Raging Fires by Candace Camp
Phoenix. So here he was. After all that bright future, all the fame and money and the wasted potential, here he was back where he’d started. In Phoenix.
Not that Phoenix was a bad place to live. Sure, it was hotter than hell, but at least you didn’t feel like you were sucking the hot air in through a straw, like in Miami. Or New Orleans. And anyway, that was better than freezing your butt off in Chicago or Minnesota. Damn, he’d lived in a lot of towns. Which is what happened when you were slipping down the quarterback ladder.
The landscape wasn’t bad either. He’d grown up here, gone to college here, and Jake liked the flat land and the stark contrast of the hills, the cacti and sand. The green palms and turquoise pools.
No, the problem with Phoenix was that it was where she lived. Where all his relatives—who had chosen her over him, by the way—lived. Old friends. Fans who remembered him from his days at ASU. All the people who knew that for him, returning to Phoenix was failure.
He didn’t have to come back here. He’d thrown away a bunch of money, but he still had plenty left to live on. He could go live in any city he wanted and spend his time doing. . .something. But the thing was, football was all he knew. The one thing he was good at.
Because he was still good. He could throw bombs and his reactions were just as quick; he still had his ‘football IQ.’ All he’d needed was to get his head on straight again, and he had done that. He was only a back-up guy with a bad rep, and it was just a $1.4 million/one year contract. But in this game, there was always a chance of getting to play. And Jake still had the hunger to win.
As for Phoenix, well, the Pumas were the only team willing to sign him—and that had probably been because Asa had put in a good word for him. And Jake had needed to come back and repair his strained relationship with his grandfather.
Of course, he’d been too late for that, too. Pops’ funeral mass was tomorrow.
Jake hadn’t wanted anyone to pick him up at the airport. He wasn’t sure why—it wasn’t like he got swarmed by autograph seekers anymore. But ‘the less attention, the better’ was ingrained in him now. He picked up a rental car and made his way out of the parking lot. It looked different—had it really been almost three years since he was last here?
Yeah, he guessed it had. That was after he got cut by Miami. When Pops had looked at him, then shook his head in disgust and disappointment and said, “I never thought you’d turn out this way. You’re not my Jake anymore.”
He drove to Gran’s and Pops’ house. It hadn’t changed; hell, it hadn’t changed since he was ten and throwing footballs to Pops in the front yard. He stopped a couple of houses down. Their driveway was choked with cars, and more lined the street. The whole family would be there. Friends. Probably even some long-time patrons.
Jake turned the SUV around and headed for the Blue Shack instead. He knew he was risking running into her. And Kelli was the last person he wanted to see. But he told himself she wouldn’t be there; she’d be back at the house, getting the visitors food and drinks, making everything work, like she always did.
He pulled into the small parking lot in front of the bar. It hadn’t changed either. It looked suitably ramshackle to match its name, even though his grandfather had made sure it was solid underneath the flaking paint. Jake couldn’t count the number of hours he had sat at the scratched-up bar, talking football with Pops. Emotion tugged at his throat, but he swallowed it back and walked to the door. There was a small sign that said it was closed, but when he pulled on the handle, the door opened.
He stepped into the room. And there she was, standing behind the scarred wooden bar, wiping it clean. She was wearing one of the bar’s blue t-shirts that said Blue Me on the front, and her honey-blonde hair was in braids. And she looked gorgeous. She looked like the girl you wanted to take home to meet your parents and the one you wanted to take to your bed and just lap her up. Nonstop. For hours. She looked like the Kelli he’d fallen hard for in college. The one he loved. . .before, you know, she became the Kelli that was an uptight, nagging, sanctimonious pain in the ass.
No, he didn’t have any hard feelings at all.
She raised her head at the sound of the door closing behind him. He had no idea what to say; he thought about just turning around and walking back out, but he never could stand backing down in front of Kelli. And she didn’t seem to have any problem.
She just looked at him for a long moment, then tossed the rag onto the bar and said, “Of all the bars in all the world, and you walk into mine.”