Winning the Right Brother Abigail Strom Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR She liked safe…and there was nothing safe about Alex…Practical single mum Holly had her feet firmly on the ground. Except when it came to Alex. Fifteen years ago he’d stirred her passion. But she’d been too afraid to trust her future to him. Now Alex was back, coaching her son’s football team and tempting Holly to forget how wrong they were for each other…Even when she dated his stepbrother, Holly always had Alex’s heart. And fifteen years apart had only made him want her more… So he’d just have to show her that not only was he right for her now – he was the right man forever! “How do you want to feel?” Holly propped her chin on her hand as she thought about the question. “I don’t know. I guess I was hoping for … magic.” Magic, Alex thought, remembering how his body had reacted when Holly had hugged him. “What would magic feel like?” She looked down at the table. “Well … goose bumps. Shivers. Your heart beating faster, your knees feeling weak. But I think I’m expecting too much.” She looked so vulnerable as she said that, her expression a little embarrassed, her cheeks turning pink. He wanted to tilt her chin up so she was looking right at him, he wanted to lean in close and— I could make your knees feel weak, he thought. About the Author ABIGAIL STROM started writing stories at the age of seven and has never been able to stop. She’s thrilled to be publishing her first book. She works full-time as a human resources professional and lives in New England with her family, who are incredibly supportive of the hours she spends hunched over her computer. Dear Reader, Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies when it comes to love. The more self-reliant you are, the scarier falling in love can be. It’s certainly a frightening prospect for single mom Holly Stanton. She’s been on her own for fifteen years, and the last thing she wants is to fall for Alex McKenna, her son’s new coach and her old high school nemesis. Alex isn’t ready for his feelings, either. But after spending time with the woman he once had a crush on and the boy his stepbrother abandoned, he starts to wonder if love might be worth the risk after all. It’s with great pleasure that I introduce you to Holly and Alex. They nagged me unmercifully until I put their story on paper, a story that became my first published book. I hope you have as much fun reading it as I did writing it. My very best wishes, Abigail Winning the Right Brother Abigail Strom www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) For Tara Gorvine, who made me do it. And for Susan Litman, who made a dream come true with one phone call. Chapter One “Mom! Hey, Mom!” “Up here, Will,” Holly Stanton called out. Her son came up the stairs two at a time and stood in the doorway, tossing a football from hand to hand while she finished maneuvering her new mattress onto the box spring. She’d just spent a breathless ten minutes getting it in the house and up to her bedroom. “Geez, Mom. Why didn’t you wait till I got home? I could’ve helped you.” Holly grinned at her fifteen-year-old son. His auburn hair and green eyes were so like hers, but he was ten inches taller and a hundred pounds heavier. “I didn’t need any help, Squirt. I got it up here, didn’t I? Hardly broke a sweat.” Will shook his head, but he was grinning back at her. “Someone I know says you were always like this. Never letting anybody help you. Stubborn as a mule.” Holly flipped one end of a freshly laundered sheet in his direction. “Here, if you’re so eager to be useful. And who’s this anonymous source of yours? Weston is my hometown, you know. I thought I knew who all my old friends and enemies were.” Will tucked the bottom corner of the fitted sheet under the mattress. “Believe it or not, it’s our new coach. He actually knows you, Mom. He remembers you from high school.” Holly looked skeptical. “The guy you’ve been talking about nonstop for the last two weeks? How is it that you haven’t mentioned this little fact before?” “Because I only found out today,” he said as he helped his mom lay out the top sheet and smooth out the wrinkles. “All right, what’s his name? All you ever call him is Coach.” “His name is Alex. Alex McKenna.” Holly froze. She’d been stuffing one of her bed pillows into a case, and now she stood perfectly still, clutching the pillow to her chest like a security blanket. “Alex … McKenna?” Will nodded. “Yeah. Do you remember him? I don’t think he meant to say anything about knowing you. He kind of let it slip when I was talking about you today after practice, about how you won’t let me get a job to help out with bills or anything, and how you made me choose between football and basketball, because you wanted me to spend at least part of the year thinking about classes—” “I know, I’m just crazy like that,” Holly said, but her mind was far away. Of all the memories she didn’t want to revisit … “Well, anyhow, that’s when he said you’d always been stubborn. I asked how he knew you, and he said you’d gone to high school together, and you never let anyone help you back then, either. Then he kind of brushed it off and we went back to talking about football. Do you remember him?” “Yes,” Holly said. Alex McKenna. Out of all the people she would have been happy never to hear from again, he was right at the top of the list. “I haven’t seen him since we graduated. He went to college on a football scholarship, and played professionally after that. I know he quit the NFL to go into coaching, but that was the last I heard of him.” She took a deep breath, looking across the bed at her son. Odds were he’d find out the rest one of these days. Better he hear it from her. “He’s … related to your father.” “My father?” Holly winced at the eagerness in his voice. “Yes. They’re stepbrothers. They’re not close,” she warned him. “They haven’t talked in years. So don’t think this is a way to—” “Connect to my dad?” Holly felt a stab of pain at the resigned expression that replaced the eagerness in her son’s green eyes. It made him seem much older than his fifteen years. “Don’t worry, Mom. I know better. And, anyway, I wouldn’t say anything to Coach about it. I don’t want people to think I’m trying to be a teacher’s pet or something.” Suddenly he was smiling again, the easy, open smile Holly knew so well. “I plan to earn my place on the team without any special favors.” “Of course you will,” Holly said firmly. Will rolled his eyes as he stuffed a pillow into a case and set it against the headboard. “Don’t pretend you care, Mom. You know you hate football.” “True,” Holly admitted as she plumped her pillow and reached for the blue-and-white comforter. “I do hate football—but I love you.” “Which is why you’ll let me go out after dinner, right? If I promise to be back by nine?” “On a school night?” Holly said suspiciously as the two of them spread the comforter over the bed. “To do what, exactly?” “Oh, the usual teenage stuff. Drink some beer, do some drugs, die in a spectacular car accident they’ll take pictures of for next year’s driver’s ed class—” “Just keep talking, kid. Making jokes about your tragic death is definitely the way to talk me into your little excursion. Which you still haven’t explained, by the way.” “It’s Coach’s idea. Tomorrow’s the first game of the season, which you probably forgot all about, and he wants me and the other quarterbacks to come by his house for an hour or two to go over the playbook. Make sure we’re all on the same page.” Holly sighed. “Homework?” “Done.” “Transportation?” “Coach will pick us up around seven and drop us off no later than nine, like I said.” Holly’s heart skipped a beat. “Here? Alex is coming here?” “Yes. If it’s all right with the most understanding mom in the whole entire—” Holly threw up her hands in surrender. “Fine, yes, you can go. All I ask is that you set the table for dinner and take the lasagna out of the oven in ten minutes.” She was rewarded with a huge smile. “Deal!” Will said. “And don’t forget to take out the trash!” Holly called after him as he headed out the door. “No problem!” Will called back over his shoulder. He pounded down the stairs and into the kitchen, singing the Weston Wildcat fight song at the top of his lungs. Upstairs it was suddenly quiet. For a minute Holly just stood in the middle of her room, staring at nothing. Then she moved over to the dresser and studied her reflection in the mirror that hung above it. She hadn’t seen Alex for years … not since high school, when she’d dated his stepbrother, Brian. Will’s father. Brian the golden boy, with his good grades and good looks and bright future. Then there was Alex: a year younger and everything Brian wasn’t. A natural athlete and a star on the football team but wild, rebellious, always in trouble with his teachers and his coaches for mouthing off, breaking rules, flouting authority. He’d sported a punk look back then: his hair bleached and spiked, his clothes always black—black jeans, black jacket, black combat boots. He’d played guitar and sung in a garage band, she remembered. Where Brian was safety, Alex was danger. Where Brian was predictable, Alex was volatile. In the simple world of high school where there were good girls and bad girls, the former dreamed about Brian and the latter dreamed about Alex. Although Holly’s status as a good girl was universally acknowledged, one of her best friends was Brenda, a self-proclaimed bad girl who would talk about Alex by the hour. “Holly, he’s sex on wheels. Those arms—that butt—how can you not notice?” Holly would blush at Brenda’s graphic language and shrug her shoulders. “Not my type, I guess. And, anyway, I’m dating his—” “Stepbrother, yeah, I know. Brian the Boring. I will definitely be your bridesmaid, though—as long as Alex is one of the ushers. So when are you and Brian getting married? After his graduation or yours?” Holly came slowly back to the present, smiling ruefully at her reflection in the mirror. Memories of the starry-eyed girl she’d been receded, leaving her looking at the thirty-four-year-old woman she’d become. “Mom! Dinner!” Holly snapped out of her reverie. “All right, Will! I’ll be there in a minute!” Her life had Will in it, and that was what mattered. There was no reason to fear a reminder of the past. Still, seeing Alex again would be … strange. She thought briefly about changing into something more—something less—something different. But— “No,” she said out loud. She wouldn’t go to any trouble for a man who, as a boy, had never made a secret of despising her. Especially since the feeling had been mutual. With a resolute nod at her reflection, Holly left the bedroom and went downstairs. Dinner with Will was fun, as meals in their house usually were, whether it included a group of friends or just the two of them. Under the influence of gooey cheese and laughing conversation, Holly felt herself relaxing. This was nothing. A quick hello to someone she hadn’t seen in years and would, hopefully, never see again. Thirty seconds and it would all be over. This was nothing. Right, Alex said to himself. Nothing. That’s why he’d been standing outside the damn door for five minutes like some kind of idiot. He turned away for a moment, resting his elbows on the porch railing and looking out at the front yard, where shadows chased moonlight through the trees. Why was he making such a big deal out of this? He and Holly had never been friends. If anything, they’d been enemies. She was everything he’d hated in high school: uptight, conventional, all about rules and fitting in. The few times he’d tried to tell her there was more to life than playing it safe, she’d looked at him as if he was crazy. Not to mention the fact that she’d dated his moron of a stepbrother all through school. That alone would have been enough to earn his dislike. Fifteen years had gone by since then. And now, by some ridiculous twist of fate, he was standing outside Holly’s front door, waiting to pick up her son. Brian’s son. Alex revised that in his head. Will wasn’t just Holly’s son or Brian’s son; he was his own person, too. A terrific kid. A rare kid. The kind of kid a coach or teacher would always be grateful for and always remember. His face softened as he thought about boys he’d worked with in the past, the boys he was working with now. They were all great kids in their own way. He had faith in all of them, even the ones no one else believed in. He’d been a kid like that once. Alex shook his head sharply. Enough with the trip down memory lane. Tomorrow night was the first game of the season and Will Stanton was his backup quarterback, not to mention next year’s starter if he fulfilled even a fraction of his promise. And Holly Stanton was just another parent. He set his jaw, strode up to the door, and rang the bell. “Coach is here,” Will said, pushing back his chair. All of Holly’s calm evaporated. She had intended to go to the door with Will, where she would greet Alex with polite indifference. Instead she slipped into the dark living room, her heart beating ridiculously fast, so she could see the front hallway without being seen. Before she could get a grip on her poise, Will was opening the door, and in the next second Alex McKenna stepped over the threshold. Holly’s breath caught in her throat. Just like in the old days, Alex seemed larger than life—and not just because of his size. His presence had always made everything else around him a little dimmer, a little duller, and fifteen years hadn’t changed that. On the surface, though, a lot of things had changed. His hair was no longer bleached and spiked, for one thing. It was light brown, and cut fairly short. There was no safety pin in his left ear, no metal studs anywhere at all, and no black clothing. He wore a pair of khaki pants and a forest green button-down shirt. The haircut and clothes together would normally come attached to a good boy. The kind you could safely bring home to Mother. But the harsh planes of his jaw and cheekbones, the piercing blue eyes, the scar slicing through his left eyebrow—all these still screamed bad boy. And all the conservative shirts in the world couldn’t conceal those broad, muscular shoulders and rock-hard chest. Sex, sin and danger. Yep, Alex McKenna was still open for business. Alex grinned at Will and tried not to be too obvious about looking around for his mother. The Stanton home, at least what he could see of it, was neat as a pin and furnished with quiet good taste. Big surprise there. Holly had probably been born with the Ralph Lauren logo tattooed across her forehead. The room to the right was dark, but just down the hall he could see the brightly lit kitchen, with lemon-yellow tile countertops and a red geranium on the windowsill. Good smells, like Italian food and freshly baked bread, came wafting toward him, but there was no sign of Holly. Alex bit back an irrational feeling of disappointment. “Ready to head out, Will? I’m assuming you cleared it with your mom.” “Yep. She’s right—” Will turned his head, but no one was there. “Well, she was right behind me ….” And then a small, slender redhead in an elegantly cut brown wool pantsuit came out of the shadows to stand beside her son. She looked up at him for a long minute, her head tilted to one side. “Hi, Alex,” she said finally, in the low, husky voice he remembered. She was even more gorgeous now than she’d been as a teenager—and as a teenager she’d had every guy who saw her dragging his tongue in the dust. Her face was the same—the same smooth, creamy skin, the same delicate features. The expression in her green eyes was different: a little tougher, a little warier. Her hair was exactly the same. Coppery red mingled with brown and gold, like fall leaves. She still wore it pulled back, although the style was a little more sophisticated now. He could tell her lips were still full and soft, although right now they were pressed together, adding to the sense of caution reflected in her eyes. And then there was her body. Hidden, naturally, behind a severely tailored suit that was obviously intended to play down her curves. Begging the question of why in God’s name anyone would want to hide something so delectable …. Alex gave a mental shrug. Hell, he knew why she hid. She was still the same, play-it-safe Holly Stanton: afraid to put so much as a perfectly manicured toe on the wild side. “Hello, Holly,” he said. “Long time no see.” She was looking him up and down now, one eyebrow lifted. “You’ve certainly changed since I saw you last,” she said, her voice amused. Just like old times. In less than a minute, she’d managed to piss him off. “The Gap just isn’t a look I ever expected to see on you,” she added. The kicker was, he’d put on these damn clothes with her in mind. Thinking that maybe she’d see a different side of him. His jaw tightened. So much for a fresh start. Like the seventeen-year-old kid he’d once been, he wanted nothing more than to wipe that superior look off her face. He leaned back casually against the door frame, folding his arms across his chest. “Most of us change after high school, Holly. Except you, of course. You haven’t changed a bit. Every hair in place … just like the old days.” He grinned suddenly. “Of course, I did get to see another side of you once. The day I caught you dancing around that empty classroom, singing to Bruce Springsteen at the top of your lungs.” That got under her skin a little—he watched the heat come up into her face, the way it had when they were teenagers and he tossed a barb her way. Her eyes narrowed and she opened her mouth to say something, but a glance at Will made her hold it back. Alex wondered what she’d been about to call him. “Wow, Mom,” Will said, looking surprised. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you dance.” “That’s because I don’t,” she said crisply. She looked from her son to Alex. “Not that this hasn’t been fun, but don’t you boys have plans to talk about that inflated rubber ball you’re so obsessed with? Oh, and the pummeling,” she added, the superior expression back. “Let’s not forget the intellectual stimulation of the pummeling.” Will said goodbye to his mom and followed Alex out the door. “She’s not exactly a football fan,” he told his coach. “Yeah, I picked up on that,” Alex answered as he led the way to his car. They were gone. Holly closed her eyes and leaned back against the front door. “That went well,” she said to the empty house. Why had she let Alex get to her, as if they were still teenagers? Heck, she was the mother of a teenager, and a successful businesswoman to boot. He said she hadn’t changed a bit. She knew what that meant. Boring old Holly was still … boring. Holly was suddenly filled with a desire to show Alex McKenna that she wasn’t boring. That she could be sexy and wild and … dangerous. She sighed. Who was she kidding? If she’d been uptight as a teenager—with one notable lapse—then how much more uptight was she now? Now that she was thirty-four, with a house and a son and a career to think about? It was a little late in the day to start playing bad girl. Not that she wanted to, Holly told herself as she went into the kitchen to clean up after dinner. She had a great life. A wonderful son, a beautiful home, and work as a financial planner she was good at and enjoyed. Holly turned on the CD player she kept on the kitchen counter, and Bruce Springsteen’s bedroom voice filled the air. She had to laugh. Trust Alex to remind her of one of her more embarrassing teenage memories—getting caught pretending she was a rock star. She remembered how much she’d hated it that Alex had been the one to see her looking so foolish. Alex never looked foolish. He was always cocky and self-assured, with a knowing expression that made her feel exposed. Like he could see right through her. Everyone else accepted her at face value. She was Holly Stanton, honor student—a good girl who never gave her parents or teachers a moment of trouble. To Brian, she was the perfect girlfriend. Their marriage, which would take place after Brian finished law school and established his career, would be just like her parents’ marriage: secure, successful and safe. There was nothing safe about Alex. Their senior year he rebuilt an old Vincent motorcycle, all leather and chrome and sleek, powerful lines. Every so often he invited her to go riding with him. She could still remember his blue eyes daring her to do it even as his mocking smile told her she never would. And she never did, of course. But a tiny part of her had always wondered what it would be like to get on that bike behind him, her legs pressed against his, her arms wrapped around his waist. Holly came back to the present to find the sink almost overflowing with hot, soapy water. She turned off the tap quickly. She hadn’t been on a date in way too long—maybe that’s why she was so susceptible to these memories. Why Alex had been able to get under her skin today. Yes, the man was annoying, but he was also gorgeous. Sex on wheels. She shook her head sharply and started washing dishes with vigor. No dates lately—that was her problem. She just needed to get out there again. Holly bore down with her scrub brush to get the baked cheese off the lasagna pan. Maybe it would turn out to be a good thing she’d seen Alex again. Maybe it was just the push she needed to get out of her rut. No, not a rut. She wasn’t in a rut. She just needed to get out a little more, that’s all. Everyone was always telling her that, even her own son. Maybe it was time she stopped laughing them off. Holly rinsed off the now sparkling pan and set it in the dish drain. If she was going to embark on a quest to revive her love life, she might want to think about updating her wardrobe. At the moment, she had clothes to meet clients in and clothes to clean the house in. Nothing at all to drive men wild in. On the other hand, that might be a little ambitious. Maybe she could start with clothes to make men realize she was female. Then she could sort of work up to driving them wild. She was a little out of practice, after all. Come to think of it, maybe it would be better to forget the whole thing. Alex felt good. He’d had a great skull session with his young quarterbacks, productive and upbeat. The entire team was raring to go for their opening game. The forecast for tomorrow was sunny and high sixties, perfect football weather, and Alex was starting to feel that rush he always experienced at the start of the season. Alex glanced up at the Stanton house as he turned off the engine. He wouldn’t go to the door this time. He had no desire to see Holly again, absolutely none. “Nice job tonight, Will. Get a good night’s rest and I’ll see you tomorrow.” “Sure thing, Coach,” Will said cheerfully as he slammed the passenger door shut behind him. Time to go now, Alex thought as he slouched back in the driver’s seat and looked at the Stanton home through his windshield. Will wasn’t the only one who needed a good night’s— He froze. The lights were on in a bedroom upstairs, and he could see Holly as clearly as if she were on stage. Her hands were in her hair, taking out whatever pins or clips held it in place. The next second it came tumbling down around her shoulders in a silky red mass. She was wearing an old wool cardigan over the pants and blouse she’d had on earlier. She shrugged out of the cardigan, laying it on the bed behind her. Then she undid the top button of her blouse. And the next one. He had about five seconds to make a decision. Every cell in his body was screaming at him to stay. He might be honorable on the football field, but here? Hell, he was a man, not a saint. Any other woman would let him into her house, into her bed, where he could see her up close and personal. Only Holly would never let him see her like this, and now he had an opportunity to catch a stolen glimpse. He’d be crazy to pass it up. With a curse Alex turned the key in the ignition and pulled out of the driveway, his tires spitting gravel as he went. When it came to Holly Stanton, crazy didn’t begin to cover it. Chapter Two Why, Alex wondered as he drove home. Why couldn’t he do what any sensible, red-blooded American male would have done? It was just … she’d hate it so much if she ever knew he’d invaded her privacy like that. Not that she’d hate him any more—Alex doubted that was possible—but she was such a private person. Being watched like that, spied on, would really hit her where she lived. He sighed as he let himself into his house. What was it about Holly? He’d dated all kinds of women—sexy, exciting women—and this one diminutive redhead could still tie him up in knots, make him feel like an adolescent hormone bomb. He’d been a junior in high school when his family moved to Weston, a small town in Ohio northeast of Cincinnati. His stepbrother was a senior and, true to form, fit in at their new school right away. Equally true to form, Alex made it clear he had no intention of ever fitting in. He and Brian had always been at odds with each other. The only thing they’d ever come close to agreeing on was Holly Stanton. Alex had met her first, since they were in the same grade. He could still remember walking into algebra that first day and seeing her at the chalkboard, writing out an equation, her teeth sunk in her lower lip as she concentrated. It was as if all the air went out of the room. A few weeks later he was coming out of detention (he’d earned seven in his first month, some kind of school record) when he heard music coming from an empty classroom. He opened the door and saw a boom box on one of the desks, and Holly Stanton dancing and singing with complete abandon. He’d been struck dumb. She had a really good singing voice, sweet and smoky at the same time, and the bright copper waves of her hair bounced around her as she danced. She caught him watching and stopped dead. He’d never seen anyone blush so deep or look so mortified. “Don’t be embarrassed, you have a great voice,” he told her. Inspiration struck. “I’m starting a band with some kids at school. Do you want to be our lead singer? We practice every Friday. You could come this week if you want.” In the world of a sixteen-year-old boy, there was no greater gift he could have offered. Instead of being flattered, she looked hurt. “You’re making fun of me,” she said, turning away from him and shutting off the music. “And, anyway, I have plans on Friday. I’m going out with your brother.” “Stepbrother,” Alex said through a spasm of jealousy that clenched his hands into fists. He had no idea she’d even met Brian. “You shouldn’t go out with that jerk,” he went on. “You deserve someone better than him.” She’d stared at him as if he was crazy. “Better than Brian? I don’t think so.” During the next few weeks, Alex told himself it was only a matter of time before Holly saw through his stepbrother. She’d realize that Brian didn’t care about her—that he’d never care about anyone but himself. She was smart. She’d figure it out. But she didn’t. And in school and at home he had to watch the two of them together, watch Brian swell with pride at having such a beautiful girl on his arm, the perfect accessory for his perfect life. And he had to watch Holly look to Brian for her cues, so anxious to be the perfect girlfriend that she could never relax, never be herself. Was he the only one who really saw Holly? Not just that day he’d caught her singing, but in class, too, when her enthusiasm overcame her shyness and she talked about a book she loved or a topic she cared about. No one else seemed to pay attention to what she said—people were more interested in her looks, or in the fact that she was Brian’s girlfriend. Was he the only one who really listened when she spoke up in class? The only one who noticed how funny and smart and passionate she could be? The longer she was with Brian the more rare those flashes of enthusiasm became. She got quieter in general and especially around her boyfriend, letting him do all the talking. Letting him be the smart one. Brian didn’t want a girlfriend who was funny or smart or passionate, who might take the spotlight off of him or challenge his complacence. What he wanted was a mirror, someone to reflect back his success, someone to cheer at his speeches and basketball games and awards ceremonies, someone to make him shine even brighter. And Holly seemed perfectly willing to play that role for him. Watching her with Brian was like watching her disappear. And there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. What could he do, when she wouldn’t listen to him? He tried a few times, in the beginning, but she shut him down fast. He might see behind her facade, but she didn’t bother to look behind his. Holly had taken one look at him and decided he was a burnout, a troublemaker, and obviously not worth talking to. He tried to hate her. He told himself he did hate her. But he’d never been able to ignore her. He fell into a pattern of baiting her, instead—needling her whenever he got the chance. And Holly had treated him like something on the bottom of her shoe. Alex came back to the present, shaking his head. His feelings had been intense back then—he’d been a teenager, after all—but that was in the past. He wasn’t that kid anymore, hadn’t been for a long time. He was surprised his memories were still so vivid. A lot of water had gone under the bridge since high school. Brian had moved out to California and was the rich, successful lawyer he’d always wanted to be. Holly was a single mom with a career of her own, and he was a high school football coach. They were adults now. You’d think he and Holly would be able to start fresh after fifteen years. But after their brief meeting tonight, Alex doubted they’d ever be able to get along. They rubbed each other the wrong way and probably always would. So why was he still thinking about her? It didn’t help that she was still so damn gorgeous—or that his body responded to her as if he were still sixteen. He needed to get out more, that was his problem. Since moving back to Weston he’d been busy every weekend, either down at the school or fixing up the house. He needed to go out some Saturday night with a woman who found him charming and funny and incredibly sexy. He wouldn’t mind the company, either, he thought as he walked upstairs. His place was too big for one person. He didn’t know what had possessed him to buy this old farmhouse, except that it had a great yard out back and he liked houses with character and history and projects to keep him busy in the off-season. But a little company wouldn’t hurt. Sexy, willing, female company. And soon. It was Friday, the day of Will’s season opener. Holly meant to go home after work and change for the game, but she got caught in a meeting at the end of the day and barely made it to the stadium in time for the opening kickoff. She felt distinctly overdressed in her peach silk pantsuit as she made her way through the crowd to the spot in the bleachers Angela and David Washington had saved for her. The Washingtons were old hands at this, since their son, Tom, had been a star running back in his freshman year and this was his second season as a starter. Angela did her best to explain the game to her, but Holly could never figure out who had the ball, and she couldn’t tell the players apart in their helmets and bulky uniforms. Still, she cheered when Angela and David did, which was often, and found enjoyment in the happy crowd, the kids’ excitement and the beautiful September evening. She’d spotted Alex right away, down by the players’ bench. She noted objectively—at least she told herself it was objective—that he was looking very, very good in a pair of worn blue jeans and a Wildcats sweatshirt, his brown hair ruffled by the wind. She tried to focus on the game, but since she didn’t really understand it and Will wasn’t playing, it was hard to stay interested. She found her eyes straying to Alex instead. He looked at home down there on the sidelines, talking animatedly to his assistant coaches, slapping his players on the back as he sent them into the game and giving them high fives when they returned, pacing back and forth as he watched the action on the field, arguing fiercely with an official over a disputed call. The Wildcats must have been doing something right, because the score was thirty-one to seven near the end of the fourth quarter, when Alex sent Will into the game. Holly’s heart was in her throat as Will trotted onto the field to join the team huddle. Her hands gripped the cold metal seat when the players lined up, and when Will cocked his arm back to throw the ball. Then she gave the loudest cheer of her life when the pass was caught and the receiver crossed the goal line for a touchdown. The game ended soon after that and Holly found herself swept onto the field with the hometown fans, family and friends swarming around the players in happy confusion. Holly took a few steps back as she searched for Will in the crowd. When she felt a hand on her shoulder she turned, and when she saw Alex standing there, a bolt of electricity shot through her. She jerked away before she could stop herself. “Nice game, Coach,” she said lightly, trying to recover her poise. “Thanks,” he said, tilting his head to the side as he looked at her. “You know, I don’t see a lot of silk suits and high heels at football games. Do you even own a pair of jeans?” Holly flushed. “I came straight from work,” she snapped. The two of them apparently couldn’t talk without irritating each other, so why even pretend to be civil? He was wearing that knowing smile of his, the one that said he knew he’d gotten under her skin. She was about to say a cold goodbye when Will came running up to them. “Coach, we’re taking you out to celebrate,” he said jubilantly. “We’re going to the Texas Grill, and you’re the guest of honor.” He turned to Holly. “A bunch of parents are going along, too. Won’t you come, Mom? Please?” Holly sighed inwardly. She’d never seen her son so excited—she had to celebrate with him. There’d be a lot of people there and it shouldn’t be hard to stay away from Alex. “Of course,” she said, sounding as enthusiastic as she could. Will looked happy as he went back to his friends, but from the look Alex gave her before she turned away, she guessed she hadn’t fooled him one bit. Not that she ever had. An hour later, having watched Will consume an enormous pile of barbecued spareribs and having eaten a few herself, Holly was watching Alex play pool. She had plenty of company—half the population of Weston seemed to be there, all of them wanting to congratulate the new coach. For tonight, at least, he was the most popular guy in town. That sure was a change from high school. Back then, Alex had gone out of his way to alienate people. Now he was at the center of a warm circle of parents and kids, laughing and talking with everybody. He made a particularly spectacular shot, and one parent—a single mom like her, but looking ten years younger in a short denim skirt and shimmery top—took friendliness a step further by throwing her arms around Alex’s neck and kissing him loudly on the cheek. Okay, so some things hadn’t changed. Alex had always been a flirt. He never bragged about his conquests the way some guys did, but his relationships had always been … casual. Casual and numerous. He was running the table now, amidst loud cheers. The single mom was cheering the loudest, and Holly felt a sudden wave of depression. She felt out of place in her work clothes, out of place in the midst of this boisterous, celebratory group. She was just tired, that was all. It had been a long work week and she hadn’t planned on going out tonight. She found her son playing video games with his friends. “I’m feeling a little beat, honey. Do you mind if I head out now? I asked the Washingtons to drive you home so you don’t have to leave the party early.” “No problem, Mom,” Will said, giving her a quick grin before turning back to his game. A few minutes later Holly was standing in the brightly lit parking lot, looking ruefully at her left rear tire. It was flat as a pancake. She remembered the broken glass in the stadium parking lot, which she’d thought she’d avoided. Apparently not. She thought briefly about going back inside for Will, but she knew he was still having fun. And, anyway, she was perfectly capable of changing a flat tire by herself. She’d been doing it for fifteen years. She opened her trunk to get the spare. Alex sat out the next pool game, but there was still a crowd around him—fans of the Weston Wildcats and parents bubbling over with enthusiasm for their sons’ new football coach. He was familiar with this kind of instant popularity. If they lost their game next week, it would just as instantly evaporate. But victory celebrations were always fun and he was enjoying himself, listening respectfully to one father’s analysis of the game, when he caught sight of a familiar redhead walking away from the crowd. “Absolutely,” he said. “That’s a good point about our pass defense. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s another parent I need to say hello to.” He was determined to talk to Holly again tonight. On the drive over from the stadium, he’d decided to try one more time to have a normal conversation with her. The past shouldn’t define the present. The relaxed atmosphere of the Texas Grill was the perfect setting—he could buy her a drink or challenge her to a game of pool. He refused to believe that two rational adults couldn’t get past whatever friction still lingered from their high school days. He saw her exchange a few words with Will, but before he could catch up to her she disappeared out the back door. He paused, frowning. He thought about asking Will why she was leaving early, but it wasn’t really any of his business. She was probably just tired. It was none of his business, he reminded himself as he followed her out to the parking lot. But he’d check on her, anyway, just to make sure she was all right. He saw her as soon as he stepped outside. She was over by her car, looking down at what was obviously a flat tire. After a moment she opened her trunk for the spare. He crossed the parking lot toward her, noticing that the cool evening breeze was ruffling her hair, teasing strands out of the complicated bun. He came up behind her and laid a hand on her shoulder. She turned her head quickly, and when she saw it was him she pulled away, just like she’d done after the game. He dropped his hand and took a step back. “Need some help?” he asked, gesturing toward the flat. “No,” she said, reaching into the trunk for the spare and laying it on the ground. She set the iron and jack down next to it and shrugged out of her jacket, tossing it into the car. “Come on, Holly. Changing a tire is a two-person job. Admit you need help.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth he knew they were the wrong ones. Holly stiffened as she knelt down on the ground, grabbing for the tire iron. “I do not need help. And even if I did, I wouldn’t need yours.” Her words stung, childish as they were. “Fine,” he said. There was a pickup truck parked next to them and he leaned back against it, folding his arms. She glared up at him as she placed the iron over the first wheel lug. “That was your cue to go back to your adoring fans. Why are you still here?” “On the off chance you come off your high horse and realize you need me. That’s a moment I don’t want to miss.” “I hope you enjoy disappointment,” she said before using both hands to bear down on the tire iron in an effort to loosen the nut—to no avail. She sat back on her heels. “I can bench press two hundred and eighty pounds,” he said. She gave him a dirty look before picking the iron up again. Her blouse was silk, a soft peach color, and through it he could see the outline of her bra. Her hair was starting to come down, tendrils clinging damply to the back of her neck. Perspiration made her skin glow. Thirty seconds later, the nut hadn’t budged. “I eat lugs like that for breakfast,” he told her. She glared at him over her shoulder. “Do you mind? I’m trying to concentrate.” “I could change that for you in a minute flat.” “No, you couldn’t.” He grinned at her. “Twenty bucks says I can.” She turned her back on him and picked up the iron again. And this time, after a breathless, all-or-nothing effort, she actually succeeded in loosening the nut. He didn’t need to see her face to know she was feeling triumphant—he could read it in the line of her shoulders and the satisfied tilt of her head. “Very impressive. But you know you have to do it three more times, right?” “Shut up, Alex.” Maybe it was the flush of success, but she didn’t have any trouble with the other three lugs. She ignored him completely as she moved the jack underneath the car and began to crank it up. But when she was struggling to position the heavy spare over the wheel studs, he decided enough was enough. “Okay, you’ve made your point. Now let me hold that up for you while you get it aligned.” She set the spare down for a moment and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand—her first sign of weakness. But when he moved to pick it up she slapped his hand away. “No,” she said. “I’m not a damsel in distress.” “I’m not trying to rescue you,” he said in exasperation. “Just let me hold the tire while you fit it over the studs. Teamwork.” “I can do it myself.” “Come on, Holly. You’re just being stubborn.” “I’d rather be … stubborn than … helpless,” she panted as she finally managed to get the wheel in position. It only took her a few more minutes to tighten the lugs and lower the jack. “There,” she said in satisfaction, tossing her tools in the trunk and using an old rag to wipe off her greasy hands. “That wasn’t so hard.” “Right,” Alex said, shaking his head. “Of course, you’d be halfway home by now if you’d just let me—” “I can take care of myself, Alex. I don’t need anybody’s help.” Something else about her that hadn’t changed. The summer after their graduation, he’d heard that Holly was pregnant. He figured she and Brian would just step up their plans to get married and have the perfect yuppie life together. But when he found out how wrong he was, that Brian was turning his back on her, something inside him had snapped. He’d broken Brian’s jaw first. Then he’d gone over to her house and asked Holly to marry him. It was crazy, of course. A white knight impulse that had hit him out of the blue. There’d been no reason in the world to think she’d say yes, and considering their history of mutual dislike, every reason to think she’d say no. Still, her scornful refusal had stung. Just like it did tonight. The stakes had been higher then, but the feeling was the same. “I know you don’t need my help, Holly. You’ve made that pretty clear. But that doesn’t mean you can’t accept it. What’s so terrible about being rescued once in a while? Why are you so damn stubborn?” She glared at him. “You’re calling me stubborn? I told you I didn’t need any help, but you insisted on staying out here, anyway. Why are you so damn stubborn?” “Uh … guys?” It was Will, standing a few feet away. How long had he been there? Alex glanced at Holly, who was looking as uncomfortable as he felt, and then back at Will, who was obviously confused by the tense conversation between his mom and his coach. “So,” Will said after a moment of awkward silence. “I guess you guys weren’t best friends back in the day, huh?” Holly took a deep breath and let it out again. “Not exactly,” she admitted. “But that was a long time ago, and I’m sure we can keep from arguing every time we see each other now. Can’t we, Alex?” she asked pointedly. Not in this lifetime. “Sure we can,” he said out loud. He glanced back at the restaurant and saw parents and their kids beginning to come out. “Is the party over already?” “Well, yeah. You guys were out here a long time.” “It wouldn’t have been so long if—no, I won’t start.” He shook his head. “Good night, Holly. Take it easy driving on that spare, okay? And, Will, I’ll see you in practice next week.” Lying awake, staring up at the ceiling, Holly kept replaying Alex’s words in her mind. What would it be like, she wondered. To let someone help her. To be rescued. She hated herself for even asking the question. She’d been strong and independent for so long. The moment she let herself think about some man sweeping in and taking care of her, it would be over. She’d be lost. She’d be giving in to weakness, and it would destroy her. She knew that. She knew it. And in case she was in any danger of doubting it, all she had to do was remember the day she’d gone to Brian with the news that she was pregnant. Yes, it was unexpected. Yes, it was years sooner than they’d planned. But Holly had never doubted that Brian would support her, marry her now instead of after law school like they’d talked about. She’d gone to him trustingly, sure he’d take care of her and their unborn child. It had been a long time since she’d thought about that day but the memory still hurt. The way he shouted at her that she was trying to ruin his life—his career. He wouldn’t have to quit school, she said. She could work part-time, and his parents might be willing to help. Her own parents hadn’t taken the news well when she first told them, but they’d come around. And her grandmother would help as much as she could. All she really wanted was to hear him say he loved her. That everything would be all right. That they’d figure things out together. “If you go through with this, Holly, you’re on your own. I won’t have anything to do with you or the baby.” Holly could still remember the pain of that rejection. It had felt like the end of the world. But it would never happen again. Because that was the last time she’d rely on someone else for any part of her happiness or welfare. She hadn’t spoken to Brian for four years after that. They seldom spoke now, although he saw Will once in a while. And she rarely spoke to her parents, who ended up kicking her out of the house after she refused to “take care” of the situation. They’d relented a few years later, asking to know their grandson, but Holly herself wasn’t close with them anymore. After Will was born, her friends had told her she should get a lawyer and sue Brian for child support. But she had refused. She had learned the one lesson that would become the cornerstone of her life: the only person you can trust is yourself. She wouldn’t ask Brian for a damn thing. Somehow she’d survived, even though she hadn’t let anyone help her that first year or two—not her friends, not even her grandmother. Once she’d proven to herself she could stand on her own feet, she was able to accept her grandmother’s love again, and be grateful for the way she doted on Will. And by that time Gran was nearly eighty and needed her almost as much as Will did, so Holly didn’t feel as if she was in any danger of losing her hard-won self-reliance. Except for Will, there was nothing more important to Holly than the independence she’d worked so hard to achieve. That’s why she could never let herself fantasize about some man rescuing her … including Alex McKenna. Especially Alex McKenna. He was already too dangerous to her sense of stability. As maddening as he was, he was also one of the few people who could get past her defenses. He caught her off guard. Made her feel things. Her heart rate picked up whenever he was around. Holly rolled her shoulders and tried to let go of some of the tension keeping her awake. So what if Alex had come back into her life? So what if he hadn’t lost his uncanny ability to get under her skin, to make her question herself? She’d been doing just fine before he came back to town, and she’d continue to do fine, thank you very much. She’d avoid him from now on, that was all. She’d go to Will’s games but she’d stay away from Alex, and with any luck, he’d stay away from her, too. She remembered how hard it had been to change that tire with him standing behind her, his presence making her hands tremble as she struggled to loosen the lugs. Knowing his eyes were on her had made the hairs stand up on the back of her neck. She shivered now, thinking of those blue eyes. Then she thought of his chest, his shoulders, his smile, and her muscles turned to water. Damn her body, anyway. What kind of primitive programming made her stomach tie itself in knots whenever she saw him? It didn’t matter, she reminded herself firmly. Because from now on, she was going to stay away from Alex McKenna as if her life—or at least her sanity—depended on it. Chapter Three It would be a lot easier to forget about Alex if Will would stop talking about him day in, day out. How was she supposed to stop thinking about the man when he was her son’s favorite topic of conversation? The worst part was that the stories Will told made it harder to hate him. Will was a good judge of character, and he was crazy about Alex. Coach has such a great work ethic. Coach has so much integrity. Coach is so tough and smart and funny and— It was Sunday afternoon, and Holly and Will were eating pizza in front of the TV and watching—big surprise—a football game. During the commercial breaks Will treated her to more rave reviews of Alex the Great. “Mom, are you listening? Isn’t that amazing? Don’t you think Coach is—” “Amazing?” “Well, isn’t he?” Holly popped a mushroom into her mouth and licked tomato sauce off her fingers. “You bet. He’s a paragon.” Will folded his arms and frowned at her. “Why do you always do that when I talk about Coach?” “Do what?” “The sarcasm. The eye rolling. Did you guys really hate each other that much when you were in high school?” Holly sighed and leaned back against the sofa cushions. “Yes, we really did. Sorry. It’s just hard for me to see Alex the way you do. When I remember the way he used to be.” Will looked interested. “So, what was he like back then? When you were teenagers.” Holly pulled the purple-and-yellow crocheted throw off the back of the couch and tucked it around her knees. Her grandmother had made it, and it always gave her a feeling of security. “He was … irritating. So are you going to watch this game or what?’Cause if not, I’m going to put on the financial news.” “Geez, Mom. If you don’t want to talk about Coach just say so. You don’t have to threaten me with unholy torture.” That Friday night, Will got to play for most of the second half. He completed seven passes, and Holly was pretty sure she’d never seen him so happy in his entire life. Of course she also saw Alex, but she was getting used to that. Seeing him down there on the sidelines, fired up and intense, was becoming part of her Friday night routine—just like avoiding him was. But it was worth it to see Will so happy, so confident. She wasn’t ready to admit it yet, but she was actually starting to enjoy going to the games. She understood them better, for one thing, thanks to constant tutoring from her son. Then there was the crisp autumn air, the excitement of the crowd … and the fact that the Weston Wildcats were kicking butt. Of course there was still a little too much pummeling for her taste, especially when her only child was on the receiving end of it. But still, all in all, Holly was starting to enjoy Friday nights. So when a friend started off a sentence one day with, “I know you hate football, but—” she was surprised to hear herself say, “Oh, football’s not so bad.” Gina looked at her skeptically over her turkey club sandwich. “Since when is football not so bad?” Holly shrugged as she poured vinaigrette over her salad. “My son’s on his high school team and he’s sort of getting me into it. What were you going to say?” “Well.” Gina’s eyes sparkled as she leaned over the table. “You know my fiancå?” Holly raised her eyebrows. “Pretty well, yes. Considering the fact that I’ve worked with Henry for six years and actually introduced the two of you.” Gina grinned. “Okay, you get all the credit for my future marital bliss. And now I’m going to return the favor.” Holly took a bite of salad. “Uh-huh. And you’ll be doing this how?” “By fixing you up with your future husband, of course.” Holly sighed. “Gina, I love you, but we’ve been through this before. Do you remember the last time you fixed me up with my future husband?” Gina waved it away. “Mark looked good on paper, didn’t he? Nice guy, stable job, easy on the eyes. I thought he was perfect for you. And you liked him in the beginning.” “Sure I did. And he liked me, too—until I cancelled a date one night when Will was sick. That’s when he told me that Will would always come first in my life and I’d probably never get married. He also mentioned something about dying alone.” “Okay, so he turned out to be a jerk. He couldn’t handle the fact that you’re a single mom. But there are plenty of guys out there who can, and Will’s older now.” Holly shook her head. “He still comes first. Mark was right about that. The truth is, I’m not looking for anything serious. That doesn’t seem to work out for me. I just want to have a little fun. I haven’t been out with anyone since Mark, and that was three years ago.” Gina looked surprised. “You want to have fun? I don’t think I’ve heard you use that word before.” Holly wadded up her napkin and threw it at her. “If you think I’m so boring, why are you friends with me?” Gina grinned. “Because you do my taxes for free every year. Now let’s get back to your love life. If you want fun, we can do fun. We’ll still go with my plan, only you’ll date Rich instead of marrying him. Can I at least do my sales pitch?” There would be no peace until she did. “All right, go ahead.” “He’s really cute. Kind of a receding hairline, and he could stand to work out a little more, but definitely kissable. I happened to meet him because Henry’s been his financial adviser for years, and they’ve gotten to be friends. He’s the Bengals’ play-by-play announcer.” She actually knew who that was, which meant she was spending way too much time watching football with Will. “Rich Brennan?” Gina looked delighted. “See? You’ve even heard of him. This is a match made in heaven.” Holly pushed her empty salad bowl away and reached for the dessert menu. “I’m a thirty-four-year-old single mother. He’s a sportscaster on TV. Why would he want to go out with me?” Gina glared at her. “Maybe because you’re wonderful? Not to mention gorgeous? Henry and I ran into Rich the other day, and when he heard we were engaged he started talking about wanting to settle down, how he’s done with the bar scene and playing the field and all that, and how hard it is to meet a nice woman. I told him my best friend is a beautiful redhead and the nicest person I know, and he asked if he could meet you. So what do you say?” Here was her chance to walk on the wild side—or at least to go out on a date. Hadn’t she been wanting to get out of her rut? And maybe Rich Brennan would turn out to be someone she could think about at night, alone in her bed when the lights were out. Someone who wasn’t Alex. “Okay, I’ll do it.” Gina breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m really glad you said that, because I already set it up. The Bengals have a bye week and Rich is free this Saturday. Now we just have to figure out what you’re going to wear, since your own wardrobe is obviously impossible.” “My wardrobe is not—” “Yes, it is,” Gina said firmly. “We’ll go shopping after lunch.” Holly sighed. “Fine. Now, can we talk about something important? Do you want to split the cheesecake or the chocolate truffle thing?” It was Saturday night, and Alex was having a good time. The bar was hopping, and with the bye week most of his former teammates were there. Some of the Bengals cheerleaders were there, too, and he did a healthy amount of flirting. It was great to be back in Cincinnati for a night, great to hang out with the guys. He also enjoyed listening to the girls commenting on the other patrons of the bar, including a well-known sportscaster who’d just picked up a karaoke mike to sing “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music. “And, omigod, check out his date! He sure rebounded from Cherry in a hurry. Why does Rich always go for redheads? And where did he find this one? She’s really pretty.” Alex glanced over at the table they were pointing at and nearly fell off his chair. It was Holly Stanton. What was she doing, laughing and clapping as Rich Brennan belted out a Julie Andrews song with alcohol-induced abandon? “There’s someone over there I’ve got to say hello to,” he told the girls. Alex made his way through the crowd toward Holly’s table. She was sitting with her back to him, giggling at Rich’s performance on the karaoke stage, and Alex wondered how much she’d had to drink. He’d never heard Holly giggle before. He tapped her on the shoulder and she twisted around to see who it was. Her hair was loose tonight and it hung down her back in a rippling waterfall, framing her face in coppery waves. “Alex!” she cried, rising to her feet and throwing her arms around him as if he were a long lost friend. For a few dizzying seconds she stayed like that, her slender curves pressed against him and her perfume surrounding him—something delicate, like roses—before she took a step back, swaying slightly. His heart was pounding from the unexpected contact. “Alex, Alex, Alex.” She looked up at him solemnly, her lips parted. “I was thinking about you before, but now I can’t remember why.” A curvy brunette came from the direction of the restroom. “Holly, who is this gorgeous man?” Holly gestured with a flourish. “Gina, this is Alex. Alex, this is Gina. Gina’s getting married soon,” she said as a dark-haired man at their table tugged Gina down onto his lap. Gina planted a kiss on his forehead. “That’s Gina’s fiancå,” Holly said helpfully. “His name is Henry.” “Nice to meet you, Gina and Henry,” Alex said before turning back to Holly. “So, how much have you had to drink tonight?” “Not nearly enough,” a familiar voice announced, and there was Rich, a guy Alex had known casually for years and had always liked. He slung a heavy arm around Holly’s slender shoulders, and Alex found himself liking him less. “I’ll know she’s had enough when she lets me undo this button, and maybe a couple more. It’s been driving me crazy all night.” He fiddled with the button in question, and Alex’s jaw tightened. Holly smacked his hand away but she didn’t seem very serious about it. “It’s nice to see you again, Alex,” Rich said, holding out a hand. His other arm was still around Holly’s shoulders. “What have you been doing with yourself since you left the league?” “Coaching,” Alex said, taking his hand briefly. “Join us for a drink?” “Don’t mind if I do,” Alex answered, taking a chair next to Holly after she sat down. “So,” he asked casually. “Are you two … dating?” Rich was taking a long swig of beer, and it was Holly who answered him. “We met for the first time tonight. Gina fixed us up,” she added, which made him think less kindly of Gina. “It’s about time Holly went out on a date,” Gina said. “She’s been living like a nun.” “What’s wrong with that?” Alex asked, glancing at the woman in question. “If Holly wants to live like a nun, you shouldn’t try to talk her out of it. There’s nothing wrong with celibacy.” She was wearing a pair of jeans that hugged her hips, and a black cashmere sweater that was, thankfully, buttoned up to her neck. The curve of her breasts beneath the soft material was incredibly enticing, and if she’d been any other woman he would have sympathized with Rich’s urge to undo a few of those buttons. But this wasn’t just any woman, it was Holly. And he’d rather see her in full-body armor than with Rich drooling all over her. Rich laughed loudly. “I know you’re not speaking from personal experience. You’re a great guy, Alex, but you’re not exactly a shining example of the celibate lifestyle. I bet if we survey the crowd here tonight, we’ll find at least twenty women who’ve been through Alex McKenna’s revolving door.” He rose clumsily to his feet. “Now if you folks will pardon me, I’ve got to visit the little boy’s room.” It was hard to believe he’d ever liked Rich Brennan. Holly had picked up an empty beer bottle and was fiddling with the label, peeling it away from the glass. “You were like that in high school, too,” she said. “A different girl every week.” “Were you ever one of those girls?” Gina asked, leaning back against her fiancå. Holly looked horrified, and Alex winced. “Of course not,” she said. “We don’t even get along. It’s his fault,” she added. “He’s very annoying.” “Hey!” Her comment stung more than it should, even though he knew she’d had a few drinks. “I’m sitting right here. And I’m not the annoying one.” “Yes, you are,” she said, twisting the label around her fingers. “You said I should be a nun. That’s annoying.” Gina was no longer paying attention to them, distracted by something Henry was whispering in her ear. “Okay, I take it back,” Alex said, moving his chair closer to hers. “I don’t think you should be a nun. So … how’s the date with Rich going?” Holly was tearing the label into pieces now, working methodically, a little crease between her brows. “All right, I guess,” she said. “Just all right?” She bit her lip. “I don’t … feel the way I thought I’d feel. The way I want to feel.” His heart skipped a beat, which probably made him a very bad person. He shouldn’t be happy that Holly’s date was a dud. “How do you want to feel?” The label was in tiny silver pieces on the table. Holly propped her chin on her hand as she thought about the question. “I don’t know. I guess I was hoping for … magic.” Magic, he thought, remembering how his body had reacted when Holly had hugged him. “What would that feel like?” She glanced at him. “Why are we talking like this? Like we’re friends or something? We don’t even like each other.” “Alcohol,” he explained. “It’s the great equalizer.” She considered that. “I’ve had three shots of tequila and two beers. When I stand up, the room kind of swoops.” She blinked. “You know, it’s possible that I’m drunk.” He held back a smile. “So what would magic feel like?” She looked down at the table. “Well … goose bumps. Shivers. Your heart beating faster, your knees feeling weak. But I think I’m expecting too much.” She looked so vulnerable as she said that, her expression a little embarrassed, her cheeks turning pink. He wanted to tilt her chin up so she was looking right at him, he wanted to lean in close and— I could make your knees feel weak, he thought. On the other hand, maybe not. Holly had never given the slightest indication that she reacted to him the way he did to her. Besides which, they bugged the hell out of each other, which would seem to indicate a certain level of incompatibility. And on top of that Holly was a forever kind of woman, while he was a few-months-at-most kind of guy—as Rich had so considerately pointed out. Still—“You ought to hold out for magic,” he said gruffly. “You deserve magic. There’s someone out there who’ll make you feel that way.” She kept her eyes down, arranging the torn pieces of label in a neat pile with a fingertip. “I don’t know about that. Maybe I shouldn’t shoot for the moon. I have Will, and I have friends, and I’ve got a job I love. That’s pretty good, right? Maybe I’m not meant to have more.” Something about that quiet statement stabbed him through the heart. He started to tell her how wrong she was, but then he noticed Rich come out of the bathroom and lurch erratically toward the bar. “Let me take you home,” he said instead. He glanced at Gina and her fiancå, who were engaged in a long, slow kiss. “Your friends seem occupied, and your date is on his way to being unconscious. None of you should be driving tonight.” “I was going to take a taxi.” “Let me drive you.” Holly shook her head. “I know I haven’t felt any magic yet, but Rich is sort of cute … and nice … and he seems interested. Maybe if I let things go a little further I’ll start to feel something.” The idea of things going “a little further” between Holly and Rich made his whole body tense up. Rich rejoined them at that moment, handing a fresh beer to Alex and leaning down to nuzzle the back of Holly’s neck. Alex gripped the bottle so hard he was surprised the glass didn’t break. “Did I mention how good you look?” Rich asked, reaching over her shoulder for Holly’s top button again. Holly smacked his hand away again, but with less force than last time. This was none of his business. In all the time he’d known her Holly had never asked for his help, and had never accepted it when it was offered. She’d never done anything but push him away. But he couldn’t just leave her here like this, too drunk to make good decisions, her friends too drunk to realize it, and Rich too drunk to keep his damn hands to himself. “You need to stop doing that,” he said to Rich. Even through the haze of alcohol, Rich heard the steel in his voice. He stared at Alex. Then he looked at Holly. “What’s the story here?” he asked. She blinked at him. “Huh?” “Does Alex have some kind of claim on you?” “A claim? On me? Of course not.” Rich turned to look at him again, and his expression was belligerent. “Back off,” he said. Alex got to his feet. “I’m taking you home,” he told Holly. “I’m taking her home,” Rich insisted, putting a proprietary hand on her arm. “Not in a million years,” Alex said. He put a hand on the other man’s chest and gave a quick, hard push that sent him stumbling backward several feet. “Hey!” Holly said, jumping up. “I can take care of myself. And you’re not the boss of me, Alex McKenna.” “For tonight, I am.” He put his hands on her waist and lifted her, amazed at how light she was. Then he threw her over his shoulder and strode out of the bar, ignoring the startled protests from her friends, from Rich and from Holly herself. She was pounding on his back with her fists, but that wasn’t as distracting as having so much of her pressed up against him for the second time that night. It was a relief when he got the passenger door open and could deposit her in the front seat, snapping her safety belt into place. He was betting her advanced state of intoxication would prevent her from getting out of the car before he could get in, and he was right. She was still fumbling to undo the belt when he slid in behind the wheel and turned the key in the ignition. After a couple of minutes, she gave up. “I’m going to be really, really mad at you once I’m sober again.” “I know.” “I can’t believe you actually did that. Just … tossed me over your shoulder.” She waved a hand in the air to emphasize her point and accidentally smacked him on the side of the head. He winced. “And all because I was trying to have fun for once in my life,” she grumbled, folding her arms and slouching down in her seat. “I know you think I’m uptight. You should be glad to see me loosen up.” “I don’t mind you loosening up. I just mind you letting some drunken idiot unbutton your sweater in public.” “He’s not an idiot. And I can take my clothes off if I want to. It’s a free country.” “Fine,” he snapped as he pulled onto the highway. “The next time I see you three sheets to the wind in the middle of a sports bar, you’re on your own. Take off anything you want.” “All right, I will,” she said. And before Alex had time to stop her, she grasped the hem of her sweater and pulled it over her head. It was sheer luck that kept him from smashing into the truck ahead of them. He had one glimpse of creamy skin and apricot lace before he wrenched his eyes forward and got control of the car. “Put your sweater back on.” “No.” “Dammit, Holly—” “No.” He took a deep breath and let it out again. “Please put your sweater back on,” he said more quietly. “Please?” There was a moment of silence, during which Alex exerted every bit of his willpower to keep his eyes on the road. He was intensely aware of the woman sitting beside him, her chest rising and falling with each breath, her soft, bare skin just inches away. She smelled like tequila and roses, a strangely erotic combination. “Okay,” she said finally, tugging the soft black sweater back over her head. Alex wasn’t sure if his relief or his disappointment was more intense. “Thank you,” he said, and meant it. “That’s all right,” Holly said, and her voice sounded so resigned that he glanced over at her in surprise. “What’s wrong?” She shrugged. “Nothing, I guess. It’s just … you flirt with every woman you see, but when I took off my top you wouldn’t even look at me. Do you think I’m repulsive or something?” He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Are you crazy? I—” He stopped himself before he could go too far. “I mean, it’s not like that with us. We don’t like each other, remember? You only took off your sweater because you’re drunk. I’d never take advantage of you like that.” He wasn’t sure she’d even heard him. “I’ve never been any good at flirting. Or dating, for that matter.” She rolled down her window and put a hand out to catch the night air. “I haven’t had sex in three years. Three years, Alex. I think I’ve forgotten how.” What was she doing to him? If she was going to talk about sex he was going to have a hell of a time showing the restraint he’d just talked about. And once she woke up tomorrow morning and remembered this conversation, she’d never talk to him again. He knew Holly—she wouldn’t forgive him for seeing her guard down like this. “Can I ask you a question?” “Sure,” he said warily, wondering what was coming now. “Why did you leave the NFL?” He glanced at her in surprise, and saw her looking at him curiously. Well, at least they weren’t talking about sex. He turned his eyes back to the road and tried to adjust to the change in topic. “Why did I leave the NFL,” he muttered. He glanced at her again. “I don’t usually talk about that, but if you’re sure you want to know—” “I’m sure.” “Okay, then.” He hesitated, remembering that time in his life. “Back when I was a pro athlete I got involved in a mentoring program with teenagers. I was working with this one boy, a really nice kid named Charles. He was a good student and a great football player. I worked with him for two years, right up until he got accepted to Michigan State. The day after he got the letter, he took twenty of his mom’s antidepressant pills with a bottle of vodka and killed himself.” Holly gasped. “Alex, how awful. But … what did that have to do with you leaving the NFL?” “After Charles died, his parents and I found out that he’d been using steroids. I didn’t have a clue. He never talked to me about it, never said a word. He must have thought I was too much of a straight arrow to ask about something like that. And he was right—I never got into that crap. One of the many reasons is that it can affect your emotional balance, make you suicidal … especially if you’re a teenager.” He took a breath. “I kicked myself for not seeing the signs. The acne, the mood swings, the way he bulked up so fast. But the fact is, I’d gotten used to seeing the signs. They were around me every day in the locker room. And even though I never did it myself, I turned a blind eye to it. It was just so much a part of the culture … as bad as it sounds, I started to take it for granted. After Charles died, I decided I didn’t want a job where I could take something like that for granted. I decided I wanted to work with kids instead.” He grinned suddenly. “Or maybe I was just tired of getting beaten into the ground every Sunday. Either way, it was time to leave and I left.” Holly was looking at him thoughtfully. “I’m glad you left the NFL,” she said after a moment. “I’m glad you came back here to Weston. I’m glad you’re Will’s coach.” He raised an eyebrow. “Well … thanks, Holly.” “Can I ask you another question?” “Sure.” “Why were you such a jerk in high school?” Now he raised both eyebrows. “Hey, who said I was a jerk?” He waited a beat, then shook his head. “Okay, even I don’t buy that one. Yeah, I was a jerk. Most teenage boys are, you know. I hope you don’t think Will is typical.” “No, I know he’s not typical. But you weren’t, either. I mean … I suppose most teenage boys are obnoxious, but you were …” “More obnoxious than most? Maybe I was. Well—I hated my family, for one thing. One of the original excuses for teenage rebellion.” “Why did you hate them?” “I never knew my real father—he took off before I was born. My mom died when I was eight and that left me with my stepfather. He and Brian never had much use for me, and I had even less for them. I wasn’t related to them by blood, and they’re the kind of people that matters to. I left home as soon as I could.” Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39925258&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.