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"Mom! Hey, Mom!"
"Up here, Will," Holly Stanton called out. Her son came up the stairs two at a time and stood in the doorway, tossing a football from hand to hand while she finished maneuvering her new mattress onto the box spring. She'd just spent a breathless ten minutes getting it in the house and up to her bedroom.
"Geez, Mom. Why didn't you wait till I got home? I could've helped you."
Holly grinned at her fifteen-year-old son. His auburn hair and green eyes were so like hers, but he was ten inches taller and a hundred pounds heavier.
"I didn't need any help, Squirt. I got it up here, didn't I? Hardly broke a sweat."
Will shook his head, but he was grinning back at her.
"Someone I know says you were always like this. Never letting anybody help you. Stubborn as a mule."
Holly flipped one end of a freshly laundered sheet in his direction. "Here, if you're so eager to be useful. And who's this anonymous source of yours? Weston is my hometown, you know. I thought I knew who all my old friends and enemies were."
Will tucked the bottom corner of the fitted sheet under the mattress. "Believe it or not, it's our new coach. He actually knows you, Mom. He remembers you from high school."
Holly looked skeptical. "The guy you've been talking about nonstop for the last two weeks? How is it that you haven't mentioned this little fact before?"
"Because I only found out today," he said as he helped his mom lay out the top sheet and smooth out the wrinkles.
"All right, what's his name? All you ever call him is Coach."
"His name is Alex. Alex McKenna."
Holly froze. She'd been stuffing one of her bed pillows into a case, and now she stood perfectly still, clutching the pillow to her chest like a security blanket.
Will nodded. "Yeah. Do you remember him? I don't think he meant to say anything about knowing you. He kind of let it slip when I was talking about you today after practice, about how you won't let me get a job to help out with bills or anything, and how you made me choose between football and basketball, because you wanted me to spend at least part of the year thinking about classes—"
"I know, I'm just crazy like that," Holly said, but her mind was far away. Of all the memories she didn't want to revisit…
"Well, anyhow, that's when he said you'd always been stubborn. I asked how he knew you, and he said you'd gone to high school together, and you never let anyone help you back then, either. Then he kind of brushed it off and we went back to talking about football. Do you remember him?"
"Yes," Holly said.
Alex McKenna. Out of all the people she would have been happy never to hear from again, he was right at the top of the list. "I haven't seen him since we graduated. He went to college on a football scholarship, and played professionally after that. I know he quit the NFL to go into coaching, but that was the last I heard of him." She took a deep breath, looking across the bed at her son. Odds were he'd find out the rest one of these days. Better he hear it fromher. "He's…related to your father."
Holly winced at the eagerness in his voice. "Yes. They're stepbrothers. They're not close," she warned him. "They haven't talked in years. So don't think this is a way to—"
"Connect to my dad?"
Holly felt a stab of pain at the resigned expression that replaced the eagerness in her son's green eyes. It made him seem much older than his fifteen years.
"Don't worry, Mom. I know better. And, anyway, I wouldn't say anything to Coach about it. I don't want people to think I'm trying to be a teacher's pet or something." Suddenly he was smiling again, the easy, open smile Holly knew so well. "I plan to earn my place on the team without any special favors."
"Of course you will," Holly said firmly.
Will rolled his eyes as he stuffed a pillow into a case and set it against the headboard. "Don't pretend you care, Mom. You know you hate football."
"True," Holly admitted as she plumped her pillow and reached for the blue-and-white comforter. "I do hate football—but I love you."
"Which is why you'll let me go out after dinner, right? If I promise to be back by nine?"
"On a school night?" Holly said suspiciously as the two of them spread the comforter over the bed. "To do what, exactly?"
"Oh, the usual teenage stuff. Drink some beer, do some drugs, die in a spectacular car accident they'll take pictures of for next year's driver's ed class—"
"Justkeep talking, kid. Making jokes about your tragic death is definitely the way to talk me into your little excursion. Which you still haven't explained, by the way."
"It's Coach's idea. Tomorrow's the first game of the season, which you probably forgot all about, and he wants me and the other quarterbacks to come by his house for an hour or two to go over the playbook. Make sure we're all on the same page."
Holly sighed. "Homework?"
"Coach will pick us up around seven and drop us off no later than nine, like I said."
Holly's heart skipped a beat. "Here? Alex is coming here?"
"Yes. If it's all right with the most understanding mom in the whole entire—"
Holly threw up her hands in surrender. "Fine, yes, you can go. All I ask is that you set the table for dinner and take the lasagna out of the oven in ten minutes."
She was rewarded with a huge smile.
"Deal!" Will said.
"And don't forget to take out the trash!" Holly called after him as he headed out the door.
"No problem!" Will called back over his shoulder. He pounded down the stairs and into the kitchen, singing the Weston Wildcat fight song at the top of his lungs.
Upstairs it was suddenly quiet. For a minute Holly just stood in the middle of her room, staring at nothing. Then she moved over to the dresser and studied her reflection in the mirror that hung above it.
She hadn't seen Alex for years…not since high school, when she'd dated his stepbrother, Brian. Will's father. Brian the golden boy, with his good grades and good looks and bright future.
Then there was Alex: a year younger and everything Brian wasn't. A natural athlete and a star on the football team but wild, rebellious, always in trouble with his teachers and his coaches for mouthing off, breaking rules, flouting authority.
He'd sported a punk look back then: his hair bleached and spiked, his clothes always black—black jeans, black jacket, black combat boots. He'd played guitar and sung in a garage band, she remembered.
Where Brian was safety, Alex was danger. Where Brian was predictable, Alex was volatile. In the simple world of high school where there were good girls and bad girls, the former dreamed about Brian and the latter dreamed about Alex.
Although Holly's status as a good girl was universally acknowledged, one of her best friends was Brenda, a self-proclaimed bad girl who would talk about Alex by the hour.
"Holly, he's sex on wheels. Those arms—that butt—how can you not notice?"
Holly would blush at Brenda's graphic language and shrug her shoulders. "Not my type, I guess. And, anyway, I'm dating his—"
"Stepbrother, yeah, I know. Brian the Boring. I will definitely be your bridesmaid, though—as long as Alex is one of the ushers. So when are you and Brian getting married? After his graduation or yours?"
Holly came slowly back to the present, smiling ruefully at her reflection in the mirror. Memories of the starry-eyed girl she'd been receded, leaving her looking at the thirty-four-year-old woman she'd become.
Holly snapped out of her reverie. "All right, Will! I'll be there in a minute!"
Her life had Will in it, and that was what mattered. There was no reason to fear a reminder of the past.
Still, seeing Alex again would be…strange.
She thought briefly about changing into something more—something less—something different. But—
"No," she said out loud. She wouldn't go to any trouble for a man who, as a boy, had never made a secret of despising her. Especially since the feeling had been mutual. With a resolute nod at her reflection, Holly left the bedroom and went downstairs.
Dinner with Will was fun, as meals in their house usually were, whether it included a group of friends or just the two of them. Under the influence of gooey cheese and laughing conversation, Holly felt herself relaxing.
This was nothing. A quick hello to someone she hadn't seen in years and would, hopefully, never see again. Thirty seconds and it would all be over.
This was nothing.
Right, Alex said to himself. Nothing. That's why he'd been standing outside the damn door for five minutes like some kind of idiot.
He turned away for a moment, resting his elbows on the porch railing and looking out at the front yard, where shadows chased moonlight through the trees.
Why was he making such a big deal out of this? He and Holly had never been friends. If anything, they'd been enemies. She was everything he'd hated in high school: uptight, conventional, all about rules and fitting in. The few times he'd tried to tell her there was more to life than playing it safe, she'd looked at him as if he was crazy.
Not to mention the fact that she'd dated his moron of a stepbrother all through school. That alone would have been enough to earn his dislike.
Fifteen years had gone by since then. And now, by some ridiculous twist of fate, he was standing outside Holly's front door, waiting to pick up her son. Brian's son.
Alex revised that in his head. Will wasn't just Holly's son or Brian's son; he was his own person, too. A terrific kid. A rare kid. The kind of kid a coach or teacher would always be grateful for and always remember.
His face softened as he thought about boys he'd worked with in the past, the boys he was working with now. They were all great kids in their own way. He had faith in all of them, even the ones no one else believed in.
He'd been a kid like that once.
Alex shook his head sharply. Enough with the trip down memory lane. Tomorrow night was the first game of the season and Will Stanton was his backup quarterback, not to mention next year's starter if he fulfilled even a fraction of his promise. And Holly Stanton was just another parent.
He sethis jaw, strode up to the door, and rang the bell.
"Coach is here," Will said, pushing back his chair.
All of Holly's calm evaporated. She had intended to go to the door with Will, where she would greet Alex with polite indifference. Instead she slipped into the dark living room, her heart beating ridiculously fast, so she could see the front hallway without being seen.
Before she could get a grip on her poise, Will was opening the door, and in the next second Alex McKenna stepped over the threshold.
Holly's breath caught in her throat. Just like in the old days, Alex seemed larger than life—and not just because of his size. His presence had always made everything else around him a little dimmer, a little duller, and fifteen years hadn't changed that.
On the surface, though, a lot of things had changed.
His hair was no longer bleached and spiked, for one thing. It was light brown, and cut fairly short. There was no safety pin in his left ear, no metal studs anywhere at all, and no black clothing. He wore a pair of khaki pants and a forest green button-down shirt.
The haircut and clothes together would normally come attached to a good boy. The kind you could safely bring home to Mother.
But the harsh planes of his jaw and cheekbones, the piercing blue eyes, the scar slicing through his left eyebrow—all these still screamed bad boy.
And all the conservative shirts in the world couldn't conceal those broad, muscular shoulders and rock-hard chest.
Sex, sin and danger. Yep, Alex McKenna was still open for business.
Alex grinned at Will and tried not to be too obvious about looking around for his mother.
The Stanton home, at least what he could see of it, was neat as a pin and furnished with quiet good taste. Big surprise there. Holly had probably been born with the Ralph Lauren logo tattooed across her forehead. The room to the right was dark, but just down the hall he could see the brightly lit kitchen, with lemon-yellow tile countertops and a red geranium on the windowsill. Good smells, like Italian food and freshly baked bread, came wafting toward him, but there was no sign of Holly.
Alex bit back an irrational feeling of disappointment. "Ready to head out, Will? I'm assuming you cleared it with your mom."
"Yep. She's right—" Will turned his head, but no one was there. "Well, she was right behind me…."
And then a small, slender redhead in an elegantly cut brown wool pantsuit came out of the shadows to stand beside her son. She looked up at him for a long minute, her head tilted to one side.
"Hi, Alex," she said finally, in the low, husky voice he remembered.
She was even more gorgeous now than she'd been as a teenager—and as a teenager she'd had every guy who saw her dragging his tongue in the dust.
Her face was the same—the same smooth, creamy skin, the same delicate features. The expression in her green eyes was different: a little tougher, a little warier.
Her hair was exactly the same. Coppery red mingled with brown and gold, like fall leaves. She still wore it pulled back, although the style was a little more sophisticated now.
He could tell her lips were still full and soft, although right now they were pressed together, adding to the sense of caution reflected in her eyes.
And then there was her body. Hidden, naturally, behind a severely tailored suit that was obviously intended to play down her curves. Begging the question of why in God's name anyone would want to hide something so delectable….
Alex gave a mental shrug. Hell, he knew why she hid. She was still the same, play-it-safe Holly Stanton: afraid to put so much as a perfectly manicured toe on the wild side.
"Hello, Holly," he said. "Long time no see."
She was looking him up and down now, one eyebrow lifted. "You've certainly changed since I saw you last," she said, her voice amused.
Just like old times. In less than a minute, she'd managed to piss him off.
"The Gap just isn't a look I ever expected to see on you," she added.
The kicker was, he'd put on these damn clothes with her in mind. Thinking that maybe she'd see a different side of him. His jaw tightened. So much for a fresh start. Like the seventeen-year-old kid he'd once been, he wanted nothing more than to wipe that superior look off her face.