Sitting in a hospital waiting room with a pack of scared and sweaty teenage boys while wearing a little black dress and high heels wasn’t Jen’s idea of a fun Friday night.
Nothing could have dragged her out of there, though. Not even the promise of flip-flops and her favorite yoga pants. The police officer leaning against the wall and staring at the ceiling was Kelly McDonnell, one of her best friends. It had been Kelly who was the first to arrive when the 911 call came in from football practice. Kelly’s dad—Coach McDonnell—had collapsed on the high school’s field and they were afraid he was having a heart attack.
When Kelly called her from the emergency room, Jen had been in her car, on her way to a second date with the first guy in a long time who actually had potential to make her forget the man she spent too much time thinking about, but she hadn’t even hesitated before canceling. Kelly needed her.
“Miss Cooper, do you think it’ll be much longer?”
Jen looked at the young man who’d asked the question in such a low voice, it was almost a whisper. PJ, the team’s cornerback, bore the same solemn expression as the rest of the football players in the room. Coach was more than the guy who taught them to play football. He was a mentor and a role model and, when need be, a father figure.
“I don’t know, PJ. If it’s too much longer, we’ll start working on how to get you all home.”
“We’re not leaving,” Hunter Cass said. The running back gave her a look that practically dared her to try asserting authority over them.
As the school’s guidance counselor, her authority didn’t technically extend to hospital waiting rooms. This was her hometown, though, and as far as Jen was concerned, her sense of responsibility for these kids didn’t end when the dismissal bell rang, and it never had.
“Nobody’s making you leave right now,” she said. “But if we don’t hear something soon, you guys will need food and rest. And your parents will want you home before it’s too late.”
She could tell he wanted to argue with her but, after a glance at Kelly, Hunter shut his mouth and leaned his back against the wall again. Jen almost wished he had pushed back because she wouldn’t feel so damn helpless. Keeping teenagers in line and on track was her job, and she was good at it. But she had no idea what to do for Kelly or her mom.
Coach McDonnell’s wife, Helen, sat quietly on the couch opposite Jen’s. She was leaning forward, with her elbows resting on her knees, and was staring at her clasped hands. She hadn’t really said anything after thanking the boys for being there, and Jen’s heart was breaking for her.
It was at least another fifteen minutes before a nurse walked into the waiting room. “Officer McDonnell? Helen? You can come with me.”
Jen tried to read the nurse’s facial expression before the three women stepped out. She couldn’t remember the woman’s name off the top of her head, but they’d met a few times. The hospital wasn’t very big, but it served a large area—including Jen’s hometown of Stewart Mills, New Hampshire—so it was inevitable they’d crossed paths. And based on those few interactions, Jen could see the nurse had been relaxed and didn’t appear to be dreading talking to Coach’s wife and daughter.
The boys, though, managed to ratchet the tension up to an almost palpable level. Jen hoped she was right in her assessment of the situation because if the news wasn’t good, she had no idea what she was going to do with an entire football team of emotionally devastated boys. Especially after the roller coaster this year had been. The low of the budget cuts that canceled the football program, which had kept many of the boys on track in the economically depressed town. The success of Eagles Fest, the community-wide effort to raise the money to keep the boys on the field. Losing Coach now would be a low they wouldn’t recover from for a long time.
When the door opened and Kelly walked in, Jen knew she wasn’t the only one holding her breath. Her friend had been crying, but whether they were tears of sorrow or relief, she couldn’t tell.
“He’s going to be okay.” Kelly paused for a moment to let the boys react to the good news. “He had a heart attack, but he’s awake now and hooked up to a bunch of monitors.”
“Can we see him?” one of the boys asked.
“Not for a while. They’ve moved him to ICU, which is family only. We don’t know yet how long he’ll be in there or if they’ll put him in a regular room. Cody, you’re a captain, so you’re going to be my liaison. You and I can keep in touch, and you can keep the rest of the team up to date. I don’t need all of you calling my mother or my dad’s cell, okay? Or me.”
Cody Dodge, tight end for the Eagles, nodded, as did the rest of the boys. Jen smiled and stood up, stretching her back. “I’ll make sure everybody has a way home.”
Kelly nodded. “You mind sticking around after? I’m going to go see Dad, but then I’ll need to get the cruiser back and change, and I don’t want my mom here alone.”
“Tell her I’ll be right here if she needs anything.”
It took almost half an hour to empty the waiting room of football players, and then Jen pulled out her phone and relaxed against the couch. She checked her email and caught up on Facebook, managing to kill the time until Kelly walked in and plopped down next to her.
Jen dropped her phone in her lap and reached over to squeeze her best friend’s hand. “How is he?”
“Pale. Weak.” Kelly exhaled a long, shuddering sigh. “Frail. He looks frail.”
“His body might be having a frail moment, but he’s strong. He’ll be okay.”
“Yeah.” Kelly turned sideways on the cushion to face her. “He wants Sam to come back to Stewart Mills and coach the boys.”
“What? No. No, he can’t. Nope.” Jen shook her head, just in case Kelly wasn’t clear that this ridiculous idea was getting a big old oh, hell no from her. Sam Leavitt was supposed to go home to Texas and never come back.
“It’s his only request and it’s pretty important to him.”
Kelly couldn’t possibly be considering this, Jen thought as her mind spun. “You don’t call a guy who lives in Texas and ask him to run up to New Hampshire to temporarily coach high school football for a few weeks. There are assistant coaches.”
“Did you see any assistant coaches here tonight?” Kelly waved a hand around the waiting room. “Dad was running practice alone tonight. Charlie quit because he got offered a better job down south. Dan’s wife is having a baby any minute and, since it’s their first, he’s running home every ten minutes.”
“Joel’s the gym teacher, so he works them out and puts them through their paces, but he’s not a football coach.”
Jen couldn’t believe this was happening. “Decker played for the Eagles. He could coach. I know Chase has to work in New Jersey, but what about Alex? Now that he’s moved in with Gretchen, he’s in Stewart Mills enough.”
There had to be another option. Kelly’s fiancé, Chase Sanders, and Alex Murphy, who’d fallen for their friend Gretchen, had both come back to town after fourteen years away to support Eagles Fest. Their team had been the first in Stewart Mills to win the championship, and the highlight of the fund-raiser had been the exhibition game between the current team and the alumni team. There were other options. Almost any option was better.
“He wants Sam,” Kelly said quietly. “You know how he is. There’s more to it than what he’s saying, but I think he believes Sam still has unfinished business here and it’s important to him that Sam come home and coach.”
Unfinished business. That was seriously bad news. The three men—Chase, Alex and Sam—had returned to town, along with a couple of the other guys. Chase had fallen in love with Kelly. Alex had fallen in love with Gretchen.
And Sam had set the bar for sweaty, toe-curling sex with Jen on the hood of her car.
As far as she was concerned, that business was finished and needed to stay in the past. He wasn’t the kind of guy for falling in love.
* * *
Sam looked at the cell phone vibrating its way across the glass-topped patio table and sighed. He was pretty comfortable, with his ass in his favorite camp chair and his feet up on a cooler of cola on ice.
The name on the caller ID screen caught his attention, though, and he reached for it. He’d exchanged a few text messages with Kelly McDonnell since Eagles Fest had ended and he returned to Texas, but she hadn’t called.
He hit the button to answer the call. “Hey, Kelly.”
“Hi, Sam. Are you busy right now?”
He looked over the exceptionally flat horizon, watching the hot breeze play with the sand. It was cooler in the shade of his trailer, under the awning, but the only thing he’d done for the last hour was stay out of the sun after a long day of working in it. “Nope. What’s up?”
“Let me open with the fact he’s going to be fine.”
Coach. Despite the reassurance meant by her words, fear sucker-punched him in the gut. “What happened?”
“My dad had a heart attack last night. But he’s okay. I promise.”
Sam dropped his feet off the cooler so he could lean forward and rest his elbows on his knees. “Was it bad?”
“They’ve seen worse, but he’s going to be benched for a while.”
At least he’d be okay. Coach was strong and nothing could keep him down for long. “I’m glad you called to let me know. Even if, the last time you called, it was to sucker me into going back there to play football against a bunch of high school kids.”
“Yeah…about that.” Kelly hesitated and Sam braced himself for more bad news. “Dad wants you to come back to Stewart Mills again—to step in for him and coach the team.”
He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but that wasn’t it. “I don’t get it. There are other coaches. Other guys.”
“He wants you.”
Sam rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Why?”
There was a long moment of silence, and then she sighed. “To be perfectly honest, Sam, I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s important to him. And you know how he is. He probably thinks you needed a little more time in Stewart Mills. But whatever his reasons, they’re personal and he’s not sharing them with me.”
There was a time—essentially the last decade and a half—when thinking of his hometown had brought up painful memories of a shitty childhood, an alcoholic mother who couldn’t protect him from it, and what was an adolescence headed toward self-destruction until Coach McDonnell got hold of him. Coach had taught him to be a part of a team—a brotherhood, even—and how to be a man.
Since the trip back for Eagles Fest, though, thinking of his hometown evoked the sweet memory of Jen Cooper’s legs wrapped around his waist, her back arching off the hood of her car as her fingernails dug into his forearms. His mind had been evoking that particular memory a lot lately.
Kelly’s voice dragged him back to the present, which hadn’t included a woman’s company since he left New Hampshire. “I’m still here.”
“What are the chances of you coming back here?”
He thought about what he had here in Texas. A decent job as an oil-field electrician. A good truck. A mobile home that suited his needs well enough and didn’t demand much upkeep. And he had some friends he’d hit the local bar with once in a while, even though he stuck to soda.
Then he weighed that against what Stewart Mills held for him. There was the only man who’d ever given a shit about him and who needed his help. And a mother struggling to stay sober, who wanted to make amends Sam wasn’t ready for yet. And there were the good friends he’d gone too long without, but he hadn’t known just how long until he saw them again.
And there was the woman who’d shifted the earth under his feet with just a touch.
“I know it’s a lot,” Kelly said. “The season can go into November if they make the play-offs, and the doctor hasn’t given us a timeframe for Coach’s recovery yet.”
“They’ll make the play-offs,” he said. He’d seen them play and they were damn good.
She laughed softly on the other end of the line. “Maybe that kind of conviction’s why he wants you.”
Maybe. But Sam suspected the old man simply wasn’t done with him yet and had seen an opportunity to bring him home. “I’ll be there. I have to wrap up a couple of things, since my boss won’t be happy about an extended leave of absence. And I’m going to drive this time, instead of flying out so I’ll have my truck. It’ll probably be a week.”
“Thank you, Sam. It’ll mean everything to my dad.”
“He means everything to me,” Sam responded, and he was surprised to find himself a little choked up. “He’s really okay?”
“He really is. Weak, like I said, but the damage wasn’t too bad. He won’t be sneaking any more hash omelets at O’Rourke’s, though, if my mom has anything to say about it.”
“I think Mrs. McDonnell will have a lot to say about it.”
When the call was over, Sam propped his feet up on the cooler and leaned his head back against the chair.
He’d been in Texas a long time—longer than any of the many other places he’d lived over the years—but he had to admit it had never really felt like home. He’d stuck it out in New Hampshire until he got the high school diploma that meant so much to Coach and Mrs. McDonnell, and then he’d hit the road with no destination in mind but anywhere else. He’d worked a lot of odd jobs, landing in Texas, before going back to school so he could make more money.
But in fourteen years, he’d never really settled down. He’d never bought a house, instead making do with short-term rentals. He hadn’t found a woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with or started a family. He didn’t even have a dog. Maybe, deep down inside, he’d always known he’d go back to New Hampshire someday.
The first time had been a whirlwind of activities and emotion. But this time he’d be there long enough to work through some things. Maybe he could even work on forgiving his mom and making peace with his past.
Luckily, his employers thought highly of him and were willing to give him an extended leave since the alternative was him quitting. Then he packed a couple of duffel bags of clothes, along with a couple of boxes of things he’d need for the next couple of months. After dropping off a check for three months’ rent in advance with his landlord, who’d keep an eye on the place, he was ready to hit the road.
Nine days later, Sam drove into Stewart Mills and paused at the main intersection. He let his truck idle at the stop sign a little longer than was necessary to avoid getting a ticket, since there was a crop of new signs and it was easy to forget them. Then he started toward Coach’s house because, dammit, he needed a hug from the man.
When he left after high school, he never thought he’d ever return to this town. But now he was back in his hometown for the second time this year, and this time he’d be staying awhile.