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Terrence Franklin just pulled up in a yellow Ferrari sports car!"
Kyra Dixon jumped as if she'd been zapped with a stun gun. Blistering-hot coffee sloshed over her mug and splashed onto her slingback sandals. She felt a tightening in her chest at the mention of her ex-fiancé's name and calmed her nerves with a deep breath. Masking her annoyance, she turned and smiled grudgingly at her boss. "Good morning, Mr. Morrow."
"Can you believe it? He's finally here. I glanced out my office window, and there he was signing autographs and posing for pictures by the fountain." Straightening his tie, he studied his profile in the coffeepot, a wide, goofy expression on his face. When he swung back around, his smile had doubled in length. "I asked Nikki to show Terrence into the conference room," he explained, nodding furiously. "I wanted us to have some time to go over our game plan."
"Our game plan?" she repeated, frowning. "Walter, I think I can handle a washed-up, ex-football player. I've been the public relations director at Hollington College for almost seven years. I know what I'm doing."
"Terrence Franklin is more than just an ex-football player. He's a living legend!" Tugging on his olive-colored suspenders, Walter rocked on the balls of his feet with gusto. "This is the biggest moment of your career, Kyra. For me, too!"
His face was flush with excitement, and he was practically slobbering on his starched white shirt. "I think you're worrying for nothing, Walter. Terrence Franklin isn't the superstar athlete he once was. Getting him to sign on as head coach will be a piece ofcake."
"Kyra, Kyra, Kyra." Shaking his head in disapproval, he wagged a finger at her, as if he were scolding a wayward child. "We don't have much time, but I'm going to give you a crash course on professional sports. Try to keep up."
Spare me, she thought, adding another sugar cube to her coffee. Raising the mug to her lips, she listened halfheartedly as her boss spoke in a loud but reverent tone about the National Football League. Football was America's favorite pastime. People watched it, talked about it and die-hard fans gambled on its outcomes. And, a player with the right personality could bring millions in revenue to any given city. Gesticulating wildly with his hands, his breathing grew deep and labored, like a pregnant woman on the verge of giving birth.
"Not only is the kid good-looking, he has more charm than a Hollywood movie star!" His big, bold laugh was like a blast of a trumpet. "He's a Heisman Trophy winner, an eight-time all-star and the only running back to be voted most valuable player two consecutive seasons. And he's here, at Hollington College!"
Her legs trembled like a toddler on stilts, but she didn't slide to the floor like she had the morning Walter called to say her ex-fiancé was interested in the head coaching position. Even though Kyra despised Terrence and everything he stood for, she had to admit that his stats were impressive. Since being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, he'd broken long-standing records, amazed fans with his heroic plays on the field and built a cult following.
In ten seasons, he'd become the most talked about, most admired and most electrifying pro athlete. And every time Kyra turned on the TV, he was hawking the next big thing. Terrence was the golden boy of the National Football League and the media couldn't get enough of him. Terrence had gotten injured during a nationally televised playoff game, but his coach had assured fans that he'd make a speedy recovery. Then, in a move that shocked the entire sports world, he'd announced his retirement and walked away from it all.
"Terrence is a superstar, and—" he leaned heavily on the word "—a Hollington alum. He's given thousands to charity, and even partnered with the Make-a-Wish Foundation a few years back. Exceptional athletic ability and womanizing aside, he's a good man, and an excellent role model for kids and teens alike."
Kyra snorted. Big friggin' deal. Her boss might think the former NFL running back was the salt of the earth, but she knew the real Terrence Franklin. The arrogant, showboating Casanova who didn't have a loyal bone in his body. The one who craved the spotlight and female attention. In his third season, his off-the-field antics had tarnished his squeaky-clean image and after a wild night at a Las Vegas club Super Bowl weekend, the media had dubbed him Flash. Terrence seemed to derive great pleasure from shocking people. But what did she care? He wasn't her problem, but if he took the head coaching position, the cavorting and partying had to stop.
"Kyra, you don't watch football, so you don't get how truly gifted he is."
If he only knew. Since the day Terrence had stepped onto the field as the newest running back for the Hollington Lions, she'd watched every single one of his games. And she'd been there, along with Terrence's family, when he was presented with the coveted Heisman Trophy. But admitting to her boss that she'd once been engaged to Terrence would only complicate things. Walter was a fair, easygoing, man, who trusted her, and she didn't want to disappoint him.
The hours were long and the accolades few, but Kyra loved working at her alma mater. And she wasn't going to let her feelings stand in the way of doing her job. Besides, her history with Terrence wasn't the issue. Convincing him to sign on as head coach of a losing team was going to be challenging enough without their past getting in the way. Yes, keeping mum about their relationship was definitely the way to go.
"Terrence Franklin is the fastest man ever. Carl Lewis? Maurice Green? Those guys have nothing on him. And if he ever decides to come out of retirement, the NFL and its fans will be waiting."
"You really think so?"
He nodded fervently. "Terrence is one of the greatest running backs to ever play the game. Right up there with Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith and…"
She sipped her coffee. A season ticket holder of the Atlanta Falcons for years, Kyra, and her two younger brothers had braved traffic, freaky weather and long lines every Sunday afternoon to cheer on the home team. They were there when Terrence scored his first touchdown in a Dallas Cowboys uniform. Saw him twist and spin out of tackles and shoot into the end zone like a human cannonball. And hollered feverishly when he shattered another decade-old record.
Kyra's mind returned to that chilly afternoon ten years ago at the Georgia Dome when the Cowboys were playing the Falcons. Over the deafening roar of the crowd, she'd actually heard the thunderous beat of her heart. After celebrating with his teammates, Terrence stopped in the middle of the field, and lifted his eyes to the rafters, as if taking everything in. He'd stared up at Section A, and for a panic-stricken moment, she'd feared he would see her. It was a ludicrous thought, of course. He didn't have extraordinary vision, after all, just lightning-quick speed. But in that moment, it was as real as her raging, out-of-control heartbeat.
"I love this school," Walter confessed, his eyes filled with pride, "but I'm tired of watching our guys get butchered out there on the field. Attendance is at an all-time low, players are arguing between plays and even the cheerleaders sound depressed."
Kyra opened her mouth, but he spoke over her.
"It's up to us to get Terrence here. Without him, the team doesn't have a chance of winning their division. And building that new stadium would all be for naught."
She waited patiently for him to run out of steam, but when she glimpsed the time on the clock, she decided to cut in. "We better get going," she suggested, putting down her empty mug. "We don't want to keep Wonder Boy waiting, now do we?"
Down the hall in a bright airy room off the main office, Terrence Franklin sent a text message to his financial adviser. Buying stocks in the auto industry sounded risky. Sure he had the money, but he hadn't become a millionaire by making impetuous decisions. Maybe later, after his meeting with Kyra, he'd give it some more thought.
An image of Kyra, as he remembered her from their college days surfaced. Had it really been ten years since he'd seen her? It seemed like just yesterday they were walking through the halls of Hollington, hanging out in "the quad" with their friends and sharing their first explosive kiss.
He had been just another college student, juggling school, football and an active social life. Then he'd met Kyra. He knew from speaking to her sorority sister, Tamara Hodges, that she was a sheltered good girl, shielded from the temptations of the world by her minister parents. Before meeting the vibrant management student, he was a boozing, partying misfit who didn't take his education or his future seriously. But after their first date, he realized he'd have to clean up his image if he wanted to be with a girl as special as Kyra Dixon.
Intent on having her, he'd quit drinking and stopped clubbing with the guys. A year later, he proposed. He'd been the one to break things off, but Terrence knew if it wasn't for Kyra's unwavering support, he never would have made it to the NFL.
Terrence turned away from his memories. He wasn't going there. Not today. It was bad enough he'd had another dream about her. Since returning to Hollington he'd thought of nothing else but Kyra and the love they'd once shared.
Smiling ruefully, he shifted in his chair. Well, that's a lie. She'd crossed his mind over the years, too. Times when he'd least expected it. The day he'd signed with the Cowboys. The afternoon he'd moved into his beach condo. And every time he smelled exotic fruit.
Footsteps pounded in the hallway. Then, the door swung open and a flabby, silver-haired man, who he guessed was Walter Morrow, burst into the room with more exuberance than Richard Simmons. Terrence stood, hand outstretched, game face on. He took a step forward, but his legs buckled like a folding chair.
Momentarily speechless, his gaze swept over the woman with the familiar scent. Walter welcomed him to Hollington, but Terrence didn't respond. His eyes were glued to Kyra and the longer he stared, the harder it was to think. She had a fresh, modern look that was sexy but not overdone, and seeing her again after all these years made his heart race a hundred miles an hour. He was known to say, "You've seen one pretty face, you've seen 'em all!" But today, Terrence was prepared to eat crow. Kyra wasn't the typical beautiful woman. She was infinitely more. More natural, more graceful, more sophisticated. There was a simplicity about her, something warm and compelling and, though it was hard to believe in this day and age, genteel.
"Terrence Franklin, the pleasure is all mine."
He felt a sharp pop in his shoulder and snapped out of his daze. Mr. Morrow was pumping his hand so hard, his knuckles cracked.
"It's good to be back at Hollington." His decision to return to his alma mater had been twofold. He'd make some plans for the future and reconnect with Kyra. He'd never forgotten the sacrifices she'd made for him, and he was going to make things right with her if it killed him. Staring at her now, he said, "This school holds a lot of special memories for me."
"That's right. You rushed for ninety-three yards against the Wildcats in your first game!" Mr. Morrow's face clouded with nostalgia. "I wasn' t president of Hollington back then, but I was in the bleachers that night. You were incredible and the energy in the stadium was electric!"
"Thank you, sir."
"Excuse me, but I just have to ask. What's Terrell Owens really like? He's a hothead, isn't he? A real live wire, I bet," he speculated. "Come on, you're out of the league now, you can tell me. I promise it won't leave this room."
Football had been his life since he picked up his first pigskin at the age of nine, but Terrence didn't want to discuss his teammates, his endorsement deals or any of the other usual crap fans liked to talk about. Uninterested in the conversation, he stared at Kyra, desperate to make eye contact. Why wouldn't she look at him?
As if remembering Kyra was standing behind him, Walter turned and gave her a hearty push forward. "This is the little lady I've been chatting up over the phone. Terrence Franklin, I'd like you to meet—"
"Kyra Dixon," he finished smoothly. "It's been a long time, hasn't it?"
Mr. Morrow's cheeks sagged when his jaw fell open. "You guys know each other?"
"We took a few classes together," she was quick to say, "and we knew a lot of the same people on campus."
Her smile was polite, guarded, filled with manufactured warmth. He'd been haunted by her face for all these years and he knew forced emotion when he saw it. "Welcome back to Hollington, Mr. Franklin. We're glad to have you."
Disappointed by her lukewarm greeting, he dug his hands into his pockets and shook off feelings of frustration. He wasn't doing play drills in the scorching Dallas heat or working out with his trainer, but he needed a moment to catch his breath. This was insane. He'd dated models, dancers and an impressive collection of singers and actresses, but he'd never been more nervous than he was right now.
"I wish I could stay, but I have a board meeting in fifteen minutes," Mr. Morrow explained. "I'd cancel, but everyone's expecting me."
Thank God. I thought he'd never leave. While Terrence waited for the man to disappear, he studied Kyra closely, carefully, examining every aspect of her appearance. Light eyes, plump glossy lips, curves stacked on top of curves. Her hair had a soft sheen to it and was cut in a dramatic, cheek-grazing bob. The reddish-brown hue was a sharp contrast to her coffee-with-cream complexion and played up her soft, pale eyes. Underneath her mustard blazer was a white blouse and a belted skirt that emphasized her soda pop bottle shape.
Terrence licked his lips. He'd just finished a bottle of vitamin water, but he was suddenly thirstier than a Kenyan marathon runner. High-heeled sandals gave Kyra height, and reminded him of those clunky shoes she used to wear back in the day. The PR manager hated her diminutive height and still did everything in her power to appear taller. Five feet four inches was listed on her driver's license, but she used to swear on a stack of bibles that she was five-six.
"Terrence, we'll talk later this week," Walter promised, pausing at the door. "If you need anything, anything at all, just let Kyra know. She'll take good care of you."