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Becky Ridgely grabbed her denim jacket from the hook and swung out the back door. A light mist made the air seem much cooler than the predicted fifty-degree high for the day. The gust of wind that caught her off guard didn't help, but she'd had to escape the house or sink even deeper into the blue funk that had a killer grip on her mood.
In a matter of weeks, her divorce from Nick would be final. Their marriage that had begun with a fiery blast of passion and excitement she'd thought would never cool had dissolved into a pile of ashes.
Nonetheless, Nick Ridgely, star receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, was in her living room on the Sunday before Christmas, as large as life on the new big-screen TV and claiming the attention of her entire family. She could understand it of their twin sons. At eight years of age, Nick was David and Derrick's hero. She'd never take that away from them.
But you'd think the rest of the family could show a little sensitivity for her feelings. But no, even her sister and her mother were glued to the set as if winning were paramount to gaining world peace or at least finding a cure for cancer.
Did no one but her get that this was just a stupid game?
Most definitely Nick didn't. For more than half of every year, he put everything he had into football. His time. His energy. His enthusiasm. His dedication. She and the boys were saddled with the leftovers. Some women settled for that. She couldn't, which is why she'd left him and moved back to the family ranch.
Her family liked Nick. Everyone did. And he was a good husband and father in many ways. He didn't drink too much. He had never done drugs, not even in college when all their friends were trying it.
He disdained the use of steroids and would never use the shortcut to improve performance. He didn't cheat on her, though several gossip magazines had connected him to Brianna Campbell, slut starlet, since they had been separated.
But his one serious fault was the wedge that had driven them apart. Once preparation for football season started, he shut her out of his life so completely that she could have been invisible. Oh, he pretended to listen to her or the boys at times, but it was surface only.
His always-ready excuse was that his mind was on the upcoming season or game. The message was that it mattered more than they did. She'd lived with the rejection as long as she could tolerate it, and then she left.
She turned at the panicked voice of her son Derrick. He'd pushed through the back door and was standing on the top step, his face a ghostly white.
She raced to him. "What's the matter, sweetheart?"
"He probably just had the breath knocked out of him," she said.
"No, it's bad, Mom. Really bad. He's not moving."
She put her arm around Derrick's shoulder as they hurried back to the family room where the earlier cheers had turned deathly silent.
The screen defied her to denounce Derrick's fears. Nick was on his back, his helmet off and lying at a cockeyed angle beside him. Several trainers leaned over him. A half dozen of his teammates were clustered behind them, concern sketched into their faces.
Becky took a deep breath as reality sank in and panic rocked her equilibrium. "What happened?"
"He went up for the ball and got tackled below the waist," Bart said.
Before her brother could say more, the network flashed the replay. A cold shudder climbed her spine as she watched Nick get flipped in midair. He slammed to the ground at an angle that seemed to drive his head and the back of his neck into the hard turf.
His eyes were open, but he had yet to move his arms or legs. Players from the other team joined the circle of players that had formed around him. A few had bowed in prayer. They all looked worried.
"Those guys know what it means to take a hit like that," her brother Langston said. "No player likes to see another one get seriously hurt."
"Yet they go at each other like raging animals." The frustration had flown from Becky's mouth before she could stop it. The stares of her family bore into her, no doubt mistaking her exasperation for a lack of empathy. But they hadn't lived with Nick's obsession for pushing his mind and body to the limit week after week.
"I only meant that it's almost inevitable that players get hurt considering the intensity of the game."
The family grew silent. The announcer droned on and on about Nick's not moving as the trainers strapped him to a backboard and attached a C-collar to support his neck.
David scooted close to the TV and put his hand on the corner of the screen. "Come on, Dad. You'll be all right. You gotta be all right."
"I got hurt bad the first time I played in a real game," Derrick said. "I wanted to cry, but I didn't 'cause the other players make fun of you if you do."
Becky had never wanted her sons to play football, but had given in to their pleadings this year when they turned eight. Nick had always just expected they'd play and spent half the time he was with them practicing the basic skills of the game. It was yet another bone of contention between them.
They showed the replay again while Nick was taken from the field. All of the announcers were in on the act now, concentrating on the grisly possible outcomes from such an injury.
"The fans would love it if Nick could wave a farewell but he still hasn't moved his arms or legs."
"It doesn't look good. It would be terrible to see the career of a player with Nick Ridgely's talent end like this."
"Did you hear that?" Derrick said. "The announcer said Daddy might not ever play football again."
Becky grabbed the remote and muted the sound.
"They don't know. They're not doctors. Most likely Daddy has a bad sprain."
"Your father's taken lots of blows and he's never let one get the best of him yet," her brother Bart said, trying as Becky had to calm the boys.
"We better get up there and check on him," David said. "He might need us."
"You have school tomorrow," Becky said, quickly squashing that idea.
"We can miss," the boys protested in unison.
"It's only half a day," Derrick said. "A bunch of kids won't even be there. Ellen Michaels left Saturday to go visit her grandmother in Alabama for Christmas."
"You have practice for the church Christmas pageant right after school lets out. Mrs. Evans is counting on you."
Becky knew that missing school in the morning wouldn't be a problem. They would have been out all week had they not lost so many days during hurricane season.
They'd been lucky and hadn't received anything but strong winds and excessive rain from two separate storms that had come ashore to the west of them, but if the school board erred, it was always on the side of caution.
Still, if Nick was seriously hurt, the hospital would be no place for the boys. And if he wasn't, he'd be too preoccupied with getting back in the game to notice.
"You can call Daddy later when he's feeling better."
"But you're going to go to Dallas, aren't you, Momma? Daddy's gonna need somebody there with him."
"I can fly you up in the Cessna," Langston said, offering his private jet. He'd done that before when Nick had been hurt, once even all the way to Green Bay.
But that was when she and Nick were at least making a stab at the marriage. Things had become really strained between them since the divorce proceedings had officially begun. She doubted he'd want her there now.
"Thanks," she said, "but I'm sure Nick's in good hands."
"Maybe you should hold off on that decision until after you've talked to him," her mother said.
"Right," Bart said. "They'll know a lot more after he's X-rayed." The others in the room nodded in agreement.
Becky left the room when the game got back underway. Anxiety had turned to acid in her stomach, and she felt nauseous as she climbed the stairs and went to her private quarters on the second floor of the big house.
Too bad she couldn't cut off her emotions the way a divorce cut off a marriage, but love had a way of hanging on long after it served any useful purpose. Nick would always be the father of her children, but hopefully one day her love for him would be just a memory.
But she wouldn't go to Nick, not unless he asked her to, and she was almost certain that wasn't going to happen. They'd both crossed a line when the divorce papers had been filed. From now on, the only bond between them was their sons.
Becky called the hospital twice during the hours immediately following Nick's injury. Once he'd still been in the emergency room. The second time he'd been having X-rays. The only real information she'd received was that he had regained movement in his arms and legs.
Her anxiety level had eased considerably with that bit of news, as had everyone else's in the family. The boys still wanted to talk to him, but she'd waited until they were getting ready for bed before trying to reach him again.
Hopefully by now the doctors would have finished with the required tests and Nick would feel like talking to them. Regardless, Nick would play down the pain when talking to her and especially when talking to the boys.
That was his way. Say the right things. Keep his true feelings and worries inside him. It was a considerate trait in a father. It was a cop-out for a husband.
And bitterness stunk in a wife. It was time she accepted things the way they were and moved past the resentment.
"Can you connect me to the room of Nick Ridgely?" she asked when the hospital operator answered.
"He's only taking calls from family members at this time. I've been told to tell all other callers that he is resting comfortably and has recovered full movement in his arms and legs."
Becky had expected that. No doubt the hospital was being bombarded with calls from reporters. "This is his wife."
"Please wait while I put you through to his room, Mrs. Ridgely."
A female voice answered, likely a nurse. "Nick Ridgely's room. If this is a reporter, shame on you for disturbing him."
"This is Becky Ridgely. I'm calling to check on my husband."
"Oops, sorry. It's just that the reporters keep getting through. You don't know how persistent they can be."
Actually, she did. "Is Nick able to talk?"
"He can, but the doctor wants him to stay quiet. I can give him a message."
"I was hoping he could say a word to his sons. They're really worried about him, and I'm not sure they'll sleep well unless he tells them he's okay."
"He isn't okay. His arms are burning like crazy."
This was definitely not a nurse. "To whom am I speaking?"
The name hit like a quick slap to the face. He could have waited until the divorce was final to play hot bachelor. If not for her, then for David and Derrick.
"Do you want to leave a message?"
"Yes, tell Nick he can " She took a quick breath and swallowed her anger as David returned from the bathroom where he'd been brushing his teeth. "No message." Saved from sounding like a jealous wench by the timely appearance of her son.
"Okay, I'll just tell Nick you called, Mrs. Ridgely."
She heard Nick's garbled protest in the background.
"Wait. He's insisting I hand him the phone."
Nice of him to bother.
Her name was slurredno doubt from pain meds. Derrick had joined them as well now, and both boys had climbed into their twin beds.
"The boys are worried about you."
"Yeah. I knew they would be. I was just waiting to call until I was thinking and talking a bit straighter. Were they watching the game?"
"They always watch your games, Nick."
"Good boys. I miss them."
So he always said, but she wasn't going there with him right now. "How are you?"
"I have the feeling back in my arms and legs. They burned like they were on fire for a bit, but they're better now. The E.R. doc said that was the neurons firing back up so I figure that's a good sign."
"Is there a diagnosis?"
"They think I have a spinal cord contusion. They make it sound serious, but you know doctors. They like complications and two-dollar terms no one else can understand. I'll be fine."
He didn't sound it. He was talking so slowly she could have read the newspaper between sentences. "Do you feel like saying good-night to David and Derrick?"
"Sure. Put them on. I need some cheering up."
That's what she thought Brianna was for. She put the boys on speakerphone so they could both talk at once. Nick made light of the injury, like she'd known he would, and started joking with the boys as if this was just a regular Sunday night post-game chat.
He loved his sons. He even loved her in his own way. It just wasn't enough. She backed from the room as an ache the size of Texas settled in her heart.
Morning came early at Jack's Bluff Ranch, and the sun was still below the horizon when Becky climbed from her bed. She'd had very little sleep, and her emotions were running on empty. Still she managed a smile as she padded into her sons' room to get them up and ready for school.
"Okay, sleepyheads, time to rock and roll."
"Already?" Derrick groaned and buried his head in his pillow.
David rubbed his eyes with his fists and yawned widely as he kicked off his covers. "How come you always say time to rock and roll when we're just going to school?"
"Tradition. That's what your grandma used to say to me."
"Grandma said that?"
"Yes, she did. "Now up and at 'em. She said that, too. And wear something warm. It's about twenty degrees colder than yesterday."
"I wish it would snow," Derrick said as he rummaged through the top drawer of his chest and came up with a red-and-white-striped rugby shirt.
"It never snows in Colts Run Cross," David said.
"Not never, but rarely," Becky agreed. But a cold front did occasionally reach this far south. Today the high would only be in the mid-forties with a chance of thundershowers.
"Have you talked to Daddy this morning?" Derrick asked.
"No, and I don't think we should bother him with phone calls this early. Now get dressed, and I'll see you at breakfast."
Juanita was already at work in the kitchen and had been for over a half hour. Becky had heard the family cook drive up. She'd heard every sound since about 3:00 a.m. when she'd woken to a ridiculous nightmare about Nick's getting hit so hard his helmet had flown offwith his head inside it.