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First love is better the second time around.
Matt Osborn had no idea coaching his five-year-old nephew's soccer team would get him so much attention from the mothers-attention he doesn't want now that he's given up on love and having a family of his own. Yep, Matt's the last of his bachelor buddies, and plans on staying that way. That is, until he finds himself face-to-face with the woman who broke his heart.
Single mom Anna paused her life in England to help her father recover from an illness. She can't afford complications, and too-hot-for-his-own-good Matt Osborn-her almost former fiance is definitely a complication. He's a reminder of what might have been-or should have been. That irresistible pull between them isn't over. Not even close. But if she's not careful, she'll break both their hearts . . . again.
Standing at the edge of a grass soccer field, Matt stared into the sea of parents' faces and resisted the urge to groan. Obviously, word had spread after last season that Coach Matt was relatively good looking, somewhat successful, loved kids, and most important, was single.
Maybe he should rethink his decision to coach his five-year-old nephew's soccer team. But when he looked down into Ethan's adoring face, he knew he'd never quit. He'd swim through shark-infested waters for the kid—what were a few single moms? Well, more like a half a dozen…
"This is the five- and six-year-old peewee division," Matt said, continuing with his introduction while the kids fidgeted behind him, "and we don't keep official score. The goal is to learn the rules and have fun. Any questions?"
A redheaded woman with a toddler at her feet shot her hand into the air. "Is it true that you're single?"
Matt forced a laugh and rubbed the back of his neck. "Any questions about soccer?"
A few of the women giggled, and some of the others looked downright sheepish. He noticed there was one lone man in the group. He stood at the back and seemed to be ogling the women's asses. Matt planned to keep an eye on the creeper.
A familiar brunette lifted her hand and Matt relaxed. Phyllis, thank God, was very happily married. "I'd be more than willing to coordinate the snack schedule, Matt."
"Thanks." He held her gaze, trying to convey how much he meant it.
Her grin told him she knew exactly what she was doing. He spun around to face nine excited faces. "Okay. Who's ready to play soccer?"
"We are!" the children shouted, jumping up and down with excitement.
Nine faces. There were supposed to be ten. He pulled the folded printout of the team roster from his back pocket and studied the list. Sure enough, he was missing one. He started calling out the names he didn't recognize, trying to figure out which kid was missing.
"Trevor Millhouse. Billy Houser." Both kids raised their hands. "Toby Robins." No answer.
He scanned the group. "Toby Robins?"
Ethan's hand shot into the air. "He was at school today, Uncle Matt. He said he was coming. But he's never played soccer before, and he's scared."
Matt squatted in front of his nephew. "Scared enough to miss his first practice?"
"Nah," Ethan said as though Matt had said the most ridiculous thing in the world. "I told him that you'd teach him everything." The boy beamed up at him with a grin showing his missing front tooth.
"Then maybe Toby's just running late," Matt said. "We'll get started and catch him up to speed when he gets here."
Ethan nodded. "I'll help him."
He rubbed the boy's head. "I'm sure you will."
Matt lined up the kids and passed out a miniature soccer ball to each of them, keeping one for himself. He rested his foot on the top of the ball. "Now, the important thing to remember is that you can't touch the ball with your hands. If you touch it with your hands, you lose it to the other team. But," he said with an exaggerated grin, "you can touch it with any other part of your body." He scooped up the ball with his toe and tossed it into the air, bounced it from his knee to the top of his head, back to his knee, and then down to the top of his foot before letting it fall to the ground.
The kids released excited oohs and ahhs. He tried to ignore the appreciative murmurs from the women behind him.
"You probably can't do that now," Matt said, "but if you keep practicing, you can learn how. Some soccer players can even make goals with the tops of their heads." He tossed the ball up with his foot again and then bounced it off his head, this time aiming it toward the goal behind the kids.
"Your uncle's so cool…" Becca said to Ethan with awe in her voice.
Ethan's grin stretched from ear to ear. "I know."
"Okay," Matt said as he jogged over to pick up the ball, but one of the mothers, Miranda Houser, had already run over to pick it up and toss it to him.
"Here you go, Coach Matt," she said with a grin.
"Thanks," he said, catching it with his hands.
"You're out!" one of the boys shouted. "You touched the ball with your hands."
"Good job, George," Matt said. "You were listening."
"Look at me, Coach," Remy, one of the new boys, called out. "I can kick the ball just like you!" Then the ball at his feet flew through the air and slammed into the nose of one of the new mothers.
"Oh, shit," Matt muttered as the woman screamed.
"Coach Matt said a bad word!" a girl shouted.
The injured mother covered her face with her hands, then looked at the blood covering her fingers and started to wail.
He dashed for his bag and grabbed a clean hand towel and a bottle of water before running over to the still screaming woman.
The other mothers had circled her, offering sympathy and telling her to lean her head back and pinch her nose. Matt pushed between them as he glanced at Phyllis and mouthed, Do you know her name?
"Amy," she whispered in his ear. Phyllis's daughter Becca had been on his team last fall, and he'd come to rely on Phyllis more than once for advice on handling the little ones. And for running interference with the overeager single mothers. After his last serious girlfriend had turned out to be a bank robber using an alias, he was in no hurry to start a relationship.
"Okay, Amy," Matt said, guiding her to a folding chair. "Let's have you sit down, and I'll take a look."
She quieted and sat down, watching Matt with rounded eyes. "I think my nose is broken." Her words were muffled by her hands.
He offered her a reassuring smile. "I suspect it's fine. Kids this age don't have enough power to cause that much damage." He pulled her hands down and examined her face. A slow trickle was dripping from her left nostril, but just as he suspected, it didn't look broken. He grabbed her hand and guided it up to pinch her nose. "Just give it a bit of pressure and it will let up in a minute."
She did as he instructed, the fear in her eyes fading.
Her face and hands were still covered in blood, so he opened the water bottle and poured some onto the clean towel.
As he gently washed the blood off her chin, the look in her eyes changed again.
The women around him began to murmur among themselves.
Oh, shit. He'd treated her like he would have any kid on his team, but he could see how the women might misconstrue his intentions. There was a wedding band on her left hand, but he wasn't sure whether he should find that reassuring.
He tossed the towel to her as he got to his feet.
"You should be fine," he said, then hurried over to the kids, who were watching with open mouths and wide eyes.
"I want to learn to kick a ball like that," one of the boys said. "I want to give my brother a bloody nose."
"Not me," one of the girls said with a lot of attitude, putting her hands on her hips. "I want to hit Mitchell Blevins in the balls!"
Matt lifted his hands. "Okay! We don't kick the ball to hurt anyone. We only kick the ball to make a goal."
"But that's not what Uncle Kevin said last week at your house," Ethan said, tilting his head back to look at him. "He said he was going to kick Uncle Tyler in his balls, and he wasn't even playing soccer."
He was going to kill his best friend. "Then Uncle Kevin needs a time-out, and I'll ask Aunt Holly to give him one."
"Your uncle has balls?" Becca asked. "You're so lucky. My uncles only have cell phones."
"Not those kind of balls," the feisty girl who wanted to kick Mitchell Blevins in his private parts said in a condescending tone. "Those balls." Then she pointed at the crotch of the boy next to her.
What the hell was happening?
Matt grabbed her arm and pushed it down. "No more talk about balls."
One of the little girls started to cry. "I wanted to learn how to kick a ball hard enough to give someone a bloody nose."
"But Uncle Matt," Ethan asked insistently. "How can we play soccer without balls?"
Matt shot an exasperated look at Phyllis, but she was too busy laughing to offer help.
"Everybody listen up!" Matt shouted, and the children gave him their attention. "There are lots of different kinds of balls, but we're just going to talk about soccer balls today. Okay?"
The kids nodded, looking eager to please him, probably so they, too, could learn self-defense with a soccer ball.
"Oh!" Becca said in excitement. "I get it now. Boys have golf balls."
Matt leaned back his head and groaned.
"There he is!" Ethan shouted. "There's Toby!" He took off running toward the street, where the parents had parked their cars.
"Ethan!" Matt shouted. "Come back!" He liked to think Ethan was smart enough not to run into the street, but he'd learned over the last six months that five-year-olds sometimes did stupid things for no good reason.
The boy ignored him, but Matt felt better when he saw a small boy running toward his nephew. The woman standing at the car looked like she'd come straight from work. The skirt she wore hugged her curves, and from what he could see of her as she turned to fish in the backseat of the car for something, she wasn't at all dressed for the field.
"Toby!" she called after him. "Wait for me!"
Thankfully, Ethan had changed directions. He was running back toward Matt with Toby on his heels.
Ethan stopped in front of Matt, panting with excitement. "He's here, Uncle Matt! He's here!"
Ethan's excitement was infectious, and after glancing back at the other kids—they were happily kicking their soccer balls in a dozen different directions—Matt grinned at the boy standing behind his nephew. He was a cute kid, with dark blond hair and bright blue eyes. Matt noticed his pale complexion and made a mental note to make sure he was slathered with sunscreen when they played their soccer games under the midday sun.
"Hi, Toby. I'm Matt. Glad to have you on the team." Matt held out a hand to shake with the boy.
Toby giggled as he shook his hand.
Matt glanced up at the woman making her way toward them. Something about her felt…familiar. Or maybe it was the stirring he felt down deep that was familiar.
"Is that your mom?" he asked the boy, trying not to sound too interested.
"Yeah," Toby said with a scowl. "She was late. Again."
Was that a British accent? Ethan had mentioned that Toby "talked funny," but Matt had figured the kid probably had a lisp. Ethan had one, too, after his front tooth fell out the weekend before.
"That's okay. You haven't missed much."
"I don't know how to play football," the boy said with a frown.
Ethan chortled. "I told you it's not football. It's soccer. Uncle Matt says I'm too little to play football, isn't that right, Uncle Matt? But he played in high school, and I'm gonna play, too, when I'm big like him."
Toby's frown increased, and Matt wanted to put him at ease. "Ethan says you're new. Where did you live before?"
Matt squatted in front of him, balancing on the balls of his feet. "Well, there you go," he said with a grin. "We call it soccer here, but you call it football in the UK."
The woman was closer now. She was pulling her heels out of the ground like she was doing leg lifts, and he couldn't help noticing that her legs were sexy as hell. And the way her golden blond hair fell across her face as she stared down at her shoes sinking deeper with each step made him think of after-sex bed head. Focus.
"Toby," she said. "I told you to wait. We don't know if it's your team or not."
Her voice sounded familiar, too. That stirring feeling inside him turned a bit uneasy. Surely he was just hearing things…
"Mum," Toby groaned. "Ethan's on my team! I had to hurry or I was going to miss practice." His worried gaze met Matt's.
"Don't worry." Matt patted Toby's shoulder as he stood to get a good look at the woman's face. He smiled down at the boy. "We're all learning the basics right now. Ethan, get Toby a ball and we'll get star—"
A ball walloped Matt on the back of his head with enough force to make him lose his balance. Before he could right himself, he fell forward. Ethan and Toby scrambled out of his way as he landed in the damp grass, his hands breaking his fall.
"Coach Matt!" the kids shouted.
"You killed him!" one of the girls cried out.
Another girl screamed.
Matt tried to sit up, but another ball hit the back of his head with enough force to make his teeth rattle.
"Remy! Stop that!" one of the mothers shouted. "Quit kicking balls at your coach!"
"It's just like Angry Birds!" the boy said as another ball sailed over Matt's head.
"If you don't stop," Becca snarled, "I'm gonna kick your balls."
Matt rolled onto his back, wondering how practice had gotten so out of control. Maybe he should just call it and start again on Thursday night.
The kids huddled around him, looking down with curious glances.
"Uncle Matt?" Ethan asked, sounding worried. "Are you still gonna teach Toby how to play soccer?"
Matt closed his eyes and groaned, and when he opened them, Toby's mother was leaning over him. Her hair had fallen into her face again, but she tucked it behind her ear. While it promptly fell back, he had seen her face for a few brief seconds. Sucking in a breath, he told himself he'd been wrong to think these kids didn't have enough force to do serious damage.
He must have a traumatic head injury that included hallucinations, because he was staring up into the face of the only woman who had ever broken his heart.
They'd met during their junior year of college in a business class at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He'd noticed her—and vice versa, she later told him—but he hadn't known how to approach her. It had seemed like kismet when they were assigned to work on a group project together. They'd completed the project, getting to know each other during several late-night study sessions, and it was during one of those sessions they'd discovered they had both grown up in Blue Springs, Missouri. They'd graduated the same year, although Matt had attended Blue Springs High School and Anna had gone to Blue Springs South. They even shared a few mutual friends. After the project was finished, Matt asked Anna out. Their first date had been magic, and when he dropped her off at her apartment that night, he kissed her good night and knew she was the one.
He'd never told anyone that. His two best friends, Kevin and Tyler, had still been very single at the time—and vocal about their belief that only a fool would tie himself down to one woman, and of course he hadn't told Anna either…not until the next year. Matt had fallen hard, and so had Anna, but the closer they got to graduation, the more evasive she became about what she wanted for their future.
Two weeks before graduation, Matt took Anna out to dinner and proposed, offering her a one-third-carat diamond solitaire engagement ring. It had taken him eight months and two jobs to save up for it, but when he showed it to her, her eyes filled with tears.
"Tell me those are happy tears," Matt said, giving a nervous laugh.
Her blue eyes rose to his and he knew.
He set the ring on the table. "Anna?"
She shook her head. "I can't."
"You can't marry me? Why not?"
"I don't want to get married."
He blinked in shock. "Since when?"
Her chin quivered. "I know we discussed marriage, but every time the subject came up, I started to panic. I thought it was because I've been so focused on school and worried about my grades. I was sure after everything died down, I'd want to get married after we graduated. But the closer we've gotten to graduation…" She paused as tears filled her eyes. "I love you, Matt. I love you so much, but I don't want to get married."
He stared at her in disbelief. This was like his worst nightmare come true. "I don't expect us to get married right away, Anna. Hell, you haven't even gotten a job yet."
"I have," she whispered, her eyes pleading with him to understand.
He sat back in his seat, feeling gutted. "You took a job? Without telling me?"
"I didn't want to hurt you."
"You mean like you're doing now?"
Her top teeth scraped her bottom lip. "I'm sorry."
The silence hung between them, and he asked in a raspy voice, "Where are you going?"
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
"So we're over just like that?" he asked in dismay.
"We can still see each other." She sounded so hopeful, he almost believed it was possible.
But while Kevin and Tyler might have accused him of being the romantic of the trio, he could also be a realist. "How long are you planning to stay in London?"
"I don't know. Maybe a year. Maybe five."
Just like that, Matt's whole life had been shattered to bits. His dream was to return home to run his father's construction business, to settle down and start a family. With Anna. "You want me to wait five years. Then you'll be ready to get married and have a family?"
Tears filled her eyes. "No. That's not what I want. I want a career in international finance…and, Matt, I don't think I want kids."
His gaze drifted around the restaurant as he tried to make sense of what was happening. They'd never discussed when or how many kids they planned, but he'd made no secret that he saw kids in his future. He turned to her with a sad smile. "But I do."
She started to silently cry. "I know."
He flagged the waitress and asked for the check. The ring lay on the white tablecloth, mocking him. How had he gotten it so wrong? She'd talked about a future…with him. Had she lied to him? Changed her mind? No matter the reason, he felt like a fool. He wanted to spew hateful, accusatory words at her, but he couldn't. She'd ripped his heart to pieces, but he still loved her.
The moment the waitress placed the black folder on the table, he grabbed his wallet out of his back pocket. He started to remove his credit card, then changed his mind. It would be torture to stay there, stuck in the middle of this humiliating moment, any longer than necessary. He tossed down all the cash in his wallet, thankful he had enough to cover the meal and a generous tip since he didn't want to wait for the change.
Then he stood, barely able to look at Anna.
"Matt," she said, her voice breaking, "the ring."
It still sat there on the table, glittering in the candlelight, mocking him. It represented his hopes and dreams. The life he had imagined with Anna. "Leave it. I don't want it."
Better to leave it on the table along with his bloodied heart.
She called out to him, but he ignored her and headed toward the door, leaving her to follow. He got six feet before stopping. His father had taught him better than that. Turning slightly, he waited for her to catch up and then walked slightly behind her to the exit, pushing the door open so she could walk out into the warm April night.
They were silent during the ten-minute drive to her apartment. He pulled into a parking spot and Anna had the door open before he turned off the engine. But he climbed out and quickly caught up to her.
She turned to look up at him, pain in her eyes. "Matt. You don't have to—"
"I'm walking you to your door." His tone was rough and brooked no argument.
She started to protest then stopped. Hanging her head with defeat, she continued walking up the steps to her second-floor apartment and stopping outside her door. After she unlocked the door, she spun and wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her lips to his.
This was good-bye.
Her tears coated his cheeks, and he knew if he stayed a second longer, his own tears would be added to hers. Grabbing her hands, he slowly pulled them down and took a step back.
"Good-bye, Anna. I hope you find what you're looking for."
* * *
Anna gasped and took a step back, stumbling into a small child behind her, but she righted herself—only for her three-inch stilettos to sink into the ground again. She should just take them off, but then her feet would freeze. However, at the moment, she had something bigger to deal with.
Get a grip.
It had been hard enough coming home for the first time since her mother's funeral, and she'd known full well she might run into Matt, but the chances had seemed slim. Over fifty thousand residents lived in the suburb, so it should have been easy to get lost in it. Even so, she'd envisioned running into him at the grocery store. At the movies. Or maybe at Quick Trip while pumping gas. She'd never once pictured him as her son's soccer coach.
He sat up, staring at her like he was seeing the Ghost of Christmas Past, but why wouldn't he? As far as he was concerned, she was.
He got to his feet, blinking and shaking his head slightly. "Okay. Who kicked that? Remy?" he asked, scanning the children crowding around him.
One of the boys hung his head, his chin touching his chest, and mumbled, "Sorry, Coach Matt."
Matt tousled the boy's head and chuckled, although it sounded strained. "You've got quite a kick, Remy. We just need to train you to use your power for good, not evil." He shot Anna a questioning glance, as if confirming she was in fact there, then turned back to the kids. "But first we're going to learn to dribble a ball around those orange cones I set up. Ethan, you stand behind one cone. Becca, you stand behind the other, and everyone else pick a line." He followed the kids as they shuffled to line up.
She watched her son run after the other blond boy—Ethan—but her gaze was drawn back to Matt like a magnet. He was just as good-looking as he'd been in college, maybe more so. He'd been built back then, but now he seemed even more ripped. She used to tease him about being a stereotypical construction worker since he looked so good when he took his shirt off. She found herself wondering what his chest would look like now.
Anna shook her head. No. She had no right to think about Matt like that. Not after what she'd done to him. Still, she couldn't help searching for a ring on his left hand.
She couldn't see his ring finger, but he had to be married. He'd always wanted a family. One of those kids on the team had to be his.
She wasn't proud of it, but she'd tried to Facebook stalk him multiple times over the years. He either rarely posted or his posts were all set to friends only. She'd never had the guts to send him a friend request, and stalking his two best friends' posts had yielded even less information.
Matt turned to the side, but his arms were crossed over his chest, his hands tucked under his arms. Why was she even looking? It wasn't like anything would come from him being single. He hated her and he had every right. How long had she hated herself for hurting him the way she had?
Her heart lightened when she saw Toby smile—a genuine, full-of-happiness smile. He'd always been such a happy child, the one true bright spot in her life, but his light had dimmed after the move to Blue Springs. Not that she could blame him—she'd taken him from the heart of London, his private school, and his part-time nanny, and brought him to the Midwest to live with his cranky grandfather in the small house she'd grown up in. Talk about culture shock.
But his new friend had helped him with the transition. Ethan made her son happy, but she wondered if it was too late to switch to another coach? Was it fair to Toby if she moved him? Was it fair to Matt if she didn't?
Calm down. He's married and over it by now.
Obviously, he was probably still angry with her, but surely time had healed his wounds, not to mention his new family.
Her wounds had gotten in the way of her relationships, even with Phillip. She'd never met anyone she could love as she'd loved Matt.
No. Phillip's philandering had ruined them soon after Toby was born, but now she wondered if Phillip had realized she held part of herself back. Was that why he had strayed?
- "Swank's story is so well written and plotted that readers can comfortably sink into this book. The couple and the children are so fun and enjoyable, you'll never want it to end!"
—RT Book Reviews
- On Sale
- Nov 28, 2017
- Page Count
- 352 pages