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Brent Hamilton hated himself.
That was the only thought in his head as he sprawled on his parents' back porch steps watching a titmouse hopping from branch to branch in the scarred redbud tree.
The birdhouse he'd made last week already showed signs of inhabitancy, if the scruffy mat of pine straw peeking from the opening was any indication. At least that had worked.
Because nothing else in his life had.
In fact, it was one big royal suck.
He didn't hear the footsteps, only felt the long fingernails scraping his scalp as Tamara Beach tousled his hair.
"Morning," she said.
"Morning." He cradled his coffee mug between his calloused hands.
She squatted next to him and eased herself onto the step. She set her strappy-heeled sandals next to her.
"You want some coffee?" he asked, staring at the tufts of hair on his bare feet. He hadn't bothered with pants. Just wore the boxers he'd pulled on that morning when he'd rolled from his bed in the carriage house and padded across the backyard toward his parents' home to let the dog out.
Tamara's bright red toenails waggled as she stretched. "Nah."
Awkward silence reigned.
Apple, his parents' overweight Boston terrier, sniffed through a patch of Aztec grass.
Finally Tamara nudged him with her shoulder. "Hey."
He didn't say anything.
"It's no big deal. I mean, it happens to all guys."
Brent rubbed a hand over his face. It had never happened to him. Ever. He couldn't blame it on the liquor or the fact he hadn't really wanted to sleep with Tamara. Hell, before last night, he'd been able to get it up if the wind blew right. The cause of his failure to rise to the occasion was the damn dissatisfaction that had made a home in his gut.
It had settled in, unpacked its clothes and planted flowers out front. It wasn't going away. No matter how many chicks he picked up. No matter how many bars he stomped through, buying drinks and clacking pool balls. No matter how much he grinned and faked it.
Brent hated who he was.
Yet, to date he'd always lived with it. So what was different? The fact he hadn't been able to perform? The comments overheard at his former girlfriend Katie Newman's wedding last night? The idea that someone he'd thought so similar to him had fallen in love and tied the knot?
"Whatever," he said. "I'm sorry."
Tamara shrugged. "No biggie. I like being with you no matter what. You don't snore like most guys."
He managed a smile. "Good to know."
"I won't say anything to anyone. I'm not that girl, you know?" He looked at her as she tilted her face to the sun. Tamara was naturally hot. Her blond locks brushed tanned shoulders and her blue eyes were a clear color that blinked innocently right before they flashed with mischief. She was lean, tight and had a rack that, though store-bought, made men lick their lips. Oak Stand's very own Playboy bunny. And she was a nice person.
"I know you won't." He patted her thigh beneath the ruffled sundress she'd squirmed into. It was wrinkled from lying on the floor, but still looked great on her.
"Well, I'd better leave while everyone else is in church. If my grandmother sees me, I'll get lectured in front of the whole family again. Roast beef just doesn't taste right with a side accusation of whore.'"
He frowned. "You're not a whore."
"Tell that to the Reverend Beach." She rose and slid the sandals onto her feet. The small birds in the tree beside her flew away. She smiled and tilted her face again to the morning sun. "Have a good one, Brent."
She waved as she slipped out the wooden gate that led to a side drive, leaving Brent to his heavy thoughts.
As the gate banged shut, the phone resting beside him on the step rang.
He didn't want to answer it. He knew who it was and what she wanted. But he picked it up anyway. Ever the dutiful son.
"Happy birthday, Brent!" The greeting launched an enthusiastic round of "Happy Birthday."
"Hey, Mom," he said into the receiver.
"Happy birthday, my handsome boy. How's everything at the house? Are you feeding Apple her sensitive stomach food?" His mother's tone sounded too cheerful for a person up at such a godforsaken hour. It was 5:30 in the morning in California.
"Let me talk to him," he heard his dad say.
His dad's voice barked in his ear. "Talked to a guy last night. Name's Russell Bates. His brother works in management for the Chargers organization. He said he saw you play your freshman year and might have a spot for you here in San Diego."
"Doing what? Selling hot chocolate?" Brent closed his eyes and pretended they weren't having this conversation again. His dad just wouldn't give up. Would never give up. Playing football was a memory for Brent. And would stay that way. "This ain't going to happen. You know that."
"Today I'm thirty-two. Thirty-two-year-olds don't start a football career in the NFL. I'm not Brett Favre. I'm done with football."
"Brett Favre is ten years older than you and still in the league. Besides, Hamiltons don't give up," his father said. His old man might as well have said, "Denny didn't give up." Because that's what Brent heard when his dad talked about Hamiltons. Always Denny. Competing with the memory of a dead brother was part of what had brought Brent to this very moment. He would never win that battle.
"Okay, fine. Give me the number."
"Ready?" his father said.
Brent closed his eyes. "Hold on. Let me grab a pencil. Okay, go ahead."
He didn't move from the step. Simply listened as his father rattled off a landline and cell number. Brent wouldn't call. The hint of interest was just a friend of a friend humoring an old man with dreams too big for his son. Brent could only imagine the conversation that had taken place when his father had learned of the tenuous connection to the Chargers organization. His father was a bulldog, pushing until people rolled over and surrendered. Brent had rolled over quite a bit in his life. Another reason for his self-loathing.
"Call him tomorrow morning. His name is Bill. Bye."
"Bye," Brent murmured into the phone. He pressed the end button. No happy birthday from his dad. Only more direction toward a future that did not exist.
He sighed and drank the rest of his lukewarm coffee. The sun already grew warm despite the cool April breeze filtering through the trees. It was a perfect day to putter in his parents' backyard, whittling out perches for the birdhouses he'd promised the kindergartners at Oak Stand Elementary. But, then again, he needed to complete the proposal for the next few books. His publisher wanted five more books in the lacrosse series, which was good because his job at Hamilton Construction was slow, mimicking the economy all over the nation.
During the day, he ran his father and uncle's construction company, a local contracting business that specialized in renovations and additions rather than new construction. But most nights, he became B.J. Hamm, author of award-winning sports fiction aimed at boys. No one in Oak Stand knew the complex B.J. Hamm. They only knew the rather simple Brent Hamilton.
His secret hobby had grown into a secret careerone that not even his absent parents knew about. Writing was a juicy secret he took pleasure in keeping. He didn't know why.
Donna and Ross Hamilton had taken a long overdue RV tour out West and suddenly retirement sounded good to his parents. For the past couple of weeks, his father had finally stopped mentioning tryouts for the Canadian Football League and started hinting that Brent should buy his half of the company. But now with the phantom San Diego Charger contact, Brent was certain his father would jump on the football bandwagon again, dreaming about Brent hoisting the Lombardi Trophy overhead.
How in the name of all that was holy could a pragmatic man like his father believe something so shaky as a dream of that magnitude? The old man couldn't let go. Of anything.
Brent had his chance years ago.
But he didn't want to think about failed dreams today. He didn't want to think about anything. Maybe he'd go back to his feather-stuffed bed. Or doze in the hammock strung between the two Bradford pear trees in the corner of the yard. He rarely had time to enjoy the peaceful oasis he'd helped his mother create between the carriage house he rented and his parents' small Victorian.
He whistled for Apple and she ignored him.
As he stood, a baseball came whizzing over the fence. It bounced on the path and crashed into a red clay planter, knocking it over, spraying potting soil into the air.
What the hell?
The ball rolled into a daylily clump and stopped.
Apple pounced on it, slobbering all over the well-used baseball.
He walked over and pulled it from Apple's mouth. She grinned up at him as if a game of fetch was about to commence.
"Hey, that's mine." The voice came from the left.
Brent turned to find two brown eyes peeking over the wooden fence. They belonged to a boy whose leg crept over the top of the fence. The boy hoisted himself up and straddled the two yards, his eyes portrayed wariness.
Brent motioned the kid to come on over and the boy tumbled down, dropping like a sack of potatoes onto the bag of mulch his mother had left in the corner.
Apple trotted close and sniffed him.
"Hey," he said to the dog, rubbing her head before standing up and brushing himself off.
Brent felt like an alien had beamed down. But it wasn't a little green person. It was a boy who looked to be about seven or eight years old.
Brent flipped the ball to the kid. He caught it with one hand. Impressive. Apple wondered off to find more frogs and lizards to chase.
"Clean up the mess," Brent said, pointing to the dirt covering the brick path.
The boy looked at the broken pottery and spilled soil. "Oh, sorry. My hand got sweaty."
Brent nodded. "It happens."
The boy didn't say anything more. He knelt and used a finger and thumb to lift a broken shard.
"You staying at the bed-and-breakfast?" Brent asked.
The boy nodded and picked up the upended planter and started stacking the shards inside. "Yep. My mom made us come here. Right at the beginning of my baseball season. It's absurd."
Something about the boy's disgust and vocabulary made Brent smile. He knew how that felt. He'd loved baseball season. Especially in early April. The smell of the glove, the feel of the stitches of the ball against his hand, the first good sweat worked up beneath the bill of the baseball cap. Sweet childhood.
"Well, it's just for the weekend," Brent said, toeing the spilled soil with his bare foot.
The boy sighed, dropped to his knees and began scooping up the dirt. He tossed it out into the grass. "I wish. She's making us live here. I don't even know for how long."
"Oh," Brent responded, watching the boy as he labored. His reddish-brown hair was cut short, almost a buzz cut. Freckles dotted his lean cheeks and for a kid his age, his shoulders were pretty broad. He'd moved with a natural grace, like an athlete. Like Brent had always moved. "What's your name? Since we're going to be temporary neighbors."
I wouldn't have taken you for a Henry."
The boy gave him a lopsided smile. "My mom likes Henry David Thoreau. I got my name from that dude."
"You look more like a Hank," Brent said offhandedly, picking up the base of the broken planter, stuffing the flower's roots into the scant soil and setting it aside.
"Like the baseball player I saw a show on. Hank
"Aaron?" Brent finished for him.
"Yeah, that's the guy. Cool. I can use that name here. No one knows me yet."
"Well, you better ask your mom about that. You know moms." Henry was funny. Brent liked kids better than he liked most adults.
Henry picked up the ball and rolled it around in his hand before sending it airborne. He caught it neatly. "Yeah, my mom can be crazy about stuff like that. About sports and stuff. She doesn't think sports are important."
Brent feigned horror. "What's wrong with her?"
The boy shrugged. "I don't know. I'm good at them. I play football, baseball, basketball and soccer. I even took karate before my dad died. I liked kicking boards and stuff. It's pretty cool."
The boy tossed the ball as easily as he'd tossed out information. He'd lost his dad. Tough for a boy like Henry. He seemed headstrong and sturdy, the kind of boy who needed a firm hand. A good mentor. A man to toss the ball with.
The boy threw the ball and caught it in one hand, slapping a rhythm Brent couldn't resist.
"You know, I could get my glove, and we could toss the ball around," Brent offered. "But first you better make sure it's okay with your mother."
The boy's eyes lit up. "Awesome."
"So go ask."
Something entered Henry's eyes. A sort of oh, crap look. "Um, it's okay. She's making bread or something like that."
The boy's gaze met Brent's and a weird deja vu hit him. The kid's eyes were the color of cinnamon. Like eyes Brent had stared into a million times. He glanced at the gate that had been locked for over ten years. The gate that led to the Tulip Hill Bed-and-Breakfast on the other side of the fence the boy had climbed.
"Your mom, is she by any chance"
"Henry Albright! Where the devil are you?" The woman's voice carried on the wind into the Hamiltons' backyard.
"Oops, that's my mom. She's gonna be mad. I'm not supposed to talk to strangers," Henry said, scrambling toward the fence.
Brent closed his mouth and watched as Henry ducked beneath the redbud tree before grasping one branch and swinging himself toward the brace on the fence. His worn sneaker hit perfectly and he arched himself so the other landed beside it. But the boy hadn't been fast enough.
The gate opened with a shove because the grass had grown over the once well-worn path.
Henry froze and so did Brent.
A woman stood in the opening. Her curly red hair streamed over a blue apron that was streaked with flour and she wore a frown. Brent allowed his eyes to feast on her, for she was sheer bounty. Her cinnamon eyes flashed, her wide mouth turned down, but the body outlined in the apron was lush and ripe from the long white throat to the trim ankles visible beneath the flowing skirt. Bare feet anchored themselves in the healthy St. Augustine.
Brent swallowed. Hard.
"Hey, Mom," Henry said, dropping to his feet. "This is" Henry turned to him. "Hey, I don't know your name."