Shannon Stacey

Defending Hearts

Boys of Fall Series, Book 2
Berkley Jove
October 27, 2015
ISBN-13: 9780515155853
ISBN-10: 0515155853

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The New York Times bestselling author of Under the Lights presents a novel of past triumphs, present challenges, and future happily ever afters…

They were the golden boys of fall: Stewart Mills High School’s legendary championship football team. Fourteen years later, they’re back to relive their glory, save the team—and find themselves again…

Globetrotting photographer Alex Murphy returns to Stewart Mills for a football fundraiser, but stays to document the football team and the town’s changes. Since his project includes photos of the Walker farm, he rents a room there.

Needing money to save the family farm, Gretchen Walker doesn’t have time to deal with the sexy photographer in her house. After all, Alex is a man with no sense of home, and to her, home is everything. But when she finds herself falling for him, she’ll be forced to decide where her dreams really lie…

Defending Hearts

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Chapter One

Defending Hearts

Dodging bullets had a way of making a man realize he wasn’t young anymore. Dodging them for no good reason made the realization a lot harder to shove to the back of his mind.

Alex Murphy sat on the thin mattress in his shitty motel room and looked at the photo on his phone’s screen again. It wasn’t one of the many he’d taken during his week in the volatile region, using instincts and years of experience to capture on film a population on the brink of revolution. It was one some random passer-by had taken with his cellphone and it had gone viral. It was the photo the world would remember.

Alex would still sell his pictures. They told the story in a way one viral camera shot couldn’t. But times and technology were constantly changing, and sometimes he felt like a dinosaur. Photojournalismasaurus.

Burnout. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, even to himself, a decade of freelancing and travel—only to be scooped by a teenager with a cellphone and Instagram account—took its toll, and it might be time to take a break. The idea of going back to Rhode Island didn’t appeal to him, though. The apartment in Providence was a place to keep his stuff, but it had never felt like a home.

Using his thumb, Alex navigated to a recent photo album he’d set up on his phone, titled Stewart Mills, NH. After almost a decade and a half away, he’d recently spent about ten days there and, when it was time to leave, he’d found himself wishing he could stay a little longer.

He flicked through the photos, pausing over each one. Not with a technical eye, but to gauge his emotional response. Old friends laughing. People he’d known most of his life, but who were practically strangers. A town that had once been his entire world. And Coach McDonnell, who had taken the ragtag group of boys making up the Stewart Mills Eagles football team and made them men.

Alex had been on the first Stewart Mills Eagles football team to win the championship back in the day and, when the town cut the football team’s funding, he’d been one of the alumni players who returned to help out with a fund-raising drive to save it. He’d gone out of love for Coach McDonnell, but rediscovering his hometown had also reminded him of how nice it could be to have roots. He hadn’t felt grounded to any one place in a very long time.

He wanted to go back.

The plan was taking shape in his mind even as he closed out the photo app and pulled up his contacts. Calculating time zones was second nature to him at this point, so he knew it was safe to call Kelly McDonnell, the coach’s daughter and a police officer for the town. She’d given him her cell number when he was in town, and he tapped it.

She answered on the third ring. “Hey, Alex.”

“Are you busy right now?”

“Nope. I’m actually sitting in my cruiser, making sure everybody slows down and doesn’t hit the power company guys replacing a transformer. What’s up? Did you forget something?”

He laughed. “Nope. How are things in Stewart Mills?”

“Pretty good. Everybody’s still on a bit of a high from Eagles Fest, for which I can never thank you enough.”

“The Eagles are why I’m calling, actually,” he said. “I was looking through the photographs I took while I was there, and the story’s unfinished. I’m thinking about coming back for a while and following at least the opening of the team’s season.”

“Following them professionally, you mean? Like for a story?”

“If I can get releases from everybody, I’d like to do a story, yes. Or maybe even a book. There are a lot of towns going through what Stewart Mills has faced, and what you all did is pretty inspirational. And I’d like to broaden the angle, too. Make it about the entire town and not just the team, though that’s the core story, of course.”

“Wow.” There were a few seconds of silence while she digested what he’d said. “That sounds really great, as long as you respect privacy where it’s requested and recognize there are some things people wouldn’t want shared.”

He chuckled. “Don’t worry, Officer McDonnell. I won’t hurt anybody and I won’t share anything people don’t want shared.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem, then.”

Defending Hearts

“Perfect. I called you because I’m hoping, since you know the community in and out, that you could recommend a place to stay. I know the motel’s closed up, but maybe somebody willing to rent an apartment or even a house on a month-to-month, short-term basis?”

“With so many people losing their homes, the rental market’s incredibly tight right now.” She sighed and he gave her a moment to think. “You know, Gretchen was talking to me about renting a room at the farm. She hasn’t because she’s nervous about having a stranger living with her grandmother, but renting to a friend can end badly when there’s money involved.”

“I’m not a stranger, but I’m not exactly a friend, either.” He remembered Gretchen Walker from school, and he’d a chance to talk to her a few times during Eagles Fest. She was an attractive woman, but she was definitely a closed book. “All I need is a place to sleep and it wouldn’t be long-term, so maybe I’m a good opportunity for a trial run.”

“That’s what I was thinking. The room has its own bathroom and you’d have access to the kitchen, not that her grandmother would let you go hungry. I’ll talk to Gretchen and have her get back to you. She’ll have to talk it over with Gram, too. Can she call you at this number?”

“The time zones will be a horror show for the next few days, so email’s the best bet.” When she said she was ready, he gave her his email address. “It sounds perfect on my end, so I’ll look forward to hearing from her.”

Once he hung up with Kelly, Alex flopped back on the mattress and stared up at the peeling ceiling. Maybe it was the professional version of a midlife crisis, but he needed a break, and Stewart Mills seemed like the perfect place to regroup and make a plan for his future.

Chronicling the current state of his hometown and the Eagles while rediscovering his roots would simply be a bonus.

*

“You have to stop trying to sit on Gram’s lap,” Gretchen Walker told the sixty-pound chocolate Lab looking up at her with adoring eyes. “You’re not good for the circulation in her legs.”

Cocoa tilted her head sideways and blinked before raising her paw for a high five. Gretchen sighed and gave her one. It seemed to be the only trick the newest member of the Walker family knew, so it was her answer to everything.

It had been the nurse at Gram’s doctor’s office who suggested a dog might be good company for her grandmother, since Gretchen had her hands full trying to work the farm, and Gram had immediately agreed. Gretchen had driven her to the shelter in the city, anticipating a fluffy little lapdog who would be content to curl up with Gram and watch her knit the days away.

Instead, Gram had fallen in love with a big Lab the color of rich hot chocolate, and Gretchen had to admit she felt an immediate connection with the dog, too. The entire household budget had to be recalculated to accommodate the beast’s food costs, but it was nice to get a high five every once in a while. And Cocoa seemed to love the sound of Gram’s voice, so everybody was happy.

“My rocking chair isn’t big enough for both of us,” Gram pointed out. “Maybe we should trade it for one of those leather love seats with the double recliner ends and the built-in cup holders.”

Sure they should. What furniture store wouldn’t want to trade a fancy leather love seat for a decades-old glider rocker with a cushion perfectly molded to Gram’s skinny behind? “We’ll see.”

“You sound just like your grandfather when you say that. We’ll see means we can’t afford it and you don’t want to flat out tell me no.”

Gretchen didn’t bother denying it. “For now, you need to train her to curl up next to your feet on the floor. She’s too heavy to be on your lap. It’s not good for you.”

“Go wash up,” Gram said without making any promises. “Breakfast is ready.”

With a sigh, Gretchen went to the sink and washed her hands. She’d already gathered eggs from the chickens and fed the three horses they boarded for a family that lived in the southern part of the state. She’d have to clean their stalls and work in the gardens later, but for now she was starving.

“Maybe we can afford a new love seat now that the Murphy boy’s going to be living here,” Gram said while Gretchen took a seat at the table and took a scalding swallow of the coffee waiting for her.

“I’m still not sure this is a good idea.” It had seemed like a great idea when Kelly brought it to her and through multiple emails with Alex over the last two weeks but, now that it was actually going to happen, she couldn’t help but have second thoughts.

Defending Hearts

Gram set a plate of biscuits and sausage gravy in front of her. “Wouldn’t be fair to change your mind at this point. He’ll be here in a few hours.”

“I know. It’ll be strange having a man in the house again.” It had been nine years since her grandfather passed away, and it had only been her and Gram since.

“At least he’ll have his own bathroom so we won’t have to worry about falling in the toilet in the middle of the night if he leaves the seat up.”

Yeah, Gretchen thought, he’d have his own bathroom. He’d have her bathroom, along with the bedroom she’d had for years. But giving him his own space, except for the kitchen, made more sense than sharing a bathroom with him. Gretchen had never shared a bathroom with any man, and it seemed very intimate. Intimacy was definitely not what she was going for.

“I was thinking about making a ham tonight,” Gram continued. “And maybe my scalloped potatoes and creamed corn.”

Gretchen never turned down her grandmother’s creamed corn, but she didn’t like the way this was going, and the man hadn’t even arrived yet. “Alex isn’t going to be a guest. It’s a business arrangement.”

Gram sat across the table from her with her own bowl of biscuits and gravy. “He’s paying extra to eat meals with us. That’s what you said.”

“Normal meals. You don’t have to cook anything special for him.”

“I’ll worry about what I’m cooking. Did you finish getting his room ready?”

Gretchen nodded, shoving a forkful of gravy-soaked biscuit into her mouth. She’d moved all of her belongings into the room next to Gram’s, and everything from her bathroom into the one they’d be sharing. For Alex, they’d put on fresh bedding and put brand-new towels and washcloths in the bathroom.

Between Cocoa and Alex Murphy, they’d put out some cash recently, and Gretchen rubbed at the back of her neck. The room and board he’d be paying would help, but for right now, things were a little tighter than she’d like.

“You’re going to come in early, right?” Gram asked. “You should clean up before Alex gets here. Maybe take a shower. Put on a little lipstick.”

Gretchen stared across the table. “What are you talking about? I don’t even own lipstick, Gram.”

“You can borrow some of mine. Oh, Cherry Hot Pants would be a great shade on you with that dark hair of yours.”

“I am not putting Cherry Hot Pants on my lips.” Gretchen didn’t even know what else to say about that. “I’ll probably say hi and point him in the direction of his room, and then I’m going back to work.”

“You’re never going to get a husband.”

Gretchen pushed her chair back and carried her dishes to the sink. This wasn’t good. Not good at all. “I’m not putting on red lipstick. I’m not looking for a husband. Alex Murphy is going to be our tenant and nothing more. I mean it, Gram.”

The older woman smiled. “My great-grandmother ran a boarding house in London, and she took in an Irish boarder who fell head over heels for my grandmother. It was very romantic.”

“I don’t have time for romance,” Gretchen said, shoving her feet into the barn boots she’d taken off at the back door. “I’ve got horseshit to shovel.”

*

Defending Hearts

Alex hit the brake pedal hard, and the used Jeep Cherokee he’d owned for three days skidded to a stop. The Jeep’s nose was about three feet past the stop sign.

Now that he wasn’t an honored fund-raiser guest and therefore exempt from minor traffic mistakes, he glanced around to make sure he wasn’t about to be busted by any of Stewart Mills’ finest.

Several stop signs had been added between the time Alex and the others had graduated and gone off to college and their return for Eagles Fest, and they weren’t the only changes. The recession had hit hard, the mills had closed, and things had gotten really hard for the people of Stewart Mills. As he drove through town, he noticed again the number of empty storefronts and real estate signs. There seemed to be fewer foreclosure auction signs, though, which was hopefully a sign the worst was behind them.

He found the turnoff to the Walker farm by memory and drove slowly up the long and bumpy dirt driveway. The big white farmhouse needed a little TLC, but he knew from his last visit to town that Gretchen had been running the place alone since her grandfather died, and that her grandmother had had some health issues. Nothing serious, but basically it was a one-woman show.

He got out of the Jeep and was greeted by a chocolate Lab who made it clear they were going to be the very best of friends. Behind the dog was Gretchen Walker, though her greeting was a little more reserved.

“Welcome back,” she said, giving him a tight smile.

“Thanks. I’m looking forward to spending some time here.”

She nodded, folding her arms across her chest. Gretchen was tall and lean, with long, dark hair in a thick braid down her back. Old jeans tucked into even older barn boots hugged her legs, and she’d thrown a faded flannel shirt over a T-shirt.

Strong. As the dog sat at her feet, Alex composed a mental snapshot of her, and that was the word that popped into his head. Not only did she have physical strength, but she also had an air of resolve and determination about her. He had no doubt when something—anything—needed doing, Gretchen would quietly step up and get it done.

“Pretty dog,” he said, remembering she wasn’t the chatty type and it might be up to him to carry conversations.

“Thanks. Her name’s Cocoa.”

Alex smiled. “I can’t imagine why.”

“Yeah, it’s not the most original name for a chocolate Lab, but she came with it and she seems to like it. Right, Cocoa?” The dog put up her paw and he watched Gretchen give her a high five. “She also likes high fives. A lot. She knows the basics, like sit or down. Stay is a little iffy. She has no idea what get off the couch or no dogs on the bed means, but if you’re looking for somebody to celebrate with a high five, Cocoa’s your girl.”

“Who doesn’t love a high five, right?” he asked the dog, who trotted back to him so they could slap palm to paw.

“Do you need help carrying things in?”

He shook his head. “I don’t have much. I figured I’d say hello first and meet your grandmother. I’m sure we’ve met before, but it’s been a long time.”

“She’s waiting inside.”

Alex followed her around the house to the back door, which opened into the kitchen. He hadn’t been away from New England so long that he’d forgotten the front doors were for company and political door knockers. After she’d kicked off her boots, she led him into the living room, where her grandmother was sitting in an old glider rocker. She set her knitting aside just in time for the big Lab to hop up in her lap. It took Cocoa a few seconds to wedge herself into a comfortable position, and he heard Gretchen sigh before she reintroduced them to each other.

“Sit for a few minutes,” her grandmother said. “Let’s chat.”

He perched on the edge of the sofa. “Thank you for letting me rent a room in your home, Mrs. Walker.”

Defending Hearts

“Call me Ida. Or Gram. Do you like scalloped potatoes?”

“Um.” He tried to keep up. “Yes, ma’am. Ida. Gram. Yes, I like scalloped potatoes.”

“I’m going back to work,” Gretchen said. “Let me know if you need anything.”

“You’ll need to write the Internet password down for him,” Ida told her before looking back to him. “Speaking of the Internet, you don’t have any weird proclivities, do you?”

“Gram!” Gretchen stopped walking and turned back, holding her hands up in a what are you doing gesture.

“If he’s going to live under the same roof as my granddaughter, I have a right to know.”

“No, you don’t,” Gretchen said in a low voice.

“I guess I’d wonder what your definition of weird is,” Alex said at the same time.

“Don’t answer that, Gram.”

Because they were technically his new landlords, the question could be totally illegal as far as he knew. But he wasn’t particularly outraged by the turn in the conversation. “I’ve never received any complaints about weirdness with regard to my proclivities.”

“Good.” Ida gave him an approving look. “You can never be too careful.”

“That’s so true. So tell me, Gretchen, do you have any weird proclivities?”

“I am not discussing my proclivities with you.”

“If I’m going to live under the same roof with you, don’t I have a right to know?”

She shook her head, but he could see her struggling not to smile. “You have a right to know the dishwasher hasn’t worked for almost a year and a half and where the extra toilet paper’s kept. My proclivities, weird or not, are off-limits.”

If not for the fact that her grandmother was watching them, Alex might have been tempted to poke at her a little more. He’d seen her during Eagles Fest, mostly from a distance, and he knew she had an infectious, musical laugh that seemed at odds with her stern exterior. When she was with Kelly McDonnell and their friend Jen Cooper, the high school guidance counselor, Gretchen had no problem letting her sense of humor show through. He could see glimpses of it now, and he wanted to draw it out.

But she escaped into the kitchen before he could say more, and a minute later he heard the kitchen door close with a thump. Alex turned his attention back to Ida, who was rubbing between a sleeping Cocoa’s ears.

He would be in Stewart Mills for a while, so he had plenty of time to get under Gretchen Walker’s skin and make her laugh.

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