Can you resist a reformed bad boy and a single dad?


On Wednesday night, I drove to Rebel Sports to pick up Corey after football practice. He’d messaged to say that he was staying late to lift weights. I parked and went inside to meet him.


He’d said being the new kid in school made it tough to make new friends, so I hoped he’d make some on his team.


I’d gotten into a good rhythm with his schedule. He went to the homework club after school, then had practice or worked for Hailey most nights.


Inside, I followed the sound of weights clanging and the thud of one being dropped on the padded floor. I paused at the doorway. Corey was at the bench press machine with a few other friends.


A blonde female approached, her hair in a ponytail with the name Callie stitched on her black Rebel Sports polo shirt. “Can I help you?”


I gestured toward the bench where Corey was spotting one of his friends. “I’m here to pick up Corey, but I can wait if he’s still working out.”


She held out her hand. “Callie. Nice to meet you.”


Then she stepped back so that she stood shoulder to shoulder with me, facing the room. “Reid wanted to get each team started on a weight-lifting regimen. Last week, we went over the equipment, rules, and expectations. An adult is always present, so you don’t need to worry.”


She didn’t pause for a response. Instead, she moved to a black plastic crate where clipboards were stored. Pulling one out, she showed me the checklist with the exercise, repetitions, and suggested weight. “As you can see, each player has a clipboard with his or her workout routine. They’re free to come in whenever they want as long as they complete three workouts per week.”


She lifted the clipboard. “This allows the coach, and any other facility member, to check on their progress. Reid likes to review them.”


I tipped my head to the side. “Reid Everson?”


Remi, the owner of the juice shop, had invited Corey to help out with a town fundraiser where he met pro football player Reid Everson. After playing a pick-up game with some of the players, Reid had suggested that Corey join the team. He’d taken him under his wing, making sure he was progressing in practice and had the equipment he needed.

Callie nodded. “That’s right. He takes a personal interest in each kid here. If he’s in season, I’ll check for him and report back. He wants to know if someone is struggling, needs extra encouragement, and he’ll even call to congratulate one who’s been working really hard.”


“That’s pretty amazing.” I didn’t even try to filter my words. When Corey said that Reid told him about this football program, and that he would personally keep an eye on him, I almost didn’t believe it. But he had.


I paid a fee for him to play each season, but what Reid was offering went above and beyond what I expected.


“Reid’s a big believer in getting kids working out early and teaching them about proper nutrition. They’ll get stronger and naturally feel more confident. Plus, it gives them a sense of accomplishment.”


“All good things. I’m all for it.” I preferred Corey work out than hang around with friends after school, playing video games or loitering outside a convenience store.


She pointed to a refrigerator and a vending machine on the back wall. “We consult with a nutritionist to provide healthy snacks, water, juice, and sports drinks in case they need the extra boost.”


“You’re running an impressive program here.”


She blushed. “Thank you. It’s exactly what Reid, Jonah, and Chase envisioned when they opened Rebel Sports.”


She sounded like she knew the guys personally, not as an employee, but as something more. I think I remember one of the players announcing his love for a woman during one of the games. I wondered if she was the woman.


“I’m the general manager. The guys needed someone to keep an eye on the facility when they’re in season. Their vision is inspiring. They wanted to offer sports but also make sure the kids were being monitored to ensure they possessed the proper equipment and were getting food to improve their performance.”


“I’m grateful Reid mentioned this place to Corey. It’s been great for him.”


“Me too. I think he’s going to thrive here. He’s already asking about our other programs like basketball and baseball.”


I lowered my voice so Corey wouldn’t overhear. “I hate to say that I hope it will keep him out of trouble, but I do.”


She nodded enthusiastically. “Sports have been proven to do that. It gives kids focus and confidence. Growing up, I played volleyball. I can’t think of anything better that I could have done. It took my mind off other things.”


Her expression dimmed a bit, and I wondered what she needed to take her mind off of when she was younger, but it wasn’t my business.


Corey approached, his gaze darting from Callie to me. “You ready to go?”


“Only if you’re done. I don’t want to interrupt.” He’d completed his homework after school, so he just needed to eat, shower, and head to bed.


“I’m done.” He handed the clipboard to Callie.


She took a few seconds to read through it. “Wow. You’ve increased your weight since last week. But make sure you’re not lifting too much. The trainer puts in the weight he feels is healthy for you to increase incrementally over time.”


Corey gave her a shallow nod.


I watched their interaction carefully, prepared to step in if I needed to remind him to be polite.


Callie smiled brightly at him. “You’re doing a great job, Corey. Keep it up.”


Corey’s eyes widened slightly at her words.


Had Tiffany not complimented him? It seemed like he wasn’t used to praise.


“It was nice to meet you. Thank you so much,” I said to Callie before heading out with Corey. Then to Corey, I asked, “You like weightlifting?”


“I love it.”


I almost stopped walking because I’d never heard Corey be so demonstrative about anything, at least, not since he was six or seven. I tried to act nonchalant as if his answer hadn’t fazed me. “Oh yeah?”


“I’m already seeing more muscle definition.”


“It’s good to be stronger.” As long as he was using his increased strength for sports and not fights at school.


“Reid said it would make me better at the game. Faster even.”


“That’s right.”


Climbing into my truck, he asked, “How come you never played sports?”


“I don’t know. My dad wanted me to. He also wanted me to be on the debate team and in chess club.” I usually did the opposite of whatever he wanted.


Corey’s lip curled. “That sounds awful.”


I barked out a laugh. “You got that right. But if someone had taken me aside and done what Reid’s done with you, I like to think I would have taken him up on his offer.”


How many kids had an opportunity to work with a professional football player, to have him personally reviewing his workout routine? Reid could have left it up to the trainers and coaches. I hoped Corey realized how unique the situation was.


I think the extra attention from Reid, and now Hailey, had boosted his confidence. There were people in town who valued him, needed him, and expected things from him. I didn’t think everything had been resolved, but I hoped we were on the right path. If I’d had sports as a kid, I might have stayed out of trouble, too.


***

The next day, I showered before picking up Corey from Hailey’s shop. I told myself it was because I was greasy from the long day at the garage, but I also wanted to make a good impression.


My attraction to Hailey was something I could think about at the end of the night, like a good dream you never wanted to end, but it wasn’t reality. Jake would never allow it. Not that Hailey was interested in a guy like me.


She probably went for the white-collar types. The suits who worked in a high-rise, who merely loosened their ties at the end of the night, not needing to shower off grease. Except I kind of remember Jake complaining that she went more for losers who couldn’t hold down a job, but he probably had a low opinion of anyone she dated.


This time, when I walked inside, I was better prepared for the onslaught of spice with the undertone of tea leaves. The spice jars lined one side of the store, and bags of tea leaves dotted the other. Two round tables occupied the middle of the store and held delicate teapots and knickknacks. The front counter was empty.


Hailey was in the back area I hadn’t noticed before. It must be where she mixed the spices. She wore an apron with the shop’s logo, and her hair was pulled back in a sleek ponytail. She looked like the girl next door, the one I wanted to put on the back of my motorcycle and corrupt.


She glanced up at me as if she’d gotten a whiff of my thoughts. When her gaze snagged on me, her lips curved into a smile.


I liked it a little too much. The warmth of her smile unfurled in my chest. Touching it with my palm, I tried to still the fluttering of my heart. What was this girl doing to me?


I had to remind myself she was my best friend’s sister.


Tipping her head to the side, she said my name softly. “Ryan. You’re early.”


I glanced at the clock. It was only fifteen minutes before the time we’d agreed upon. “I can go check on his progress.”


She wiped her hands on a towel. “Sure. I’ll take you up there.”


“I don’t want you to have to close the store early.”


“Oh, we close at six. I was using the time to pack new bags.”


I perused the store, seeing it fully stocked.


When I looked back at her, she blushed. “Not that we need more, but it keeps me busy.”


“You sure you don’t want me to help you brainstorm ideas to increase business?”


She sighed long and hard, her shoulders lowering. “I’m not sure it will make a difference.”


Her heart wasn’t in the store, not like me and Jake with the garage. “The other day, you said this wasn’t your dream.”


She smiled sadly. “I just want to keep Nana and Grandpa’s dream alive, you know?”


I did know something about keeping family members happy, but I stopped trying a long time ago. It was different for her because of her close relationship with Nana. I wanted to help her grandmother. She wasn’t being pushed or coerced.


Hailey untied the apron from around her neck, stretching to hang it on a hook behind her. My gaze caught on the sliver of tan skin bared with the movement.


My fingers ached to touch the skin. I knew it would be soft just like her voice.


“I’m going to wash up. Want to come on back?” She gestured to the long hallway that led to the back.


“Yeah, okay.” I wasn’t sure what I was agreeing to, but I knew I’d follow her anywhere she wanted me to go.


It was like there was some invisible line between us, drawing me closer to her. I swallowed over the nerves in my throat as I followed her. She wore a dress that draped over her curves in the most delectable way, enticing me to follow her, to touch her. I ran a hand through my hair. Why was I torturing myself? There was no way she felt the same way.


I tried to remember how she looked when we were kids. An annoying little girl in pigtails and dresses, always there, nagging us to play with her. I tried to conjure up a bit of teenage irritation, but I couldn’t. My dick was one hundred percent on board with adult Hailey and couldn’t have cared less about the past.


She stopped at an industrial sink in the back. The area was small, cramped, and filled with cleaning supplies. The water dripped from her hands as she dried them with a clean towel.


“Let me just grab the apartment keys from my office.”


I stepped back, allowing her to squeeze by me in the tight space. The result was her body brushing against mine. I sucked in a breath, my stomach muscles quivering at the contact.


She was soft where I was hard. I thought she’d smell like the spices she was mixing; instead, I sensed lavender underneath.


Would she be a mix of spicy and sweet between the sheets? It sounded like the perfect combination.


“Are you coming?” she asked from the doorway to her office.


Startled, I moved quickly to join her. Her office was like the rest of the space, crowded and tight. A desk filled the space, and shelves with more spices, empty glass jars, and bags lined the walls.


“Why do you keep doing it if you don’t love it?” I wanted to know what made her tick.

When she glanced up at me, I nodded toward the jars.


“I’m doing it for Nana and Grandpa, of course.”


“You said that, but it’s not enough. What about what you want?” I wasn’t sure why I cared or why I was insisting on an answer, but I wanted to know more about her. What she was thinking. What she cared about. Who she was.


It seemed vitally important to gain any knowledge I could about her. I told myself it was because I should know something about the woman spending time with my son, but I knew it was more about me than Corey.


Her eyes widened with surprise. She was quiet for a few seconds, her hand fluttering by her side. “I don’t even know what that is.”


“Don’t you think you should figure that out?” I kept my voice gentle.


She smiled softly. “I don’t know.”


I wanted to push her, but I knew it wasn’t my place. It was none of my business if she worked all day in a spice shop that wasn’t something she enjoyed or even wanted. I shouldn’t care—even if she was my best friend’s sister. She was his responsibility.


Hailey glanced down, seemingly flustered by my question, then grabbed the keys from the top drawer of her desk.


She moved toward me, pausing to look up at me. “I like to write.”


“You like to write.” I repeated her words robotically, not taking them in.


A soft smile curved over her face. “I have all these ideas for stories swimming in my head, and I write them down.”


“Have you written anything?”


“Just papers and some poetry for a class in high school. I won an award for a poem.”

“You never took any creative writing classes?”


She shook her head. “I started working here in high school. I never had any reason to go to college.”


“You could pursue it like a hobby. People take lessons to learn piano or fly fishing. It doesn’t have to be formal college courses.”


She tipped her head to the side like she was considering me. But unlike when I asked about the shop, there was a sparkle of interest in her eyes. She liked the idea. “Yeah, maybe.”


I hummed in response and followed her to the front of the store, watching as she flipped the sign from Open to Closed.


“You’ll consider it?”


She pursed her lips. “I’ll think about it.”


On the sidewalk, she paused. “Why do you care what I do?”


Without hesitation, I said, “You’re my best friend’s sister. Nana is like a grandmother to me.”


“Because you’re close to my family?” she asked carefully.


“Of course.” What was she getting at? Everything I said was true, but it wasn’t the real reason I cared if she pursued her dreams.


She nodded before unlocking the apartment door. The music drifting down the steps was louder today, the beat pumping harder. Corey felt more comfortable here with Hailey. That thought eased the tension in my muscles.


He’d finished two more walls today. “You’ve been working hard,” I said to him.


“Yeah, I didn’t expect you to work this quickly. I’m going to have to find more for you to do,” Hailey said.


Corey looked at me, then Hailey, his shoulders rolling back. I vowed to give him more compliments and praise. He seemed starved for them, and he reacted beautifully when I gave them. It was something so simple. Why hadn’t Tiffany done the same? There was no way he’d react like this if she was supporting him in the way she should have been.


The age-old regret that I hadn’t done enough to be there for Corey through his childhood broke through. I had visitation, but maybe I should have pushed for joint custody. I just assumed the best place for him was with his mother.


“Let me help you clean up so you can get out of here.” Hailey reached for the tray, but I grabbed it before she could.


“We’ve got this.”


I washed out the tray and waited for Corey to do the same with the roller.


I wanted to tell him I was proud of him, but I wondered if it would be too much. Would he believe me, or would he think I was trying too hard?


My parents never said they were proud of me. Probably for the simple reason they weren’t. I couldn’t do anything to please them, so I gave up trying.


Before Corey could leave the small room, I clasped his shoulder. “I’m proud of you.”


Corey’s eyes narrowed on me. “It’s not a big deal. I’m just painting.”


“You’re helping Hailey out, and you’re doing a great job.”


He turned slightly to face me. “I owe her.”


I swallowed over the lump in my throat. “I suppose, in a way, you do. You’re making up for a wrong.”


“She’s a nice lady. I feel bad for what I did.”


Pride surged inside me that he’d made that connection. The property he destroyed belonged to people. “Have you told her that?”


He swallowed. “I don’t know how.”


“One of these times when you’re alone with her, just tell her how you feel. It’s that simple.”


He nodded.


“I think she’d appreciate knowing that.” I knew she would. From the little I knew of her as an adult, she was sweet and understanding.


“Yeah, okay.” Then he left the room.


I figured progress with him would be baby steps, so I was impressed he made the connection that he’d hurt Hailey, and he wanted to express that to her. For the first time, I thought that maybe Tiffany hadn’t made a huge mistake in sending him to me. Maybe I knew how to connect with him better than her because I was him at one point in time. Even if our living situations were vastly different.


I knew Tiffany didn’t expect him to get all As or to be on the debate team. She just wanted him to get passing grades and stay out of trouble. But maybe that was the problem: we hadn’t expected enough of him. From what I’d seen at Rebel Sports, he was capable of so much more.


I’d just have to be careful not to be anything like my parents.

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