Happy release day, Blaire Edens!
After the combat death of her Marine husband, grief counselor Maddie Westerfield has thrown herself into helping other families—leaving no time for dating. Which is just fine with Maddie since falling in love again, especially with another man in uniform, is out of the question. No matter how gorgeous he is. Plus, she’s busy looking after her eight-year-old nephew for her deployed sister.
For the last eight years, Lieutenant David Sterling has lived with the guilt of losing one of his soldiers in an ambush in Afghanistan. So when the opportunity presents itself, he jumps at the chance to help the beautiful widow coach her nephew’s football team. But keeping things strictly professional between them is harder than he expected. And even though he knows a relationship with Maddie will only lead to heartbreak, he can’t help falling for her.
Maddie Westerfield was a fraud.
At least she felt like one. She’d graduated from lying to herself to lying to a client.
“You have to move on, Julie. I know you loved him with all your heart, but he’s been gone nearly a year. It’s time to begin your life again.” She balanced her cell phone between her ear and shoulder. “You’re young; someone will come along someday and you’ll remember what it feels like to fall in love again.”
Ever since that day eight years ago, when the two marines in Dress Blues had knocked on the front door and told her that her husband, Frank, had been killed in combat, she’d told herself the same thing—that another love would come along and expand her heart again. So much for that. Becoming a grief counselor had done little to ease her own private pain.
By the time Julie was calm enough for her to disconnect, her ear was sweaty and her nerves were shot.
She took a deep breath and leaned back in her leather chair, taking a minute to appreciate the serenity of her home office. The walls were painted soft lavender, and the desk was last year’s birthday present from her sister, Callie—a thrift-store find refinished in a crisp white. Flower prints in matching distressed frames dotted the walls. The office had the overall feel of a cozy English cottage and she loved it.
A glance at the clock opposite her desk startled her back to the present. Seven thirty? Could that be right?
She’d done it again—gotten so involved with her work that she’d forgotten the time. Forgotten that a child needs a balanced dinner, preferably a warm one.
“Andrew,” she called to her nephew as she hurried down the hall toward the den. “Are you okay? Andrew?” Her voice cracked. She didn’t hear any of the sounds that usually went with an eight-year-old boy: the revving of imaginary car engines, the rhythmic bounce of a ball, an ongoing sports commentary. The house was quiet. Too quiet.
Andrew wasn’t in the den. Or the kitchen. His room was empty.
She shoved her feet into the flip-flops by the back door, and flew out the kitchen door and down the concrete steps into the backyard.
“Andrew,” she yelled, hoping he’d just thrown a ball into a neighbor’s yard and would hear her calling to him. The street was quiet, with only the occasional squawk of a bird, and in the far background the bass drum of artillery guns firing practice rounds at nearby Camp Wilson.
She glanced at the small shed in the corner of the backyard. Andrew’s bike was always propped up against the side of the shed. Missing.
Her heart plummeted, switched places with her stomach—the same sickening feeling she always got at the top of a tall hill on a roller coaster. Thread-like tentacles of fear prickled and crawled across the crown of her head.
She could cover the neighborhood faster on her bike so she took it from the shed. Pedaling fast through the grass, she hit the sidewalk and raced to the street. The asphalt shimmered with the late summer heat. The air, heavy with humidity—a hazard of central North Carolina in the summer—had the viscosity of motor oil and her lungs had to work to drag the oxygen out of it.
She turned left, automatically headed toward Andrew’s best friend’s house.
“Andrew, Andrew!” She heard the raw desperation in her own voice. She told herself to stay calm. Not to overreact.
It was difficult to yell the boy’s name, search the area, and manage to keep the bike from crashing. As she neared the tidy 1950s brick ranch, there was no sign of the boys. No discarded bikes in the grass, or any sports detritus.
She skidded to a stop and ran up the walkway to the front door. She pressed the doorbell and then immediately banged on the etched glass. No sounds came from the inside of the house. No footsteps, not even the clicking of dog’s paws across the hardwood floors. She walked to the garage and peeked through the dusty glass.
Swallowing a growing lump of panic, Maddie hopped astride the bike and pumped the pedals hard in the direction of her house. Her thighs burning with exertion, she tried to formulate a plan.
She would call all his friends first. No, she would get in the car and drive through the neighborhood first. Surely he’d just gone to a friend’s house. Maybe he’d shouted to tell her while she was working on the phone and she just didn’t hear. She had a list of phone numbers somewhere. Callie put the list in alphabetical order and laminated it before she left. Where was the list?
When she reached the house, she jumped off the bike while it was still moving and rushed through the back door. Keys in one hand, cell phone in the other, she used her pinky finger to open the drawer by the phone. In the very bottom, she found the laminated sheet.
Just as she dialed the first number, the doorbell rang.
“Oh my God, something’s happened to him,” she murmured.
As soon as she said it, she realized how irrational the assumption was.
But, unfortunately, her head couldn’t convince her heart. It was pounding in alarm.
She wanted to race through the house to the front door, but her legs wouldn’t move. Paralyzed. Frozen. She looked at her feet, clad in flip-flops worn smooth from all the walks to the library and the post office. Walks she’d taken with Andrew. Her heart contracted like a vise—she’d been here before.
The doorbell rang again. Prosaic tones she’d heard hundreds of times. A chill ran through her.
It couldn’t be good news. All her friends used the side entrance and entered the house through the kitchen.
Maybe it was just a kid selling magazines. Although, in truth, it had been years since kids sold school fundraisers door to door.
She willed her legs to move, taking one step, then another until she reached the front door, bracing for the uniform on the other side. This time it would likely be law enforcement instead of the Corps. The royal blue of the Springdale Police instead of the dark navy of the United States Marine Corps.
She placed her hand on the cool brass doorknob and took a deep breath to calm down. In. Out. She opened the door.
It wasn’t the Springdale Police. It was a marine. Only he wasn’t in uniform. He wore a faded gray T-shirt with emblazoned across the chest, and black running shorts, and had one arm draped around Andrew.
Relief washed through her, soaking into every cell of her body. She was torn between the need to cry and the desire to laugh hysterically. She struggled to get her feelings in check, not wanting a total stranger to glimpse the raw emotion just below the surface.
“Ma’am?” he asked in a deep, bass voice. “I’m Lieutenant David Sterling. I met Andrew at the track just before I started my run and I followed him home on his bike.”
The name hit her like a Mack truck.
She took a deep breath, but it felt like she was breathing through a blanket.
She forced her mind back to the present. She continuously looked for a link to the past, a way to make sense of Frank’s death. There was no reason to think this was the same man. What were the odds? Even if Sterling wasn’t a common surname, surely there was more than one in the Marine Corps.
She was lying to herself but couldn’t seem to stop.
If she weren’t flooded with adrenaline and relief, she might be able to think more clearly. Her hands shook and she tucked them into the pockets of her shorts.
Andrew shuffled his feet and looked down at the floor of the porch.
She bent so that she was eye to eye with the child, lifted his chin with her palm and said, “Where have you been? It’s after eight o’clock.” She pulled him toward her, attempting a hug, but he resisted. Looking him over, she checked for scratches or bruises. Satisfied he was unharmed, she said, “I was scared that something terrible had happened to you.” He bowed his head, ducked and ran past her down the hall. She stood and turned. “Come back here this instant. You need to apologize.” The slam of his bedroom door echoed down the hall.
Maybe she should’ve tried a softer approach, but that might have turned on the waterworks that always seemed to be so close to the surface these days.
“I’m sorry,” she said, turning to the marine, embarrassed. With one hand on the doorknob, she leaned into the door. “I appreciate you bringing him home.”
“Ma’am? I’d really like to talk to you for a second.”
“Oh, well, I really need to handle this situation with Andrew.” She eased the door forward a couple of inches.
Maddie wanted to shut him out more than she’d ever wanted anything. In her heart, she knew he’d been with Frank at the end and she’d worked so hard to get past her husband’s death. She wouldn’t let anyone threaten her progress.
She was determined to forget.
She’d loved Frank more than anything in the world and his death left a hole so deep she was certain it could never be filled. There would never be another Frank.
“It’s about Andrew and I think it’s important.” His amber eyes were filled with concern.
“Okay, well, in that case, please come inside.” She reluctantly stepped back from the door and extended her arm. She really couldn’t deny his request. After all, he’d brought her nephew home safe and sound.
As he moved past her, his scent filled her nose. An intoxicating mixture of woodsy, clean aftershave, and the salty tang of sweat.
Her body reacted to him in a way she wasn’t expecting. It had been a long time since she’d felt that sizzle and it made her even more nervous and edgy.
He towered over her, easily standing a couple of inches over six feet. His thick dark hair, cropped close to the head, hinted at a tendency to curl. Under the thin T-shirt and loose shorts, it was easy to tell that he had the body of a well-toned athlete. His was not the kind of body that ran a couple of miles a day, but the kind that could compete in The Ironman.
She tried not to look and failed.
“Thank you, Ms… I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”
“Sorry. I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Maddie Westerfield.”
His eyes went wide. “But Andrew said his last name was Ingle.”
“It is. Westerfield is my husband’s name. Was my husband’s name.”
He stepped backward and blinked rapidly as if it was too much to take in at once. Finally, somewhat recovered, he took her hand in his and shook it. His hands were large, nearly double the size of hers.
“Have a seat.” She gestured toward the couch. “What was Andrew doing at the track in the first place?”
He looked at the sofa and then back at her. “I’m okay. I’ll stand.”
“Please, you did me a huge favor by bringing him home safely.”
He sat on the edge of the sofa. “Andrew approached me, introduced himself and asked me if I still liked football.”
“It’s not like him to take off without telling me where he’s going.”
“Is his dad deployed?”
“No, his mother is.”
“I thought you were his mother.” His brow wrinkled in confusion.
She shook her head. “Andrew is my nephew. I’m looking after him for my sister, Callie. She’s finishing up a tour in Afghanistan. And his dad, well, that’s a whole other story.”
“He didn’t tell you that his football coach quit?”
It was starting to make sense. “Quit? According to the paperwork I signed, he’s supposed to have the same coach as last year. Same practice time. Everything was going to be the same as last year.”
David arched his left eyebrow. “Maybe we should talk to Andrew about it.”
“Can I fix you something to drink? It may take me a few minutes to convince Andrew to explain the situation.” She exhaled, trying to relieve some of the stress and tension.
“That would be nice.”
In the kitchen, she leaned up against the cool metal of the fridge and tried to slow the beating of her heart. It pounded like a bass drum in her chest. She wanted Sterling out of her house, out of her mind.
It was so much easier to forget when there wasn’t a six-foot-two reminder sitting in your living room.
Too many feelings at once.
Attraction. Fear. Worry that the man in her living room would reopen the grief she’d packed away so carefully after Frank’s death. More attraction.
She couldn’t stay in the kitchen forever.
After a few deep breaths, she relaxed. Told herself that she could cope with whatever was thrown at her. She could handle it. She was a trained professional. A widow. A stand-in single mother.
Surely she could handle a lieutenant.
She returned to the living room with two glasses of iced tea on a battered serving tray she’d hastily covered with a patterned dishtowel. She’d thrown some Lorna Doone shortbread cookies on a decorative plate and placed those on the tray, too.
“That looks terrific,” he said, and took a glass. After a long sip he said, “This is better than my mom’s.” His smile could’ve been an ad for toothpaste. “But please don’t tell her I said that.”
“Our secret.” She smiled despite the tension. “I’ll be right back.”
Andrew was curled into the fetal position on his bed, facing away from the door. He looked so small, so defenseless. Her anger softened and she decided to try a calm approach. All the research showed it was more effective anyway.
She sat on his bed and gently rubbed his back. “What happened tonight, kiddo? You’ve never left without telling me before and it really scared me. I don’t know what I would do if something happened to you.”
Andrew pulled a pillow over his head.
“Is it that you miss your mom? That’s okay, you know. Anybody in your shoes would miss her.” Her shoulders tensed the way they did every time she thought of Callie. Years of academic training had given her no effective way for dealing with the reality of her sister shipping out to a hostile country—not knowing if she’d ever return. If only Callie could stay safe for just three more months, only ninety lousy days, the tour of duty would be over and then she could come home, and they could be a family again.
Worrying about your sister was one thing. Worrying about your mother was quite another. As often as she’d tried to empathize with Andrew’s feelings, she always missed the mark.
He sat up, the pillow falling behind him, and looked out the window. “No. It’s not that. I mean, I miss Mom, but that’s not it. It’s football. Our coach got sent overseas and we can’t play without him.”
“I’m surprised the league didn’t send out a letter or something to the parents. Are they trying to find someone?”
Andrew looked sheepish. “Not exactly.”
“What do you mean ‘not exactly’?” She might be relatively new at surrogate motherhood but she knew that was a loaded phrase.
“We told Mr. Watson, the man who runs the league, that we already had a new coach.”
“Let me guess. You guys were going to convince Lieutenant Sterling to be your coach.”
Andrew nodded. “I thought it would work. Harper’s dad works with him. That’s how we found out he was at Fort Wilson.”
Shaking her head, she said, “You’re in over your head, buddy.”
“We were going to surprise the parents with a rock-star coach.”
Andrew and his friends took sports very seriously. While she was surprised the league took the boys’ word for it when they claimed they had a new coach, she wasn’t surprised that they’d tried to find a way to recruit an athlete they all knew and admired.
“I know, and now, with practice starting on Tuesday, it’s too late to find someone else.”
“I wish you’d talked to me before you took matters into your own hands.” She squeezed his shoulder.
“What are we going to do?” Andrew’s voice reached a full-blown whine.
“We’ll figure something out, buddy. I promise.”
“It’s too late. We probably won’t even get to play this year.”
“Why were you so set on having Lieutenant Sterling as your coach?”
Andrew turned from the window. “You don’t know?”
Maddie shook her head. “Know what?”
“He was one of the greatest college football players of all time.”
She pointed toward the living room. “The man in the living room?”
Andrew nodded. “David Sterling. He played for Ole Miss. He was a star.”
“How did you know he’d be at the track?”
Andrew shrugged. “Harper’s dad runs with him sometimes.”
“I really wish you’d talked to me first,” she said.
“I do, too.”
“We’ll find a coach. I’ll make some calls around the neighborhood tonight. Maybe Tommy’s dad will agree to coach. Honey, this is not a big deal.”
“It a big deal,” Andrew said.
“Why can’t one of the moms do it? Surely one or two of them know football well enough to coach.” She liked the sport herself. She kept up with her own college team during the season every year and she usually watched the Super Bowl. “How hard could it be? I mean the rules are pretty basic, right? Ten yards for a first down, six points for a touchdown, four quarters.”
“If one of the moms coaches, we’ll be the laughingstock of the league.”
“I’m surprised at you. Girls can do anything that boys can. Look at your mom. If I can’t find anyone willing to step up, then I’ll coach your team myself. In the meantime, you need to go into the living room and apologize to Lieutenant Sterling.”
Sterling. Just saying it aloud was a shock to her system. How many times had she read that name in the newspaper accounts of Frank’s death? How many times, soon after he died, had she wished she could talk to Sterling, ask about Frank’s last words?
How many times had she cursed Sterling? Wondered why it had to be Frank instead of his commanding officer?
But now, things were different. She’d worked hard to get past the pain and the grief. The last thing she needed was something, or someone, to bring it all up again.
Andrew hung his head. “I can’t. I know I shouldn’t have acted like that.”
“How about I go apologize for you and explain what happened? Just this once.” She should make Andrew apologize, but it was clear he worshipped Lieutenant Sterling. If he went back into the living room, the man might stay longer.
She wanted Lieutenant Sterling out of her house and off her mind as quickly as possible. Just his presence threatened to undo all the hard-earned progress of the past few years.
“Would you do that for me, Aunt Maddie?”
“I’d do almost anything for you, kiddo.” She ruffled his hair and placed a kiss on the crown of his head. “I’ll check on you in a few minutes, okay?”
Lieutenant Sterling was standing near the fireplace, looking at the framed, triangular American flag above the mantle when she returned to the living room. “Is he okay?” he asked, turning to face her.
She nodded. “You were right. The coach was deployed and Andrew and his teammates decided you would be the perfect replacement. I’m so sorry for the inconvenience. I had no idea any of this was going on. The kids told the league manager they had a new coach and that’s why I didn’t hear anything about Coach West’s deployment.”
“Pretty clever kids to try and recruit their own coach.”
Maddie exhaled loudly. “With practice starting on Tuesday, it’s going to take an Act of Congress to find someone to step in. I wish Callie were here. She would’ve seen this coming and already had a solution.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s not easy to step into someone else’s shoes, being mom and dad, while your sister’s deployed.”
“I never knew how tough this mothering gig could be.”
“He seems like a great kid. How long before your sister gets home?”
“Only ninety days? That’s nothing. You’ve been through the worst of it. She’ll be stepping off the plane before you know it.” He smiled. It was open and sincere and it put her at ease.
“Thanks. I needed to hear that.”
He nodded and crossed his arms. “Andrew asked me to coach his team, but I don’t have any experience with kids, unless you count some of the guys in the barracks. I do know quite a bit about football. I’d be happy to answer any questions you have.”
“Lieutenant, that’s very kind of you, but it’s really not your responsibility.” The last thing she wanted was to ask Frank’s commanding officer anything. Ever. The longer he stayed, the more uncomfortable she became.
“Please, call me David. After today, it’s not like we can stand on ceremony.”
She felt a hot blush spread across her cheeks. “Then call me Maddie.”
“Andrew must be going through a lot right now. Helping the family of another soldier is the least I can do.” His voice quavered a bit.
“I really appreciate the offer but if one of the dads won’t step up, I’ll coach them myself.” She just wanted him to go.
“You know enough about football to coach a team?”
Her well-trained ears couldn’t tell if it was amusement or admiration she heard in his voice.
“They’re only eight years old. How serious can it be? I follow my college team, so I’ve picked up a few things. Touchdowns are still worth six points, right? Plus, I have experience. I was the center on my college team,” she said with a playful wink.
“Center, huh? Somehow you don’t look like you have quite the build for it. I don’t know many centers who are five foot three.”
She shrugged. “I can check out some books at the library or go online or something. Watch some films. Isn’t that what coaches do?”
“That’s what they say on ESPN. Good luck, Maddie. Don’t say I didn’t try to warn you.”
“Your concern is noted,” she said, smiling.
He checked his watch. “I hate to be so abrupt, but I’ve got to get going. Thanks for the tea.” He placed the empty glass on the tea tray.
She followed him to the door. “Thanks again. Maybe next time we’ll meet under better circumstances.”
Maddie couldn’t imagine those circumstances. She hoped this was the last she’d ever see of Lieutenant David Sterling.
Just as she was about to breathe a deep sigh of relief, he asked, “When’s your first practice?”
“According to the sheet the league mailed to me, it’s Tuesday afternoon at four o’clock.”
“Maybe I’ll stop by to see how it’s going.”
“Thanks, but we’ll be fine.”
“Okay, then,” he said. “Good luck.”
She didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed that he walked out the door before either of them mentioned Frank.
After checking on Andrew, who was already asleep, she paced back and forth across the width of the living room, and fought the urge to pull the scrapbooks off the top shelf.
She hadn’t looked through them in a long time. It wasn’t good for her and she knew it. Page after page of Frank. His graduation from Boot Camp at Parris Island. The both of them in fancy clothes for a military ball. Newspaper clippings from the local paper after his death. Looking at the scrapbooks depressed her.
But tonight, she rationalized it. She was only looking to see if the man who’d brought Andrew home was the man in charge when Frank was ambushed and killed.
Once she had the scrapbook on her lap, she couldn’t open it. Didn’t want to open it.
She’d never see the man again. What did it matter?
Frank was dead. That book was closed.
David had seen the flag. Lance Corporal Franklin Honeycutt Westerfield.
A name that was etched into his heart as deeply as his dead brother’s. A marine lost under his command. A life gone because of his own incompetence.
His own mother had a flag just like it—a crisp triangle encased in a frame, his brother’s name and rank etched on the brass plate mounted to the green velvet lining—perched on her mantle back home in Mississippi.
That piece of fabric was the only reason he’d traded in his football jersey for camouflage. He’d made a promise the day his brother’s coffin was lowered into the ground. He hadn’t known then the cost of a mission of vengeance, hadn’t known the cost of one flag was another.
His quest, the eye for an eye bullshit, that had driven him to join the Marine Corps in the first place, had cost another life. The life of a man he was charged to command. A man, who over the course of the deployment, had become like a brother to him.
Frank Westerfield, the woman’s late husband.
It was a terrible thing to have in common with such a beautiful woman.
If circumstances had been different, he would have been attracted to her. Hell, there was no “would” to it. He was no different than any other red-blooded man when it came to curls the exact color of the copper penny he carried in his pocket—the one his dad had given him as a good luck charm before his first football game. And how could he not notice her lips? Full and pouty and perfectly shaped.
He didn’t have time to think about any woman, but he especially didn’t have the time to think about Frank Westerfield’s widow.
There were two things on his mind: making amends and finishing up his time in the Corps.
He only had a few months left before he became a civilian again. Then he could go back to Mississippi and live a civilian life, hundreds of miles away from the Marine Corps.
The last thing he needed was a woman who reminded him of the biggest failure of his life.
*Excerpts copyright 2016 Blaire Edens and Entangled Publishing. All rights reserved.
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Photo Credit: Dorinda Metcalf
Blaire Edens lives in the mountains of North Carolina near the farm that’s been in her family since 1790. When she’s not plotting, she’s busy knitting, running, or listening to the Blues. Blaire loves iced tea with mint, hand-stitched quilts, and yarn stores. She refuses to eat anything that mixes chocolate and peanut butter or apple and cinnamon. She’s generally nice to her mother, tries to remember not to smack her bubble gum, and only speeds when no one’s looking.