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By Kathleen O'Brien
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCLAIRE HAD ALREADY WARNED Steve six times that he was going to be late, so she bit back the seventh as she heard him come shuffling down the stairs, yawning and scratching his bare chest.
"Morning," she said, stifling an answering yawn herself. She hated football practice mornings. Five-thirty was just too darn early for human beings to be awake, much less bashing each other around on the football field. The sky outside her kitchen window was still black. She couldn't even see the apple tree, which was no more than ten feet away.
"Mmlng," Steve mumbled pleasantly as he entered the kitchen, squinting against the bright overhead light. She wasn't sure he'd had any sleep at all last night. She'd heard him still up at three, talking on the telephone to Michelle, his new girlfriend. He'd sounded so stupid and sweet she hadn't had the heart to break it up.
But he'd pay for it today. He wasn't naturally an early riser. Left to his own devices, like most teenagers, he'd sleep till midafternoon. She yawned again. Once, back when they were kids, they had both loved to sleep late. But she hadn't had that luxury in years. Not since their mother died.
As Steve slouched into the kitchen, she pulled out his chair, which he promptly used to stash his heavy backpack. He always ate standing up. Even very sleepy seventeen-year-old boys were too full of energy to sit. She felt sorry for his teachers.
"The pancakes are getting cold." That was really the seventh warning, of course, but it sounded better than "damn it, Steve, step on it, for heaven's sake," which was what she wanted to say.
Or did she? Setting a glass of milk on the table, she took a deep breath and tried to find her perspective. Maybe she was just nagging because she was exhausted and resented getting up an hour early to see him off to football practice.
Or maybe she was a little bitter because he still walked and talked and slept like a kid, while she could hardly remember what that kind of freedom felt like.
But that wasn't fair. Allowing Steve to finish out a normal childhood had been her choice. And besides, she didn't care if he was late for football practice, anyhow. In fact, if he got booted off the team altogether, it would suit her just fine.
That, however, was about as likely as snow in July. The Heyday High School Fighting Zebras were one win away from the state championship, and Coach McClintock would never risk losing his star quarterback now. Steve could probably show up late, doze off during push-ups and make paper airplanes out of the playbook without causing his coach to bat an eye.
And the little rascal knew it, too. She watched him pull a grungy T-shirt over his head, his curly brown hair emerging from the neckline even more tousled than before, if that was possible. Aware of her disapproving scrutiny, he grinned and ran his fingers through it.
"Sorry, officer," he said. "I didn't know the hair police would be here. I left my comb upstairs."
He was waking up, she saw. And, as usual, waking up sassy. He was so damn cute, that was his problem. She reached out and yanked the curl that dangled farthest down his broad forehead.
"Ouch," he said. But he didn't mean it.
Standing close to him like this, she realized he was wearing a ton of cologne. He smelled as if he'd bathed in the stuff. It seemed odd, given that he was headed out to run around in the mud, until she remembered that Michelle sometimes stopped by the football field to sneak in a few quick kisses before practice.
"The pancakes," she repeated slowly, as if he didn't speak good English, "are getting cold."
"Yum." Steve grabbed the top one off the stack and, holding it in his big fist, munched on it as if it were a piece of dry toast. "I love cold pancakes."
She turned back to the stove, hiding her smile. He probably did. He loved everything. He'd probably eat the box the pancake mix had come in, which was a good thing, because she hadn't ever learned to cook very well.
"So did you finish your English paper?"
The silence that followed her question was ominous. She could hear Steve chewing earnestly, and when she looked, he was studying the front page of the newspaper as if he held a doctorate in foreign affairs.
"Oh, Steve, no. No. Don't tell me you didn't write your paper. You promised that if I let you stay out -"
"I wrote it." He gave her a look. "I did. I wrote it." He grabbed another pancake. "I just didn't print it. I'm out of ink."
She managed, once again, to hold back her exasperated response. She had to be careful. She didn't want to become the enemy here. The two of them had always been close, even before their mother died. After the accident, they'd become even closer, a tight team, as if they understood it was just the two of them now, two of them against the whole world.
Lately, though, Steve had seemed to be pulling back. Rebelling, even - just a little. He spent more time at football practice than he did at home. Coach Kieran McClintock seemed to have become his new hero, the one he confided in. Which was fine with Claire, really it was.
Except that she wished football didn't take so much of his time. He was going to need a scholarship to get into college. Coach McClintock seemed to think he could get one for football, but was that realistic? Coming from a tiny nowhere-town like Heyday?
"Claire? Don't give me that look. It's okay about the English paper. Mrs. Keene said all the football players could turn it in on Monday. Full credit."
"She gave an extension to the football players? Just the football players?" Claire knew how unpopular that would be with the other teachers ... and perhaps the other students, as well. If the principal heard about it ...
"Well, yeah. She knows we've been practicing every minute." He gaped at his watch in open-mouthed horror. "Oh my God, look how late it is!"
Too bad he hadn't joined the drama club instead, she thought. He could have used some pointers about overacting.
"Steve. I'm serious. You can't let her give special deals to the players. If you can't get your work done on time, you shouldn't be playing football in the first place."
He groaned as he hoisted his backpack over his broad shoulder. "God, don't start. We do this every morning. It's like Chinese water torture. I told Coach you're on me about this every friggin' day, like grass on dirt."
"Oh, you did, did you?"
That stung, and she couldn't help reacting. She wondered what other domestic complaints he shared with Kieran McClintock. The stingy allowance, which was all she could afford. The crummy dinners, which were all she could manage. The nagging, the criticizing, the clinging. "And what did he say?"
Steve paused. "Well," he said slowly. "He said he felt really sorry for me. He said it must be tough to have such a nasty old shrew in the house."
Like a fool, she fell for it. "What? That takes a lot of -"
Excerpted from The Saint by Kathleen O'Brien Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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