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Bobby McIntyre wheeled up to Bobby’s Place in a rugged, black four-by-four. A panther-tight coil curled inside him when he saw the reporters and fans standing by the door.
As the starting quarterback for the Texas Lone Stars, Bobby was legendary around the state, and practically a god in his hometown of El Paso. But two Sundays ago in the game against Cleveland, he had been taken down by all 350 pounds of the defensive tackle known as The Bathtub— famous for washing up careers. In a moment of mind splitting pain, they had slammed together, helmet to helmet, crashing to the turf in a slow-motion ballet of inevitability.
Now hand-painted signs welcomed him home, and television crews tried to stay on their feet as the horde rushed to him.
“Bobby Mac, how’s the knee?”
“When do you expect to be back in Dallas?”
“How many hearts have you broken this season?”
The questions came at him all at once as he pushed out of the vehicle. Barely using his crutches, he gave the women a devilish wink as if he didn’t have a care in the world. With reporters everywhere, the last thing he needed was to appear vulnerable. Even hurt, Bobby Mac never showed weakness. It was one of the things that made him such a formidable player.
The corner of his mouth tilted in a crooked grin as he raked his dark hair back from his forehead. “I’ll make this easy. The knee is healing fast, you can bet I’ll be back in Dallas for the playoffs,”—his smile widened, flashing at the crowd—“and why aren’t you asking me how many lovely ladies broke my heart?”
The reporters hooted, and the women melted. There wasn’t a female in all of Texas who had been able to resist the combination of endearingly mischievous boy and sensually confident man that embodied Bobby Mac McIntyre.
For the first time since the injury, Bobby felt the tight coil start to ease. El Paso did that to him. Maybe it was knowing his sister was here, or that Bobby’s Place proved a safe haven. Or maybe it was the fact that El Pasoans adored him at the same time they gave him his space. That was just what he needed right then, peace and the ability to heal in private.
His surgery had been a success, and now he would put in his weeks of physical therapy. Then he would return to Dallas and get back on the field, taking the Lone Stars to yet another Super Bowl victory.
He didn’t care what the doctors said; he knew he’d return in time for the play-offs. He had been hurt before, the injuries never causing more than a ripple of interruption to his season. This time would be no different, he had told himself and the coaching staff. And Bobby McIntyre always got what he wanted.
He worked the crowd and made his way into the sports bar he had opened three years ago. In the last twelve months, he had been in and out of El Paso, but never with the time to oversee the establishment as he should. At thirty-five, he had to spend more time training, and most mornings he was sorer than he liked to admit.
But walking up to the comforting flash of blue-and-red neon lights of Bobby’s now, he smiled his famous Bobby Mac smile. He had known that coming home was the answer instead of staying in Dallas while he went through physical therapy. He couldn’t wait to see his cherished sister, Beth, and her family, suspected that she was probably inside the bar right now.
A young fan who looked like a high school fullback pulled open the door for him, and he shook his hand.
“You’re the greatest, Bobby Mac!”
Bobby smiled genuinely. “Thanks, kid.”
But just before he could cross the threshold into Bobby’s Place, one last question was tossed out.
Just Bobby, not Bobby Mac. Always a sign that the question wasn’t a good one.
“What do you think of Mark Sutter throwing that Hail Mary pass last Sunday?”
Bobby forced himself not to flinch as he thought of the rookie quarterback who was his backup. Twenty-three, star player out of Florida State, with a strong arm and even stronger ego. Sutter had been breathing down Bobby’s neck all season, just waiting for his chance to get into the game. The fact that the kid had gotten his chance and had managed to step into the huddle and do well made Bobby’s jaw clench in a way he didn’t like.
He had every intention of calling Streamer, the Lone Stars’ head coach, to find out what the hell was going on that they’d let a rookie throw such a crazy-ass pass. Sure it worked out, but had the other team intercepted the ball, the game would have been lost.
He refused to think about how that was the way great players were made. Taking chances. The daring. The guts. That was exactly how he had made his name. Doing what he wanted and succeeding. Because deep down he had known he had nothing to lose. If he failed, he had already been down, had spent a lifetime knowing he had nowhere to go but up. And if he won, if he connected in a moment of startling glory, he would be added to the ranks of great quarterbacks in history.
Bobby forced his smile to remain in place as he turned back and looked right into the camera. “That sure was one helluva pass. I’m damn proud of the boy.”
Then he escaped, stepping inside, thankful when the door swung shut behind him.
A welcoming chorus rose the minute he strode into the sunlit bar, his name echoing against walls lined with larger-than-life photographs of him. Trophies glittered, awards dangled inside glass cases, footballs were mounted like passes in midflight. Bobby’s Place was a shrine to his success, created and decorated by Beth. Tall swivel stools pushed up against a four-sided bar of fine wood and brass railings that stood in the center of the room, a stained glass, oversized Tiffany chandelier hanging overhead like a multi- colored crown.
All the regulars were there. Nick, a science teacher from one of the local high schools. Herb, the accountant who considered Bobby’s Place his home away from home. Jazzy, the waitress who had been serving beer since the day the doors opened. And a whole host of others who came in early just to welcome him home.
He shook hands and laughed, kissed cheeks and slapped backs. But when he looked around, he didn’t see his sister.
“Where’s Beth?” he asked the bartender.
“She called thirty minutes ago to see if you were here yet,” Peter said. “Sounded kind of frantic. I know she really wanted to be here when you arrived. Seemed really important, in fact.”
Peter set a tall draft on the bar in front of him. Bobby didn’t mention that he hadn’t had a sip of anything but protein shakes and alfalfa-sprout smoothies since that first day back to training camp when Sutter had run circles around him.
“Where’s Gator?” Bobby asked.
Gene Hatley, otherwise known as Gator, was the manager of Bobby’s Place.
Alarm flashed in Peter’s expression. “Didn’t Beth tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
Peter shifted his weight and grimaced against Bobby’s sudden narrow-eyed intensity. “Why don’t you wait till Beth gets here?”
“Let’s not. What the hell is going on? Remember, Peter, you work for me, not my sister.”
“Ah, man,” the bartender lamented. “Technically I work for you, but we both know that I answer to Beth, and your sweet sister will tan my hide if I upset you.”
“Peter,” Bobby said, his tone warning.
The bartender hung his head. “She fired him.”
But Peter didn’t appear concerned about Bobby’s outburst; he threw up his hands in dismay. “It’s on your head, man, if she fires me, too.”
“What the hell is going on around here?”
Bobby grabbed up his crutches and headed for the office. Suddenly his trip home wasn’t going at all as he had planned. His knee hurt like hell, that damned reporter had to bring up that pussy-faced rookie, and now he learned that Beth had fired Gator. Gator, who had been with him since they were in high school. They would have gone on together long after that if Gator hadn’t ruined his ankle their senior year when college scouts were out looking.
Gator had never gotten over it, falling into a life of drinking and gambling. He had been a mess until Bobby hired him. After an assortment of jobs, Gator had finally settled into running the bar a year ago.
Beth knew all that, but Bobby knew that his sister had always thought his best friend was no good. With his attention focused on getting ready for the season and drifting away from the bar, she had obviously taken the opportunity to fire the guy.
“Hell,” he muttered, and then crutched his way toward the back hallway leading to his office.
He had just reached for the doorknob when he heard the front door fly open.
He couldn’t see her, but he knew Beth’s voice. By the time he leaned back on his crutches and turned around, his sister had raced through the bar and stood at the end of the hallway, her hair kind of wild, her expression even wilder.
Instantly he was on alert. “What’s happened?” he demanded, an all-too-familiar fierceness rising up in him. “Are you all right?”
Beth was a beautiful woman, with dark hair, blue eyes, and a full, easy smile that was genuine where Bobby’s was practiced. At thirty-six, she could pass for twenty-eight easily, not that she cared to try. She had a great life with a man who loved her and two kids that were her proudest accomplishment. She was the greatest mother Bobby could ever imagine. But even after creating such a perfect world for herself, she had always made sure that Bobby was as much a part of her life as he allowed himself to be.
“Am I all right?” she asked, one hand on her hip, trying to look calm as she caught her breath. “Of course I’m all right.”
She smiled, but he knew it was fake. Something was wrong. Though maybe she was simply feeling guilty for firing Gator.
She shrugged. “I’m just disappointed that I wasn’t here the second you walked through the door.” Her smile went wide and innocent. Too innocent.
“Boo, tell me what’s up.”
He saw the minute she melted. It never took more than him using the nickname he had called her since they were little. Then she was in his arms, wrapping herself inside the crutches, holding on tight.
“God, I’ve missed you,” she whispered. “I thought I’d go crazy when I saw you go down on the field. I love watching you play, but I hate that damned helpless feeling when you get hurt.”
At first he tensed, but then he chuckled softly. “I’m too tough to hurt.”
She sniffed. “Too ornery is more like it.”
In the quiet hallway, shut off from the rest of the world, he let himself feel the warmth of family, at least for a second, and suddenly nothing seemed too daunting. It was always that way. He found an ease when he was with his sister that he didn’t feel the rest of the time. Though even Beth didn’t ease him entirely. There was a piece inside him that remained closed and locked, a place that neither his beloved sister nor his much-loved football had ever been able to fill.
“I’ve missed you, too.” He kissed her forehead, then set her at arm’s length. “Do you want to explain why you fired Gator?”
He felt the wariness return.
“Well . . . why don’t we go for a drive or sit down so we can talk?”
“Spit it out, Beth.”
“Oh, all right. Gene had to go. I’ve told you a thousand times that he wasn’t doing you any favors.”
“And I told you that it didn’t matter to me.”
Beth planted her hands on her hips and leaned forward. “It should matter to you. For the life of me, I don’t understand how you can let a good-for-nothing louse like Gene Hatley take advantage of you. You don’t let anyone take advantage of you. Anyone who has ever crossed the hard-as-nails Bobby Mac has learned the hard way not to do it twice. But with Gator . . .”
She sighed, dropping her hands to her sides. “I just don’t get it. Why do you put up with so much from such a loser?”
“Because he’s my friend.” He stepped away.
“No, he’s not, Bobby. He stole five thousand dollars out of the operating account and lost it gambling in Vegas.”
Bobby went still.
“When I confronted him about it, he only laughed in my face and said, ‘So what? Bobby’s too busy fighting off women, smiling for photographers, and throwing money away on any little thing that catches his eye to notice. He won’t care if I throw a little away, too.’ ”
Bobby felt the tight coil of anger resurface. Hating the impotent fear of being poor, he had fought and scraped and paid with blood to get every penny he had ever made. He didn’t throw away a cent of it even now when he had more than he could spend in a lifetime. But then he forced himself to calm down. Gator was Gator. Gator was his friend. He’d talk to him about the money.
“He’s had it rough, Beth.”
“We all have! But you let him get away with this kind of stuff because you feel sorry for him. He said as much, and I knew if I left it up to you nothing would have been done about it. He’ll only get worse. So, yes, I fired him. And he’s lucky I didn’t call the police. Though I should have.”
His jaw cemented. “I will not report him, do you understand?”
“Yes, but understand this. I love you, Bobby—you know I do. But if I’m going to keep helping you with Bobby’s Place when you’re out of town, then I have to be able to make some decisions.”
He looked at her hard. She had never stood up to him like this before, had never made demands. She knew how he didn’t put up with people when they ticked him off. But there she stood, pushing him, as if daring him to force her out of his life.
He hated how suddenly his world seemed to be spinning out of control. For decades he had worked to create a life that filled the cracks he knew ran deep inside him. He had found football when he was young, and he was good at it. When he had started throwing touchdown passes in front of crowds, the void had filled even more. The cheering fans and the coaches and the other players who he could always depend on were his life. What would he do if he no longer had football?
He thought of what the doctors had told him. The warning. The frank discussion about his age and the toll a sport like football took on the body. The accumulated injuries over a lifetime. The consequences.
The memory burst through him, and he felt a cold sweat break out on his forehead. He would be back for the play-offs, he told himself firmly, and he would win another Super Bowl ring. Then, maybe then, he’d start thinking about life after the game.
His thoughts settled, and he started to turn away, but Beth jumped between him and the office, plastering herself against the closed door, the gleaming brass plate just above her head glistening with his name. bobby mac.
“What’s it going to be, Bobby? Do I get to make decisions, or do I walk?”
His heart took a hard pounding jar, and his eyes bored into her. But she didn’t shrink away. She stood up to him, and as always with Beth, he felt the anger tamed by his devotion to her—tamed because he knew that there was no one in the world who understood him like she did. No one knew what they had been through. No one.
Despite himself, he felt the smile curve on his lips. “Okay, Boo, you win.”
He saw how relief filled her, though she’d never admit it. She was every bit as stubborn as he was. If he had said no, she would have walked, no matter how much it would have hurt her.
Her gaze softened, and he would have sworn her throat worked with unshed tears. He leaned down and locked his forefinger with hers. A child’s game. Together forever, they had always said. “I couldn’t do it without you,” he said, “never could.”
She closed her eyes. “I’m glad you’re home.”
“So am I. Now step aside, I’ve got things to do.”
Her head jerked back, and her arms actually came out to block the way.
“Come on, Beth. You’ve won the battle; now let me get to work. I’ve got to call Streamer.”
Levering himself on the crutches, he gently set her aside, smiled, then turned the knob.
Bobby sighed. “Beth, what the hell is wrong with you today.”
“I . . . I hired a new manager.”
He cocked his head. “Without a word to me?”
“You just got through agreeing that you have to give me some power to make decisions. Well, I made a decision.”
Just by looking at her, puffed up and defensive, Bobby knew he wasn’t going to like her choice. Now he knew what she was all worked up about. And well she should be.
“If you’ve hired one of those girly restaurant guys who’ll want to serve beer out of fancy glasses, I’m going to—”
“You’re going to what? Fire me? Besides, I didn’t hire some guy who likes fancy glasses.”
He scowled, then headed inside.
“I hired a woman.”
That stopped him. Slowly he turned back. “You what?”
Her chin rose. “I hired a woman with great credentials and a wonderful work history. She started last week. I gave her the apartment upstairs to stay in.”
“You know I don’t want some woman in here running my business.”
“I’m a woman, and I’ve been involved in plenty of your business decisions.”
“You’re my sister. Big difference, and you know it.”
“She’s really good, and she’s had great success. And the minute you want to take a look at the books, you’re going to realize Bobby’s Place needs someone really good to turn things around.”
“I couldn’t care less how good she is. Get rid of her.”
“You haven’t even met her.”
“And I’m not going to.”
“Yes, you are. I’m telling you, Bobby, if you mess this one up, you’re going to regret it. I’m serious.”
Bobby swore, and sure enough when he pushed through the door, he came face-to-face with a woman he had never seen before. She stood behind his desk, a discordant array of potted plants, macramé, and a china teacup replacing his trophies, game balls, and favorite sweet thang cof- fee mug.
He stopped dead in his tracks. She was small, at least compared to him, and delicate, with big brown eyes and the palest skin he’d ever seen, making her look like a deer caught in headlights. His first thought was that one harsh word from him and she’d melt right there on the office floor.
She wore a pale blue sweater with tiny pearl buttons, and had her hair pulled up in a loose bun, making her look prim and proper—nothing like any woman he had ever known, and certainly unlike any he’d ever dated. Though it was her mouth that was at odds with the picture she presented. Full and sensual. The kind of mouth that made a man get hard just looking at it.
He muttered an oath at the direction of his thoughts. Hell, the last thing he needed was some repressed little librarian with a mouth meant for sin complicating his life. He had enough problems as it was.
“Ah, um,” she said uncomfortably, fiddling with a pencil that she stuck in her hair, “you must be Mr. McIntyre.”
“Bobby,” Beth said through clenched teeth, “this is Lacey Wright, the new manager of Bobby’s Place.”
Tension radiated from the tight brace of the woman’s shoulders. But she made an effort to hide it when suddenly she raised her chin, her brown eyes taking on a determined glint. She extended her hand, small with short sensible nails, and he could only stare at it until Beth nudged him in the back.
Their palms slid together. Despite her resolute expression, he instantly felt the heat, like a jolt rushing through him, and his eyes narrowed. Then she gave him a hard, businesslike shake. He nearly smiled in relief. His center regained. Despite how delicate she looked, her grip was firm, and he thought about all those female corporate types he had met who bent over backwards to prove they had balls. He really hated it when a nice soft woman tried to act like a man.
He refused to think about how he berated her for being too soft, then berated her for being too hard all in the space of a half dozen seconds. This woman did something to him, made his blood heat low and deep in a way he didn’t like.
It was on the tip of his tongue to tell little Miss Priss that she was wasting her time, to get the hell out of Dodge. Then he caught a glance of Beth’s obstinate face, and he grumbled. There wasn’t anyone Bobby was unwilling to go up against—anyone but Beth.
The fact didn’t sit well until he realized that just because he couldn’t fire the woman on the spot didn’t mean this little mouse in front of him would want to hang around any longer than she had to once she started working for him.
Granted, he thought, his lips tilting arrogantly, it might be hard to get this prim little thing to hate him. Hell, he didn’t know a single female who did. But he’d just have to run her ragged, wear off the rosy glow women looked at him with. Once she got over the infatuation that she no doubt felt, she would start seeing how this job wasn’t so great and she’d quit. Then Boo would have to accept that she had been wrong about Miss Wright.
He nearly smiled at the thought.
From the Paperback edition.