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By Sherryl Woods
Harlequin Enterprises Limited Copyright © 2014 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All rights reserved.
Standing outside Chesapeake Shores High School on his first visit to this quaint small town on the Chesapeake Bay, Aidan concluded he'd never seen a more beautiful sight in his life.
Not the hillside covered with a forest of flowering pink and white dogwood trees, though that was spectacular and unexpected in the middle of town. Not the nearby bay, which was sparkling in the spring sun, though it made him yearn to go fishing despite the fact it was something he'd done only once before in his life. Not even the state-of-the-art football stadium with its pro-level electronic scoreboard, its lush grass and impressive permanent bleachers, all of which should have knocked his socks off as the school's prospective coach.
Nope, what caught his eye was the slender woman with her blond hair tousled, her laugh carrying on the breeze as she chased a puppy that was trying valiantly to herd a flock of unhappy Canada geese.
Just then the dog, some sort of black, white and brown Aussie shepherd mix from the looks of him, spotted Aidan, bounded over and tried to corral him into joining the geese in the nice tight group he was apparently envisioning in his instinctive puppy brain. With a black patch of fur around one eye, he bore a striking resemblance to a pirate, causing Aidan's smile to spread.
"Stop it! Archie, that's enough," the woman commanded, fighting hard, but unsuccessfully, to swallow another laugh. "Sit. Be nice."
Archie obediently sat, tongue lolling, and gave Aidan a hopeful look.
"I'm so sorry," she said. "He got away from me."
"No problem," Aidan replied.
"Actually it is a problem. The town has very strict leash laws," she explained as she snapped Archie's leash to his collar, "except for the dog park on the other side of the hill. It's fenced in, so the dogs are allowed to run free, but Archie here spotted the geese, instinct kicked in and the second someone opened the gate, he took off on a mission to round them up. He thinks it's his job."
"He's very good at it. Where do I fit in? Not being a goose, that is."
When she smiled, amusement setting off sparks in her deep blue eyes, it quite simply took his breath away.
"Oh, he thinks anything that moves is fair game," she confided. "He's very diligent."
Aidan, who'd never owned a pet, regarded the dog warily. "What happens now? If I move, does he try to snag me by the hand to drag me back?"
"I think you're safe for the moment, though if you happen to have a dog treat in your pocket, you'll make a friend for life."
"Sorry. No treats."
As if he understood, Archie stared at him dolefully, then inched closer, finally butting Aidan's hand.
"He'll take a good head rub, instead," she told him. "Don't worry. He really is harmless. I've only had him for a couple of weeks, but he's been a real gentleman. His owner had to give him up because he was too energetic for her, so he's looking for a new person and a new purpose."
"Thus the geese," Aidan guessed.
"Are you his new person?"
"Oh, no," she said at once. "I already have two dogs and a cat, none of which I intended to have, but people know I take in strays and try to find new homes for them. When something like this comes up, they bring their pets to me. Cordelia's grandchildren meant well when they gave her a pet for her birthday, but they didn't really think about her being close to eighty. It happens a lot. People think the elderly need companionship, but they really have no idea which animal might be best suited for the job."
"And you do?"
"I'd like to think so. Cordelia now has a beautiful cat whose owner died. Fluffy sits in her lap and purrs. They're both content with their new arrangement."
"What about the three animals still with you?" he asked, sensing that she was a woman for whom compassion probably overruled good sense on many occasions.
"I'm afraid I got attached," she admitted with a rueful expression. "I'm Elizabeth March, by the way. Most people call me Liz. I own Pet Style on Main Street a few doors up the street from Sally's Café. I opened just before Christmas last year."
Aidan couldn't stop the grin that threatened. "Pet Style?" he repeated. "I had no idea pets were fashion conscious." He glanced pointedly at Archie as he spoke. The dog was happily sniffing a buttercup. His leather collar looked as if it had been given a good chew on more than one occasion. The serviceable, but unremarkable, leash was equally worn.
"They're not, but their owners sure are," Liz said. "You'd be amazed. Just last week I sold a fancy rhinestone-studded designer dog collar for $150. I'd expected to be stuck with it, but thought I should give a couple of high-end items a try. Sure enough, a tourist grabbed it up an hour after I put it on display."
Aidan shook his head in astonishment. On a beginning coach's salary, he'd be lucky to buy dog food and pay vet bills. Thankfully, he'd spent frugally and invested wisely during his couple of years as a pro football player. When he glanced back at Liz, she was regarding him speculatively.
"You wouldn't, by any chance, be looking for a dog?" she inquired, turning those bright blue eyes on him in a way that would probably get most men to agree to do just about anything she requested. "He's up to date on all his shots and he's housebroken. Best of all, Archie already likes you."
Archie was, indeed, happily sprawled across his feet, apparently having concluded that he was no longer going to be allowed to run free, so Aidan shouldn't be allowed to budge, either. He promptly perked up at the mention of his name. For half an instant, Aidan was actually tempted to say yes, if only to make this woman happy. Fortunately, given his circumstances, common sense kicked in.
"You're very good at finding new homes for your strays, aren't you?" he said.
"So it seems," she said, beaming.
"Sorry. Not this time. I don't have room in my apartment for a dog this size, and if those paws are the indicators they're supposed to be, Archie here is bound to get bigger. I may be moving soon, anyway."
"To Chesapeake Shores, not away," she said, as if it was a fact he'd already revealed. "You're going to be the new football coach."
Aidan just stared at her. "Are you psychic, too?"
"Nope, but the town loves its team, and the word on the street is that an ex-pro player is going to be coaching next season. Everyone has high hopes we'll stop being the laughingstock of the region. Since you look like a jock and you were standing out here admiring the stadium, I just put two and two together."
He gave her an amused look. "How does a jock look?"
Color tinted her cheeks. "You know, fit, well toned."
He laughed. "I see. Well, I am Aidan Mitchell," he confirmed. "And I'm interviewing for the job, but I don't have it yet."
"Oh, you'll get it," she said confidently. "Everyone's very excited. You'll be the second pro player in town. Of course, Mack Franklin grew up here, and he only played professionally for a season before becoming a sports columnist, but the town loves him. He started a local weekly newspaper a couple of years back. It's a very tough business, if you know anything about newspapers these days, but he's beaten the odds because it's the best way to find out what's going on in town." She paused for breath, then amended, "Aside from sitting in Sally's and listening to the gossip, anyway. At least Mack tries to bring some journalistic credibility into play."
After growing up in New York, Aidan was astonished by this insight into small-town ways. Or perhaps it was just Liz March, who chattered like a magpie. "Does Mack know that his competition is a local café?"
"Of course he does. Sally's his best source. But mostly he'd be the first to find out what's going on, anyway. He's married to an O'Brien, which makes him practically royalty in Chesapeake Shores."
Aidan instinctively stiffened at the comment, though he hoped she hadn't noticed. "Why is that?"
"You don't know the town's history?" she asked, looking startled.
"Is it a criteria for living here?" he asked, mostly in jest. "Do they give a test at the Realtor's office?"
"Not really," she said, apparently taking him seriously. "It's just a local legend, so people tend to know it. As I understand it, the land originally belonged to an O'Brien who came here straight from Ireland. His family farmed it for years. A couple of decades ago, three of his descendants—Mick, Jeff and Thomas O'Brien—built Chesapeake Shores from scratch on that land."
She paused for breath, then added, "Mick's the famous architect who designed the town. He might not be an elected official, but his word still carries a lot of weight around here. Jeff manages properties and sells real estate." Eyes twinkling, she gave Aidan a pointed look. "So it wouldn't really surprise me if he does spread the story himself, though I imagine he'd consider testing potential residents to be ill-mannered."
Aidan chuckled. "Touché."
"There's another brother, too. Thomas is a well-respected environmentalist who runs a foundation that fights to protect the bay."
Aidan's brain seemed to shut down at the casual mention of Thomas O'Brien. Maybe coming to Chesapeake Shores had been a huge mistake, after all, if just hearing that name made him flinch. He'd gotten a tip about the coaching job and been drawn here as if fate were stepping in, but now all he felt was the familiar bitterness and anger crawling up the back of his throat. That it might be unwarranted was a concept he struggled with from time to time.
He suddenly realized that Liz was studying him with a worried expression.
"Are you okay? Did I say something that upset you?"
"No, not a thing, I'm fine," Aidan assured her. "Thanks for the background information." He deliberately took a quick glance at his watch, then added, "I need to get going."
He turned and quickly walked off in the direction of his car.
"Aidan!" Liz's concerned voice carried on the breeze. "The school office is the other way."
He gave her a wave of acknowledgment and kept right on going, thankful there was no set time for his interview. He'd intentionally scheduled it that way, promising to call once he arrived in town and got settled into the room the school had reserved for him at The Inn at Eagle Point. Maybe after a shower and some food and a little more time to think about what he was doing, he'd be ready to make that call. Or maybe not.
It was a big decision, deciding whether to stay and take a risk, or go. If his friends could see him now, they'd be stunned by his indecisiveness.
On the field, he'd been a quick-thinking quarterback, reading a defense and making split-second adjustments that determined whether a play succeeded or failed. He hadn't struggled for even a minute with his decision to retire when he'd realized that an injury had slowed him down, ruining his effectiveness on the field. He'd always wanted to coach at the high school level. He'd gotten his teaching credentials in college in anticipation that this day would eventually come. At the end of his season last November following a second knee injury that had taken him out for the year, he'd made the call. Sure, it had come a lot sooner than he'd anticipated, but fate was funny that way. He wouldn't be one of those players who hung on past his expiration date.
But this decision? This was different. This was a twenty-eight-year-old man trying to decide not only whether a job and town might be a good fit but if the time was right to meet his biological father—Thomas O'Brien—for the very first time.
Liz held a cup of coffee in her hands to warm them as she sat in a booth at Sally's with Bree O'Brien Collins, who owned Flowers on Main, the store next door to hers. Bree was also a playwright who ran a local theater, but she still loved spending the occasional day making flower arrangements, especially for special occasions. Today she'd been so busy with the decorations for a baby shower that they'd postponed their morning coffee break until afternoon when Liz's high school helper could cover for her.
"I'm telling you, it was very strange," she told Bree. "We were just talking. I should say I was chattering away, filling him in on this and that." She regarded Bree with a rueful expression. "I really do have to stop doing that, going on and on, I mean."
Bree's grin suggested she was doing it again.
"Okay. Sorry. I'll get to the point. I promise. I'd tried to convince him to take Archie, but he wasn't interested. Then I admitted that I'd guessed who he was. We talked about the job for a couple of minutes, or maybe I did all the talking. Anyway, he took off, and not toward the school, as if he'd realized he was late for a meeting or something. He headed in the opposite direction."
"Well, that is weird," Bree said. "Maybe he doesn't like dogs. Archie is a sweetheart, but not everybody notices that when he's trying to herd them."
Liz chuckled. "Yes, I'm familiar with the reaction. The poor thing can't help himself, though. But the Archie issue was resolved. Aidan wasn't interested, and that was that for me. Pets belong with people who'll love and appreciate them. Actually I was filling him in on local history, how O'Briens built the town, when he got this kind of glazed look on his face, then took off."
"So you think his reaction had something to do with the O'Briens?" Bree asked, frowning.
"It felt that way, but how could that be it? Everybody loves your family."
Bree made a face. "That's a slight exaggeration. Dad's made his share of enemies over the years. Heck, for a long time, he didn't even get along all that well with his own brothers. He, Jeff and Thomas clashed over every detail when they were building the town. It's only recently, thanks to my grandmother's determination, that peace and family harmony have been mostly restored. If you force people to sit around the same table on Sunday long enough, sooner or later they have to start talking civilly. I doubt Nell envisioned just how long that process would take, though."
Liz nodded distractedly. She was still perplexed by Aidan's behavior. "Then I must have misread his reaction," she said eventually. "I guess we'll see when word spreads about whether he's taken the job at the high school."
"Well, whatever Aidan feels about the O'Briens, it's one-sided," Bree said. "Dad is determined to get him hired as the coach. He practically handpicked him from the list of candidates, so there's no bad blood there, at least on his side. And you know Mick O'Brien. When he wants something, he usually gets it."
Bree sat back and studied Liz with a speculative expression. "So, what was he like? Aidan, I mean."
Liz blushed under the friendly scrutiny. "I suppose he was good-looking in that well-built, jock way." She wished she hadn't noticed just how toned and fit he seemed to be, or the way his eyes had sparked with wit, or the dimple that occasionally appeared in his cheek when he was teasing her.
"In other words, you wouldn't kick him out of bed," Bree concluded.
Liz frowned at the lighthearted remark. "I wouldn't let him in my bed," she corrected, though she hoped he wouldn't make a liar of her. She had a feeling he could. To bolster her resolve she reminded both of them, "It's way too soon for me to be even thinking like that."
Excerpted from Dogwood Hill by Sherryl Woods. Copyright © 2014 Harlequin Enterprises Limited. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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