“Thank you for telling me all this. It explains a lot about who you are, why you’re so strong, so driven. I admire the hell out of you, Tara.”
She bent her head. “Don’t. I’m no hero, Mick. I was stupid and irresponsible, and my child had to pay for my mistakes.”
He forced her chin up, made her look at him. “Are you kidding me? You’re amazing. Look what you went through, what you endured. To be where you are today after the kind of childhood you had? What you could have ended up like? Instead, you have a great career, a wonderful kid, and you’re one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever met.”
“I’m not perfect.”
“I never said you were. But you’re one of the most hardworking women I’ve ever known. And you’ve overcome more than most women ever will. I—”
He’d almost said something. Something he wasn’t sure he was ready to say.
“I admire you.”
She laughed. “Stop admiring me. I just did what I had to do. For Nathan. If I hadn’t gotten pregnant with him, who knew what kind of self-destruction spiral I would have continued on. Trust me, I was doing my best to ruin my life.”
“Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies.”
“Please. You have the perfect family and the perfect life. I doubt you’ve ever done anything to fuck your life up.”
He pulled her against him and laid them down, the truth hovering on the tip of his tongue, ready to spill. But he didn’t think tonight would be the right time, not after what Tara had told him about her past.
And maybe he was just a coward.
He had some thinking to do.
TARA WAS STILL SLEEPING WHEN MICK WENT DOWNSTAIRS the next morning for coffee. His parents were going to pick Nathan up after they ran some errands, so he didn’t have to worry about that, which left him a nice quiet house to himself for the moment to sit and think about what she’d told him last night.
How was he ever going to tell her the truth about himself after she’d been so honest with him about her past last night? Last night would have been overkill. It had been her night. And now...
Well, not now. It just wasn’t the time. Now he was just going to sit back and enjoy his coffee alone.
“Well, don’t you look all broody and moody this morning.”
Or so he thought. He lifted his gaze to Jenna, who’d slipped in through the back door. “What are you doing here? I thought you were a vampire and didn’t get up till like noon or something.”
“I know you guys are leaving today. Figured I’d drag my sorry ass out of bed early so I could say good-bye.”
“Really.” He watched as she moved around the kitchen, grabbing a cup and filling it with coffee, then adding enough cream and sugar so that it really wasn’t coffee when she was finished with it. She pulled up a chair next to him.
“You don’t come home all that often anymore, and we didn’t get much time to talk last night.”
Uh-oh. Jenna was not the warm and fuzzy sisterly type. Which meant something was up. “Something on your mind you want to talk about?”
She palmed the cup and lifted it to her lips, took a sip, and raised her gaze to his. “It’s Mom and Dad.”
His heart stumbled, his mind already swirling with the possibilities, none of them good. “What about them?”
“Their fortieth anniversary is coming up.”
“Oh. Crap. I didn’t even know.”
“Of course you didn’t. You’re a guy, and guys pay no attention to stuff like that. Anyway, I think we should throw them a party.”
“Okay. When and where?”
She took out her phone, clicked to her calendar, and slid it between them. “Their anniversary is on the fifteenth. Gavin’s in town again on the weekend of the eleventh for a game series. He has a day game on Saturday the twelfth, which means we could do something that night. I pulled him aside last night and hit him up, asked him if he’d be around that Saturday night, and he said he would be.”
“I can be here, for sure.”
“Great. Now all we need is someone to put a big party together for them.”
She pushed her phone aside and stared at him.
“What? Why can’t we just do it at the bar?”
She gave him a look. “Oh, right. You know how that’ll turn out. We throw a party for them at the bar, and Mom and Dad both will end up working all night long. Is that really the way we want them celebrating their anniversary?”
He laid his head in his hand. “You’re right. We can’t do it at the bar. So what are we going to do?”
“Don’t look at me. I bartend. I’m not a party planner.”
“But I am.”
Mick turned to see Tara standing in the doorway to the kitchen. She walked in.
“Hey. Morning,” Jenna said.
“Good morning,” Tara said. “Mind if I help myself to some coffee?”
“Of course.” Mick watched her grab a cup and fill it with coffee. She looked gorgeous in her sweats and tank top.
She grabbed a seat. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on the two of you. I just happened to hear part of your conversation when I was walking down the hall. You’re planning a party?”
“Yes,” Jenna said. “Our parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary in a few weeks.”
“Oh, how lovely. I can help. It’s what I do for a living.”
“Of course,” Jenna said, laying her hand on top of Tara’s. “Would you? I mean, I know you don’t live here, so maybe you only do local stuff out there in California.”
“I can do anything, anywhere. I’d be happy to plan the event. Eventually I want to expand my business nationally.” She turned to Mick. “Not that I want to butt in. I’m sure I could help you find someone local, which would probably be easier for you.”
“Are you kidding? I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have organize this party. You’re serious about this? You’d coordinate everything?”
Her eyes shone with warmth. “I’d love to, Mick. Your entire family has been wonderful to me this weekend. I can’t think of any event I’d love to plan more than your parents’ anniversary party. So when is it?”
Jenna showed her the dates.
“Okay, that’s Nathan’s birthday weekend, but I’ll work around it.”
“No,” Mick said. “You don’t put your kid second.”
She laid her hand over his and offered up a warm smile. “I never put Nathan second. But I imagine for game tickets, he’d love to spend his birthday out here. And he loves your family. Unless you see that as a problem.”
He kissed her forehead. “Spending time with you and Nathan isn’t a problem.”
He caught the look Jenna gave him, but he didn’t care what she thought. He was having a hard enough time wrapping his head around his feelings for Tara and what it all meant. He sure as hell wasn’t going to try to explain them to Jenna.
Tara turned to Jenna. “Jenna can help me on this end, and it’ll be a breeze.”
Jenna nodded and picked up her coffee. “Done deal, then. We’re on for the twelfth. I’ll shoot a text message to Gavin and let him know.”
Little by little, his life was becoming more and more entwined with Tara’s. And the knot in his throat was growing.
MICK DRIPPED WITH SWEAT BUT STOOD UNDER CENTER, took the snap, dropped back a few steps, ignoring the rush, fixated on his targeted receiver. Three, two, one ... now. He threw the pass, and Rodney had the ball in his hands and sprinted away.
Not that he expected a tackle. His offensive linemen were the best and would protect him while he stayed in the pocket.
Coach Lewis blew the whistle and came off the sidelines toward him.
“Still as cold-blooded as ever, Mick.”
Mick took the bottle of water handed to him and swallowed down a couple sips, then handed it off. “Thanks.”
“Your off-season workouts have added some muscle. Your timing is good. Arm feel okay?”
Mick nodded, ignoring the pinch in his shoulder and the aches in just about every damn joint in his body. “Just fine.”
Coach patted him on the back. “I’ve never seen you work drills this hard.”
“Just trying to keep those hungry young quarterbacks off my back.”
Coach laughed. “You know we have to recruit young talent. They’re no threat to you. Not for a while anyway.”
It didn’t matter. Mick was always aware that he was one injury away from being replaced in the game. He was thirty years old, and his time was limited. He took a glance to the sidelines where Brad Samuelson and Coy Bowman stood with clipboards in their hands. They knew every play; they practiced every day. They stood at the ready to step in and take his place. Young kids, eager to be the next big thing in professional quarterbacks. They were good, too. A little green, but good. Which meant Mick had to stay on his game if he wanted to continue to live his dream for a few more years.
Not just yet, boys. I still have several more years to play.
As long as he stayed healthy.
They worked drills for a couple more hours, then hit the showers. When he stepped out of the locker room, Liz was there in a killer gray suit and high heels that looked like they could do some serious damage to a man’s private parts. She pushed off the wall and came toward him.
“Hoping to ogle some naked man flesh?” he teased.
She rolled her eyes. “If I wanted to see all of you naked, I’d have walked in there.”
True enough. Wouldn’t be the first time she’d strolled into the locker room and had conversations with one of her clients while they were showering. Most of the guys had gotten used to seeing her, though the younger guys usually dropped their tongues on the floor when she came walking in. She was definitely noticeable, and she knew it and used it to her advantage. Liz didn’t have a shy bone in her body.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Samuelson and Bowman looked good today in drills.”
“Uh-huh.” He turned and headed out the side door toward his car. Liz followed. “Your point?”
“You’re thirty now, Mick. Time to focus more on the game and less on some woman and her kid.”
He stopped, turned, leveled his gaze on her. “My relationship with Tara is none of your business.”
“It’s my business if she affects your game play.”
“Did you watch me practice today?”
“How did I look?”
She lifted her lips. “Like the number one quarterback in the league.”
He clicked the remote and opened the door to his SUV. “Then stay out of my personal life, Liz, and go bother some other client who’s not the number one player in his position.”
NATHAN’S POPULARITY HAD GROWN BY LEAPS AND bounds, and all because of Tara dating Mick. She tried to keep his feet on the ground and tell him that this could all end tomorrow if she and Mick decided not to see each other anymore, but Nathan brushed her off and said that he and Mick would always be—what was the word he used? Tight. That was it.
She was afraid her son was growing too attached to Mick. And not only Mick, but Mick’s family. He Skyped with Ian and Steve, Mick’s cousins, on a regular basis, as well as whatever the hell those kids did online in that Warcraft game. Not that she really minded, since it was another avenue that was safe and kept her kid off the streets, and Mick assured her they were good kids.
But little by little her life as well as her son’s had begun to revolve around Mick. And Mick’s family. Now she was even planning a party for Mick’s parents’ anniversary, and that meant almost daily phone calls to Jenna, who she decided was an absolute riot. She had a wicked dry sense of humor, took nothing seriously, and she fiercely loved and protected her family. Tara could see why. Mick’s family was perfect. If Tara could choose a family for herself, the Rileys would be the kind of family she’d want.
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