His Most Important Win
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“I know one other thing. I’m not going to wait another fifteen years before I kiss you again.”
His mouth settled on hers. His lips were soft and warm and inviting. As sweet as a first kiss. But then everything changed and the boy in her mind became a fully grown version of the person she’d loved. His mouth ravaged hers, exploring, igniting a young girl’s passion into a woman’s need. The sensation of being devoured by that hot, hungry kiss tingled through her body and she answered it with equal passion. It was like coming home and finding a treasure she’d thought she’d lost.
He planted a swift kiss on her temple.
“By the way,” he said. “I’ll be sleeping here from tomorrow night on. Just in case you get some ideas in the middle of the night that can’t wait.”
She already had one, and she was pretty sure he knew what it was.
What a thrill it is to write this first reader letter as a Mills & Boon® author. I am so grateful to my agent, Kevan Lyon, and my editor, Charles Griemsman, for making this happen. I have always wanted to write a book about high school teachers and coaches, and now this dream is a reality. I was once a high school English teacher like Rosalie, the heroine of this book. Perhaps my involvement with teens and sports explains why I’ve always had a bit of a love affair with football coaches. There is something about the caged energy they display on the sidelines—a tense expectation that can translate in a second to fist-pumping jubilation. How rewarding it must be to guide young men into adulthood.
This book also explores my first attempt at writing a teenager as the secret baby my heroine raised. I hope you enjoy Danny. It’s easy to love a cute little baby, but a teenager with all that angst and willfulness—if you’ve had one, you know.
Welcome to Whistler Creek, Georgia. Enjoy your stay.
I love to hear from readers. Please send me your reaction to His Most Important Win at Cynthoma@aol.com. Or visit my website, cynthiathomason.com.
About the Author
CYNTHIA THOMASON writes contemporary and historical romances and dabbles in mysteries. She has won a National Reader’s Choice Award and the 2008 Golden Quill. When she’s not writing, she works as a licensed auctioneer for the auction company she and her husband own. As an estate buyer for the auction, she has come across unusual items, many of which have found their way into her books. She has one son, an entertainment reporter. Cynthia dreams of perching on a mountaintop in North Carolina every autumn to watch the leaves turn. You can read more about her at her website, www.cynthiathomason.com.
This book is dedicated to the memory of my loving parents, Barbara and Bert Brackett, who never missed a high school football game under the “Friday night lights” of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.
Rosalie pulled into one of the last remaining spots in the parking lot, got out of her car and checked her watch.“Three minutes,” she grumbled. “I’ll just make it if I run.” She still had no idea why the high school principal had called this emergency meeting. His secretary had said he wanted as many of his faculty members who were in town to attend, so Rosalie had missed a lasagna dinner with her mother and her son to be here.
“Hey, Rosalie, wait up.”
Spotting her friend and fellow teacher coming across the pavement, Rosalie motioned for Shelby to hustle. “At least there’s someone who’s even later than I am,” she said when Shelby had fallen into step beside her. “Do you know what this is about?”
“No clue,” Shelby said. “But I’d rather be anywhere but here. The last thing I want to think about in July is school.”
Rosalie held the door open to the three-story brick building and let Shelby go in ahead of her. “I hope Canfield’s not expecting us to volunteer for landscaping duty this summer,” she said. “I’m working more hours at Mom’s produce stand, and I’ve increased my hours at the Brighter Day Center.”
“Why’s that? Have there been any deaths in town recently that I haven’t heard about?”
“No, but grief is an ongoing thing. The more we volunteers can counsel grieving kids at the center, the faster they can get on with their lives.”
Shelby frowned. “I wonder if being around all that sadness is really good for you, Rosalie.”
“It’s been sixteen years since my brother died, Shel.”
“Okay, message received. Forget I said anything.”
They approached the media center at the end of the school’s main hallway. The doors were open. Rosalie caught the subtle aroma of old books, always a welcoming scent to English teachers or anyone who spent a good part of their childhood nestled in a corner of a library. Once they entered the room, the delicious mustiness would be combined with the even subtler smell of modern-day plastic coming from the bank of computers taking up an entire wall.
The media center was buzzing with activity. Apparently Principal Canfield’s calling tree system had worked. Rosalie estimated that nearly three-quarters of the faculty were present along with dozens of booster parents and prominent citizens.
Dexter Canfield, dressed in tan pants and a golf shirt, stood behind the media director’s desk chatting with a group of Whistler Creek’s most influential citizens including Roland Benton, owner of the town’s largest employer, Benton Farms. When Canfield pounded a gavel, the hundred or so attendees stared up at him. Rosalie and Shelby spoke quick greetings to fellow faculty members and took seats in the back.
In his most impressive baritone, the voice Canfield reserved for public address announcements and greetings at halftime sporting events, he thanked everyone for coming and assured the crowd they would not be disappointed. Wasting no time, he proclaimed that a stroke of unbelievable good fortune had befallen the town of Whistler Creek.
“We all regret the recent retirement of Bucky Lowell,” he said. Heads nodded. The revered football coach had been an institution at Whistler Creek High for as long as Rosalie could remember. At the end of the last school year, on the advice of his doctor, the seventy-three-year-old Bucky had stowed away his whistle and closed his game book for the last time. Since then speculations had run wild about who the board would hire to replace him. The man had never had a losing season, a record no other Georgia high school coach had achieved.
“Well, hang on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen,” Canfield said, “because Bucky’s replacement is waiting to come into the room. He signed a contract yesterday, and I think you’ll all agree that the Wildcats couldn’t have made a better pick if we’d ordered his credentials from the Almighty.”
Rosalie studied the expressions of those around her. Some faculty members chuckled. Others shook their heads in bewilderment. A few mumbled guesses about who could possibly fill the shoes of the great Bucky. And then the wait was over. Canfield went to the door of a storage room, opened it wide and in stepped one of Whistler Creek’s native sons and former honored gridiron star. He was also the heir to Benton Farms, the area’s largest agribusiness and supplier of produce to much of the U.S. Southeast.
When recognition dawned among the old-timers, enthusiastic applause broke out. And Rosalie couldn’t seem to draw a breath. It couldn’t be. It was. Bryce Benton, wearing a Texas Tech Athletic T-shirt and ball cap, strode to the desk and stood with his hands clasped in front of him waiting for Dexter Canfield to say something.
Rosalie hadn’t spoken to Bryce in over fifteen years. She’d only spotted him in town a couple times since he’d left for college, and she’d always turned the other way. But looking at him now, exuding a casual confidence that came with pedigree, adulation and just the right amount of sun-weathered texture to his skin, she felt the years melt away. She swallowed. For all her efforts to move on with her life, she could have been seventeen again.
She’d never dreamed Bryce would give up his career at Texas Tech. But here he was. For some inexplicable reason, he’d apparently chosen to abandon his upward climb at the university to come home and coach at little old Whistler Creek High. Bryce was the onetime all-state wide receiver of the Whistler Creek Wildcats, the future agribusiness magnate and, most important, devastating to Rosalie on so many levels, he was her son Danny’s biological father.
Shelby snickered. “What the hell is Canfield doing? Looks like he’s bringing his prize stallion into the show ring for all to admire.” She nudged Rosalie in her ribs. “And he definitely is a prize!”
Somehow Rosalie found her voice. “You don’t know Bryce, do you?”
Shelby, who’d come to Whistler Creek only three years before, grinned. “Not yet. Is he single?”
“Divorced.” Whistler Creek was a small town, and over the years the most important details of Bryce’s life had filtered down to Rosalie. Not that she’d asked to hear them.
She stared at the tabletop in front of her. She couldn’t look at him, couldn’t stand to watch that ruggedly handsome face turn smug with the praise of a public that had obviously forgotten all the details of Bryce’s background. Forgotten or forgiven.
Thinking back to when she was a gullible teenager, she felt a flush of shame heat her cheeks. She had once believed she was in love with Bryce Benton, the very same guy who’d just allowed himself to be paraded into the limelight of his expectant hometown crowd as if he were Dexter Canfield’s gift to the people of Whistler Creek.
Some mistakes could never be lived down. And some just hurt forever.
Standing in front of people he’d never met before as well as old friends he hadn’t seen in years, Bryce felt like a damn fool. Canfield had told him to wait in the wings until he’d made the announcement just so he could pique the interest of the crowd. Bryce had argued that such a plan was ridiculous, but in the end, he’d let Canfield have his way thinking maybe it was better that Dexter prepared the crowd for the return of a prodigal son. Bryce had only come home to Whistler Creek a couple dozen times in the last fifteen years. Now, with something like one hundred pairs of eyes drilling into him, he knew he’d been manipulated into being the featured sideshow event for Canfield’s three-ring circus.
He shook his head, raised his hands palms up in an effort to stop the flow of excited chatter that filled the room. When he’d been offered the job to replace Bucky, he’d jumped at the chance. Coaching at Whistler Creek was what he wanted. His goal since college had always been to mentor and guide high school kids on the verge of manhood and possible greatness. Despite the tragedy that would always haunt him, coming home to the town and school that had nurtured him through the years had been the fulfillment of a dream. Now he felt like a trick pony waiting to be led through his paces.
Beaming at Bryce, Canfield said, “I coaxed him away from Texas Tech, and I wanted all of you to share in this victory for the Whistler Creek High Athletic Department.”
Coaxed him away, Bryce thought. He’d taken a ten thousand a year pay cut to be here, and still signed on the bottom line without a moment’s hesitation. Most people would say he should have his head examined.
But Bryce gambled on possibilities. And the options for changing lives at the head coaching level at Whistler Creek far surpassed those as the assistant offensive coach at Texas Tech. And then there was his dad, who was sitting here tonight. His health had suffered a blow. He needed his son, wanted him to come home.
He looked into his dad’s eyes now, saw the pride there and took a deep breath. “Folks, you all have a seat. This isn’t so much a celebration as a chance to get acquainted. Or reacquainted as is the case with many of you.”
“Are you kidding, Bryce,” the president of the Georgia State Bank shouted from the side of the room. “This could be the best football season we’ve ever had.”
Bryce tried to smile and slanted a glance at Bucky Lowell who sat nearby. “I don’t know about that,” Bryce said, gesturing at Bucky. “Coach Lowell here has left me some pretty big shoes to fill, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’ve all got a lot of work to do. The players, the coaching staff, most of all, me. I think we should save the celebrating until we get a few wins under our belts.”
Dexter Canfield continued to grin like the top salesman on a used car lot. “Now you see why I called you here today. We appreciate everything Bucky has done for this program, but today is the beginning of a new era for Whistler Creek athletics. We need to start now, preparing our boys, getting behind our new coach, redoubling our efforts as Wildcat parents and supporters.”
“I appreciate all the enthusiasm tonight and in the future,” Bryce said. “But let’s remember that the ones who need our support most are the young men who’ll soon sweat their guts out on the field once practice starts.” He paused before adding, “Football in Whistler Creek always has been, and will continue to be, a community effort. Thanks for coming today and for giving me this welcome. But as far as I’m concerned, you can all go on home now, knowing that my office in the athletic building is always open.”
He remembered the furor surrounding games in the past and doubted Bucky had kept that same open-door policy for his many years at Whistler. Bryce hoped he wouldn’t regret making that statement.
As the meeting wound down, he endured countless handshakes and pats on the back before the last of his well-wishers left the media center. Then he said goodbye to Canfield and walked with his father to the school parking lot. When they stepped into the humid July air of a South Georgia evening, Bryce took his dad’s elbow and held him back. “Let’s wait until everyone is in their cars,” he said.
Roland Benton smiled. “A little uncomfortable with all this excitement, are you, son?”
“Yeah. I didn’t anticipate this kind of welcome. I’ve been gone a long time.”
“True, but you’ve always wanted to come back.”
Bryce waved to a man who put down his car window and gave him a thumbs-up sign. “I didn’t think it would be like this. You know how it is, Dad. When expectations run too high, everyone can end up disappointed and disillusioned.”
“Just do your job, Bryce,” Roland said. “No one can ask more. And no one should expect more than your best effort.” He smiled. “That’s all you’ll ask of the players, right?”
“True enough.” Seeing the parking lot emptying out, Bryce stepped onto the pavement. He saw two women chatting between cars about a hundred feet down the lot. He stared for a moment before a familiar pang pierced his heart. Could it be? He recognized the lush curls of black hair that fell to one woman’s shoulders. “Dad, isn’t that Rosalie Campano?”
Roland squinted. “Sure is.”
“Is her mother still running her produce stand on Fox Hollow Road?”
“Yes, indeed. Claudia is one of our best local customers. Rosalie still lives with her. You know Rosalie teaches at the high school now?”
“Yeah. Mom told me that a few years back. I should have known she’d be here when I heard Canfield had called the faculty out for this show.” Bryce had thought a lot about Rosalie over the years. She’d been an important part of his life at one time—until the day he’d brought so much grief into hers.
Rosalie laughed as she carried on a conversation with the other woman. Bryce recalled the bright, bubbly sound of her voice. “Is her name still Campano?” he asked.
“You mean did she ever get married?”
“No. She’s single. Came close a time or two from what I understand, but it didn’t work out.”
Rosalie had never married? Bryce tried to rein in his careening thoughts. Roland took Bryce’s arm and gently tugged him toward their car parked in the opposite direction.
“Wait,” Bryce said, knowing he could be treading on emotional quicksand. “I want to say hello.”
“Maybe now’s not a good time …”
“Why not? I’m going to be seeing a lot of Rosalie. We’ll be working in the same building, maybe teaching some of the same kids.” Bryce was already several steps ahead of his dad. “Now’s the perfect time.”
It was crazy. Bryce knew that. But the closer he got to Rosalie, the more his heart pounded. For Pete’s sake. It had been almost sixteen years since Ricky had died. They’d each gone on with their lives. But heck, she was right there across the lot, where she couldn’t refuse his phone calls. Bryce always wondered if maybe he’d get the chance to tell her again how sorry he was for what happened. So he quickened his footsteps.
And then she looked up and trapped his gaze. It was only a quick glance, almost as if she hadn’t noticed him at all. But her smile faded and she turned again to her friend, said something brief and got in her car. Bryce stopped dead. Before he could have reached her, she’d backed her red compact car out of its space and was headed to the street.
And for the second time that night, Bryce felt like an idiot.
Shortly after the meeting at the high school broke up, Rosalie came in the back door of the home she still lived in with her mother. She reached down and scratched behind Dixie’s ear. The golden retriever nuzzled her soft nose against Rosalie’s jeans. The scent of fresh baked bread and pungent Italian spices filled the welcoming kitchen. A half-filled dish of lasagna sat on the table along with the remains of a salad in a seasoned wooden bowl. Rosalie called out, “Mom, you here?”
Drying her hands on a towel, Claudia came out of the pantry. “There’s plenty of lasagna left, Rosalie,” she said. “I’ll heat up a plateful if you’re hungry.”
“No, thanks. I’m going out in a little while.”
“Oh? You seeing Ted?”
Her mother was one of the few people who knew Rosalie had accepted a few dates with Whistler Creek High’s baseball coach. Rosalie tried to keep her personal life private. “No. He’s got his kids this weekend. I’m meeting Shelby downtown at the Creek Side Tavern.” She stepped to the entry to the living room and looked around. “Is Danny here?”
“No. His friends picked him up twenty minutes ago.”
Rosalie sighed with relief, pulled out a kitchen chair and slumped into it. “Good. I don’t have to pretend that everything’s okay then.”
“You certainly don’t have to pretend with me,” Claudia said. “I’ve already heard. Sharon Potter was at the meeting and she called me when she got home.”
“Then you know about our new football coach.”
“I know.” Claudia shook her head. “I always thought Bryce would come back here, especially after his divorce. And now his father had that bypass surgery …”
Rosalie blew out a long breath. “I always prayed he wouldn’t return.”
Claudia pulled out a chair and sat across the table from her daughter. “Don’t borrow trouble, Rosalie. Just because Bryce is back doesn’t mean that anything has to change.”
Rosalie sighed deeply. “I think everything will change, for me at least. I’ll have to face him at school every day this fall and I might even run into him at Benton Farms when I go there to pick up your produce orders.”
Then a startling realization occurred to her and she stared at her mother. “Like tomorrow,” she said. “I promised you I’d go to Benton’s in the morning. What if Bryce is there?”
Claudia squeezed her hand. “I don’t know where Bryce is staying, but even if he is out at his parents’ place, you can go to the market early, before most normal people are even out of bed.”
Rosalie nodded. “Yeah, I can do that. But Mom, having Bryce return to Whistler Creek feels a little like adding gasoline to a long-simmering fire.” She raised her hands. “Ka-boom.”
“You’re jumping to conclusions, Rosalie. The secret has remained buried since Danny was born. That’s a long time. Only four people are alive in this town who even know that Bryce is Danny’s father. None of us has ever broken the promise we made that night.” She frowned and looked away.
Rosalie recalled that stressful meeting at the Benton home nearly sixteen years ago. Claudia Campano had briefly argued in favor of letting Bryce know about Rosalie’s pregnancy, but she had quickly capitulated to everyone else’s desires.
Rosalie picked up a slice of bread from a basket at the center of the table and began shredding it. “I wish I were as confident as you, Mom. But in the back of my mind I picture Bryce coming face-to-face with Danny, and just, well, knowing. Like this cosmic bond will connect the two of them.”
Claudia took the mutilated bread from Rosalie’s hand. “That’s not going to happen, honey. We’ve always been careful. Growing up, Danny never questioned your story about his father.”
“That’s because Poppa was still alive and he was the only father Danny ever needed. He was better to Danny than anyone else could have been.” Rosalie clasped her hands on top of the table. “I never told you, Mom, but last year, a few months after Poppa died, Danny asked me about his real father.”
“And what did you tell him?”
“I kept up the pretense I’d established before—that his father and I only knew each other a short time.” That was a lie. She’d known Bryce all her life. “That we were only together one time.” That was the truth. “That his father was not ready to assume the responsibility of a baby.” That was the truth. “And I told Danny again that I loved him from the moment I knew he existed, and you and Poppa loved him as if he were your own, too.”
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