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Rosalie pulled into one of the last remaining spots in the parking lot, got out of her car and checked her watch. "Three minutes," she grumbled. "I'll just make it if I run." She still had no idea why the high school principal had called this emergency meeting. His secretary had said he wanted as many of his faculty members who were in town to attend, so Rosalie had missed a lasagna dinner with her mother and her son to be here.
"Hey, Rosalie, wait up."
Spotting her friend and fellow teacher coming across the pavement, Rosalie motioned for Shelby to hustle. "At least there's someone who's even later than I am," she said when Shelby had fallen into step beside her. "Do you know what this is about?"
"No clue," Shelby said. "But I'd rather be anywhere but here. The last thing I want to think about in July is school."
Rosalie held the door open to the three-story brick building and let Shelby go in ahead of her. "I hope Canfield's not expecting us to volunteer for landscaping duty this summer," she said. "I'm working more hours at Mom's produce stand, and I've increased my hours at the Brighter Day Center."
"Why's that? Have there been any deaths in town recently that I haven't heard about?"
"No, but grief is an ongoing thing. The more we volunteers can counsel grieving kids at the center, the faster they can get on with their lives."
Shelby frowned. "I wonder if being around all that sadness is really good for you, Rosalie."
"It's been sixteen years since my brother died, Shel."
"Okay, message received. Forget I said anything."
They approached the media center at the end of the school's main hallway. The doors were open. Rosalie caught the subtle aroma of old books, always a welcoming scent to English teachers or anyone who spent a good part of their childhood nestled in a corner of a library. Once they entered the room, the delicious mustiness would be combined with the even subtler smell of modern-day plastic coming from the bank of computers taking up an entire wall.
The media center was buzzing with activity. Apparently Principal Canfield's calling tree system had worked. Rosalie estimated that nearly three-quarters of the faculty were present along with dozens of booster parents and prominent citizens.
Dexter Canfield, dressed in tan pants and a golf shirt, stood behind the media director's desk chatting with a group of Whistler Creek's most influential citizens including Roland Benton, owner of the town's largest employer, Benton Farms. When Canfield pounded a gavel, the hundred or so attendees stared up at him. Rosalie and Shelby spoke quick greetings to fellow faculty members and took seats in the back.
In his most impressive baritone, the voice Canfield reserved for public address announcements and greetings at halftime sporting events, he thanked everyone for coming and assured the crowd they would not be disappointed. Wasting no time, he proclaimed that a stroke of unbelievable good fortune had befallen the town of Whistler Creek.
"We all regret the recent retirement of Bucky Lowell," he said. Heads nodded. The revered football coach had been an institution at Whistler Creek High for as long as Rosalie could remember. At the end of the last school year, on the advice of his doctor, the seventy-three-year-old Bucky had stowed away his whistle and closed his game book for the last time. Since then speculations had run wild about who the board would hire to replace him. The man had never had a losing season, a record no other Georgia high school coach had achieved.
"Well, hang on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen," Can-field said, "because Bucky's replacement is waiting to come into the room. He signed a contract yesterday, and I think you'll all agree that the Wildcats couldn't have made a better pick if we'd ordered his credentials from the Almighty."
Rosalie studied the expressions of those around her. Some faculty members chuckled. Others shook their heads in bewilderment. A few mumbled guesses about who could possibly fill the shoes of the great Bucky. And then the wait was over. Canfield went to the door of a storage room, opened it wide and in stepped one of Whistler Creek's native sons and former honored gridiron star. He was also the heir to Benton Farms, the area's largest agribusiness and supplier of produce to much of the U.S. Southeast.
When recognition dawned among the old-timers, enthusiastic applause broke out. And Rosalie couldn't seem to draw a breath. It couldn't be. It was. Bryce Benton, wearing a Texas Tech Athletic T-shirt and ball cap, strode to the desk and stood with his hands clasped in front of him waiting for Dexter Canfield to say something.
Rosalie hadn't spoken to Bryce in over fifteen years. She'd only spotted him in town a couple times since he'd left for college, and she'd always turned the other way. But looking at him now, exuding a casual confidence that came with pedigree, adulation and just the right amount of sun-weathered texture to his skin, she felt the years melt away. She swallowed. For all her efforts to move on with her life, she could have been seventeen again.
She'd never dreamed Bryce would give up his career at Texas Tech. But here he was. For some inexplicable reason, he'd apparently chosen to abandon his upward climb at the university to come home and coach at little old Whistler Creek High. Bryce was the onetime all-state wide receiver of the Whistler Creek Wildcats, the future agribusiness magnate and, most important, devastating to Rosalie on so many levels, he was her son Danny's biological father.
Shelby snickered. "What the hell is Canfield doing? Looks like he's bringing his prize stallion into the show ring for all to admire." She nudged Rosalie in her ribs. "And he definitely is a prize!"
Somehow Rosalie found her voice. "You don't know Bryce, do you?"
Shelby, who'd come to Whistler Creek only three years before, grinned. "Not yet. Is he single?"
"Divorced." Whistler Creek was a small town, and over the years the most important details of Bryce's life had filtered down to Rosalie. Not that she'd asked to hear them.
She stared at the tabletop in front of her. She couldn't look at him, couldn't stand to watch that ruggedly handsome face turn smug with the praise of a public that had obviously forgotten all the details of Bryce's background. Forgotten or forgiven.
Thinking back to when she was a gullible teenager, she felt a flush of shame heat her cheeks. She had once believed she was in love with Bryce Benton, the very same guy who'd just allowed himself to be paraded into the limelight of his expectant hometown crowd as if he were Dexter Canfield's gift to the people of Whistler Creek.
Some mistakes could never be lived down. And some just hurt forever.
Standing in front of people he'd never met before as well as old friends he hadn't seen in years, Bryce felt like a damn fool. Canfield had told him to wait in the wings until he'd made the announcement just so he could pique the interest of the crowd. Bryce had argued that such a plan was ridiculous, but in the end, he'd let Canfield have his way thinking maybe it was better that Dexter prepared the crowd for the return of a prodigal son. Bryce had only come home to Whistler Creek a couple dozen times in the last fifteen years. Now, with something like one hundred pairs of eyes drilling into him, he knew he'd been manipulated into being the featured sideshow event for Canfield's three-ring circus.
He shook his head, raised his hands palms up in an effort to stop the flow of excited chatter that filled the room. When he'd been offered the job to replace Bucky, he'd jumped at the chance. Coaching at Whistler Creek was what he wanted. His goal since college had always been to mentor and guide high school kids on the verge of manhood and possible greatness. Despite the tragedy that would always haunt him, coming home to the town and school that had nurtured him through the years had been the fulfillment of a dream. Now he felt like a trick pony waiting to be led through his paces.
Beaming at Bryce, Canfield said, "I coaxed him away from Texas Tech, and I wanted all of you to share in this victory for the Whistler Creek High Athletic Department."
Coaxed him away, Bryce thought. He'd taken a ten thousand a year pay cut to be here, and still signed on the bottom line without a moment's hesitation. Most people would say he should have his head examined.
But Bryce gambled on possibilities. And the options for changing lives at the head coaching level at Whistler Creek far surpassed those as the assistant offensive coach at Texas Tech. And then there was his dad, who was sitting here tonight. His health had suffered a blow. He needed his son, wanted him to come home.
He looked into his dad's eyes now, saw the pride there and took a deep breath. "Folks, you all have a seat. This isn't so much a celebration as a chance to get acquainted. Or reac-quainted as is the case with many of you."
"Are you kidding, Bryce," the president of the Georgia State Bank shouted from the side of the room. "This could be the best football season we've ever had."
Bryce tried to smile and slanted a glance at Bucky Lowell who sat nearby. "I don't know about that," Bryce said, gesturing at Bucky. "Coach Lowell here has left me some pretty big shoes to fill, so let's not get ahead of ourselves. We've all got a lot of work to do. The players, the coaching staff, most of all, me. I think we should save the celebrating until we get a few wins under our belts."
Dexter Canfield continued to grin like the top salesman on a used car lot. "Now you see why I called you here today. We appreciate everything Bucky has done for this program, but today is the beginning of a new era for Whistler Creek athletics. We need to start now, preparing our boys, getting behind our new coach, redoubling our efforts as Wildcat parents and supporters."
"I appreciate all the enthusiasm tonight and in the future," Bryce said. "But let's remember that the ones who need our support most are the young men who'll soon sweat their guts out on the field once practice starts." He paused before adding, "Football in Whistler Creek always has been, and will continue to be, a community effort. Thanks for coming today and for giving me this welcome. But as far as I'm concerned, you can all go on home now, knowing that my office in the athletic building is always open."
He remembered the furor surrounding games in the past and doubted Bucky had kept that same open-door policy for his many years at Whistler. Bryce hoped he wouldn't regret making that statement.
As the meeting wound down, he endured countless handshakes and pats on the back before the last of his well-wishers left the media center. Then he said goodbye to Canfield and walked with his father to the school parking lot. When they stepped into the humid July air of a South Georgia evening, Bryce took his dad's elbow and held him back. "Let's wait until everyone is in their cars," he said.
Roland Benton smiled. "A little uncomfortable with all this excitement, are you, son?"
"Yeah. I didn't anticipate this kind of welcome. I've been gone a long time."
"True, but you've always wanted to come back."
Bryce waved to a man who put down his car window and gave him a thumbs-up sign. "I didn't think it would be like this. You know how it is, Dad. When expectations run too high, everyone can end up disappointed and disillusioned."
"Just do your job, Bryce," Roland said. "No one can ask more. And no one should expect more than your best effort." He smiled. "That's all you'll ask of the players, right?"
"True enough." Seeing the parking lot emptying out, Bryce stepped onto the pavement. He saw two women chatting between cars about a hundred feet down the lot. He stared for a moment before a familiar pang pierced his heart. Could it be? He recognized the lush curls of black hair that fell to one woman's shoulders. "Dad, isn't that Rosalie Campano?" Roland squinted. "Sure is."
"Is her mother still running her produce stand on Fox
"Yes, indeed. Claudia is one of our best local customers. Rosalie still lives with her. You know Rosalie teaches at the high school now?"
"Yeah. Mom told me that a few years back. I should have known she'd be here when I heard Canfield had called the faculty out for this show." Bryce had thought a lot about Rosalie over the years. She'd been an important part of his life at one timeuntil the day he'd brought so much grief into hers.