Stranger in Town Brenda Novak The car accident was Hannah Price's fault–a few seconds of inattention that changed Gabe Holbrook's life forever, destroying everything he'd been or ever wanted to be. He was a man who'd had it all. Intelligent, handsome, talented, rich, he'd been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Now he's come home to Dundee, the small town where he was raised, but he's a stranger to the people who once knew him. Folks think he's bitter and withdrawn; he knows he's just focused on recovering.But thanks to Hannah Price, there are some things that can't be fixed. Hannah has been struggling to recover from that fateful night, too. Unlike Gabe, she sustained only minor injuries. But she's not sure she'll ever be able to forgive herself for making a mistake with such far-reaching consequences. Especially when Gabe becomes her older son's football coach, and she begins to fall in love with the man she nearly destroyed… Praise for Brenda Novak “Brenda Novak spins a taut, spine-tingling story with imagery so vivid it leaves you breathless.” —New York Times bestselling author Christine Feehan on Every Waking Moment “Once again author Brenda Novak delivers a stunningly magical performance.” —WordWeaving on A Family of Her Own “A one-sitting read! Kudos to Brenda Novak for an insightful and emotional story that tore at my heartstrings!” —The Best Reviews on A Baby of Her Own “Novak’s story is richly dramatic, with a stark setting that distinguishes it nicely from the lusher worlds of older romances.” —Publishers Weekly on Taking the Heat “Brenda Novak always writes a wonderful story, whether it’s her Superromances or her single-title books. I know when I pick up something she’s written, I’ll be totally satisfied.” —Allyn Pogue, Old Book Barn Gazette “This story should appeal to readers who like their romances with a sophisticated touch.” —Library Journal on Snow Baby A Home of Her Own “kept me on the edge of my seat, Kleenex in hand, totally enthralled to the last page. This is a forget-about-dinner-just order-a-pizza kind of read.” —Romantic Times Dear Reader, When I set out to write this story, I was contemplating the measure of a man. Do we value people for how they look, what they can do—or who they really are? In the beginning, the hero of this book measured his self-worth by what he could accomplish. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with that. He had it all and could do almost anything. Then he lost certain physical abilities. He had to dig deep to find his purpose in life, and I think he turned out to be a better man for it. I enjoyed getting to know these characters, especially Gabe because I came to admire him so much. At this point, you’re probably chuckling. You’re thinking I created him and could make him as heroic as I wanted. But that’s only partially true. Sure, I’m the one who’s written his story, but he strongly objected whenever I took a wrong turn. Seems there’s no forcing Gabriel Holbrook. By the time you finish Stranger in Town, I hope you think Hannah is as lucky as I do. I love to hear from readers. Please drop by my Web site at www.brendanovak.com, enter my quarterly draw to win a $500 shopping spree at the store of your choice, see how I’m doing with my goal to raise as much money as possible for juvenile diabetes and send me an e-mail to let me know you took the time to visit all the characters in Dundee. Here’s to overcoming whatever fate throws our way! Brenda Novak Brenda Novak Stranger in Town To my sister Pam, who wouldn’t hesitate to take on the whole world for the people she loves. Pam, I admire your forgiving, courageous heart, your unfailing loyalty, your generosity, your incredible artistic talent and your lovely face. Thanks for remaining in my corner, always. I love you. CONTENTS PROLOGUE CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER SIXTEEN CHAPTER SEVENTEEN CHAPTER EIGHTEEN CHAPTER NINETEEN CHAPTER TWENTY CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE PROLOGUE THE ROAD WAS COVERED with black ice. Leaning forward, Hannah Price focused intently on the strip of narrow highway beyond her beating windshield wipers. But the dark countryside and the whirling snow made it difficult to see. Gripping the steering wheel until the stark white of her knuckles glowed in the light of her instrument panel, she took a deep breath in an effort to calm down. They can’t be far. I’ll find them. The thought of her two sons being whisked away without her permission had pumped her body so full of adrenaline she barely blinked when her tires slid around the next curve. The back end of her minivan swung onto the shoulder and almost hit the guardrail separating the road from a steep drop. But she quickly gained control and, fixing a picture of Brent and Kenny in her mind, increased her speed. According to her neighbor, Mr. McDermott, her ex-husband had less than a five-minute jump on her. She could make that up if she hurried. Sleigh bells ring, are you listenin’… Christmas music played on the radio, but she wasn’t paying much attention. She was too focused. She’d find Russ. She had to. According to Mr. McDermott, Russ had loaded his Jeep with beer and had obviously been drinking already. Her neighbor had also mentioned that Russ had two carloads of his survivalist buddies following him. No doubt they’d have a grand time at the cabin, getting drunk and shooting at anything that moved. It wasn’t safe for the boys. Brent and Kenny were to remain with her for the holidays; it was all laid out in the custody papers. …A beautiful sight…We’re happy tonight… The most perilous part of the journey between Dundee, her small hometown, and Boise was coming up fast. She managed to navigate the first of the hairpin turns without sliding all over the road, but then came up behind a pickup that was barely moving. With a curse, she slowed to a crawl. At this rate, Russ would cross into Oregon before she could reach Boise. If that happened, her boys would be lost to her until her ex decided he didn’t want the responsibility of caring for them anymore and deigned to bring them home. Provided they survived until then. She needed to get them back now, where she knew they’d be safe. Before there was another incident like last year, when one of Russ’s redneck friends had held a knife to Kenny’s throat. …He sings a love song, as we go along, walking in a winter wonderland. The lyrics mocked her anxiety as she glanced hesitantly at the double yellow lines in the middle of the dark, shiny road. Veering into the other lane, she hoped for a chance to get around the truck. But it wasn’t possible. The turns were too tight. The disc jockey came on to say the next song was believed to be Welsh in origin and came from a tune called “Nos Galan” dating back to the sixteenth century. Deck the halls with boughs of holly… Panic prickled Hannah’s scalp as she remained trapped behind the slow-moving truck. She felt the seconds tick by, imagined Russ taking the boys farther and farther away from her with every passing minute. …’Tis the season to be jolly… Russ insisted the knife incident had been a joke. But Hannah didn’t find it funny, and Kenny hadn’t laughed about it, either. The only joke, to Hannah, was that she’d ever been stupid enough to marry Russ in the first place. If her mother hadn’t died when she was just out of high school, leaving her all alone…If she hadn’t felt so cast adrift and desperate for an anchor…If she hadn’t succumbed to Russ’s unrelenting pursuit and gotten pregnant…Then things could have been different. But there was no use wallowing in regret. She’d made a colossal mistake, but she’d been young and naïve. And once she’d become pregnant, she’d felt she had no choice. …Follow me in merry measure… Brent and Kenny. Her sons were all that mattered now. She couldn’t let Russ get too far ahead. She didn’t know where the cabin was located. Hannah floated to the left again, her eyes boring holes in the thickly falling snow as she tried to see around the next bend. It was no use. She couldn’t pass. …Heedless of the wind and weather… Easing back into her own lane, she laid her hand on her horn, hoping the truck would pull over or at least speed up. Brake lights flashed as the driver slowed even more—she’d only succeeded in rattling him. They wouldn’t be out of the mountains for another twenty miles…. Hannah wanted to bang her head on the steering wheel in frustration. She had to pass. It’d only take her a moment. A quick dash around, then she’d be on her way. …Fa la la la la, la la la la. Once again, she checked for oncoming traffic. A car rumbled past, then nothing. There was another curve not far ahead, but she felt fairly confident she could get around the truck if she didn’t hesitate. Another carol, Hannah’s favorite, came on as she pushed the pedal to the floor. The engine shifted and the van lurched forward. Silent night, holy night… Moving into the other lane, she came even with the truck, but a pair of oncoming headlights suddenly appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. …All is calm, all is bright… Hannah slammed on her brakes and tried to swerve to safety, but her tires couldn’t grip the ice-covered road. The van swayed sharply and began to fishtail; headlights rushed toward her, blinding in their brightness. …Sleep in heavenly peace… She screamed as a sudden, gut-wrenching jolt threw her chest into the steering wheel. The unforgiving crunch of metal on metal clanged in her ears. Then she tasted blood, and everything began to spin around and around as her van shot over the edge and tumbled toward the bottom of the ravine. …Sleep in heavenly peace. CHAPTER ONE August, nearly three years later GABRIEL HOLBROOK FROWNED as he saw Mike Hill get out of his SUV and walk through the dappled sunshine toward the cabin. He’d known Mike would be paying him a visit. He’d been expecting it for more than a week, ever since he’d heard the Hill family’s sad news and attended the funeral. But he still wasn’t prepared. What was he going to say? Mike’s knock sounded—as solid, decisive and determined as Mike himself. Lazarus, Gabe’s Alaskan malamute, dashed expectantly to the door. With a sigh, Gabe let the blind fall back into place at the front window and wheeled himself across the living room. It wasn’t as if he could pretend he wasn’t home. Mike knew, since the accident three years ago, Gabe hardly went anywhere. At least Mike hadn’t brought his wife. Gabe wasn’t ready to deal with Lucky…. As always, the heavy pile of the carpet made it difficult to maneuver. Turning too soon, he accidentally clipped the corner of the kitchen table. Because he’d made that table out of metal and hadn’t yet finished off the edges, it cut his shoulder. Irritated that his preoccupation had caused him to be careless, he cursed, and Lazarus whined as he opened the door. Mike’s somber expression turned to concern as soon as he saw Gabe’s arm. “You’re bleeding.” “It’s just a scratch.” He moved back and whistled for Lazarus to do the same. “You wanna come in?” Tall and lean, with close-clipped brown hair and hazel eyes, Mike doffed his cowboy hat and stepped inside. “How’d you cut yourself?” Gabe glanced at his biceps. He’d been lifting weights when he heard Mike’s car pull into the drive. Had he been wearing anything more significant than a muscle shirt, he probably wouldn’t have been hurt. “It’s the damn carpet,” he said with a shrug. “So why don’t you tear it out and put in a hardwood floor? Make life a little easier?” Because Gabe permitted only the most necessary concessions to his handicap. Special allowances made him feel weak, feeble…useless. Besides, he wasn’t planning to be in a wheelchair much longer. He was going to walk again. He didn’t say so, though. He knew Mike would only give him a patronizing smile. No one believed him. Absently petting his dog, a gift from a guy he used to play football with, given to him as a puppy just after the accident, Gabe curved his lips into the good ol’ boy smile he used to deflect certain questions. “You kiddin’? It’s real wool. Cost me a fortune.” His hayseed charm didn’t work as well on Mike as it did on other people. The way Mike’s eyebrows lifted indicated he knew Gabe had sidestepped the real issue. “You can afford it.” Gabe wasn’t particularly eager to bring Mike to the reason for his visit. But neither did he want his friend to start harassing him like he had for the past year. When are you going to quit holing up in that cabin of yours and get back to the business of living? Gabe couldn’t exactly call what he was doing living. It certainly wasn’t life as he’d always known it. He avoided people, even his family, and attended few events. But he was meditating, training, growing his own food and working. Mike just didn’t understand. Mike hadn’t lost his ability to walk, and with it his life’s dream, right before the play-offs. He hadn’t been forced to sit back and watch his team lose the Super Bowl because their starting quarterback had nearly severed his spinal cord. The site of the injury was Gabe’s lower back, which meant he could do more than a lot of paraplegics, but it was still something the doctors couldn’t fix. They pointed to stem cell research as a possibility for the future, but Gabe couldn’t count on anything so uncertain and far away. He had to take matters into his own hands, overcome the effects of the accident with hard work and positive thinking. That’s how he’d always handled everything else. “I’m sure you didn’t come all the way out here just to talk about my carpet,” he said. Mike fidgeted with his hat, bending the rim and sliding it through his curled fingers in a circular motion. “No.” Again, their eyes met and Gabe had the uncomfortable feeling that Mike was about to ask for something he couldn’t give. But they’d been friends too long. Gabe couldn’t see any way to avoid hearing Mike out. “Have a seat.” He motioned to the couch, which was about the only piece of furniture in the cabin Gabe hadn’t made. Working with wood—and recently experimenting with other materials like metal—gave him purpose beyond his therapy. But spending so much time at it made for an odd collection of furnishings. Not that he particularly cared. Very few people came to visit. His old football buddies used to call and want to drop by, but he’d turned them away so consistently that most eventually gave up. They didn’t like seeing the league’s MVP reduced to half a man, and Gabe hated how uncomfortable they felt in his presence. He couldn’t help resenting their pity. “What’s with the table?” Mike asked as Gabe wheeled over and grabbed a paper towel to wipe the blood off his arm. Gabe considered the piece he was currently creating. Eight feet by six feet, it was made in mission style, but the sheen of the metal and the large rivets gave it a very urban feel. Gabe had seen something similar in a magazine once. “I’m branching out.” “It’s unusual, but…nice. In a creative sort of way.” Gabe chuckled at Mike’s diplomacy. He missed the old days when they’d been close. Before the NFL. Before the accident. Before Mike had married Lucky. “We’ll see how it turns out.” Pushing himself back into the living room, he studied his friend’s face. He could tell by the lines of fatigue around Mike’s eyes and mouth that the past ten days had been hard on him. It was nothing more than Gabe had expected. Coach Hill’s heart attack had come out of nowhere. “I’m sorry about your dad,” he said, and meant it. Coach Hill had been like a second father to him. Because Gabe had skipped both fifth and eighth grade, he’d been two years younger than the other boys in his class, which put him at a disadvantage athletically. It was Coach Hill who recognized his talent and refused to let the other coaches cut him from the team when he went out for football his freshman year. It was Coach Hill who dared to start him as a senior. Without Mike’s father’s influence, Gabe never would have played for UCLA, which was where he really matured and began to excel. A muscle flexed in Mike’s cheek, revealing his deep emotion. “Thanks for coming to the funeral. It was the first most folks have seen of you in a long time.” Gabe didn’t respond to Mike’s subtle jab. He was too busy wondering how he’d feel if it had been his dad who died. He’d barely spoken to his father since last year, when Senator Garth Holbrook had ruined his bid for Congress by announcing something he’d managed to keep secret for twenty-four years…. “I’ve been busy,” he said, yanking his thoughts away from that dark moment. “So…what can I do for you?” “I think you know why I’m here.” Gabe combed his fingers through his hair, which fell in layered waves almost to his shoulders. He rarely bothered to have it cut anymore—having it cut required a trip into town, a trip that wasn’t rewarded with food or the prospect of seeing a football game. “And I think you know what kind of answer you’re going to get.” “It’d be good for you, Gabe.” Gabe scowled. Everyone thought they knew what he needed. “Don’t tell me what’s good for me, Mike.” “Then do it for the town. The season starts in two weeks. The school board’s frantic, wondering who they’re going to hire as a replacement. I know they’d go with you in a heartbeat, if only you’d take the job.” “I don’t want the job.” If he wanted to work, he had plenty of other opportunities. Someone from ESPN called him nearly every month, begging him to co-host NFL Sunday Countdown. But he couldn’t settle for less than the brass ring—the Super Bowl ring he’d been denied. He couldn’t let anything get in the way of his focus, least of all coaching a small high-school football team. “Why can’t one of your father’s assistants take over?” “Who? Owens?” “No. His arthritis is getting too bad.” “So you’re suggesting Melvin Blaine?” Gabe squared his jaw at the challenge in Mike’s voice. “I guess I am, if there’s no one else.” “That’s who the board will probably choose if you don’t step up. But you played for Dundee High, Gabe. You remember Blaine’s temper. I don’t want him to have any more power over those boys than he already has. My father wouldn’t have wanted that, either.” “But I’ve never coached before!” Mike set his hat next to him and leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. “No one knows football better than you do.” “There’s more to the job than knowing the game. Coaching is about…getting a bunch of individuals to play as a team. It’s about…inspiration.” “You can inspire. Hell, most of those boys worship you already. You’re a local hero.” Gabe felt a headache coming on and began to rub his temples. “They worship what I used to be.” “You’re still the same man.” He wasn’t the same at all. The accident had cost him more than his ability to play ball. It had stripped him of his identity. He wasn’t even sure what was important to him anymore. He’d thought it was his family, until he’d learned about his father’s deception. He had to find his way back to the man he used to be. Coaching would only get in the way. “It’d be a huge undertaking. Every coach’s style is different and with only two weeks to get ready for the first game—” “You could handle it.” Maybe he could. But he refused to let himself be distracted. He had to hang on to who he used to be since he didn’t know who he was now. And there was another problem…. “Won’t Kenny Price be playing on varsity this year?” At last, Mike began to look a little uncomfortable. “He doesn’t have to. He’s only a sophomore.” “But he’s good.” Gabe knew how good because he’d seen him play. Since he’d lost the ability to walk, it was always a bittersweet experience to visit the stadium, but he hadn’t been able to stay away. When football season rolled around, he drove into town to watch both the junior varsity and varsity games. Besides an occasional trip to the grocery store, it was one of the few places Gabe still bothered to go. “I know you’ve got to feel strange toward his mother. If you don’t think you can live with having him on your team, it’s no big deal,” Mike insisted. “Let him play JV another year.” Strange didn’t begin to describe how Gabe felt toward Hannah Price. But even at sixteen, Kenny was a better quarterback than senior Jonathon Greer or junior Buck Weaver. “I wouldn’t play a kid based on his age. I’d go by talent. And from what I’ve seen, keeping Kenny on JV wouldn’t be fair to him or the team.” “Gabe, unless you take over as coach, Melvin Blaine’s going to get the job.” If he could turn down a multimillion-dollar contract with ESPN, he could certainly reject this opportunity, he told himself. “So maybe it’s a throwaway year. Replace Blaine after the season’s over, when the board is able to find someone better suited to the job.” Mike looked at him as if he had to be crazy. “A throwaway year? You think that’s fair to the boys? Would you have wanted to bust your ass for a team with no promise?” Gabe was far too competitive for that, and Mike knew it. “Besides, it won’t be that easy to replace Blaine,” Mike went on. “If he gets in, he’ll stay until he does something stupid. Something like he did to you. You really want to give him that opportunity?” Gabe continued to rub his temples but said nothing. “Come on, it’s only for one season.” Wadding up the paper towel he’d used to wipe the blood from his arm, Gabe banked it off the wall, into the kitchen wastebasket. “I loved your dad, Mike. I owe him a lot. But—” “Then do it for him, Gabe.” Shit… The memories Gabe had been fighting finally intruded, and he pictured Coach Hill asking to meet with him at the beginning of his junior year, just after he’d been caught ditching school. Because he was so much younger than the other guys, he’d been trying to prove himself, which at that age meant drinking and being careless about grades and rules in general. He’d never dreamed Coach Hill would notice or care about a fifteen-year-old junior. Until Duane Steggo blew out his knee a month later, Gabe hadn’t even been on varsity. But Coach Hill did more than notice. Late one afternoon, he called him in and sat him down in an otherwise empty locker room. Then they had the talk. Coach Hill explained that there were two kinds of men: strong men, who remained true to their internal compasses regardless of all else; and weak men who were easily misled and wound up cheating themselves of all they could be. He’d told Gabe he only wanted strong men on his team, and asked which kind of man Gabe wanted to be. That’s when Gabe quit worrying about fitting in and decided to put his energy toward being the best—at everything—and wound up graduating with a 4.0 grade point average and a football scholarship to UCLA. He wasn’t sure he would’ve turned around without Coach Hill. His own father had tried to motivate him in many ways. But somehow it was Coach Hill who’d made the difference. “Gabe?” Mike pressed. Gabe scrubbed a hand over his face, then frowned when Lazarus laid his snout in Gabe’s lap and stared up at him as though pleading Mike’s case. Maybe Gabe could turn down a national sports show but, given what Coach Hill had meant to him—what Mike meant to him—he couldn’t turn down his best friend or his old alma mater. “Fine,” he said at last. “But tell the school board to find a replacement for me as soon as possible because one year’s the most they’re gonna get.” Grabbing his hat, Mike stood and clasped Gabe’s hand. “Thanks, buddy. I knew I could count on you.” He strode to the door but hesitated there. Predictably, his visit wasn’t over yet. “Don’t suppose you’d consider coming to my house and letting Lucky make you dinner in the next week or two,” he said. Gabe clenched his jaw. Mike extended an invitation like this almost every time they saw each other. But Gabe couldn’t really hold it against him. Mike loved Lucky. Of course he’d try to get her whatever she wanted, and ever since Gabe’s father had taken that paternity test, it was no secret that she was eager to become friends with the family she’d so recently discovered. “Maybe sometime,” he said. Mike sighed. “The old ‘Don’t call me, I’ll call you,’ huh?” “You got me to coach. Be happy with that.” “I am happy with that.” From his friend’s sudden smile, Gabe suspected Mike was secretly congratulating himself despite the failed dinner invitation. He’d just handpicked his father’s successor and dragged Gabe back into society at the same time. But coaching was a concession Gabe had to make. He owed Coach Hill. And he hated Melvin Blaine. “MOM, WHERE ARE YOU?” The front door slammed shut behind Hannah Price’s oldest son, and his footfalls landed heavy on the stairs as he took them two or three at once. “Mom!” A chill of apprehension swept down Hannah’s spine at the distress in the sixteen-year-old’s voice. It had already been a rough week. What was wrong now? “In my office,” she called and set aside the frame she’d been examining. One of the manufacturers she’d been working with for the past several months was starting to send her substandard material. She had to put a stop to it—but that could wait. Kenny charged into the room wearing gym shorts, a cut-off T-shirt that was soaked with sweat, and a pair of muddy cleats. He’d obviously come straight from practice, but she didn’t scold him for tracking mud into the house. She was too worried about the pained expression on his face. “What’s the matter?” He slumped onto the step stool Hannah used to reach her office supplies on the top shelves of the closet, and for probably the hundredth time this summer, Hannah realized just how tall he was getting. He’d been stocky as a young child—like Brent, her seven-year-old, who’d come as a complete surprise long after she’d decided not to have another kid. But over the past few years Kenny’s baby fat had melted away. With his thick brown hair and brown eyes, he looked so much like her he sometimes resented it. Too many people told him he was almost as pretty as his mother. “Why did Coach Hill have to die?” he asked, sounding more like the little boy he used to be than the man he was becoming. She smiled sadly at him. “You’re missing him, huh?” The news of Larry Hill’s passing had moved her son to tears even though he considered himself too old for crying. And he hadn’t been alone. The entire football team had wept through the funeral. Hannah was grieving, too. As a single mother, she was especially grateful to Dundee’s football coach for taking an interest in Kenny and for being such a good role model. Especially because owning her own business—a photography studio, which she ran out of her renovated garage and spare bedroom—meant she couldn’t always be available to her son. “The guys are saying I won’t get to play this season,” he said. She shoved some of the files she had stacked on the floor to the side so she could scoot her chair closer to him. She was tempted to go into her “don’t worry, it’s just a game” speech, but didn’t. Russ, her ex-husband and Kenny’s father, cared more about Kenny’s football career than Kenny did. Five minutes with him would wipe out all her attempts to bring football into perspective. It always did. “Of course you’ll get to play. You started every game last year.” “That was JV, Mom. Coach Blaine called me up to varsity yesterday. And now that Coach Hill is gone—” “Whoa.” She squeezed one of the overlarge hands dangling between his knees. If Kenny ever grew into his hands and feet, he’d be a very tall man indeed. “Whoever they find to replace him will recognize your talent.” “They’ve already found someone,” he said glumly. “Who?” “Gabriel Holbrook.” Hannah jerked back at the name. “What?” “You heard me.” Kenny blinked rapidly, as if he was close to tears again, and she could understand why. In her mind, she heard the collision that still haunted her dreams, felt that weightless, ominous tumbling…. “The guys are right, aren’t they?” he added, head and shoulders drooping. “He’s gonna hate my guts.” “Of course he won’t hate you,” she said, but in her heart she wasn’t sure. How would Gabe feel toward her son? Would he really want to see Kenny excel at a sport he could no longer play because of her? Kenny kicked a brightly colored ball she used when photographing babies. It hit the wall with a sharp smack. “I wish that accident never happened.” If only she could turn back the calendar…. Hannah had regretted leaving the house that night every minute of her life since. Her son looked at her imploringly. “Maybe it wasn’t totally your fault. Maybe he was driving too fast and—” “No, it was me.” Of course, she wouldn’t have been on the road, driving like a maniac if not for Russ and the panic she’d felt for her children’s safety. But Hannah knew it wouldn’t do any good to point that out. She was the one who’d hit Gabe head-on as he was coming home for the Christmas holidays. With a tragedy like that, reasons and explanations didn’t help. Kenny shoved the hair out of his troubled eyes. “I’ve heard what everyone else has to say about the accident. But you never talk about it. What happened, Mom?” Hannah shook her head. She couldn’t give him the details. The repercussions of that night made her too heartsick. She’d grown up knowing Gabe. He’d been larger than life, talented, charismatic, the guy who had it all. In the space of a heartbeat, she’d changed everything. The new Gabe hid a world of hurt behind his blue eyes, kept to himself and rarely ventured into public. But he was still strikingly handsome. Besides eyes that seemed deeper than the ocean, he had wavy black hair, a lean, chiseled face and a rock-hard body. “The guy I know wouldn’t hold what I did against you.” “How can he help it?” Kenny asked. “He can’t even walk because of you.” Drawing up his knees, he rested his chin on his arms. “Did you ever apologize to him?” “Of course.” “Did he accept it?” “I think so,” she said, but she couldn’t be too confident about that, either. The face Gabe showed the world these days, if he showed himself at all, seemed like some sort of mask. She didn’t know what was going on underneath it. When she tried to tell him how sorry she was, he either acted as though he wasn’t interested enough to listen. Or he gave her a gorgeous smile and told her it was fate. His generous attitude only made her feel worse. As late as a few months ago, after they’d bumped into each other at Finley’s Grocery on one of his rare appearances in town, he’d even sent her a brief note telling her to stop apologizing, that there wasn’t any need to think of him again. She didn’t want to think of him. But guilt made that impossible. Besides, they lived in too small a town for her to avoid mention of him. She was quite aware that she was now better known for ruining the career and the life of Dundee’s only hero than she was for her photography. “I don’t think Coach Blaine’s any happier than I am about Gabe taking over as head coach,” Kenny said. “Why not?” “He thought he was getting the job.” “Did he say something about it at practice today?” “Nothing to the whole team. But his face went red when Mike Hill showed up to make the announcement. And I heard him mumble to Coach Owens that if they think a crippled, washed-up football player can coach better than he can, they’ve got another think coming.” Hannah pressed a hand to her chest. “He called Gabe a crippled, washed-up football player?” “Yeah.” A hard knot lodged in Hannah’s stomach. She’d already done enough to make Gabe’s life miserable. She didn’t want her son involved in the drama at the high school. “Kenny?” He was still wearing a sullen expression when he glanced up at her. “You give Coach Holbrook everything you’ve got, you hear me? You play hard. You do what he says. And you don’t complain.” “What if he benches me because I’m related to you?” “Regardless.” “But Mom—” “He’s head coach, Kenny. He should have your loyalty, your respect and your support.” “What about Coach Blaine?” “What about him? You never liked him much before now.” “He’s okay to certain players.” “He has his favorites, and he has his scapegoats. Just because you might have become one of his favorites doesn’t mean I like his methods. Stay away from him as much as possible,” she said, but as her son stood to leave, she had no idea whether or not he’d listen to her. Especially considering that Russ had lost his starting position to Gabe in high school and was likely to give Kenny conflicting advice. CHAPTER TWO BECAUSE GABE HAD BECOME such a recluse, Hannah had imagined his remote cabin as the stereotypical small shack with an overgrown yard, barrels filled with drinking water off to the side and a collection of beer bottles or hubcaps cluttering the front porch. What she saw as she parked behind his truck was a rather large, honey-colored two-story cabin with a neatly tended yard. Ivy climbed the stone chimney, a hammock swung gently in the breeze, and the porch didn’t have a single beer bottle or hubcap—it had unusual, attractive furniture made of tree branches. The scent of rich earth and pine filled her nostrils as she got out of her car. Although it would be plenty warm later in the day, it was still chilly in the mountains, and she could see smoke streaming from Gabe’s chimney. Obviously, he was home—but she’d expected him to be. Football practice wasn’t for another two hours. Fidgeting nervously with her keys, she finally shoved them into her purse as she approached the house. After his note telling her not to apologize anymore, Hannah knew Gabe would rather she leave him alone. In fact, he’d made it pretty clear he wanted everyone to leave him alone. But now that he’d decided to coach the Dundee High varsity football team, Hannah needed to talk to him. A classic rock station played inside the house, so she knocked loudly to compensate. Gabe’s dog, Lazarus, whom most people had met—Gabe never left the cabin without him—started barking, but Gabe didn’t appear. Was he working on something in back? She’d heard he built furniture. Now that she’d seen the chairs on his porch, she knew he was no amateur. Perhaps he’d sell her one. She could take some great photographs of children seated in a chair like that, holding a bunny or a dog…. She knocked again. Nothing, except more barking from Lazarus. There was a wooden gate on the side of the house. She walked around and, calling to announce her presence, let herself into the backyard, where she found a deeper porch with more eclectic patio furniture. A set of wind chimes rang as she followed a concrete path that weaved through a spectacular garden toward a large workshop, the door of which stood open. “Gabe?” When she stuck her head inside, she couldn’t see him, but she saw lots of other interesting things. There was a carved mahogany armoire that still needed to be stained, a metal dinosaur that looked as if it belonged in a garden as elegant as his, a grandfather clock, several other clocks and parts of clocks, a sea chest, and three rocking chairs in different sizes. Hannah doubted she’d ever seen more beautiful work. The hand-carved rocking chairs were fabulous. They reminded her of her favorite childhood story, The Three Bears. Just as she decided to try one out, she heard Gabe’s voice at the door. “Is there something I can do for you, Hannah?” Someone’s been sitting in my chair…. She jumped up as he rolled across the threshold—and fought the urge to dash around him and run off. He was wearing jeans and a white golf shirt that showed off the depth of his tan and made her suspect he did a lot of his sanding and staining outdoors without a shirt. And his hair was wet. “Sorry to intrude,” she said. “I knocked at the house but no one answered. I thought maybe I’d find you back here.” Lazarus trotted forward to welcome her with a sniff and a lick on the hand. “I was in the shower.” Hannah couldn’t read his expression very well, but she thought she detected a hint of curiosity in his eyes. “You’re probably wondering why I’m here.” “I’m guessing it has something to do with Kenny.” Lazarus licked her again, but when Gabe whistled and snapped his fingers, the dog immediately moved back to his side. “He’ll be on my team this year, won’t he?” She could smell turpentine in the shop, the scent of tomato plants drifting in from the garden. “Yes.” “From what I’ve seen, he’s pretty good.” “Football means a lot to him.” She clasped her hands nervously behind her back. Football had meant a lot to Gabe, too. Suddenly it seemed stupid for her to have come out to his cabin. She wasn’t the right person to help him. Gabe might be in a wheelchair, but he still had a powerful presence. She knew from everything she’d seen so far that he could compensate for his handicap. Blaine probably wouldn’t pose any problem for him. But she was already here. It was too late to back out. “Actually, I didn’t come to talk about Kenny. I wanted to warn you that you might run into a little resentment from Coach Blaine.” He rubbed his chin with his knuckles. “What makes you think so?” Gabe had kissed her once, at a high-school graduation party. For some reason, Hannah couldn’t help thinking of that now. His mouth had been soft and commanding, his hands firm on her back as he pressed her against him. He’d been the boy “Most Likely to Succeed,” if not by actual vote by common understanding, and she’d gone home with a huge crush…. “Hannah?” She was staring at the shape of his lips, which, like his thick-lashed eyes and the rest of his deeply tanned face, was something to be admired. Clearing her throat, she felt her cheeks warm as she scrambled to remind herself of his question—why did she think he might have trouble with Coach Blaine? “Something Kenny mentioned to me when he came home from practice yesterday,” she said. “What was that?” No way was she going to tell Gabe what Blaine had called him. “Basically, he’s jealous that you got the position he wanted.” He didn’t seem impressed that she’d driven so far to warn him. “So?” She blinked in surprise. “I’m afraid he might work against you, try to make you look bad somehow, make you feel unwelcome.” “So?” he repeated. “So…I wanted to tell you to watch your back.” Lazarus barked, but Gabe quickly and easily silenced him by putting a hand on his head. “I can take care of myself, Hannah,” he said. “I don’t need you to protect me.” “I know. I just…” Her words faltered. He was right. If he weren’t in a wheelchair, she wouldn’t have come out here. She would have known he could handle Coach Blaine. All the regret she’d felt since the accident caused a painful ache in her chest. She wanted to redeem herself somehow. Make things right. But there wasn’t any way to do that. “I’m sorry,” she said. Tears burned behind her eyes. She fought them as she tried to skirt past him, but he caught her wrist before she could clear the workshop door. “Hannah?” The warmth of his touch seemed to wrap around her like a blanket. Again she remembered that night twenty years ago when he’d kissed her. She wished he’d kiss her now, wished he could be the man he used to be. She had walked away from that accident with only a broken arm and a gash on the forehead, but she wasn’t sure she’d ever recover from the remorse. “I’m fine,” he said firmly. “You have to forgive yourself, okay?” He let go, but she didn’t move away. She wanted to throw her arms around him so she could feel his heart beating. She knew he was right. They both needed to get over the accident and move on. Only he wasn’t fine. He was sitting in a wheelchair, and he was angry and bitter, even if he was trying not to direct those emotions at her. “Gabe…” “What?” She didn’t have the right to ask him for anything, but that ache in her chest made it impossible to walk away. Unable to find words, she ran two tentative fingers down the side of his face. His eyes immediately riveted on hers. She recognized the raw need that flared inside them and was so surprised to see his defenses slipping, she couldn’t breathe. He looked as if he was starved for human touch, and it was little wonder. He’d lost so much. And what he hadn’t lost, he’d rejected. The dog whined and suddenly, the mask of indifference Gabe usually wore snapped into place. “Don’t do me any favors,” he said gruffly, rolling back several inches. “Forget about me and go on with your life.” She let her hand fall to her side. “I can’t forget you,” she admitted. But before he could respond, Lazarus tore off, barking, and Mike Hill strode into the backyard. STRUGGLING TO COPE with the powerful emotions that had come out of nowhere, Gabe whistled for Lazarus and focused on Mike’s approach. Hannah would leave soon and his pulse would settle. He just needed to bide his time, ignore the sudden yearning, stick with his therapy so he could eventually reclaim his life. Since the accident, he’d withdrawn from everyone, even his family. It was only natural he’d miss the closeness and the physical interaction. “There you are.” Mike wore a congenial smile as he petted Lazarus, but Gabe recognized the surprise running underneath that smile. Hannah would be about the last person Mike would expect to find here. Gabe sighed. What had happened to his blessed solitude? He’d moved thirty miles from town and built his cabin on a hundred acres of forested mountaintop. Evidently, he hadn’t gone to enough trouble. Without outside interference, he could deal with his problems in his own way—could even remain oblivious to the exact depth of some of his more poignant losses. But when Mike talked about horses or football or even marriage and family, Gabe realized how much he missed his old life. And when Hannah touched him, he realized how badly he craved the smell, taste and feel of a woman. Someday, he told himself. When he recovered…. Gabe quickly schooled his expression to hide his irritation at yet another intrusion into his private domain. “What brings you all the way out here again, Mike?” He knew his voice fell a little short of welcoming, but Mike didn’t seem to notice. “I brought you the team roster.” He handed Gabe the clipboard he was carrying, then tipped his hat at Hannah. “I thought I recognized your Volvo, Hannah. How are you?” “Fine, thanks,” she murmured, and Gabe hoped he was the only one who noticed the blush creeping up her neck. He didn’t want her to give away the fact that Mike had interrupted them at an awkward moment. Mike would probably have enough questions about Hannah’s presence as it was. “How’s business?” Mike asked her. Gabe knew Hannah worked hard to support her two boys. He also knew she had no choice if she wanted to see them fed and clothed. It was common knowledge that Russ Price certainly didn’t contribute much to the family. He didn’t have a job half the time. “Pretty good,” she said. “Now that summer’s almost over, things are starting to slow down, which is good because I need to get Kenny and Brent ready for school.” “Is Kenny playing on JV again this year?” Mike asked. Gabe gave Mike a look he hoped would get him to shut up and back off. He knew what Mike was doing. Mike was trying to set Hannah’s expectations low, just in case Gabe decided to leave Kenny where he was. “Coach Blaine brought him up to varsity last week,” she said. Mike’s gaze flicked toward Gabe. “I hadn’t heard.” “I hadn’t heard either,” Gabe said, and made a point of adding, “But that’s perfect, since I was planning on doing it myself.” “Kenny will be glad to hear you think he belongs on varsity.” Picking up a tennis ball, she threw it for Lazarus. “I’ve got to do some shopping. I’d better go.” Mike watched her leave, but Gabe turned his attention to a game of fetch with Lazarus. He didn’t see any point in admiring Hannah’s trim figure, her long dark hair, olive complexion or wide brown eyes. His libido was on hold indefinitely. “Why was Hannah here?” Mike asked when she was gone. Gabe called out to quiet Lazarus, who’d gotten distracted by a squirrel and was barking up a tree. “No reason.” Mike challenged this response by cocking one eyebrow. “It’s the first time she’s ever been out here. She came to tell me that Coach Blaine isn’t happy.” “How does she know? Did she get specific?” “No.” Gabe accepted the tennis ball Lazarus dropped in his lap. “I’m guessing Kenny overheard something at practice. That’s all.” Mike frowned. “I could feel Blaine’s anger when I delivered the news,” he said, sounding almost as concerned as Hannah. Gabe hated being treated so differently than before. “Is that why you drove thirty miles instead of delivering the roster to the field?” he asked, throwing the ball again. “To warn the poor cripple?” Mike disarmed him with a slow smile. “Sorry, man. I didn’t expect to interrupt anything important—especially with Hannah Price.” “Mike…” Gabe warned. Turning his palms up in mock innocence, Mike shrugged. “I’m just glad to see you don’t blame her for the accident. What happened was Russ’s fault.” Except that it wasn’t Russ who’d crashed into him. Had Hannah been two minutes earlier or two minutes later—or simply waited for Russ to bring the boys back… “Any caring mother would go after her kids,” Mike said. Sometimes Gabe agreed; sometimes he didn’t. Generally, he tried not to think of Hannah, or any other woman for that matter. “Why do I get the feeling you’re trying to drive that point home?” His friend’s grin grew more meaningful. “Maybe it’s because I saw the way she was looking at you.” Mike was always quick to point out when Gabe turned a pretty woman’s head, but Gabe had no patience for it. Regardless of the sudden awareness he’d felt a moment ago, that part of his life was in cold storage and would be until he could walk again. “Can we get back to football?” “You have a lot of years ahead of you, Gabe. There’s no need to live them alone, especially because you’re the only thing stopping you from finding someone to share them with.” Mike sounded like an echo of Gabe’s sister, Reenie. Everyone thought he should settle for what he could get out of life in a wheelchair. But Gabe had never been one to settle for anything. Walking again was his only priority. “In case I haven’t made myself clear enough in the past, I don’t want to hear your take on the situation, Mike,” he said. Lazarus had dropped the ball in Gabe’s lap a few seconds earlier. Now he barked to get Gabe to respond. “Here you go, boy,” Gabe said and lobbed the ball into the air. The dog took off after it as Mike walked up the ramp Gabe had installed on his deck and took a seat in a chair that hung from the rafters. Made of rattan, it was shaped like a bowl—another of Gabe’s recent experiments. “I’m just saying you should ask Hannah out, that’s all. What’s one date? I’m sure she’d go out with you.” Gabe was sure of it, too. She felt so guilt-ridden about the accident she’d probably do almost anything he asked of her. But he wasn’t the slightest bit interested in exploiting her pity or anyone else’s. He hated pity. “Forget it.” “Come on. Grab a movie with her or something. Lord knows she could use the break. It’s not easy raising those kids on her own.” “I don’t think she’s raising them on her own.” “For all intents and purposes she is. Russ’s involvement only makes things harder,” Mike said. “And you know this, how?” “It’s Dundee, Gabe. Everyone knows everyone else’s business.” He hesitated. “Except maybe yours.” Gabe recovered the ball, but Mike’s statement about Russ making Hannah’s life more difficult had piqued his curiosity enough that he forgot to throw it. He wheeled a little closer. “He’s still giving her trouble?” “He’ll always give her trouble. A week or so ago when Russ had the boys, Kenny caught Brent watching a porn video.” “How’d he get hold of it?” Lazarus barked, Gabe threw, and the dog took off again. “It was called My Little Pussy,” Mike said. “He thought it was about a kitten.” “God.” Gabe grimaced. “You got it.” “Did Kenny see the video, too?” “I don’t think so.” “How’d you hear about it?” “Russ told half the people at the Honky Tonk last Monday. He found Brent’s questions about what he’d seen hilarious.” “What an idiot.” Gabe shook his head in disgust. “How’d she end up with a guy like him?” When Mike propped his arms behind his head and put his feet up on a nearby footrest, Gabe almost regretted asking. It looked as if his friend was planning to stay awhile, and having company wasn’t in keeping with Gabe’s plans. He needed to mentally prepare himself for his first practice with the team. After being out of circulation for three years, he’d be dealing with a lot of people. He’d face an onslaught of questions, an avalanche of curiosity, and plenty of rude, blatant stares. Being famous made him an attraction already. Now that he was crippled and famous, he couldn’t go anywhere without conversations falling to a hush and people whispering behind their hands. But he suspected Mike knew it wouldn’t be an easy day for him and had come over to keep him company—probably so Gabe wouldn’t back out. And as long as they were talking about Hannah, Mike was unlikely to bring up Lucky. “You don’t remember what happened between her and Russ?” Mike asked. “I’m not sure I ever knew.” He’d been away at college, too busy making his dream come true to pay much attention to what was happening in Dundee. “They got married a few months after she graduated from high school. She was pregnant.” Gabe glanced across the lawn, expecting Lazarus to come charging back to him, and saw him chasing another squirrel. “I can’t see her sleeping with Russ in the first place.” Mike shrugged. “Who knows how it happened? She couldn’t go away to college like the rest of us. She had to stay and take care of her mother, and Russ lived right next door.” A few weeds had infiltrated one of the garden boxes Gabe had built up off the ground. He bent forward to take care of the problem. “What was wrong with her mother?” “Cancer.” Gabe tossed the weed he’d pulled on top of the pile he was making. He’d heard about her mother; he remembered now. “Where was her father?” “Died in a plane crash when Hannah was little. I know they got some sort of settlement, but it was just her and her mom until her mother died.” Gabe smoothed the soil he’d disturbed and stretched to reach around another plant. Hannah must’ve been lonely…. “My mother thinks she was after his family,” Mike added. Brushing the dirt from his hands, Gabe glanced up in surprise. “I’ve heard of a woman being after a guy’s money, but never his family.” “When Hannah’s mother got sick, it was Violet Price who helped her deal with the situation. After her mother died, Hannah might’ve been trying to cement those relationships, to hang on to the people she already cared about.” That sounded reasonable to Gabe—but the years didn’t match up. “Kenny’s only sixteen years old,” he said. “If she got pregnant right out of high school—” “She miscarried.” Mike gave him a sidelong look. “Any other questions I can answer for you about Hannah Price?” Gabe scowled. “We’re just talking, Mike. There’s nothing wrong with talking, is there?” Mike’s lips curved in a broad smile. “Not a thing, buddy. You need someone to fill you in on what you missed all those years you were busy showing off on national television.” Showing off… Mike had always teased him about his fame. Gabe smiled in spite of himself as he rolled over to the tool-shed to retrieve his small pruning shears. He’d spotted some dead blooms on his roses. “Considering the gap between Kenny and Brent, she must’ve stayed with Russ a long time.” Mike didn’t comment. He leaned his head back, closed his eyes and tilted his hat to shade his face. “Mike?” “What?” Gabe knew he was stupid to press the issue, but he was probably never going to hear the end of Hannah, anyway. So he risked one more question. “Why didn’t she leave him after the miscarriage?” “If you’re not interested in Hannah, why do you want to know so much about her?” “I’m familiarizing myself with the family situation of my starting quarterback. Coaches do that sort of thing.” Putting his feet down, Mike sat forward and nudged his hat up. “So Kenny’s the attraction?” “Of course.” Mike hardly looked convinced, but he shrugged. “Well then, for coaching’s sake, I’ll tell you this. I don’t know why she stayed as long as she did. Especially because Russ was a lousy husband. He went from one job to another, hung out at the Honky Tonk every weekend, went home drunk more times than not, and bought things they couldn’t afford, even when he wasn’t earning any money. My mother’s been a good friend of Violet’s for years and shakes her head whenever Russ’s name is mentioned.” Gabe lifted his gaze as Mike stood. “Was Hannah supporting the family with her photography way back then?” “Not in the early years. She worked at the diner, remember?” “No.” For more than a decade Gabe had been living out-of-state and hadn’t paid attention to anything beyond his career and his immediate circle of family and friends. “So when did she start taking pictures?” Mike crossed the deck. “Beats me. Must’ve been before the divorce, though, because I heard Russ went after her for spousal maintenance.” That statement made Gabe prick himself on a thorn. Mumbling a curse, he shook the sting out of his finger. “Tell me he didn’t win. Certainly she’s not supporting him….” Mike’s teeth flashed in another smile. “You’ll have to ask her.” “What?” His friend strode down the ramp and sauntered toward the gate. “Call her,” he said. “I’m not going to call her!” “Why not? Take her out to a movie.” “No way.” “You might have a good time, Gabe. Would that be so bad?” “Yes!” The gate clicked shut, and Gabe threw his pruning shears in the opposite direction. They arced, like a perfectly thrown football, imbedding themselves in the fence with a vibrating thwack that made Lazarus freeze near the trees and prick his ears forward. Having a good time with Hannah would be bad, Gabe thought. Because then he might want to see her again. And he couldn’t let himself get too comfortable. He had a long fight ahead of him. He couldn’t afford to bow beneath the odds and settle for spending the rest of his days in a wheelchair. “I’m not going to ask her out,” he called. But Mike was long gone, and only the deep bong of the wind chimes and Lazarus’s howl answered back. CHAPTER THREE THE DAY HAD TURNED HOT and dry. The heat blasted into Gabe’s truck as he opened the door, lifted his wheelchair to the pavement and swung into it. Already he could feel the attention of those on the football field. Even the cheerleaders practicing stunts in front of the gym stopped to watch as he got out. It wasn’t difficult to imagine what they were thinking: He’s here…That’s his truck…How does he drive without using his feet? How does he get into his chair? Oh, look at that… He’d been MVP of the National Football League for two years running. The last thing Gabe ever thought he’d become was a freak show. Taking the roster from the back seat of his extended cab, he hooked it on the handle of his wheelchair, whistled for Lazarus and started pushing for the gate. Excited by the promise of a new activity, Lazarus trotted circles around him. Gabe was fairly sure Coach Hill had never brought a dog to practice. He knew Lazarus might raise a few eyebrows, but Gabe didn’t really care. If the school board didn’t like it, they could fire him. He hadn’t asked for this job in the first place. Coach Owens immediately spotted him and hurried over. They met up just as Gabe rolled onto the track surrounding the field. “Hello, Coach. Good to see you again. It’s been a while.” Coach…Gabe wondered how long it’d take him to get used to his new title. “Thanks. Good to see you, too.” Owen’s arthritis had taken more ground, distorting his hands, but his smile revealed no animosity, even when he glanced at Lazarus. Gabe decided Coach Owens was as good-natured and open as he’d always been. Blaine, of course, was a different story. He stood on the far edge of the field with a whistle in his mouth, his hands propped on his hips in a classic stance of “I’m the boss here.” He glared at Gabe for several long seconds, making Gabe feel even more self-conscious about getting his damn chair down onto the field. But Gabe refused to be intimidated by a man who couldn’t even manage his own temper. Gabe had seen Blaine toss players into lockers, throw a football at the back of a guy’s head, chuck a clipboard across the room. He’d even held Gabe’s head under water once, when Gabe had called an audible instead of running the play Blaine had sent out to him. It didn’t matter that Gabe had read the defense and knew Blaine’s play wouldn’t work. It didn’t matter that the change resulted in a touchdown pass that won the game and secured the team a spot in the play-offs. Everyone knew Blaine hadn’t called what Gabe ran, and Blaine didn’t like being upstaged. Considering Blaine’s lack of control, it was a miracle he still worked at Dundee High. Anywhere else in America he would have been sacked long ago. But his more violent outbursts had occurred back when teachers had a great deal more latitude. And he’d coached at Dundee High so long he seemed like a permanent fixture. In a town where everyone knew everyone else, firing Blaine felt too much like firing family. Gabe squinted against the sun to see the boys who had all turned expectantly toward him. Oddly enough, their faces were already streaked with dirt and sweat as if they’d been practicing for some time. “Am I late?” he asked, checking his watch, which indicated he wasn’t. Owens shifted from foot to foot and clasped his gnarled hands behind his back. “No, not really. It’s just that…well, Coach Blaine wanted to get an early start.” Gabe surveyed the forty or more athletes staring curiously back at him. “He called all these boys and told them to come to practice early?” Mopping the perspiration on his brow with the towel that hung around his neck, Owens cleared his throat. “Actually, we have a phone tree. He…um…had me start the phone tree.” “And no one thought to notify me?” Owens glanced across the field as if he wanted to ask Blaine what to say now. “I guess you’re not on the list yet.” “Put me on it,” Gabe said. “Put me right on top, because I’ll be the one to start the phone tree in the future.” “Sure, okay, Coach. Anything you say.” Evidently Blaine was already pushing to see what he could get away with. Gabe couldn’t give an inch, or he’d be looking at twice as much resistance later on. “Would you mind telling Coach Blaine I’d like a word with him, please?” Gabe could almost read Owens’s mind as his eyes once again darted toward the man in question. No doubt Owens was more than a little hesitant to become a target of Blaine’s temper. If Gabe quit or wound up fired, Blaine would most likely take over as head coach. Then Owens would be in a very difficult position. “Is there a problem, Coach?” Gabe asked when Owens didn’t move. “No, ah, no, of course not,” he said. “I’ll get him.” Along with the entire football team and several parents who were sitting in the stands, Gabe watched Owens jog over to Blaine. They exchanged a few words. Then Blaine made his way slowly across the field, seemingly unconcerned. “You wanted to see me, Gabe?” he said when they were finally within speaking distance. Gabe knew Blaine had purposely used his first name to avoid giving him the respect of his new title but said nothing. He waited for Blaine to get a little closer. He had no intention of broadcasting the fact that they were having a problem with each other on the very first day. That would only boost gossip and start folks choosing sides, and Gabe drew enough attention as it was. He preferred to keep a low profile, if only Blaine would let him. “What is it?” Blaine prompted. “Well, Melvin, it seems I wasn’t notified of a change in the practice schedule.” Blaine’s lip curled in a poor approximation of a smile. “I didn’t see any need to make you come in early. I wasn’t sure how flexible you could be with…” His gaze dropped to Gabe’s chair. “Well, let’s just say I wasn’t sure of your schedule, and I knew Owens and I could handle it.” Gabe’s hands tightened on his wheels. Blaine had coached him; he knew how driven Gabe was, knew what being in a chair cost him. Blaine was trying to make him feel like less of a man because of his handicap, and it angered Gabe that his insecurities allowed Blaine to hit the target so perfectly. The memory of Blaine’s hand on the back of his head, forcing him under water played again in Gabe’s mind. He was only sixteen at the time, and Blaine must’ve been forty. But once panic set in, Gabe had come up swinging and knocked his coach to the ground. He’d been ready to do more, if necessary. He still wondered what might have happened if Coach Hill hadn’t walked into the locker room at that moment. Taking a deep, calming breath, Gabe said, “Making that change on your own is fine for today. But it had better never happen again. Do I make myself clear?” Gabe had kept his tone and his expression so pleasant that it took a moment for his words to register. “It’s just practice, Gabe,” Blaine said. “I thought—” “Next time you won’t need to think. You’ll know better.” A muscle jumped in Blaine’s jaw. Except for the color of his hair, which had turned gray, he looked exactly like he had the night he’d nearly drowned Gabe in the team’s water cooler. “Owens and I have been doing this since you were in diapers,” Blaine hissed. “And now I’m in a wheelchair,” Gabe said calmly. “And that isn’t going to change anything either.” Blaine said nothing. Neither did Gabe. It was a silent contest of wills. Blaine needed to understand that, wheelchair or no, Gabe was as competitive as ever. He hadn’t asked for this job, but now that he was here, he wasn’t going to let Coach Blaine run him off. “I’m sure having a dog at practice is against school policy,” Blaine said at last, obviously grappling for whatever ammunition he could use. Gabe shrugged. “So file a complaint.” “It’s distracting to the boys,” he persisted. “They’ll get used to it.” Blaine’s lips blanched white but he held his tongue. “Unless you have further questions, I think that about covers it,” Gabe said. “Call the team together. I’d like to talk to them.” KENNY HAD BEEN looking forward to football since the end of last season. It gave him something to focus on that had nothing to do with his personal life. But today’s practice had been tense. Kenny hadn’t seen Blaine so pissed off since last year, when the varsity front line let the starting quarterback get sacked five times in one game. “You need a ride, man?” Senior Matt Rodriguez nudged Kenny in the shoulder as he passed, his cleats clicking on the cement. “No thanks.” Kenny put his gear, which he’d carried out of the locker room with him, on the ground and sat down at the curb by the fence surrounding the field. “Your mother coming?” Matt asked. “My dad,” he said, which meant he’d have a wait. His dad was always late. Matt dug his keys out of his football bag. “See you tomorrow, then.” “Yeah, you too.” Kenny watched enviously as his friend pulled out of the lot in a beat-up red truck. Kenny had his license but no car to drive. Because his mother occasionally had to travel to different shoots, she couldn’t loan him her Volvo, at least not very often. And he knew better than to hope his dad might help him buy a car—even an old junker. Russ Price was lucky to have wheels of his own. What he drove usually ran worse than Matt’s truck. Tossing a rock across the parking lot, Kenny leaned against the fence and considered the coming weekend. The prospect of spending another few days at his father’s trailer wasn’t particularly appealing. Kenny was still angry about Brent getting hold of that porn video. What kind of father kept that shit in the house where a little boy could reach it? The sound of a car made him glance up. “You need a ride, Kenny?” Tiffany Wheeler smiled prettily at him from inside her green bug. The cheerleaders were usually gone when football practice let out. Evidently they’d stayed late. “No, I’m covered,” he said. “Thanks.” “You goin’ to the dance tonight?” Tempted by the promise in her voice, he hesitated. He was almost positive Tiffany liked him, which was quite a compliment since she was a year older and so many of the other boys admired her. But he couldn’t go to the dance. After the lack of remorse Russ had shown over that video incident, Kenny didn’t want to leave his little brother with their father. Kenny wouldn’t put it past Russ to go out drinking and leave Brent home alone. “Not this time.” “Oh.” Her expression revealed her disappointment. Kenny feared she’d simply set her heart on someone else, but he couldn’t change his mind. “Okay. Have fun whatever you do,” she said. He’d be baby-sitting, which didn’t sound like fun at all. He did a lot of it. But he was Brent’s only protection when they weren’t with their mother. If Kenny told Hannah half the stuff that went on at his father’s place, she’d sue Russ for full custody again, and Kenny didn’t want that to happen. The court battles freaked everyone out. Especially Brent, who loved Russ regardless. Kenny loved their father, too. He just wished Russ could pull his life together and take some pride in himself for a change. “See you around,” he said as Tiffany drove off. Car doors slammed, engines rumbled and parent after parent came by for those who didn’t drive. At least half an hour later, Coach Blaine stalked past Kenny, but didn’t say anything. A few minutes after that, Coach Owens mumbled goodbye. Even Owens seemed worried about the recent changes, Kenny realized, and cursed under his breath. He missed Coach Hill. Everything was cool when Coach Hill was around. Gabe had given them a stern lecture about persistence and determination. He’d talked about all-for-one and one-for-all, personal excellence and self-discipline, and he’d said that only those guys who played with heart would play for him. Then, he’d instituted a few new drills that were guaranteed to make them too sore to move tomorrow. The speech was good, and the drills might prove helpful, but with the coaching staff fighting amongst themselves, Kenny wasn’t sure any amount of motivation or hard work would make enough difference. Coach Hill always said they had to be unified or they wouldn’t win a single game. Football is a team sport, my friends…. “Kenny?” He scrambled to his feet when he saw Coach Holbrook and his dog coming toward him from the locker room. Kenny wasn’t surprised Gabe was still around—Gabe’s truck was one of the few vehicles remaining in the lot—but Kenny was more than a little self-conscious about facing his new coach alone. The wheelchair made him nervous. The fact that his mother was to blame for the wheelchair made it even worse. “Yes, sir?” Holbrook studied him for a moment. “You need a ride?” Kenny glanced at the entrance to the lot, hoping to see Russ’s old Jeep. But the drive was empty and so was the street. “Um, my dad’s probably on his way.” Gabe arched his eyebrows. “The ‘probably’ part has me a little worried.” Kenny tried to pump some conviction into his voice. “I mean, I’m sure he’ll be here any minute.” “What if he doesn’t come?” “I’ll walk.” Kenny shrugged as if it was no big deal, but his mother lived more than three miles away, he was already exhausted and it was hotter than hell. Besides, if he showed up at her place, she’d know Russ had forgotten him again and his parents would end up in another huge fight. Holbrook consulted his watch. “Did you tell him when practice would be over?” Kenny had actually told Russ it ended half an hour earlier than it did. That strategy sometimes cut down on the waiting. But he wasn’t going to admit that to Gabe. It made his father look pathetic. “Yeah.” “He’s nearly an hour late.” “He’s busy, I guess.” Gabe’s lips formed a grim line. “Come on, I’ll drop you off.” Kenny didn’t know what to do. He didn’t feel like waiting for his father any longer. But he didn’t want to get into Gabe’s truck. What would they talk about? Reluctantly, he gathered his stuff and trailed his new coach across the lot. When Gabe started to get out of his wheelchair, Kenny hesitated. Should he offer to help? Should he be the one to load the wheelchair? Gabe didn’t turn but he must’ve felt Kenny’s hesitancy because he said, “I’ve got it,” sharply enough that Kenny knew offering to assist him would not be a good thing. Kenny had just rounded the truck and climbed in beside Gabe’s dog when his father finally pulled up next to the passenger side. Brent was in the back seat, without a seat belt. “There you are,” Russ called out from the Jeep. “What, did practice let out early today?” His dad was so full of crap. Kenny didn’t respond. Grabbing his shoulder pads and helmet, he scrambled out. “I guess my ride’s here,” he mumbled. “Thanks, Coach.” “Hey, Brent, see that? It’s Gabe Holbrook,” Russ said. “Did you know he was MVP two years in a row?” Even Brent looked like he was afraid their father would embarrass them. “Get your seat belt on,” Kenny grumbled to him. “Are you coaching the team now?” Russ asked as Brent buckled up. Holbrook situated himself behind the wheel before answering. “That’s the latest.” “No one told me.” Russ glanced accusingly at Kenny. “Why didn’t you tell me?” “I haven’t seen you since it happened,” he said and silently begged his father to drive off. Unfortunately, they didn’t move. “I have to admit that makes me a little nervous,” he said. “I mean, this kid’s got real talent. You won’t…you know, hold Kenny back for what Hannah did, will you? Kenny had nothing to do with putting you in that chair. And he’s the best quarterback you’ve got. He should definitely start.” Kenny felt his face flash hot. Thanks to his father, he was going to be benched for sure. Why did Russ have to get involved? When Gabe’s gaze cut from his instrument panel to Kenny’s father, the expression in his eyes was glacial enough to remind Kenny of a character he’d once seen in a cartoon strip. Iceman could freeze people to the spot with one glance…. “You worry about your job as Kenny’s father, I’ll worry about my job as Kenny’s coach,” he said. Then he turned some knobs and flipped some switches and roared out of the lot. Russ shook his head. “Oh boy,” he said. “Gabe’s going to be a problem, I can tell already. We need to take Coach Blaine out for a drink.” GABE GLANCED at his watch. Before he drove all the way home from practice, he thought he should probably stop by and see his mother. He didn’t do that very often because he didn’t want to run into his father. But the state senate was in session, so Gabe was fairly confident Garth wouldn’t be around. He cruised past his parents house, checking for his father’s Lincoln. When he didn’t see it in the open garage, or find his sister’s van in the drive, he pulled to the curb. His mother wasn’t to blame for the mess that had resulted in a half sister Gabe didn’t want. But it bothered him that Celeste persisted in being so understanding about the whole thing. How could she welcome Lucky into the family after what Garth had done? Gabe’s mother never ceased to amaze him. She was unfailingly kind, eternally patient and always engaged in a worthy cause. He wondered how much money she’d raised for the various charities she’d supported over the years…. “Gabe!” she said, flinging open the door while he was still rolling up the walk. Lazarus shot out ahead of him, and she gave him a good pat. After the accident, his parents had hired a contractor to install a ramp. She placed a kiss on Gabe’s forehead as soon as he reached the top of it. “Hi, Mom,” he responded. “How are you?” She looked great. She’d put on a few pounds in recent months. And her dark hair had begun to thin. But the sparkle in her blue eyes would always make her pretty. “I’m fine. What a nice surprise to see you.” “I was in town. Thought I’d drop by.” “I’m glad you did. Come in and have some iced tea. Your father will be so disappointed that he missed you.” Gabe halted before crossing the threshold. His mother was always trying to patch things up between him and his father, but Gabe wasn’t in the mood to put up with any coaxing. “Don’t start, Mom.” She held the door expectantly and Lazarus trotted inside, his toenails clicking on the marble floor. “Start what?” she said. “You know what I’m talking about,” he said, following his dog. She led them into the kitchen and poured him a glass of iced tea, but she didn’t drop the subject, as he wanted her to. “Gabe, when are you going to put this thing with Lucky behind you?” she asked. “I can’t stand what it’s doing to you or your father. I want my family back.” “A family that includes Lucky?” “Why not? She’s just as innocent as you are.” On one level, Gabe understood that and agreed. But the whole Lucky situation was simply too overwhelming to deal with right now. “I’m not trying to hurt her. I just want to be left alone. Live and let live.” “She asks about you all the time.” “Mom—” “And your father—” Gabe’s glass sounded as though it might break when he slammed it down on the tile countertop. “You’re worried about Dad? He’s the one to blame for all this.” She usually backed off when he grew angry. But that wasn’t the case today. “You have to weigh a man by his whole life, Gabe,” she said gently. “Not one mistake. Anyone can make a mistake.” No kidding. Had Gabe not been living with Hannah’s mistake, he probably could’ve taken his father’s in stride, the way his mother and sister seemed to have done. But he’d learned about his father’s affair, and the existence of his half sister, when the foundation of his life was already crumbling beneath him. He’d thought his father was the one thing—the one person—he could always rely on. Then Garth had made his shocking confession and Gabe had realized he couldn’t take anything for granted. “He had an affair with the most notorious prostitute in town, Mom. Worse, that affair resulted in a child. How can you accept what he’s done?” He scowled. “God, I was out there campaigning for him, raising money by telling everyone that he has integrity and would make a solid congressman.” He thought she’d argue that Garth would make a solid congressman. Deep down, Gabe really believed that, too. But she didn’t bother. “So this is about embarrassment?” “Of course not. Public humiliation is only part of it,” Gabe said. “Anyway, I don’t want to talk about Lucky anymore. I came here to tell you I’ve got a job.” “Really? Where?” “Here. I’m taking over the Spartans.” “That’s wonderful! Your father will be so—” She caught herself. “Even Reenie will be pleased to hear it.” “Yeah, well.” He shrugged. “We’ll see how it goes.” The phone rang. She raised one hand in a gesture that said she’d only be a minute and answered it. “Hello?…Yes, dear, I’ve heard. It is good news. I’m glad you’re happy about it. I know…He’ll be fantastic…Actually, he’s sitting right here so I’d better…Well—” she glanced at him and frowned “—actually, he’s in the restroom right now. Maybe he could call you later?…Right. See you on Thursday…We’ll have a good time…I always love shopping for antiques…Okay, then. I’ll talk to you soon…” Gabe’s mood darkened as he watched her disconnect. “Who was that?” She hesitated, obviously leery. “Mom?” he pressed. “It was Lucky.” Lucky again. The most important people in his life had all grown close to her. With a sigh, he pushed his iced tea away. “I gotta go.” “Gabe, don’t leave yet,” she said. But his sister came through the front door at that precise moment. “Hey, I thought that was your truck Decided to act a little human and actually leave the cabin today, huh?” Gabe didn’t respond. With a whistle, he called Lazarus and left. SO WHERE WAS Kenny? Hannah sat at her desk staring at the phone, a victim to the same nail-biting, stomach-knotting anxiety she felt almost every time Russ took the boys. She was afraid that her ex would get drunk and drive with Brent and Kenny in the car, fall asleep with a lit cigarette and burn down the trailer, or bring home a couple of vagrants who couldn’t be trusted around kids. There was no telling what Russ might do. He’d done plenty of questionable things in the past, some she knew about and probably lots she didn’t. Kenny and Brent and Russ’s family, especially his sister Patti, tried to cover for him, but Hannah had lived with Russ for twelve years. She knew what he was like. And she knew he’d gone downhill since the divorce. It was a travesty that the courts had made it impossible for her to protect the boys. The phone rang and she snapped it up. “Hello?” “Hannah?” It wasn’t Kenny. It was Betsy Mann, the woman who’d called nearly two hours ago to complain that Russ had been terribly late picking up Brent from his play date with her grandson, which made her miss her voice lessons. Hannah found it irritating that folks still expected her to apologize for Russ’s shortcomings. She and Russ had been divorced for nearly six years. But life in Dundee changed slowly, if at all, and today she was far more worried about the fact that Betsy hadn’t seen Kenny in the Jeep when Russ finally arrived. Had he forgotten Kenny or dropped him off somewhere? Hannah was betting on the former. Russ forgot the boys, or simply blew them off, all the time. “Have you found Kenny?” Betsy asked. Leaning forward at her desk, Hannah rested her forehead on the butt of her hand. “No. Russ isn’t answering. I haven’t been able to reach Coach Blaine, either. But Coach Owens told me Kenny was still waiting on the curb when he left.” “Did you go over to the school?” “Of course. I didn’t see him.” “Maybe he tried to walk home.” “There was no sign of him on the streets.” Kenny was not a little boy. And Dundee wasn’t exactly a high-crime district. But an accident could happen anywhere. What concerned Hannah was that she knew he wouldn’t call her if his father didn’t show up. He tried to keep that sort of thing quiet so he wouldn’t stir up trouble. “Marge over at Finley’s Grocery said that Gabe Holbrook’s the new head coach now that Larry’s passed away, God rest his soul,” Betsy said. “Have you tried him?” “Not yet.” “Do you have his number?” “No.” “Don’t worry. I called Celeste, Gabe’s mother, and got it for you, just in case.” Sometimes people in Dundee were a little too helpful. But with Kenny’s welfare hanging in the balance, Hannah didn’t mind. “He’s unlisted, you know,” Betsy was saying as Hannah rummaged through the drawer, looking for a pen. “Gabe’s such a big star he can’t publish his phone number for anyone to find. I happen to be good friends with Celeste, so she gave it to me the moment I asked. I help her with the crab feed for Safe & Sober Grad Night every year, you know.” What Hannah knew was that Gabe wanted to avoid his old acquaintances as much as his adoring fans—and she suspected he wanted to avoid her more than anyone else. Especially after what had passed between them this morning. But she found a pen and took down his number. Maybe he’d seen Kenny get into a car with one of the other players. If so, at least she’d have somewhere else to look. “Thanks,” she said and hung up. Then she traced the numerals of his number several times while working up the nerve to call him. GABE SET his staining brush aside, used the remote to turn down the stereo in his workshop and leaned over to reach the phone. It had been a long day, filled with more interruptions than he’d had in the past year. It seemed like half the town had contacted him since practice. Some had questions about whether or not he was planning to significantly change the football program at DHS. Some put in a plug for one player or another, or wanted to analyze this year’s talent. Others simply called to say how grateful they were that he was stepping in for Coach Hill. After his little confrontation with Blaine, Gabe was grateful for the support. But he’d kept to himself for so long, he also felt bombarded, overwhelmed and more than a little rusty on the social skills. “Hello?” “Gabe?” In the corner, Lazarus sat up. “Yes?” It was Hannah. Gabe knew it instantly, and immediately feared that Mike had called her and made some type of suggestion that they get together. He was considering breaking his best friend’s nose when she asked if he’d seen Kenny, and he realized he’d jumped to the wrong conclusion. Letting a sigh slip silently between his lips, he remembered the way Russ had acted when he’d pulled up that afternoon, and his anger turned to disgust. “His father picked him up at practice,” he said. “Oh, he did?” He heard her relief. “I haven’t been able to reach them, so I wasn’t sure.” Taking advantage of the fact that Gabe had stopped working, Lazarus walked over and nudged him. “He was pretty late, but he finally came,” he said, scratching his dog behind the ears. “That’s good.” “Glad I could help.” Gabe was eager to get off the phone. He’d dealt with enough people for one day—and he didn’t want whatever had happened between them this morning to raise its head again. He could already feel some kind of tension humming through the line. But she spoke before he could hang up. “Marissa asked about you the other day.” “Marissa?” “My friend? The one I hung out with all the time in high school?” That Marissa. How could he have forgotten her? She’d been one of the more determined girls-in-pursuit he’d known at Dundee High. Even the groupies who’d followed him around once he started playing in the NFL hadn’t had her perseverance. She’d asked him to the prom, after he already had a date, called him incessantly, sent him love letters, drove past his house three or four times a night. Once she even decorated his truck with hundreds of lipstick kisses interspersed with chocolate kisses. It had taken him hours to clean it off. “I remember…How is she?” he added when he realized his response had been a little too deadpan to be polite. If Hannah noticed, she didn’t let on. “She’s living in Boise, married with five kids.” “I’m happy for her,” he said. But he was even happier for himself now that he knew there was little chance of running into her, or once again becoming the object of her adoration. He’d expected his wheelchair to deter some of the women who’d chased him so brazenly, but the numbers hadn’t dropped significantly until he’d bought his cabin and disappeared from public view. He wasn’t sure what drew them. Maybe it was sympathy, the compulsion to feel needed, a craving for attention. Or maybe they simply saw dollar signs. Fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on how he looked at it—he’d known since the accident that he wasn’t interested in a romantic relationship. He especially didn’t want to keep company with a woman who sought him out because of pity or greed. “She’s doing well,” Hannah said. There was an awkward lull in the conversation, but instead of saying goodbye, Gabe hesitated, thinking of what Mike had told him earlier. He wanted to ask Hannah if Russ had won any spousal maintenance. The idea of an able-bodied man like Russ living off Hannah really bothered him. But what had happened between her and Russ was none of his business. “Well, have a nice weekend,” he said. “Gabe?” Lazarus yawned as Gabe brought the phone back to his ear. “Yeah?” “I was wondering…” Gabe’s muscles nearly cramped while he waited. What was she going to ask? Had Mike spoken to her after all? From the temerity in her voice, it certainly sounded that way. “What?” “Is there any chance you’d—” “No.” Lazarus barked, probably in response to the tension he sensed in Gabe. Then there was a long silence during which Gabe wondered how to smooth over the rejection that had just shot out of his mouth. “But you don’t even know what I was going to ask,” she said at last. “I mean, you make so much furniture. One chair can’t be all that important to you. Or, if it is, maybe you could make me one like it.” That took him aback. “What are you talking about?” he asked. “The chair on your front porch. I was hoping you’d sell it to me.” Gabe blinked in surprise—and felt more than a little foolish. “You want my chair?” “If I can afford it,” she said. Smiling at Lazarus, as if his dog could share his embarrassment, he shook his head. He had Mike to blame for his false assumption. Maybe his vanity had something to do with it, too, but it wouldn’t have been the first time a woman had asked him out. “You can have it,” he said. “No…I wouldn’t feel good about that. I’d rather…can you name a price?” Gabe had no idea what to charge her. He’d never sold any of his furniture before. And he didn’t need the money. He thought giving her the chair was a great idea. It could stand as a token of his goodwill, so she could go on with her life without carrying any baggage from the accident. Then, whatever happened—whether he walked or he didn’t—it would be his problem exclusively. “It’s no big deal,” he said. “Really. I’ll drop it by tomorrow after practice.” “Now I’m embarrassed I even asked.” “Why?” He began scratching Lazarus again. “Because I can’t take it unless you let me give you something in return. What if we worked out a trade?” His hand stilled. The suggestion piqued his interest, if only to see what she might offer him. “What kind of trade?” “I don’t know…Do I have anything you want?” Gabe waved Lazarus away and straightened in his chair. Was he the only one whose mind was suddenly painting erotic pictures? “Give me some suggestions,” he said. Since the accident, he’d tried very hard to cram his sex drive and anything related to male/female intimacy into a single compartment in his brain, a compartment he no longer used. Yet that innocent question from Hannah had his heart pounding as he imagined her naked beneath him, his lips gliding down her flat stomach…. She seemed to realize that what she’d just said could be misinterpreted and sounded embarrassed when she scrambled to clarify. “I mean, I’m a pretty good photographer. I could do some portraits of you.” “Of me?” “Why not? You could use them as Christmas gifts for your folks, or put them inside Christmas cards.” Now that he had allowed the sexy images in his mind to take shape, he was having difficulty brushing them aside. Certainly, getting his picture taken sounded like a poor substitute for what he’d been thinking. He didn’t send out Christmas cards, and he wasn’t sure he’d be spending the holidays with this folks this year. Even if he changed his mind, a portrait was about the last thing he wanted to give them. “No thanks.” “I could photograph Lazarus.” “Uh…” He arched a questioning eyebrow at his dog, who’d returned to his favorite corner and was yawning again, then chuckled softly. “I love Lazarus, but I’m not really the type to hang up a big photograph of my dog.” She didn’t try to talk him into it. She immediately moved on to something else, which strengthened his suspicion that she was working hard to compensate for the “Do I have anything you want?” blunder. “Then maybe I can cook for you. You’ll be busy now that you’re coaching, right? If you like, you could swing by and pick up your dinner after practice each day, then heat it up when you’re ready to eat.” Gabe didn’t want to be distracted from the life he’d plotted out for himself—especially by the type of images he’d just entertained. But he knew Hannah’s offer wasn’t really about a chair. Despite the years that had passed, she was still looking for some way to feel better about her part in the accident. “I guess we could try it,” he said. “I could give Kenny a ride at the same time if you like.” Hannah quickly agreed and seemed eager to discuss the details. But Gabe knew almost instantly that he’d made a mistake. He might have given way to Mike’s pressure to take over the Spartans, but that didn’t mean he had to let other people intrude in his life. “Gabe?” she said when the conversation began to wind down. “What?” “What did you think I was asking for earlier?” “When?” He already knew the answer—when he’d given her a resounding “no” before she could even finish the question—but he hoped to buy himself some time. “When I was asking about the chair.” No good answer presented itself. “Oh, something else,” he said vaguely, then added a quick, “I gotta go.” He hung up before she could press him, but the memory of her voice lingered in his mind as Lazarus followed him into the house. He’d let her cook for a week or so, he decided, as he changed into his T-shirt and shorts so he could work out. Then he’d thank her, insist it was enough and get back to growing his wheatgrass. CHAPTER FOUR GENERALLY HANNAH DUCKED her head and tried to go unnoticed whenever anyone mentioned Gabe Holbrook. There were too many folks in town who hadn’t yet forgiven her for destroying their favorite football star. She suspected they were more upset that they could no longer bask in his reflected glory than they were about his loss. But they often shook their heads and tsked when she passed by, especially at the beginning of football season and in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. Today, the mention of Gabe’s name made Hannah as self-conscious as ever. When Trudy Johnson started talking about the new coach at the high school, Hannah cursed silently and raised the cookbook she’d brought into the hair salon. She should’ve expected the town to be buzzing with the latest news. Folks in Dundee took school sports very seriously. Here, the high school coach possessed almost as much clout as the mayor. “I never dreamed he’d accept the position,” Trudy was saying. “I know!” Over the top of her book, Hannah saw thirtyish Shirley Erman crane her head around even though Ashleigh Evans was trying to put perm rods in her hair. Saturdays were always busy at the beauty shop. “He’s been living like a hermit for three years,” she said. “Then, suddenly, he’s the new coach of the varsity football team? I mean, I hate that Coach Hill passed away, but I think it’s great Gabe’s willing to take over.” Hannah agreed. In her opinion, Gabe needed to feel passionate about something again, to regain his zest for life. But she didn’t say anything. She wasn’t sure she wanted to draw attention to herself and suffer through that awkward moment when the others realized that she—the person who’d ended his career—was sitting only a few feet away. “He’ll do a good job.” Rebecca Hill was giving Trudy a short jagged cut that looked far too Vogue for a little town in Idaho, but that was the beauty of Rebecca. She was artistic and dramatic, and she followed her heart. Since marrying Mike’s brother a few years ago, she’d grown slightly more conservative, especially since the birth of their baby. But she’d never be plain or boring. And her salon reflected that. Gone was the faded candy-cane-striped wallpaper and pale pink vinyl of the beauty parlor Hannah remembered from her childhood. Now the salon was decorated in black and white and chrome, had a checkered floor, sleek, contemporary lighting, and vases filled with exotic flowers. Recently, Rebecca had even changed the name. After she’d remodeled and expanded to include facials, electrolysis, massage and aromatherapy, Hair and Now had become Shear Temptation. Located next to an old-fashioned drugstore on one side, and a redbrick bank on the other, Shear Temptation looked like a spaceship parked between two Model T’s. “Being a good player doesn’t make someone a good coach,” a voice nearby responded. A quick peek around her book told Hannah that Deborah Wheeler, one of Coach Blaine’s daughters, had made that comment from a seat in the waiting area closer to the front desk. Hannah had been so absorbed in trying to go unnoticed that she hadn’t seen Deborah come in. She lowered her cookbook. “Being a good player doesn’t make someone a bad coach,” she said, rushing to Gabe’s defense in spite of herself. Now that he was venturing back into society, she wanted to make sure he received the support he deserved. Everyone’s gaze momentarily fixed on her. She waited for someone to mention the accident but, thankfully, nobody did. “I just want what’s good for Gabe,” Shirley said, turning back to Deborah. “If coaching will give him fresh purpose, I’m all for it.” “Even if he’s not cut out for the job?” Deborah countered. “Even if he doesn’t win very much,” Shirley said. “My husband might disagree, but I say we can’t expect every season to be as good as the last few. Gabe needs this.” Deborah had a thin, angular face. Now she pursed her lips as though it tried her patience to deal with folks obviously less educated than herself. She taught Honors English at the high school and acted as if she knew everything. Some of the ladies in town made fun of her, but she had her admirers. “Gabe doesn’t need this job,” she said. “He made millions while he was playing football. And anyway, no one should get a coaching position out of pity.” Hannah opened her mouth to say that with a record like Gabe’s he’d hardly landed the job on pity, but Rebecca answered before she could. “Pity has nothing to do with it! Gabe’s well-qualified.” Deborah shook her head. “You don’t understand.” “What’s not to understand?” Hannah asked. “Think about it.” She set her magazine on the table. “Making Gabe head coach places him in a position where he has everything to lose and nothing to gain. He doesn’t need the money from the job—” “This isn’t about money,” Rebecca interrupted. “—and if the team wins, so what? We’ve won plenty of times in the past without him.” She tilted her head at a jaunty angle. “But let’s look at what happens if the Spartans have a bad season. Now there’s a story. Poor, crippled Gabe Holbrook takes on his old high school team, a team with a winning season nearly twenty years in a row,” she was careful to emphasize, “only to watch them lose again and again. Which could happen. He’s an untried entity. So my question is this—do we really want to risk seeing Gabe fall any farther off his pedestal? The accident nearly destroyed him. What’s he going to do if he fails at this?” Hannah suspected Deborah was actually more afraid Gabe would succeed. “He won’t fail,” she said. Deborah folded her arms across her nearly flat chest. “You don’t know that.” “I, for one, am proud of him for trying,” Shirley said. “People who won’t attempt something for fear of failing, cripple themselves. At least Gabe’s not doing that. His handicap was caused by an outside source.” Deborah’s eyes seemed to slice right through Hannah. “You should know all about that, right, Hannah?” Hannah clenched her jaw. Deborah certainly wasn’t perfect. She’d had an affair with the band teacher at Dundee High four years ago, which had caused a small scandal and broken up two marriages. From what Hannah had heard, Deborah had regretted her actions almost immediately and tried to win her husband back, but he’d refused to reconcile. Hannah knew she could point to that mistake and say, “Everyone lives with some regret, Deborah.” But what was the point? Deborah hadn’t stripped a man of his ability to walk. Hannah’s sin was far worse, and the guilt she felt wouldn’t allow her to defend herself. If only she hadn’t tried to pass on that curve…. Rebecca spoke up. “That was beneath even you, Deborah.” “This isn’t about the past,” Shirley added in a conciliatory tone. “It’s about the future. We, as a community, need to stand behind Gabe.” “Why?” Deborah cried, jumping to her feet. “Why is he any different from the rest of us? If I got in a car accident and was put in a wheelchair, do you think this community would do anything for me? No! Because I’m not some hotshot football player. Just because he can throw a ball eighty yards doesn’t make him any better than anyone else,” she said and stormed out. Hannah turned to watch Deborah flounce down the street toward her car. Shirley joined her at the window. “I heard she wanted Gabe,” she mused. “But I didn’t believe it until now.” “Do you think he rejected her?” Ashleigh asked. Still unmarried, Ashleigh generally kept tabs on every available man in town and sounded put out that something might have occurred that she didn’t know about. Trudy rolled her eyes. “Ya think?” Shirley ignored Trudy’s sarcasm. “He must have.” Hannah set the cookbook on the seat next to her. “Deborah was in my graduating class. She had a crush on him way back then, but so did a lot of girls.” “I bet he’s never even looked at her,” Shirley said. “Probably the only thing that made her think she finally had a chance with him was that wheelchair. Otherwise, he’d be so out of reach it’d be like crying for the moon.” Hannah wasn’t sure that rejection was the reason for Deborah’s sniping. Probably had more to do with her father not getting the position as head coach. But Hannah could certainly understand why Blaine’s daughter might find Gabe attractive. There probably wasn’t a woman in town who hadn’t fantasized about him. He was strong, talented, intelligent and handsome. Really handsome. Remembering the look in his eyes yesterday, that brief flash of something powerful and erotic, gave Hannah the same fluttery expectation she felt on a roller coaster as it climbed the highest hill. There were times she wanted him herself. But even if he could forgive her, she doubted he’d ever be able to forget what she’d cost him. SHOVING HIS EMPTY plate away, Kenny shifted uncomfortably in the booth at Jerry’s Diner and told Brent to eat the rest of his hash browns. Their dad had finally rolled out of bed at eleven-thirty, so they were having more of an early lunch than a late breakfast. But missing breakfast wasn’t anything unusual when they stayed with Russ. This Sunday morning had gone pretty much like all the others—except that Kenny had dragged himself out of bed the moment Brent had gotten up to watch cartoons. Kenny hadn’t intervened when his little brother helped himself to a candy bar first thing, but no way was he going to allow Brent to get hold of another porn video. Brent pushed his potatoes around on his plate. “I’m stuffed,” he complained. “I can’t eat another bite.” Looking immediately to their father, who’d recently started growing a goatee to compensate for his thinning hair, Kenny said, “He’s done. Can we go?” Russ hooked an arm over the back of the booth and waved for the waitress to come round with the coffee. “Of course not. Coach Blaine hasn’t arrived yet.” Kenny wasn’t sure if Blaine would show. Kenny couldn’t see a man like him having much to do with Russ, even if they both wanted to see Gabe Holbrook give up the job he’d just taken. “He should’ve been here half an hour ago,” Kenny said. “Something must’ve come up.” “We’re in no hurry. We can wait.” His father was never in any hurry. But Kenny didn’t want to wait. He didn’t really want to see Blaine. Growing anxious, he started bouncing his knee. His father scowled at the movement. “Jeez you’ve got a lot of energy. Has your mother ever had you tested for ADHD?” Russ had only recently learned of ADHD—and instantly decided he had it. He saw symptoms in everyone else, too, and was quick to suggest medication. Left to him, more than half the town would be on Ritalin. “I don’t have ADHD, Dad.” “Coulda fooled me.” He added cream to his coffee. “You fidget more than Brent does.” That was an exaggeration if Kenny had ever heard one. Brent was pouring sugar onto the table right now. His father had to take the sugar dispenser away from him in order to sweeten his coffee, but he handed it back as soon as he was done. Russ let Brent do just about anything. “Don’t you care that he’s making a mess?” Kenny asked, irritated that his father didn’t act more like…well, a father. Russ shrugged. “I don’t have to clean it up.” “Someone does.” His father grimaced. “You’re sounding more like your mother every day, you know that?” Russ accused him of that a lot, probably because Kenny couldn’t come up with a good answer. “Anyway, he probably has ADHD, too,” his father said, jerking his head toward Brent. Ignoring them both, Brent squeezed ketchup all over the sugar volcano he was building on the table. The mess bugged Kenny enough that he would have stopped his brother, but after what his father had said, he couldn’t—not without sounding more like Hannah than ever. “He doesn’t have ADHD, Dad. People with ADHD have trouble focusing.” “I know,” his father replied, nodding emphatically. “I’ve been struggling with it since I was a kid.” Kenny wished he could believe that. But it sounded like another convenient excuse—the latest in a long line of excuses. “Brent focuses fine. And so do I.” His father leaned forward. “Then, why don’t you focus on having a cup of coffee and quit bitching at me for a damn minute?” Kenny wasn’t particularly sensitive to bad language. He could swear with the best of them. But he didn’t understand why their father had to cuss so much in front of Brent. He shot a quick glance at his little brother to see if Brent had marked it, and knew he had when Brent shot him a mischievous grin. “Dad—” Kenny started, but fell silent when Russ’s eyebrows clashed, making a solid slash of brown above his golden eyes. “What now?” Kenny stared down at his plate. “Never mind.” It wasn’t any use asking Russ to quit with the bad language. His father would only do it more, or say that he and Brent needed to come live with him before their mother turned them into complete pussies. The waitress came around, but Kenny refused coffee. While she filled his father’s cup, he glanced at the other tables, and froze when he spotted Josh and Rebecca Hill seated in the far corner with Booker and Katie Robinson. Like his brother Mike, Josh was a good friend of Gabe Holbrook’s, and Booker owned the only automotive repair shop in town, so he probably serviced Gabe’s truck. Which meant, if Coach Blaine showed up and Kenny sat talking with him for any length of time, Coach Holbrook would probably hear about it. Because his father and Blaine acted as though they had some problem with Holbrook, Kenny didn’t want that. His mother had told him to give Holbrook his loyalty and, despite his worries about getting to play, he wanted to. Maybe Hannah had put Gabe Holbrook in a wheelchair, but the coach was still a man who could command respect regardless of what the accident had cost him. Keeping his eye on the clock, Kenny forced himself to sit still for another five minutes. Then he appealed to his father once again. “Blaine’s late, Dad. I don’t think he’s coming. Can we go? Please?” His father glared at him. Then, muttering, “I’ll bet my ass you do have ADHD,” he finally tossed twenty bucks on the table. Briefly, Kenny wondered how his father had twenty bucks for breakfast when he couldn’t pay his child support this month—he’d heard his parents arguing over it just last week. But he didn’t want to think about any of the stuff that made him angry. He’d learned early on when it came to his father he had only two choices—he could cut Russ out of his life, or he could put up with him. There was no other alternative, and therefore no way to win. It was important to take his father moment by moment. At least they were leaving the diner now. At least Kenny wouldn’t have to face Coach Holbrook at practice on Monday knowing— “Sorry I’m late.” Coach Blaine loomed over them before they could even stand all the way. Swallowing a groan, Kenny flopped back into his seat. Russ did the same as Blaine slid into the booth next to him, wearing a muscle shirt and a pair of jogging shorts. Although Blaine was probably in his fifties, he was a stickler for physical fitness. Today he was sweating badly enough that Kenny knew he hadn’t been late for any reason other than a morning jog. Obviously Blaine didn’t think this meeting was important. “I’m glad you could come, Coach,” Russ said eagerly. Blaine waved for the waitress to bring him coffee. “What’d you want to talk to me about?” Russ blinked as if surprised by the question. “I’m concerned, of course. Aren’t you?” “About what?” Most folks in town didn’t take his father too seriously. Blaine was clearly one of them. “What do you think?” Russ replied. “The recent changes at the high school. I mean, you’ve given that team thirty years of your life. You can’t tell me you’re happy to be overlooked now that Coach Hill has passed on.” A tightening around Blaine’s lips proved that he wasn’t happy about it at all. “They say it’s only for one year.” “Well, if I know Gabe, he’ll decide to stay. What else is he gonna do now that he’s in that chair? And, if he does decide to stay, who in this town is gonna tell him no?” Wiping away the perspiration rolling from his temple, Blaine attempted a shrug, but it didn’t come off as casual as he’d probably intended. “He won’t stay.” “How do you know?” Kenny was unable to hold the question back. Blaine seemed in no hurry to answer. The waitress had arrived with his coffee, and he waited for her to move away. “We probably have the weakest team we’ve had in over a decade. And now we’ve got a head coach with absolutely no experience.” His spoon clinked as he stirred cream into his coffee. “Add to that the fact that we’re all used to the Spartans coming out on top, and we’ll see how excited everyone is when we start losing our games.” Kenny heard the eagerness in Blaine’s voice. “You want us to lose?” “It has nothing to do with what I want,” he said shortly. “It’s what’s going to happen.” If Kenny had his guess, it was exactly what Blaine wanted. “You seem pretty sure of it,” Russ said. “Maybe I wouldn’t be so sure if Gabe would listen to me. But I called him just this morning to tell him how things are normally run.” “And?” Russ prompted. “He said not to worry about the past. He’ll be making some changes.” Blaine grimaced at the sugar, ketchup and water mess Brent had created on the table. Grabbing the sugar container, he sweetened his coffee, then set it well outside Brent’s reach. “Coaching isn’t as easy as Gabe seems to think.” “We’ve only had one practice,” Kenny said, wondering how Blaine could already be so convinced of their failure. Sure, they didn’t have the strongest team. Several of their best players had graduated last spring. But Kenny was still hopeful they could pull off a winning season. “It’s Holbrook’s attitude,” Blaine explained. “He isn’t willing to learn from those who’ve been doing this far longer than he has.” “So what do we do?” Russ asked. “We wait, I guess. When the Spartans begin to lose, the school board will eventually step in and beg me to take over.” His long nose disappeared in his cup while he drank. “I was going to ask you to look out for Kenny,” Russ said. “You know how Gabe must feel toward Hannah. I don’t want to let him take his resentment out on my boy.” Blaine’s eyes flicked over Kenny’s face. He obviously wanted to say something, but he hesitated. Kenny leaned closer. “What is it?” “For God’s sake, if you think that might happen, use your heads.” “How?” Russ asked. “I’ll say it one more time. The more games we lose, the quicker Gabe will find himself back at his cabin, where he belongs.” “Where he belongs?” Kenny echoed. “He sure as hell doesn’t belong on the sidelines with me. And neither does that damn dog of his.” “But will you take care of those who stick by you?” Russ asked. Blaine wouldn’t look at him, but his words were decisive enough. “Of course.” Kenny wasn’t sure he understood this exchange—wasn’t sure he wanted to understand it. He frowned as Blaine said, “Stay in touch,” and left without bothering to pay for his coffee. Russ said nothing, and suddenly the clack of dishes, the tingle of silverware, the voice of the waitresses calling to the cooks and the hum of conversation at the crowded booths surrounding them seemed unnaturally loud to Kenny. At last, with a sigh, his father stood. “Well, you heard him.” “I heard him say we were going to lose,” Kenny said glumly. Russ lowered his voice. “I heard him say you’d better make sure of it.” Kenny backed up as though he’d just encountered poison. “You can’t really expect me to do that?” His father glanced furtively around, then shuttled him outside. Brent was still lingering in the booth, tearing up strips of napkin—but at this point, Kenny didn’t much care about the lack of parental intervention. “It’s better to lose a few games in the beginning than to give up the entire season, and maybe next year as well,” Russ said, when the door closed behind them. Kenny squinted against the sudden brightness of the sun. “But I can’t do less than my best!” “I’m sure you won’t be alone. Blaine has two nephews and a second cousin on the team.” Kenny knew that. The twins had necks almost as thick as Kenny’s waist and were part of the offensive line. Their cousin, with a much lighter build, was the kicker. “You’re saying Blaine and some of the guys are going to sabotage our games?” “What do you think Blaine was talking about?” “I don’t know, but I can’t do that,” Kenny said, shaking his head emphatically. “I’d let everyone down. I’d—” “Do you want to play in the NFL someday?” his father snapped. Kenny was so shocked at what his father had suggested, that he paid no mind to Tiffany Wheeler, who honked as she drove by. “You know I do.” “Then you have to think past three or four games. Gabe won’t want to see you succeed. He’s never liked me, and you know what your mother did. Blaine’s our only hope. He’ll probably be taking over soon—next year if not this year. You scratch his back, he’ll scratch yours.” The bell jingled over the door as Brent finally joined them, his shirt smeared with ketchup. “But we haven’t given Coach Holbrook a chance,” Kenny replied. Russ’s movements were jerky as he opened the door of the Jeep for Brent. “Coach Hill didn’t give me much of a chance when he handed my position to Gabe.” Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/brenda-novak-2/stranger-in-town-39902282/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.КУПИТЬ И СКАЧАТЬ ЗА: 297.01 руб.