Wanted: One mom for Christmas!
High school football coach Ethan Noble works wonders with his players. But at home, the handsome widower is just trying to keep four adorably unruly kids in line. He definitely isn't looking for love or so he thinks. When his oldest insists her drama teacher, Claire Jacobs, is perfect for him, it's all Ethan can do to resist Claire's bright smile and infectious laugh.
Claire privately admits that she wouldn't mind Coach Noble making a pass at her. But his family dynamic is as complicated as Hamlet's! For one, Ethan is still grieving for his late wife. Besides, Claire knows she's not meant to star as a stepmom, although the entire Noble clan warms her heart this holiday season. Will Claire wait in the wings for Mr. Right, or make her curtain call a very Noble happily-ever-after?
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Today would have been his sixteenth anniversary.
Only half hearing the kids' thudding and slamming and yelling from downstairs, Ethan Noble glanced out his bedroom window, where a pair of chattering squirrels chased each other through an oak tree, the bare branches thickly webbed against a pale November sky. It'd been cold and windy that day, too, the mottled clouds occasionally spitting on everybody's windshields as they made their way to All Saints.
But nobody'd cared. About the weather, about the indisputable fact that Merri's stomach bulged a little underneath her high-waisted wedding dress. So things'd happened slightly out of order. Since it'd all worked out like they'd always planned anyway, what difference did it make?
His cell buzzedan incoming text message. Only one person who'd call this early. And for only one reason. Ethan scooped the phone off his nightstand.
Thinking of you.
If anyone would understand what he was feeling today it'd be the man who'd adopted Ethan when he was a toddler. Also a widower for some years now, Preston Noble had set an example of strength and loyalty and fairness that Ethan could only hope to emulate, especially as a parent. And his father had adored Merri .
God, she'd been beautiful. And so fricking happy. Same as he'd been, even if Juliette's precipitous appearance hadn't been in the playbook. Merri, though She'd been a part of his playbook since they were fifteen.
Juliette's age, he thought as his daughter appeared in the doorway, her wavy, warm brown hair streaked with some god-awful color. At least it was only chalk, it washed out, but still. Lime-green?
:'Um the others had breakfast, sorta. Cereal, anyway. So I'm ready to go?"
"Sure," Ethan said, smiling. "We're good."
Jules came over, standing on tiptoe to give him a hug, a peck on his scratchy cheek. Shaving was strictly optional on the weekends. Then she released him, eyes full of concern, and Ethan's stung. He didn't make an issue of the anniversary, so the younger kids were oblivious. But Jules She knew. In fact, she already had her eye on Merri's wedding dress, packed up safe in the special heirloom box in Ethan's closet. Never mind she was already three inches taller than her mother.
"You know, I don't have to go"
"It's only another Saturday, honey. So get outta here," he said in an exaggerated Jersey accent. "Do your mom proud, okay?"
"Okay," she said, and started off, only to spin around at the door. "I'll do a real breakfast when I get back. How's that?"
"Whatever," Ethan said, loving her so much it hurt. And not only because she was the spitting image of Merri, except for her eyes, more green-blue than purple-blue. But because he'd look at her and think, How 'd I luck out to get one this good?
Unlike the twins, he thought on a brief chuckle as the boys bellowed downstairs. Then Isabella had arrived, a surprise after a six-year dry spell, to more than outshine her brothers in the Tasmanian devil department
Briefly, resentment stabbed that his youngest daughter would never know her mother.
But like always, he shrugged off the memories, the self-pity and anger andeven after all this timethe disbelief as he slowly descended the stairs, his palm lightly raking the dark wood banister's numerous dings and gouges that long preceded his and Merri's buying the house four blocks from the high school, right after the twins were born. At the bottom he flexed his knee, willing the ache to subside: coaching peewee football was a lot more physical than high school varsity.
He'd no sooner reached the kitchen than the three remaining kids accosted him about a dozen things needing his immediate attentionhell, even the dog whined to go outside. But Ethan found the bombardment comforting, even reassuring, in its life-as-usual normalcy. So, as he let out the dog and returned the kids' verbal volleys and poured more milk for Bella and double-checked the schedule on the fridge so they wouldn't be late for the twins' game, he gave silent thanks for the day-to-day craziness that kept him sane.
That kept him focused, not on what he'd lost, but on what he still had.
Even when his gaze caught, prominently displayed on the family room wall twenty feet beyond the kitchen, the wedding portrait of those two crazy-in-love twenty-two-year-olds, grinning like they had all the time in the world to figure life out.
Happy anniversary, babe, he silently wished the only woman he'd ever loved.
Ancient floorboards creaked underfoot in the overheated Queen Anne as Claire Jacobs methodically assessed the leavings from someone's life. She yanked off her heavy knit hat, shaking her curls free. Poodle hair, her mother had called it. Smiling, Claire lifted a lovely cut-glass bowl to check the price. Only to nearly drop it. This was an estate sale, for cripes' sake. Not Sotheby's.
As if reading her mind, some prissy old dude in a tweed jacket squinted at her from several feet away. Ignoring him, Claire replaced the bowl and glanced around at the jumble of furniture and accessories and tchotchkes, all moping like rejected props from Mad Men. And for this she'd dragged her butt out of bed on one of the few mornings she could actually sleep in?
Wait She scurried across the room to practically snatch the leaded-glass lamp off the table. Okay, it was hardly Tiffany, not for twenty bucks, but it would look terrific on that little table by her front door
Clutching her prize, Claire twisted around and grinned. "Juliette! What are you doing here?"
Sporting a denim jacket, a blinged-out hoodie and preppy shorts worn over patterned tights, Claire's student flashed a mouthful of metal punctuated by hot pink ties. "We live a few houses down," she said, and Claire's stomach pinched. Since "we" included Hoover High's ridiculously good-looking, widowed football coach, the object of probably most of Maple River's postpubescent female fantasies. Except Claire, of course, who was above such folderol. Stomach pinching aside. "So I figured I'd check it out," the teen said, "see what was good."
"Not sure there's much that would appeal to a teenager," Claire said even as Juliette zeroed in on a demitasse collection, carefully picking up one of the cups and holding it to the light.
"Oh, I'm not looking for myself." She scrutinized another cup. "It's for my business."
"Used to be my mom's. She'd buy stuff at estate sales and flea markets, then sell it on eBay. She was pretty good at it, too." This said matter-of-factly as the girl sidled over to a stash of old books. "She taught me what to look for, how to price things and stuff. So a few months ago I decided to try selling some pieces myself."
"And is it working?"
"It is." Juliette selected a couple of the books, tucking them to her side. "Which is great, since it'll help pay for college. Depending on where I go, of course." Another sparkling grin accompanied her words. "I'd have to sell a boatload of stuff to afford Yale."
Claire's heart twisted. Although she'd only been teaching a few monthsa fork in her life path she could have never predictedshe knew it was wrong to have favorites. And truthfully she loved all "her" kids. Not only her drama students, but even the less-than-motivated ones in her English classes who groaned every time she made them dredge correctly spelled words from their iPodded/Padded/ Phoned brains and write them down. By hand. On paper.
But this one was special, for many reasons, not the least of which was her plucky, wide-eyed determination to not only succeed at something at which few did, but also her refusal to feel sorry for herself. Or let anyone else feel sorry for her either, despite losing her mother so young. A stroke, she'd heard. At thirty-five. No prior symptoms, no warning How scary must that have been? For all of them. Claire had been a little younger than Juliette when her dad diedsuddenly, like Juliette's momand she'd been stunned by how tenaciously the pain had clung. And yet, if Juliette was suffering from bitterness or resentment, Claire sure as hell couldn't see it.
"There are plenty of drama programs besides Yale's, you know," she said as Juliette carted two of the delicate cups and saucers to the table. "And it would definitely be cheaper to go to school in-state." Claire's sole option, when her mother had barely made enough to keep them housed and fed, let alone fund her only child's college education.
"Yeah, I know." Juliette meticulously stacked books, a few old toys, other odds and ends that Claire wouldn't have thought worth squat next to the cups. Mr. Tweed frowned, but Juliette seemed unfazed, returning to poke through the offerings on another table. "But not a lot of schools that people will actually take your theater degree seriously."
Exceptas Claire knew only too wellwhen you're one of a gazillion actresses auditioning for the same part, the invisible director sitting in the dark theater doesn't give a damn where you got your degree. Or even if you have one. However, she was hardly going to burst a fifteen-year-old's bubble.
Juliette carted over a few more cups. "And, yeah, I know I'll have to keep my grades up like crazy, and that's not even counting the audition. But it's dumb to admit defeat before you've even tried, right? At least that's what Mom always said."
Claire paid for her lamp, which seemed to slightly mollify old Tweedledee. "Very true. And your dad? Is he on board with your plans?"
"Sure," Juliette said quickly, poking her hair behind an ear only slightly less studded than Claire's. "And anyway, I've got a couple years to figure it out, so " She stopped, frowning at her growing collection. Tweedy glowered. "Problem, young lady?"
"Yeah. My eyes are bigger than my arms. Um if I pay for everything now, would you mind if I take it in several trips? Since I walked over here"
"I could give you a lift," Claire said.
Big blue eyes met hers. "You sure?"
"Okay, then. Thanks!" Juliette dug her wallet out of the worn Peruvian-style shoulder bag she always carried as the guy added up her purchases. "Guess this is what you'd call serendipity. SeeI remembered from that vocab list last week. I am so gonna rock my SATs." Then she sighed. "The language part, anyway. Because I totally suck at math. Like Mom did. It's like a genetic curse."
Claire smiled. "What about your father?"
Rolling her eyes, the girl handed over a wad of cash to Tweedsie as a woman wearing a matching scowl wrapped the breakables in tissue paper, placing them in a cardboard box that had once housed cans of little Friskies. "He did his best when I was in middle school, and I didn't flunk, so that's something. But there's a reason he teaches PE."
And clearly the girl had also inherited her mother's sense of humor, since from what little interaction Claire'd had with Juliet's father, she doubted he had one. "Then, maybe you should start working with a tutor. Get a leg up before it gets any harder."
"Omigodit gets harder? "
This said with a twinkle in those blue-green eyes, a flash of dimples. Shaking her head at the teen's giggle, Claire hauled a bag of unbreakables off the table and started toward the front door, holding the lamp aloft like Lady Liberty's torch. Juliette followed with the first of three boxes, which they loaded into the trunk of the ten-year-old Ford Taurus that had belonged to Claire's mother. A few minutes later they pulled up in front of a dignified but slightly weathered twentiesera Tudor and Claire fell immediately in love.
Not that she felt inclined to two-time her adorable apartment, wedged under the eaves of an even older Queen Anne on the other side of town. It was quirky and funky and all sorts of other y words, and she adored it. But this house, with its dark wood trim and gabled roof and ivy scrambling up one corner to tickle one of the windows Wow. Of course, three weeks before Thanksgiving the forty-foot oak on one side was bare, but a pair of frosted spruces glistened in the sun, and a little curl of fireplace smoke teased the bright blue sky, hinting at the warmth inside.
And this charming house was where Ethan Noble lived.
Claire popped the trunk and got out, figuring she'd help Juliette haul her loot inside, then scram. Except before they got through the slightly scratched up front door, adorned with a slightly sorry fall wreath, not only did the cutest, fuzziest, little white dog trot over to say hi, but Juliette said, "Heyhave you had breakfast? I make awesome omelets. And I'm sure Dad put coffee on, there's always coffee when he's home. Or I could make hot chocolate?"
Yes, Claire could smell the coffee, singing to her like it was auditioning for The Voice. But again, getting overly chummy with a student. Not a good idea under the best of circumstances. Getting chummy with one whose father practically gave Claire the evil eye whenever they ran into each other.
"That's lovely of you to offer, but"
"Pleeease?" Juliette said, and the coffee crooned a little more sweetly, and Claire's stomach growled, and she thought, Oh, what the hell?
"You really make good omelets?" she said, and the girl squealed and clapped her hands, yeesh, and the dog did a little dance on its hind legs, and then an absolutely adorable little squirt wearing half her closet barreled down the stairs and right into Juliet's thighs, prattling on about stupid Harry and dumb Finn and how much she hated, hated, hated boys, and Claire got a little dizzy.
Juliette, however, calmly set her box on a nearby table and crouched in front of her baby sister, brushing back a tangle of pale blond hair from a very pissed-looking little face. "So what'd they do this time?" she asked, and the child rattled off a litany of offenses, which were then interrupted by a very masculine but somewhat weary "Bella. Enough."
Followed by a silence thick enough to slice.
"Hey, Dad," Juliette said, standing, then twisting her baby sister around in front of her like a shield. "Look who I ran into at the estate sale! And she gave me a ride home. So I invited her to breakfast. I didn't think you'd mind."
Oh, dear. Was that adolescent defiance rearing its pretty little head? Only, before Claire could process that little tidbit, a certain steely blue gaze rammed into hersspeaking of pissedand a thousand ancient insecurities tried to rear their heads, and she thought no.
Or, more exactly, Hell, no.
Hey, she'd survived an ever-changing cast of roommates in more New York apartments than she cared to count, not to mention pointless cattle call auditions and insane directors and leering weirdos on the subway, capped off by caring for her dying mother back here in Maple River for nearly a year. A weenie, she was not. Not now, anyway. So no way was a pair of hot blue eyes slinging her back to that hellacious era when she hated her hair/body/ clothes and a cute boy's smile would render her a blithering, klutzy idiot.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A great read. Enjoyed this alot.