They were the golden boys of fall: Stewart Mills High School’s legendary championship winning football team. Fourteen years later, they’re back to relive their glory, save the team—and find themselves again…
Chase Sanders’s life has taken a lot of crazy turns lately. But returning to his hometown to help his old coach keep his high school football team afloat might be the craziest thing to happen to him yet. That is, until he starts falling for the last person he should—Coach’s gorgeous daughter…
Kelly McDonnell learned the hard way that cocky, charming men are nothing but trouble, so she knows Chase is bad news. Still, she can’t resist his smile—or the rest of him. But when his loyalty to her father conflicts with their growing attraction, any hope for a relationship might be blocked before it can even begin…
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With his business partner off to who-knew-where with the money he’d drained from their accounts, and his girlfriend currently stripping their apartment of any sign she’d ever lived there, the last thing Chase Sanders wanted to do was answer the damn phone.
It was only nine in the morning and he’d already fielded a call from their lumber supplier, wanting to know why their check had bounced. That was followed up by a call from his girlfriend’s new boyfriend, wanting to hash out who owned the television before the guy carried it out to his truck.
Former girlfriend, he corrected himself as the phone kept ringing. Maybe he’d hit the shitty-day jackpot and it was his doctor calling to tell him he might have contracted some horrible disease. Probably from his girlfriend—ex-girlfriend—and her new boyfriend.
At the fifth ring he glanced at the caller ID, and the area code snapped him out of his funk—603. And the prefix numbers were from his hometown. Why the hell was anybody calling him from Stewart Mills, New Hampshire?
He tempted fate and picked up the phone. “S and P Builders.”
“Chase Sanders, please,” said a woman whose voice he didn’t recognize, not that he would expect to after fourteen years away. Her tone was warm, and maybe a little sexy, but he braced himself for bad news because that was just how his luck was running at the moment.
“This is Chase.”
“My name is Kelly McDonnell.” The last name landed a sucker punch to his gut. “You probably don’t remember me, but—”
“Don’t.” Chase was struck by a terrible certainty she was going to tell him Coach—her father—had passed away, and he didn’t want to hear it. He had to make her stop talking.
“I’m sorry. Don’t what?” She sounded confused, not that he could blame her.
He could deal with Rina reacting to the increase in penny-pinching by finding herself a new guy who wasn’t losing his business. He could deal with Seth Poole reacting to the decline in the construction industry by pinching the few pennies they had left and running. But he absolutely couldn’t deal with hearing Coach McDonnell was dead. Not today.
“Hello?” she said. “Are you still there?”
What an ass he was. This call couldn’t be easy for the man’s daughter. “I’m sorry. Go ahead.”
“But you said ‘don’t.’”
“I was talking to my dog.” Not that he had a dog. Rina didn’t like dog hair and had refused to budge, even when he’d told her some of those froufrou ankle-biter breeds didn’t shed.
“I’m Coach McDonnell’s daughter and I’m calling to talk to you about a very special fund-raising festival we have planned for the summer.”
Fund-raising festival. “So Coach isn’t dead?”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to say that out loud.”
“Why would you think that?” Her voice was still sexy, but it wasn’t warm anymore.
“You’re calling me, out of the blue, after fourteen years. I thought you were going to ask me to be a pallbearer or something.”
“You’ve been gone fourteen years, but you think I’d ask you to carry my father’s casket? If he was dead, of course. Which he’s not.”
“You wouldn’t ask me to be a pallbearer, but you’ll ask me for money?” Not that he had any to give.
“No.” He heard her exasperated breath over the phone line. “Can we start over?”
“Sure.” Wasn’t like the conversation could go any worse.
Chase tried to remember what Coach’s daughter looked like. She’d been a sophomore during his senior year, so he probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to her if she hadn’t always been around because of her dad. Thick, straight blond hair. Not much in the way of a rack, but she’d had killer legs. That was about all he remembered. Oh, and that she hadn’t liked him much, for some reason.
“Things are bad in Stewart Mills,” Kelly said. He wasn’t surprised. Things were bad all over and New Jersey certainly wasn’t a picnic at the moment. “The school budget’s been whittled down to bare bones and they cut the football team.”
He waited a few seconds, but she didn’t tell him why she called to tell him that. “And you want me to . . . what, exactly?”
Over the line, he heard her take a deep breath. “I want you to come home.”
“I’m not sure what you mean by that, but I am home.”
“We need to raise enough money to fund the team until the economy swings back around, and we’re starting with a two-week-long fund-raising festival. We’re hoping to get as many players from the first Stewart Mills Eagles championship team as we can back to Stewart Mills to take part in the events.”
“When? For how long?” Not that it mattered.
“Next month. We’d love the whole two weeks and we’re hoping for at least the closing weekend, but we’ll work around any commitment we can get.”
“I wish you all the best, but—”
“Let me tell you some of the events we have planned,” Kelly interrupted. “Besides the standard bake sales and traffic tollbooths, we’re planning a street fair and—most exciting of all—an exhibition game featuring the alumni players versus the current team. We’ll wrap things up with a parade on the Fourth of July before the fireworks.”
Getting the crap beat out of him by a bunch of teenagers on the football field wasn’t very high on Chase’s to-do list. “I have a lot going on. Work and . . . stuff.”
“My dad had a lot of work and stuff going on, too, but he was there for you. How many hours did he spend with you over the years, making sure you didn’t flunk off the team? Bet that college degree came in handy when you were starting your own business.”
He leaned back in his chair and groaned. “That’s a dirty play.”
“There’s a lot riding on this. I’ll do whatever I have to.”
It might be a slight exaggeration to say he owed everything to Coach McDonnell, but not much. Even if Chase’s life was currently going to crap, he’d had a lot of opportunities over the years he wouldn’t have had without a stubborn old man who refused to give up on him.
“I’ll see what I can do.” There. That was vague and noncommittal.
“I hope to hear from you soon. Without the Eagles to coach, I don’t know what’ll keep my dad going.”
Even as he recognized her lack of subtlety in laying on the emotional blackmail, his heart twisted and he heard himself say, “I’ll be there. I’ll make it work.”
“Great. I’ll be in touch soon with more details and to nail down the dates.” She was smart enough to end the call before he could talk himself out of it.
Once he’d hung up, Chase laced his fingers behind his head and stared up at the ceiling. He hadn’t thought about Stewart Mills in ages, but now that he had, he couldn’t help but crave a little one-on-one time with Coach McDonnell. He loved his parents, but they’d been either unwilling or unable to keep their thumbs on him academically or be a shoulder when he needed one.
He sure as hell could use a shoulder to lean on right now, as well as some pseudo-paternal advice. Besides, if he couldn’t straighten out the mess his partner had made in the next month, a couple of weeks wasn’t going to hurt. For Coach, he’d make the time.
If there was one thing Kelly McDonnell had learned in her years as the daughter of the Stewart Mills Eagles high school football coach, it was that hesitation got you sacked. If you wanted to win, you had to pick your play and execute it with no second guesses.
And as much as she’d also learned to hate sports analogies during those twenty-eight years, this one she had to take to heart. She was fighting for her dad and for her town, and she couldn’t lose, so she had to execute the only play she had left in her book.
It was crazy, though. She was crazy. Hail Mary passes didn’t even begin to describe the desperate phone calls she’d made. But they were going to work, and that made all the trouble worth it.
She already had several commitments. Alex Murphy, defensive tackle, had been hard to track down but agreed to come back after she reminded him of the many times her father had bailed him out of jail after fights and taught him to channel his aggression into football. The quarterback, Sam Leavitt, was coming all the way from Texas. The son of an abusive drunk, he was probably the kid Coach had cursed the most, loved the most and done the most for. And Chase Sanders, running back, had bowed to her not-so-subtle pressure as well and was driving up from New Jersey.
So, the good news—Chase Sanders was coming back to town. The bad news—Chase Sanders was coming back to town.
“Officer McDonnell?” Kelly looked up when the school secretary said her name, shoving Sanders to the back of her mind, where he belonged. “Miss Cooper’s available now.”
Kelly nodded her thanks and made her way through the maze of short hallways—one of the joys of a hundred-plus-year-old brick school—until she came to the guidance counselor’s office. She didn’t have to worry about getting lost. Besides the fact that she’d walked the same halls as a teenager herself, as a police officer she’d spent a lot of time in Jen Cooper’s office. The budget didn’t allow for a full-time school resource officer, but Kelly filled the role as best she could anyway.
She’d barely closed the door behind her when Jen pointed at her and said, “You have to save football.”
Kelly laughed at her best friend’s irritation and sat in one of the visitor chairs. “You know I’m trying.”
“The boys are already getting into trouble. Since March, when the budget for next school year was decided, they’ve been sliding, and now, with this school year almost over and finals right around the corner, they’re losing their minds.” Jen leaned back in her chair, rocking it as she always did when agitated. “Without the threat of August football tryouts to keep them in line, I don’t know how some of them will stay on track this summer.”
“I’m going to put them to work. If they want to play this fall, they’ll have to work for it, even if it’s doing car washes every Saturday all summer.”
“Hunter Cass hasn’t done any homework for over a week. I had him in today and he told me since he didn’t need to maintain at least a C average to keep his sports eligibility, he didn’t see the point.”
Kelly shook her head, feeling a pang of sadness. Hunter had struggled to keep a D average through middle school, and only the promise of playing football got him to work hard enough to stay above the cutoff. With the help of the peer tutoring program Jen had started, the running back was carrying a B-minus average before they announced the program cuts.
Like Chase Sanders, she realized. Football had inspired him to do better academically, too, and he’d made something of himself. The difference was that Chase had struggled with learning techniques, and Hunter just didn’t give a crap.
“When we get a few more details nailed down, we’ll be able to start putting the kids to work. Once they can see there’s something they can do to save their team, they’ll get back on track.”
Jen leaned forward so she could prop her elbows on the desk. “What if they put in the time and the work and it’s not enough?”
That would be so much worse for the boys, so Kelly was going to make sure that didn’t happen. “It’ll be enough.”
“Where are the alumni going to stay?”
Kelly appreciated the switch to talking about things they could control. “To save money, we’re boarding them with families in town. It’s a little awkward, but since our only motel has plywood on the windows, it would cost a lot to find someplace else for them, and then we’d have to provide transportation, too. My mom decided to ask around, and she’s in charge of matching them up.”
“Who gets to stay with Coach?”
Kelly rolled her eyes. “Chase Sanders.”
She appreciated the battle Jen fought to hide it, but her friend couldn’t stop the grin. “Was that your mom’s idea . . . or yours?”
“Mom’s.” Boarding the guy she’d had a crush on in school at her parents’ home, where she spent a lot of her time, would never have been her idea. “And I never should have told you I liked him, even though that was a long time ago.”
Jen picked up her pen and started doodling on a notepad. “He’s not married, is he?”
“I don’t think so. The only guy who mentioned having to talk to his wife was John Briscoe. Remember him? Tall, skinny, played wide receiver.”
“Vaguely.” Jen sighed and set the pen down, which was good since she was really burning through the ink, judging by the number of doodles already on the pad. “I’m losing them, Kelly.”
“The most important thing is that they see us fighting for them.”
Jen nodded, but Kelly wasn’t surprised at the lack of conviction on her friend’s face. They both had front-row seats to the toll the economic downswing was having on the town’s kids. With their parents fighting unemployment, bankruptcy, foreclosure, depression and each other, the children were falling through the cracks. Alcohol-related calls were on the rise, as were domestic calls, and lately the Stewart Mills PD had seen a sharp increase in the number of complaints against teens. Drinking, smoking, trespassing, vandalizing, shoplifting. The kids were doing more of it, there was less tolerance for their behavior and their homes were pressure cookers. Somebody had to fight for them.
Kelly had to make their fund-raiser a success, no matter what, not only for her dad but for the entire town, too. She’d work her butt off and schmooze and beg if she had to. She’d also do her best to ignore the fact that Chase Sanders would be sleeping in the room where she’d spent her teenage years daydreaming about him. She had no idea which task would be more difficult.
Chase managed to bash his knuckles twice on his way down the stairs with the last of Rina’s boxes, which did nothing to improve his mood.
She’d moved the bulk of her stuff out already, but as he’d packed his own belongings over the last few weeks, he kept finding things of hers. He’d tossed those items in separate boxes and then, when he was sure he’d gotten everything, he texted her to come and get them. She’d come up with a lame excuse and sent Donny, her new boyfriend, instead.
Nothing soured a day like having to play nice with the guy who’d been banging his girlfriend.
“That’s the last one?” Donny asked after Chase tossed the box into the back of the guy’s truck.
“Yeah.” He was about to walk away, when Donny stuck his hand out. Chase stared at it for a few seconds, debating on punching the guy in the face, but he’d been raised better than that and shook his hand.
“No hard feelings,” Donny said.
Chase squeezed, tightening his grip until the man Rina had chosen over him winced. Then he turned and went inside, slamming the door a little harder than was necessary. That was enough playing nice.
With the exception of the duffel bags by the door and a few odds and ends on the kitchen counter, almost everything he owned was in boxes in a storage locker, waiting to be moved to a new, much smaller apartment the weekend after he returned from Stewart Mills.
By downsizing his life, groveling and bargaining, he’d managed to clear up most of his business woes. And, most importantly, he’d sold the engagement ring he’d bought Rina back when times were good and he was feeling flush. Every time he’d thought he was ready to pop the question, though, something had held him back, and the ring had stayed hidden in the bottom of a beer stein from college, under miscellaneous guy debris she had no interest in sifting through.
He wasn’t sure why he’d never asked her to be his wife, yet considering she was living with Donny and the ring was paying not only for his trip to Stewart Mills but also the first and last month’s rent on a new place once he found one, it was a damn good thing he hadn’t.
After one final look around, Chase tossed his stuff into his truck and hit the road. It was a nine-hour drive, so if he pushed straight through, he’d get into Stewart Mills early evening. If he was going to be any later than that, he’d spend the night in a motel and arrive in the morning.
He had one quick stop to make before he left town. When he’d told his parents he was going back to Stewart Mills and why, his old man had called him an idiot, and his mom had told him to swing by and pick up a pie. It was intended as a hostess gift for Mrs. McDonnell, but Chase was afraid if Coach’s wife had ever had his mom’s pie and remembered the experience, she might not let him in the door with it.
His parents’ home was in a small neighborhood made up mostly of retirees, though his mother still worked. She claimed she enjoyed doing insurance claim work for a large auto body shop, but Chase suspected she couldn’t handle her husband 24/7. Nobody could. Today she was home, though, her shiny compact car squeezed into the driveway alongside the massive Cadillac that Bob Sanders had bought back during Clinton’s first term in the Oval Office.
His mom was on the sofa when he walked in, watching some kind of cooking show. “Hi, honey. Your father’s out back.”
It was the standard greeting, but he stopped and kissed her cheek on his way through the house. “Hi, Ma.”
His old man was on the tiny dock that matched all the other tiny docks up and down the canal that ran through the neighborhood. He had a bulk package of cheap chicken drumsticks and was shoving a couple of pieces of raw poultry into each of his wire traps. Ma would be making fresh crabmeat-salad sandwiches for lunch.
Chase hated seafood. Especially crab.
“You heading north today?” Bob asked when Chase reached the dock.
“In a few minutes. Ma made a pie for Mrs. McDonnell.”
Chase grinned and shoved his hands in his pockets, but the smile faded as the silence stretched toward awkward. They’d never had a lot to say to each other, but their relationship was particularly strained at the moment.
Bob Sanders made no bones about being disappointed—and maybe a little embarrassed—by the failure of Chase’s business, no matter how much of it was due to the economy and Seth’s financial shenanigans rather than mismanagement on Chase’s part. Chase’s impending return to Stewart Mills had also dredged up his buried resentment that his father had written him off as stupid, and it had taken Coach McDonnell to show him he wasn’t.
Bob lowered the last trap into the water, shoved the empty chicken packaging back into the plastic shopping bag and turned to face Chase. “Get everything straightened out?”
“More or less. Got most people willing to wait for pay until the lawyers catch up with Seth. Scraped together enough to stay out of bankruptcy court, and managed to find contractors to handle the jobs I can’t afford to do now. Things are tight, but I’ll probably get to keep my shirt.”
“And you think it’s a good idea to go to New Hampshire right now?”
Yeah, he did, because Coach needed him. “Probably not, but I’m going anyway. This mess will still be here when I get back.”
Chase followed his dad back to the house and, since the conversation seemed to have run its course, he got the pie and got the hell out of there. He thought about ditching the hostess gift in a rest area trash can, but if his mother tried to call him at the McDonnells’ and the pie—or lack of one—came up in conversation, he’d never hear the end of it.
He turned the music up too loud, drove a little too fast and drank way too much coffee, but he pulled into Stewart Mills a little past six. A perfectly respectable time to show up on Coach’s doorstep.
As he drove through Stewart Mills, though, he noticed the town had changed a lot, and not necessarily for the better. A lot of For Sale signs. A few bank auction signs. They’d obviously done some restoration work on the historic covered bridge, but it didn’t distract from the dark, silent shell of the paper mill looming behind it that used to be the lifeblood of the town.
There was also a new stop sign, he realized as he went through the intersection. Without stopping.
And the Stewart Mills Police Department had a fairly new four-wheel-drive SUV, too.
There hadn’t been a stop sign at that intersection fourteen years ago, Chase thought as he pulled off to the side of the road, making sure there was plenty of room for both his truck and the SUV with the flashing blue lights.
It was one hell of a welcome home.
Kelly untethered her weapon and approached the pickup truck with her hand on the butt of the gun. It wasn’t because of the out-of-state license plates—those were common enough due to tourists having to pass through Stewart Mills to get to the four-wheeling and snowmobiling playgrounds farther north—but because it was protocol. The simplest of traffic stops could turn ugly fast if the idiot behind the wheel had something to hide.
She stopped a little behind the driver’s window so she could see him, but he would only be able to catch glimpses of her uniform in his mirror. As she opened her mouth to ask for his license and registration, the pieces clicked in her overworked mind and she shut it again. New Jersey plates. The timing. The profile she used to moon over.
Chase Sanders was back in town, and blowing a stop sign was one hell of an entrance.
“License and registration, please.”
His head tilted just a little and Kelly rolled her eyes. Here it came—all the cheesy charm men shoveled out when the badge was pinned to a female breast. If he didn’t at least make a comment about the handcuffs, she’d do an extra mile on the treadmill.
“Here you go, Officer.” He handed the stuff out the window. “How did such a pretty lady end up in law enforcement?”
Gee, that was original. And since he could only see her from neck to waist, and her vest didn’t do much for the girls, the fake flattery was wasted. “A guy with no respect for traffic laws broke my heart in high school and this is how I get my revenge.”
“Did he have no respect for frisking, too, because I wouldn’t mind taking the payback for that one.”
Running her hands up and down Chase Sanders’s tall, broad body? Maybe burying her fingers in that thick, dark hair? Sure beat the hell out of scrubbing Albert Hough’s vomit off her backseat when she didn’t get him to the drunk tank fast enough.
He leaned his elbow on his door, craning his head around in an obvious attempt to see her. “If you do need to frisk me, feel free to handcuff me first. I won’t struggle . . . much.”
Ha! No extra treadmill time. “I don’t think handcuffs will be necessary.”
“That’s too bad, Officer . . .” He was trying to read her name tag, so she stepped forward. “McDonnell?”
She pushed her hat back so he could see her face. “Welcome home, Chase.”
“Holy sh— Coach’s daughter. Just so you know, I’m not usually this cheesy.”
“I’m flattered you dusted it off just for me.”
He smiled at her and she remembered the look well from the countless times he’d used it in high school to get his way with teachers, parents and pretty girls. “Flattered enough to skip the ticket?”
She couldn’t issue a citation for one of their guests of honor two minutes after he rolled into town. “Just this once.”
After he tucked his license back into his wallet and tossed the registration in the glove box, he leaned on the top of the door and looked her over. “So, a cop, huh?”
“A police officer, yes.”
“A woman who likes to be in control.”
She slapped the side of his truck before handcuffs came up again. “How about if I give you an escort to my parents’ house? There’s a new stop sign on Dearborn Street I don’t want you to miss.”
“With lights and sirens?”
“No.” Kelly went back to the SUV, wondering if Chase was watching her walk away in the mirror, and feeling like an idiot for caring.
Once she’d buckled up, she steered out around his truck and drove across town. She might have paused a few extra seconds at each of the stop signs, just to be a smart-ass, but he deserved it for the cheesy—and wholly unoriginal—lines.
When they got to the end of Eagles Lane, which had been renamed the year Chase and his teammates won the championship, Kelly flipped on the light bar. No siren, but the flashing blue added a little splash to his arrival.
By the time she’d pulled to the curb and waved Chase around so he could park in the driveway, her parents were standing on the front porch of the old New Englander–style farmhouse she’d grown up in. Walt, who hadn’t been called anything but Coach for as long as Kelly could remember, and Helen McDonnell were healthy and happy as they headed toward their midfifties, but she could see the signs of strain around their eyes.
Coach was trying to keep his spirits up, especially around his team, but his faith in Kelly’s Hail Mary plan was shaky.
“Sanders!” Her dad met their guest at the halfway point of the walkway and enveloped him in a hug. “How the hell are you, boy?”
“Good to see you, Coach.”
There was some manly back-thumping, and then Chase moved to her mother. “Thank you for inviting me to stay with you, Mrs. McDonnell.”
“It means so much that you came.” She accepted his hug and kissed his cheek. “And don’t you think it’s time you call me Helen?”
“Not quite yet, Mrs. McDonnell.”
“Well, grab your things and we’ll get you settled in.”
“I should warn you, my mother sent a pie.”
Kelly admired the way her mother didn’t grimace, though she’d probably cringed on the inside. Kelly remembered the pies Mrs. Sanders had contributed to the football team’s bake sale fund-raisers back in high school. She was pretty sure some generous supporter had paid to make those pies disappear, leaving filling-smeared empty pans behind to save Mrs. Sanders’s feelings.
“You coming in for a while?” Coach asked her.
“Can’t. I’m on duty until eleven and I have to be in for eight tomorrow morning. In between, I have to shower, eat and hopefully sleep.” She wasn’t complaining, though. She’d been lucky enough to keep her job when budget cuts downsized the department.
“O’Rourke’s at nine?”
“If nothing comes up.” She let Coach kiss her cheek, then waved to her mom. “I’ll call you when I get a chance.”
“Nice to see you again, Kelly,” Chase said.
She faced him, fixing on her “work” smile. “You, too. We really appreciate you coming back, and Coach can give you my cell number if you don’t have it. If you need anything, just call.”
“And somebody will tell me what I’m supposed to be doing?”
“You’re a couple of days early so, for now, just relax and make yourself at home.”
She got out of there before any of them got the idea to twist her arm into eating her share of the pie Mrs. Sanders had sent.
The rest of her shift was quiet, which was good. A call after regular business hours usually meant the teens were up to no good, or a domestic situation had gone bad.
The downside was how much time her mind had to wander, and the way it kept wandering to Chase Sanders. Until the idea for the fund-raiser had come to her, she hadn’t really thought about him in years. But she’d thought about him in high school. A lot.
She’d been around the team all the time, helping Coach however she could—being water girl or equipment manager or keeping stats—despite his desire that she shake her pom-poms for the Eagles. Once the nurses had confirmed his wife hadn’t given birth to a future quarterback, Coach gave his newborn daughter the most cheerleader-like name he could think of.
Kelly wasn’t the pom-pom type, though, so she’d divided her time between the library and hanging around the fringes of the team. Since Chase never seemed to notice her, she’d pretended to dislike him so nobody would ever guess how she felt about him. As far as she knew, nobody had ever figured it out, except her closest friends.
She was a lot older and wiser now, and no longer the type to fall for a pretty face and cheesy lines. She’d done it once, falling for a guy who was a lot like Chase Sanders, and the crashing and burning of her marriage had taught her a thing or two about relationships. Think first, then think again, and then consider sexual chemistry.
So far, only one of the guys had gotten past thinking first, and that one didn’t get past the thinking again. Even if her body waxed nostalgic about her long-ago yearnings for Chase, she had no doubt any lingering attraction wouldn’t survive a liberal dose of logic.
Walking into Coach’s house took Chase back fourteen years to his senior year of high school.
The décor had changed. Rich cream-colored paint had replaced the floral wallpaper, and the furniture was different, even if no longer new. The picture of Kelly in her police uniform, standing between Coach and her mother at what appeared to be some kind of graduation, was definitely a new addition. Just as it had been tonight, her blond hair was in one of those fancy braids that ended below her collar, and her legs still went on forever. Since she wasn’t wearing the boob-smashing vest in the picture, he could see she’d blossomed a little in that department while he’d been ignoring her, too.
But the warm, welcoming feel of the McDonnell home wasn’t new, enveloping him just as it had the first time Coach dragged teen Chase home with him.
Since he was carrying a pie, it made sense for him to follow Mrs. McDonnell into the kitchen, and that’s where the memories really reared up in his mind. The old, sturdy oak table was still there. He couldn’t even count the number of hours he’d spent at that table, doing his homework. Whenever he got confused and frustrated, Coach or Mrs. McDonnell would pull out the chair next to his and talk him through the problem, no matter how long it took. Sometimes Kelly would come downstairs when she was done with her own homework and help him, though not often. He always suspected the McDonnells knew his academic struggles would be more embarrassing with her around to watch.
He had no idea how he would have turned out if not for the two people currently dishing up his mother’s pie. He wouldn’t have gone to college, that was for damn sure. Maybe he never would have left Stewart Mills, and his sister would never have visited him on campus and fallen in love—and pregnancy—with a local boy, which had led to his parents’ move and the entire family ending up in New Jersey.
His life may be in chaos, but it beat a dead-end job in a dead-end town.
“We turned the guest room into Coach’s office years ago,” Mrs. McDonnell was saying. “I hope you won’t mind staying in Kelly’s old room.”
“Of course not.” He really hoped Kelly hadn’t been a frilly and pink kind of girl. Spooning with stuffed unicorns wasn’t his thing.
“I was going to turn it into a craft room—”
“You mean a room with your own TV,” Coach interrupted.
“But before I made up my mind, Kelly was going through the divorce, and she moved back in for a while.”
So Kelly had been married? He wasn’t sure why that piqued his interest, but he was smart enough not to ask any questions about it. Looking like he was trying to hook up with Coach’s daughter would be even worse than running a stop sign, as far as being welcomed back went.
“How are your parents?” Coach asked as they pulled out chairs to sit in front of the pie slices his wife set on the table.
“Good.” He flailed around in his head, trying to come up with more to say. “They’re good.”
“And your sister?” Mrs. McDonnell added. “Kathleen, right?”
“Kathy’s good, too. She and her husband own a secondhand furniture store and have three daughters.”
“No kids for you yet?”
Chase shrugged. “Not yet. Almost had a wife, but it didn’t work out.”
They caught up a little over his mother’s pie, all of them going a little heavy on the milk to wash it down, and Chase noticed that not only did he skirt around the issue of his company’s woes, but Coach didn’t seem too inclined to delve into the town’s problems, either, or his own.
After pie, he grabbed his bag and followed Mrs. McDonnell up the stairs to the small bedroom at the back of the house. No pink, thankfully, or boy band posters on the wall. The room was mostly creams and whites, with a funky, homemade-looking quilt on the twin bed and a rag rug in the middle of the hardwood floor. Either Kelly had been a neat freak in her teens, or most of her childhood history had been boxed up.
A few hours later, when he’d gone to bed simply because it was obvious the McDonnells were already up past their bedtime, he stared at the ceiling and tried not to think about Kelly McDonnell. Actually, thinking about Kelly wasn’t the problem. It was trying not to think about her handcuffs that was causing him problems. He couldn’t figure out what it was about her that had him tossing and turning, so he chalked it up to his body looking for some stress relief. He wasn’t comfortable with relieving that stress by hand, so to speak, under Coach’s roof, so he gritted his teeth and suffered.
Chase woke up the next morning, disoriented and with a heaviness in his gut he suspected might be his mother’s pie. Light on the breakfast, he told himself as he pulled on some clothes to walk down the hall to the bathroom. When he got downstairs, Mrs. McDonnell shoved a full coffee mug into his hand, and he struggled to wake up while his hosts went through their morning routine.
“I’m heading to O’Rourke’s in a few minutes,” Coach told him. “The missus doesn’t make breakfast on days I go there, so if you’re hungry, you’d best come along.”
Not nearly enough minutes later, and still suffering a caffeine shortage, Chase slid into a booth across from Coach and tried to decide what his stomach was up to dealing with. He would have thought the laminated menu was the same one he’d looked at the last time he’d been in O’Rourke’s, except the prices were higher.
Don and Cassandra Jones had opened the restaurant in 1984 and, according to the anecdotal history of Stewart Mills, they were going to use their own last name. After half the town got sucked into a two-week-long battle over apostrophe placement, Cassandra had gotten mad and ordered a sign with her maiden name, so O’Rourke’s Family Restaurant was born in a town that didn’t have a single O’Rourke in the telephone book.
Coach ran his finger down the menu, making sounds of indecision as he read. “I usually have the hash and cheese omelet since the wife won’t let me have them after my cholesterol check, but I’m not that hungry this morning.”
“Me neither, to tell you the truth.”
Amusement crinkled the corners of Coach’s eyes. “Make sure you tell your mom we said thanks for the pie.”
“The gift that keeps on giving,” Chase muttered, but his mood brightened considerably when their waitress set an oversized mug of coffee in front of him. No dainty teacups for O’Rourke’s.
Then he looked toward the door and saw Kelly McDonnell walking toward them. Either the caffeine chose that second to hit his bloodstream, or he had a serious, previously undiscovered thing for women in uniform.
Or maybe just this woman in uniform. She still had those killer legs, and the rest of her wasn’t bad, either. The hat was left somewhere, probably in the cruiser, and her hair was braided so tightly he was surprised she wasn’t squinting.
There were a few seconds of awkwardness because Chase and Coach were both sitting in the center of their booth seats, but Coach took care of that. “Slide over, Chase, and let my daughter sit.”
Kelly smelled as good as her legs looked in the navy pants, and Chase lifted his mug to his mouth so the coffee aroma could block out the surprisingly sweet and slightly fruity cop smell.
“Glad you could make it,” Coach told her.
“It’s pretty quiet this morning.”
Chase chuckled. “Like Stewart Mills becomes a hotbed of crime in the afternoon. New Hampshire’s very own Gotham City.”
When neither of his breakfast companions laughed, he realized he may have stepped in it. Rather than sink further into the conversational muck trying to talk his way out of it, he gulped some more coffee.
“You’ve been gone a long time,” Kelly said as she stirred cream and sugar into her coffee. “And the worse things get for people financially, the more desperate they get. Shoplifting, burglary, domestic violence. All of it sees an increase.”
He knew all about things getting tight, and Seth had shown him how good people did shitty things when they got desperate. But Chase knew, as bad as it was, he was luckier than many. Not only did it look like he’d be able to tread water, but he also didn’t have a wife and kids to worry about dragging down with him if he sank.
“And the kids are acting out?” he asked.
Coach nodded. “Yeah. And some of them only walked the straight and narrow because they knew I’d kick their butts off the team if they didn’t. If they know there won’t be tryouts come August—”
“There will be,” Kelly interrupted. Her voice was low and firm, and Chase wondered if she used that voice while handcuffing miscreants, which led him to wonder if she’d use that voice being bossy in bed. Then he wondered if she’d notice if he squirmed in his seat. “Stewart Mills is coming together to save the team. They’ll dig deep.”
“Digging deep doesn’t do much good if all you’ve got in your pockets is lint. School spirit and good intentions won’t pay the bills.”
The man sounded defeated, and that started an ache in Chase’s chest. The coach who had changed his life had been inspiring and tough, and he’d refused to give up on anything. Not on his unlikely dream of a state championship. Not on a group of misfit boys who weren’t an easy bunch to wrangle. But it sounded like the fight was going out of him.
The waitress showed up to take their order and then stopped back to top off their coffees. Kelly shifted on the hard bench seat, and her knee bumped his leg.
“Sorry,” she muttered.
He didn’t mind at all. He didn’t mind when her leg brushed his ten minutes later, either, or when they both reached for the salt at the same time and almost ended up holding hands.
What he did mind, though, was sitting across from the man he respected more than any other in the world, thinking increasingly inappropriate thoughts about that man’s only child.
Coach’s daughter was so off-limits for a rebound fling she might as well get a roll of police tape out of her trunk and wrap herself in it. And a rebound fling was all he had to offer any woman. Even though he hadn’t been ready to put a ring on Rina’s finger, Chase had been with her a long time, and it still stung pretty badly that she’d left him for another guy when the going got a little rough. Whether it stung his heart or his pride more, Chase couldn’t quite say, but he knew one thing—he had to clean up his own life before he even thought about another relationship. He had to at least have something to offer.
If Coach caught a whiff of Chase’s attraction to Kelly and asked what his intentions were, the only answer would be nothing honorable. Chase had to stop looking at Kelly McDonnell like a smoking-hot police officer with the sexy voice and the really sexy handcuffs, and start looking at her as Coach’s daughter.
That fruity scent of hers was the smell of forbidden fruit, and Chase Sanders wasn’t going to bite. No matter how strong the temptation.
Organized chaos Kelly could deal with, but the Eagles Fest meeting was the chaos without the organization. The teens, who were supposed to be doing the bulk of the work, were huddled in the back of the high school art room, giggling and talking and in general trying to look cool.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Under the Lights
“Great story! Shannon Stacey always takes readers on a compelling journey to happiness by writing the kind of characters you want to be best friends with and the types of places you want to call home. With humor, emotion and captivating characters, Under the Lights will make you believe in love, second chances, and happily ever after. Take the journey to love with Shannon Stacey and enjoy the ride—you won’t be disappointed.”—Jaci Burton, New York Times bestselling author
Praise for the novels of Shannon Stacey
“I love Shannon Stacey’s voice.”—New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh
“A sexy, comical, feel-good read that left me impatient for the next installment.”—USA Today
“Deeply satisfying.”—Publishers Weekly
“Books like this are why I read romance.”—Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
“Stacey writes such fun, warm characters with the backdrop of a great small town, that I was totally engrossed.”—Smexy Books