They were the golden boys of fall: Stewart Mills High School’s legendary championship football team. Fourteen years later, they’re back to relive their glory, save the team—and find themselves again…
Globetrotting photographer Alex Murphy returns to Stewart Mills for a football fundraiser, but stays to document the football team and the town’s changes. Since his project includes photos of the Walker farm, he rents a room there.
Needing money to save the family farm, Gretchen Walker doesn’t have time to deal with the sexy photographer in her house. After all, Alex is a man with no sense of home, and to her, home is everything. But when she finds herself falling for him, she’ll be forced to decide where her dreams really lie…
About the Author
Shannon Stacey is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of contemporary romance and romantic suspense, including the Boys of Fall novels (Under the Lights), the Kowalski Family novels (Falling for Max, Taken with You, Love a Little Sideways) and the Devlin Group novels (No Place to Hide, 72 Hours, On the Edge). She lives with her husband and two sons in New England, where her two favorite activities are four-wheeling in the mud and writing stories of happily ever after.
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Special Excerpt from Homecoming
Dodging bullets had a way of making a man realize he wasn’t young anymore. Dodging them for no good reason made the realization a lot harder to shove to the back of his mind.
Alex Murphy sat on the thin mattress in his shitty motel room and looked at the photo on his phone’s screen again. It wasn’t one of the many he’d taken during his week in the volatile region, using instincts and years of experience to capture on film a population on the brink of revolution. It was one some random passerby had taken with his cell phone and it had gone viral. It was the photo the world would remember.
Alex would still sell his pictures. They told the story in a way one viral camera shot couldn’t. But times and technology were constantly changing, and sometimes he felt like a dinosaur. Photojournalismasaurus.
Burnout. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, even to himself, a decade of freelancing and travel—only to be scooped by a teenager with a cell phone and an Instagram account—had taken its toll, and it might be time to take a break. The idea of going back to Rhode Island didn’t appeal to him, though. The apartment in Providence was a place to keep his stuff, but it had never felt like a home.
Using his thumb, Alex navigated to a recent photo album he’d set up on his phone, titled Stewart Mills, NH. After almost a decade and a half away, he’d recently spent about ten days there and, when it was time to leave, he’d found himself wishing he could stay a little longer.
He flicked through the photos, pausing over each one. Not with a technical eye, but to gauge his emotional response. Old friends laughing. People he’d known most of his life, but who were practically strangers. A town that had once been his entire world. And Coach McDonnell, who had taken the ragtag group of boys making up the Stewart Mills Eagles football team and made them men.
Alex had been on the first Stewart Mills Eagles football team to win the championship back in the day and, when the town cut the football team’s funding, he’d been one of the alumni players who returned to help out with a fund-raising drive to save it. He’d gone out of love for Coach McDonnell, but rediscovering his hometown had also reminded him of how nice it could be to have roots. He hadn’t felt grounded to any one place in a very long time.
He wanted to go back.
The plan was taking shape in his mind even as he closed out the photo app and pulled up his contacts. Calculating time zones was second nature to him at this point, so he knew it was safe to call Kelly McDonnell, the coach’s daughter and a police officer for the town. She’d given him her cell number when he was in town, and he tapped it.
She answered on the third ring. “Hey, Alex.”
“Are you busy right now?”
“Nope. I’m actually sitting in my cruiser, making sure everybody slows down and doesn’t hit the power company guys replacing a transformer. What’s up? Did you forget something?”
He laughed. “Nope. How are things in Stewart Mills?”
“Pretty good. Everybody’s still on a bit of a high from Eagles Fest, for which I can never thank you enough.”
“The Eagles are why I’m calling, actually,” he said. “I was looking through the photographs I took while I was there, and the story’s unfinished. I’m thinking about coming back for a while and following at least the opening of the team’s season.”
“Following them professionally, you mean? Like for a story?”
“If I can get releases from everybody, I’d like to do a story, yes. Or maybe even a book. There are a lot of towns going through what Stewart Mills has faced, and what you all did is pretty inspirational. And I’d like to broaden the angle, too. Make it about the entire town and not just the team, though that’s the core story, of course.”
“Wow.” There were a few seconds of silence while she digested what he’d said. “That sounds really great, as long as you respect privacy where it’s requested and recognize there are some things people wouldn’t want shared.”
He chuckled. “Don’t worry, Officer McDonnell. I won’t hurt anybody and I won’t share anything people don’t want shared.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem, then.”
“Perfect. I called you because I’m hoping, since you know the community in and out, that you could recommend a place to stay. I know the motel’s closed up, but maybe somebody is willing to rent an apartment or even a house on a month-to-month, short-term basis?”
“With so many people losing their homes, the rental market’s incredibly tight right now.” She sighed and he gave her a moment to think. “You know, Gretchen was talking to me about renting a room at the farm. She hasn’t because she’s nervous about having a stranger living with her grandmother, but renting to a friend can end badly when there’s money involved.”
“I’m not a stranger, but I’m not exactly a friend, either.” He remembered Gretchen Walker from school and he’d had a chance to talk to her a few times during Eagles Fest. She was an attractive woman, but she was definitely a closed book. “All I need is a place to sleep and it wouldn’t be long-term, so maybe I’m a good opportunity for a trial run.”
“That’s what I was thinking. The room has its own bathroom and you’d have access to the kitchen, not that her grandmother would let you go hungry. I’ll talk to Gretchen and have her get back to you. She’ll have to talk it over with Gram, too. Can she call you at this number?”
“The time zones will be a horror show for the next few days, so email’s the best bet.” When she said she was ready, he gave her his email address. “It sounds perfect on my end, so I’ll look forward to hearing from her.”
Once he hung up with Kelly, Alex flopped back on the mattress and stared up at the peeling ceiling. Maybe it was the professional version of a midlife crisis, but he needed a break, and Stewart Mills seemed like the perfect place to regroup and make a plan for his future.
Chronicling the current state of his hometown and the Eagles while rediscovering his roots would simply be a bonus.
“You have to stop trying to sit on Gram’s lap,” Gretchen Walker told the sixty-pound chocolate Lab looking up at her with adoring eyes. “You’re not good for the circulation in her legs.”
Cocoa tilted her head sideways and blinked before raising her paw for a high five. Gretchen sighed and gave her one. It seemed to be the only trick the newest member of the Walker family knew, so it was her answer to everything.
It had been the nurse at her grandmother’s doctor’s office who suggested a dog might be good company for Gram, since Gretchen had her hands full trying to work the farm, and Gram had immediately agreed. Gretchen had driven her to the shelter in the city, anticipating a fluffy little lapdog who would be content to curl up with Gram and watch her knit the days away.
Instead, Gram had fallen in love with a big Lab the color of rich hot chocolate, and Gretchen had to admit she felt an immediate connection with the dog, too. The entire household budget had to be recalculated to accommodate the beast’s food costs, but it was nice to get a high five every once in a while. And Cocoa seemed to love the sound of Gram’s voice, so everybody was happy.
“My rocking chair isn’t big enough for both of us,” Gram pointed out. “Maybe we should trade it for one of those leather love seats with the double recliner ends and the built-in cup holders.”
Sure they should. What furniture store wouldn’t want to trade a fancy leather love seat for a decades-old glider rocker with a cushion perfectly molded to Gram’s skinny behind? “We’ll see.”
“You sound just like your grandfather when you say that. We’ll see means we can’t afford it and you don’t want to flat out tell me no.”
Gretchen didn’t bother denying it. “For now, you need to train her to curl up next to your feet on the floor. She’s too heavy to be on your lap. It’s not good for you.”
“Go wash up,” Gram said without making any promises. “Breakfast is ready.”
With a sigh, Gretchen went to the sink and washed her hands. She’d already gathered eggs from the chickens and fed the three horses they boarded for a family that lived in the southern part of the state. She’d have to clean their stalls and work in the gardens later, but at the moment she was starving.
“Maybe we can afford a new love seat, since the Murphy boy’s going to be living here,” Gram said while Gretchen took a seat at the table and took a scalding swallow of the coffee waiting for her.
“I’m still not sure this is a good idea.” It had seemed like a great idea when Kelly brought it to her and through multiple emails with Alex over the last two weeks but, now that it was actually going to happen, she couldn’t help but have second thoughts.
Gram set a plate of biscuits and sausage gravy in front of her. “Wouldn’t be fair to change your mind at this point. He’ll be here in a few hours.”
“I know. It’ll be strange having a man in the house again, though.” It had been nine years since her grandfather passed away, and it had been only her and Gram since.
“At least he’ll have his own bathroom so we won’t have to worry about falling in the toilet in the middle of the night if he leaves the seat up.”
Yeah, Gretchen thought. He’d have his own bathroom. He’d have her bathroom, the one her grandfather had built into her room years before when he realized he was going to have a teenage girl hogging the only upstairs bathroom. And Alex would also have the bedroom she’d had since she was a little girl. But giving him his own space, except for the kitchen, made more sense than sharing a bathroom with him. Gretchen had never shared a bathroom with any man, and it seemed very intimate. Intimacy was definitely not what she was going for.
“I was thinking about making a ham tonight,” Gram continued. “And maybe my scalloped potatoes and creamed corn.”
Gretchen never turned down her grandmother’s creamed corn, but she didn’t like the way this was going, and the man hadn’t even arrived yet. “Alex isn’t going to be a guest. It’s a business arrangement.”
Gram sat across the table from her with her own bowl of biscuits and gravy. “He’s paying extra to eat meals with us. That’s what you said.”
“Normal meals. You don’t have to cook anything special for him.”
“I’ll worry about what I’m cooking. Did you finish getting his room ready?”
Gretchen nodded, shoving a forkful of gravy-soaked biscuit into her mouth. She’d moved all of her belongings into the room next to Gram’s, and everything from her bathroom into the one they’d be sharing. For Alex, they’d put on fresh bedding and placed brand-new towels and washcloths in the bathroom.
Between Cocoa and Alex Murphy, they’d shelled out a lot of cash recently. Gretchen rubbed at the back of her neck. The room and board he’d be paying would help, but things were still a little tighter than she’d like.
“You’re going to come in early, right?” Gram asked. “You should clean up before Alex gets here. Maybe take a shower. Put on a little lipstick.”
Gretchen stared across the table. “What are you talking about? I don’t even own lipstick, Gram.”
“You can borrow some of mine. Oh, Cherry Hot Pants would be a great shade on you with that dark hair of yours.”
“I am not putting Cherry Hot Pants on my lips.” Gretchen didn’t even know what else to say about that. “I’ll probably say hi and point him in the direction of his room, and then I’m going back to work.”
“You’re never going to find a husband.”
Gretchen pushed her chair back and carried her dishes to the sink. This wasn’t good. Not good at all. “I’m not putting on red lipstick. I’m not looking for a husband. Alex Murphy is going to be our tenant and nothing more. I mean it, Gram.”
The older woman smiled. “My great-grandmother ran a boardinghouse in London, and she took in an Irish boarder who fell head over heels for my grandmother. It was very romantic.”
“I don’t have time for romance,” Gretchen said, shoving her feet into the barn boots she’d taken off at the back door. “I’ve got horseshit to shovel.”
Alex hit the brake pedal hard, and the used Jeep Cherokee he’d owned for three days skidded to a stop. The Jeep’s nose was about three feet past the stop sign.
Now that he wasn’t an honored fund-raiser guest and therefore exempt from minor traffic mistakes, he glanced around to make sure he wasn’t about to be busted by any of Stewart Mills’ finest.
Several stop signs had been added between the time Alex and the others had graduated and gone off to college and their return for Eagles Fest, and those weren’t the only changes. The recession had hit hard, the mills had closed, and things had gotten really hard for the people of Stewart Mills. As he drove through town, he noticed again the number of empty storefronts and real estate signs. There seemed to be fewer foreclosure auction signs, though, which was hopefully a sign the worst was behind them.
He found the turnoff to the Walker farm by memory and drove slowly up the long and bumpy dirt driveway. The big white farmhouse needed a little TLC, but it was a long way from being run-down. He knew from his last visit to town that Gretchen had been running the place alone since her grandfather died, and that her grandmother had had some health issues. Nothing serious, but basically it was a one-woman show, so he’d been expecting it to be a little more rough.
He got out of the Jeep and was greeted by a chocolate Lab who immediately made it clear they were going to be the very best of friends. Behind the dog was Gretchen Walker, though her greeting was a little more reserved.
“Welcome back,” she said, giving him a tight smile.
“Thanks. I’m looking forward to spending some time here.”
She nodded, folding her arms across her chest. Gretchen was tall and lean, with long dark hair in a thick braid down her back. Old jeans tucked into even older barn boots hugged her legs, and she’d thrown a faded flannel shirt over a T-shirt.
Strong. As the dog sat at her feet, Alex composed a mental snapshot of her, and that was the word that popped into his head. Not only did she have physical strength, but she also had an air of resolve and determination about her. He had no doubt when something—anything—needed doing, Gretchen would quietly step up and get it done.
“Pretty dog,” he said, remembering she wasn’t the chatty type and it might be up to him to carry conversations.
“Thanks. Her name’s Cocoa.”
Alex smiled. “I can’t imagine why.”
“Yeah, it’s not the most original name for a chocolate Lab, but she came with it and she seems to like it. Right, Cocoa?” The dog put up her paw and he watched Gretchen give her a high five. “She also likes high fives. A lot. She knows the basics, like sit or down. Stay is a little iffy. She has no idea what get off the couch or no dogs on the bed means, but if you’re looking for somebody to celebrate with a high five, Cocoa’s your girl.”
“Who doesn’t love a high five, right?” he asked the dog, who trotted back to him so they could slap palm to paw.
“Do you need help carrying things in?”
He shook his head. “I don’t have much. I figured I’d say hello first and meet your grandmother. I’m sure we’ve met before, but it’s been a long time.”
“She’s waiting inside.”
Alex followed her around the house to the back door, which opened into the kitchen. He hadn’t been away from New England so long that he’d forgotten that front doors were for company and political door knockers. After she’d kicked off her boots, she led him into the living room, where her grandmother was sitting in an old glider rocker. She set her knitting aside just in time for the big Lab to hop up in her lap. It took Cocoa a few seconds to wedge herself into a comfortable position, and he heard Gretchen sigh before she reintroduced them to each other.
“Sit for a few minutes,” her grandmother said. “Let’s chat.”
He perched on the edge of the sofa. “Thank you for letting me rent a room in your home, Mrs. Walker.”
“Call me Ida. Or Gram. Do you like scalloped potatoes?”
“Um.” He tried to keep up. “Yes, ma’am. Ida. Gram. Yes, I like scalloped potatoes.”
“I’m going back to work,” Gretchen said. “Let me know if you need anything.”
“You’ll need to write the Internet password down for him,” Ida told her before looking back to him. “Speaking of the Internet, you don’t have any weird proclivities, do you?”
“Gram!” Gretchen stopped walking and turned back, holding her hands up in a what are you doing? gesture.
“If he’s going to live under the same roof as my granddaughter, I have a right to know.”
“No, you don’t,” Gretchen said in a low voice.
“I guess I’d wonder what your definition of weird is,” Alex said at the same time.
“Don’t answer that, Gram.”
Because they were technically his new landlords, the question could be totally illegal as far as he knew. But he wasn’t particularly outraged by the turn in the conversation. “I’ve never received any complaints about weirdness with regard to my proclivities.”
“Good.” Ida gave him an approving look. “You can never be too careful.”
“That’s so true.” He turned his gaze back to her granddaughter. “So tell me, Gretchen, do you have any weird proclivities?”
“I am not discussing my proclivities with you.”
“If I’m going to live under the same roof with you, don’t I have a right to know?”
She shook her head, but he could see her struggling not to smile. “You have a right to know the dishwasher hasn’t worked for almost a year and a half and where the extra toilet paper’s kept. My proclivities, weird or not, are off-limits.”
If not for the fact that her grandmother was watching them, Alex might have been tempted to poke at her a little more and try to get a reaction. He’d seen her during Eagles Fest, mostly from a distance, and he knew she had an infectious, musical laugh that seemed at odds with her stern exterior. When she was with Kelly McDonnell and their friend Jen Cooper, the high school guidance counselor, Gretchen had no problem letting her sense of humor show through. He could see glimpses of it now, and he wanted to draw it out.
But she escaped into the kitchen before he could say more, and a minute later he heard the kitchen door close with a thump. Alex turned his attention back to Ida, who was rubbing between a sleeping Cocoa’s ears.
He would be in Stewart Mills for a while, so he had plenty of time to get under Gretchen Walker’s skin and make her laugh.
Gretchen went to the detached garage because it was the closest thing she had to whatever the female equivalent of a man cave was. It had actually served as a man cave when her grandfather was alive, though it grew to be a lot more when his eleven-year-old granddaughter had become his constant shadow.
She usually raised the overhead door to let a little of the outside come in, but the rollers needed some maintenance and it was starting to stick three-quarters of the way up. Rather than wrestle with it, she went through the side door and flipped on the overhead light.
Breathing in the scent of old wood and grease, she perched on the tall wooden stool in front of the workbench. The carburetor from the old pain-in-the-ass lawn mower sat on an oil-soaked bed of cardboard, waiting to be rebuilt, but she didn’t pick it up. She just looked around at the tools hanging from pegboard lining the walls, and the boxes and bins of garage debris her grandfather had accumulated over his lifetime on the Walker farm.
This was where she’d learned everything that mattered in her life. She’d learned the concepts of family and home. Stability and routine. Gramps had taught her to face problems head-on and that the only way to get things done was to suck it up and do them. And he’d taught her that, with determination and a little elbow grease, anything that was broken could be fixed.
He hadn’t been the kind of man who showed emotion. Love and kissing boo-boos and wiping her very rare tears had come from Gram, but Gretchen had felt how much Gramps loved her. It showed in the hours he’d spent teaching her how to use a grinding wheel and tend to a cow with mastitis and prepare Gram’s gardens for planting. With a steady hand and pride in his eyes, he’d quietly raised Gretchen to love the farm and be as capable a caretaker of it as he was.
And that’s why she’d do whatever she had to for the Walker farm, including letting a man she barely knew live in the house. An insanely attractive man with short dark hair, who smelled good and looked at her with light brown eyes warm with intelligence and humor.
Gretchen pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. She thought about texting Kelly or Jen, but she had an old flip-style phone and having to push the number keys multiple times just to make one word was frustrating. Instead she flipped it open and hit Jen’s assigned speed-dial number.
Jen Cooper was the guidance counselor at the high school and, though school wouldn’t start for a few more weeks, Gretchen knew she’d be in her office. Kelly, being on the police force, had a more erratic schedule and was less likely to be available this time of day.
Jen answered on the third ring. “Hey, Gretchen. What’s up?”
“Nope. I’m eating a yogurt, wondering how the pile of crap on my desk is so tall when the kids aren’t even here yet.”
“Did Kelly tell you Alex Murphy was coming today?”
“Oh, that’s right! How’s that going?”
“Right off the bat, Gram asked him if he has any weird proclivities.”
There were a few seconds when it sounded like Jen might be choking on her yogurt. “That sounds like Gram. It probably would have been better to ask him that before he moved in, though.”
“It didn’t come up in our emails.”
Jen’s annoyed sigh made her sigh. “Does he have any weird proclivities?”
“Do you really think he would have told Gram if he did?”
Gretchen laughed. “He didn’t say he didn’t have any, actually. Just that he hasn’t received any complaints.”
“Really? And it’s only the first day. This could be interesting.”
“I didn’t call you to talk about Alex’s proclivities, weird or not.”
“Then you shouldn’t have opened with them.”
“I was opening with Gram’s outrageousness. You’re not going to believe what she suggested I do before he got here.”
“Let me guess,” Jen said. “You should do up your hair and maybe put on a little lip gloss.”
“Lip gloss? She wanted me to slap on her Cherry Hot Pants lipstick.”
“That’s . . . disturbing. The name of that shade, I mean.”
“That’s more disturbing than her trying to hook me up with our new . . . I guess tenant isn’t the right word. Boarder? That sounds old-fashioned.”
Jen chuckled. “Right now picturing Gram in Cherry Hot Pants red is more disturbing than almost anything.”
She should have called Kelly instead. “I can’t even remember the last time I saw her in makeup. If the stuff has an expiration date, it was probably in the nineties.”
“Okay, in all seriousness, you need to shut Gram down right away,” Jen said. “It’ll be hard enough having a man you barely know living in your house. Your grandmother trying to play matchmaker will make things awkward for everybody. Especially if she’s opening with fetish questions. How the hell did that come up in conversation, anyway?”
“She reminded me to give him the Wi-Fi password,” Gretchen told her. “Which apparently reminded her that she was concerned about what he might look at on the Internet.”
“Hopefully taking pictures and working on his story—or book or whatever it is—will keep him out of the house for most of the hours Gram’s awake. Since she doesn’t have Facebook, her ability to do damage is limited to face-to-face time.” Jen paused. “She doesn’t have Facebook, right?”
“Not as far as I know. None of her friends do, so I’ve managed to convince her it’s nothing she’d want, but a friend of a friend got an account to see pictures of her grandkid, so it’s probably only a matter of time.”
“Luckily you’re her only shot for grandkids, and you live in the same house, so she doesn’t need social media for that.”
“Yeah.” Luckily was one word for it. Challenging was perhaps a better one. Finding a guy who loved her enough to want to move into an old farmhouse with her and her grandmother wasn’t easy. Especially since she rarely strayed far from the farm.
“We should get together soon,” Jen said. “I don’t think the three of us have had a chance to sit down and relax since Eagles Fest.”
That sounded like a great idea to Gretchen. And she’d probably be ready to get out of the house—and away from the weirdness of a man living with them—before too long. “If you see Kelly, try to set up a day for lunch or something.”
“I’ll let you know. In the meantime, try to peek over Alex’s shoulder now and then when he’s on the Internet. We need better gossip in this town.”
After she ended the call, Gretchen got off the stool and grabbed the key to the ancient ATV off the hook over the bench. It was time to head out and check the field she’d given over to pumpkins a few years back, and the four-wheeler would be faster than the tractor.
As the number of businesses who wanted to buy Walker pumpkins to resell to their customers had grown, so had the amount of land Gretchen allotted to the planting, and now it was substantial. Checking for powdery mildew and pests would keep her busy until it was time for afternoon chores and dinner.
Busy was good. The busier she was, the less time she had to think about Alex Murphy.
Alex set the last of his bags on the worn hardwood floor and used his foot to close the door behind him. So this bedroom would be his world for the near future. He’d stayed in worse. Much worse.
The furnishings were definitely more about function than décor, which he didn’t mind at all. The full-sized mattress was firm and framed by a brass rail headboard and footboard, and there was a nightstand with a lamp next to it. A solid maple dresser stood next to the open closet, and there was a comfortable-looking armchair next to the window.
During their email exchanges prior to his arrival, Gretchen had asked if he needed a desk or anything else for working, but he’d told her not to bother. He didn’t want to put her out, plus he’d trained himself years before not to tie his process to any particular work conditions. Sometimes he was in a hotel room with a desk and sometimes he was in a nylon tent with a laptop balanced on his knees. He could work under almost any conditions and this bedroom, plain and old-fashioned as it may be, was certainly no hardship.
Unpacking took him about twenty minutes, and he plugged his laptop in to charge. Later he’d start closely reviewing the photos he’d taken during Eagles Fest and decide which he’d like to include in his new work. Then he’d have to see about obtaining permission from the subjects to use them in a commercial project.
He also needed to get in touch with Coach McDonnell about Saturday. Tryouts for the football team would start at nine and he wanted to be there to capture the emotion of the morning. When the citizens reluctantly voted to cut the budget for the team at the town meeting in the spring, it was a hard blow to the boys. Playing football kept some out of trouble and gave others a reason to keep their grades up, especially when things were hard at home due to the economic downturn.
Things had looked bleak until Kelly McDonnell, Jen Cooper and Gretchen Walker got together and made the Eagles Fest fund-raiser happen. With the help of some grants and donations, they’d announced in July that Eagles football had been saved, and Alex knew their return to the field on Saturday would be even more exciting than usual. He intended to be there with his camera, with Coach’s permission.
Alex walked to the window to check out the view. His room was at the back of the house and looked out toward the barn. He could barely make out a garage to the left and a rutted dirt road that passed between the two buildings and disappeared through a break in a line of trees. He assumed it led to fields, though he wasn’t sure.
The view was considerably improved when Gretchen stepped out of the garage’s side door and headed for the barn. She had a long stride and he admired the way she looked so natural and confident in her environment.
His hand itched for his camera, but he didn’t give in to the urge to pull it out of his bag. It was bad enough he was watching her from the window. Taking photographs would cross a personal line of ethics that was sometimes blurry and a moving target, but was always there.
He allowed himself to watch her for a few more seconds, admiring the way the sun lit up the highlights in her hair. In normal lighting, it was solidly dark, though not black. But when the sun hit the thick braid just right, subtle red undertones shone through and drew his eye. He wanted to unravel her braid and run his fingers through the strands just to watch the light play with the colors.
Gretchen disappeared on the far side of the barn and then, a few moments later, emerged again on a four-wheeler that had seen better days. Sitting on the machine, with her long legs drawn up so her feet rested on the running boards, pulled the worn denim of her jeans across her thighs in a way that drew his eye in a way that was far more personal than professional.
Before he stared long enough to tip over into creeper territory, Alex turned away from the window and went downstairs. With all the travel he’d done—which included staying in bed-and-breakfasts or sometimes with host families—he didn’t have a lot of trouble making himself feel at home wherever he was. But for people like Ida and Gretchen, who weren’t accustomed to having a boarder, it could feel awkward. The less time he spent holed up in his room, the faster they’d come to feel comfortable around him.
Gretchen’s grandmother was at the computer when he walked into the living room. It was an older model perched on a big corner desk, and Ida was writing in a notebook in front of the monitor.
When he stepped on a floorboard that squeaked under his weight, she turned and gave him a smile. “How’s your room?”
“It’s perfect. And that’s a beautiful quilt on the bed. Did you make it?”
“As tempting as it is to lie and take the credit, I never had the patience for quilting. All those tiny stitches. I enjoy knitting, though. Did you get on the Internet okay?”
“Good. Every month when she pays the bill, Gretchen makes that same growly frustrated noise my husband made when he thought something was frivolous, but I need good Internet for my business.”
Alex moved a couple of magazines out of the armchair near the desk so he could sit in it. If he sat on the couch, she wouldn’t be able to resume what she was doing while still continuing their conversation unless she turned her back to him. “Do you mind if I ask what your business is?”
“I knit matching sweaters, hats and mittens for little girls and those fancy dolls from the different time periods in history. Jen—you know Jen Cooper, right? She helped set me up a little shop on a website that lets you sell handmade stuff. People tell me what size the child wears and her favorite color, and I knit a set for her and a matching one for the doll. I don’t make a lot of money, but I’d be knitting anyway and this way I feel useful in my own little way.”
Alex smiled, making a mental note to photograph Ida knitting and posing with her creations. Her business would fit right into a story about weathering rough times. “I’m sure Gretchen would say you’re useful in countless ways.”
“She’s a good girl. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”
He suspected, in this case, it wasn’t simply a common platitude. While he hadn’t seen a lot of the farm, he’d seen enough to know it would be a lot for Ida to have taken care of on her own after her husband passed away. Even without an expectation of the property providing a sustainable income for her, it would have been too much.
“I happened to glance out the window on my way down and saw her on a four-wheeler,” he said. “She works all day out there?”
Ida nodded. “She’s probably on her way to check on the pumpkins.”
“If you go shopping this fall and the stores are selling pumpkins, there’s a good chance Gretchen grew them. She’s always looking for ways to make the land earn money, and the pumpkins were even more successful than she’d hoped.”
Alex couldn’t miss the pride in her voice. “I can’t wait to see them.”
He’d been looking forward to delving into the emotional story of a town overcoming financial adversity, so it looked like he’d picked the right place to stay. Gretchen and her grandmother were perfect examples of Yankee resilience and ingenuity. The fact that he wouldn’t mind getting to know Gretchen a little better was just icing on the cake.
Gretchen wasn’t surprised to see ham, scalloped potatoes and creamed corn on the table when she walked into the kitchen. Once Gram set her mind on a meal, she was rarely swayed. Earlier in the day Gretchen had been concerned her grandmother would get carried away making “company” meals for Alex, but right now she was starving and it smelled delicious and she didn’t care.
Their new housemate came in from the living room as Gretchen was toeing off her boots, and he gave her a friendly smile. She returned it, feeling slightly awkward. She wasn’t emotionally demonstrative to begin with and had what Jen and Kelly called resting bitch face, so randomly smiling at people wasn’t really her thing.
“Sit down and dig in, Alex,” Gram said from the stove. “We don’t stand on ceremony around here.”
Gretchen watched as he gave her grandmother what the older woman would call a cheeky smile and shook his head. “I can wait for the ladies to sit.”
“I knew you were raised right.” Gram gave him an approving nod. “I knew your parents, of course, before they moved away. Well, your stepfather, though I knew your dad, too.”
Gretchen rolled up her sleeves and turned the faucet on to wash her hands. “You know everybody, Gram.”
“Most everybody, I guess.”
Once they were seated and served, Alex scooped some scalloped potato and ham onto his fork and took a bite. His eyes widened in appreciation, but he swallowed and wiped his lips before speaking. “This is delicious, Ida.”
Gram beamed. “Thank you. It’s one of my specialties.”
“I hope you didn’t go to any extra trouble for me.”
“Not at all. You’ll find farmer’s wives—or grandmothers, as the case may be—like putting hearty meals on the table.”
Gretchen was tempted to point out Gram hadn’t made scalloped potatoes in months, even though it was one of her favorite dishes, but she shoved food in her mouth and chewed instead. She took after her grandfather in most ways, and that included treating meals as times to eat, not chitchat. But she didn’t mind listening to Gram and Alex make small talk about the cuisine in various places where he’d traveled.
Gretchen had never heard of half the places, but it sounded like he led a pretty exciting life. She wasn’t sure why he’d want to take pictures of the Eagles practicing when he’d documented protests outside the Sudanese embassy for a big magazine, but it wasn’t really her business as long as he paid his rent.
“What made you come back to Stewart Mills?” Gram asked, clearly not too worried about what was and what wasn’t their business.
“I was a little burned out from the travel,” Alex said. Gretchen looked up from her plate in time to see him give a casual shrug, despite the fact that his expression was slightly more introspective. “When I was here for Eagles Fest, I really felt like I was connecting again. With . . . I don’t know. With people. With my hometown. I have an apartment in Providence, but it’s mostly a place to keep my stuff and sleep once in a while. I was on an assignment and I was tired, and it seemed like a great idea to come back and try to recapture how I felt during the fund-raiser.”
“And you think doing a story about the town will make you some money while you’re here?” Gram asked.
“I hope so. It’s not just about the money, though. I was looking through the Eagles Fest photos before I made the decision to come back, and the emotion in them spoke to me. The story seemed unfinished, so I’m here to finish it.”
Gretchen stopped herself from snorting at It’s not just about the money and scraped up the last of the scalloped potatoes on her plate. In her experience, people who said that had money to burn, and disposable income certainly wasn’t something she’d ever experienced.
She really hoped her grandmother wouldn’t take that as an opening to ask nosy questions about his finances. Not directly, of course, but in that friendly and curious way small-town folks had when it came to interrogating people.
But Gram was distracted by Alex’s almost empty plate. “There’s plenty enough for seconds, Alex. Just help yourself.”
He made a show of patting his very flat stomach. “One’s plenty, Ida. I don’t want to have to buy new pants while I’m here.”
Gretchen didn’t think he was in any danger of an expanding waistline anytime soon. He was tall and a big guy in general, but very fit. Of course, she wasn’t the one currently running her palm over his abdomen, but from where she was sitting, it all looked good. Really, really good.
Gram made a clucking sound with her tongue. “You need a wife to fix you good home-cooked meals.”
Alex froze just as his lips closed over his fork, and Gretchen might have laughed at his expression if she wasn’t expending all of her energy to keep herself from kicking her grandmother under the table. As soon as she got a minute alone with Gram, they were going to have to have a talk about boundaries.
After taking his time chewing and swallowing his food, Alex just plastered a polite smile on his face. “Maybe someday I’ll try marriage again, but not anytime soon.”
Gretchen almost groaned aloud. If he didn’t want to share his whole life story over meals, he’d have to learn not to open the door like that.
“You’ve been married before?” Gram asked, and this time Gretchen did kick her under the table, though gently. It was more of a nudge, really.
“I was, but my traveling turned out to be more of an issue than we thought it would, and eventually we just went our separate ways.”
“Ah.” Gram nodded. “Sounds very amicable.”
Excerpted from "Defending Hearts"
Copyright © 2015 Shannon Stacey.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
“I love Shannon Stacey’s voice.”—New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh
Praise for Under the Lights:
“Great story! Shannon Stacey always takes readers on a compelling journey to happiness by writing the kind of characters you want to be best friends with and the types of places you want to call home. With humor, emotion, and captivating characters, Under the Lights will make you believe in love, second chances, and happily ever after. Take the journey to love with Shannon Stacey and enjoy the ride—you won’t be disappointed.”—Jaci Burton, New York Times Bestselling Author
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Love everything Shannon writes. Her heros are lovable and her heroines are someone I would want as a friends. Loved Alex and Gretchen's story. Can't wait for the next book in the series.
Love this series already. Book 2. Love her writing
Defending Hearts is the second installment in Shannon Stacey's contemporary romance series titled Boys of Fall. I am a huge fan of Ms. Stacey's Kowalski Family series and could read those books back-to-back all day long. In comparison, the Boys of Fall series didn't start off to a promising start for me personally but this second installment felt much more reminiscent of Ms. Stacey's writing that I've come to love. I am happy to keep gobbling up this series along with anything else she chooses to write. If you haven't checked out Shannon Stacey yet, I highly recommend her for fans of adult contemporary romance! Enjoy :) My favorite quote: "Gretchen, you need to let a guy open your pickle jar once in awhile." "Is that what the kids are calling it these days? Because trust me, I wouldn't mind a guy opening my pickle jar once in a while." "There's an electric can opener joke in there somewhere."
Defending Hearts by Shannon Stacey is the 2nd book in her Boys of Fall series. The first book in this series was about finding ways to make enough money to keep the town high school football team playing, Chase and Kelly falling in love. Defending Hearts picks up a short time later, when Alex Murphy, one of the football players that had returned as a favor to help with the fundraiser, decides to return to Stewart Mills. Alex is a photographer, and after being in Stewart Mills, he feels something is missing and comes back to do a special on how the team, the town and it’s legendary coach are doing. Gretchen Walker lives on the family farm with her grandmother, and because she needs money to keep the farm going, she agrees to let Alex rent a room in her house. Gretchen is best friends with Kelly, and Jen, and now we know it’s her story to find her love. Only Gretchen knows Alex is only here temporary, gathering his material before he leaves again. She does not want to trust her heart to someone who will never stay. With her grandmother’s constant scheming to push Alex and Gretchen together, their best laid plans to keep their distance falls apart. Both Alex and Gretchen decide that in the time he stays, they will enjoy the benefits. What follows is a sweet romance that takes place mostly on the farm, where Gretchen is a hard worker, keeping the farm afloat. Alex finds himself content on the farm, helping Gretchen when she lets him, and the wonderful food that the grandmother makes. It was fun watching them fall in love, as well as seeing them sneak up on the hayloft to get some private time. Another cute thing about this story is Coca, the lab, who loves to high five everyone. I really enjoyed how he expressed his love for Gretchen, Grandma and Alex. Cute. This was a wonderful light romantic read that was also fun. Shannon Stacey does a great job continuing this story of three friends in a small town, who start a fundraiser to save the school football team, and end up falling in love. I can’t wait for the next book, when it will be Jen’s turn. I suggest you read this series, and start with Under the Lights.