Authors: Maureen Child
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To the real Tasha and all of the other lost children like her. May you find your way home
For the first time in his life, the cameras
focused on Nick Candellano.
He didn't like it.
Nick had spent years in the limelight. As an NFL all-pro running back, he'd had more cameras flashed in his face than a member of the Kennedy family. Hell, he'd even been featured in one of
magazine's Sexiest Bachelor articles. He'd done radio, TV, and print interviews and was glib enough to charm his way through any situation. Kids had been known to stand in line outside the stadium for hours just to get his autograph.
“You're still in my shot,” Bill, the cameraman, muttered.
“Right.” Biting down hard on the quick flash of temper that jittered along his spine, Nick took a single long step to the right. Wouldn't want to mess up the camera angle. No telling when they might get another chance to film an earthshaking athletic contest like this one.
Pushing one hand through his hair, he squinted into the afternoon sunlight and let his gaze slide across the
playing field. The players were in position. The ball was in play. The crowd roared, half of them cheering, the other half heckling the officials.
It should have been familiar. Comforting, almost, to a man who'd spent most of his life suiting up for a game. The only problem here was, the players were high school girls and they were playing
, for God's sake.
And it was Nick's job to cover it for the local TV station.
The taste of bitterness filled his mouth, but he choked it back down. A new leaf, he reminded himself. That's what he was doing here. Starting fresh. A new career. Something he could do even
a bum knee.
A man had to start somewhere, right? Nick shifted position, taking the weight off the bad right knee that had ended his career. While the pain shimmered along his nerve endings, he couldn't help thinking, as he often did, about that one play that had sidelined his career. If not for that one stinkin' tackle that had sent his body east and his knee west, he'd still be playing. Still be signing autographs. Still be doing what he loved doing.
Instead, he was standing on the sidelines, in a bonechilling early November wind, getting dust on his Gucci loafers, trying to look interested in a play-off game that meant nothing to anyone not attending either Santiago or St. Anne's High.
Local TV my ass, he thought. He should be working at ESPN. Probably would have been except for the one guy who'd voted no to Nick's application. Seems the man still held a grudge about some comments Nick had
once made about their coverage of a game. So instead of the big time, here he was, working at a station that included farm reports in the local news. But he had plans. He'd work his way up. Be at ESPN where he belonged. Doing commentary for football gamesâinterviewing playersâ
that would allow him to stay a part of the game he loved. But until then, he got the shit jobs.
And they didn't come much shittier than this.
Out on the neatly trimmed grass, one of the girls from St. Anne's kicked a well-aimed ball at the net, and when the goalie missed it, the game was suddenly over. Screaming teenage girls swarmed across the field, shrieking and laughing as they jumped at one another in celebration.
A momentary twinge jabbed at Nick's heart and he almost felt a kinship with the high-schoolers. He'd done a lot of those victory dances himself. He'd been in the center of the locker-room festivities after a big win. He'd popped a few champagne corks and showered in the foamy stuff, blinking back tears as the alcohol nearly blinded him.
Damn, he missed it.
He missed everything about it.
“Okay, that's it,” Bill announced as he straightened up from behind the camera. Glancing at Nick, he said, “You wanna get an interview with the coach first, or with the girls?”
It was like being asked if he'd rather be shot to death or stabbed.
But this was his life, now. And bitching about it wasn't going to move him up the ladder or get him to ESPN. So he'd choose the lesser of two evils. He just didn't think he was up to trying to interview some high
school soccer player and listening to her “um” and “oh” and “uh” her way through a conversation.
“The coach,” Nick said, and scooped one hand through his hair again. He checked his tie, smoothed one hand down the front of his camel brown sport jacket, then fell into step behind Bill.
The stands emptied of people and they all seemed intent on getting in his way. Bill was a few yards ahead of him, and Nick was in no hurry to catch up.
“Hey, aren't you Nick Candellano?”
Nick stopped, caught by the awed tone in the voice coming from right behind him. Turning, he looked down at a short balding man with a wide grin.
“You are,” the guy said, nearly breathless with excitement, “Nick Candellano.”
Fond memories reared up and Nick basked in the glow of them for a second or two.
The guy shook his head and blew out a breath. “Man. Imagine that. Seeing you here. I remember the time you took the ball and ran it back eighty-five yards for a TD.” He sighed. “Never saw a run like itâbefore or since. Man, you cut through those other guys like they weren't even there.”
Nick remembered, too. “Yeah,” he said, enjoying this quick trip down memory lane. “That was the Atlanta game. Ninety-eight. Good game.”
game,” the shorter man corrected. “You were awesome, man.”
Pride swelled along with the memories and puffed out Nick's chest. Hell, maybe this wouldn't be such a bad gig after all. He still had lots of fans out there. Running into one or two of them now and then would cheer him up and give the fans something to talk about when they went home to dinner.
“Thanks,” he said, automatically offering his right hand. Giving the man the smile he used to reserve for close-up postgame interviews, he said, “Appreciate it. Always good to meet a fan.”
The little guy's grin went even wider as he slapped a manila envelope into Nick's waiting hand. “Good to meet you, too, man. Oh. And you've been served.”
“It was great meeting you, though.” The short man was already turning to leave.
What the hell was going on? Served? As in served with a lawsuit? Who would be suing him? Nick stared down at the envelope as if waiting for it to open up and announce itself. When it didn't, he lifted his gaze to the retreating back of the little guy who'd sounded like a fan.
“Hey, Nick,” Bill called from the sidelines, “you coming?”
The cameraman's voice suddenly sounded muffledâbut that was probably because of the sudden roaring in Nick's ears. A cold trickle slipped through his bloodstream. He gave his head a shake, but the roaring was still there. This couldn't be good. His hand fisted around the envelope as if he could squeeze the truth out of it. “What the hell's going on?” he demanded.
The bald guy chuckled as he kept walking. “Read all about it, Nick. Oh, by the way, congratulations. It's a boy.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Tasha Flynn finished the comb-out on Edna Garret's hair, then stood back and aimed a torrent of hair spray at the woman's head. Naturally, the stream of toxins didn't shut Edna up. But then, at this point, why bother?
At eighty, the old woman had probably inhaled enough hair spray over her lifetime to put a nice, glossy shine on her lungs already. What was another coat?
“So anyway,” Edna was saying, “when I found out that Francine Chase was gambling away the rent money, I just knew her husband was going to leave her. What man in his right mind would put up with that?”
“Richard Chase should have,” a woman under the dryer piped up. Tilting the old-fashioned space helmet dryer back so she could get in a little gossip herself, Alice Tucker stuck her head farther out, stared at Edna, and said, “Francine was the only woman who would have put up with Dick's meandering eye.”
“It wasn't just his eye that meandered,” Lorraine Tuttle said with a chuckle.
Tasha rolled her eyes at the gossip. The same women kicked around the same topics of conversation every Tuesday. You'd think they'd run out of things to talk about. But no. Every week, they showed up to be washed, curled, and dried. And every week, they had more dirt to dish.
The FBI should know about these women.
But there was a comforting sameness to the routine. A familiarity that told Tasha everything in her world was as it should be. She glanced around the interior of the small shop and smiled to herself. Three hair dryers, only one of them occupied, sat against one wall. Opposite them were three comfortable chairs clustered around a low table littered with hairstyle magazines. Wooden shelves marched along one wall, stuffed to bursting with hair products and supplies. The pink-and-white linoleum was peeling up in one corner, but it was clean, scrubbed nightly by Tasha herself. The wide
window overlooking the front yard was sparkling, and a thick slice of sunlight jutted through the glass beneath the half-opened blinds.
She supposed that to most people, the place wouldn't look like much. But to Tasha, it was everything. It was home. Stability. A future.
This was her place.
Where she belonged.
“What do you think, Tasha?” Edna asked.
“Hmm? What do I think?” She glanced into the mirror, ignoring the handful of postcards tucked into the edges of the glass, and met the older woman's direct stare. “I think you're finished, Edna.”
The older woman sniffed and waved an impatient hand. “I don't mean my hair, girl. I mean what do you think about roving Dick?”
Tasha's lips twitched as she met Edna's still sharp blue eyes. “I try not to think about roving dicks of any kind.”
Heck, it'd been so long since she'd been on a date or come anywhere near a man who wasn't at the shop to pick up his wife, Tasha was pretty sure she could qualify for sainthood. Which, she thought wryly, in her case, was really saying something.