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From his spot atop the hill, Lenny Paxton watched as his friend Henry Powell ran around the old truck to help the passenger. Amusement at Henry's chivalrous antics changed to dread inside Lenny's heart.
It couldn't be. But it was. Henry set suitcases and tote bags down on the dusty road, tipped his hat to the woman standing there. Then with a grin, the man ambled back to the idling vehicle and took off, spinning rocks as he headed on up the mountain road.
"I don't believe this," Lenny said, his words edged with aggravation. He watched as the woman grabbed at her luggage and trudged up the rocky dirt driveway toward the farmhouse, purses and bags falling down her arms.
"Trouble, double trouble," Lenny said, thinking a man could certainly reach his limits on days like this one. He'd just had words with ex-wife number two and now this.
Another woman in his life. An unwelcome, unwanted woman. And most of the women in his life were that way these days. He'd have to nip this in the bud right now.
But the primal male in him shifted gears. She did look kinda cute carrying all that baggage up that hill. Taking his time, he watched, a trickle of his old wickedness making him smile. He should go help her, but he wasn't nearly as noble as old Henry. "Let her sweat a bit."
Then she swayed, tripped on a rock and popped one of the heels off her pretty pumps. Lenny had to laugh at the words the cute woman uttered. A tad feisty underneath all that gabardine, wasn't she?
When she threw down the bags and held up what was left of the heel of her right shoe, her expression full of exasperation and frustration, in spite of his aversion to the female population right now, Lenny knew he couldn't let this one slide. This might get interesting.
She'd broken a heel.
Letting out a groan, Jane Harper held that heel and looked up from her now ruined black Italian leather "client-meeting" pumps to the two-storied whitewashed farmhouse sitting with forlorn loneliness up on the hill in front of her. At least she was here now. And from the looks of the place, she'd be here a while. The yard was weed-covered and drought-thirsty. An old International tractor sat lopsided near a giant live oak on a hill, looking like a petrified bug. The steps were cracked, the porch paint was peeling. And the porch was lined with several pieces of vintage wicker furniture and Victorian plant stands, along with exercise equipment and piles of various brands of empty beer cans.
Jane glanced around, hoping the rumors she'd heard about shotguns weren't true. She envisioned this place clean and well repaired. She could see this house renewed and invigorated, shining brightly with fresh white paint and ferns sitting pristinely on those fabulous old stands. She could almost smell freshly baked bread coming from the open kitchen window, hear the sound of someone practicing piano from inside the parlor. She'd plant daisies near that old tractor and make it into a backdrop instead of an eyesore.
Jane's heart hurt for this place. All it lacked was a little nurturing. Her organizational skills were sorely needed. For this house, and for the man who'd been holed up hereallegedly armed and dangeroussince last spring.
"Certainly have my work cut out for me," she mumbled to the broken heel of her pump.
But if anyone could get rid of the clutter surrounding the quaint Victorian house, Jane could. And if anyone could bring former NFL quarterback Lenny Paxton out of his self-imposed isolation after losing the Super Bowl, losing his beloved grandmother and then losing his cool in front of the world, Jane could. She also planned to get the scoop on the story everyone wantedwhat in the world was wrong with Lenny Paxton?
Maybe everything that had happened up to nowthe long drive from Little Rock, getting a flat tire out on the main road, then meeting the skinny, philosophical Henry in the old red pickup (he'd been kind enough to give her a ride and to warn her that she might get shot) and now her broken heelhad all been signs that she should have stayed in the big city.
Never one to take bad luck as the gospel, Jane dug in her one good heel and worked on calming thoughts. Forgetting her damaged shoe, she stood in the warm sunshine of this fall Arkansas afternoon, sweat pooling underneath her lightweight gray wool dress, steam fogging her black-rimmed glasses. After some steady deep-breathing, she once again looked over the meticulous notes tucked in her leather tote bag.
Subject: Leonard (Lenny) Paxton, former NFL quarterback with two Super Bowl wins to his credit and one big loss still on his mind. Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, multimillion-dollar contracts, messed-up shoulder, messed-up knees, messed-up head, early retirement. Meltdown during a press conference. Now hiding out in the cluttered farmhouse where he'd been raised by his grandparents, refusing to honor the million-dollar endorsement deal he'd signed two weeks after announcing his retirement.
That was the short version.
Jane had the long version in precise typewritten notes in her briefcase and stored in her laptop.
She blew a hot breath up toward the wispy dark blond bangs falling away from what had started out this morning as an efficient chignon. She had her reasons for being here. Reason number oneprestige.
Jane's mother and father had been pushy when it came to their firstborn. Academic achievements and career aspirations ranked right up there with Arkansas Razor-back football fever at the Harper house. Jane had learned from the rigid, structured habits of her overly educated parents. She'd become the perfect overachiever. She'd accomplished a lot of the goals she'd set in her life, but she still needed that one assignment that would push her status to new heights and maybe land her a major book deal.
Too bad the one drawback was that the subject at hand was a jock. Her entire family loved football, and since Lenny had once played for the Razorbacks and had gone on to NFL fame, her University of Arkansas alumni parents would be impressed. But Jane wasn't. Sitting around a football stadium, watching grown men run straight into each other just to capture a strange-looking ball didn't appeal to Jane's delicate sensibilities. And chanting rival fight songs and belching barbecue and beer was not her idea of a great Saturday afternoon. But then, jocks had never flocked to the shy girl who wore glasses and read books instead of swooning like a cheerleader whenever one of them entered the room. If she got the scoop on Lenny Paxton, she'd up her esteem in her parents overly critical eyes.
And that brought her to reason number two. "It's certainly a challenge." Jane loved a challenge. From what she could tell, breaking Lenny Paxton would be both a challenge and a chore. His list of transgressions made for interesting psychological fodder.
Jane took her assignments very seriously. So while her car sat on the interstate with a flat, Henry had promised he'd get the tire changed while she got right to business. And in spite of having a very strong aversion to superjocks and guns, Jane would get Lenny Paxton whipped into shape. Or her name wasn't Jane Harper, Ph.D.
She was efficient, dependable, reliable, thorough, no-nonsense, and she had earned her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Arkansas. And even though her academic parents and siblings frowned on Jane's status as a life coach, she had worked with everyone from supermodels to burned-out ministers to stay-at-home moms who needed some self-esteem. And that, Jane Harper reminded herself, was why she got the big bucks. And the exotic assignments. This assignment just might beat the band since she'd received a phone call from the notorious Sidelined sports magazine that prided itself on getting the scoop on the most interesting and infamous sport figures in the world.
They wanted her to write an in-depth expose on Lenny Paxton. Jane had agreed, but only after she'd told the magazine's gleeful editor that she couldn't reveal any client/therapist secrets without the client's permission. While the editor wasn't too happy about that, the man had reluctantly agreed to her doing the article on spec. Now, Jane's main goal was to win over Lenny enough to get him to open up so his inspiring story could help other people.
In spite of the remote, rather quaint locationMockingbird Springs, Arkansas, population 989this one had been too tempting to pass up. Famous athlete and ladies' man extraordinaire Lenny Paxton was in trouble. He'd disappointed his team and his fans, and lost his confidence. He'd quickly retired in disgrace only to turn around and sign another contractthis one with a major pharmaceutical company. But now he wanted out of his contract. So his hotshot sports agent, Marcus Ramon, had resorted to drastic measures to get Lenny back on track. He'd called Dr. Jane Harper.
She'd come, after being wooed by Lenny's hyper agent and by Sidelined magazine, from Little Rock to this backwoods village to help a man who was having a very public, very intense midlife crisis that he was trying hard to keep private. And because Jane hated jocks and especially hated football, she was going way outside her comfort zone. Only because she knew she could learn from each new experience. And, hopefully, make a name for herself that would please even her discerning parents.
She dropped her briefcase and leather tote, then turned to unzip her suitcase to find a pair of low heeled buttery-soft brown loafers. Then she took off her prized pumps and put them in her tote, broken heel and all.
Better. Not as professional, but a lot more sensible.
Gathering her things along with her pride and some fresh determination, Jane started marching up the dusty drive toward the rambling old house set against the backdrop of the Ozark Mountains. "And reason number threethe money. Always good to get a giant bonus for expediency."
Jane Harper, psychologist and relationship therapist, nonfiction author, authority on the human psyche and all-around consummate life coach and perfectionist might have just taken on the most challenging assignment of her career. She'd probably get network interviews and her name in People magazine.
Lenny Paxton was not only a challenge. The man was a walking mess, so macho and such a jock, and so in trouble with everyone from ex-wives and angry girlfriends to just about the entire world of sports media, Jane couldn't wait to take him on.
So she pulled on the handle of her heavy rolling suitcase and took another step toward the inviting comfort of the white rocking chairs sitting amidst the jumble on the wraparound porch.
From inside the house, a dog barked then whimpered as if it were already bored with the quarry walking up the driveway.
Jane hitched a breath. "Great. I'm allergic to dogs." Then she saw the overgrown morning glory bush by the steps. "Now that's pathetic."
From somewhere at the side of the house, a voice barked in what sounded like a very aggravated tone, "Patheticnow that's a good way to describe this situation."
Jane turned at the smirking words coming from the deeply male voice. Turned and came face-to-face with the real-life-legend-in-his-own-time Lenny Paxton. He was standing underneath an enormous old live oak and he was holding a very big shotgun.
Jane swallowed back the metallic taste of fear as she inhaled what she hoped was a steadying breath. He'd been hidden from view, which meant he'd had the distinct advantage of studying her before she could study him. Drat on that, she'd study him now. After all, that was why she was here. And she wouldn't let that gun stop her. Mainly because he didn't have it aimed at her.
Dropping her bags, she gave him a long, completely professional appraisal, from the top of his dark, thick hair to the tips of his battered, dusty cowboy boots. Hmm.
Okay, she'd prepared herself for the confounding variables of this case. One being his lethal charm. She was so immune to that, thanks to the many titillating articles regarding his love life. Both fascinated and repulsed, she'd pored over them for days on end. Lenny Paxton was the typical love 'em and leave 'em typevery predictable and very commitment-shy.
She'd prepared herself for his skeptical natureor at least Marcus Ramon had warned her in person to watch for thatwarned her in a loud, shrieking voice, his hands flapping in the air as he kept stating, "Don't fall for that dry wit and oozing charm, Jane. It's just a front for all his cynicism and stubbornness. And for his pain. You have to be professional at all times or he'll sideline you."
And she thought she'd prepared herself for Lenny's good looks, but mercy, the man was even better-looking in person than in all the pictures she'd managed to dig up from the newspapers, sports magazines and tabloids. In his faded cream-colored T-shirt, tight jeans and scuffed brown cowboy boots, he sizzled white-hot right along with the Indian summer sun hitting the dusty clay at her feet.
And of course, her low blood-sugar dizziness chose that very moment to kick in, making her vision get fuzzy and her legs turn to mush. Should have had some protein, Jane thought belatedly.
"Are you all right?" he asked, meeting her disoriented gaze with one of his own, his whole stance so domineering and formidable, she could understand why he'd put fear in the hearts of opponents all across America.
"I was talking to myself," Jane said, rather defensively. Don't let him smell any fear. Because she absolutely was not afraid. Anxious to get on with it, maybe. Determined to change his life, definitely. But not afraid. But being nervous was a good thing. It kept her on her toes. She'd faced down worse subjects. But never one who looked so tempting.
Just to prove she was capable of overcoming temptation, she added, "I like to talk out loud. It helps me to remember things."