Authors: Jami Davenport
Sarah finished her breakfast and met his gaze. “I’m sorry about your injury. It must be hard to leave something you love before you’re ready to go.”
Jesus, her sympathy almost undid him. “It is.” He admitted, forcing the words past the raw lump in his throat. “Damn hard. I’m still struggling with what’s next.” Why he chose to tell her this he didn’t have a freaking clue.
really, really sorry.” She stacked the plates, bowls, and silverware and balanced them on the palm of one hand. As she skirted by him, she paused long enough to pat his arm and smile down at him, one of those smiles which seemed to say:
Hang in there. I believe in you. You’ll do just fine.
rn seemed so genuine that it filled in a bit of the hole in his heart and forever changed the way that he saw her.
* * * *
Sarah Largo admitted to harboring a teensy crush on her handsome employer. Okay, teensy might be a bit of an understatement. The man defined hot from his tall, muscled body to his deep blue eyes and strong hands, but he was oh, so much more than that. Usually too busy to pay much attention to her, he was always kind and appreciative, generous with holiday bonuses, and flexible with her schedule. He was the nicest man she’d ever met, though she admitted he didn’t have a tough act to follow.
For the past three years, she’d lived in a fantas
y world with Branson as its center. Imagining life with him had been the only thing propping her up through the bad times. As she’d cleaned his home, she’d dreamed of being the lady of the house rather than the employee, planning parties, cooking meals for his friends and relatives. Maybe a big Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. When she decorated his Christmas tree every year, she’d imagined a little box hidden in the boughs of the tree, just for her. He’d pull it out, get on one knee and pledge his undying love.
She’d written stories in her journal
often with him as the hero and lived them in her dreams. But that’s all they’d been, the dreams of a woman in a nasty situation who needed an escape.
Branson gave her that escape and more.
She’d fallen in love with him the first time she’d met him when he’d treated her like an equal, nothing like the rich bitch she’d worked with previously. He’d been kind and concerned when he’d studied her last black eye with knowing eyes and offered to help her. She’d been humiliated and embarrassed, even while she secretly wanted to accept his assistance.
He’d never know how just thinking of him pulled her through all the dark times. Now the dark time had descended upon Branson, and she’d do everything in her powe
r to shine some light into his darkness. She owed him that.
The doorbell rang and snapped her out of her thoughts. She hustled to the door, while Branson shouted in the background. “I’m not home.”
Sarah flung open the door. Cole Taylor, middle linebacker for the San Francisco Outlaws and Branson’s buddy, stood on the porch, one hand on the door frame and one leg cocked back in a casual pose.
Hey, Sarah. How ya doing? You ready to quit this job and come work for me yet?” Cole grinned at her.
“Soon, I promise.” She smiled back, picking up the easy banter s
he rarely experienced with most men. But Cole didn’t have hidden agendas. He didn’t look at her with judgment in his gaze, but with friendly acceptance. Nothing more. His eyes never wandered from his sweet wife. Someday, Sarah would find a man who would love her like that.
“The offer’s always open.
So where’s the rat bastard? Licking his wounds like a pansy?” Even as Cole spoke the harsh words, she caught the flicker of concern in his dark eyes.
Sarah hesitated. She’
d heard Branson’s order loud and clear, but her days of being ordered around like a slave were over. Furthermore, the man could use a friend, whether he admitted it or not.
She turned and pointed in the direction of the back veranda. “He’s out there.”
Cole lowered his voice, genuinely concerned, all cockiness drained from his expression. “How’s he doing?”
“Hard to tell, but I’m certain it’s hit him pretty hard.”
“Yeah, I’m sure it has.” Cole smiled at her, a warm, friendly smile, reminding her that there were at least two good men left in this world. “I can’t even begin to imagine, and I have a loving wife and grandma to prop me up. He doesn’t have anyone.”
“Not even a family member?”
Cole raised one eyebrow. “Have you ever known any family to visit?”
“No. Never.” The truth hit her like a slam to the chest. Branson stood alone in this world except for a few close friends. And now they’d ripped the sport he lived for from his big hands and left him with lots of questions and no answers.
Sarah watched Cole’s back disappear through the doorway, followed by manly shouting, cursing, and crashing furniture. She rolled her eyes and sighed, allowing herself the brief luxury of pretending Branson was hers and this was just another day in paradise.
Pathetic? Yes. Understandable? Hell, yeah, if a person had lived the life she’d lived.
Sarah turned back to her job of making Branson’s beautiful home gleam and sparkle, a job she took great pride in. Someday, she swore she’d have a house like this and a drool-worthy, sweet man like Branson, because she deserved both.
* * * *
Cole sat on the veranda and stared across the water. Sarah had lifted his spirits like a strong breeze lifted fog on the bay. With her gone, his spirits took a nose dive, and he slumped in his chair, rubbing his hands over his face.
He heard the doorbell, heard Cole’s voice. He didn’t want company, not while he still wallowed in pathetic self-pity. Thank God, Sarah always had his back. She’d take care of Cole.
Only she didn’t. The damn, stubborn woman.
Branson frowned as
Cole strode into the room as if he owned the place. Turning his back on his buddy, he lifted a bottle of beer to his lips.
Cole yanked the beer
from his hand and glared down at him.
The despair and hopelessness lurking inside Branson snapped. He
lunged at his friend in an angry frenzy, taking his frustrations out on Cole. Cussing, they careened off the railing and slammed to the ground, wrestling with each other, banging into the furniture, tipping over an expensive vase—Sarah would kick his ass for that—yet neither one of them used their fists. They rolled around on the veranda, brute strength pitted against brute strength. Branson had a weight and bulk advantage, but Cole was quicker and more pliable.
It felt damn good to burn off some of his negative energy.
Finally, exhausted, they rolled onto their backs, chests heaving, and lay still. Branson stared at the blue sky, then squeezed his eyes shut, wishing he could block out the incidents the past week.
Cole crawled to his feet and held a hand out to Branson. Branson hesitated then took the offer of friendship, rising to stand next to
the guy who still had everything Branson would kill to have again.
grabbed a couple beers from an outdoor bar fridge and handed one to Cole.
y?” Cole said, still breathless, as he bent to pick up one of the many pieces of lawn furniture now scattered about.
“Hell, yeah. You can’t hurt me.”
Surveying the mess, Branson righted a few more chairs.
“I’m talking about your retirement.”
“I’m not retiring.” Branson clenched his jaw, refusing to admit what he knew in his heart.
Cole cast a sympathetic glance in his direction, and Branson considered jumping the jerk again.
“Bran, you know it’s over. Once you’ve been labeled as a head
-injury risk, they’re done with you.”
Branson opened his mouth to deny the truth, as if denial would keep the wolves at bay. Only these wolves
were already feasting on the bones of his pro career.
You’re done, Bull. Face it.
They sat down quietly, both staring at the expansive view with only the sounds of a distant vacuum cleaner breaking the silence.
Branson swallowed back the lump in his throat, sucked in a deep breath, and faced facts. “I know
“Sorry, man.” Cole nodded, mercifully not asking for Branson to clarify.
“Yeah, it sucks.” Branson squared his jaw and refused to show weakness.
“What’re your plans?”
“I’ve got stuff going on. Just need to pick what sounds best.” What a frigging liar he was, and by Cole’s expression, his buddy saw right through him.
Cole jerked his head toward the doorway. “What about your hot little housekeeper? Is she part of those future plans?”
Branson frowned and glared at his buddy. “Why would she be?”
“Well, number one she’s hot, number two she’s hot, and number three—”
“She’s hot. Yeah, I get the point, but why are you noticing? Aren’t you a happily married man?”
“Shit, yeah, but I’m always looking to help a buddy get what I have
, and I’ve wondered why you never showed interest in her.” Cole squinted in the direction of the door. “You could use a nice girl like her. Look what it did for me. I’m happier than hell with my life. You need that, too. I couldn’t imagine life without football before I met her, now I know I’ll do just fine. Don’t get me wrong, I love the game, but I love Anna more, and I look forward to moving to a new chapter in my life with her by my side when the time comes.”
“Good for you,” Branson grunted with more harshness than intended. So he was a little jealous of Cole’s life. It wasn’t like he couldn’t have had that life if he’d wanted, but he’d made football his priority and a serious relationship never fit within those parameters.
“So are you?”
Branson frowned, narrowing his eyes at Cole. “Am I what?”
“Are you going to ask her out? She’s genuine, cute, a hard worker, and she’s put up with you over the past three years.” Cole raised one brow and waited for his friend to reply.
Branson started to deny any interest in his housekeeper, but he snappe
d his mouth shut before uttering the words. After all, he might be interested, and what could it hurt?
“Good. Maybe we can try a double-date.” Cole checked his cell and stood, swatting Branson on the arm. “Gotta go, my man. I’ll be in touch.”
“Yeah.” Branson followed Cole to the door
, for lack of anything better to do.
As soon as the door clicked shut on Cole’s ass, Branson went in search of Sarah. He paused in the doorway of kitchen, watching h
er scrub the already-gleaming granite counters. The muscles in her thin arms flexed as she rubbed back and forth, leaning into the sponge to put more pressure on it. Her cute little ass rose up in the air as she leaned down further. Holy crap, she really was hot, in a girl-next-door kind of way, and girl-next-door appealed to him a helluva lot more than stick-thin models with zero-personality and brains to match.
“Hey.” He called out to
her as he skirted around the counter and pulled a soda from the refrigerator.
Sarah jumped, as if he’d startled her. “Oh, hi.”
Branson leaned against the counter and sipped his soda, watching her. She twisted the sponge in her hands and stared back, this time meeting his gaze. Her deep brown eyes slipped past his defenses, giving him the impression she could see deep inside him to places he kept locked tight from the rest of the world.
Branson shook his head, trying to break the heady spell she cast on him. “So
, didn’t I tell you not to let anyone in?”
For a moment alarm crossed her features
, then, as she’d done earlier, she squared her shoulders and faced him head-on. “I did what was best for you.” The fire in her gaze challenged him to cross her.
Branson had to chuckle. He liked this assertive side of her, loved seeing her come out of her shell and defend herself. “Well, then, I guess I can’t question your motives.”
“No, you cannot.”
An uncomfortable silence followed, as if they were both waiting for the other to speak.
Branson took another swig of the cold soda and swallowed. All of a sudden, something about this diminutive female scared the shit out of him more than two all-pro linebackers bearing down on him as he stretched to catch a pass.
“Is your mother working tonight?”
he said on a whim, as an idea formed in his head, planted there by his rat bastard buddy.
“No, she has the night off.”
Confusion clouded her eyes, and she blinked her long eyelashes.
. Let me take you to dinner as a reward for putting up with me these past few years.” He held his breath, as if her answer might be the most important thing in his current life. Hell, maybe it was.
“I can’t do that.”
She smiled shyly and went back to scrubbing the already clean counter.
Panic flooded him with desperation.
“Please. I don’t feel like being alone.” He spoke with absolute sincerity, even as he cringed at admitting to a weakness. For her.