|Her Valentine Hero|
|Neely Andrews forced her legs to keep moving. One more lap and she'd take a break. Her tendency to add pounds to her five foot six frame provided perfect motivation to exercise. But since she'd been back in Ferndale for nearly seven weeks, she hadn't exercised at all except for running up and down her father's staircase. In Indianapolis, she'd joined a gym. Now she was worried about her dad's recovery from a serious heart attack. Fitness had gone out the window, and weight had flown in. Running the high school track wasn't the answer to her total workout needs, but it was better than nothing.|
Although staying in Indianapolis might have been wiser, since she had the lead on another job, she couldn't ignore her need to be closer to her father and widowed sister. Each time she thought about Ashley's loss, Neely's layoff became as unimportant as a lost penny, and though home brought back some darker thoughts, she focused on the brighter memories of friendships and happy times that still made her smile.
Fighting the desire to give her body a rest, Neely steeled herself and pushed forward, her lungs burning. Short of her goal, she nearly tripped over a shoelace splayed at her feet. She came to a stop, propped her hands on her thighs and braced her winded body to catch her breath. When she grasped the lace to retie her shoe, perspiration rolled down her forehead and stung her eyes. She lifted the bottom of her T-shirt and brushed the dampness away.
A wolf whistle jerked her upward, and she dropped the hem of her shirt. Across the field, boys were spilling from the school, wearing shoulder pads and carrying helmets. Two faced her, gawking. She let out a groan. Football practice. Another wolf whistle spurred her to turn away and ignore the silliness. She lowered her eyes to her plump legs, bare beneath a pair of running shorts. Who knew football practice began in August?
Her mind drifted back to the years she'd spent at this high school, but time fogged her mind. Memories of special occasionssome good, some badhad glided or stumbled through her thoughts once in a while, but football practice hadn't made an impact. Didn't matter anyway. After fifteen years, school procedures had probably changed. Everything had changed.
A shrill whistle caught her attention. She looked toward the team and saw a man strutting onto the field. He glanced her way, said something to the boys, and before she could move, he headed in her direction. She focused on her lace. No doubt she would get a lecture from the coach for being on his turf. While she hurried to retie her shoe, his voice reached her. "Ma'am."
What happened to Ms.? She tilted her head sideways noticing his long stride toward her. His build looked trimmer than a football player's, but beneath his T-shirt she recognized a solid swell of muscles. His frame would look appropriate on a basketball court.
"Ma'am, would you mind leaving the field?"
What happened to please?
"You're distracting the boys."
She what? She straightened, embarrassed at his comment but, more so, irritated. "Sorry, I would have run the track this morning when I drove here earlier, but then I had to fight off the band. Apparently that's when they practice." When he drew close enough for to her to see his face, her heart tripped.
His squint grew to a wide-eyed stare. "Whoa! This can't be Steely Neely?"
She couldn't believe this good-looking specimen was her friend Rainie's pesky kid brother. The only person she knew who would call her the concocted name was Jonny Turner. In the past, she would have shot out her typical insult, but "If it isn't the conehead" faded from her mind. When she looked into his handsome face, she had all she could do to keep her mouth from gaping as widely as his.
"Jonny Turner. You're kidding me." She gazed upward at the six-foot-plus hunk of man with the blue eyes she could never forget. Blue like a crystal lake. It had been Jonny's saving attribute, and she'd told him so years earlier.
"How about Jonathan or Jon." He grinned, obviously enjoying her startled expression. "Jonny's long gone."
"Jon not Jonny? I don't know." She gave him a dubious look. "But here's a dealonly if you drop the ridiculous Steely Neely. It's stupid."
"No, it's accurate." He sent her a crooked smile. "Even when we were kids, I'd never known a person as determined as you are. You were as strong-willed as steel."
She rolled her eyes, hoping he got the point, but showing her usual disdain with him was losing the battle.
His grin remained as if he hadn't noticed her eye-rolls. "Sis told me you were back in town. And I hear you're her maid of honor."
Neely managed an agreeable nod, though she was still in a tailspin. Maid of honor seemed a sad title for a thirty-two-year-old woman. Most of her high school friends would expect her to be dubbed the matron of honor by now. But finding Mr. Right hadn't happened, not since her days with Erik Cross. She cringed. He'd been Mr. Wrong.
Jonny's eyes brightened. "And if I'm right, maid of honor means you're still"
"Right again." She rolled her eyes for a second time, not happy with the gleam in his. He'd always rebutted her verbal jabs with "you'll never find a man with that attitude." He'd been way too accurate.
"What are you doing here?" She waved her hand toward the gawking teens watching them.
"I was going to ask you the same question." He motioned to the strip of track. "I teach phys ed and coach football and basketball." This time he rolled his eyes. "That's obvious, isn't it? But you again, that's a different story. Why are you running on my track?"
"It's a long story." And not a story she wanted to tell him. The more she looked at him the more tongue-tied she became. "Rainie didn't mention you were teaching now." Or that you'd turned into a great-looking man.
"Why would Lorraine talk to you about me?" He chuckled. "Or have you forgotten your lovable animosity?" He shifted to face his gawking team, and blew his whistle.
She pressed her hands over her ears, blocking the shrill assault on her eardrums.
He cupped his hands around his mouth like a megaphone. "Push-ups. Twenty." He held up both hands, fingers spread and acted out his order. Their groans sounded across the distance.
She lowered her hands. "Can you warn me when you're going to blow that thing?"
"Sorry." He dropped the whistle, and it bounced against his chest before hanging in place. His eyes shifted from the team to her. "I need to get back to my boys, but. " He touched her arm. "I wanted to say I'm sorry about your dad. I heard it was a bad one."
His sincere turn-about caught her off-guard. "It was. Really bad. He lost a lot of his heart function. Now that Mom's gone I need to keep him healthy." Watching her dad trudging up and down the stairs for something he'd forgotten wasn't part of her health plan for him. On the other hand, convincing him to use the guest room on the first floor was. Yet so far her attempt had failed. Maybe that's where she'd inherited her determination. He stood as firm as a rock. She sighed. "Running the stairs for him is the only exercise I've gotten since I came home. That's why I'm jogging around the track."
He wrapped his arm around her and gave her shoulder a hug. "Exercise is good." He squeezed her again before dropping his arm. "We have a new gym in town, Tone and Trim Fitness Center. I go there. You might want to give it a try."
"Are you telling me I can't run your track?" She arched a brow, a little irked at his suggestion.
He grinned. "You can run anytime you want except when my boys are on the field. You're a real distraction."
His expression caused heat to rise up her neck. "I'll take your suggestion into advisement." But a fitness center cost money, and right now she was jobless.
He gave her a wink. "I need to get back to my team. I wish we had more time to talk." His eyes captured hers, and a tender expression washed over his face. "I can't believe it's you." He took off running backward, his eyes still on her, but when he spun around, he came to a halt.
Neely winced, thinking he might trip with the abrupt stop, but he didn't, he turned back to her again.
"I'll be done here in an hour or so. How about coffee or even dinner. Will you join me?"
Ten years ago the idea would have been ludicrous, but at the moment, looking at those eyes had roused her interest even though she still couldn't accept he was the new improved Jonny. A crazy memory popped into her mind, and she jabbed her fist into her hip. "You poured sand in my hair when I was twelve."
His jaw dropped before a glint sprang to his eyes. "Accident, or maybe I wanted you to appreciate my new dump truck." He gave her a wink. "Whichever, I promise I'll never do it again."
The wink sent prickles down her arm, and a witty retaliation failed her.
He started his backward walk toward his team. "So what about joining me?"
His easy spirit and charm made her head spin while curiosity got the better of her. "Sounds nice, Jonny. I'm staying at my dad's. You remember where it is?"
"How could I forget?" His backward jog picked up. "Give me a couple hours. Let's call it dinner."
He darted off, and she watched him go, still trying to turn that good-looking man into Rainie's brother who'd been the bane of her teen years. And if that didn't confuse her, her heartbeat, flitting like a bird in spring, did.
Jon strode along the sidewalk beside Neely, amazed that she'd agreed to have dinner with him. When they were growing up, she avoided him every chance she had. But he couldn't blame her. He was four years younger than she, and obnoxious. Boys who'd just learned about girls and had to deal with the first twitches of testosterone failed to make wise decisions when it came to falling in love. Neely had hung in his mind forever. And today, Neely, the woman, tightened the noose without knowing. He'd thought about her all these years, never suspecting the Lord would bring her back into his life. But here she was.
In his peripheral vision, he drank in her profile, the tilt of her well-shaped nose, the fullness of her lips, the rounded shape of her cheek molding into her defined jaw. His hopes lifted knowing he would see her around townmaybe even back on the trackbut he wanted so much more, and most important, he needed to test the waters. "Are you looking forward to seeing Erik at Rainie and Ty's engagement party?"
Her eyes darkened. "Erik? You mean Erik Cross? Don't tell me he's still in town." A look of panic filled her face.
Though her expression heightened his confidence, it confused him. "Erik joined his dad's company after college so he's still in the area." He studied her, trying to make sense out of what had just happened. Panic didn't seem appropriate. "Sorry I mentioned him. I didn't realize you had bad"
Her distraught look remained. "Maybe you didn't knowyou were so youngbut I broke off our relationship." She shrugged. "He started talking marriage, and I realized I had a whole life in front of me."
He'd known about her breakup with Erik. Rainie and she had talked about it, and he'd overheard some of their conversations, but Neely had been the one to end it so why did it still hold a sting? Her attitude turned him upside down. It didn't quite make sense. To him real love meant he would have a whole world in front of him to be with the woman he loved. "You two were a thing back in high school."
"I know. We broke up just before he left for college." Her comment seemed an afterthought, yet he struggled with her strained expression. "Sorry, Neely. I knew you weren't together because I knew you hadn't married him. But I didn't know you had bad feelings."
She shook her head. "I need to get over it." She averted her eyes and kicked at a stone on the sidewalk. "Where is this restaurant, anyway?"
"Right up ahead." He pointed to the purple-and-green-striped awning a block away. "It's called Pronto." He slipped his hand to her shoulder, wanting to ease her edginess. "Can we forget my earlier reference and cheer up?"
She tilted her head toward him. "I am cheery, but I'm not happy to hear Erik's coming to the party. Why was he invited?"
"He's a friend of Ty's."
She drew up her shoulders. "I'll just steer clear of him. I'm not in the mood for auld lang syne." Her lips curved to a faint grin. "You know what I mean?"
He agreed, but he really didn't know what she meant unless her reference hinted at Erik's problem. Cheating on his wife had ended Erik's marriage. Maybe it ended Neely's relationship with him, too.
They walked the rest of the way in silence, and he was grateful when they'd reached the restaurant. He opened the door, wishing he could start their visit again. "How about over there?" He motioned to the empty table.
She nodded and followed his direction without comment, and once seated, she studied the menu while he studied her. Being with Neely seemed like a dream. Years ago he'd been Rainie's brother. Today he'd become an equal. At least an equal in his mind. "Does having dinner with me seem strange?" He lowered his menu to the table.
Her head jerked upward as color tinted her face. "You must have read my mind."
He wished he could. "No, but I'm a good guesser."
A grin flickered on her lips. "I'm trying to acclimate myself to the situation. If it weren't for your gorgeous eyes, I'd think you were an imposter."
Her resolute gaze nearly caused his undoing. "I hope that's a compliment."
"It is." She turned her attention to the menu.
Aware that he'd reaped a compliment from Steely Neely sent his pulse racing. But then reality brought it to a halt. A compliment was only that. He wanted so much more. "Rainie said you're home to stay."
She inched her head upward as if in thought. "Not sure about the 'to stay' part, but right now I'm home without other plans. I was laid off from Zigman's, and with the economy so bad, I read the writing on the wall. The layoff would be permanent."
"You didn't read the writing well enough, I'm afraid." He hated being the bearer of bad news, but she needed to know.
She tilted her head as if puzzled.
"Michigan's economy is rotten, too."
"I know. It's the pits." Her face shadowed. "It doesn't matter, I guess. I really came back for Dad and my sister. It's been tough for Ashley."
Those feelings were ones he understood. "Losing a husband with a newborn baby is something I can't even wrap my mind around." Neely's expression deepened his sadness.
"Jonny." She gave his arm a pat. "Thanks for caring."
Her hand didn't move, and the warmth radiated to his chest. He looked into her eyes, wishing he could resolve her problems for her.
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