Authors: Mary J. Williams
AFTER THE FIRE
ONE PASS AWAY BOOK THREE
MARY J. WILLIAMS
Copyright © 2016 MARY J. WILLIAMS
Writing isn’t easy. But I love every second. A blank screen isn’t
the enemy. It is an opportunity to create new friends and take them on amazing
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you will want to revisit again and again.
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One Pass Away Series
After the Rain
After All These Years
SHE HAD ONCE asked him if he believed in a higher power.
God? Buddha? Fairies dancing around a blazing fire late
at night? Something. Anything bigger than us.
Gaige Benson hadn’t known what to say. Not then. But as he
stood in the empty open-air stadium—the stars lighting the evening sky—he knew
Football was his religion. The field he played on and the
building surrounding it, his cathedral. If a higher power had a hand in it,
then his answer was yes.
Walking to the center of the field, Gaige took it all in. He
found football at the age of thirteen. A boy who saw his future mapped out.
Working in a factory. Drinking away his salary. Divorce. Doling out child
support without maintaining a relationship with his children. A weekend father,
who half the time didn’t bother to show up.
The first time Gaige picked up a football, he felt a
connection. The first time he threw it, it wobbled with the grace of a drunk
leaving his favorite watering hole on a Saturday night. But it didn’t matter.
He threw the ball again. And again. Until he taught himself to make it spin in
a perfect spiral.
At the time, Gaige didn’t know his talent could be useful.
Where he came from, Brooklyn kids didn’t dream of bigger or better. Most of
them didn’t dream at all. Gaige was no different.
One day he was passing a playground when a football landed
at his feet. The boys on the field yelled for him to toss it back. Without
thinking, Gaige sent it sailing, a perfect strike. Then kept walking. He was
wary of the man who ran after him. Strangers were the enemy—according to his
father. They either wanted money or accused you of something you hadn’t done.
Gaige took everything his father said with a big grain of
salt. Don Benson didn’t have a dime to his name. Why would anyone expect to get
money from him? And if a man accused his father of something, chances were he
But Gaige was a cautious boy. He fought when necessary and
ran when he had no choice. The man trying to get his attention was big. His
dark complexion didn’t worry Gaige. In his experience, a man was either good or
bad. The color of his skin had nothing to do with it.
It turned out that this man wasn’t simply good. He was the
best thing that ever happened to Gaige.
Terrance Aldridge coached the local Pop Warner football
team. A boy with an arm like Gaige’s shouldn’t let his talent go to waste.
Gaige listened. Play football? On a field? With other boys? Was such a thing
possible? He didn’t know if it were a scam—nor did he care. If there were the
slightest chance, he would take it.
The only obstacle was getting a parent’s permission.
Terrance gave him the papers to be signed, telling Gaige to have his folks call
him if they had any questions. Gaige didn’t laugh aloud, but he wanted to. His
mother never asked questions. Unless they were directed at his father. Wynona
Benson hadn’t made a move in fifteen years unless she received permission
His father was another matter. His word was law. Don Benson
could do no wrong. If he drank too much and staggered home two days late, it
was his right. If he backhanded his wife—just because—whose business was it? He
earned the money. He made the rules. End of discussion.
Gaige hadn’t asked his father because he knew what the
answer would be. No! Not because he thought there was anything wrong with
football. He watched it every Sunday—after laying down a bet that he never won.
No, he wouldn’t let Gaige play because he was a mean bastard who wanted
everyone to be as miserable as he was.
Gaige got around it easily enough. He forged his father’s signature.
It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last. There was no reason to
think anyone would find out. His parents didn’t care how he spent his days as
long as the police didn’t come knocking on the door.
He could steal. Lie. Cheat. Hell, his father wouldn’t bat an
eye at murder.
Do what you want as long as you don’t get caught.
mantra at the Benson house.
Gaige had no intention of his father finding out. He tried
out for the team and made it. The money for equipment was another matter. Gaige
didn’t steal. Or cheat. Lying was a necessary evil. He would have done almost
anything to play but it looked like his first and only dream would die before
it had a chance.
Luckily, Terrance was able to dip into a discretionary fund
to help boys like Gaige. It rankled to take charity. Especially when the other
boys on the team had families to pay their way.
“Don’t let it stop you, Gaige,” Terrance told him. “Remember.
And one day, when you have the means, pay it forward, son.”
Twenty-five years later, Gaige hadn’t forgotten that
kindness and generosity. When he saw someone in need, he did something about
it. Over the years, the
Gaige Benson Foundation
paid out millions of
dollars to charities and individuals. He had filled the board with people he
trusted and could count on to distribute the funds judiciously and without
prejudice. The first man he had recruited was the man to whom Gaige owed
everything—Terrance Aldridge. Friend. Father figure. Teacher.
“Hey, Gaige.” Logan Price called out from high in the stands.
“You coming? The guys are waiting to go to dinner.”
Closing his eyes, Gaige breathed in the air. February in
Texas. Tomorrow he would play in his first—and last Super Bowl. Win or lose, he
was hanging up his cleats. He was thirty-eight years old. He had more money
than he would ever need. He had won every award from Rookie of the Year to
league MVP—four times.
This season he put everything on the line to get
here—including the possibility that he had lost the only woman he had ever loved.
Gaige Benson was known for his razor-sharp focus. Any
distractions off the field were left there as soon as the first whistle blew.
It wouldn’t be any different tomorrow. Nothing would get in the way.
His gaze drifted to the section where she would be sitting.
If she showed up. Gaige planned on going out a winner. But what about the day
after? Or the day after that? His future stretched out in front of him. He had
plans in place. There were hundreds of options for him to consider.
Do you believe in a higher power?
Her voice and that question had haunted Gaige for almost
sixteen years. If there were a God, he prayed the woman he loved would find it
in her heart to forgive him. He had a lot of years left. He didn’t want to
spend them alone.
In his lifetime, Gaige Benson had dreamt of only two things.
Playing football. And loving Violet Reed.
SIXTEEN YEARS EARLIER
“Keep your nose clean, Gaige. Training camp begins in three
weeks. The Knights need you. But that starting job isn’t a gimme.”
“Relax, Walter. I signed the contract. Forty-six million
dollars. Half of which is guaranteed. Seattle can’t take it, or my bonus, back.”
“It’s a shitload of money. But the gravy train has just
begun. Endorsements. That’s where you’ll make your fortune. Trust me—Wheaties
wants the all-American golden boy. No DUIs. No fights. And please,” Walter
emphasized, “no unplanned pregnancies.”
Gaige snorted. “I can’t get anyone in trouble when I’m
living like a goddamned monk, Walter.”
Walter Crenshaw looked at his client with the eyes of a man
who had seen more athletes come and go than he cared to remember. He was a
sports agent. For thirty years, he had represented the good, the bad, and the
irredeemable. But Gaige Benson was his first potential superstar.
The real deal. A blond Adonis with a cannon for an arm.
Gaige had it all. Looks. Personality. And the rarest commodity of all—brains.
He never put a foot wrong because he understood what was at stake. His future
was reliant on two things. A strong, durable body and absolute tunnel vision.
However, when a man was young, rich, and looked like Gaige
Benson, it was foolish not to enjoy a reasonable amount of what life had to
“What happened to…” Walter frowned. “What was her name? The
little brunette cheerleader with the big pom-poms.”
“I haven’t seen Camilla since before graduation. She wanted
the one thing I wasn’t willing to give her.”
“What was that?”
Walter knew the answer. It was the same thing all these
college girlfriends wanted when they dated an athlete. A big diamond. A big
house. In other words, built-in security. Catching a man like Gaige Benson was
the brass ring. Marrying him brought a huge bonus. The cache of being the wife
of an NFL quarterback.
The last thing Gaige needed was a grasping woman with
reality TV stardom in her eyes. Walter held his breath as he waited for his
“An engagement ring.”
! Walter mentally high-fived himself.
“A steady girlfriend is nice, Gaige. But you’re only
twenty-two years old. When you’re named starting quarterback of the Seattle
Knights, you’ll be in rarified air. You think you had it made in college? This
is the NFL. Women will fall from the trees—legs spread and begging for it.”
Shaking his head, Gaige laughed. “You paint quite the
picture, Walter. The problem is I need to get laid. Now.”
Walter couldn’t imagine that was a problem. Gaige didn’t
need fame and fortune to attract a woman. Mother nature had blessed him with an
overabundance of good looks. When Gaige walked into a room, heads turned—and jaws
hit the floor. He was a big man. Six foot four. His shoulders were broad and
his hips lean. Add to that gold hair and crystal clear green eyes, he checked
off every item on any woman’s wish list.
“All I’m asking is that you use some discretion.”
Walter knew that Gaige understood the meaning of the word.
Unlike some of his clients, he even knew how to spell it. Lord, he was tired of
dealing with uneducated cretins. All the more reason to keep his golden boy on
the straight and narrow.
The intercom on Walter’s desk buzzed.
“There’s a phone call for Mr. Benson. It’s his mother and
she says it’s an emergency.”
When Gaige nodded, Walter told his secretary to put the call
through. With a sigh, Gaige took the phone from him.
“Mom?” Gaige frowned, his voice calming. “Stop crying and
take a deep breath. What happened?”
Walter watched with growing concern. Gaige rarely spoke of
his parents, but it wasn’t a close relationship. As far as he knew, neither had
ever seen their son play. Never. Not in high school, or at Yale. For his mother
to call, it had to be serious.
“I’ll be there as soon as possible. Yes, I promise.”
Gaige, his face devoid of emotion, hung up the phone.
“I need to get on the next plane to New York.”
“All right. I’ll have Melissa make the arrangements.” Walter
spoke quickly to his secretary, then turned back to Gaige. “Is your mother ill?”
“No. My father was in a car accident.”
“Oh, my God.” Walter stood, ready to lend support. “I’m
sorry. How serious is it?”
Gaige’s green eyes turned to ice. “Unfortunately, the
bastard is expected to make a full recovery.”
THE BROOKLYN NEIGHBORHOOD hadn’t changed in four years. The
corner grocery store had the same sign touting fresh produce. Gaige knew it for
a fact because when he was eleven, he was the one who had drawn the gigantic
handlebar mustache in the corner. He had used red ink—permanent, according to
the packaging. Apparently, the company that made the marker knew what they were
talking about. It blazed as brightly as it had the day he put it there.
Some would find that comforting. A touchstone to their
childhoods. It made Gaige slightly sick to his stomach. To be fair, the feeling
had started before he left Los Angeles.
As the cab drove down the same streets on which Gaige ran
wild for the first thirteen years of his life, all he could think about was the
last time he set foot here.
It was the day he left for Yale. Gaige was eighteen with a
full-ride football scholarship burning a hole in his pocket. He had done it.
That little kernel of a dream that he had silently nurtured had poked its head
out of the soil, stretching toward the sun.
That scholarship was the next step. Gaige had been given
four years to make the dream grow. If he continued to work hard—and with a
little luck—the day would come when it would burst into full bloom. The day he
took the field and played in his first NFL game.
If Gaige had had his way, he would have left Brooklyn the
second class let out on his last day of high school. It was his plan. But for
some reason, his mother decided she had to see her baby graduate. She pleaded
with Gaige to walk across the stage with the rest of his class and accept his
Maybe it had been the tears in her eyes. Maybe it was
because it was the only thing she had ever asked of him. Maybe it was the sneer
his father sent his way when she showed Gaige the freshly pressed graduation
gown. Whatever his motivation, he stuck around seven more days—avoiding the
house, and his father, as much as possible.
Don Benson loved to taunt his son. Words became his only
weapon when Gaige grew too big and too strong for him to beat. The last time he
lifted a fist to
knock some respect into the boy
, Gaige caught the hand
in mid-swing, squeezing until his father staggered back, clutching his aching
fingers. His eyes held the look of shock, and a little fear. He suddenly
realized the little boy on whom he had so easily taken out his frustrations,
had grown into a young man.
At fifteen, Gaige topped his father by several inches. Their
weights were similar. But Don Benson carried a beer gut that grew in
circumference each year. Gaige was young and fit. His body lithe and muscular.
In a fight, it would be no contest.
Gaige could defend himself. His mother was another matter.
Don stopped hitting her when Gaige was around. But he couldn’t be there all the
time. He would come home to find her sporting a black eye, swearing up and down
that she walked into the door. Gaige warned his father. But Wynona Benson was
the problem. She refused to admit that her husband beat her. She wouldn’t go to
the police and she wouldn’t leave. She wouldn’t budge, no matter how Gaige
tried to convince her.
“You think going to that fancy school will make you better
Gaige could still hear the final words his father had spoken
to him. Don Benson had stood in the bedroom doorway, watching him pack his
“Football.” Don spit out the word. It was ten in the morning
and he already had three beers under his belt. “Good luck making a dime.
Chances are, you’ll blow out your shoulder and end up right back where you
started—tail between your legs. Well, don’t think I’ll be waiting with a
welcome home banner, boy. When you walk out that door, it will be for the last
“You don’t get it, old man.” Gaige rounded on his father. He
no longer enjoyed the spark of fear in the faded green eyes. Instead, he found
it sad and pathetic. “I
play professional football. Nothing will
“Life is a bitch—then you die. You’ll find that out soon
enough. I give it six months before you’re sitting at the corner bar, swilling
beer with the rest of us lugs, begging for a place to live.”
Gaige shut the suitcase with a loud snap. Deliberately, he
put on his jacket. He checked to make sure that he had his plane ticket and the
few dollars he had managed to save working part time at the local garage. Then,
one last time, he turned to his father.
“Take a good look, old man. Because whatever happens,
will never set foot in this apartment again.
It hadn’t been a difficult promise to keep. Gaige returned
to New York exactly three times in the past four years. Twice with his team
when Yale played a local team. And last December. To pick up his Heisman
Trophy. He hadn’t gotten close to Brooklyn. Or the little apartment where he
The taxi drove past his old haunts, leaving his memories
exactly where he liked them—in the past. They turned at the corner, stopping in
front of the Brooklyn Medical Center.
Gaige paid the driver. He had packed light. One small
carry-on bag. It would be a short trip. He needed to check on his mother and
make arrangements to pay all of his father’s medical bills.
He felt obligated to take care of the woman who gave birth
to him. As for Don Benson? It pained him to admit, but Gaige shared his DNA. He
would make sure the son of a bitch wasn’t a financial drain on the state of New
York. If he were lucky, he wouldn’t be here for longer than a day. Two maximum.
The woman at the check-in desk was busy. She had a phone
balanced between her shoulder and ear while she simultaneously typed furiously
on the computer keyboard and answered questions. Her dark hair was pulled into
a long braid down her back, her lipstick a little smudged. Gaige estimated her
age to be over sixty. Closer to his grandmother than mother.
“If you aren’t dying, take a number.” Exasperated, the woman
looked up. Her eyes widening.
Gaige recognized the reaction, taking it in stride. Women
tended to notice him. He smiled, adding a little sugar to the pot.
Gaige leaned closer, reading her nametag. “I know you’re
busy, Connie.” The waiting room was crammed to capacity, but when he lowered
his voice, it created a sense of intimacy. “Could you please tell me where to
find Don Benson? He was in a car accident yesterday afternoon.”
Automatically, Connie hit a few keys, then scrolled through
the names on her computer screen.
“Room 306.” Suddenly she remembered hospital protocol.
Smiling apologetically, she asked, “Are you a family member?”
Gaige lowered his eyes, hoping he looked appropriately
somber. “He’s my father.”
“Oh, you poor dear.” Connie patted his hand. “Take the
elevator to the third floor. Turn right. His room is right down the hall.”
“Thank you, Connie.” Gaige sent her another smile—this one
The elevator was filled with visitors and patients. It was a
familiar sight. Gaige visited the children’s ward of a local hospital at least
once a month. He had to admit it was for himself as well as for the kids. The
adoration on their faces when he showed up in his Yale uniform stayed with him
for days. Some of them were fans. But most were happy just to have a visitor.
The fact that he always brought signed t-shirts didn’t hurt. As soon as he
settled in Seattle, Gaige planned on keeping up the tradition.
Following Connie’s directions, Gaige exited the elevator,
turning right. He hadn’t gone five steps when he heard his mother call his
name, her voice tinged with a familiar quiver.
“Gaige? Oh, thank goodness you’re here.”
Wynona Benson collapsed into his arms, tears streaming down
her face. Tall, her frame always ran toward thin. What Gaige felt was a rack of
bones dressed in a faded blue cotton dress. At forty, she looked closer to
fifty. Her light brown hair streaked with gray, her face lined with the weight
of playing punching bag to a man she claimed loved her despite his temper and
propensity for ending up in other women’s beds.
Breathing deeply, Gaige took in the scent of vanilla. He
loved his mother. She was a gentle soul. Too gentle. But he couldn’t respect a
woman who wouldn’t budge from a nightmare no matter how many times she was
given a clear and easy way out. Gaige offered to send her anywhere she wanted
to go. She could take her sister with her and live in a little house with a
garden. His mother refused.
What would your father do without me
?” she always
Gaige had a dozen responses, but he kept them to himself.
She had heard them all before and enumerating his father’s many flaws never
helped. But he kept offering. He always would, hoping one day her answer would
“Come and sit down.” Gaige led her to a small waiting area.
Wynona didn’t argue—it wasn’t in her to question anyone’s
command. She took a seat, fresh tears filling her eyes.
“You have to stop them, Gaige. They say it’s Don’s fault,
but it was an accident. Tell them, Gaige. Make them go away.”
“Slow down and take a deep breath.” He went to the vending
machine and purchased a bottle of water. “Here. Take a few sips then start at