Her heels clicked on the tiled floor and the squeaky sneakers of her nephew raced to keep up. It was another day, another disaster.
“Aunt Molly, wait up.”
Molly Cole slowed and turned, doing all she could not to say anything until they got to the car. Ever since their move, Ben had been pushing the edge of the envelope. Three days in a new school and she’d been called by the principal twice. Today she had to leave work to come and pick him up.
“You’re mad,” he said.
Molly glanced down. Ben’s blond head was bowed and she could see he was sorry. It was times like this that he still looked like a little boy. Other times, the sheer size of him gave her a glimpse of what he would look like when he was a man.
“I’m annoyed. This isn’t a great way to start at a new school.” They walked together into the bright afternoon sunlight, the smell of a salt marsh tingeing the air. The whole ordeal made Molly’s heart hurt. She wanted the move to be positive. So far, positive was a stretch. “Do you want to tell me what happened? I only heard Mrs. Whitcomb’s version of the story.”
Ben shook his head. If nothing else, he knew he shouldn’t lie.
“Nothing to add? No excuses for your behavior?”
“The kid was being a jerk, but I know I shouldn’t have pushed him.” Ben looked up at her, his blue eyes glassy. “People will think I’m a troublemaker, won’t they?”
Molly blew out a breath as her heart broke. “You’re not a troublemaker, Benny.” She reached over and wrapped her arm around his shoulder. “But trouble does have a way of finding you.” He nodded and wiped his eyes. “We’ll talk about it later. Do you have homework?” More than likely he did, there was just little chance he would actually do it. He was bright, but there was no denying he was a ten-year-old boy. A sometimes very unfocused ten-year-old boy.
“Uh huh. I’m going to work with you?”
“For a couple of hours,” she said. “Nana has her yoga class this afternoon. You can hang in my office or find a table and start your homework while I finish up.”
“Okay.” Ben buckled his seat belt and stared out the window. Something was on his mind, again. “Do you think my mom knew I would be trouble and that’s why she went away?”
Molly’s hands gripped the steering wheel. Went away. It was the euphemism she used to avoid telling him what happened. Thinking about her sister’s death was something Molly avoided at all costs, but with Ben getting older, she knew the questions would come. Of course, the answer he received would depend on who he asked. “Honey, there were many things that made your mother go away, but you were not one of them.” Molly doubted Amy was thinking about him at all. “And let’s get one thing straight. You aren’t a bad kid. You don’t always think before you act, but you aren’t bad.”
“I try, but sometimes I can’t help it.”
The day was so pretty Molly almost wished the drive back to campus was longer.
When her good friend called about the reference job at Jennings College, Molly jumped on it, knowing she could provide Ben with a better environment if she moved north. That the town and the surrounding areas were beautiful was an added bonus.
Ben was everything. Ever since she was twenty-one-years old and had become his guardian, every decision Molly made was about him. She owed her sister that. She may not have been able to save Amy from the man who had made her pregnant and then abandoned her or from the crushing depression that followed, but she wouldn’t let Ben down, ever.
Even if it meant she had no real life of her own.
They pulled into campus and followed the tree-lined streets to the library. Passing academic buildings and dormitories, she drove along perimeter road until she reached the North Campus quad, which included her library.
The Miller Library shared this part of campus with the administration building and the student union. Sitting on top of a hill, the view was spectacular, including the one from Molly’s office. Her window faced the Long Island Sound and in the distance she could see the gentle outline of the Connecticut shore. There was always a soft breeze, and on a warm day the smell of the salt water and the sound of the gulls took her down a notch. It was the complete opposite of the congested city she left behind, which was exactly what she and Ben needed.
It was hard leaving Maryland, simply because it was familiar, but when her parents retired to Hilton Head, there was nothing holding Molly back. Her mother had grown up in Compass Cove and Molly cherished the summers she spent here with her grandparents. The Long Island hamlet seemed immune to becoming a trendy version of itself and, with only one road going in and out of the village, it managed to hold onto its small town feel.
The family house was in the area known as North Harbor, and while moving in with her seventy-eight-year-old grandmother wasn’t the ideal situation for a single, twenty-nine-year-old woman, Molly did love that she had family. The white Victorian had blue shutters, a big front porch, lots of room and it was right near a pretty beach. There were loads of kids in the neighborhood, and if Ben could learn to control himself, he’d have a slew of playmates. Of course, if the kid Ben stood up to was being a bully, Tommy deserved a lot more than a shove.
Molly glanced at Ben, her stomach in knots. He was tall for his age, with a strong athletic build. The problem was that other kids saw him as a challenge. She guessed he was built just like his father, what she hoped he wouldn’t inherit was his disposition. As they walked up the main steps of the library, Molly felt the need to find out more.
“So, how did the whole argument start? All the principal said was that it happened on the playground.”
“It was dumb. He threw a pass, I intercepted it and he said I broke the rules.”
“His rules. No one’s allowed to intercept anything when Tommy Jansen’s the quarterback. We’re supposed to let his team walk over the goal line.”
It was then that the whole picture emerged for Molly and she stopped dead on the top step. “You were playing football?”
Ben clammed up, looked down.
“You know how I feel about football.”
“It’s not a big deal. Everyone plays.”
“It’s barbaric,” she said, holding the door open for him.
“It’s fun,” he grumbled.
“Fun? Fun?” Molly gritted her teeth and her temper flared. “How much fun was it today? You nearly got into a fight over it.”
“I almost got into a fight because a stupid kid thinks he can tell everyone else what to do and thinks he can pick on me ‘cause I’m new.” He threw her a look that was nothing but pure arrogance. “I showed him different.”
“I don’t want you to play.” Molly made a move toward the doors and walked into the library lobby. She knew he didn’t understand. How do you explain to a kid that you associate a game with the man who rejected him? Ben followed, grumbling the whole time.
“You don’t get it,” he said.
“What is there to get? It’s a violent game and I don’t want you playing.”
“You don’t let me do anything fun.”
“I offered to sign you up for tennis lessons just last week.”
As they walked into Molly’s office, Ben snapped. He threw down his backpack and kicked it across the room. As it crashed into a chair he declared, “Tennis sucks!”
Then he turned and bolted out the door.
By the time Molly composed herself enough to go after him, he’d disappeared.
Adam Miller conferred with his assistants and could only shake his head as he looked at his roster. Their first game was three days away and the offensive line had more holes than a cheap hooker’s panties. The way things were going, he’d be down a quarterback by halftime on Saturday.
“I got almost 1500 pounds on that line, they should be able to block something,” Adam mumbled.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Drew Griffin, one of the assistants, said. “There’s no way we could have anticipated those two injuries.”
That was true. More than half of their starters from last year’s team had either graduated or were no longer eligible to play. Then two of his veteran offensive linemen got hurt within days of each other. He had to get used to the fact his team was green, and the best he could hope for was that they got better with experience.
He flipped the playbook closed and stuffed the pen into his pocket.
“Adam? Looks like we’ve got company.” Ian Rand, his defensive coordinator and best friend, pointed toward the end zone. There, sitting with his legs pulled up, was a kid. Alone.
“Damn.” The last thing Adam wanted to deal with was a misplaced kid. He waited for one of the other coaches to volunteer to check things out, but they all seemed unconcerned, even though there was no reason a kid should be on this part of campus by himself.
“Here, take this for me.” Handing off his binder to his friend, Adam walked down the field.
He guessed the boy was maybe eleven or twelve-years-old, hard to say since he wasn’t standing. He was clean and well-dressed so that eliminated the possibility that he was homeless. The kid saw him coming, scrambled to his feet and looked scared shitless. Adam had seen kids react to him in a lot of different ways, but this one was new. The boy shoved his hands in his pockets, and when Adam got close enough, he could see the kid had been crying.
“Hey,” Adam said. “You okay?”
“Sorta?” The kid sure wasn’t giving much.
All Adam got this time was a shrug. He blew out a long breath and extended his hand. “I’m Coach Miller.”
The boy met his eyes and shook his hand. Still nothing.
“You got a name?” More silence.
Finally something. Maybe he could figure out who owned this kid. “So, Ben, where are you supposed to be?”
Adam realized he’d asked the million-dollar question when Ben looked down and moved his feet uncomfortably.
“With my aunt at the library.”
“Ah. She’s a student?”
“No, sir. She works there.”
“Does she know where you are?”
“No, sir,” Ben whispered.
Adam widened his stance, folded his arms and stared down at the boy. Intimidation would go a long way with this kid. He was too respectful to ignore an adult’s request. “What do you think you should do?” He gave Ben some time to think through what he wanted to say. Sure enough, it came eventually.
“Go back to the library.”
“Good answer.” Adam had to regroup quickly because Ben turned to walk away. Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen. The kid pretty much admitted he was lost. “Whoa.” He reached out and took him by the arm. “Come back to my office and you can call your aunt.”
Ben nodded and the two of them started toward the field house. Kids usually talked up a storm around him, but this kid wasn’t saying much. It could have been he was scared, being new in town and lost, but Adam sensed that those things weren’t the problem. There were two footballs on the sideline and he directed Ben toward them. “Go grab those two balls and toss them to me.”
Maybe a little activity would get him to open up. The kid’s eyes lit up and he ran to the side of the field. He picked up the first ball, turned it in his hand a little and threw it to Adam. Not bad.
The second throw was better.
When Ben returned to his side, Adam stopped walking, dropped one football and handed Ben the other. “Let me show you something. Put your fingers here and here.” He moved the boy’s fingers into position over the laces, and Adam marveled at the size of the kid’s hands. He was born to hold a football. “That’s good, but not so tight. You want to have a little space between your hand and the football.”
“Like this?” Ben had made an adjustment and the ball sat perfectly in his hand.
Adam nodded. “Good. Throw it.”
Ben dropped back a couple of steps, planted his feet and threw. The ball took off like a rocket. Damn.
They watched the ball’s flight, and Adam grinned at Ben’s stunned expression. “Much better.” Tossing him the other football, Adam said, “Now, do it again.”
In the fifteen minutes he’d been with Ben, Adam had formed a pretty good picture of Auntie Librarian. What kind of woman was she, denying the kid the right to play football? It was downright un-American. He could just picture her—skinny with her hair pulled tight and wearing sensible shoes.
He thought about his own mother who let Adam pursue every dream, even after his father died. He couldn’t imagine being brought up in a bubble. Poor kid.
“So, what did your aunt say when you called?”
Ben took a sip of the sports drink Adam had given him. “That she was glad I found an adult and that I called. She’ll be here soon.”
Adam had been surprised to hear the kid was only ten. He definitely looked older. “Do you go to school at Compass Elementary?”
Ben nodded, but didn’t look too happy.
“Don’t like school?”
“School is okay, but it’s hard being new. We just moved here from Maryland.”
“Give it time.” Adam took a long pull from a bottle of water that he had on his desk, processing the information. “Where did you live in Maryland?”
“Right near Washington.”
“Really? I played there for a while. Now I live in Compass Cove, like you.”
A door opened and closed as decidedly female footsteps approached.
“That’s my Aunt Molly.”
Adam braced himself. He told himself she was probably a perfectly nice woman, and that he shouldn’t judge, and that she—she—Adam swallowed hard when the Librarian entered his office.
This woman blew every librarian stereotype right out the freaking window. She was gorgeous. And she was young.
Her hair, which was the color of brown sugar, was pulled loosely off her face and fell down her back in soft curls and her big brown eyes were surrounded by long, dark lashes. Adam had to shake off his reaction before he had to say something coherent. There had to be something wrong with this. Wasn’t there some librarian rule book that kept beautiful off the grid? She swept into the room and went right to Ben.
“Oh Benny, thank God.” Her arms wrapped around the boy and he hugged his aunt’s middle.
While the touching reunion was taking place, Adam was still recovering from seeing the real Aunt Molly. He felt like he had the wind knocked out of him. Thank God her focus was on her nephew and not him.
“I’m sorry,” Ben said.
“Me too. Next time, don’t run off. We can always talk things out.”
Ben nodded and Molly finally glanced at Adam. She smiled and extended her hand. “I’m Molly Cole. Thank you so much for taking charge of Ben, Mr.…”
“I mean Miller.” Damn, he thought. She was standing there grinning, probably thinking he was an idiot. Jesus, he thought. When did he ever react this way around a woman? “Adam Miller.” He said as he took her outstretched hand. “Please call me Adam.”
“He has the same name as your library.” Ben said. “Is it named after you, Coach?”
“Ben, Miller is a fairly common name—“ Molly began.
“My grandfather.” Adam interrupted. “The Miller Library is named for my grandfather.”
Yeah, mentioning his family was a mistake. Immediately her back stiffened and Molly looked away, keeping her hand firmly on Ben’s shoulder. Brilliant. What a way to sound like a pretentious ass. Now he had to recover.
“Oh, well,” she said. “I stand corrected.”
Blinking those soft brown eyes, she made a little noise in her throat and his vision clouded again. It took him a second to realize she was directing Ben toward the door.
“Thank you again. We’ll get out of your way.”
Shit. He didn’t mean to scare her off. “Uh, I’m leaving, too,” he said quickly. “Let me walk you out.”
She nodded, but Adam could tell she was being polite. He watched her twist her hands and took notice of the fact that her left ring finger was bare. If it was any other woman, he’d think the nerves were a sign she was interested. But with Molly, he figured the nerves were about his connections. Then again, maybe she just didn’t like him. He looked at her again and what struck him was how innocent she looked, how young. Maybe she was thirty. Maybe.
“Ben’s got a great arm,” Adam said as they walked toward the parking lot. Shaking off the effect she had on him, he focused on his conversation with Ben. He really wanted to know what Auntie had against football. “There’s a lot of potential with the way he throws.”
“We aren’t into football.” Her manner, which wasn’t warm to begin with, cooled another ten degrees.
Okay, maybe he was wrong about her not fitting the stereotype. The woman may not look like the blue-haired librarian of his nightmares, but she acted like her. “We aren’t or you aren’t?”
Molly slowed and narrowed her eyes. Now she was on the defensive. “Me, but…”
“He told me you don’t want him to play,” Adam said. He was trying to reassure her, but watching her face tighten he knew he’d pissed her off. Molly started to say something and then stopped, allowing him to continue. “It’s good exercise and a great way to channel a kid’s energy.”
Adam looked away for a second, blew out a breath and then looked back at her. “When a player is properly trained, and has the right equipment, it’s as safe as riding a bike.”
“She doesn’t let me do that either,” Ben shot out, but just as quickly, he snapped his mouth shut when his aunt turned and glared.
“Don’t start.” Her temper flared and Adam liked seeing her lose a little bit of that control. Ben must have really pushed her buttons today. “I didn’t want you riding around our old neighborhood. I don’t have a problem with you riding a bike here.”
“Then why don’t I have one?”
“What? A bike? You know things have been crazy with the move.” She stopped at a very sensible Honda Civic. “But we’ll get you one soon. Let’s just hope I don’t need an engineering degree to put it together.”
Adam grinned. It wasn’t any of his business, but he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to tease the crap out of her and she was nice to look at. “I could give you a hand.”
“What? Oh, we couldn’t impose…”
“Really?” Ben’s smile flashed like a thousand-watt bulb. Gorgeous aunt or not, Adam wanted to help the kid out and there was no way a bike was coming home in that Honda.
“It’s no trouble,” Adam said. Ben was beaming; Molly was in shock. “The team has a game Saturday, but Sunday I’m free. We could grab lunch and go bike shopping. There are a couple of good shops by the harbor.”
“I don’t know…” Molly had a death grip on her keys and examined him very carefully.
Adam smiled. “It’ll be fun. I’ll show you around town.”
“Please, Aunt Molly?” When she looked at her nephew, Molly’s whole demeanor softened. Ben’s sad look was evidently more than she could take. The woman was mush where the kid was concerned, and Adam found his opinion of her click up a couple more notches.
“Okay,” she sighed. Adam almost felt bad as he watched a defeated Molly fish a piece of paper and a pen out of her purse and proceed to scribble some information. She really didn’t want to go out with him, and Adam wondered if he’d ever met a woman who felt like that. “Here’s our address and if you need to get in touch with me, calling the library would be your best bet, but here’s my cell number, too.” She handed him the slip of paper and he smiled, hoping to crack the veneer, to let her know he wasn’t a bad guy.
“Fine.” Molly opened the rear passenger door.
As Ben got in, Adam reached out and gave him a fist bump. “Later, Ben.”
“See ya, Coach.”
The back door shut and Adam looked over. “Nice meeting you, Molly.”
She barely said good-bye as she got into her car and he walked toward his truck. Man, she was tough, but Adam smiled anyway. He may not have an offensive line, and Saturday’s game was probably going to be a bloodbath, but Sunday was definitely looking up.