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Every day for the past four weeks, Connor's school bus had arrived at the corner across the street no later than three-thirty. Every day, except today. Lucy Martin glanced at the clock hanging on the living-room wall. 3:47 p.m.
Anxiety knotted her stomach making her feel jittery. Her nephew should be home by now.
Was it time to call the school to find out where the bus might be or was she overreacting? This parentingokay, surrogate parentingthing was too new to know for certain.
She stared out the window, hoping the bus would appear. The street corner remained empty. That wasn't surprising. Only residents drove through this neighborhood on the outskirts of town.
What to do? She tapped her foot.
Most contingencies and emergencies had been listed in the three-ring binder Lucy called the survival guide. Her sister-in-law, Dana, had put it together before she left. But a late school bus hadn't been one of the scenarios. Lucy had checked. Twice.
No need to panic. Wicksburg was surrounded by farmland, a small town with a low crime rate and zero excitement except for harvests in the summer, Friday-night football games in the fall and basketball games in the winter. A number of things could have delayed the bus. A traffic jam due to slow-moving farm equipment, road construction, a car accident..
A chill shivered down Lucy's spine.
Don't freak out. Okay, she wasn't used to taking care of anyone but herself. This overwhelming need to see her nephew right this moment was brand-new to her. But she'd better get used to it. For the next year she wasn't only Connor's aunt, she was also his guardian while his parents, both army reservists, were deployed overseas. Her older brother, Aaron, was counting on Lucy to take care of his only child. If something happened to Connor on her watch
Her muscles tensed.
The family's cat, an overweight Maine Coon with a tail that looked more like a raccoon's than a feline's, rubbed against the front door. His green-eyed gaze met Lucy's.
"I know, Manny." The cat's concern matched her own. "I want Connor home, too."
Something caught the corner of her eye. Something yellow. She stared out the window once again.
The school bus idled at the corner. Red lights flashed. Relief flowed through her. "Thank goodness."
Lucy took a step toward the front door then stopped. Connor had asked her not to meet him at the bus stop. She understood the need to be independent and wanted to make him happy. But not even following his request these past two and a half weeks had erased the sadness from his eyes. She knew better than to take it personally. Smiles had become rare commodities around here since his parents deployed.
Peering through the slit in the curtains gave her a clear view of the bus and the short walk to the house. Connor could assert his independence while she made sure he was safe.
Lucy hated seeing him moping around like a lost puppy, but she understood. He missed his parents. She'd tried to make him feel better. Nothing, not even his favorite desserts, fast-food restaurants or video games, had made a difference. Now that his spring soccer team was without a coach, things had gone from bad to worse.
The door of the bus opened. The Bowman twins exited. The seven-year-old girls wore matching pink polka-dot dresses, white shoes and purple backpacks.
Connor stood on the bus's bottom step with a huge smile on his face. He leaped to the ground and skipped away.
Her heart swelled with excitement. Something good must have happened at school.
As her nephew approached the house, Lucy stepped away from the window. She wanted to make sure his smile remained. No matter what it took.
Manny rubbed against her leg. Birdlike chirping sounds came from his mouth. Strange, but not unexpected from a cat that barked when annoyed.
"Don't worry, Manny." She touched the cat's back. "Connor will be home in three two one."
The front door flung open. Manny dashed for the outside, but Connor closed the door to stop his escape.
"Aunt Lucy." His blue eyes twinkled. So much like Aaron. Same eyes, same hair color, same freckles. "I found someone who can coach the Defeeters."
She should have known Connor's change of attitude had to do with soccer. Her nephew loved the sport. Aaron had coached his son's team, the Defeeters, since Connor started playing organized soccer when he was five. A dad had offered to coach in Aaron's place, but then had to back out after his work schedule changed. No other parent could do it for a variety of reasons. That left the team without a coach. Well, unless you counted her, which was pretty much like being coachless.
The thought of asking her ex-husband to help entered her mind for about a nanosecond before she banished it into the far recesses of her brain where really bad ideas belonged. Being back in the same town as Jeff was hard enough with all the not-so-pleasant memories resurfacing. Lucy hadn't seen him yet nor did she want to.
"Fantastic," she said. "Who is it?"
Connor's grin widened, making him look as if he'd found a million-dollar bill or calorie-free chocolate. He shrugged off his backpack. "ryland James."
Her heart plummeted to her feet. Splat! "The Ryland James?"
Connor nodded enthusiastically. "He's not only best player in the MLS, but my favorite. He'll be the perfect coach. He played on the same team with my dad. They won district and a bunch of tournaments. Ryland's a nice guy. My dad said so."
She had to tread carefully here. For Connor's sake.
Ryland had been a nice guy and one of her brother's closest friends. But she hadn't seen him since he left high school to attend the U.S. Soccer Residency Program in Florida. According to Aaron, Ryland had done well, playing overseas and now for the Phoenix Fuego, a Major League Soccer (MLS) team in the U.S. Coaching a recreational soccer team comprised of nine-year-olds probably wasn't on his bucket list.
Lucy bit the inside of her cheek, hoping to think of somethinganythingthat wouldn't make this blow up in her face and turn Connor's smile upside down.
"Wow," she said finally. "Ryland James would be an amazing coach, but don't you think he's getting ready to start training for his season?"
"MLS teams have been working out in Florida and Arizona since January. The season opener isn't until April." Connor spoke as if this was common knowledge she should know.
Given soccer had always been "the sport" in the Martin household, she probably should. "But Ryland James got hurt playing with the U.S. Men's Team in a friendly against Mexico. He's out for a while."
Friendly meant an exhibition game. Lucy knew that much. But the news surprised her. Aaron usually kept her up-to-date on Ryland. Her brother would never let Lucy forget her schoolgirl crush on the boy from the wrong side of town who was now a famous soccer star. "Hurt as in injured?"
"He had surgery and can't play for a couple of months. He's staying with his parents while he recovers." Connor's eyes brightened more. "Isn't that great?"
"I wouldn't call having surgery and being injured great."
"Not him being hurt, but his being in town and able to coach us." Connor made it sound like this was a done deal. "I bet Ryland James will be almost as good a coach as my dad."
"Did someone ask Ryland if he would coach the Defeeters?"
"No," Connor admitted, undaunted. "I came up with the idea during recess after Luke told me Ryland James was at the fire station's spaghetti feed signing autographs. But the whole team thinks it's a good idea. If I'd been there last night.."
The annual Wicksburg Fire Department Spaghetti Feed was one of the biggest events in town. She and Connor had decided not to go to the fundraiser because Dana was calling home. "Don't forget, you got to talk to your mom."
"I know," Connor said. "But I'd like Ryland James's autograph. If he coaches us, he can sign my ball."
Signing a few balls, mugging for the camera and smiling at soccer moms didn't come close to the time it would take to coach a team of boys. The spring season was shorter and more casual than fall league, but still.
She didn't want Connor to be disappointed. "It's a great idea, but Ryland might not have time."
"Will you ask him if he'll coach us, Aunt Lucy? He might just say yes."
The sound of Connor's voice, full of excitement and anticipation, tugged at her heart. "Might" likely equaled "yes" in his young mind. She'd do anything for her nephew. She'd returned to the same town where her ex, now married to her former best friend, lived in order to care for Connor but going to see Ryland.
She blew out a puff of air. "He could say no."
The last time Lucy had seen him had been before her liver transplant. She'd been in eighth grade, jaundiced and bloated, carrying close to a hundred pounds of extra water weight. Not to mention totally exhausted and head over heels in love with the high-school soccer star. She'd spent much of her time alone in her room due to liver failure. Ryland James had fueled her adolescent fantasies. She'd dreamed about him letting her wear his jersey, asking her out to see a movie at the Liberty Theater and inviting her to be his date at prom.
Of course, none of those things had ever happened. She'd hated being known as the sick girl. She'd rarely been able to get up the nerve to say a word to Ryland. And then.
The high-school soccer team had put on two fundraisersa summer camp for kids and a goal-a-thonto help with Lucy's medical expenses. She remembered when Ryland handed her the large cardboard check. She'd tried to push her embarrassment and awkwardness aside by smiling at him and meeting his gaze. He'd surprised her by smiling back and sending her heart rate into overdrive. She'd never forgot his kindness or the flash of pity in his eyes. She'd been devastated.
Lucy's stomach churned at the memory. She wasn't that same girl. Still, she didn't want to see him again.
"Ryland is older than me." No one could ever imagine what she'd gone through and how she'd felt being so sick and tired all the time. Or how badly she'd wanted to be normal and healthy. "He was your dad's friend, not mine. I really didn't know him."
"But you've met him."
"He used to come to our house, but the chances of him remembering me."
"Please, Aunt Lucy." Connor's eyes implored her. "We'll never know unless you ask."
Darn. He sounded like Aaron. Never willing to give up no matter what the odds. Her brother wouldn't let her give up, either. Not when she would have died without a liver transplant or when Jeff had trampled upon her heart.
Lucy's chest tightened. She should do this for Aaron as much as Connor. But she had no idea how she could get close enough to someone as rich and famous as Ryland James.
Connor stared up at her with big, round eyes.
A lump formed in her throat. Whether she wanted to see Ryland James or could see him didn't matter. This wasn't about her. "Okay. I'll ask him."
Connor wrapped his arms around her. "I knew I could count on you."
Lucy hugged him tight. "You can always count on me, kiddo."
Even if she knew going into this things wouldn't work out the way her nephew wanted. But she could keep him smiling a little while longer. At least until Ryland said no.
Connor squirmed out of her arms. "Let's go see him now."
"Not so fast. This is something I'm doing on my own." She didn't want her nephew's image of his favorite soccer player destroyed in case Ryland was no longer a nice guy. Fame or fortune could change people. "And I can't show up emptyhanded."
But what could she give to a man who could afford whatever he wanted? Flowers might be appropriate given his injury, but maybe a little too feminine. Chocolate, perhaps? Hershey Kisses might give him the wrong idea. Not that he'd ever known about her crush.
"Cookies," Connor suggested. "Everyone likes cookies."
"Yes, they do." Though Lucy doubted anything would convince Ryland to accept the coaching position. But what was the worst he could say besides no? "Does chocolate chip sound good?"
"Those are my favorite." Connor's smile faltered. "It's too bad my mom isn't here. She makes the best chocolate-chip cookies."
Lucy mussed his hair to keep him from getting too caught up in missing his mom. "It is too bad, but remember she's doing important stuff right now. Like your dad."
"How about we use your mom's recipe?" Lucy asked. "You can show me how she makes them." His smile returned. "Okay."
Lucy wanted to believe everything would turn out okay, but she knew better. As with marriage, the chance of a happy ending here was extremely low. Best to prepare accordingly. She would make a double batch of cookiesone to give to Ryland and one for them to keep. She and Connor were going to need something to make them feel better after Ryland James said no.