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Crandall Lake, Texasearly October
Sophie Marlowe sneaked a glance at the clock. Eleven thirty-five. Twenty-five minutes until her lunch break. Suppressing a sigh, she turned her attention back to the student sitting in front of her desk. "What are you going to do, Kaitlyn?"
The unhappy senior shrugged. "I don't know."
"They're going to have to be told sometime. It would be best if you just tell them now while you still have options."
The girl nodded, her eyes bleak. "They're gonna kill me."
Sophie smiled wryly. "I know your parents. They are lovely, rational people. They won't kill you."
"But they'll be so disappointed," Kaitlyn muttered.
"I'm sure they will, but they love you. They'll get over it." Yet even as Sophie said the rote words, she knew that some parents didn't get over it easily. When your daughter was smart, got great grades and was on track to attend one of the best universities in Texas, it was hard to discover said daughter wasn't as smart as you'd thought. That, in fact, she was pregnant and already a couple of months along.
"I wish " Kaitlyn began.
"I know. You wish this hadn't happened."
Two fat tears rolled down Kaitlyn's cheeks. "Billy's being so mean to me."
Now Sophie did sigh. She wasn't surprised that the father of the baby wasn't thrilled by his girlfriend's pregnancy. Honestly. What in the world were these kids thinking? That was the problem. They weren't thinking. The thinking began after the damage was done, and by then, it was too late. "Would you like me to be with you when you talk to your parents?" As Crandall Lake High School's guidance counselor, Sophie wasn't required to do more than listen to and advise students of available resources, but she couldn't help feeling sorry for the girl in her office. Kaitlyn Lowe was a good kid. In fact, she was one of the last kids Sophie thought would be in this position.
The raw fear in Kaitlyn's blue eyes reminded Sophie that the girl was only seventeen. Only a year older than Joy. The thought of Joy, her younger half sister and legal ward, whose parents had died two years earlier, gave Sophie further pause. If it were Joy sitting here now, scared and feeling so alone, wouldn't Sophie want someone to befriend her, too? "Yes," she said softly. "I will."
"Oh, Miss Marlowe, thank you. Wh-when do you want to do it?"
Sophie had book club tonight, but tomorrow was free. "Why don't I come by tomorrow night? Say about seven-thirty? Will you be through with dinner by then?"
Kaitlyn nodded, then bit her bottom lip.
Later, as Sophie ate her tuna sandwich and apple in the teachers' lounge, she thought about how hard it was to be a teenager. She was certainly glad those days were long behind her. And she was enormously grateful that Joy had lived up to her name and was a joy to raise. The girl had never given Sophie one moment of trouble, thank the Lord.
She looked up at the noisy entrance of two of her colleaguesAnn McPherson, a chemistry teacher, and Cindy Bloom, who taught computer science and key-boarding.
"Oh God," Cindy said, fanning herself, "be still, my heart!"
"Yeah," Ann said. "He's gorgeous, isn't he? And I'm sure he knows it."
"Of course he knows it!" Cindy said, laughing. "I mean, he's dated some of the most beautiful women in the world."
Sophie kept her expression blank, even though she instantly knew the two women were discussing Dillon Burke, former pro quarterback for the Los Angeles Lions, who had moved back to his hometown of Crandall Lake in June and was now the new varsity football coach at the high school. The very same Dillon Burke with whom she, Sophie, had once been wildly in love.
And who she was now avoiding at all costs.
Our relationship took place a long time ago, she reminded herself for about the hundredth time since she'd heard he'd come back to town. He's no longer even a blip on your radar screen. And if she'd had any doubts that this was so, the fact that he hadn't made any effort at all to see her or talk to her would have made that fact abundantly clear.
Unfortunately, the nonblip had gotten nonstop publicity and attention ever since he hit town. Sophie would have had to be blind not to notice he was even better-looking now than he'd been as a senior in high school. Tall, with black hair and piercing blue eyes and a body to die for, he had set many a heart aflutter in the past thirteen years.
But not mine! I'm so over him.
Sophie was just grateful that most of her colleagues had never known she and Dillon were once an item. And the few who had known must feel the way Sophie felt now: that the relationship between her as a sixteen-year-old sophomore and Dillon, as a senior and the star quarterback of Crandall High's Cougars, was nothing more than a teenage fling long forgotten by everyone.
"It won't be any different here," Ann was saying. "I noticed Nicole was all over him at the fair Saturday."
Cindy grimaced. "She makes me sick."
They were discussing Nicole Blanchard, the French teacher. New this year, she'd been a topic of speculation from the first day of schoolleggy, blond and gorgeous. Every man who came into her orbit fell under her spell. Sophie figured Dillon Burke would be no different.
"Yeah, well, he didn't seem to be unhappy about the attention." Finally noticing Sophie, Ann said, "Hey, Sophie, how's it going?"
"Okay. How about you?" Finishing her sandwich, Sophie started on her apple.
"Well, I'm tired from the weekend. Other than that, things are great."
They continued with meaningless chitchat for a few more minutes, and then Sophie said, "I think I'll take a walk. See you guys later." She pitched her apple core into the trash, stood and dusted off her jeans, then waved goodbye.
Outside, even though it was already the first week of October and should be cooling off by now, the temperature today was supposed to reach eighty-five. Sophie had lived in Texas her entire life, but she'd never become used to the heat. Maybe it was her redheaded complexion, but the only time of the year she truly enjoyed living in the area was in the winter. She'd often thought she'd be happier in a northern state somewhere and had even toyed with applying to schools in Michigan, Ohio or Pennsylvania. She'd fantasized about settling in a bigger city, somewhere she might have a better chance of meeting the kind of guy she still hoped to one day find.
But then her mother and Joy's dad, JoshSophie's stepdadwere killed in the plane crash, and Sophie became Joy's legal guardian. All thoughts of moving away had been shelved. Keeping Joy's life as close to normal as possible became Sophie's number-one priority and always would be until Joy was out of college and able to take care of herself.
Sophie was so caught up in her thoughts that as she rounded the corner on her way to the side entrance of the school, which was closest to her office, she collided with someone coming the other way.
"Oh, sorry," she said, looking up.
"Sorry," he said, looking down.
Hazel's eyes locked with blue eyes, and for one long moment, Sophie didn't breathe.
"Well, well, well," Dillon Burke said, a smile playing around his mouth. "If it isn't Sophie Marlowe. I was beginning to think you were a figment of my imagination."
Sophie's traitorous heart skipped alarmingly as she tried to think of something clever to say. "Hello, Dillon" was all she could manage.
He grinned. "Hello, Sophie."
"I, um, was on my way back to my office." Oh, great. Was that the best she could do?
"So I see."
He was still smiling, and his eyesoh, those eyes!were giving her a thorough once-over.
"I, uh, heard you were back." Dear Lord. Now she sounded like an idiot. I heard you were back. No, duh.
He made a face. "You and everyone else in Texas."
"That's what happens when you're famous."
"Famous." He made the word sound like a curse.
"You hadn't seemed to mind the attention in the past."
"Past being the operative word."
Sophie pointedly looked at her watch. "Well, it's nice seeing you again, Dillon. But I need to get back to work."
Giving her a little bow to go along with his sexy smile, he said, drawling a little to sho his Texas roots, "Good to see you, too, Sophie. And by the way, you're lookin' good." His gaze moved to her butt. "I can remember when jeans that fit like yours were outlawed."
Sophie could feel the blush heating her face.
She could also feel his eyes watching her as she made her escape through the side door.
Thank God no one had seen their encounter. Because Sophie was sure if anyone had, they'd have immediately known she was not immune to the charms of Dillon Burke, no matter how many times she told herself she was.
Man, she was one sexy woman. Dillon couldn't get over how good Sophie looked. Nor could he get over how much seeing her had affected him. This wasn't the first time he'd had a glimpse of her, but it was their first close encounter. The first time he'd been able to see those beautiful gold-flecked eyes, that smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks, the way her full lower lip looked ready and ripe .
Damn. Best not to go there.
She'd been avoiding him. Truth to tell, he'd been avoiding her, too. Not that he had anything to regret where she was concerned. He'd been up front with her from the beginning. He'd made her no promises. She'd always known he was going off to college when he graduated.
And he did. Pretty much without a backward glance. Oh, he'd thought about Sophie. He couldn't help thinking about her. They'd been a pretty steady item for nearly a year, and he'd fallen hard for her. It had taken him months, years actually, to stop comparing other women to her. And if he was being completely honest, he'd never really stopped. No matter who he was with, somehow he always had Sophie in the back of his mind as his gold standard.
Had anyone else ever measured up?
Tessa, maybe, for a while at least. Until she got greedy.
And Leeann until she let slip one day that she had no interest in kids. Never wanted any. Had made sure she'd never have any. That had been the end of Leeann. That had been the end of models, period.
Nowadays, he wasn't sure he wanted any kind of involvement with women. Just handling all the problems that went along with raising an eighteen-year-old boy was enough to keep him hopping. Dillon sighed, thinking of his nephew, Aidan. Aidan's father, a career marine who had been Dillon's oldest brother, had been killed in Afghanistan five years ago, and his mother had died of colon cancer in January. Since then, Aidan had been Dillon's responsibility.
Under normal circumstances, everything might have worked out fine, because Aidanrecent evidence to the contrarywas a good kid. But the trauma of losing his last parent and having to move from everything familiar to a town thousands of miles from the only home he'd ever known right before his senior year, and having to get used to an uncle he had barely seen in the past ten years, had proved to be Aidan's undoing.
In fact, Dillon wasn't sure the two of them were going to make it. No matter what rules Dillon laid down, Aidan simply ignored them. If he was told to be in no later than midnight on the weekends, he would show up at one or later.
Punishment seemed to have no effect. Dillon had tried withholding spending money, taking away the car keys, grounding Aidan completelynothing worked. Aidan seemed determined to push the boundaries to the limit, and nothing Dillon did or said made any difference to him.
Intellectually, Dillon knew that Aidan was acting out because it was the only way he could feel in control of at least some part of his life. But knowing what was causing the bad behavior didn't make it any easier to deal with.
If only Dillon had someone to talk to. He'd actually considered confiding in Sophie. After all, she was the guidance counselor at Crandall Lake High School. Who better to talk to? But every time he had considered approaching her, he got cold feet. Getting cold feet over talking to a woman was a new experience for Dillon. And it wasn't a feeling he liked.
By now Dillon had reached his own office, down the hall from the gym and across from the boys' locker room. Inside he saw his assistant coach, Brian Penner, waiting. Time to stop thinking about Aidan and start thinking about Friday night's game.
"Hey, Dillon, we need to talk," Brian said, his affable face sporting a worried frown.
"What's up?" Dillon said, dropping the load of files he'd carried from the main office onto his already-littered desk.
Crap. Jimmy Ferguson was the Cougars' quarterback. Right now he was sidelined with a knee injury, and even though the knee was healing nicely and Jimmy should be able to play again by the end of the month, the kid wasn't handling his inactivity well. He'd caused one problem after another in the past few weeks, and Dillon was seriously considering banishing him from the locker room as well as the field.
"You know what the problem is," Brian said.
"Yeah." If the team hadn't been doing well during Ferguson's forced absence, things would probably be fineat least as far as Jimmy was concerned. However, the team was doing well. In fact, they'd won their last two games, mostly because their backup quarterback, Devon Washington, had performed spectacularly. Dillon knew Jimmy was worried he'd lose his starting spot if things continued to go well while he was sidelined.
"We need to do something," Brian said, plopping down on a corner of Dillon's desk.
Dillon sank into his leather armchair and sighed. "I know. I just hate to make an example of him. It's hard enough for the kid right now."
"Yeah, but if the other guys see him getting away with this crap, that's not good, either."
"I know." Jeez, Dillon was beginning to wonder if he was cut out for this coaching gig. Or for the fatherhood gig he'd found himself in. And yet what choice did he have? It was important to establish a stable home for Aidan and it was just as important to establish some kind of stable career for himself. He was damned if he wanted to become one of those ex-jocks who tried to become actors or spent their days pitching products nobody needed. And he had no interest in spending his days in a monkey suit and tie, either. He sighed again. "I'll talk to him, Brian. I'll make it clear he's on notice, and if he keeps causing trouble, he'll be kicked off the team for good."
Brian nodded. His still-worried expression mirrored Dillon's own misgivings. Because Dillon knew removing Jimmy Fergusonthe cosseted and spoiled only son of Crandall Lake's mayorfrom the varsity football squad in his senior year would cause a huge uproar in the community. And Dillon had enough strife in his life right now.