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 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 & 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 frou-frou 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 twenty-eight 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 but, 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 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 McDonnell’s 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 town, though, he noticed it 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.