Josie Barnes has always craved a sense of home. She's found that in Hope, Oklahoma--she bought a house, has a new job as an English teacher at Hope High, she's made wonderful friends, and she's taking in stray animals that no one else wants. Now she's flirting with fellow teacher and hot high school football coach Zach Powers. But he's almost too good to be true, and Josie learned long ago not to trust in the too-good-to-be-true, because it has always let her down.
A former pro football player, Zach had to pull back when a career-ending knee injury forced him to rethink his future. Now he's happy calling plays as Coach. If he could just get Josie Barnes to stop benching his players for their poor grades, life would be perfect. Instead, she drives him crazy as the stern teacher at school and the sexy woman of his dreams outside of the classroom. He knows she's been hurt in the past, but he wants to be that guy she can trust.
The one thing Josie has never been able to count on is the people closest to her. But Zach intends to show her that what they have between them is a textbook case of love.
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Zach Powers read over the list of grades, then scanned down to his two football players who had been placed on academic probation. His gaze narrowed when he saw which teacher had been the one to put them there.
"Dammit, Josie." He clenched the paper in his fist and left his classroom in search of the woman who was trying to ruin Hope High School's football season.
He found her in her classroom, looking work-like and gorgeous in her long skirt and white short-sleeved button-down shirt, so unlike the outfits she wore outside the classroom. Here at school, she was buttoned up and professional, always nodding in greeting in the halls but never giving away anything other than polite teacher-to-teacher glances.
When they were out with their friends, though, she flirted with him. Nothing had happened between them yet, but Zach knew she liked him.
He liked her, too. Or he had, until now.
He knocked on her classroom door. She looked over and waved him in. She always wore her hair cut short, which did nothing to detract from her stunning face. In fact, it brought out the amazing sea blue of her eyes and her generous mouth, which today was painted a pale, shimmering pink. Which he shouldn't be noticing while they were at school, but whatever. Classes were out for the day, so her room was empty.
If she'd been his teacher, he would have never been able to concentrate. Like right now, when he was supposed to be pissed off about those grades.
He opened the door and closed it behind him, then walked toward her desk and stopped to hover over it.
"What's this all about?" he asked, shaking the paper at her.
She looked at his hand, then raised her gaze to his face. "What's what all about?"
"You put Paul Fine and Chase Satterfield on probation."
She leaned back in her chair and gave him a confused look. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
He dropped the paper on her desk. She opened it up, read it, then lifted her gaze to his. "Oh. Football."
She said the word football as if she had no idea what the word meant. That word meant everything to him.
"Yeah, football. You know, the thing that's my life here."
"Huh. I thought teaching history was your life here." She finished her statement with an arched brow.
He narrowed his gaze at her. "Don't play games with me, Josie. Paul's my best wide receiver, and Chase is my center."
"Uh-huh. Whatever. We're four weeks into the semester, and Paul's missing four assignments. Chase is missing five. Which means neither of them is passing my class. I'm just doing what the school board requires by submitting progress reports."
Zach clenched his jaw. Bureaucracy always got in the way of his players doing what they did best-playing football. Some of the other teachers understood this and were more . . . lenient with grades for his players, giving them a sliding scale to work with so they could catch up. But those instances were typically for players who were on the cusp.
Five assignments? Jeez.
He took another glance at Paul's and Chase's grades in the class. They were both Fs.
It wasn't like you could "sliding scale" your way up to a passing grade when you were already so far down the hole that the fires of hell were licking at your ass.
"How bad is it?" he asked.
"Take a look."
She took out her grade book and showed him. "Chase has only turned in one assignment. Paul two. And the two Paul turned in-" She looked up at him. "I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, Zach, but honestly? They were bad. I couldn't even say he was phoning it in. He hasn't even picked up the phone."
This was where he needed to remind himself these were high school students. High school students who had potential college careers ahead of them, which meant they'd have to be able to do the academic work.
He unclenched his jaw. "Fine. Tell me what they need to get done, and I'll make sure it's turned in before you submit this week's grade report."
Probation was one thing. If his players were suspended, they'd be off the team for God only knew how long. Bad for them, very bad for Hope High's Eagles.
"Sure." She got out a piece of paper, opened her laptop, and jotted down the list of assignments. When she handed it to Zach, she looked up at him. "And, Zach, make sure they're the ones doing the assignments, okay?"
"What the hell does that mean?"
"It means not bullying any of my stellar students to do the work for them. Or, even worse, buying the work online. Because I'll know it if they do."
"Christ, Josie. What kind of guy do you think I am? What kind of guys do you think my athletes are?"
She sighed. "Let's just say I've seen students like this before. They get in a jam and they're desperate, and more than willing to do anything-and I mean anything-to turn in passing work."
He laid his hands on her desk and leaned in. "My guys aren't like that. And if they are, they won't play for me for long."
She didn't flinch. She held his gaze. "I guess you should make sure you know your players well, then."
"I intend to, because these two will be sitting with me every day after school this week doing these assignments while their teammates are on the practice field. So I can guarantee you, Ms. Barnes, that when this work is turned in, it'll be work that both Paul and Chase have done themselves."
Her lips lifted. "I'm glad to hear that. And I'm sorry about all that classwork you'll have to do this week. If you need any research assistance, feel free to give me a call."
"I think I can handle it. After all, I've been to school myself, ya know."
She laughed. "Yes, I'm sure you're great and all. But that was a long time ago. And I require a lot of my students."
"How hard can it be?" He scanned the assignments and bit back a curse.
"Poetry? A journal of thoughts and feelings? Aww, hell, Josie."
She smiled. "You did say you were going to help them, right?"
He pushed off the desk and pivoted, already halfway to the door. "Yeah, yeah."
Once out the door, he stopped and read the assignments again.
Poetry. Journals. Ugh.
A small part of him understood why Paul and Chase were blowing off the homework. He'd hated poetry in English class. All that evaluation of shit that had never made sense to him. But he'd sucked it up and done it. And had maybe learned a few things in the process. He might not have enjoyed it, but he'd done the work. Because not doing the work would have meant he couldn't play football. And he'd have done anything to play football.
High school football had gotten him into college so he could play football there. And college football had paved the way for him to play pro football. All of which had taken a hell of a lot of sweat and hard work. Some of that work had been schoolwork. And some of that schoolwork hadn't been fun, but it had been necessary to get him where he'd wanted to be, which was the pros.
He needed to remind his kids of the long-term goal. Plus, not doing the work was lazy, and he wouldn't accept that from any of his players.
He headed toward the field.
Time to kick a couple of asses from here to next week.
Josie pondered her conversation with Zach all the way home, then ended up gravitating toward the library, where she hoped Jillian Reynolds would be working this afternoon.
She'd made friends with so many wonderful women in the time she'd been here in Hope, Oklahoma. And friendship was a new thing to her. She hadn't had much of that in her lifetime. Or any friendship, really.
But she and Jillian had grown closer in the past few months, likely because out of their group of women friends, they were the two single ones. Everyone else was either coupled up or married, and several of their friends had kids or were expecting. So Josie and Jillian had started hanging out more and more lately.
Plus, it didn't hurt that they had a lot of things in common. Jillian was the head librarian, and she had an appreciation for all forms of literature. A language arts teacher, Josie had loved books and reading from the time she was a kid. She had started hanging out in her local library as a means of escape from family drama, but her refuge had turned into a love of reading that had developed into a voracious appetite.
She could still remember Elda, the librarian at her small-town library, who'd introduced her to countless books when she was a kid. She'd fallen in love with classic literature and poetry and mysteries and romances and science fiction and fantasy. She'd returned day after day to turn one book in and check out another. She'd also spent hours at the back of the library reading and soaking in the quiet.
After all, no one was drunk or high or screaming at her while she was there. It was peaceful, and she could lose herself in a story of magic or fantastical worlds or escape into romantic escapades.
Reading had been her life, and the library had been her salvation. While at the library, her head in a book, her mind in a story, she was someone else. She could be somewhere else. She could escape.
And that had been nirvana. At least for a couple of hours.
Meeting Jillian had evoked warm memories of those early years because Jillian ran her library the same way Elda had all those years ago. She was fierce and protective and fostered a love of books in every kid she met.
Just walking into the Hope library settled a feeling of calm over her. Josie always thought it was the smell of books that made her feel that way. There was nothing like it anywhere else.
She spotted Jillian in her office at the back of the library, so she headed in that direction.
Jillian was working on her computer. Josie didn't want to interrupt her, but Jillian happened to look up and smiled, then motioned for her to come in.
Josie opened the door, then closed it behind her. "You looked busy. I didn't want to bother you. I just stopped in to say hello."
"It's okay. I was ordering some books."
Josie sighed and took a seat. "Ordering books. How fun."
"Always. How was your day?"
"Good, mostly. Until after school when Zach came into my room and told me I was ruining his football team."
Jillian leaned back in her chair. "Really. And how did you manage to ruin his team?"
"A couple of his players aren't passing my class, so now they're on probation."
"Oh, Josie. How could you? Don't you know football is king here?"
"Uh-huh. Well, in my classroom, literature is king, and I'd like my students to do their assignments. And actually pass the class."
"So did you two have words? Was it a hot and passionate argument?"
Jillian always turned any heated discussion into a hot and passionate argument. In her imagination, anyway.
"No. I gave him their assignments, and he's going to work with them this week so probation doesn't turn into a suspension."
"How disappointing. I mean, not for the kids, of course. But I was hoping you two would end up making out on your desk."
Josie laughed. "I don't think the principal would appreciate that."
"Who cares what the principal appreciates? I would have appreciated it immensely."
"I think you need a hot guy to come make out with you across your desk."
"Don't I ever." Jillian waggled her brows.
"He's out there for you somewhere."
Jillian waved her hand. "Not looking for him. I'm busy."
Josie sighed. "Aren't we both. Which doesn't mean I'd turn down some hot guy throwing me across anything and making out with me."
Jillian pointed a finger at her. "See? You wouldn't have turned down Zach throwing you across your desk."
Josie laughed. "That wasn't the topic of conversation at the time."
"But you like him."
"Yes, I like him. Most days, anyway. Just not this afternoon."
They fortunately got off the topic of Zach and onto other things, mainly Loretta and Deacon's deck party this weekend and what they were going to take, food-wise. Then Josie left so Jillian could get back to work.
But she still stewed about Zach on the way home. He could be so sweet to her when they were all out with their friends. Today, though, he'd been hot.
Angry hot, not sexy hot.
Then again, angry hot could be sexy. Just not when the mad was directed at her.
Of course, at school, they had to be all business. Teenagers had the uncanny ability to zero in on any type of flirting or attraction.
Working with someone you were attracted to had its disadvantages. And she didn't know how she was going to handle it. Because she and Zach had been dancing around each other for months now.
So far, nothing had happened between them other than friendly hanging out in groups with their mutual friends.
Maybe that was all it would ever be. But as she thought back, there'd been glances. And touches that felt like a lot more than just casual friendliness.
So maybe it wouldn't be just friendship between them.
It wasn't like she was looking for a relationship. The last one she'd been in had ended badly-really badly-and she wasn't looking forward to wading in those waters again.
But still . . . Zach was impossibly tall and had great biceps. She really had a thing for biceps. Plus, he was incredibly good-looking, with dark hair and those steely gray eyes that could catch and hold her attention like nothing Josie had ever experienced. That man could make her melt faster than a stick of frozen butter in the hot August sun.
So maybe she'd just dip a toe in and test the waters.
She just wouldn't go for a swim.