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Authors: Ann DeFee

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BOOK: Hill Country Hero
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Chapter Two

Jake Culpepper was going to freakin’ throttle his lily-livered, dirtbag cousin Dwayne. That jerk had committed grand theft auto and was the reason Jake’s prize Porsche was in auto intensive care. Thanks to him, Jake was reduced to driving a rusty, manure-covered pickup. It was the only vehicle available at his ranch that morning.

There was no need to get his blood pressure up—it was just a car, not the end of the world. Yeah, and comparing his sleek beauty to a common vehicle was like comparing the F-22 Raptor to the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk.

To add insult to injury, after Dwayne hit a telephone pole in the “borrowed” car, he’d abandoned it on the highway. But since the dweeb was already on probation, calling the cops on him wasn’t an option.

And Dwayne was only the tip of the bad-news iceberg. On the family front, Jake’s mom had hooked up with another loser. He loved her like crazy, but her taste in men sucked. Every time she got involved with a new guy, it cost Jake an enormous amount of time, money and heartburn.

The “biggie” was that Jake’s contract was up for renewal. If the Road Runners didn’t sign him, he’d become a free agent, and that would mean a move. And considering the trouble his relatives regularly indulged in, Jake really didn’t want to leave
Texas. He’d spent most of his life taking care of his family, and that was a hard habit to break.

In most professions a guy was just getting started at thirty. Not so for athletes. Thirty was pushing it, and although Jake had a great agent—who worked hard to earn his fifteen percent—the contract situation was still unresolved.

But on the bright side, Jake had plenty of money in the bank and his social life was, to say the least, hot. He’d been voted Houston’s most-eligible bachelor two years in a row.

And best of all, he’d bought the ranch of his dreams—hundreds of acres of coastal plains grazing land. Overall, life was sweet. As long as he could keep cousins Dwayne and Darrell out of trouble. He’d never be able to change his mother’s taste in men, but he did what he could to provide her with everything she’d ever want or need.

Oh, well, exercise-induced endorphins were the best pick-me-up known to man, and the field was the only place Jake could butt heads without getting arrested.

If Dwayne was smart, he wouldn’t show his face at the stadium for at least the next decade. But that dude wasn’t Einstein. In fact, Big Bird was probably smarter than his cousin.

Jake pulled the filthy pickup into the parking lot, hesitating a moment before claiming his reserved parking spot. If his luck held, he could sneak in and then gripe about the gardener taking his space. The truck let out a giant belch of smoke when Jake cut the engine.

“Cool wheels.” That comment came from Cole Benavides, the Road Runners’ quarterback and Jake’s best friend. Jake had been so busy trying to see through the smoke he hadn’t noticed Cole pull into the adjacent spot.

Anonymity was impossible. “Up yours,” Jake mumbled as he grabbed his duffel bag from the bed of the truck.

Cole acknowledged the wisecrack with a chuckle. “Good junior-high comeback.”

In spite of himself, Jake grinned. “I’ll show you junior high.” He poked Cole in the ribs, initiating the ritual of goosing and grabbing they’d perfected during their four years at Texas A&M.

“Seriously, what happened to your wheels?”

“Dwayne happened.” Jake explained the demise of his treasured Porsche.

“That bites. What are you going to do?”

“I can’t turn him in to the cops, since he’s still on probation, but if I catch him, I’m gonna pummel him within an inch of his life. His rear end isn’t going to be worth a plug nickel.”

Cole laughed. “Let’s hope he doesn’t show. I’d hate to have to spring for your bail. And speaking of butts, we’d better get moving or the coach is gonna have ours.”

 

“C
ULPEPPER,
get your rear on the field and get warmed up. This ain’t no ladies’ sewing circle.” Those tender words came from Coach Carruthers, the toughest coach in the NFL.

Jake closed his cell phone. He’d been talking to AAA, making sure his car had been delivered to the dealer’s repair shop. He wished he could call the cops, but even though Dwayne was in dire need of a comeuppance, Jake simply couldn’t do it. Mama would have a conniption—and even tough guys didn’t cross their moms.

“Sure, Coach, I’m outta here.” Jake pulled the jersey over his shoulder pads and trotted out on the field. He’d barely made it to the twenty-yard line when he spied Dwayne on the sidelines clucking and flapping in his mascot costume as though he didn’t have a care in the world. Boy, did that moron have another think coming.

“Hey, Culpepper, get over here.” Jake heard Cole, but he
was too focused on the chicken to care. Ten yards, five yards, two yards—and a big fat splat!

Jake didn’t plan to hurt the jerk. Dwayne was family, even if he was a doofus. It was just going to be a friendly tussle—no big deal. Too bad he hadn’t counted on the ramifications of tackling a six-foot featherbed. Jake spit fluff out of his mouth and had to admit that this hadn’t been one of his better ideas.

Cole pulled him up by his jersey and smacked him on the arm. “Culpepper, you are
such
an idiot. Do you know who that is?”

Of course he knew who it was. He wouldn’t tackle just
anyone
. “Yeah, it’s Dwayne.” He reached down to give his cousin a hand up.

Cole shot him one of those grins that meant trouble with a capital
T
. “Like I said, you’re such an idiot.” He stepped in front of Jake and addressed the chicken. “Are you okay?” “Hmmmph.”

“Tell you what. Flap your wings if you need help getting the head off.”

Feathers flew as the chicken wings pumped up and down accompanied by frenzied sound effects.

“Hmmmmph, hmmmph, hmmmph!”

Cole patted down the puffed feathers. “Give me a sec.” He glanced at Jake. “Get over here, dumb ass, I have something to show you.” He was still grinning widely. “Boy, are you in trouble!”

What was he talking about? There wasn’t a soul who cared if he pounded Dwayne. In fact, the Road Runner gals would probably line up to give him high-fives.

Cole swept the mascot costume head off with a flourish. “What do you say to this?”

Jake gaped. “This” was a tall, slender woman with big
brown eyes, a pixie haircut and Cupid’s bow lips. Jeeze, Louise. He’d decked some gorgeous chick.

He outweighed her by at least a hundred pounds. Damn! She could have been seriously hurt. Thank God for all those feathers!

First he’d had to deal with Dwayne’s shenanigans and now he had a pissed-off Ashley Judd look-alike on his hands. Would someone please put him out of his misery?

The irate beauty whapped him upside the head with her wing. “You cretin!”

If looks could kill, he’d be pushing up daisies. That wasn’t the reaction he generally got from women. A quick assessment convinced Jake that Miss I’d-Like-to-Snap-Your-Head-Off was okay.

“Oh, boy.” Cole grimaced. “Don’t look now, but here comes Texas Bob. I sure wouldn’t want to be in your cleats.”

Great, just what he needed. Texas Bob Hurst wasn’t going to be happy about this latest screw-up, and with his contract renewal coming up, Jake did want to stay on the boss’s good side.

Much to Jake’s surprise, Texas Bob put his arms around as much of the chicken as he could hold.

“Is my baby girl okay?” He didn’t wait for an answer before he turned his glare on Jake.

Baby girl! Baby girl, as in the man’s daughter? Crap, his ass was definitely grass.

“You.” Texas Bob stabbed a finger in Jake’s direction. “My office—twenty minutes. No excuses.”

Jake watched the chicken clomp off the field behind her father. He glanced at Cole. “That’s bad, huh?”

His friend slapped him on the back. “Definitely.”

Several of his teammates had crowded around to check out the action, and in unison, they shook their heads.

As they say in Texas—well, shee-it!

Chapter Three

Ten minutes later, CiCi had been examined by the team doctor. Thanks to the multiple layers of padding in the mascot costume, she’d escaped the hard tackle with only a couple of bruises.

“Daddy, I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for what happened. Don’t do something you’ll regret,” CiCi said as she looked through the office refrigerator. She was tempted by the chilled chardonnay but decided to grab a bottle of water.

Texas Bob leaned back in his large leather chair. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. I knew I needed to cool down before I talked to him. That’s why I gave him twenty minutes to get up here. Are you positive you’re not hurt?” In the boardroom Winston Hurst was as tough as nails, but when it came to his family, he was a big marshmallow.

“I’m fine. Really.” CiCi could swear on a stack of bibles and it wouldn’t matter one whit. Daddy had made up his mind and nothing she said would change it.

So to keep her thoughts off whatever Daddy was planning, CiCi sat down to peruse the roster listing Jake Culpepper’s stats. Holy tamale, the guy was six foot five and weighed two hundred and sixty pounds. No wonder she felt as if she’d been hit by a bus.

“I have a great idea. I think you’ll like it.” Daddy drummed
his fingers on the desk. His face was creased in the shark grin that had struck fear in the hearts of men all over the state. Poor Jake Culpepper wasn’t going to know what hit him.

And speaking of which, CiCi did a double take when she saw the man himself in the doorway. She’d checked out his picture in the team program but the camera didn’t do him justice. And on the field, she’d been seeing stars.

Jake Culpepper wasn’t classically handsome, but with dark hair that was just long enough to curl around his collar, pale green eyes and eyelashes a mile long, he oozed sex appeal.

He was obviously everything CiCi hated—an arrogant jock with an ego the size of Dallas. So why was she staring at him like a smitten schoolgirl?

“Sir,” Jake said, addressing Texas Bob. Then he walked to the couch where CiCi was sitting with her feet curled up under her.

“Ms. Hurst, I can’t tell you how sorry I am. Did I hurt you?”

CiCi shook her head. It wasn’t often she was at a loss for words, but right now she couldn’t do much more than gape. Fortunately, Jake didn’t seem to notice that she’d turned into a zombie.

“I never would have pulled that stunt if I’d known you were in the chicken suit. I thought you were my cousin Dwayne. He stole my car this morning and wrecked it, so I thought I’d teach him a lesson. I wasn’t planning anything major. I figured we’d just have a little scuffle.” Somehow, during his explanation, he’d managed to get close enough to take her hand.

When CiCi realized what he was doing, she snatched it away. Charming jocks should be banned from society. They weren’t trustworthy. Like her philandering ex. They’d pledged to love each other through good times and bad, but that prom
ise had obviously meant nothing to Tank. So it was good bye to her marriage and hello to a crisis of self-confidence.

“Looks like you really stepped in it this time, Culpepper.” Texas Bob stacked his hands behind his head. “Sit. I have an offer I don’t think you’ll be able to refuse.”

CiCi had a flashback to the
Godfather
movie. She glanced at Jake and discovered he was probably thinking the same thing. Nevertheless, he took a seat in one of the lush leather chairs.

“I was on my way out to the field to talk to my daughter when I saw you assault her.” Daddy’s face had turned an alarming shade of red. “I almost had a heart attack. What the hell were you thinking?” He slammed his hands on the massive walnut desk. “You could have killed her.”

“Sir—”

“Did I say I wanted to hear from you?”

“Uh, no, sir.” Jake slumped back in his chair.

She almost felt sorry for him. “It’s okay, Daddy.
I’m
okay. No harm, no foul. I’m sure he—” she waved a hand in the athlete’s direction “—didn’t mean to hurt me. So let’s just forget it.”

Jake started to speak but Texas Bob cut him off. “Son, your contract’s up this year.” His smile didn’t make it to his eyes. “And as team owner I make the final decision about exercising our option to sign you again.”

Jake sighed. “Yes, sir. I realize that.”

Texas Bob seemed satisfied by his answer, and turned back to his daughter. “I have a great idea. I got a call this morning from Camp Touchdown. The director we had lined up for the summer left without bothering to give me notice. I’d like you to go up there and run things for the next month. That will help you with your résumé and get us through the end of this year’s session.”

Camp Touchdown was the family foundation’s pet project,
a camp in the Texas Hill Country that provided teens from poor Houston neighborhoods a respite from crime and dysfunctional families. It was an opportunity for them to have a little fun in the sun.

CiCi squealed. “Yes!” This was way better than being the Road Runner mascot. Camp Touchdown was the answer to her prayers. She could spend a good portion of the summer working in her chosen field. She should have thought of it before.

“And you,” Texas Bob said to Jake, “are going to help her. You can coordinate the sports and athletics. Your minicamp will be over Friday, so bright and early Saturday morning I want you on your way to the Hill Country. The facility has a complete gym so you can keep in shape. You’ll be back in time for Road Runner summer camp and the preseason.”

“What in the…what’s Camp Touchdown?” Jake asked. “And what kind of athletics are we talking about?”

CiCi answered for her father. “It’s a camp run by our family foundation for kids from the inner city. It gives them a chance to get out to the country for the summer. Play sports, swim, canoe, that type of thing. You’d be amazed at how many of those kids think drive-by shootings and heroin are the norm.”

 

J
AKE WAS AFRAID
to open his mouth; there was no telling what would come out. He’d grown up in the kind of environment CiCi was describing and thanks to football he’d managed to claw his way out.

“Are you talking about juvenile delinquents?” Like his cousins Dwayne and Darrell, the bane of his existence. Being on the bad side of the law was a habit with those two.

“I wouldn’t exactly put it that way,” CiCi replied.

Of course she wouldn’t. The only way Miss Debutante
would run into someone with a rap sheet was if they cut her grass or stole her designer purse.

“Then let me use terms you might understand,” Jake sneered. “Are the cops intimately familiar with these brats?”

CiCi gave her father a pleading look. “This isn’t going to work.”

“Culpepper!”

Jake scrubbed a hand down his face. He’d encountered do-gooders from the “right” side of the tracks before. Every time some church group would show up at his trailer with a box of hand-me-downs or food, Mama would cry when they left. Oh, yeah, those folks were nothing but a pain in the rear.

“Look, I grew up with kids like that. My cousins spent more time in juvie hall than they did at home.” Jake didn’t bother to mention that he’d also had a couple of minor run-ins with the juvenile justice system.

“I’ve worked my entire adult life trying to straighten out my relatives, but I haven’t been very successful.” He shrugged. “At least they’re not
permanent
guests of the Department of Corrections, so I guess I’ve accomplished something. But I have no desire to spend my summer puttin’ up with crap like that.”

Texas Bob scowled. “If you want to come back to this team, you will. Get my drift, son?”

Yep, he got it. If Jake didn’t toe the line, he’d be catching footballs for the worst team in the league. Damn!

BOOK: Hill Country Hero
11.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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