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“They want to give me a parade? A parade?”
Maggie Benson walked next to her younger sister, Grace, as they made their way toward the lights of the high school football field. As much as she was annoyed with the fuss the town wanted to make, it was good to be home.
“It’s not your parade. It’s the annual Christmas Boat Parade. They want you to arrive with Santa. Sort of like he’s bringing our hero home as a gift for the whole town.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake. I’m not a hero. Far from it.”
“Of course you are!”
“No, I’m not.”
“Maggie, you’ve served your country honorably in a war zone. You’ve done some amazing things. You’re an inspiration.”
“It’s nonsense.” Maggie certainly didn’t want to be anyone’s inspiration. Not the way things ended for her.
She felt many things, but she didn’t feel like a hero. Maggie felt broken, empty, and for the first time in her life, she was scared. This was her first visit back since her crash two years ago. Two long years since she’d laid eyes on the harbor, the town square with the gazebo, and the shingled house on Lighthouse Drive that her family had called home since Grace, and her twin Claire, were babies.
After leaving town twelve years ago to go to college, Maggie made a point to come home regularly. Whenever she was able to get leave, she would fly from the ends of the earth to see her parents and her siblings. They were close and she missed them. But everything changed two years ago over the Middle East when a lucky shot disabled her plane.
She’d been a hotshot naval aviator, an adrenaline junkie who didn’t think there was anything wrong with being catapulted off the deck of a ship in a flying bomb. Yet even she wasn’t crazy enough to eject over territory where being an American could get you killed, but being a woman could be even worse. So she flew a failing, crippled jet towards the carrier, fairly sure she’d be able to get the plane on the deck. But it was a day nothing went as planned. A fire broke out in the cockpit, and Maggie had no choice but to eject.
It was a blur the second the explosion sent her already injured body out of the cockpit. She remembered her chute opening, and her body splashing into the Med. So much happened in such a short period of time, but she didn’t remember very much of it. Weeks of memory were nothing but a haze of images, nausea, and pain.
Maggie had never been afraid of dying. She knew when her time came, she’d have lived a life she could be proud of. No, death was never the issue. War made Maggie afraid of surviving.
And that’s exactly what happened. She survived.
Even when she didn’t want to.
Now her town wanted her to be in a parade because she didn’t die. Great.
“Earth to Maggie?”
Her sister’s hand waving in front of her face brought her back to earth.
“Sorry,” Maggie said. “Side trip.”
“So,” Grace said. “What do you think?”
“I just wanted a quiet holiday, Gracie.” Maggie stopped walking and looked up at the starry sky. It was less than two weeks until Thanksgiving, but it had gotten cold; the chill coming in from the bay went right through her. Suddenly a cheer went up from the crowd, with chants of Matt! Matt! Matt! cutting through the night air.
Her brother was the star running back on a team that seemed impossible to stop. The All County Football Championship was a mere two wins away, Matt was leading his team, and the entire town was buzzing with excitement.
“So, what do you think?” Grace pressed.
“I know Mom is happy to have me home, but did she have to tell everyone?”
“Yeah, she kind of did. She’s over the moon, Mags. We all are.”
Maggie took in her sister, who with her silky nut brown hair and big brown eyes was as pretty as she was smart. Four years younger than her, the twins couldn’t be more different. Grace was a hospice nurse. People talked about Maggie being a hero? Gracie should be in that parade. Helping the terminally ill to their rest, giving comfort to families whose loved ones were dying—that was pretty amazing in her book. Maggie didn’t know how she managed it. Her other sister, Claire, taught children with special needs. Her father was a county police officer who ran the local CYO basketball league, and every season kept the team of boys who were considered the most at risk for himself. Dad loved those boys and they loved him right back. People thought Maggie was something special just because she wore a military uniform, but it was people like her sisters and her dad—who helped the sick and dying, who taught children with special needs, who coached disadvantaged kids—they were the ones who should be getting the cheers. Not her.
The athletic complex was built at the bottom of a hill, with large expansive bleachers for the home team fans built into the side of the slope, and a set of bleachers for the visiting team on the other side of the field.
Rounding out her siblings was Matt, her little brother who wasn’t so little. Seventeen and the undisputed All-American boy, he’d committed to play football at Army the following year. His goal? To be a helicopter pilot.
Mom wanted him to be an accountant, and there was no small blame laid at Maggie’s feet for her brother wanting to enter the military.
The deep voice warmed Maggie’s heart. Daddy. Looking to her right, she saw her father waving frantically. She hadn’t seen her parents in over a year, begging them to let her recover on her own. She felt guilty about that. They only wanted to make things easier for her, but what she had to go through wasn’t easy. However, seeing her parents for the first time in forever, Maggie felt overwhelmed. She’d missed her family, and it was only now, when she saw them again, that she realized how much.
Still taking care because of a sometimes wobbly gait, Maggie went down the bleacher stairs as fast as she could. It felt like forever, but once she was wrapped in her father’s waiting arms, it was like she’d never left home.
“Aw, Maggie. It’s so good to have you home,” he said.
Maggie turned and wrapped her arms around her mother, who said nothing. Mom just cried. She could feel her tears as they embraced, and if she had any regret about staying away, this was why. She’d hurt her parents by pushing them out of her life. She’d hurt so many people.
Her mother stepped back and looked at her from arm’s length. “You look wonderful, Mary Margaret. As beautiful as ever.”
Maggie didn’t feel beautiful, but her mother’s words still warmed her heart. Fiddling with her watch, her fingers brushed the burn scar on her left arm. The change in the skin’s texture still surprised her, even two years later.
Innately, her mother touched the scar, and kissed her cheek again. No words were necessary. With her mother, the love just came through.
“Mags! Maggie! Hey!”
Looking toward the field, just as the teams broke for halftime, she saw her brother jumping up and down and waving his helmet like a madman. She left her parents and sister and couldn’t get down the steps fast enough and into her little brother’s waiting arms.
God. She’d missed him.
“I’m so glad you’re home,” he said, crushing her in his arms. “Are you okay? How are you feeling?”
“I’m okay. The best I’ve been in a while.”
“How’s the leg? Or… ah.” He turned his eyes away. “I don’t know what to ask.”
“It’s better.” That was the truth. She was a long way from the mess the rescue team had fished out of the Med. “I’m mostly used to my regular prosthetic. And I actually have a blade, so I can start running if I want. It’s an adjustment.”
“A blade? I bet you look like a bionic badass.”
Maggie had to appreciate that people were far less freaked out about amputees than they used to be. The recent wars had produced more disabled vets than anyone ever expected, and seeing soldiers without limbs wasn’t so unusual anymore.
“I don’t know how badass you’ll think I am when I fall on my face. It’s a bit of overkill.”
“I will laugh just like always,” he smiled. Thank God for Matt. The rest of her family was still so tentative regarding her injuries, she was happy to have her brother to keep her in line.
“Hey Coach!” Matt extended his hand to a very tall man who’d stepped up next to her. He looked familiar, but she couldn’t place him. And she wished she could, because damn he was good looking. “Maggie, do you know Coach Fitzgerald?”
“Oh, uh. No.” That was all she said, flat and indifferent. Not a hello, or nice to meet you. Nothing. She was an idiot.
“Was he here when you were in school?” Matt asked.
Was he? Maybe…oh, now she recognized him. Yes. Mr. Fitzgerald was a brand new English teacher when Maggie was a senior. She’d never had him, but she remembered a lot of her friends talking about the gorgeous new faculty member. If memory served, he was a former pro basketball player. Which made sense since he was over a foot taller than she was. Use your words, Maggie!
“I never had you, Mr. Fitzgerald, but you were hard to miss.” She shook his hand, not quite believing she’d said that. Hard to miss? Oy. “Maggie Benson, Matt’s sister.”
“Call me Will, please. If I remember, you pretty much ran the place when you were here. Star athlete, student government president…”
“We all had our jobs.” She shrugged. “Someone had to keep things running smoothly.” It was an ongoing joke when she was in school that the principal checked with her before making major decisions. It wasn’t true, but she did do a lot.
Matt kissed her cheek. “I gotta go. I’ll see you after the game, Mags. Thanks for coming, coach.”
Watching as he ran off to be with his team, she was still aware of Will Fitzgerald standing next to her. How could she not be? The man was potent—a compelling presence. And he was so, so big. She remembered when he first came to the school. Tall and lean with dark hair, electric blue eyes, and a killer smile, he’d filled out some since then. He had to be close to forty by now, and it was looking damn good on him.
Really, really good.
“So have you been home long?” He smiled at her, and she saw a twinkle in his baby blues. “Matt told me it’s been a while, since you’ve been recovering.”
Maggie felt her back stiffen. This is why she hadn’t come home. She knew she’d been a topic of discussion, with her family, and around town. Now she had to be polite when she wanted to tell him to mind his own damn business. Crap.
“It has been a while. But, I’d rather not talk about it, okay?”
“Sure, of course. I’m sorry. Small talk.”
“It’s fine. I’m just not comfortable with it.”
“Understandable. It must be odd for you, so many curious people.”
“I’ve spent the last two years in hospitals and rehab facilities. At this point, any day without wound debridement, or physical therapy, is odd for me.”
She breathed in deep. Dammit. Why did she say that?
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk?” he asked innocently. She glanced over and took in his gorgeous face, which had gone soft and sweet. Great. He was concerned.
“Positive, thanks for listening. It was nice meeting you, Will. Officially, at least.”
“Nice meeting you, too, Maggie.”
Will kept his eyes on the curvy blonde as she made her way up the steps to her family. Maggie Benson was gorgeous—thick, wavy, honey blonde hair and big brown eyes, she had a reputation of being super smart as well as possessing a hard, hard edge to go with all those good looks.
He couldn’t blame her, of course. Everyone in town knew the basics of the story. Shot down, badly burned, and eventually lost part of her leg because of infection. It was a horrible chapter for the golden girl who left Holly Point ready to take on the world.
He’d never had Maggie as a student, but it was true that everyone in school knew who she was. Friendly and spirited, she was a pleasure to be around, if not exhausting. She seemed to have more energy than the average twenty-four hour day would ever require.
He remembered the fire in her eyes. The willingness to try new things and how incredibly nice she’d been to everyone she’d met. It made an impression on him as a new teacher, especially because Maggie went out of her way to make sure everyone felt like they belonged. Comfortable.
He wondered if anyone was doing that for her. He was on the town boat parade committee, and he’d heard they’d asked her to be a special guest and ride on his boat with Santa. He didn’t love the idea. Not because he didn’t think she deserved recognition, but because he couldn’t imagine she’d want that kind of spotlight.
The woman was recovering from a serious trauma, and he didn’t see how putting her front and center at a big town event was a good thing.
Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Maggie in deep conversation with her mother. When she looked up, her eyes travelled to his. They locked gazes, held, and Will felt like he’d been punched right in the chest. Even from this distance he could see her cheeks flush in embarrassment, which was unexpected, but a very nice surprise. Making his way up the steps, he ran into Jim Benson, Maggie and Matt’s father. He was a nice man, welcoming, and very proud of his family.
“Good to see you here, Coach.”
“Wouldn’t miss it, but it looks like I’d better find a spot to stand.” Nodding his head at the massive crowd, his hand shot up to slap a beach ball that came unexpectedly from one side. “I’ve never seen the bleachers so packed.”
The place was chaotic. He hadn’t been able to go five steps without running into someone he knew. Holly Point had come out to support the team, and it was just another reason he was glad he made the town his home.
“Biggest game we’ve ever played. There’s a seat near us if you want it. Claire’s boyfriend isn’t coming.”
“Ah…” Will caught sight of Maggie again, with her soft curls, pink skin, and sad eyes, and he decided why not? “Sure. Thanks.”
“I’ll try to keep Mary Pat from chewing your ear off, but she still feels bad that we saw that thing with your girl when you were out to dinner.”
Jim waved at someone in the crowd without even thinking about the fact that he’d brought up one of those moments Will would most definitely like to forget.
The Bensons had witnessed his girlfriend dumping him very publically a few months ago, in grand fashion, including a drink in his lap. The thing that got him was she initiated the break up. The scene was about making him look like the bad guy so she could salvage her image. He didn’t know how that was going to work, but Will sat there while she carried on, and blamed him for all the troubles in her life, and how she could couldn’t stay with a man who couldn’t commit to anything but himself.
Whatever that meant.
He had to admit, it was an award winning performance. And after seeing her go off like that, he felt lucky. Like he’d escaped—but he didn’t tell anyone that. Especially after she’d gone through so much trouble to make him look like the bad guy.
Too bad for her, no one bought it.
In any case, it showed Will just how desperate he’d become regarding relationships. He was almost forty, was tired of playing games and dating, but he kept pursuing the wrong women. It was possible he might not be cut out for a long-term relationship simply because he was such a crappy judge of character.
What he wanted was a partner. Someone who wasn’t afraid of bumpy roads, but who welcomed life’s challenges. Someone who didn’t keep score. God knew, he wasn’t perfect, but he’d never believed love was about perfection. Love was about embracing your partner’s imperfections, along with your own.
Will had a good life. He had a job that had saved him at a low point in his life, his family, and great friends. His want of something more seemed shallow when compared with others who had lost so much. People like Maggie, who was looking up at him with her soulful brown eyes and a bright smile.
“Do you want to sit down, Coach? Or are you waiting for a better offer?”
Shit. He wasn’t going to get a better offer than sitting next to her. “No. Ah. I get lost in my own head sometimes.”
Great. She was looking at him like he’d sprouted wings or something. This woman had balls of steel, and here he was being introspective. Sitting next to her, she scooted over a little when she realized he took up more room than expected. “Sorry.”
“No worries,” she said. “So what were you thinking about?”
“Well, um…” He formulated the lie in his head. “I was thinking about my family. My parents would love this. They used to come to all of my games, football, basketball… it was great.”
“Do they live around here? You could bring them. Holly Point would love it. And they could see how much you’re admired here.”
“Admired, eh. I don’t know about that.”
“Well I do. People think quite a lot of you.”
He couldn’t respond because he never thought someone should expect admiration for doing his or her job, and being pleasant.
“That’s nice, but it’s unnecessary.”
“So, what about your family?”
“I guess, I was thinking I should make time to go and see my folks.”
“Not local?” Maggie asked.
“Arizona. I haven’t been out there since summer.” He really needed to get out there more, but it had always been difficult with basketball. His father just turned seventy-five and his mother was seventy-two. Not old, but something could happen in a heartbeat.
“You won’t be seeing them for Thanksgiving?”
“No, unfortunately. It’s too hard to get out there. I mean, I have school until the day before. No time to travel.”
Maggie’s face fell. “Well, that’s not okay. Where are you having your holiday?”
He didn’t know. He was supposed to be with his ex and her family. “I’m not sure, to be honest.” The last thing Will wanted was to sound pathetic. He could manage on his own, if he had to.
“I’m sorry, but that’s just not okay,” she said without hesitation. “You’ll come to our house.”
Go to the Bensons’? It definitely had its appeal, but he couldn’t say yes. “Thank you for that, but I don’t want to impose on your parents.”
“Coach, it’s not an imposition. If it were, I wouldn’t have asked without checking with my mother, the holiday commander-in-chief. You will be there. Understood?” Her tone was firm, military and very confident.
He didn’t know how to respond. So he tried to be funny. “Yes, Ma’am.”
Maggie’s face froze and Will wondered if he hadn’t made a big mistake calling attention to her status as an officer. But in a moment, she grinned, nodded, and chuckled softly. “I’m glad that’s settled. I’ll let my mother know.”
“Let me know what?” How Mary Pat heard what Maggie said with all the noise in the stands was a miracle. The place was loud.
“Will’s having Thanksgiving with us.”
Her entire family looked at him, stone-faced. Crap.
“That’s wonderful!” Mary Pat’s face bloomed into a sweet smile. “We’d love to have you!”
“See?” Maggie smiled up at him. The fun and mischief he saw in her eyes—the wonder—even after all she’d been through, made his heart trip.
What. The. Hell.
Lowering his mouth toward her ear, he caught her scent. A hint of flowers, herbs, musk and cold weather, it was intoxicating. “Thank you,” he whispered. If he said anything else, he could be in trouble.
End of Excerpt