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Authors: Ann DeFee

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BOOK: Hill Country Hero
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Chapter Eight

Jake turned his attention to Greg. “I need to find a running route. Would you be willing to go with me?”

“Sure. How many miles?”

“Five if it’s hilly. Ten if I have to run on the flat. The Road Runner summer camp starts in a month and I have to keep in shape. I’m not as young as I used to be.”

“Cool. How about starting this morning?” Greg asked.

“Sounds like a plan to me. I just need to change into my running clothes.”

“See you in thirty,” Greg said with a grin.

A good run was a great way to clear a guy’s brain. And since temptation was probably going to be his constant companion, Jake needed his wits about him. What was it about CiCi Hurst that made him want to howl at the moon?

Whatever it was, he had to get over it pretty damned quick. Texas Bob wouldn’t be amused if Jake made a play for his “baby girl.” Besides, and this was a huge caveat, chicks with trust funds that could pass for the GDP of a small nation were
not
his cup of tea.

It was almost noon when Jake finally wandered down to the river, lured by the sounds of adolescent fun. CiCi had said they were going river tubing today. He wished there had camps like this when he was a kid, trying to keep body and
soul together in a neighborhood overrun with felons and crack dealers.

There was no sense in bemoaning a misspent adolescence. It was his adult life that was important, and overall he was doing quite well.

Today was one of those summer days made for lolling about in a hammock with a cold beer and a soft, sweet-smelling female. But Jake had no hammock, no cold beer and the sweet-smelling female would geld him if she got the chance. So he’d go tubing, and by gosh he’d enjoy it. Even if his companions were a bunch of wannabe car thieves.

The cold, green water of the Guadalupe River made its way to the Gulf of Mexico through sheer limestone cliffs, past shrub cedar and live oaks, then meandered through pecan and peach groves. And in the process it provided a playground for tourists and locals alike.

The calm currents hid the violence it could show when the rains pounded the Texas Hill Country. In this part of the world Mother Nature had been known to pitch a hissy, and when she did, smart people sat up and listened. But not today. This was a perfect summer day.

Dozens of truck-size inner tubes were stacked up, surrounded by giggling girls and cocky boys. They were getting last-minute instructions and being fitted for life jackets. Several tubes were tied together to create a floating snack table with coolers of soft drinks and waterproof containers of chips. It looked like an aquatic cocktail party, without the cocktails or napkins.

Jake grabbed the largest tube he could find, but quickly discovered there wasn’t a life jacket big enough for him. That wasn’t a problem; he knew how to swim. Jake hoisted the tube over his shoulder and elbowed through the crush of teenagers to the dock to wait for Madame Taskmaster, aka CiCi Hurst.

It wasn’t long before he spied her over the sea of kids. She was taller than most of the boys, and in her high-cut, black one-piece swimsuit, she was stunning—not touchable, but very attractive. If anything, her choice of attire highlighted the social gulf between them. Her designer suit said she was sorority, debutante court and Junior League, while he was street hockey, Pop Warner football and the barrio.

By anyone’s standards that wasn’t a good mix. She probably enjoyed literary discussions, caviar and Dom Perignon. He was more comfortable with a Budweiser, nachos and sports. So where did that leave them?

The answer to that was a great big nowhere.

 

“H
I
.” C
I
C
I RAISED
her hand. That was the best she could do. No wonder all the co-ed counselors, not to mention most of the female campers, were gaga over Jake Culpepper. In a word, he was hot. HOT!

It was a darned good thing he was wearing a T-shirt because she suspected that one look at his world-class chest would leave her drooling, addlepated and incapable of coherent conversation. Just thinking about it sent her skittering back to her post-divorce mantra—remember Tank, remember Tank.

“I see you’re all set.” Swimsuit, inner tube, standing by the water—yep, he was ready to roll. “Okay, let’s do it.”

It was time to get down to business. CiCi signaled the staff to join them for a prefloat meeting. While the college kids were ambling over, she decided to ask Jake a question that had been on her mind ever since Daddy had ordered him to the camp.

“Are you sure you’re up for this?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He touched the brim of his Texas Rangers ball cap.

Why did he have to be a gentleman? If he acted like a jerk, it would be so much easier to ignore him.

“Well, good.” What else could she say, other than she hoped he enjoyed burned hot dogs.

“Is everyone ready?” The staff members nodded. “Great. Cookie and her team will drive down to the dam and set up our picnic.”

“Are we having s’mores?” That question was asked by a pudgy counselor who clearly hadn’t missed too many meals.

“Yes, we are,” CiCi assured him. “We’re doing kid food. I suspect this crew will attack the cuisine like locusts ploughing through a field of new wheat. Let’s get moving.” CiCi crossed her fingers and gave her senior counselor a thumbs up.

It would take nearly two hours to float to the dam. From there the itinerary included food, swimming and some organized games before they took the kids back to Camp Touchdown in vans.

Greg blew his whistle and the kids stampeded for the inner tubes.

 

J
AKE TILTED
his ball cap down and closed his eyes, ignoring the squeals and occasional splashes. The river had a way of soothing the soul. It had been a restless night and the gently lapping water was putting him to sleep.

The respite didn’t last long. Rondelle and some of his buddies floated up and bombarded him with questions. What was it like to be a pro athlete? Did he take steroids? Was it true he’d dated half of the Road Runner gals? The answers ranged from great, to absolutely not, to a quarter maybe, but definitely not half the cheerleaders.

A skinny carrot-topped stringbean paddled over to join the interrogation. “Hey, man, how ’ja make it to the big time?”

That was a good question. The truth was that it had taken
a combination of phenomenal luck, athletic genes inherited from his absentee father, hard work and Aunt Pallie’s prayers. But how much of that would sink in with kids who thought work was a four-letter word?

“I stayed off drugs, put my nose to the grindstone and kept out of trouble.” Too bad the same couldn’t be said for his cousins. “I started playing football when I was in middle school,” Jake continued, thinking that if he could interest even a couple of these boys in sports, his sojourn in the back country might be worthwhile.

“I bet you got yourself a whole pile of money.” That insight came from a kid with a shock of dyed bright green hair that stood straight up from his otherwise shaved head.

Great fashion statement, but Jake wasn’t about to discuss his finances with his floating companions.

“Not everyone in pro sports is rich.” He was, but he wasn’t willing to share that with the young felons. “The important thing is to find something you like and do it well. So that means studying, working out and finishing things you start.” When had he turned into a philosopher?

Jake paddled over to the float, carrying the cooler. “Would you guys like a soft drink?” He held up a frosty can.

There were enough raised hands to start an Amen Chorus. Jake handed out the drinks and popped the top of his own can. “Be sure to put the empties back in the raft. I mean it—throwing them in the river isn’t an option.” Jake sympathized with the plight of these kids. Heck, it hadn’t been all that long since he was one of them. But that didn’t mean he was going to go easy on them. If he had to spend his summer with a bunch of juvies, they’d have to shape up.

Rondelle nodded and his cohorts followed suit.

“Tell you what,” Jake said. “After we eat we’ll have a shirts and skins game. I’ll teach you some basic moves. When you go back to school, you’ll be one up on the rest of your friends.”

That idea was apparently a hit. The kids floated away in a flurry of pokes and insults. Jake shook his head, thinking about his cousins and how they’d never grown up. He hoped these guys wouldn’t share the same fate.

“I see you already have a fan club.” While Jake was lost in thought, CiCi had paddled up and grabbed his inner tube to keep them together in the fast-moving current. Sugar Plum had her own raft. Wouldn’t you know it, the pup didn’t know how to dog paddle.

“You should be wearing a life vest,” CiCi said, looking at him over the top of her sunglasses. “It’s not a good example for the kids. Not when I force them to obey the rules. Needless to say, they don’t think life vests are cool.”

Jake hadn’t thought of that. “Sorry. I couldn’t find one that fit.”

“Oh, right. Before our next water activity, I’ll see if I can get you an extra-large ski vest. That should do the trick.” Ski vest, chest—yikes! She was back to that shirtless thing again.

He touched her arm. “You’d better watch out, princess. You’re awfully pink. It looks like you’re getting sunburned. Do you feel all right?”

“I’m fine. Thanks. I have some sunblock in here.” Little did he know it was a blush, not a flush. CiCi patted a mesh bag that was tied to her inner tube before she paddled off.

Jake briefly wondered what that was all about, but ultimately decided that deciphering the female thought process was too scary to contemplate. So, it was back to his cat nap.

He was half asleep when he heard what sounded like a party. When their convoy of makeshift rafts and inner tubes rounded a bend in the river, Jake discovered there was a shindig going on.

He’d heard from Greg that the dam was the happenin’ place. The rumor had it that this was the Hill Country’s ver
sion of a theme park, and as usual the college kids had it pegged.

People of every description were milling around the dam, waiting their turn to slide into the rushing current. The sliders ranged from skinny to fat, young to old and tattooed to buff. And from the looks of things they were having a good time.

One by one the campers hopped out of the inner tubes and scampered up the bank to the picnic area—food first, sliding later. It was amazing to see the way they could ditch their streetwise bravado and enjoy being kids. If that feeling could be captured and made to last, the juvenile criminal justice system would shut down.

Unfortunately, these idyllic days were limited, outnumbered by others filled with drive-by shootings, welfare and rap sheets. But life was impossible to predict. By all rights, Jake should be doing twenty to life in Huntsville instead of being on a first-name basis with the movers and shakers of Houston. Destiny was a capricious bitch and he hoped that in some small way this time at Camp Touchdown could turn these kids around.

The picnic was an orgy of potato chips, hamburgers, hot dogs, Cokes, homemade peach ice cream and chocolate-covered s’mores. It wasn’t fancy or classy but it tasted better than any five-star fare. That cinched it; Jake was a big kid at heart.

With three burgers and almost a gallon of ice cream in his gut, Jake figured a nap was exactly what the doctor ordered so he stretched out under a leafy pecan tree. If CiCi needed him, she’d holler.

Chapter Nine

“It’s time to earn your keep, big guy.” Jake woke to the sound of CiCi’s voice and the feel of her toe nudging his knee. Sugar Plum joined the fun by giving him a slurpy dog kiss. Yeew! Jake wiped his face with the hem of his T-shirt. That dog was a big drool machine.

“You’re not supposed to exercise after eating. It’ll give you cramps,” he replied, not bothering to raise the brim of his cap.

“Oh, please. That’s just an old wives’ tale.” CiCi sounded so annoyed he opened his eyes. She was darned cute all puffed up with righteous indignation.

“What do you need, boss lady?” Jake couldn’t resist a grin.

She nudged him again, a little less gently this time. “I think we should play tag football. Come on, be a sport. You can choose your own team. I’ll pick mine.” That piqued his interest. Jake sat up, returning his baseball cap to its proper position.

“You don’t look like a jock to me.”

Her innocent “who me?” grin was a dead giveaway. It was a good thing he could spot a shark a mile away. He stood to take full advantage of his size.

“So I get first choice, right?”

“Nope, ladies first.”

His intuition was bang on. She’d been scouting while he napped. But he didn’t intend to lose. Wile and cunning counted for a lot in football. And he was pretty good at ferreting out talent, even if he did say so himself.

“Okay, princess. You pick first. But you didn’t answer my question about being a jock.” He wanted to know up front what he was facing.

CiCi’s grin went from innocent to wicked. “I played NCAA Division I volleyball. I even made it to the Olympic trials.” She shrugged. “I didn’t make it, but hey, that’s world-class sports. And you should never underestimate the power of a determined woman.”

Jake had learned that lesson the hard way, starting with his mom and continuing with groupies wanting him to auto graph their unmentionables.

CiCi waved at a group of kids waiting on the field. “They’re ready for us. Remember, I get first pick. And you have to choose some girls. No one gets left out.”

“I got it.” Jake lagged a few steps behind. The view of her rear was stupendous. Jake considered himself a connoisseur of fine derrieres, and hers was mighty fine. In his opinion, legs were eye-catching and breasts were enticing, but there wasn’t anything like a firm, round butt.

Oh, man! That kind of thinking was gonna get him into a world of hurt. Everyone knew that debutantes didn’t hook up with guys from the projects unless they were out slumming. She didn’t seem like much of a party girl, but what did he know? And anyway, her daddy could get him banished to the last-place team in the league.
That
was his idea of football hell.

Jake couldn’t figure out what made CiCi Hurst tick. Sometimes she acted as if she wasn’t sure what to think of him, but at other times he thought he saw her eyes light up when she looked at him.

CiCi had produced a basket of T-shirts and hankies for the touch-football game. “Okay, kids, Jake’s team will be yellow and mine will be red. Tuck the hankie in your back pocket. Absolutely no tackling. Hear me? No tackling. When the opposing team gets your hankie, you’re down,” she instructed. The players nodded their understandings. “Good. I pick Jason.” CiCi pointed at one of the tall, well-built camp counselors.

Jake was right. She’d scouted. He’d been planning to pick Jason first. The guy was big and buff, and obviously played ball at school.

He studied the talent pool and made his choice. “Okay, Rondelle, you’re my man.” Even if they didn’t score a point, the kid’s ear-to-ear grin was enough to make Jake happy with his decision.

The selection went back and forth. Both Jake and CiCi were careful to pick the kids who were probably used to being passed over.

Jake was putting a great deal of thought into his next draft when a light tap on his arm drew his attention. He was still pondering whether he should grab Javier before CiCi realized his potential, or punch up his defensive line with a husky guy named Alvin.

It took a few seconds for Jake’s brain to segue from beefy linebackers to golden-haired angels. And the young lady trying to get his attention could have posed for Botticelli. She had spun-gold curls, cornflower-blue eyes and was no bigger than a minute even though she had to be at least fifteen. Soaking wet, the girl couldn’t weigh more than a hundred pounds.

She got up on tiptoe to whisper in his ear. “Coach, I want to play.”

“Are you sure?” The last thing they needed was for someone to get hurt, especially one of their younger campers.

“Positive. I’m the kicker on our varsity team. I’m an okay
punter, but I’m really accurate with field goals and points after touchdowns.”

Jake couldn’t have been more surprised if she’d smacked him in the face with a wet fish. “You are?”

“Sure, I’m also a cheerleader and I play soccer, but during the game when they need me, I whip on some pads and a helmet and go out and kick bootie.”

Jake barely suppressed a grin. “How about that? Okay, what’s your name?” “Angel.”

That figured.

“Angel’s my next pick,” he announced loudly. He couldn’t wait to wipe the smirk off Ms. Hurst’s face. He’d be willing to bet a future Super Bowl ring that she didn’t have a kicker. Little Angel was going to be his ace in the hole.

After they finished picking teams, Jake called his squad over to huddle. “Rondelle, have you ever thrown a football?” With Rondelle’s height and athleticism, he was a natural for quarterback. Plus, he was a born leader.

“Sure. I played on the middle-school team.”

Jake didn’t miss the use of the past tense. He wondered why Rondelle wasn’t currently playing. For a project rat, sports could be a godsend. And if ever someone needed a miracle, Rondelle qualified. But first things first—right now they had a football game to win.

Jake checked out the talent. One of his girls was built like an offensive tackle. If she could block, that would be a bonus. About half his team had played ball at some point in their lives. For the neophytes, Jake explained snap counts, simple plays and the importance of getting the ball over the chalk line.

“Rondelle, throw the pigskin over everyone’s head and I’ll catch it. And keep it away from Sugar Plum. I think she’s on
the other team.” Jake wasn’t sure it was fair for him to play, but CiCi had thrown down the gauntlet. Losing wasn’t an option.

“Right on, Coach,” Rondelle yelled, giving his teammates a high five.

Unfortunately, enthusiasm didn’t equal skill and the first series of downs was a disaster. Rondelle tried handing off to his running back, a kid with an amazing punk haircut who immediately dropped it. After a mad scramble, Jake’s team recovered the ball. That was followed by loopy Hail Mary that even a pro football receiver wouldn’t have caught. The next calamity was a bobble from the center to the quarterback. That’s when Jake played his trump card—Angel. She punted the ball a mile, pushing the other team back toward their end zone.

How about that!

It was time for some team spirit. “Don’t worry—they don’t have a chance,” he said. “Everyone gather around. Who’s gonna win?”

The resounding “we will” gave him hope. Now, if he could keep his eyes off CiCi and her smartly curved rump they might pull this off.

They had decided on a half-hour game and at the end of it, Jake’s team was ahead, thanks to Angel’s last-minute field goal.

That girl could kick. She was probably a killer on the soccer field.

CiCi performed the requisite coaches’ handshake but under her breath she muttered, “Don’t gloat or I might have to smack you.”

Although she smiled when she said it, Jake didn’t think she was joking. He didn’t know her well, but if she was anything like her daddy, she was competitive as all heck.

He put his arm around her. “Let’s take the kids over to the dam. Sliding looks like a lot of fun.”

 

F
ROM HER OWN YEARS
at camp, CiCi could attest to the entertainment factor of dam sliding. “Sure, we have about forty-five minutes before the vans pick us up. Do you have your whistle with you?”

Jake reached in his pocket and pulled out the symbol of his coaching authority. “I wouldn’t be without it.” He put it in his mouth and issued a quick blast.

When everyone had gathered around, CiCi said, “Grab your life vests and head to the dam. You have forty-five minutes. If I see you without a vest, you’re out of the water.” She shot the group a glare. “Got it?”

Sometimes she worried she was too strict, but these kids were her responsibility.

“Yeah!” The kids gave a collective scream before they scrambled toward the pile of life vests. Why was it that when kids were involved, pandemonium was the name of the game?

It took mere seconds for the racket to subside and the hordes to disperse.

Jake watched as the campers scattered toward the dam. “I think your idea was a big hit.”

“Absolutely.” CiCi couldn’t wait to do some sliding herself. “Race you.” The minute the words left her mouth she knew she’d made a mistake. The man ran for a living, and he was darned good at it.

“How about the winner gets to name the prize?” His grin was positively lascivious.

Bad, bad idea. “Sure,” CiCi said, then immediately wondered where that had come from.

She gave him a shove and took off, knowing that unless he’d landed on his keister, she didn’t have a chance of winning. And sure enough, there he was passing her with a cheeky wave.

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