Authors: T. J. Kline
For the man who makes me smile and reminds me that there are always second chances. I love you.
to give in to the normally angelic cherub face in front of her that was now scrunched in anger. “Because we aren't playing football at recess today. I already explained that to you.”
Like most six-Âyear-Âolds, her son, James, was prone to throw temper tantrums when he didn't get his way. Unlike other kids his age, James would refuse to say anything verbally. Instead, his fingers flew in a blur of American Sign Language, letting her know just how angry he was at her explanation. Although he was perfectly capable of speaking, thanks to the cochlear implants her ex-Âhusband's medical insurance had provided before James' first birthday, Bethany's son continued to fall back on signing when he was angry. She understood it was due to the fact that he stuttered and had a hard time pronouncing his words when he was emotional, but she was trying to teach him to continue to use both. Life wasn't easy and, in spite of what many saw as a disability, she couldn't allow her son to take the path of least resistance. It was a painful truth she'd been forced to face early on when her husband ran out on both of them twelve months after James' diagnosis at two months old, just before serving her with divorce papers.
Life as a single mother was hard enough. Life as a single mother at twenty to a child with a disability and no child support would have been impossible if not for her parents' stepping in and allowing her to move back in until she could finish college and earn her teaching degree.
“Not today, James,” she reiterated. “The other kids are playing T-Âball. You should go ask if you can play too.”
She watched as her son pursed his lips and balled his fists before stomping across the playground to pout near the swings. Bethany sighed loudly, knowing this was something every child went through, that every
went through, but wondering if it would ever get easier. She couldn't give in to James' demand but she couldn't stand the thought of her son being angry at her all day either. Not to mention, it would only cause trouble when they returned to the classroom after recess. There were definite drawbacks to being her son's kindergarten teacher.
She traced his steps to the swings, trying not to smile when she saw him turn his back on her as he continued to peek over his shoulder to see if she would come to him. Bethany squatted down beside him, her peasant skirt billowing around her, and waited for him to turn and face her.
“James, if you go play ball with the other kids, we'll go to the park after school today.” She signed as she spoke. His blue eyes sparkled at the thought but he paused.
“Ice cream too?” This time he spoke and she let the smile curve her lips.
The little stinker thought he was conning her.
“Yes, I think we can get ice cream too, but only if you are able to read all your sight words for Ms. Julie.”
At least, she prayed that's what her teacher's aide had planned for the kids today. Julie was indispensable in her classroom after lunch, when most of the kids were hyper beyond belief, and she hoped they weren't going to have to change the lesson plans again today to accommodate the kids' activity level. Bethany couldn't help but wonder if her students' parents were feeding their kids straight sugar for lunch.
James pursed his lips and looked toward the sky. It was his “thinking” look and it never failed to make her want to hug him. Before she could, he threw his arms around her neck and ran off to meet up with the group of kids playing on the open lawn. Bethany stood and sighed again just as James stopped to get her attention.
I want chocolate
, he signed.
She nodded and signed her approval as he spun on his heel and hurried toward the other kids. Her baby was growing up far too quickly for her liking.
She heard the quiet chuckle from behind her as Steven Carter, the other kindergarten teacher at Hidden Falls Elementary walked toward her. “I don't know how you do it,” he said with a shake of his head.
“Teach him just like the other kids.”
Bethany felt herself bristle. She'd dealt with Âpeople singling James out because of his disability for years. It never failed to make the mama bear in her rise to the surface. “I'll have you know, James is just as bright as any
child, Mr. Carter. In fact, he's already reading at a second-Âgrade level. Just because he has implants to help him hear doesn't make him stupid.”
The other teacher took a step back, his eyes widening. “Uh, that's not what I meant,” he said, holding his hands up in front of him. “I just meant that it's hard enough to keep twenty kids under control in the classroom and keep my mind on what I'm teaching without trying to sign at the same time.”
“Oh!” Bethany felt the blush rise up her neck and cheeks at the way she'd immediately become defensive. “I'm sorry, I just .Â .Â .”
“No, I shouldn't have said it that way.” He moved to stand at her side, slipping his hands into the pockets of his slacks and watched the kids play on the field. “Truce?”
She ducked her head, embarrassed to have jumped to conclusions. “Yes. I
sorry though. I have a tendency to be a bit overprotective.”
He shot her a sideways glance. “And I have a tendency to speak before I think,” he admitted. “Maybe I could make it up to you over coffee?” He cleared his throat nervously. “Or dinner?”
Bethany felt blindsided. She hadn't expected him to ask her out. She'd heard several of the other women talking about the new teacher in the break room, swooning over his tall, lean physique and stormy gray eyes, but she thought it strange to want to date someone you worked with. What if it didn't go well? What if it did? It was just too much drama either way for the workplace, especially when that workplace was as an elementary school in a town as small as Hidden Falls.
“Ah, I really appreciate the offer, Mr. Carter,” she said, trying not to seem too callous. “But I don't think it would be a good idea.”
She'd been out of the dating pool so long, the refusal slid easily from her lips without her having to struggle with what to say. It wasn't that she hadn't been asked out. She had, far too many times for her liking, but she wasn't about to introduce another man into her life, or James' life, only to be abandoned again. Her son would be forced to deal with enough adversity in his future. She didn't see the need to add an emotional tie to someone who wasn't likely to stick around. It was better that James knew her unconditional reassurance than suffer the added sting of rejection if that was something she had any control over. He'd been hurt enough. They
S THIS REALLY
what you dragged me out to the park for? To be your official stopwatch?” Jackson complained, rolling his eyes at his oldest brother. “You know Dad is going to jump all in my shit if he finds out I'm here with you instead of finishing that fence in the north pasture.”
“It's barely one o'clock and I'm only doing some sprints. When we get back, I'll help you with the fence until sundown, deal?”
Grant McQuaid glared at his brother, the youngest of the six of them. The last thing he needed right now were any more arguments. His father had already been more than willing to give his two cents about Grant's plans to return to professional football. He didn't care how many Âpeople tried to convince him to the contrary, he was going to be the guy who proved the doctors wrong. He couldn't be finished at thirty. He
“Fine,” Jackson agreed with a sigh. “You ready or what?” Jackson rolled his eyes as Grant swung his arms in large circles, loosening up. Grant then kicked his heels toward his butt before making a few quick tuck jumps into the air. Tired of waiting, Jackson said, “Any day, bro.”
Grant ignored him. Just because he felt great didn't mean he was about to let his brother's impatience risk an injury. He jerked a knee toward his chest, lifting the opposite arm, mimicking the movement of a sprint before repeating it several times on the other side. Moving into position, he bounced in place to warm his joints then settled himself and looked out over the grass to where he'd marked a spot with an orange cone.
“Are you ready, now?” His brother laughed, shaking his head.
Grant knew his brothers didn't understand the seriousness with which he took his workouts, but they didn't have to. He did. This was business. This was his job and he worked harder than any other running back in professional football. He had to if he wanted to see another season.
Grant took a deep breath and relaxed the tension he felt building in his shoulders, knowing it would only slow him. One focusâÂthis forty-Âyard sprint. One goalâÂfaster than his best time, 4.54 seconds. He took a deep breath, relaxing his face.
“And .Â .Â . Go!” Jackson yelled.
Grant pushed off, letting his back leg propel him forward, his arms pumping as the breeze blew from behind. He felt his limbs stretch and flex, his feet pounding against the grass, the cleats digging into the soft earth. And then he was at the cone, making a sharp right turn. He slowed to a jog before stopping and looking back at Jackson.
“Five point zero seven,” he called.
That was never going to be good enough. There were too many younger men trying to take his place, too many uninjured players without big contracts willing to do it for less money. He jogged back to the starting spot and settled himself into position.
“Again,” he called, ignoring his brother's frown.
“Are you sâÂ”
“Again,” Grant insisted, not even letting Jackson question his decision.
Grant repeated the sprint seven more times but couldn't get under a five-Âsecond run. As much as it frustrated him, continuing would just break down his body and make him more prone to re-Âinjury. It was better to come back out in a Âcouple of days and try again. Until then, they might as well have some fun before heading back to the ranch. The fence could wait for another thirty minutes.
Grant did a few ballistic stretches and picked up the football he'd brought along with him, tossing it toward Jackson, knowing his brother wouldn't turn down a quick game.
“How's that arm of yours?”
Jackson shrugged. “I guess that depends on your point of reference. I'm no Miles.”
He meant Aaron Miles, the starting quarterback for the Mustangs and the guy who'd rallied the team, taking them to the playoffs last year. The same game where Grant had sustained his last concussion, the one that might have ended his career. He crushed the thought before it sank in. He was
to play this season, there was no room for doubt.
“Let's see what you've got.” He jogged down field from Jackson, effortlessly catching the ball. Grant had been a decent receiver in high school but his size had made the transition to running back a no-Âbrainer in college.
The two of them played catch for the a few hours while Grant tried to ignore the Âpeople beginning to crowd under several of the shade trees nearby, watching. It wasn't unusual to see at training camp but here, in his hometown, he hated being a spectacle. He couldn't walk down the street without someone pointing, staring or asking for an autograph. Here he just wanted to be Grant, not Grant McQuaid, starting running back for the Memphis Mustangs.
“Last one,” Jackson called, lobbing the ball down the field for a Hail Mary pass.
Grant went long, sprinting to make the catch. He was damned if he was going to look like a fool with this many Âpeople watching. It wasn't until the last second he heard the child's yell and the woman's voice calling for him to “Look out!”
“I've got it!” the boy yelled as he reached into the sky, a broad grin plastered across his face.
Grant glanced away from the ball in time to see the little boy run directly into his path.
She'd looked away from James for two seconds to find a napkin in her purse to wipe away the ice cream dripping over his hands, and the next thing she knew, she was chasing after him as he ran directly into the path of the two men playing catch. She should have known better than to believe James would sit still when someone was playing football.
The man who'd gone out for the pass barely flinched before he leapt over her son's head as if he was no more than a small hurdle, clearing James' outstretched hands by at least six inches.
James might be small for his age but that was incredible, to say the least. A few of the other spectators agreed and began to applaud as the man caught the ball and jogged back toward James, tossing it to him gently as he came close. She watched him go to one knee in front of James and place a massive hand on his shoulder. She tried to fight down the overprotective instinct rising up in her. He obviously wasn't going to hurt James after he'd just, miraculously, avoiding crashing into him. She caught up to where the pair chatted like old friends.
“I'm so sorry.” She gasped for breath, cursing the sandals she'd worn and her lack of aerobic exercise since moving to town. “I looked away and he'd taken off.” She squatted down to James and grasped his shoulders. “What in the world were you thinking? You could have been hurt, badly. If this man hadn't seen youâÂ”
“It's no problem, ma'am. He's just keeping me on my toes and prepared for anything.” He smiled at James and gave him a wink before turning his deep chocolate brown gaze on her.
He rose slowly, unfolding his tall frame to tower above her, leaving her eye level with his bared, sweaty chest. Bethany felt her mouth go dry, unable to speak, even if she was able to get her brain functioning again, which it didn't seem inclined to do. The second man jogged over to them, laughing.