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Too Hard to Forget
By Tessa Bailey
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Peggy Clarkson is returning to her alma mater with one goal in mind: confront Elliott Brooks, the man who ruined her for all others, and remind him of what he’s been missing. Even after three years, seeing him again is like a punch in the gut, but Peggy’s determined to stick to her plan. Maybe then, once she has the upper hand, she’ll finally be able to move on.
In the years since Peggy left Cincinnati, Elliott has kept his focus on football. No distractions and no complications. But when Peggy walks back onto his practice field and into his life, he knows she could unravel everything in his carefully controlled world. Because the girl who was hard to forget is now a woman impossible to resist.
Is it crazy that I want to acknowledge the characters most of all? They’re the stars here and I’ve just been living in their world. I don’t know why they decided I was worthy of having their stories whispered in my ear, but I love these Clarksons so damn much, it’s crazy. I can’t believe the third leg of their trip is already over, one more to go. With each book, I’ve felt a little part of myself heal along with the family, but I can’t even tell you (specifically) what part of me was damaged in the first place. Only that I needed them and this road trip. So many family rifts out there, so many stubborn aunts and cousins and fathers who can’t say what they’re thinking. Daughters, too. I’m one of them. Maybe I’m saying my peace through the siblings.
In order to write this book—and every book—I received the help of a few wonderful, patient people. As always, my family comes first. Patrick and Mackenzie, you make this possible. I love you more than anything I could write here. Thank you for being mine. My editor at Forever Romance, Madeleine Colavita, this was our John Harbaugh book since the beginning and we totally did the man, the myth, the legend, justice! Thank you for your all star edits. My grandmother, Violet, whose real life siblings inspired these stories. I hope Peggy was every bit as wonderful as your sister, Peggy. Thank you for letting me have them for a while. Eagle at Aquila Editing (to whom this book is dedicated), for loving Peggy the best and being a fabulous beta, longtime reader, and friend. Thank you all so very much!
Miriam Clarkson, January 13
Would it surprise you (whoever you are) to know that Peggy is the most complicated of my children? If she has fluttered into your orbit for a short amount of time, as her four fiancés have done (I liked the second guy well enough, but the rest were self-indulgent twats), your impression of her might include the following: pampered baby of the family, takes nothing seriously, shallow, out for a good time.
You would be…right.
But that’s because you’ve only been allowed to see the top layer.
Peggy is a Rubik’s Cube. Just when I think I’ve got one whole side fashioned into a solid red block, a white square twists into place and throws off everything. Where I could predict Aaron, Rita, and Belmont most of the time, Peggy would be the type to send me a selfie as she jumped from a plane, parachute strapped to her back.
After college, her unpredictable nature changed, however. It became more frantic. Less about having fun and more about…distracting herself from something with an adrenaline rush. I didn’t try hard enough to find out what high she was chasing and then the appropriate window grew smaller and smaller. I worried she might find my concern forced or, worse, phony.
Fuck. This is getting pretty heavy, isn’t it?
Bottom line: I sucked at momming. Thankfully, being mediocre in the parenting department didn’t preclude me from seeing beneath the caramelized top layer of Peggy’s crème brûlée. Someone took a fork and dragged it straight through the middle, leaving division among Peggy’s already split personalities. Sweetness used to exist at the forefront, but now it battles for visibility among the other components, the hurt and confusion and self-doubt.
Peggy the bombshell. Peggy the liar. Peggy the mediator. Peggy the grief-stricken. The angel. The devil. The baby. The old soul.
You never know what you’re going to get.
But look closer. She’s not what you’re expecting.
Once, when hanging a picture of Audrey Hepburn in her bedroom, Peggy had smashed her index finger with a hammer, leaving a permanent black spot beneath her fingernail shaped a little bit like George Washington’s silhouette on the quarter. She put on a coat of nail polish every day—usually red—to hide it.
She stared in confusion now at the nails she’d covered in varnish only this morning, while waiting for food at the drive-through. How could it be chipped already? The metallic taste in her mouth suggested she’d chewed off the polish, but she would have remembered that, right? George’s dark silhouette slowly turned his head and winked at her, so smug in his founding fatherness. Oh man, I’m losing it.
It was the sign that had gotten to her. Welcome to Ohio. They’d passed it a mile back and she’d been sparring with the urge to throw up ever since.
“Pull over, Bel.” Peggy shot forward in her seat, giving a series of taps on the back of her brother’s headrest. “Can you just pull over?”
Belmont’s eyes were steady on her in the rearview mirror, holding for a too-long handful of seconds, before he nodded, pulling the Suburban into the next rest stop. She tried to open the door before the vehicle even stopped rolling, but Belmont hit the lock button, as if predicting her move, earning the driver’s seat a frustrated kick. As always, her brother took his sweet time locating a space, allowing a family of three to pass, before parking and shutting off the ignition.
At the absence of the ever-present engine rumble, their third and final traveling companion, Sage Alexander, stirred, her mouth opening wide on a yawn. Peggy watched Belmont and Sage exchange a “good morning, oh, center of my gravity” look, and that was all she could take.
Peggy pushed open the Suburban’s back door, sucking in deep breaths through her nose as she traversed the littered patch of grass and asphalt toward the rest stop bathroom. The air around her was cold, damp, and charged, fragrant with the recent rain. Behind her, the sound of interstate traffic sounded so alien, she felt like a stranger in her own body in this unfamiliar place. People lived here year-round, going to jobs, taking their kids to school, shopping at the mall, and they would never even know she’d passed through. There was something both comforting and terrifying about that.
Before Peggy entered the beige, concrete structure, she glanced back at the Suburban to find Belmont and Peggy still staring at each other, neither of their mouths moving. Something awful and unwanted stabbed her in the chest. She didn’t want to be this person. The resentful one who turned away from any sign of happiness in others. But how could she be anyone else? How?
In a matter of two weeks, she’d lost two siblings, Rita and Aaron, to love. And she was sure as shit on her way to losing a third in Belmont, if he ever woke up and smelled Sage’s bacon. Being surrounded by so much magic was almost enough to make her believe a second chance at the real thing was possible for her.
It wasn’t so far-fetched, was it? She had a college degree, great hair, and made damn good conversation. “Congratulations, you’d be the perfect trophy wife.” She laughed under her breath. Love, or even the illusion of it, wouldn’t be happening anytime soon, though. Not until she accomplished her mission in Cincinnati.
Facing the restroom once again, Peggy passed through the curved tunnel to find the bathroom empty. She came to a stop in front of the foggy mirror, her gaze landing on the string of engagement rings dangling around her neck. A little shimmy of her shoulders had the expensive baubles—symbols of her shame—clinking together with an eerie sound in the silent bathroom, layered with the plop of dripping water, the distant whoosh of traffic.
When the Clarkson siblings—and Sage, who’d arrived later—set out on this road trip from San Diego to New York, united in the responsibility to fulfill their mother Miriam’s final wish of jumping into the Atlantic Ocean on New Year’s Day, Peggy hadn’t expected to reach Cincinnati so fast.
One more mile to campus and she would be sharing oxygen with Elliott Brooks. Coach Elliott Brooks. The man she’d let ruin her for all others.
This weekend, Peggy would be returning the favor.
Deep down inside her, something needed repairing. Rebounds hadn’t worked. Facing her heartache only made it more real. Too much time had been wasted trying to patch up the gash herself, so she would be making Elliott’s life hell. That’s right. This chicken had come home to roost and she was extra crispy. After this weekend, she’d be walking away with the upper hand, as opposed to a bleeding heart. It was her last-ditch option. Her last chance to finally move on. Giving the coach a taste of his own medicine meant Peggy wouldn’t have to swallow it anymore.
The sound of light footsteps signaled the approach of Peggy’s best friend, and she quickly bent at the waist, then flipped her hair back, striking a pose just in time to greet Sage with an exaggerated wink in the mirror. “What were you dreaming about in that passenger seat, huh? Sex? Were you dreaming of a hairy mountain man stealing your virginity? Spill it, Alexander.”
As expected, Sage sputtered, fingers knitting together at her throat. “No! I—a mountain man? I wouldn’t even know what one l-looks like—”
“Sorry, I confused your dream with mine.” Peggy pulled her blond curls into a messy bun, twirling the escapees around a digit. “But you were definitely moaning.”
“Was I? Oh my—” In the mirror, she watched Sage square her shoulders. “You’re just trying to distract me.”
Peggy pasted a blasé smile on her face. “Why would I do that?”
“I wish I knew.”
Outside, Belmont tapped the recognizable horn of the Suburban and they both jerked toward the door, but stopped before they could obey their mutual instinct to follow her older brother’s bidding. “It’s alumni weekend at the university, okay? That’s all.” Peggy leaned back against the sink and crossed her arms. “I’m just a little nervous about running into the old squad. You think the wedding planning business is brutal? Try impressing a dozen cheerleaders who expect to find any day now they’re a long-lost princess.”
Sage chuckled, a bloom spreading across her cheeks. “Oh. I would be nervous, too. If I was going to see old classmates. Everyone weighing their accomplishments against one another.” A funny expression made Sage appear apprehensive, as though she were considering what her own reunion would be like. And didn’t like what she imagined. She took a few steps, closing herself into a stall. “I’m glad you told me.”
Peggy swallowed the ball of guilt in her throat. “Yeah.”
* * *
Peggy couldn’t pinpoint what drew her toward the tunnel. The football game was going to start in just fifteen minutes, and she was supposed to be leading the Bearcat cheerleading squad’s warm-ups. But just like always, she was aware of his presence. On the field, pacing the sideline, terse instructions being delivered into his headset, while eagle eyes watched the team stretch and prepare. And in the same way she never failed to sense him nearby, his absence was having the opposite effect now. Instead of feeling hot and full, her stomach was cold and empty.
Pom-poms in hand, Peggy walked on the balls of her feet down the silent, airless hall leading to the football team’s locker room. She had no authorization to be there but couldn’t ignore the pull. She’d find him back there. The man who watched her as if she were the Promised Land one moment, hell the next.
Elliott Brooks. Head coach of the Bearcats. Two-time recipient of the Coach of the Year award. Uncompromising hard-ass known for demanding perfection not only from his team, but himself. Devout Catholic. They called him the Kingmaker, because so many of his players had gone on to be first round NFL draft picks. That man. The one who visited her bed nightly.
Well. In her dreams anyway. In real life, they’d never exchanged a single word. Their long, secretive glances were a language all their own, though. When cheerleading and football practices intersected, his burning coal eyes moved over her like a brush fire.
What are you looking at? his gaze seemed to ask. But in the same glance, she could read the contradicting subtext. Don’t you dare look at anyone on this field but me.
Give me one good reason, she would blink back, cocking a hip.
And he would. Commanding the field with a whip crack command, stalking the sidelines like a predatory creature, seeing all, commenting only when strictly necessary. Those eyes would sneak back to her, though. Without fail. Their message would read, I’m a man among boys. There’s your reason.
Or she’d imagined everything and the telepathic communication was in her head alone. A scary possibility…and one she couldn’t bring herself to believe. Was it finally time to find out?
The crowd’s excitement followed Peggy down the long tunnel, fading the closer she came to the locker room. That’s when she heard the heavy, measured breaths. The forceful clearing of a man’s throat.
Before she could second-guess her sanity, Peggy stepped into the off-limits room, dropping her pom-poms and slamming back against the wall under the weight of his attention. It snapped against her skin like an open hand. God, he was gorgeous, even in his sudden fury. Hard bodied, golden from the sun, and righteously male, all stubbled and tall and full of might. The muscles of her abdomen squeezed—squeezed—along with her thighs as he stormed over, his words being directed at her for the very first time.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing here?”
Don’t lose your nerve now. Years. She’d been watching him for years. Since she’d entered the university as a freshman. Watched his triumphs from afar. And the horrible tragedy, still so recent. So fresh. “You should be on the field.”
Elliott’s crack of masculine laugher held no humor. “And you thought it was your job to come get me, cheerleader?”
So condescending. But accompanied by his raking glance down her thighs and belly…she couldn’t help but be turned on by it. She loved him addressing her at all. Finally. “Yeah. I did. Everyone else is probably too scared of you.”
Dark eyes narrowing, he stepped closer. So close, she almost whimpered, the fantasies having taken such a deep hold, her longing was on a hair-trigger. “Well, you were wrong. It’s not your job. So pick up your sparkly bullshit and move out.”
“They’re called pom-poms and I’ll leave when I’m good and ready.” With an incredulous expression, Elliott started to move away, telling Peggy she needed to work fast. Toward what goal? She’d come with no plan. Had never expected to actually speak to this man in her life. “I’ve seen you watching me.”
He froze, a muscle leaping in his cheek. “You were mistaken.”
“No. I wasn’t. I’m not.” She wet her lips, gaining confidence when his eyes followed the movement and she saw the hunger. The same hunger she’d watched grow, even while he begrudged it, over the course of the last few months. Since the tragedy. “You don’t have to feel ashamed about it. Not now.”
His fists planted on either side of her head with a bash, shaking the lockers, then his face hovered mere inches away. “What would you know about shame?”
Wetness rushed between Peggy’s thighs as his apples and mint scent took hold of her throat like a giant metal hook. “I know the last six months were awful for you. They would be so hard for anyone. But especially you, because you carry everyone on your back. The whole school lives for Saturdays. If you’ll win or lose.” His brow furrowed, his scrutiny so intense, she wondered how her legs kept from giving out. They must have moved closer without realizing, because the tips of Peggy’s breasts grazed Elliott’s chest and he groaned. A harsh, guttural sound that might as well have been a symphony, it was so welcome to her ears.
“You…” His throat flexed. “You don’t know anything about me, Peggy.”
Her pulse went haywire. The wordless communication hadn’t been imaginary. Those hard eyes really had been speaking to her. It was the way he said Peggy. As though he’d tested her name on his tongue a million times. “You know my name.”
“I shouldn’t,” he grated, pressing closer, so she could feel he’d been affected below the belt. Very affected. “Damn you.”
“You only mean that half the time. And I do know things about you. You have a different coaching style for each player based on their strengths and weaknesses. When they changed the coffee lids in the campus coffee shop, you kept ripping off the extra little flap until finally you started drinking without the lid. Because you hate anything loose or unnecessary, don’t you? I can tell your mood by the way you watch me on certain days, because I watch you, too,” she whispered. “Sometimes you’re damning me. The rest of the time, you’re wondering what I’d feel like—”
“Or if I’d let you.” A slow beat passed. “I would. I am. But not because you’re the Kingmaker or some other ridiculous title. Maybe I’m not letting you at all. Maybe this is me begging.” The B word liquefied her knees, as if they wanted to hit the ground and implore him in earnest. “You’ve been so strong and I—I want to feel that strength. Want you to feel mine. You’re taking all the blame for what happened and—”
“Shut your mouth.” His forehead ground against hers. “Shut your beautiful, ripe, little mouth.”
Desire thickening in her blood like oil, Peggy removed one of the hands he’d fisted on the locker, lowering it to the space between her legs. His nostrils flared, hot exhales bathing her face, eyelids slamming to a close. But she didn’t let his massive presence intimidate her. One by one, she smoothed open his curled fingers, then cupped Elliott’s hand at the juncture of her thighs, encouraging him with a roll of her hips to mold the flesh beneath the built-in panties of her cheerleading skirt.
“It’s okay to need this.”
“No.” His denial was a near-roar. “It’s not.”
Before the words had fully fled his mouth, Peggy went up on her toes and fused their lips together, pancake batter folding and folding in her stomach. His mouth was hard, his cheeks rough even though they were shaven. But the taste of apples and mint, and the grudging, restrained returning of the kiss, made him too addictive to stop. The battle inside him only went on a few seconds, until their tongues met, and then Peggy was plastered between his ruthlessly fit body and the lockers, his hand treating the private place between her thighs with nothing short of disrespect.
When he jerked aside the thin, red material and slipped a finger into her heat, shoving it deep with a grunt and a twist, Peggy flew across the bridge toward an orgasm, anticipating it in the tips of her toes, the downward pull in her belly.
“I can’t do this,” Elliott growled, before taking her mouth in another no-holds-barred wrestling of tongues and teeth. “I can’t. You’re too young—you’re a student and I’m…Peggy, I haven’t been thinking clearly.”
Oh God, if he stopped, she would drop dead from disappointment. Her head spun, tummy clenching, lungs seizing with short, desperate breaths. But through it all, his obvious pain permeated, drawing them into the eye of the storm together. “This isn’t wrong. Wanting me isn’t wrong.” Her hands shook between their bodies as she unfastened his tailored, black pants, lowering the zipper. The groan that left his mouth when she gripped his generous length and stroked would stay with her forever; it was so forceful and relieved and miserable, all at once. “Let go of what happened, just for a little while. We’re the only ones here. Just you and me.” She raised her left leg, hooking it around his hip, whispering, “I’m on the pill.”
With a jagged breath, Elliott grabbed up Peggy’s other leg, drawing it high around his waist as she guided his arousal toward her core. He entered her with a biting slam against the locker door, releasing the vilest of epithets into her ear. “Jesus Christ. This is what sin feels like,” he rasped. “Wrong and right, at the same time. Life and death. Blond, long-legged, and tight.” A violent pounding of his erection into her already contracting flesh. “I should start saying my penance now, because it could take years to make up for the thoughts you’ve put in my head. And now I’m acting on them.”
His hips moved faster, pinning Peggy’s bottom to the locker, rattling it…rolling her eyes back in her head until the climax broke like a cresting wave, turning her thighs to conductors of vibration. “Oh…oh my God…please.”
“Don’t talk about God to me.” His sweating forehead wedged into the cradle of her neck. “You’re the reason I’m forsaking him.”
“No,” Peggy breathed, planting kisses on his mouth, his cheeks. “No one is perfect. Not all the time. Not even you.” Her panting breaths were making her ribs ache, but his hardness moving in her body eclipsed any discomfort with bliss. So much bliss. “You don’t have to be…faultless with me. Not right now.”
Hard eyes lifted, snagging hers. “Which way do I have to be?”
The glimpse of vulnerability in Elliott—a man touted as Godlike in his genius and determination—raced through Peggy’s veins like a drug. Had she really been the catalyst that drew out his undiscovered weakness? “Human.”
As soon as she issued the word, she felt it spear him, could almost hear the effect it had. He was looking at her differently now, like she were a new discovery he’d made, but didn’t fully understand. “You feel like ruin…but I can’t stop. Can’t stop.” Coarse hands climbed up Peggy’s thighs, wedging between her body and the locker to grip her backside. “Our father, who art in heaven…” The sound of wet flesh meeting began, as his pace increased. “Hallowed be thy name…”
Elliott Brooks hated banners.
Most of the time, he could accomplish tunnel vision, seeing nothing other than the green, manicured grass, the yellow practice jerseys, the white lines on his field. But the banners, they were so damn…colorful. They were a fishhook in his subconscious, trying to tug him back to the living and he resented it. Almost as much as the juvenile phrases splashed across the front.
Bearcats on the prrrrowl. Hell. He’d been looking at that damn banner flapping in the breeze since yesterday, when his entire focus needed to be on the practice taking place in front of him. They were matched up against Temple on Saturday and it would be the toughest game of the season. Unfortunately, their staunchest competition was rolling into town on alumni weekend.
Once a year, the University of Cincinnati invited graduates back into the fold, making a big production of their glorious return and every ridiculous activity centered around his field, distracting his players. Goddamn Alumni Week. Hadn’t four years on campus been enough? Some of them had graduated a matter of months ago, and already they needed reminding they were special? It was nothing but a pain in the ass. The marching band starting and stopping, instructions being called out—Raise the banner! Now lower it!—dancers twirling ribbons, cheerleaders chanting, newspaper reporters slinking around, somehow more tolerated than usual because of the almighty spirit of alumni week.
Elliott didn’t have the spirit. He wanted everyone to clear the fuck out so he could worry about winning some football. Isn’t that what everyone wanted from him? Victories? Another trophy for the front office?
Of course they did. At age thirty-eight, it was the one thing Elliott could be relied on to do successfully. Win games.
Across the field, a fresh group of smiling people appeared in the stands, wearing Bearcats sweatshirts, but clearly too old to be students. More alums looking to rekindle their memories, while he strove to forget his own.
Nonetheless, Elliott couldn’t help himself. He scanned their faces, giving a jerky nod to no one in particular when he didn’t recognize any of them. She won’t be here. She never comes. Stop looking for her.
“Drill’s over, Coach. You want to run the offense?”
- "4 1/2 Stars! Top Pick! Too Hard to Forget is a top-notch second-chance romance...The third installment in [Bailey's] Romancing the Clarksons series adds greater depth to established characters and delivers a juicy romance that flows naturally."—RT Book Reviews
- "5 Stars! Top Pick! Peggy's story is EVERYTHING! Too Hard to Forget is an amazing story that no one should miss out on! This is going on my keeper shelf and I foresee many re-reads in my future! If you love contemporary romance, you NEED to read this one. Suffice to say, this is one book that I won't be forgetting! Highly recommend!"—HarlequinJunkie.com
- "Poignant, emotional, yet with an air of hopefulness, Tessa Bailey's Too Hard To Forget is an exceptional romance."—GuiltyPleasuresBookReviews.com
- "4 1/2 Stars! Top Pick! Another keeper I'll read over and over."—NightOwlReviews.com
- "[T]houghtful and emotional. ... [T]he best book in the series so far."—StraightShootinBookReviews.com
- "Tessa [Bailey] shines once again."—Read-Love-Blog.com
- "Bailey adeptly crafts a satisfying romance between two broken protagonists, allowing them to find completion and healing in each other. A dash of humor and a heavy dose of spicy action round out this tale, which manages to be both raw and playful without losing its balance. [T]his is an entertaining and worthy installment."—Publishers Weekly on Too Wild to Tame
- "4 Stars! Known for her intense love scenes and fully charged sexual tension, Bailey does not disappoint. Since neither the hero nor heroine are what they seem, their road to happily ever after is an utter delight."—RT Book Reviews on Too Wild to Tame
- "5 stars! Top Pick! It's filled with heated moments, sexy characters, and explosive scenes. The book starts off with a bang, so I would certainly recommend carving out some time to read this in one sitting, because once you start reading, you won't stop."—HarlequinJunkie.com on Too Hot to Handle
- "Bailey crafts an entertainingly spicy tale, with humor and palpable sexual tension."—Publishers Weekly on Too Hot to Handle
- "[F]or a quick romantic read with plenty of sizzle, Make Me delivers."—Dear Author
- "Fun, super-sexy... The love scenes in Need Me are practically incendiary"—Booklist
- "4 1/2 Stars! Top Pick! With super hot love scenes and a generous dose of humor, Chase Me is ... utterly irresistible."—RT Book Reviews
- "Chase Me is sure to appeal to romance fans of all ages as Bailey offers a little of everything from laughter to tears in her newest romantic adventure."—Smexy Books
- "I thought the book was a quick read and it was fun, silly, and emotional at all the right moments."—Smart Bitches Trashy Books on Chase Me
- "The love scenes were delicious..."—Dear Author on Risking it All
- "4 1/2 Stars! [H]as the potential to make readers across the globe seriously swoon. ... [A]n unforgettable story that you will be talking about for a long time."—RT Book Reviews on Risking it All
- "[C]racky goodness!"—Smexy Books on Exposed by Fate
- "There is a good mix of humor and emotional drama. The dialogue is snappy and the pace is great."—Dear Author on Officer Off Limits
- "It totally worked for me, had me feeling all sorts of things throughout and had me grinning like mad in the end."—Maryse's Book Blog on Protecting What's His
- "It's breezy, fun, and sexy reading..."—Dear Author on Protecting What's His
- "The sexy banter between the couple is hot enough to singe the pages, but the emotions remain genuine and real."—RT Book Reviews on Protecting What's His
- On Sale
- Apr 25, 2017
- Page Count
- 336 pages