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Kylie Palmer strode briskly into her house, dropping her briefcase in the hall as she moved toward the bottom of the stairs. "Hey, champ!" she yelled. "Mom's home."
Her ten-year-old son, Ryan, darted out of his room with one sock on and one dangling from his hand. "Mom!" He ran down the stairs. "You're home early."
Kylie got a quick hug before he rounded the corner into the kitchen, probably in search of a snack. The boy was a bottomless pit these days.
"Ten minutes before we gotta go to soccer practice," he said.
Knowing she had to trade changing out of her pantsuit and heels for a ten-minute conversation with her never-slow-down son, she followed him and sat at the kitchen table. "Then I made it just in time."
In the process of smearing peanut butter on a piece of bread, Ryan turned. "You're taking me?"
"Unless your personal chauffeur is planning to show up and drive."
He frowned. "Are you talking about Honey, or are you just being funny?"
"I was going for funny."
"Yeah?" He turned back to his sandwich. "I think you missed the green flag on that one."
Kylie smiled. He was always better at humor than her. Like his father had been.
When she'd lost her policeman husband four years ago, the humor and understanding in Ryan's bright blue eyes had kept her going. The knowledge that she had to keep going forward for him had forced her to make her body move daily, trying to be both parents instead of half of a loving, unbeatable team.
As her mother was also a widowand pretty bossyKylie had been informed rather quickly that she couldn't raise her son alone, so Kylie and Ryan had left the only home he'd ever known in the suburbs of Charlotte andhad moved into her mother's grand lake house in Mooresville, North Carolina. The amazing view of Lake Norman notwithstanding, no mortgage payments and her mother's crazy optimism were blessings among her grief that she never took for granted.
"Where's Honey?" she asked Ryan.
"In the media room. I taught her how to play the racing game, and now she thinks she's gonna win the NASCAR Sprint Cup." He rolled his eyes with the put-upon, but somehow sweet, affection a boy his age had for "old people."
Not that her motherwho refused to be called "Grandma" and settled on the more hip "Honey" just after Ryan was bornwould ever consider herself old. She looked great, felt great and moved with more ease than most twenty-year-olds.
Kylie wished she had her energy. She knew she accomplished things every day, but she often felt that each step became more and more difficult. She lacked motivation unless the task involved her son, and even then there were days that his boundless energy simply exhausted her. She'd recovered from the depression she'd sunk into after Matt's death, but now she was stuck in the middle. Not sad. Not happy.
It was almost worse.
"I'm ready for Daytona!" her mother, Madeline "Honey" Richardson, announced as she waltzed into the room.
So maybe Ryan's humor hadn't just come courtesy of his father's genes.
"Whafjush plaureh did youfisl carud in?" Ryan asked around a mouthful of peanut butter sandwich.
"Chew first, then talk," Kylie suggested, heading to the fridge to get the milk jug. She poured him a glass, and after he'd swallowed both, he tried again.
"What place did you come in?" he asked Honey.
Honey planted her hands on her trim hips. "First. What else?"
Ryan's eyes widened. "No way! I set the level to expert."
"Well, I did so" She broke off, narrowing her eyes. "What do you mean you set the level to expert? I thought you said you were going to make it easy for my first time out?"
Obviously caught, Ryan's face reddened. "I did at first. But then you Well, you um, seemed to get the hang of it, so I made it harder, you know, to see how you'd hold up."
Honey shook back her trademark cap of honey-blond curlswhich she'd been dying since the age of twenty-eight, a secret that she had made Kylie swear to never reveal that in publicand smiled. "I guess I held up just fine."
Ryan's eyes turned sullen. "I guess you did."
As Honey laid her arm across her grandson's shoulders in an effort to comfort him, Kylie bit back a sigh.
The video system and racing game had been a recent gift from NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Will Branch. Her job as a PR rep for Motor Media Group originally consisted of promoting Will, but now primarily involved keeping him out of trouble and, if he did get into trouble, getting him out with as much positive PR as possible.
Since Will's father, Hilton, who had disappeared in February after spending years bleeding the family coffers as well as their bank, was currently wanted by the feds and the subject of a just-released tell-all best-seller written by his long-time secret mistress, Will needed all the positive press he could get. This week had been particularly exhausting to bothWill and Kylie as they tried to focus everyone on racing, not scandal.
So while she did her job and delivered good PR, her son got a three-hundred-dollar toy that she had to constantly monitor so he wouldn't flunk out of the fourth grade.
And since Ryan and Will were about the same maturitywise, she couldn't even count him as a positive male adult role model. Which is what everybody constantly told her her son needed.
Ryan had her, a hip grandma, a beautiful home, decent grades, good friends and a passion and skill for playing for soccer.
A man who could never measure up to Matt was the last thing on his mind.
"Grab a water bottle and get in the truck," Kylie said, flexing her feet in her shoes and wishing she'd dashed upstairs to change instead of brooding.
"It's an SUV, Mom," Ryan shot back impatiently as he trotted from the room.
He'd corrected her four hundred times since she'd splurged on the brand new vehicle a month ago. The room inside allowed her to carry Ryan's soccer equipment and his boisterous friends. The big tires helped her go off-road at the race tracks she drove toan important asset with the frequently gridlocked traffic. The size made her feel safe on the highway.
But anything with four-wheel drive was a truck in her book.
She started down the hallway to grab her wallet out of her briefcase, but Honey's words stopped her.
"The new soccer coach is very cute."
Kylie glanced at her mother over her shoulder, noting the shrewd twinkle in her eyes. "Oh, goody."
"He's an excellent coach, of course. Fun, but firm with the kids." Her smile widened. "And cute."
While her mother flitted from one distinguished sailing captain to another at the local yacht club, Kylie's love life was nonexistent. For the most part, she was okay with that, but her mother never stopped trying to change her mindeven though the dates she'd forced her into since Matt's death had been awkward and awful. "Is that why you gave me the guilt trip last night over not coming to the first three practices?"
Honey laid a perfectly manicured hand on her chest. "Would I do that?"
"In a heartbeat."
"Actually, he's way too young for you."
Good grief. At thirty-two, she wasn't exactly old herself. But then this was no doubt some kind of reverse psychology on her mother's part. "He is, huh?"
"Twenty-six is the buzz among the other soccer moms."
Okay, so that was young.
Honey grinned. "But I hear he has brothers. Several cute, Irish, older ones, in fact."
"It doesn't hurt to be on the lookout."
With deliberate briskness, Kylie walked from the kitchen to the hall, coming back with her wallet in her hand and dark sunglasses on her face. She sashayed in one, smooth circle around her mother. "Really? I'll be sure to let you know if I spot somebodyfor you."
Kylie sat in the bleachers with the other soccer parents as they watched their kids run back and forth along the length of the bright green field behind their local YMCA.
Despite her demanding job and crazy travel schedule to attend races out of town for more than thirty weekends a year, Kylie did her best to spend every moment possible with her son during the week. She'd missed the first three practices of the upcoming fall league because MMG had been planning media and sponsor events to prepare for the upcoming Chase for the Championship.
Will making the Chase was critical for both the competition aspect and sponsor dollars.
Sitting beside the other parents, most of whom Kylie already knew from past seasons, she noted they wore shorts and T-shirts in the late August heat. She felt sticky and out of place, very much aware that most of Ryan's teammates not only had two parents, but some had a mom who stayed home instead of one who worked the crazy hours she did.
"Okay, guys," the coach shouted, "let's run through that drill one more time, then we're done."
Though it bugged her to admit it, her mom was right. The coach was cute. Actually, more than cute. He was smokin' hot. She might be a widow, and her emotions about men still shaky and confused, but her eyes worked just fine.
When Coach Treadway released his team a few minutes later, and Kylie waited for Ryan to gather his gear and head toward her, she noticed several moms talking to the coach.
He laughed at something one of them said, and his bright smile changed his face from merely handsome to glowing. He had short, light brown hair, kissed by the sun and tanned skin that reminded her of a swimmer. Or, given the impressive muscles and lean body exposed by his shorts and navy T-shirt, maybe a surfer. His jaw was strong, and he was tall. From this distance, she couldn't discern his eye color, but she easily noticed his shoulders were broad, his body lean, and firm-looking biceps extended through the sleeves of his navy T-shirt. He was tall, but then from her height of five foot four, most men seemed so.
I'm checking this guy out.
The bizarre thought pushed through her with a jolt that forced her to turn away. Her husband had been tall, dark and handsome. He'd been loving, honorable and supportive. And she was ashamed by the direction of her thoughts.
"Hey, you must be Ryan's mom," a deep voice said from beside her.
Feeling her face heat and praying it didn't show, Kylie turned and held out her hand. "Yes. Kylie Palmer."
He grasped her hand briefly and smiled that warm, amazing smile. "I'm Arthur Treadway. Coach, to most people."
She angled her head. "You don't like Arthur?"
"Not particularly, no."
"My grandfather." He winced. "And it sounds like a grandfather name."
"Someday you might not think that's such a terrible thing."
"Yeah. Probably." He passed a soccer ball from one hand to another in a way that showed off his easy, natural coordination. "Family's big in my family."
"Irish Catholic. I have four brothers, three sisters, seven uncles, seven aunts and more than forty cousins."
"To say the least."
Where had the league found this guy? she couldn't help but wonder. If he really was twenty-six, it seemed unlikely that he had a ten-year-old son on the team. "So, how many kids do you have?"
"None." He grinned. "Patrick is one of my older brother's kids. I'm pretty athletic and single, so I volunteered to help the team."
Uh-huh. Pretty athletic was a serious understatement. The guy looked like he could swim across the Atlantic with one hand tied behind his back. Slightly suspicious, she crossed her arms over her chest. And what single, gorgeous, young guy spent his spare time with ten-year-olds? "No kidding."
He shrugged. "My nephew begged me until I gave in. And my schedule's flexible. So, here I am."
Here you are, indeed. Gorgeous and smiling. Athletic and available.
Disturbed that her thoughts had again drifted from the coach-to-mom arena and into man-to-woman territory, she took a step backward. "Well, it was nice to meet you. I'm sure I'll be seeing you a lot this season."