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Settled at her usual table near the kitchen of her mom's restaurant, Annie Sullivan ate the last of her omelet and opened the local paper to the sports section. Even though she and major league pitcher Tyler Townsend, a hometown boy, had been apart for a long time now, it was a habit she hadn't been able to break. She kept hoping that one day she'd see his name in print and it wouldn't hurt. So far, though, that hadn't happened.
Today, with the baseball season barely started in mid-April, she was expecting nothing more than a small jolt to her system from the local weekly. Instead, her jaw dropped at the headline at the top of the page: Star Braves Pitcher Ty Townsend on Injured Reserve. The article went on to report that after pitching just three games, the baseball sensation from Serenity would be out indefinitely following surgery two weeks ago for a potentially career-ending injury to his shoulder. He'd be doing rehab, possibly for months, and he'd be doing it right here in town. He was, in fact, already here.
Clutching the paper in a white-knuckled grip, Annie had to draw in several deep breaths before she could stand. Shouting for her mother, she headed straight for the restaurant kitchen, only to be intercepted by sous-chef Erik Whitney.
Regarding her with concern, Erik steadied her when she would have dashed right past him. "Hey, sweetheart, where's the fire?" he asked.
"I need to see my mother," she said, trying to wrench free of his grasp.
"She's in her office. What's wrong, Annie? You look as if you've seen a ghost."
Though she'd poured out her heart to Erik as a teenager, right this second she was incapable of speech. Instead, Annie simply handed him the paper.
Erik took one look at the headline and muttered a curse. "I knew this was going to happen," he said.
Annie stared at him, her sense of betrayal deepening. "You knew about this? You knew Ty was back in town?"
Erik nodded. "Since the day before yesterday."
He nodded again.
Now it was Annie who uttered a curse, made a U-turn and headed back to the table to grab her purse. What had everyone been thinking, conspiring to keep something this huge from her? Especially her mom, who knew better than anyone the damage secrets, lies and betrayal could do.
Erik stuck with her. "Come on, Annie, don't blame your mother for this. Go to her office. Talk to her," he urged as she stormed past him through the kitchen. "She was just trying to protect you."
At the door, she turned and asked angrily, "So I could be blindsided, instead? Ty had surgery two weeks ago, Erik! He's been in town how long—a couple of days? A week? It's not as if this happened yesterday."
"I'm sure Dana Sue thought it wouldn't make the paper here before she had a chance to tell you."
"Forget the stupid newspaper. We're talking about Serenity in an age of cell phones and the Internet," Annie said incredulously. "Gossip spreads in minutes, and around here Ty's big news. Heck, even you knew, and you're not tapped into the grapevine. You all knew before one word of this hit the paper."
"Helen's tapped in and I'm married to her, to say nothing of working for your mom. Not much gets past the Sweet Magnolias. And in this case, they all knew what was going on the instant Maddie found out Ty had to have surgery."
"Which begs the question," Annie said bitterly. "Why didn't anyone think I had a right to know?" A thought suddenly struck her. "That's where Maddie went a couple of weeks ago, isn't it? She went to be with Ty when he had his surgery."
Erik nodded. "Look, it's not about you deserving to know," he said reasonably. "You've been pretty touchy about anything to do with Ty for quite a while now. Nobody's known quite how to handle it."
Okay, that was fair. In fact, Annie totally understood the dilemma. She and Ty had been together on a casual basis during her senior year in high school and for a couple of years after that. Since their mothers, Dana Sue and Maddie, were best friends, she and Ty had been friends forever, as well. The ties binding them had been tight on many levels.
And then it had all unraveled. Annie supposed the breakup had been as inevitable as the fact that they'd fallen in love in the first place. After all, a superstar professional athlete had beautiful women falling at his feet in every city. How was Annie, the quiet hometown girl struggling every day to beat an eating disorder, supposed to compete with that, especially when she was still in college?
The official disintegration of their relationship had dragged out over an entire year, partly because neither of them had known how to dash all those parental expectations that they'd marry and live happily ever after.
For months they'd seen the handwriting on the wall, but they'd both been in denial. When tensions had been running especially high, they'd tried to avoid coming back to Serenity at the same time. On the rare occasions when family get-togethers couldn't be avoided, they'd tried to deal with the awkwardness with carefully orchestrated polite indifference. They'd both understood how a bitter split could potentially damage the lifelong friendship between their mothers, and they'd wanted to avoid inflicting that kind of collateral damage. At least they'd agreed on that much.
Of course, all of that was before the real damage had been done, before Ty's infidelity had become public knowledge in the worst possible way. After that, all bets had been off. There'd been no more pretense that things had ended amicably.
Fortunately, neither her mom nor Ty's had asked too many questions once the facts were out there. It went beyond sensitivity. Annie suspected Dana Sue and Maddie had made a pact years earlier to leave the two of them alone. Goodness knew, the Sweet Magnolias, as Dana Sue and Maddie and Helen had been known since high school, meddled in everyone else's lives, but over the years they'd barely mentioned Ty in Annie's presence or her to him. More recently, the silence had been deafening.
Annie supposed their current avoidance of the subject was part of the same old pattern, though she was in no mood to cut them any slack this time. Didn't they think she'd care that Ty had sustained a serious injury? Didn't they know what it would do to her for him to be right back here, in her face every single day? Couldn't they at least have warned her?
As she started out the door, Erik tried once more to stop her.
"Wait!" he commanded. "Come on, Annie. If you won't talk to your mother, talk to me. I swear I'll just listen. You can rant and rave all you want."
She regarded him with a bleak expression. "There's nothing to say." Ty had as much right to come home to Serenity as she did, even if it would turn her life upside down.
"Where are you going?"
She shook her head. She honestly didn't know. Not to work, that was for sure. She worked at The Corner Spa, owned by her mom, Helen and Ty's mom. Maddie, in fact, ran it. Annie didn't want to face her right now, either. Though they both tried, it had been awkward between them ever since the breakup. Now it would be a thousand times worse. She wasn't sure she could bear another of Maddie's pitying looks.
Ironically, Annie worked at the spa as a sports injury therapist and personal trainer. Armed with her degree as a physical therapist and two years of experience at a sports injury facility in Charleston, she'd had the idea to add a physical therapy component to the spa's services.
And while the spa was open only to women, there wasn't a doubt in her mind that Ty intended to do his rehab there in the off-hours when no one else was around. He could be counting on his stepfather and former coach, Cal Maddox, to oversee his rehab, or even the spa's other personal fitness instructor, Elliott Cruz, but Annie suspected that sooner or later someone was going to suggest she get involved. She was the one with the expertise in sports injuries, after all.
Just the thought of seeing Ty again was enough to make her want to throw up. It had been years since she'd won her battle with anorexia, and though she'd never been bulimic, right this second any thought of food made her nauseous. The little bit she'd already eaten churned in her stomach.
Even as the dark thoughts registered, Annie gasped. No way! she thought fiercely. She was not going to let Ty's return send her back into the kind of self-destructive eating pattern that had nearly killed her. She was stronger than that. And he was a pig. In fact, that might have to become her mantra, one she repeated at least a dozen times a day.
"I am strong, and Tyler Townsend is a pig!" she said aloud, testing it.
Yes, indeed, that ought to keep her from backsliding. And if she felt herself slipping on either front, well, she could always take an extended vacation somewhere far away from Serenity until Ty's shoulder had healed and he was back to his glamorous, self-indulgent lifestyle, the lifestyle he'd chosen over her.
Satisfied with her plan, she considered going to work, after all, but concluded it might be a bit too soon to test herself. Instead, she called the spa and asked Elliott to take any of her appointments he had time for and to cancel the rest.
"I'm taking a mental health day," she informed him, falling back on an excuse she hadn't used since high school.
"Ah, you heard about Ty," he said, sounding sympathetic. "Anything I can do?"
"Has he been sneaking in there after hours?" she asked, hating the fact that there were virtually no secrets in this town except those kept from her.
"Just a couple of times," he admitted. He hesitated, then added, "I've started working with him, but he'd do better with you."
"Hell will freeze over before that happens," she said heatedly.
"Think about it, Annie," Elliott urged. "His career's on the line, and he was once your friend."
"He was more than a friend and he blew it," she retorted, unyielding. "Will you deal with my appointments today or not?"
"Of course I will," he said. "I'm sorry you're hurting."
Annie sighed. "I just wish I knew if I'm more hurt because Ty's back or because everyone apparently conspired to keep it from me."
"A little of both, I suspect," Elliott said. "Do something totally spontaneous today, something a little crazy. Blow off some steam. You'll feel better."
Annie considered the suggestion, then dismissed it. The only thing that might make her feel marginally better would be having Elliott—or anyone else—agree to punch Ty's face in. She smiled at the thought and suddenly knew exactly where she needed to go—to the one person who might actually do that for her.
Ten minutes later, she was sitting on a stool behind the counter at her dad's hardware store on Main Street, while he waited on a customer. Ronnie Sullivan had a history of being quick-tempered and protective. This might work to her advantage today.
As soon as they were alone, her father surveyed her intently. "You don't look so good, kid."
"You could make me feel better," she suggested.
"By punching Ty's lights out?" he guessed, proving he, too, had been in on the town's worst-kept secret. "I don't think so."
She sighed. "Why not? He deserves it."
Ronnie laughed. "No question about it, but can you imagine the ruckus that would stir up between your mom and Maddie? They'd be forced to take sides, and so would Cal and I. Then Helen and Erik would be drawn into it, and eventually the entire town would likely follow suit. Pretty soon, everybody would have to wear buttons or ribbons to declare which side they're on. Sorry, sweetie, it just wouldn't be good for business, and in the end, you'd be consumed by guilt for stirring it all up."
Despite herself, Annie chuckled at her dad's logic. It was true: Serenity did have a tendency to take sides, and there was no way this feud between her and Ty would stay quiet for long, even without her dad beating Ty up for her. And, damn her soft heart, she would feel guilty about it.
"I guess I'll just have to deal with this," she said morosely.
Her dad pulled a stool up next to hers and studied her with a frown. "Is there anything else I can do to help?"
"You can tell me why men are such idiots," she said. The question wasn't rhetorical. She really wanted to know.
"Hormones and a lack of common sense," Ronnie said at once. "Just look how I messed things up with your mom for no good reason. Weigh that against how long it took me to make things right. Idiocy definitely played a role in that." He slanted a look at her. "You want to talk about what happened? I know it's a touchy subject, but you've never said a word about how you felt when things blew up and all Ty's dirty laundry was spread all over the tabloids."
"I think my feelings are pretty obvious without dissecting them," she told him.
"Sometimes talking does help."
She shook her head. "Not likely."
"Sweetie, I know how badly he hurt you, and if I really thought it would help, I would punch him." He hesitated, then added, "I also know how important his friendship was to you for a long time before that. Do you really want to lose that, too?"
"I lost our friendship a long time ago," she said mournfully. That, as much as anything else, was what had broken her heart. "I just have to face it, Dad. It's over. Not just the relationship, but also the friendship. I'll never be able to trust Ty again."
"Your mom learned to trust me again," he reminded her gently.
"Not the same," she said.
Her dad was right about one thing, though. Cheating was something he and Ty had in common. The big difference was that Ronnie had recognized his mistake after one careless, irresponsible slip. Ty not only hadn't acknowledged it, he'd compounded it by cheating over and over until he'd finally gotten caught. He had a three-year-old son as proof of his infidelity.
Annie might have been able to get past the cheating with enough time, but that precious little boy? No way. Any babies Ty had were supposed to be with her, not some gold digger who'd slept with Ty a couple of times, then dumped her kid with him in exchange for a big payoff when he wouldn't marry her.