, debating whether she should go downstairs and tell her father his Ringer was a total slime ball but she figured she'd give the (ball) player the benefit of the doubt and a second chance - at least until he pitched his first game.

Nessa met her father coming up the stairs.

"Everything okay?" He asked.

"Sure, Dad," Nessa smiled. "Brad's just getting comfortable in there."

"Okay," her father smiled. "I'm beat and morning comes early. Good night, Ness."

"Night, Dad."

Nessa watched her father slowly walked into his bedroom. He was a quiet man but he was friendly at the donut shop and at Beano Field when promoting the Beansters. Otherwise, he kept to himself, especially since the death of his wife, but he was attentive toward Nessa and he was always interested in her day although sometimes Nessa got the impression her Dad really didn't care about anything anymore and that he simply went through the motions, still grieving the loss of his wife all these years later.

When the door to her Dad's bedroom closed, Nessa wasn't sure what to do with herself. They didn't have guests in the house very often and she could hear The Ringer moving around in the small bedroom. She went downstairs to make sure her Dad had turned off the television and locked the front door although she wasn't sure if Brad was in for the night or if he was going to go out exploring (or something else).

The Ringer came down the stairs wearing gym shorts with a Salve Regina tee shirt and sandals.

"You didn't really go there, did you?" Nessa asked standing by the front door which she was double checking, noticing the prestigious college emblem on his shirt.

"Why wouldn't I?" he asked with a grin.

"I thought you were at some junior college," Nessa remarked.

"I am," Brad confirmed. "After I flunked out of Regina. I hope to make my way back there."

"You flunked out?" She frowned, giving him the critical eye.

"I'm not just some dumb jock," The Ringer let her know. "But I did party too much and goof off and that's what happens when you don't 'buckle down' as my dear ole Dad would say."

"Well, I'm sorry that happened to you," Nessa said.

"Don't be," he replied, standing at the bottom of the stairs. "I'm sure you're smug thinking the great one isn't so perfect after all."

Nessa felt a bit humbled but she didn't say anything.

"I was going to go put the roof up on the chariot," The Ringer remarked sarcastically. "You in for the night? Past your little girl bed time? Or do you want to show me around for a few minutes?"

Nessa ignored his condescending insinuations. "I'd be happy to show you around so you know where you're going," she said.

"Thank you," he said piously.

Nessa unlocked the door and they headed outside into the late evening. It was relatively comfortable for a May evening in New England but Brad put the roof up on the car anyway. Nessa smoothed out her curly auburn hair as she took a seat in his plush sports car and she directed him out of the neighborhood and showed him the quickest way to get to Beano Field.

Brad was impressed when he saw the green ball park.

"Looks a lot like Cardines Field," he observed.

"What's that?"

"One of the oldest ballparks in the country," Brad replied as they climbed out the car and walked closer to the ball park. "They call it a small urban gem. It's right downtown in Newport unlike this that sits in the middle of a neighborhood."

"This entire area was once an Army Supply Depot," Nessa explained. "The Serguci family built all these houses but kept the ball park. There's a tavern in that old warehouse along the right field line and a Serguci League museum and offices too."

"If I remember correctly, Cardines Field is named after a guy name Bernardo too," Brad said as he peeked through a small chain linked fence at the baseball diamond inside the park, lit up by several flood lights. "He was the first Newport son to die in World War I."

"Do they still play ball there?" Nessa wondered.

"Yeah, the Sunset League, an amateur league like the Serguci League," Brad replied. "Plus the local high school, Babe Ruth, American Legion and some colleges. It's really a nice place to play."

"You played there?" Nessa asked with surprise.

"Two years with R& R Legion," Brad replied. "I thought I'd pitched there with Salve Regina too but I blew that," he added sadly.

"Why'd you come here?" Nessa asked.

"Sunset League only has six teams and plays a 20 game schedule," he replied, still staring at the green grass of Beano Field. "You have eight teams here and play a 42 game schedule. I thought it might be a bit more fulfilling. Plus, I needed an excuse to get away from the family for a while," he admitted in a rare moment of vulnerable honesty.

"Why?" She wondered.

Brad ignored her question while giving the park one last long look. "I look forward to playing here," he said with enthusiasm before finally breaking away. "Anything else I need to know about?"

They walked back to the car in the parking lot across the street from the park and Nessa directed him around town, showing him where Russo's Donut Shop was since that's where he was – in theory – going to be working! She also pointed out Johnny C's Diner, the Hillsboro Pizza House, Fontaine's Family Grocery Store, and the Hillsboro Elementary School where the Beansters sometimes worked out and practiced.

"Hillsboro is pretty easy to figure out," Nessa concluded as they drove back to the house. "It's laid out fairly simply. The downtown area. The flats section. The richy Hilltop section. The neighborhoods by the river and canals. The more rural areas as you get out on Route 36. Greenville is the bigger town across the river and it has a lot of the chain restaurants and stuff."

"Great, thanks for the tour," Brad said, pulling the car into the driveway and parking on the grass next to the garage. "I think I'll be able to find my way around."

"No problem," Nessa replied effortlessly as she climbed out of the car. "I hope you have a good summer."

"You doing anything tomorrow?" Brad asked hopefully as he followed her toward the house.

Nessa rolled her eyes and glared at him. "Hello!?" she said sarcastically. "I'm still in high school. I graduate in a few weeks. I'll be in school tomorrow."

"You could skip," he said mischievously as he followed her onto the back screened in porch.

Nessa blushed slightly. "Brad," she said impatiently. "I was serious about what I said before. Please don't make me feel uncomfortable in my own house."

"How am I doing that?" he asked innocently as Nessa unlocked the kitchen door.

"Why don't you think of me as your kid sister?" Nessa suggested as she opened the door and led him into the kitchen.

"I really like my sisters, Nessa," he smirked.

"You really are a perverted jerk," she protested, handing him an extra set of keys to the house from a key rack hanging on the wall. "Here," she said. "Now you can come and go as you please. I hope it's mostly go," she added humorously.

"So, Nessa's short for Vanessa?" Brad guessed.

"Right," Nessa replied. "Food and snacks are in these cupboards, dishes and glasses are in those," she said, gesturing toward various cabinets around the kitchen. "I assume you'll be buying your own choices if you don't like what I cook for supper."

"Maybe I'll call you Van," Brad said.

"Yeah, like that's really original," Nessa replied, rolling her eyes again. "How old are you, exactly?"

"Twenty," Brad replied.

"When are you going to start acting it?" Nessa wondered. "Good night, Brad."

"Good night, Nessa Van," Brad smirked as he watched her leave the kitchen.

Was that guy a Jekyll and Hyde psycho-pervert or just an immature spoiled richy rich clueless jocko show off? Nessa wondered as she went up to her bedroom. Even though he was forward and foolish, he was definitely good looking, obviously came from a family with money and status and in his own way he was kind of endearing but Nessa knew she didn't have time to waste on his act and that she wasn't interested in his adolescent games.

Nessa's Dad was long gone when she arose in the morning, as usual. His day started at 4:30 a.m. and sometimes he didn't get home until 6:30 at night. The door to The Ringer's room was still closed. Nessa stepped into the bathroom, hesitated for a moment, and then locked the door behind her. She felt sort of paranoid being so defensive but even if Brad didn't purposely violate her personal space accidents still happened and she didn't want any awkward moments between them. She still needed to figure this guy out – was he just some Shallow Hal jerk-off or did he have any redeeming characteristics that she could enjoy?

Donna was full of questions when Nessa arrived at school but Nessa downplayed The Ringer's relevance and even presence.

"He's just a guy who throws a baseball," Nessa insisted whenever Donna brought up the subject of The Ringer.

Nessa was busy wrapping up on the loose ends as the school year (and her high school career) drew to a close. There was turning over the reins of the student government to next year's slate, publishing the final edition of the school paper 'The Hurricane' before letting next year's editor take full control, and having final meetings between the Teacher-Student Advisory group of which Nessa was a member. It had been a wonderful high school experience and while she was sad to see it coming to a close, Nessa was looking forward to her summer job as an child's aide at the Hillsboro Community Center and then beginning college at Green in the fall.

Nessa's platonic friend Andrew had agreed to be her graduation partner even though Donna razzed her for 'playing it safe' with 'Gay Andrew' instead of taking a chance with 'real guys'.

"Your cop out for the past four years has been your friendship with Drew," Donna complained. "Knowingly paling with a homo kept your clothes on for sure."

"So what?" Was always Nessa's response which only infuriated Donna.

"Such a waste," Donna would moan. "You're beautiful, you're sexy, and any guy would want you, but you act like a lesbo."

"And you sound like a tramp when you say stupid stuff like that," Nessa pointed out. "I don't need a guy in my life to make me feel happy."

"How would you know unless you tried it?" Donna would counter.

"It will happen when it happens," Nessa said with confidence. "Until then, I'm happy with who I am."

"How sad for you," Donna would beseech.

Nessa arrived home around four o'clock to find Brad sitting on the living room couch with several books spread out on the coffee table and a lap top computer on his knees. He was wearing the same clothes as the previous night.

"Going over scouting reports?" Nessa asked sarcastically.

"Actually, I'm taking a few on-line courses for credit this summer," The Ringer replied. "Need to catch up."

"Oh, sorry," Nessa replied sheepishly. "You manage okay today alone?"

"I'm a big boy," he responded. "Jogged ten miles this morning. Stopped by the shop and got the low-down on donuts. Took a nap."

Nessa laughed at the nap part. "I was going to make a stew for supper."

"I'm meeting my new team at six," Brad replied. "I'll get something while I'm out."

"Enjoy," she said, heading for the kitchen.

"Do you want to come to practice with me?" Brad asked hopefully, following her through the swinging door into the kitchen.

"No," Nessa replied.

"Why not?" He sounded hurt.

"B-O-R-I-N-G," Nessa replied.

"I'm never boring," Brad assured her.

"Baseball's boring," Nessa responded

"Don't you go to games at Beano?" Brad asked with surprise.

"Not when I can help it," she told him.

"That's not being very supportive of your Dad," Brad pouted.

"I'm cooking his supper," Nessa pointed out as she took various vegetables out of the refrigerator. "How much more supportive can I be!?"

"How'd your mother die?" Brad asked bluntly as he took a seat at the kitchen table.

"In her sleep," Nessa said softly. "Massive brain hemorrhage. She was thirty-eight years old."

"I'm sorry," Brad offered.

"Yeah, me too," Nessa replied. "Worse day of my life."

"So, it's just you and your Dad?"

"We're doing okay."

"He works a lot," Brad observed.

"He does."

"But they seem to love him at the shop."

"Yep."

"You work there?"

"Once in a while," Nessa answered as she started to sauté the stew beef in a frying pan. "But Early Childhood Education is going to be my major in college so I do a lot of work at the community center – pre K and playgroups and that sort of stuff. That's what I'm going to be doing all summer."

"Sounds interesting," Brad replied.

"What's your major supposed to be?" Nessa wondered, throwing him a glance.

"Haven't figured that one out yet," Brad said with a shrug. "I'm supposed to be following my father into the family business so I should pick Business but somehow I just can't pull the trigger on that."

"You'll figure it out," Nessa told him.

She could feel his eyes on him as she went through the preparations and Nessa tried not to let it affect her.

"Your father doesn't expect you to take over the donuts?"

"Nope," Nessa replied readily.

"That sure does take the pressure off."

"Yep."

"And you don't feel guilty about it?"

"Why should I?" Nessa asked, throwing him another glance.

Brad didn't answer and she could see that he was deep in thought.

"Maybe I'll take in a game or two during the course of the summer," Nessa told him after a few quiet moments.

"I'd like that," Brad smiled.

She poured water into a pan to boil the vegetables and when she looked up again she discovered that Brad had left the room.

Nessa didn't hear Brad come in that evening and she was surprised the next morning as she stood in the kitchen eating a bowl of cereal when Brad came barging through the door all sweaty from another jog.

"You're up early," she said.

"I am," Brad confirmed with a grin.

"And you were out late last night," Nessa noted.

"Don't worry, Mom," Brad said sarcastically as he took a long swig from his water bottle. "Some of my new teammates took me out to The Bullpen."

"You're not twenty-one yet," Nessa said with surprise.

"The guy behind the bar didn't ask," Brad grinned. "Had to jog off what I drank last night."

"Don't get kicked off the team before you throw your first pitch," Nessa advised.

"Relax," Brad told her, taking a seat at the kitchen table.

"Did you meet the two other Ringers?" Nessa asked curiously.

"We are now The Three Amigos," Brad smirked.

"And the rest of the guys don't resent you?"

"Everybody just wants to win, Nessa Van," Brad said. "Cereal?" He asked, gesturing toward the bowl she was holding.

"I don't have time to make scrumptious breakfasts the way my mom used to," Nessa sighed.

"I'll have some of your scrumptious left over stew for lunch if that's okay," Brad said.

"Sure, help yourself," Nessa replied. "What else you going to do today?"

"My on-line stuff," Brad shrugged. "Check out the donut shop again. Not much."

"Guess Hillsboro isn't as exciting as Newport," Nessa said.

"I'm okay with that," Brad replied.

Nessa wanted to ask The Ringer what all the mystery was about Newport and his family but she really didn't need to get involved in his personal life. He was just a guy taking a room in her house to be a Ringer throwing a baseball to help out her father and the Beansters. She put her empty bowl in the sink.

"Well, have a nice day," she said, grabbing her book bag and heading for the kitchen door.

"You too!" The Ringer called after her.

When Nessa returned home from school that afternoon Brad was once again seated on the living room couch with his paperwork spread all over the coffee table and the lap top on his knees.

"How was the stew?" Nessa sked.

"Scrumptious," he told her with a grin. "Just like you, I'm sure."

It was his first player remark in a while so Nessa chose to ignore it. "And the donut shop?" She asked instead.

"Your father showed me how to work the cash register," Brad reported.

"That's it?" Nessa frowned. "That was your work day?"

"It was very exhausting, that cash register," Brad smirked.

"Sounds like you're in for a really tough summer," Nessa said sarcastically as she headed for the kitchen.

"Well, it's not as if I need the money!" Brad laughed as he followed her through the swinging door again.

"I was going to make American Chop Suey," Nessa announced. "You okay with that?"

"Sure," Brad replied, taking a seat at the kitchen table.. "The Browns and Giants are opening the season tonight. I thought I'd go scope it out for a couple of innings. You want to join me?"

Nessa was surprised by the invite. "Aren't any of the new Amigos or other Beansters going?"

"I didn't ask," Brad said. "I just want to see the level of competition. We won't stay long."

"I'll think about it," Nessa replied, smiling cheekily knowing she was in the position to toy with him just a little even though she could care less about the game or even hanging out with him.

"You do that," Brad replied.

Nessa leaned over to get a big pot out from one of the lower cabinets and when she turned around Brad was gone from the room.

"I really wish he'd stop doing that," she muttered to herself.

Nessa's Dad arrived home in time for the meal and Brad joined them at the kitchen table. They talked mostly Serguci League baseball which Nessa found boring but she half-listened, semi-amused at some of the back and forth between The Ringer and her father. After they were done eating and cleaning up, the three left for the game, Nessa's Dad taking his own car so he could leave when he wanted. Nessa was momentarily torn between ride allegiances but when her father didn't even wait for her she figured she was meant to go with Brad anyway.

Opening Night always brought in a good crowd and tonight was no exception as it was hard to find a seat. Brad and Nessa met up with her father and they ended up seated far down the right field line in the end of the bleachers, without a roof over them. Not the best seats in the house but there really wasn't a bad seat in the house anyway.

Mr. Russo lasted into the third inning, giving Brad the play by play, blow by blow, and his scouting reports on the various players before excusing himself.

"Morning comes quickly," he said in saying his good nights.

That left Nessa seated alone with Brad and they watched a couple of more innings without saying much. Greenville was beating Hilltop 3-2 when Brad said he had enough.

"I don't like watching games I'm not playing in," he explained as they left the park.

"So, what'd you think?" Nessa asked as they walked to the car.

"Pretty good players," Brad replied. "Good quality of play. Stiff competition. Should be interesting."

"What about the park?" Nessa asked. "They say it's the nuance of the park that makes the games fun to watch."

"I don't pay attention to that stuff," Brad replied. "When I'm on the mound, I'm in a zone – a trance – and when I'm not pitching, I'd rather be anywhere else but at the park."

"Oh," Nessa replied.

"But I understand all that stuff," Brad said as they climbed into the car. "The poetry of baseball and all that. I have nothing against it. I just don't have the time for it."

"Too bad," Nessa replied. "It's the only reason I go to a game in the first place."

"You want to go for a ride or something?" Brad asked as he drove the car out of the parking lot.

"I don't think so," Nessa replied.

"Don't you want to be seen around town in a cool car with a cool guy?" He teased.

"What cool guy?" Nessa teased back. "I don't need a reputation like that, thank you very much."

"Well, we can find the back roads then," Brad suggested. "Out by the River or farm pastures or something where nobody will see us?"

"My father didn't bring you here to ring his daughter, Brad," Nessa pointed out.

"He wouldn't have to know," Brad replied effortlessly.

"Just take me home," Nessa replied.

"Are you going to play this game all summer?" Brad sighed.

"Look, I'm sure you seduce plenty of girls," Nessa replied. "Have your groupies and your Baseball Annies. And I could climb into the back seat with you right now and you could have your fun but then you'd be done with me and you'd move on to your next conquest and that would make for one long awkward summer if you were to stay at our house after doing that to me so if you wouldn't mind I'd rather keep my virtues and integrity in tack so why don't you just take me home, okay big brother?"

"Have it your way," Brad replied coldly and he drove her home without a further word being exchanged between the two.

Nessa didn't see Brad the following morning when she came down for breakfast before school. She didn't want to feel uncomfortable in her own house but she wasn't about to let The Ringer ring her bell either. She felt guilty for putting him on (final) notice the previous evening but she knew with guys like that you had to be crystal clear or they'd be relentless in their pursuit.

Donna was unaware of all that, of course, and she continued to harass Nessa about her house guest.

"Hey Nessa," Donna said, catching up with her friend at their lockers. "How's the stud?"

"Same as he was yesterday," Nessa replied, though that wasn't really true after she verbally cut him off at the knees.

"Is your plan to give him blue balls all summer?" Donna frowned.

"I'm sure he'll find plenty of interested girls," Nessa said, although she had a feeling that it was the uninterested girls that intrigued Brad the most.

"And you'll regret not being one of them," Donna predicted.

"Why would I want to degrade and demean myself like that?" Nessa asked.

"Oh, I don't know," Donna replied sarcastically. "To finally get laid maybe?"

"It will happen when it happens." Nessa gave her stock answer.

"Okay," Donna groaned. "Whatever you say."

Nessa cleared her throat, knowing she had now alienated both Brad and Donna. "I don't know why we always have to talk about sex," Nessa complained.

"What else is there to talk about?" Donna smirked. .

"Why do you even care about any of this?" Nessa sighed.

"Because I hate seeing you deprive yourself like you do," Donna answered truthfully.

"You worry too much," Nessa said knowingly.

"You worry too little," Donna countered but the first bell went off to end the conversation.

The Ringer wasn't there when Nessa got home that afternoon and she feared he didn't want to see her. It was the Beansters' first game of the season. Veteran Chuck Barone was starting but Brad was required to attend the game and sit in the bullpen in uniform so maybe he left for the park early. Nessa's Dad called and said he'd grab a dog at the park (he went to most of the Beanster games as a proud sponsor) but Nessa had no interest in attending, especially if Brad was still put out by her attitude the previous night.

Nessa was still awake when her father got home – The Beansters beat the Lions 5-4 to begin the season on a positive note and Mr. Russo was in a great mood.

"We're undefeated!" he joked. But soon he was heading up the stairs. "Morning comes quickly," he sighed.

"I'll see you at work, Dad!" Nessa called after him. She usually worked the Saturday morning shift at the donut shop.

Nessa waited a while to see if Brad would show up, feeling the need to try to semi-apologize or at least let him know that he didn't have to hide from her but he didn't arrive by the time she turned in a little after eleven.

Nessa arose at her usual time the next morning but there was no sign of Brad. Her father was already at the donut shop and she soon joined him for her shift.

Russo's Donut Shop was open from 6: a.m. to 3:00 p.m. The shop made fresh pastry and donuts every day, including bagels. There was a counter area and a sit down booth section as well. The shop also featured a light lunch offering of various bagel sandwiches and pig-in-the blankets as well as Ned's home made chili.

Nessa's Uncle Jim was the overnight baker and her father was usually on site for most of the work day. There was a small crew of various part time waitresses and assistants, including Nessa.

Russo's had been a local institution in various incarnations since the 1930s. Ned was a third generation proprietor and the shop enjoyed the reputation as a friendly neighborhood hang out with a legend of regular customers loyal to the business. It offered a welcomed alternative to the national chains and displayed a local motif, including several historic photos of Hillsboro, Beano Field, and a few well-known local personalities.

Nessa enjoyed working the counter. People were friendly and fun, the conversation lively and good humored, and the banter enjoyable. While her heart lay with Early Childhood Education she certainly wasn't adverse to working the occasional shift in the donut shop alongside several cousins. Her mother had also worked at the shop over the years.

Nessa didn't see Brad enter with the blonde on his arm until they were seated at the counter, giggling and goofing around as if they had been long time lovers. Nessa rolled her eyes knowing The Ringer had probably picked up the girl the previous night. Nessa let Janice wait on them but she could feel Brad's eyes on her as she worked the other end of the counter.

Ned came out from the back and made a big announcement about Brad being with the Beansters and how he was going to help the team win this year. Several customers then talked baseball with him for several minutes and the blonde girl by his side loved the attention. Nessa was surprised that she was feeling slightly envious, jealous and annoyed that Brad showed up with a girl even though Nessa had no reason to feel any of those things. What did she care?

"Bye, Nessa Van!" Brad shouted as he and the girl left the shop a half hour later.

Nessa glanced up to see Brad waving at her with a huge grin on his face and she couldn't believe it when she realized she had stuck her tongue out at the guy. Real mature, Nessa, she thought to herself.

Nessa worked until one and then she headed home to do some laundry and other chores. She was vacuuming when Brad came into the house around four and if he had been offended or insulted by her comments the other night he was hardly showing any effect of them now, a huge wide grin pasted on his face. Nessa turned off the vacuum cleaner and eyed him as he plopped down on the living room couch.

"Who's the girl?" Nessa asked, immediately beating herself up for starting the conversation with such a moronically stupid question.

"Jackie," Brad announced proudly. "What'd you think of her?"

"Where'd you find her?

"She's the sister of one of the guys."

"Oh yeah? "What's her last name?" Nessa tested.

"I don't know," Brad shrugged, confirming Nessa's suspicions that poor Jackie was just another one of Brad's sad pickups.

"Figures," she mumbled.

"What do you care?" Brad asked with annoyance, hopping up from the couch and folding his arms across his chest.

"I don't," Nessa replied, trying not to sound defensive.

"Yeah?" He challenged.

"Yeah!" She barked,. "Why don't you get lost and stop bothering me?"

"Bothering you by having a girl?"

"No, bothering me by being a jerk," she huffed.

"Did it ever occur to you that maybe you're the jerk!?" Brad asked.

"Yeah, a jerk that lets you stay here," she grumbled.

"Your father is the one letting me stay here," Brad bragged.

"Be careful, Stud," Nessa warned. "I have the power of having you out on your ass in a heartbeat if I wanted."

"Oh, poor little Nessa Van," Brad said sarcastically.

She felt the anger boiling inside of her. "What the hell is your problem?" She demanded.

"You're the one with the problem," Brad countered.

She felt her face getting red. She sucked in her breath and returned the vacuum cleaner to the closet. "I don't know how people put up with you," Nessa said when she returned to the living room.

"Just leave me alone, Nessa," Brad sighed. "How old are you anyway, thirteen?"

"God, I hate you!" She yelled before trumping up the stairs in anger.

Nessa stewed in her bedroom for a while, not quite sure why she got so upset in the first place. Why'd she even bother asking him who the girl was? Why did she fly off the handle so quickly when he razzed her? What in the hell was wrong with her?

She heard voices downstairs and she realized that her father was home. She glanced at the clock and realized she needed to get dinner started. Nessa sucked in her breath and told herself not to be so emotional as she went downstairs.

"Hi, Daddy," Nessa said cheerfully as she blew through the living room where her father and Brad were watching a ball game on the television. "Chili-mac okay for supper?"

"Sure," her father replied pleasantly.

Nessa felt Brad's eyes on her but she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of looking at him as she darted for the kitchen to begin meal preparations. Brad entered a few minutes later to pour himself a glass of water.

"Here to be mean to me again?" Nessa wanted to know.

Brad laughed. "You're the one acting all weird."

"No I'm not," she said forcefully but when she looked up again Brad was gone.

Nessa made the dinner trying to keep her head clear of emotions and resentments. The threesome ate together which was nice in a strange way even if the conversation was mostly about Serguci League baseball with a few asides about Jackie tossed in. Nessa noticed that Brad smirked at her whenever Jackie's name was mentioned.

Nessa assumed Brad would be heading out the door as soon as dinner was over but it was Brad who reminded her that he was pitching tomorrow and didn't want to be out carousing the night before a big game.

"No pressure," Nessa's father joked.

"I'm taking my first start for the Beansters very seriously," Brad said.

Nessa was impressed by that attitude but she couldn't resist making one zing his way. "Whatever will poor Jackie do without you tonight?"

Brad just laughed in reply.

It was Nessa's Dad who suggested a couple games of Scrabble to help keep Brad relaxed and that worked well. The Ringer was impressively sharp with his use of letters and knowledge of words. Mr. Russo eventually went to bed – the shop was open until noon on Sundays, one of the busiest days of the week and once again Nessa found herself alone with Brad.

"Sorry about….." Nessa sighed, unable to articulate what she was actually sorry about as they sat across from one another at the kitchen table.

"Everything's cool," Brad assured her.

"Okay," Nessa said.

"Jackie's fun," Brad let her know.

"Great," Nessa said, standing. "You should get your rest. Big day tomorrow."

She began putting the Scrabble game away.

"Your father said it was okay if I had girls over," Brad informed her.

"Not all night," Nessa frowned.

"I wasn't specific about that," Brad acknowledged.

"I'd appreciate it if you didn't have girls upstairs all night," Nessa said through gritted teeth. "This is my home, not yours. You're just a temporary nuisance."

"Would it bother you that much?" Brad wondered.

"Yes, it would," Nessa said curtly.

"Why?" Brad asked with a raised eyebrow.

"It just makes things even more awkward," Nessa replied.

"Awkward how?" Brad asked with interest.

"Just don't."

"I'll think about it," Brad replied with an annoying tweak in his tone.

"God, what a jerk," Nessa groaned as she left the room in controlled anger, throwing the Scrabble box back in the living room chest drawer before charging up the stairs three at a time.

Nessa tried to convince herself that she didn't want other girls on the second floor because she didn't want to have to share the bathroom with more people or that it might seem weird with her father down the hall and not because the girl would be sharing a bed with Brad but she had a hard time letting go of that reality. She didn't want to hear any sounds of sex drifting down the hall and she didn't want to think about Brad making love to some other girl mere feet from her own room. She really shouldn't care, of course, but for some strange reason she did and that had her more upset than anything else. What was wrong with her?

Sundays was the only day Nessa could sleep in. Sometimes she worked the morning shift at the donut shop but only as a last resort when staffing was uncontrollably short. She liked grabbing a few extra hours of sleep on quiet Sunday mornings and that's exactly what she did on this day, arising at a leisurely pace well after ten.

She didn't see any signs of Brad which was okay with her. She was starting to think that maybe the less she saw of The Ringer the better since lately all she felt was weird emotions whenever they were together. Nessa's Dad called and said he was heading straight to Beano Field after work. The Beansters were playing an afternoon doubleheader against the White Sox, but Denny Donald was throwing the first game so Nessa had plenty of time to decide whether or not she wanted to show up to watch Brad pitch the second contest.

Nessa did another load of laundry although she noticed Brad hadn't put any of his clothes in the bathroom hamper. She ventured into his room to see if there were any clothes lying about but she felt like a snooper so she left without looking around too much, although she noticed several books on the bedside table and some small weights on the floor in the corner.

It was nearly three o'clock when Nessa finally decided to take a long walk to Beano Field. It was a warm sunny Sunday afternoon and she enjoyed the fresh air. The first game was still going when she arrived at the ball park, Denny Donald out of the game for a reliever with the Beansters ahead 5-2. The crowd seemed to be in a good mood and Nessa saw her Dad sitting by himself on the third base side of the park so she joined him. She saw Brad sitting in the Beanster dugout and she noticed Jackie and a group of other girls sitting in the stands behind the dugout.

Nessa's Dad was thrilled when The Beansters won the game and Nessa was glad for him, giving him encouragement as she watched Brad slowly emerge from the dugout and take a leisurely walk toward the bullpen to begin preparing for his start. He noticed Nessa watching him so he tipped his hat and winked before turning around to face Jackie behind the dugout, blowing her a kiss.

"Such a jerk," Nessa mumbled to herself but she couldn't stop looking at him.

Nessa had to admit that Brad looked impressive in his fine-fitting Beanster uniform, which was sort of an off-tan on white with pull over jerseys with "Beansboro" lettering across the chest and BB on the tan ball caps. Brad did some stretching on the bullpen grass and then he loosened up his arm, then he jogged back and forth along the outfield three or four times, and then he did some soft tossing to a fellow pitcher and then the backup catcher joined the group and Brad began warming up by throwing harder to the catcher's mitt.

"He looks pretty good," Nessa's Dad observed.

"As long as he doesn't leave it in the bullpen," Nessa replied.

Brad eventually made the walk in to the dugout and before long the game was underway. Brad pitched well and the Beansters hammered three Sox pitchers for twelve runs and the Beansters won 12-3. Nessa's Dad was beside himself to know that the Beansters were suddenly 3-0 on the season! Nessa smiled at her Dad's enthusiasm and she started to follow him down to the field to share in congratulating Brad for the win but then she saw that Jackie had run onto the baseball diamond and was leaping into Brad's arms to give him Slurpee kisses and Nessa changed her mind, waiting for her father by the exit gate instead.

Brad didn't come home until late that night and Nessa was out the door for school the next morning before Brad came downstairs. Nessa didn't see a whole lot of Brad that week – he actually put in a few hours at the donut shop (mostly just standing around shooting the breeze with customers, Nessa imagined) and going out with Jackie in the evenings (Nessa found out that Jackie was a Certified Nurse's Assistant at the hospital which was really just a glorified bed pan changer in her view).

Nessa was preoccupied with awards and graduation night preparations so she was out of the house more than usual. Keeping busy helped her not think about Brad and that was okay with her. Graduation was Friday evening and Nessa was surprised to see Brad and Jackie sitting with her father in the audience. She wasn't sure why Jackie had to come along but she wasn't going to let her presence spoil the evening.

"Who's the broad with the All-American boy?" Donna asked quietly, sitting next to Nessa on the large stage.

"A teammate's sister," Nessa sighed.

"See, didn't I tell you?" Donna groaned. "You weren't interested so he found somebody else."

"He would have found somebody else anyway," Nessa reasoned in return.

The graduation ceremony went well and Nessa was very proud of her accomplishments, her achievements, and her moment in the spotlight when she gave a brief three minute speech as student government president. She knew her father was proud of her and every time she caught Brad's eye he had a silly smirk on his face. Jackie looked disinterested and bored but what did Nessa care about that? Still, Nessa had plenty of time to check Jackie out as she sat on stage staring out at the crowd in front of her. Jackie was pretty enough with a nice figure and she was undoubtedly attractive but Nessa doubted the girl had anything in common with Brad other than her brother played baseball with him.

Nessa's father gave her an appreciative hug when the ceremony was over. Brad was gracious but there was something slightly condescending about his praise and Nessa got the feeling he was actually making fun of her. Jackie said congratulations but not much else and soon the couple was gone but Nessa had the all-night party to attend at the bowling alley so she didn't pay too much attention to what Brad might be doing.

Nessa slept most of the following day and then she went to the Beansters game with her father that night (against the Mudhens). Beansboro was an unbelievable 5-0 and Brad was pitching on this night. He once again tipped his hat her way and winked as he made his way to the bullpen to warm up and Nessa frowned with annoyance, not appreciating him treating her like some little kid while flaunting Jackie whenever he had the chance. Brad pitched another quality start and the Beansters won 6-2 to move to 6-0 on the season. Nessa's father said he was going to have to check the record books to see when the last time the Beansters started the season 6-0. Nessa once again watched Jackie maul the winning pitcher after the game so she didn't bother offering her congratulations.

Nessa's Dad turned in at his usual time but Nessa stayed up to watch SNL (seeing how she slept most of the day anyway). To his credit, Jackie hadn't spent the night in the house with Brad (yet) although she had stopped by a couple of times, forcing Nessa to be a gracious hostess, even inviting Jackie to stay for supper with them.

Brad came in well after midnight and he was surprised to see that Nessa was still up. Nessa realized that she was underdressed in short pajama shorts and a loose fitting lacy top and it was obvious that Brad noticed her appearance right away.

"Don't be an asshole," Nessa warned when she saw the look on his face.

Brad raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms. "You could have worn a robe."

She cleared her throat in embarrassment as she lifted her legs off the coffee table and sat up straighter on the couch, taking a pillow and stuffing it across her lap. "I didn't think you'd be home this early."

Nessa noticed that Brad looked nice, dressed up more formally than usual. "Big date?"

"Met her parents," Brad groaned, taking a seat on the couch next to her.

"Not so close," she warned.

"What?" Brad asked innocently.

Nessa slid further away from him on the couch.

"Geez," he complained. "No need to get all up tight."

Nessa rolled her eyes. "I don't trust you," she bluntly stated.

He glared at her. "No worries, Sis," he said sarcastically.

"What do you want?" She asked nervously.

Brad squinted at her, almost amused. "Nothing," he told her.

"Well," she said, biting her lip. "Why don't you leave then? You must be tired after such a long day."

"You don't have to pretend that you don't care, Nessa Van," Brad said with that annoying smirk of his.

Nessa felt her cheeks turn with humiliation. "I don't know what you're talking about." Unfortunately, she sounded flustered.

Brad smiled and she was forced to avert her eyes least she found herself staring at him.

"Why don't you have any friends?" He asked.

"I have friends," Nessa insisted.

"I mean besides that flakey girl you hang out with."

She could have told him about Andrew but what would be the point? Nessa suddenly realized how incredibly lonely she felt. "I'm starting my pre-school job Monday," she blurted out.

"That's nice," Brad replied. "But that's not what I asked."

She frowned. "I don't want to talk to you," she announced.

"Fine," Brad said with a sigh. "Keep being that way." He stood from the couch. "See you around, Sis."

Nessa wasn't sure why she felt like she wanted to cry once Brad was out of the room.

Nessa started her summer job at the Community Center on Monday morning, working Nine to Three, Monday through Friday. Brad was usually gone when she came downstairs (a little later than when going to school), out jogging or having breakfast with Jackie. Nessa was surprised when her father told her that Brad was actually spending more time at the Donut Shop, chatting with customers, serving coffee and donuts, and even learning how to make pig in the blankets for lunch!

Occasionally, Nessa and Brad's paths would cross, usually when she was making supper for her father. They would make small talk but both had gotten into the habit of avoiding touchy subjects - like Jackie, or Nessa's friends (or lack thereof).

Nessa went to the Beanster games with her father when Brad pitched but she rarely talked to him at the ball park although he always tipped his hat her way and winked whenever he took the field for the first time. Nessa had come to the realization that she actually liked The Ringer but that there was nothing she could do about it. He was a player, he was only in Hillsboro temporarily, and he was hanging out with another girl.

It struck Nessa as ironically mind boggling that she had finally fallen for a guy that she had no chance of being with and - worse - didn't want to be with in the first place given his attitude and reputation. It was strange how much her father liked the ballplayer - not just because he was one of the The Ringers for the team but because Mr. Russo seemed to genuinely enjoy Brad's company around the house and donut shop.

Donna's summer job was as a cashier at Fontaine's Family Grocery Store and their schedules and routines didn't match up as much as in the past. Donna was dating one of the bag boys which further ate up her time. Andrew was spending the summer working as a waiter in Providencetown on the cape so Nessa was feeling a little bit more lonely than usual. She actually looked forward to seeing Brad around the house, figuring that even if they sniped and razzed each other (and he got her riled up) that interaction was better than no interaction.

Nessa had come to see Brad's presence as a test case experiment for her. It would help her social skills and confidence having a constant banter with a guy even if Brad had the knack for rubbing her the wrong way and getting her all flustered, defensive and annoyed. At the same time, The Ringer made Nessa feel tingly and weird and she found herself thinking about him more and more, especially when he wasn't around - or when she saw him with Jackie.

Nessa was making her lunch for work one morning when Brad barged into the kitchen, having just completed one of his famous ten mile jogs.

"Oh, Hi," Nessa said, surprised to see him.

"Hey," he replied, going to the refrigerator for some fresh water.

"How was the run?" She asked cheerfully.

"Great, feels good," he reported. "How's working going?" He wondered, noticing that she was making her lunch.

"I love it," Nessa answered truthfully. "I hear you're spending more time at the donut shop."

"Yeah, I was feeling guilty about taking advantage of your Dad," Brad admitted. "Plus I'm a couple of weeks ahead on my on line courses."

"That's great," Nessa said, smiling like a goof.

"You seem unusually happy today," Brad observed as he drank his cold glass of water while leaning against the kitchen counter. He was covered in sweat and she could smell his perspiration.

"It's summer," she said.

Brad nodded with understanding. "A nice one," he agreed. "We haven't even had a rain out yet."

"You guys haven't even lost yet!" Nessa said with amazement (The Beansters were 9-0 which had her father beyond happy and contented).

"Shh, don't jinx it," Brad grinned.

Nessa swallow hard, trying to figure out why he intimidated her so much even though they were having a pleasant non-threatening little chat.

"Yeah, that would be stupid of me," she said.

"I'm just baseball superstitious," he smiled.

"Are you going to visit Newport this summer?" Nessa asked bluntly.

Brad was surprised by the question. "Why would I?"

"That's your home," she shrugged. "Where your family is."

"I'm here this summer," he said.

"Is there a reason why you don't want to go home?" Nessa wondered.

Brad placed his glass in the sink. "I like it here," he said quietly.

"I do too," Nessa smiled. "I'm not sure if I'll ever leave. That's probably why I picked Green College just a few miles away."

"You probably worry about your Dad," Brad figured.

"That's part of it," Nessa admitted, done preparing her lunch. "Don't you worry about your parents?" She inquired.

"They don't need my worry," Brad replied mysteriously. "I should hit the shower and I bet you don't want to be late for work."

"Yeah," she said, glancing at the wall clock, but when she looked back, Brad had vanished from the room but Nessa smiled anyway, glad they had enjoyed a conversation without him making an innuendo or her getting all bent out of shape.

Nessa was leaving the house that afternoon to do some grocery shopping just as Brad pulled into the driveway.

"Where you going?" He asked as he hopped out of the car.

"Fontaine's," she said.

"I'll come too," Brad announced, opening the passenger door to her aging mini-van.

"You don't have to," Nessa replied.

"I should contribute to the cause," Brad said. "I eat a lot of your stuff."

"Well, if you want," Nessa decided.

She drove them to Fontaine's Family Grocery Store trying to remember if Donna was working that shift, fearing she might say something stupid if she saw Nessa and Brad together.

"I've never been to Newport," Nessa said in an effort to make conversation (plus she had been thinking about where he lived and why he was so mysterious about not living there now).

"It's very pretty," Brad said neutrally. "Lots of money people there."

"Is your family money people?" Nessa asked.

"Relatively," Brad revealed.

She shot him a look. "You really don't like talking about it, do you?"

"Nope."

Nessa parked the mini-van in the parking lot and they walked together into the store. Nessa got a cart and dug out the haphazard list she had scrawled out before leaving the house. She noticed Donna at one of the registers grinning at her and making a gesture with her hands. Nessa rolled her eyes and luckily Brad didn't notice. They zipped through the aisles getting what was needed and Brad tossed in a few extra items that caught his interest.

"This store is great," Brad observed.

"Locally owned, very community orientated," Nessa replied. "Nice people who really cater to their customers."

When they were done, Nessa tried to steer the cart to one of the check-out counters not manned by Donna but she was making crazy waving motions toward Nessa as if she was a signalman on an airport runway and Nessa had no choice but to go into Donna's line. Brad started to unload the cart onto the belt when the customer ahead of them was done.

"Well, Hello, Ringer," Donna said to Brad seductively. "How's it hanging?"

Nessa rolled her eyes at Donna who caught her frown.

"What?" Donna asked with a laugh. "I haven't seen you in a while, Nessa, how's it going, Princess?"

Donna had never called Nessa Princess before and she knew Donna was trying to be cute for Brad's sake but it was only making Nessa feel uncomfortable.

"Everything's fine," Nessa said curtly. "Could you hurry up and ring us up? We're running late."

Donna laughed. "My, oh my, don't you sound domesticated. I imagine playing house has been fun, huh?"

"I meant I need to get home and start supper for my father," Nessa explained.

"Sure, Ness, whatever you say," Donna grinned as she began ringing up the purchases and some nameless, faceless boy bagged up the groceries.

"We're not playing house," Nessa felt compelled to say.

"Oh?" Donna asked, glancing at Brad. "That's too bad."

Brad smirked but he didn't say anything, enjoying watching Nessa getting bent out shape once again.

"We're just shopping," Nessa grumbled.

"Sounds like things are going just peachy," Donna remarked, tossing Brad a knowing look.

"Don't be like that," Nessa warned.

"Like what?" Donna asked innocently.

"Quit acting like we're still in high school being silly school girls," Nessa protested. "Grow up!"

"Me?" Donna snapped. "You're the one who's uptight and clueless."

"Shut up, Donna," Nessa warned. "You're embarrassing me."

"Oh, for Christ sakes, Ness, you were born embarrassed," Donna told her. "You're the one who acts so annoying sometimes."

Why was Nessa having this confrontation with Donna? Because of Brad? Or was it because high school was over now and their friendship was changing?

Nessa sighed and ran her ATM card through the register machine and a frowning Donna handed her the receipt. "Have a nice day," she said snidely before turning her attention to Brad. "How do you tolerate her?" Donna asked sarcastically.

"She's a great cook," Brad joked as he began pushing the grocery cart from the checkout counter.

"Thanks a lot, Donna," Nessa seethed as she followed Brad.

"You're welcome, Little Miss Russo!" Donna called after her.

Nessa wanted to cry but she didn't want Brad to see how upset she was so she stuffed the lump in her throat and focused on putting the bags into the back of the van.

"She was just messing with you," Brad said. "Don't let her get to you."

"I've never been the party girl drinking and getting stoned so Donna thinks there's something wrong with me," Nessa complained. "I had to grow up fast when my mother died. I love my father and I want to make sure he's okay. I focused on school. I work hard. I don't sleep around. I'm going to college. So sue me if I don't measure up to the standards of Donna Gleason and even you, Brad McKay."

"Hey, don't drag me into this," Brad said, holding his arms up. "I didn't say anything."

"You tried to get into my pants the first night you got here," Nessa said bitterly.

Brad was taken aback. "I was just flirting," he said defensively.

"Right," Nessa said with disgust. "You think I'm just some frigid Daddy's girl."

"I don't," he said, shocked.

"Let's just get out of here," Nessa sighed, closing the back to the SUV.

"Nessa," Brad said softly, pulling her into him and wrapping his arms around her shoulders and tugging her into his chest.

Nessa was surprised by his gesture and she rested her face against his shirt while putting her arms around his frame for added comfort and security.

"I think you're wonderful," he said, stroking her hair. "You're the most normal girl I've ever met."

"You don't mean that," Nessa mumbled.

"I do," he said, hugging her a bit closer.

Nessa sucked in her breath. "This feels nice," she sighed.

"You're too intense," Brad advised, wrapping his arms around her back. "You need to relax more."

Nessa blushed while biting her lip. . "You don't think I'm a loser?"

"Of course not," he said quietly. "I'm the loser."

"You're team hasn't even lost yet," she said.

"That's not what I meant," he said.

"What do you mean?" Nessa asked, breaking from his embrace and looking into his eyes.

"Never mind," he said.

"Maybe we shouldn't be hugging in Fontaine's parking lot where everybody can see," Nessa realized, breaking from him and heading toward the driver's side of the mini-van. "We wouldn't want Jackie to know."

"I wouldn't worry about Jackie," Brad replied as he climbed into the passenger's seat.

That made Nessa feel special for some reason and she smiled as she started the engine, her heart swelling in her chest. She liked how it felt hugging Brad.

They didn't talk during the short ride to the house. Brad helped Nessa bring the bags into the house and unload them into the appropriate cupboards. Then Nessa went to work starting supper while Brad took a seat at the kitchen table and watched.

"You're great, Nessa Van," Brad said suddenly. . "You're a joy to be around but I wish you were happier."

"I'm happy enough," Nessa told him.

"I think you're beautiful and it's a shame you're not with someone."

"I wasn't interested in being with anyone," she said.

Brad sighed. "And you still feel that way?" He asked sadly.

"I don't know," Nessa admitted, looking at him from where she stood by the counter.

"Quit playing the hard to get act and be honest with me Nessa ," Brad demanded, jumping from his chair and stepping toward her.

Nessa held her breath, not sure what to expect as Brad wrapped an arm around her waist and shoved the other one into her hair while leaning into her and giving her an unexpected kiss, hard and firm.

Nessa gasped from the shock and she closed her eyes but she found herself wrapping her arms around his neck which gave Brad permission to pull her against his chest as he continued to kiss her with passion.

"Brad," Nessa groaned after a few moments of smooching, her face flushed and her lips wet.

"What?" Brad mumbled softly, still kissing her.

"My father's going to walk in at any moment," she warned.

"We'll hear his car," Brad said before re-covering her mouth with his for another long extended passionate kiss. No guy had ever kissed her like that before.

"Oh," she marveled, intensely and intently kissing him back.

And then on cue they heard Ned Russo's car in the driveway and they broke from their embrace, Brad returning to his chair at the table and Nessa returning to the food on the stove.

The Beansters won their first twelve games of the season. No previous Beanster squad had ever accomplished a 12-0 start to open the season and only a handful of teams had opened the season with that many consecutive wins. The '86 Miller City Mudhens started 19-0 to hold the record.

Brad McKay, known by his teammates as B-Mac, was 3-0 with a No decision in his four starts. Ned Russo, booster, sponsor, father, host, and donut shop owner, was ecstatically happy and contently thrilled with the amazing team start.

"We could play .500 ball the rest of the way and still be champs!" He said gallantly. "This is a dream come true."

Nessa and Brad had not repeated their kitchen tryst but that didn't mean Nessa wasn't thinking about Brad in that way. She also hadn't seen Jackie around and Brad never mentioned her anymore so that was a hopeful sign.

It was a Saturday morning and Nessa had slept in. She was supposed to work the morning shift at the donut shop as usual but Sally had called late the night before, desperate for some extra hours for needed money so Nessa let her have her shift. The Beansters had played the night before but Denny Donald was the starter so Nessa didn't bother going to the game and she was already in bed when Brad came home from the game.

She awoke to strange noises coming down the hall so Nessa left her bed to investigate. It was a sunny June morning with a summer breeze coming through the opened windows. She was wearing a short nighty that only came half way down her thighs and was low cut on her chest. The door to Brad's room was open and Nessa realized that was where the noise was coming from. She stepped to the door and peeked in and she was shocked to discover that Brad was standing by the window with his back to the door, stark naked – exercising with two small hand barbells in his mitts.

Nessa was momentarily stunned at the sight but she didn't move, memorized by the flexing muscles in his shoulders and back not to mention the sight of his perfectly rounded firm buttocks that seemed to be flexing right along with his arms and he lifted the weights up and down. She caught her breath but continued to watch the glorious Adonis before her, especially those wonderful naked buns. Nessa had never seen a man's nude ass before.

Brad must have sensed her presence – or perhaps he heard her staggered breathing - because he slowly looked over his shoulder and he was surprised to see her standing in the door frame as if she was in a trance.

"Nessa Van," The Ringer said quietly. "I thought you were working."

"I…I…..I gave my shift away," she managed to say, her throat dry and course as if she had swallowed her tongue.

"Oh," Brad said. "Sorry, I didn't know you were here."

"I…..it's okay," she said sheepishly.

"I know this kind of looks stupid," he grinned. "But I already ran my ten miles so I stripped out of my sweaty jogging clothes." He gestured with his chin to a pile heaped on the floor.

"Good thing there are no houses in our backyard," Nessa noted, motioning toward the window the naked Brad was standing in front of.

"The breeze was cooling me down," Brad explained as he slowly began to turn around. "I'm not an exhibitionist or anything!"

Nessa's breath hitched when she realized what he was doing but she didn't flinch or run (even though she wanted to). Now he was facing her and she saw how big he was between his legs and she understood why he was The Player and oh so popular with the girls.

"Oh my," she said with amazement, looking back and forth between his eyes and the massive growth between his legs.

Nessa felt sensations she had never experienced before flowing through her veins. Her body was literally shaking and her jaw dropped wide so she could get more air into her airways. Brad slowly stepped toward her, but he was looking serious for a change instead of wearing the normal smirk he usually had when he was teasing her.

"It's okay, Ness," he said gently, placing the weights on the floor.

Nessa felt her face turn red. Her eyes were wide and her mouth in the shape of a giant O but she didn't move, staring directly into Brad's eyes as he approached. When he was close enough, Brad stopped and raised his hand to her face, running his index finger along the shape of her lips. Without even thinking or realizing what she was doing, Nessa ran her tongue along the edges of her lips to moisten her mouth. Brad was looking into her eyes but she didn't break the trance.

"It's beautiful," Nessa whispered, glancing downward. "Can I….. touch it?"

Brad nodded his head slowly and then he watched as she slowly extended her arm and used her pointer finger to softly touch the tip of his penis. She smiled when the entire organ seemed to jump at her.

Brad leaned in and kissed her the way he had kissed her that day in the kitchen and that caused Nessa to blush but she warmly returned the meaningful smooch as Brad rubbed her face with the inside palm of his hand. Nessa knew that this now changed everything and she was suddenly okay with that – even ready – finally – for whatever might happen. That's why she didn't resist or protest when Brad put both hands on her shoulders and slowly and gently tugged the straps of her nightie down her arms allowing the gown to slip down her torso, revealing her breasts as it fell to the floor, leaving her standing in nothing but her panties.

"Nessa," Brad whispered as he rubbed his fingers across her bare stomach.

She wasn't embarrassed or frightened. Strangely, she felt proud and confident.

"Can I feel your lovelies?" Brad whispered.

"What?" She giggled.

"Your breasts," he said pleadingly.

"Yes" she told him.

The feel of his hands on her bosom sent electrical currents through her body, causing Nessa to squeal with unrealized pleasure.

"I know, Ness," Brad said. "But don't worry, we're not having sex."

"We're not?" Nessa was both relieved yet disappointed.

"I want to prove to you that you can trust me and that I'm for real," he whispered.

"Kiss me," she pleaded.

Brad was happy to oblige, taking complete control as they stood in the room, him naked her half-naked. Her eyes were opened wide but without fear, shame, or reservation. Nessa was surprisingly at peace with the entire situation even as Brad played with her breasts.

"I had to learn to cook after my mom died," Nessa said as she let him squeeze and rub her breasts and nipples. "I know my father appreciates my efforts, the cleaning and cooking and being there for him."

"I know he does too," Brad agreed, kissing her neck.

"So I didn't have a lot of time to worry or purse romance and dating and all that stuff," Nessa explained. "I know I act all tough and confident but the truth is I don't know what I'm doing. So I didn't talk to guys much, I kept my head down, stayed out of the dating game, and focused on my academics and my father."

"It's okay," Brad assured her, his mouth down near her breasts now. "You're the first girl who stood up to me," he grinned. "I like that. And it also made me realize how special you really are."

"There are plenty of other girls," Nessa sighed.

"I don't want plenty of other girls," Brad told her, licking at her nipples.

"Other girls you don't have to wait for," she moaned, her hands wrapped around the back of his head.

"I don't mind waiting for you," Brad smiled.

"You really would?" Nessa asked with amazement, pulling his face away from her hard nipples.

"Yes, I really would," Brad grinned.

"Why?" She wanted to know.

"Because I know you're special," Brad replied, looking directly into her eyes. "I used to relish the conquests and I loved the chaos that came from those pursuits but it became too easy and I've realized just how lonely and empty I feel. Then I came here and you told me to get lost and you wouldn't let me put my hands on you and you didn't fawn all over me like most girls. I liked the feeling of being part of a real family."

"You have your own family," Nessa reminded him, not caring that she was talking to him while he was naked and she was topless.

"My family are frauds and fakes," Brad told her. "They're nasty and self-centered, passionate about money and status but not much else. I've been rebelling for years and that's why I flunked out of Salve Regina. I'm an embarrassment to them and they're glad I'm not around. Hillsboro is a nice safe haven and sanctuary for me. I like the donut shop. I like Beano Field. I like being with you, here in this place."

"You'll be leaving at the end of the season," Nessa sighed.

"Maybe I won't," Brad shrugged. "Maybe I'll make my own new plans."

Nessa looked at him like he was crazy. "You'd give up Newport for Hillsboro?"

"In a heartbeat," Brad smirked.

"You're just saying that because you're looking at my nude tits."

"I'm saying that because I like you," Brad told her. "We grew up in different worlds and at first we misunderstood each other but now I know what love and family are supposed to be all about. I think of you all the time, Ness."

Her mouth fell open. A warm rush rippled through her. Her eyes danced as she sucked in her breath, looking at him with amazed wonderment.

"Come lay on the bed with me," Brad said. "I want to hold you."

"No sex?" She asked suspiciously.

"No sex," he vowed, taking her hand and walking her to his bed.

Brad lay down first and Nessa looked at his total masculinity. She slipped her panties down her legs until they fell to the floor and then she lay on her side against him on the bed. She could hear herself breathing as their skin touched.

"I finally figured out this summer that I don't need my family's approval," Brad said, kissing Nessa on the forehead.

"You mean approval of me?" Nessa frowned.

"No, of course not," he said, kissing her nose. "I mean approval of what I decide to do. I could go to Green College just as easily as Salve Regina, right?"

"Salve Regina is a better school," Nessa replied.

"Only if you were there," Brad insisted.

Nessa draped her arm across Brad's lower waist, dangerously close to his nether region. Brad searched her eyes and then he kissed her while taking hold of her hand.

"We could if you really wanted to," Nessa told him.

"I don't want to," Brad assured her, "I mean, of course I want to but I don't want to. I hope you understand."

"I do," she said softly. "Thank you for honoring me."

Nessa realized that her nipples were rubbing against his ribs.

"But I do like being like this," she said happily.

"Me too," Brad said warmly.

"I've never felt sensations like this before," Nessa said. "I can't believe I'm naked in front of you."

"I don't mind," Brad smirked.

Nessa slid one of her legs over one of Brads and then she leaned up and kissed him on his mouth. He raised her hand to his mouth and kissed it along her knuckles.

"Can we just cuddle for a few minutes?" Nessa asked.

Brad kissed her again. "Of course."

They looked into each other's eyes, connecting on a level Nessa had never experienced before.

"I really do want you," Nessa whispered. "I probably did from the day you got here."

"You have me without having me," Brad told her.

"You'll really wait for me?"

"Now that I've seen you naked I'll wait for you forever," Brad vowed.

Nessa giggled and she kissed him to show her thanks and appreciation.

"My mother's death forever changed me," Nessa sighed. "I had to give up my childhood overnight and I lost my best friend, my closest confidant, the only one who truly understood me," she said, her eyes watering with tears.

"You have your dad," Brad said, pulling her close to him in a warm hug.

"My father loves me but it's not the same as a mother's love," Nessa said. "A maternal love. A woman's love."

"I'm sorry for your loss," Brad said with understanding. "My grandfather was the one guy in my family I could relate to and talk with without being second guessed, ridiculed, ignored or condescended to like everybody else. He died when I was fifteen and that's when I went on my protest strike. He left me a hefty trust fund that only made things worse with the rest of the family. I still miss him."

"We'll always miss them," Nessa said.

"You're doing a good job, you know," Brad remarked as they continued to cuddle, naked on top of his bed with the breeze blowing through the opened window. "With your Dad. With your morals and beliefs, your studies and your job with the kids and even the donuts. And you're the greatest cook I've ever known."

"Cooking became my therapy after my mom died," Nessa revealed. "It kept me busy, gave me something to do, and kept my mind off of certain things. Plus I was doing something my mother did so well."

Brad traced the side of her face with his finger while staring into her wide eyes.

"You don't think I'm a pathetic loser?" She worried.

"Why would you say that?" Brad asked with surprise.

"I've spent a lot of time thinking about my life so far," she said. "What I've done and especially what I haven't done. How frightened I was, how I never wanted to hurt again the way I hurt after my mother died. How I set up certain barriers around myself and denied myself certain opportunities and experiences. I think about what I've missed and I wonder if I've cheated myself."

"I think you have stayed true to yourself," Brad replied, kissing her on the nose. "True to what you felt your mother wanted you to be."

"How is it you make me feel so special?" Nessa wondered.

"I don't know," Brad admitted. "I'm just glad I didn't blow it. You could have kicked me out the first day I got here. I teased you with my tired act but you played it coy and you didn't fall for my fraud."

"And now here we are, together, naked."

"Yep," Brad agreed. "Everything's going to be okay."

She looked at him with amazement, kissing him one more time before she finally reluctantly broke from the cuddling hug and sat up on the bed. "If we stay here much longer I may not be able to remain in control," she said.

"Okay," Brad said. "I understand."

"Do you want to go to breakfast?" Nessa asked as she slowly got off the bed.

"Sure," Brad smiled, sitting up too, admiring her nudity as she turned her back to him to collect her clothes.

"God, your ass," Brad marveled. "It's absolutely perfect!"

She looked over her shoulder and smiled. "Thanks," she blushed.

They didn't have sex that summer. Nessa probably would have given in but it was Brad who insisted that they honor her core beliefs. She may have worried that perhaps he wasn't really attracted to her in that way but she noticed that Brad had shun his 'player' reputation and paid no attention to the female fans who were always trying to be ultra-sweet with him. Nessa had come to believe that Brad was sincere about his feelings and commitment toward her.

It was a wonderful summer. Brad focused on his pitching and helping the Beansters in their quest to win. He spent more time at the donut shop and he became an expert at some of the routines of the business. Nessa loved working with the kids and spending her free time with Brad. They still got naked together on occasion and Nessa came to see Brad as her own personal teddy bear. She loved to cuddle up next to him and hold him and squeeze him while naked. It almost became an erotic non-sexual game as she would roll on top of him and then have him roll over her in all sorts of funny positions, both of them laughing like little children. It was substitute sex and Nessa found it very refreshing and fun. Being naked with Brad was freeing and liberating yet surprisingly safe and non-sexual, her virginity preserved until she was ready to take that big step.

Brad and Nessa also worked at the donut shop together on weekends and Nessa attended all the Beanster games (not just the ones Brad started) to show her support. She finally had a boyfriend and if she was still speaking to Donna, Nessa would have thrown it in her ex-friend's face!

In mid-August, Brad informed Nessa that he had been granted a late admission at Green College and that the baseball coach and invited him to a walk-on try out in the spring.

"You're really going to stay here and not go back to Newport?" Nessa asked with disbelief.

"I've already talked to your Dad about it," Brad informed her. "He said I can live at your place for as long as I want."

That was the moment when Nessa realized that he really did love, value and respect her and that all of this was for real.

Nessa's dad hadn't lost his enthusiasm or belief in the Beansters even though the squad was unable to keep up its torrid pace after the 12-0 start. The team stumbled with injuries and slumps and finished the season tied for first at 28-14 with the perennial champion Greenville Giants. That meant that Brad McKay (9-3) would face off against the Giants' Ace Luke O'Rourke (8-1) for the league championship.

"How come your family never comes to any of your games?" Nessa pouted. "Not even a big one like the playoff."

"They don't care about baseball," Brad replied. "Or anything else I do."

"Well, I care," Nessa assured him.

On the day of the big championship game, Brad came down the stairs in his Beanster uniform. Ned Russo was beyond excited about the game and the chance for Beansboro to win its first championship since 1980. Brad was remarkably calm and Nessa gave him a hug to show her appreciation and respect.

"You really were The Ringer," she said happily. "The team wouldn't have won this many games without you."

"You got it all wrong, Ness," Brad replied knowingly, returning her hug. "You were The Ringer."

"Me?" She laughed. "What are you talking about?"

"You're the one who turned me into a winner," Brad told her.

"Get out of here," Nessa said, rolling her eyes. "You were a great pitcher when you got here."

"I'm not talking about baseball, Nessa Van," Brad replied in all seriousness. "I'm talking about life."

Nessa looked at him with a mixture of confusion and amazement. "I didn't do anything," she said softly.

"You were you," Brad explained. "And that made me realize what's important and what I should be focused on. That's why you're The Ringer. You're the first person who really rang my bell."

Nessa felt the tears in her eyes. Nobody had ever said something so powerful or moving about her before. "Will you win the game for me?"

Brad smiled. "It's not about the game, Ness. It's about you. That's why I love you."

"You're still The Ringer in my book," Nessa said, leaning in and kissing him.

Ned Russo drove them to the big game. Nessa and Brad sat in the back seat as if they were VIPs in a limo.

"This is really great," Mr. Russo gushed as he drove to Beano Field.

Nessa and Brad weren't about to argue with him.