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  “You both agreed to do whatever it took to not be suspended, correct?”

  Another long glance between the two players.

  “Yeah,” James said.

  ‘You’re going to work as volunteer construction crew on the fire rebuilds, then every afternoon you’ll coach at the rec center.”

  “That sounds okay,” James said. “Especially if the coach gig involves that hot little counselor they had running the car wash. What’s her name… Rainey? Loved her wet T-shirt—you guys see that?”

  Casey grinned. “I loved her whistle and clipboard, and the way she barked orders like a little tyrant. Sexiest tyrant I’ve ever seen.”

  When James chuckled, Mark’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel. “She’s off limits.” He ignored the third long look that James and Casey exchanged. But they had one thing right. Rainey was a tyrant, especially when she decided on something.

  Or someone.

  And once upon a time, she’d decided on him.

  “So we’re not going to the Biltmore?” James asked. “Cuz there’s always plenty of hot babes there.”

  “James,” Mark said. “What did I tell you about hot babes?”

  James slumped in his seat. “That if I so much as look at one you’re going to kick my ass.”

  “Do you doubt my ability to do so?”

  James slouched even further. “No one in their right mind would doubt that, Coach.”

  “And anyway, you’re not allowed back at the Biltmore,” Casey reminded James. “That’s where you got caught with that redhead by her husband. You had to jump out the window and sprained your knee and were out for three weeks.”

  “Oh yeah,” James said on a fond sigh. “Madeline.”

  Mark felt a brain bleed coming on. He exited the highway, a good twenty miles from the beach and any “hot babes.”

  “Damn,” James murmured, taking in the fire ravaged hills on either side of the narrow two-lane highway, then repeated the “damn” when Mark pulled up to a small, run-down-looking motel.

  “Home sweet home for the next month,” Mark told them grimly. “The Santa Rey Welcome Inn.”

  Casey and James just stared at the single story motel. The stucco walls were pea-green, the windows lined with wrought-iron grates. The yard was dead grass.

  “They’re on water restrictions,” Mark said, and clapped them both on the backs. “You’ll be reminded of that come shower time in the morning. There’s a three-minute shower requirement here. Let’s go,” he said to their groans.

  The Welcome Inn sign blinked on and off in flashing white lights. The door to the office was thrown open, letting out the scent of stale coffee and air freshener. Inside the office was a desk, a small couch, and a floor fan on full blast aimed at the woman behind the desk. Celia Anderson was sixty-something, and glued to the soap opera on the TV mounted on the wall—until she saw Mark. With a warm smile, she came around and squeezed him tight. “Aw, you’re such a good boy,” she said. “Throwing us your fancy business.”

  Boy? Casey mouthed to James.

  “Sometimes homey is better than fancy,” Mark said to Celia.

  She patted his cheek gently. “Your father raised you right. I’ve got the three rooms you requested. Cash or credit?”

  “Cash,” he said, knowing how badly she needed the cash.

  “I’ll give you a discount.”

  “No,” he said gently, putting his hand over hers when she went to punch a discounted rate into her computer. “Full price.”

  She beamed at him and handed over their room keys.

  Which were actual keys. Casey looked at his like he didn’t know what to do with it. They walked down the outside hallway to their rooms. Each had a single bed, dresser and chair beneath the window. All of which had seen better days but were spotlessly clean.

  “Coach, I think your assistant screwed up the reservations,” Casey said.

  James’s head bobbled his agreement. “I don’t think they even have cable.”

  “There’s been no mistake,” Mark said. “Unless you guys wanted to room together?”

  They looked at the narrow bed and vehemently shook their heads, both wisely deciding to drop the subject.

  Mark waited until he was alone to smile. Operation: Ego Check was in full swing.

  For all of them.

  RAINEY DIDN’T FALL asleep until past midnight, and dreamed badly.

  Sweet Sixteen, and she stood outside Mark’s bedroom door, heart pounding inside her chest so loudly she was surprised she hadn’t woken the entire apartment complex.

  Mark had no idea she was here. No one did. She’d stolen his key from Rick and lied to her friends that she was too tired to go out. Wearing a pretty lacy teddy beneath her sweats, carrying a borrowed pair of sexy heels in her hand, she grinned. Tonight was the night. She was finally going to tell him she loved him, that she always had. They’d live happily ever after, just like in all the good chick flicks.

  Quietly she opened his bedroom door and dropped her sweats. She stepped into the heels and fluffed her hair. She was just checking her boobs to make sure they were even and perky when she heard it.

  A rough moan.

  Whirling around, she got the shock of her life.

  Mark wasn’t sleeping. He wasn’t even in his bed.

  He was sprawled in the beanbag chair beneath the window, long legs spread for the woman on her knees between his, head bobbing—Oh, God.

  Mark’s head was back, eyes closed, his perfect body taut and his hands fisted in his date’s hair as she…

  Rainey must have made a sound, or maybe he’d heard the crack of her heart as it split wide, because Mark sat straight up so fast he nearly choked his date. “Christ. Rainey—”

  “Hey,” his date complained, lifting her head with a pissed-off frown. “I’m Melody.”

  Rainey turned to run away and ran smack into the door—which didn’t slow her down. Not that, or the sprained ankle from her stupid heels.


  The pounding of bare feet told her he was coming after her. Not wanting to face him, she kicked her heels off and raced barefoot out into the night like Cinderella trying to beat the clock. Young and desperate, she’d run off looking for a way to prove herself as grown up as she imagined.

  She’d been ripe for trouble, and unfortunately, she’d found it.

  SITTING STRAIGHT UP in bed with a gasp, Rainey realized it was dawn, and she blinked the dream away. Fourteen years and she remembered every humiliating detail as if it’d been yesterday. Especially what had happened next. But she wasn’t going there, not now. Not ever.

  By that afternoon, she’d nearly forgotten all about the dream and Mark. She was running laps with the group of teens who’d shown up after school, counting heads to make sure none had made off with each other into the bushes, when Sharee came up to her side.

  Rainey’s welcoming smile faded as she locked her gaze on the new bruise on the teen’s jaw. “What happened?”

  Sharee switched into her default expression—sullen. “Nothing.”


  “Walked into a door, no big deal.”

  “Where was your mother?”

  Sharee lifted a shoulder. “Working.”

  Rainey would like to get Martin alone and walk him into a door, but that was a stupid idea. The man scared Rainey. “You know where I live, right?”

  “The Northside town houses.”

  “Unit fifteen,” Rainey said. “Next time your mother’s working nights, come have a sleepover with me.”


  “So you don’t walk into any more doors. We’ll watch a movie and eat crap food. It’ll be more fun than any date I’ve had in a while.”

  “How often do you date?” Sharee asked.

  The easy answer was not much. But that was also the embarrassing answer. “Occasionally.”

  Sharee nodded, then went back to running laps. Rainey ran again too, until her cell phone buzzed an inco