Author: Jaci Burton


“Am I crushing you?” he asked.


“No. This just feels good.”


He inhaled and let it out, then gathered her close. “I love being with you, babe. A lot.”


“I love being with you, too.”


“You’re the best thing that’s come into my life in a long time, Tara. Thank you.”


She swept her arm across his back and smiled, hoping it could always be this good between them.


Maybe this was what falling in love was supposed to feel like. Scary and exhilarating at the same time.


And maybe it was okay to let it happen.


NINETEEN


TARA HAD NEVER WORKED HARDER IN HER LIFE FOR something she wasn’t getting paid for. The few weeks of preseason had flown by, and she’d actually been grateful for the games Mick had out of town. Because when Mick was around she wanted to be with him. And he wanted to be with her, which admittedly she liked an awful lot. It kind of reminded her of being a teenager again, this need to be with someone so much it hurt. But that kind of longing didn’t lend itself to focusing on the job at hand, so Mick leaving town for the weekend was timely. It had given her time to work with the wives, girlfriends, and volunteers who were helping her put this charity event together.


They had decided on a carnival for the kids, complete with rides and games. The venue had been selected, the weather was thankfully going to be perfect, and donations and volunteers had been pouring in. Amazing what people were willing to do for both a worthy cause and to be associated with a prominent, successful football team. Since the last preseason game was tomorrow, many of the team members would be present. They were going to sign footballs for the kids, which would bring the media in for photo opportunities and hopefully bring attention to the charity.


The past few weeks had given Tara the opportunity to get to know the women from the team a lot better. She was quickly becoming friends with the majority of them, which meant if she and Mick broke up, she was going to miss them all. Then again, who was to say she couldn’t remain friends with them?


Sue Shore had gone into labor and had her baby last week. Tara and several of the other team ladies had gone to Sue’s house a few days after she’d had little Timmy, all nine pounds ten ounces of him. At twenty-three inches long it was no wonder he’d been keeping her up all night kicking her. But Sue was thrilled despite being exhausted after eighteen hours of labor. And the baby was adorable. Tara had held him for a brief few moments, and those pangs of female hormones had kicked into overdrive. It had been a long time since Nathan had been a baby.


“You planning on having any more?” Sue had asked her.


Tara’s head had shot up. “I’ve never even thought about it.”


“Well, you know, Mick does love kids.” Marvella, one of the player’s wives, had given her a knowing smile.


Good Lord. Her and Mick having babies? The thought had never occurred to her. “Mick and I are just dating.”


“Uh-huh. He seems to like your son.”


“Nathan’s a teenager.”


“So?” Heather Swanson scooped up little Timmy and sighed. “Mick’s been around all our kids, from infant to high school age. And he’s great with all sizes. He’s going to be a wonderful father someday.”


“Yes, I’m sure he will be.”


“And since you’re the only woman he’s ever brought around ...”


Tara rolled her eyes. “It doesn’t mean he intends to marry me and have babies with me.”


But the thought lingered all through the week. Silly thought. Marriage and babies and a family with her and Mick and Nathan and a child they created together.


Really dumb thought. Mick had his life, which was football and beautiful young women. Her life was her career and her son, who was now fifteen. The last thing she wanted was to start over again. She was thirty years old. In a few short years Nathan would be off to college, and she’d be free to focus on her business, unencumbered. She’d sacrificed so much to raise Nathan, to put herself through school, to climb the ladder, and get her business off the ground.


She didn’t need a husband, and she sure as hell didn’t need to start over at ground zero again, saddled with a child.


A child with Mick’s deep blue eyes and dark hair. A daughter, maybe. Or another boy. Someone for Mick to watch grow, to toss a football with.


Good Lord. Put a baby in her arms, and her hormones got all whacked out. That’s all it was. She and Mick were dating, and she was suddenly having babies with him?


Right, like that was going to happen. Her baby days were long over.


Focus, Tara, focus.


With effort, she regrouped and turned her full attention to the charity event. The rides had all been set up, the booths were in place, there was plenty of food, and all the players had arrived. The kids were pouring in, and the media was spread throughout the fairgrounds. Having the venue in one of the East Bay cities allowed for easy transportation, the chance for great attendance, plenty of parking, and great weather.


She’d put all the wives and girlfriends working the carnival in pink team jerseys today so she’d be able to spot them. She’d given Nathan a red and white team jersey to wear since Mick had told her Nathan could hang next to him today, something Nathan had no problem with for obvious reasons. Nathan would be helping out the team by running for drinks, pens, opening up boxes of footballs and whatever else they might need, and assisting the team staffers. He was ecstatic just to be hanging out with the team today, so she was sure he’d act the gofer for anything they wanted, and Tara was happy Mick would be keeping an eye on him so she wouldn’t have to worry about where he was or what he was doing. One thing off her list.


Now she could focus on the charity’s kids, who were so excited about the carnival she could see it on their faces. They were all troubled youth ranging from elementary school age all the way to middle school and early high school age, so having a free day to just have some fun, ride the Tilt-A-Whirl or the Scrambler or the roller coaster, walk through the fun house, play skee ball or try to hit the ducks in the shooting booth would be a great way to decompress from their everyday lives. And they’d have the bonus of some one-on-one time with the team players. The kids had brought their parents or foster parents and siblings along, so it wasn’t long before the fairground was full, plus the charity organizers and staffers were there, too. Tara was running from activity to activity to make sure everyone was having a good time.


She stopped off at the players’ booth, which had a huge line of kids waiting to have their pictures taken and footballs autographed. Mick was hanging out with some of the guys.


“Hey,” she said. “Everything going okay?”


He kissed her and put his arm around her. “Going great here. How about you? You look hot and sweaty.”


She laughed and pushed her hair away from her damp face. “Busy. Do you all need anything?”


“Quit worrying about us. We have team staffers here to take care of us. And try to relax. I wandered around a little, and everything looks perfect.”


She inhaled, let it out. “I’ll relax when it’s over.” Her phone buzzed. She grabbed it from her pocket, listened, and laid her hand on Mick’s chest. “Gotta go and take care of something.”


“Try not to kill yourself over this.”


She laughed and darted off, met up with Roseanne and a few of the other wives, and they took care of the food serving issue. Once that was resolved, she wandered through the fairgrounds to make sure the kids were being entertained. Everyone seemed happy.


“Miss Lincoln?”


She whirled around, and a microphone was shoved in her face.


“Alan Terlin, Channel 8 news. We’d like to interview you for the local broadcast.”


“Oh. You don’t want to interview me. Why don’t you go talk to the team.”


His lips lifted. “Already did that. They pointed me in your direction, said you put this event together.”


“I’m just the event planner. You should really talk to the head of the foundation and the people who work there. They are the heart and soul behind making sure these kids lead a balanced life—education, social, and family.” She looked around, hoping like hell she could find someone from the charity, nearly crying with relief when she spotted Carmen Sanchez. “Here, let me get Carmen for you.”


She hurried over to Carmen and dragged the newspeople to her. Carmen, not a hair out of place despite running around even more than Tara was, graciously agreed to say a few words about the foundation and what they offered kids who’d had a rough start and disadvantages. Tara backed away and let Carmen have the face time on camera.


“Smooth escape.”


Tara turned and faced Elizabeth, who managed to look unruffled and cool in her sleeveless top and Capri pants and kitten heels.


“What? No power suit today?”


“I have causal clothes, Tara.”


“Could have fooled me. I thought you always dressed like a shark on the attack.” Even in casual attire—which looked designer and expensive—Liz was still put together impeccably.


“You should have done the interview. It would be good for the team. For Mick.”


“You do the interview. I’m hot and sweaty and look like hell. And the foundation can make the team look good.”


“The foundation will make the foundation look good.”


Tara shook her head. “Not my area. I’ll let you find someone to make the team look good.”


Liz shrugged her shoulders. “If you insist.”


“I do.”


Glad to be rid of Liz, Tara moved off to the midway where she found a group of kids trying to best the carnies in games of water balloon darts, ring toss, and milk bottle throw. She eyed the vendors carefully, stopping at each one for long enough to be sure there was a decent percentage of the kids winning. Mr. Stokes was funding these vendors nicely, and the kids should have a good chance of winning.


They were. Satisfied, she moved on.


Food was plentiful in the eating area, and there was enough to drink there as well as at all the drink stops throughout the fairgrounds. Everything seemed to be under control, so Tara figured she’d take a minute or two and stop in at the players’ area, which was still filled to bursting with kids, players, and media.


Liz was there, giving some face time to reporters. She had a group of kids hanging with Mick. Tara was about to think the woman had a nice bone in her body, then thought twice. She was pushing Mick, making sure Mick looked good. Tara rolled her eyes and decided to come back later, but then stopped when she realized that behind Liz were the kids she was talking about while she was being interviewed, and that Nathan stood next to Mick.


Nathan was being photographed along with several other kids as Liz gave that interview.


“These kids come from less than positive backgrounds,” Liz said, motioning behind her, deliberately inclining her head toward Nathan. “Some have been abused, some have parents who’ve been involved in drugs. Some live in foster care, and some are just economically disadvantaged. The foundation and the team have set up this event to give these kids something positive in their lives, when they haven’t had many positive things to look forward to.”


Liz turned to Nathan and motioned him over. Nathan, obviously not knowing what the hell was going on, grinned back at Liz and came over. The cameras focused on him.


“Are you having a good time today?” Liz asked.


Nathan, looking utterly bashful and camera struck, nodded. “Uh, yeah. Having a great time.”


And then Liz motioned Mick over, and Mick put his arm around Nathan’s shoulders. The entire thing made Nathan look like one of the troubled kids, and Mick was offering up the hero’s helping hand.


Tara’s blood boiled. That fucking bitch. She stood there, her feet rooted to the asphalt, not knowing what to do. Ripping Nathan out of there would cause a scene and would only make matters worse, embarrassing Nathan and herself in the process. She refused to give Liz the satisfaction. And Mick seemed oblivious to the entire thing, playing to Nathan and the cameras as if he knew exactly what was going on.

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