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What the hell am I doing? Thirty years old and sitting in the principal's office again…
Assistant principal, Brooks Hoover corrected himself, reading the shiny brass plate on the closed door. Ms. P. Andrews. The P stood for Priscilla. Prissy Priscilla. Remembering the gawky girl with the hornrimmed glasses and frizzy hair, he grinned.
Then the door opened and she stepped out of her office. Sometime during the past twelve years, she must have replaced the glasses with contacts and figured out how to tame the frizz. The strawberry-blond hair was sleek now and skimmed the line of her delicate jaw. She hadn't looked like this back in high school. The thick lenses had hidden those green eyes and high cheekbones. And now her lips were so full.
Not to mention her legs. Too bad her skirt wasn't shorter.
He shook his head. Maybe that last concussion was as serious as the doctor and trainers claimed. He had to have scrambled his brains to be ogling Priscilla Andrews, no matter how great she looked. Even as a teenager, she'd been too uptight for him. Judging from her mousy-gray suit and thin-lipped expression, she didn't appear to have changed much.
Placing his hand on the metal arm of the plastic chair, Brooks unfolded his aching bones and stood up. "Great to see you again, Pris."
Her lips pressed so tightly together that tiny lines radiated from her mouth.
"Ms. Andrews," he amended, but he couldn't keep the amusement from his voice. She had definitely not changed.
"Mr. Hoover," she replied as she extended her hand to him.
He bit the inside of his cheek to hold back a laugh at her insistence on formalities. But when he closed his hand around hers, his amusement fled. Her skin was soft, surprisingly so for someone raised in northern Michigan, where the cold weather chapped skin raw. But then, like him, she'd left Trout Creek after high school. He didn't know how long she'd been back, but her soft touch had him interested in learning more about her.
She jerked free of his grip, her eyes wide with confusion. Just how long had he been hanging on to her?
"Please step inside my office," she directed him as she walked through the doorway. Once he was inside, she closed the door behind him.
He chuckled. "This is the first time I actually asked to come to the principal's office."
"Assistant principal," she corrected. "Mr. Drover is still the principal."
"He was old when we were here," Brooks remarked. "I'm surprised he's still alive."
"Some people say the same thing about you."
"My dad's one of those people," Brooks said, remembering his father's many lectures—the most recent one coming after Brooks's last injury on the ice.
"He's not the only one," she pointed out. "Even the media keeps record of all the abuse your body has taken. The sportswriter for the county paper doesn't think you can physically handle much more."
"You can't believe everything you read," Brooks said, hoping that she didn't, even if most of what had been written about him was true.
"I'm aware of that." She picked up a note from her desk and passed it across to him.
"'Excuse my son from class today, I'm sick,'" he read aloud, grimacing at his father's forged signature. "Ryan?"
At sixteen, Ryan was the older of his two younger brothers. He doubted it would have been Brad. The fourteen-year-old was too smart to have slipped up like that.
She nodded. "If I went through Mr. Drover's files, I might find some old notes of yours. You skipped a lot of school."
"That was a long time ago," he pointed out.
"No more snowmobiling on thin ice or snowboard-ing down unmarked trails or—" her eyes narrowed as she tried to recall escapades he would rather forget "—drag racing down gravel roads with hairpin turns?"
"I've changed since then." That last concussion had knocked some sense into him.
Her lips curved into a slight smile. "If I believed everything I read in the papers I would doubt that."
"So you're surprised I'm still alive," he said.
"Yes," she admitted. "I went to school with you. I remember all those crazy things you did to prove how cool you were."
He flinched. What a fool he'd been. But he sure didn't remember as much about her as she did about him. "So what's with all the Ms. and Mr. crap, Pris?"
Her lips tightened into that thin line again. "You're here for an interview."
"With you?" he asked, genuinely surprised, even though the school secretary had directed him back to this office. "I thought it would be with the athletic director."
She nodded. "It is."
"You're the athletic director?" One of the few things he could remember about her from high school was that she'd been more geek than jock.
"I'm also the guidance counselor. It's a small school." She hadn't needed to remind him of that. "The budget is limited, so I have many duties here. One of which is interviewing you. Shall we get started, then?" She gestured him toward a chair in front of her desk.
"Yeah." The bright green plastic creaked as he settled onto it, and his gut constricted with regret and guilt. "I hate how this job opened up."
She nodded. "Coach Cook having a stroke was horrible."
That was an understatement. Brooks had felt like someone had hooked his skates and slammed him into the ice when he'd heard about it. He'd always figured the giant with the booming voice was invincible, like his dad.
"Do you know how he's doing?" he asked.
"I'm surprised you don't," she said. "You two were so close. In fact, he brags about you like you're his son."
That was probably more than Brooks's real father did. "I just got back in town," he explained. "I haven't had a chance to see him yet." And since he'd been pushed by his dad to go after the guy's job, he wasn't sure his old coach would want to see him.
"He's doing better," she assured him. "He's home from the rehab center. Maybe when we're done here, you can go visit him."
"Maybe…" It would be better if Coach heard the news from him. "Shouldn't we get back to the interview?"
"You're right. We need to keep this professional."
He chuckled. "This is Trout Creek, Pris. Nobody stands on ceremony in Trout Creek."
That had been part of his reason for coming back to the small town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Not that he was moving home to stay. After only a few days, he was restless and sick of sitting around the old house while his dad worked and his brothers—mostly—attended school. He would have headed back to his loft apartment in the city downstate if his dad hadn't reminded Brooks of the position at his old high school.
To keep from being bored out of his mind, he could coach while he waited out his suspension. Then, once the doc cleared him to play, he'd be back in the game.
"I do," she said.
Brooks shrugged. She probably wanted to establish the fact that she was going to be the boss in this relationship.
"Okay, I guess this is all just a formality, anyway, right? You're going to give me the job." His dad and the guys at the coffee shop had assured him that as someone who'd played professionally, he was the best candidate. They'd even suggested he'd be better than Coach Cook, who'd struggled with the team the past couple of years.
"Actually, no," she replied.
He tensed. She might as well have stolen the puck right off his stick.
"What! You're turning me down?"
Priscilla barely restrained the urge to laugh at him; he'd been laughing at her since she'd opened her office door. Cocky, arrogant and handsome as hell with his curly brown hair and dark eyes, Brooks Hoover wasn't used to hearing no. He probably hadn't heard that word since he'd lived in Trout Creek. And the only person who had ever told him no back then was his dad. No one else could resist his charm.
Would she have been able to if he had ever turned it on her? Probably not, she admitted to herself, heat rushing to her face. She would have been as flattered as every other girl he'd flirted with. But he had never flirted with her. He'd barely noticed her at all, just as an awkward nerd he'd liked to tease.
It hadn't been the most imaginative nickname. But then, she wouldn't have expected anything clever from a brain-dead, daredevil jock.
"Why won't you hire me?" he demanded, his jaw taut.
"You don't want this job," she said.
He snorted. "You should have told me that earlier. I wouldn't have bothered filling out an application and getting those letters of recommendation."
"Why did you bother?" she asked. "Seeing as how this interview was just a formality and all?" He was so arrogant he must have figured she'd beg him to take the job—just because he'd gained a little notoriety and success since leaving Trout Creek.
"I know that in order to let me work with kids, you need references," he replied, "and a background check."
"But why would you want to work with kids?" She couldn't have been more shocked when the school secretary placed his application on her desk. Brooks Hoover applying for a position at Trout Creek High? It made no sense. She hadn't forgotten his vow that as soon as he graduated he was leaving and never coming back to their boring, backwoods hometown.
"I want to work with hockey players," he said, as if the athletes on the school team weren't kids. "I want to coach them."
"Why do you want to coach? Don't you want to play anymore?" She had read the articles about him, not because she was really interested but because he was a hometown boy who'd made good. Or famously bad sometimes, like when he was suspended for fighting on the ice and arrested for fighting off it. "You got demoted from the national league, but you're still playing for that city team, right?"
"Demoted? We don't call it a demotion." His deep voice was sharp with wounded pride. "I got traded." He shrugged, his broad shoulders rippling beneath his shirt. "Players move around all the time."
"From team to team. But you're not in the national league anymore."
"Not this season," he admitted. "But I can get called back up."
"Not if you're here coaching instead of playing," she pointed out.
"I can't play," he confessed with a heavy sigh. "I'm out the rest of the season."
His jaw shifted, a muscle twitching beneath the stubble. He hadn't even bothered to shave, and he wore jeans and an old Trout Creek High hockey jersey. He hadn't taken this interview seriously.
She wasn't surprised, though. She doubted he took anyone or anything seriously. Except hockey.
"No, I wasn't suspended. I just have to sit out this season." That muscle twitched along his jaw again. Whatever the reason for not playing, he wasn't happy about it.
"I still don't understand why you're here," she said, gesturing at him across her desk. "Why do you want this job?"
"I'm available this season, and the school needs a coach—at least until Coach Cook recovers."
"It's not that simple." She suspected there was so much he hadn't included on his application. For instance, the real reason he had to miss a season.
"You're overthinking things," he accused her, even though his lips curved into that cocky grin, "like you always did. It's a no-brainer, Pris, to hire me."
She shook her head. "The no-brainer would be hiring someone with no previous coaching experience to coach a high school team. A man who's never worked with kids." Remembering a particularly sexy liquor commercial he'd done six or seven years ago, when he'd been the star of the NHL, she laughed. "You really thought I'd consider a man like you to coach impressionable kids?"
"A man like me?" he asked, leaning forward in his chair. Anger flashed in his dark eyes.
"You know your reputation, Brooks." Anyone with access to a television or a newspaper knew his reputation. "Womanizing and partying do not make you a good role model."
"I thought you didn't believe everything you read," he reminded her with another flash of that grin.
"I don't. But those kids might, and they might try to emulate you." And if he turned out to have a negative influence on the students, the school board would never give her Mr. Drover's job when the principal finally retired. "I have other applicants to interview, and plenty of time before the season begins to find the right person for the position."
"Plenty of time?" he asked, his voice sharp with disapproval. "Those kids need to be conditioning now. It's already late September. And hockey isn't just a winter sport. They should be training year-round. And none of those other applicants is going to know those kids like I do," he said. "I'm sure both my brothers will make the team."
She tapped the forged note on her desk. "How well do you know your brothers?" Brooks had already been a teenager when the younger boys were born, so Ryan and Brad had been toddlers when he'd moved away. "How often have you been home since you left, Brooks?"
"I've been back," he said, then grimaced. "Not as much as my dad would have liked. But the old man brought the boys to see me play. I know my brothers, Pris."
"Unfortunately, so do I," she said. "Too well. Teachers are constantly sending them down to me."
He chuckled. "So they cause a little trouble. What else is there to do in this town? It still doesn't have a mall or a movie theater."
"That's part of the problem," she admitted. "There's not a great deal to keep them busy, so they find ways to get into trouble—the same kind of things you did. They've heard the stories, and they want to be just like you."
"And you obviously don't think that's a good thing." His brows lowered, and the scar across the bridge of his nose formed a hard ridge.
She shook her head. "You didn't care about learning anything off the ice. These kids need to focus on their schoolwork, on their classes—not just hockey. Even you can't play sports forever."
"Hey!" he protested, his face flushed with indignation.