Author: Jaci Burton


Oh, God. Run, Nathan, run!


Tara held her breath for the entire nine yards until Nathan slid and was piled on by three tacklers. She didn’t breathe until he jumped up, grinned, and headed to the huddle. Only then did she exhale amid the wild cheers.


Smart-ass. Thought he was a scrambler, did he? She’d never seen him do that before.


By midway through the fourth quarter the score was close. The team they were playing had made the playoffs last year, so they were good. But Nathan’s team had showed a lot of improvement so they were playing tough, but were behind by six points. Tara had to shift her attention from the game to the scoreboard, chewing on a ragged hangnail and hoping time wouldn’t run out before Nathan could march his team down the field and score again, and that the defense could keep the opposing team from putting more points up.


There were two and a half minutes left when the defense held and Nathan got the ball back in his hands. Tara could only imagine the pressure he felt to keep his team in the game. Was this what Mick went through every game? It must drive his mother crazy.


Stop thinking about Mick. And about his family.


She missed Kathleen, wished they could have stayed close. She could have used her counsel through all of this, but it would hardly be appropriate to call Kathleen to talk to her about her own son. The son Tara had dumped.


She shook off thoughts of Mick and concentrated on Nathan. First down was a run and they picked up five yards. Tara breathed in, then out, trying to calm down her raging heartbeat.


Second down was a short pass to the wide receiver, who ran for a first down. She jumped up and down and hugged one of the other moms. They were on their own forty-yard line now, and a third down twenty-five-yard run by the team’s running back put them in their opponent’s territory.


Tara’s heart was pounding. She couldn’t imagine what Nathan felt. He looked steady and calm as he threw a long pass to his wide receiver, who ran all the way to the fifteen-yard line before being tackled. Her heart was in her throat as the next two downs got them nowhere. Third down and forty-five seconds on the clock. Nathan was in the shotgun, took the ball from center, rolled back to his left—nothing. He stayed in the pocket, turned to his right, spotted his tight end in the middle of the field, and fired off a rocket pass to the tight end, who sprinted into the end zone for a touchdown.


Oh my God. They’d scored. Screaming erupted. Tara shouted, yelled Nathan’s name, and burst into tears. It was the best game ever. The extra point put them ahead, and though the other team got the ball back, time ran out, and Nathan’s team won.


No victory could have been sweeter. Tara didn’t even care that it was only the first game of the season; it had still been the best game she’d ever seen him play.


After the game and all the celebrations, Tara went down on the field. She hung back while he talked with some of the students, including a young girl—a JV cheerleader. Very cute, with dark hair pulled into a high ponytail. When Nathan saw her, he smiled, and her heart clenched, because he looked just like a little boy again.


He’d never be her little boy anymore though. He was growing up, and it was time to give him his space. She went over to him and hugged him. “You played an amazing game.”


He grinned. “Thanks, Mom. This is Carla.”


“Hi, Mrs. Lincoln.”


“Not Mrs. And you can call me Tara. Nice to meet you, Carla.”


“Oh. Okay. Nathan played great, didn’t he?”


“He did.”


“Um, some of us are going to Coach’s for an after the game pizza party,” Nathan said. “Is it okay? And I’d like to spend the night at Bobby’s house. His parents said it was fine.”


Tara shifted her gaze to Bobby’s parents, who waved and nodded. She waved back. “It sounds fine to me. I’ll go talk to his parents. You have a good time.”


“Thanks, Mom.”


Tara had a brief conversation with Bobby’s parents, who assured her they’d pick up Bobby and Nathan from Coach’s house after the party. Tara would pick up Nathan tomorrow afternoon, so it was all set.


She turned around to head home but stopped in the middle of the field, her heart slamming against her chest when she saw Mick. Or at least she thought she saw him. He’d be pretty difficult to miss, since he was so damn tall, and she’d committed his face to memory until she died. And even though it was dark, the stadium lights were still on. He’d ducked to the west side of the bleachers and disappeared into the crowds leaving the stadium. She followed, quickening her step as she moved off the turf and onto the sidewalk, passing the bleachers where she’d seen him standing and out to the parking lot where a score of people where getting into their cars and taking off.


She climbed onto the brick planting area and scanned the crowds, thought she spotted his black SUV pulling out of the parking lot.


She was obviously imagining things. Why would Mick be here?


She’d told him she never wanted to see him again. He’d made no contact with her in over two weeks. He had a game Sunday. This was a local high school game. No media attention. He’d have no reason to be here.


She was an idiot. She’d worked so hard to push Mick out of her mind.


“Mom?”


She looked down to see Nathan, Carly, Bobby, and Bobby’s parents gaping up at her while she stood like some idiot on the brick wall.


“Oh. Hi there.”


“What are you doing up there, Mom?”


“Uh, just though I saw someone I knew.”


The side of Nathan’s mouth curled. “Mick, maybe?”


He held her hand while she jumped down. “No. Why would you think that?”


“Duh, Mom. Because he was here.”


“He was? How would you know that?”


“Because I invited him to the game.” Nathan turned to Carly and Bobby. “I’ll meet up with you guys in a sec.”


Nathan looked at the ground after his friends left. There was something he wasn’t telling her.


“Nathan?”


He finally lifted his gaze to hers. “Look, I didn’t want you to go all batshit ... uh ... crazy on me about it. I called him and asked if he wanted to watch my first game. He said he’d love to. I left a ticket for him. He came to the locker room before the game, talked to the guys. No big deal, okay?”


“You missed him.”


Nathan shrugged. “Just thought he might want to see me play.”


Tears pricked her eyes. God, this kid needed a man in his life. “I’m sorry, Nathan. This is why I don’t date.”


“Bullshit. Stop using me.”


Her eyes widened. “What?”


“You’ve kept your life on hold because of me. You don’t let anyone get close to you because of me.”


“That’s not true.”


“You love Mick. Don’t you?”


She opened her mouth to deny it but then stopped herself.


“Don’t bother saying a word. It’s obvious you’re practically crying yourself to sleep every night. I don’t know why you’re being such a big baby about this, Mom. You love him. He loves you. Simple, right?”


She rubbed her temple. “No, Nathan. It’s not simple.”


“Then tell me what the problem is.”


“The problem is between Mick and me and is none of your business.”


“Why don’t you quit treating me like I’m a little kid and start treating me like maybe I can handle some grown-up problems? I’m always going to be here for you when sh—when stuff happens that’s bad. You don’t have to make life perfect for me. I know bad things happen. I know you had a shitty—fine I’ll just say it—a shitty life when you were younger. That doesn’t mean you have to look for the bad in every thing and every person. Not everyone is like that. Mick isn’t like that.”


She held up her hand. “Okay, wait a minute.”


“No. I’m not going to wait. And I don’t think you should wait anymore either. You put your life on hold for me. And really, I get that. I appreciate it. But I’m not a baby anymore. Let go, Mom.”


She stood there, speechless, looking at her little boy who had grown up and was now giving her advice. “I guess you have grown up. I’m sorry.”


“Don’t be sorry. Just stop using me as an excuse for not doing what you really want.”


She inhaled, let it out. “Do you think I’ve been doing that?”


“Not always. But with Mick? Yeah. And stop it.”


She nodded, flabbergasted at her son, who had somehow grown up when she wasn’t looking. “Okay. I will.”


“I like him, too, Mom.”


She sucked in a breath, realized she hadn’t been the only one to love Mick.


“I know you do.”


“He’s not a bad guy.”


“No, he’s not.”


“Even if you don’t get back with him, I want to be friends with him. Would that be okay?”


She sat on the brick wall and held her son’s hands. Surprisingly, he let her. “That would be fine. I can’t think of anyone who’s a better person to be in your life than Mick.”


Nathan grabbed her up into a fierce hug that brought a rush of tears to her eyes.


“I love you. Gotta go. Bye.”


“Bye.” She laughed through the tears as he ran off with his friends.


“Go find Mick and tell him you love him,” Nathan yelled when he was halfway down the parking lot.


Tara was mortified, but the kids all laughed, and Bobby’s parents just waved and shook their heads.


Oh sure, her kid dropped this epic pronouncement about maturity and love on her, then ran off for pizza. He’d understood it all so easily, when she clearly hadn’t.


Youth. She certainly hadn’t been that smart when she was his age.


She got into her car and started it up, then made the turn for home, got a block down the road, and abruptly pulled onto the freeway.


Nathan was right. It was time to stop being scared and stop making excuses.


She knew what she wanted, and it was time to go get it.


TWENTY-ONE


MICK HAD JUST FINISHED TAKING A SHOWER WHEN HE heard the doorbell.


“Shit.” He grabbed a pair of pants and shrugged into them, throwing the zipper up while flying down the stairs. He’d ordered the pizza, figuring it would be at least an hour before it arrived.


He grabbed his wallet and pulled the door open.


It wasn’t the pizza guy. It was Tara.


“Oh. I thought you were pizza delivery.”


She swallowed, her throat working as she did it again. “No pizza here. Sorry. Can I come in?”


“Sure.” He stepped out of the way and closed the door behind her. “I was in the shower.”


“I can see that.” Her gaze raked over his chest and lower, and damn his dick for noticing her lingering where he hadn’t bothered buttoning his pants. “Want something to drink?”


“Water would be good.”


He went to the kitchen and filled up glasses with water for both of them, dragging his fingers through his still-wet hair before carrying the water out.


“Thanks.”


“Sit down.”


She did, took a couple swallows of water, and set the glass on the coffee table. “You were at Nathan’s game tonight.”


“He invited me. I tried to stay out of your line of sight, figured you wouldn’t be happy if you knew I was there.”


“About that ...”


“Look, I stayed hidden. There was no media. I fired Liz, so she won’t be getting in your way.”


Her gaze snapped to his. “You fired Elizabeth?”


“Yeah.”


“Why?”


“You know why.”


“Mick. I hope you didn’t do that because of me.”

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