UNE SCÈNE BONUS DE VACANCES RIXON RAIDERS

PREMIER NOËL

PROLOGUE

Darkness consumed me. Cold, unforgiving darkness.

It coursed through my veins, an unrelenting storm dimming every speck of light.

“Peyton. Stay with me, you have to stay with me,” a voice said somewhere in the distance.

But it was cold.

So freaking cold.

My teeth chattered as I slipped deeper into the black abyss cocooning me.

I just wanted to close my eyes. To drift away… away… away.

It would be easier… the pain would stop.

Everything would just—

“Peyton. The EMT’s will be here any—thank fuck, they’re here.” Warm hands held me, trying to tether me to the light. “They’re here. Down here.”

But the lull of the darkness was too strong. It cloaked me, smothering out all of my senses. Except the chill. That didn’t abate. It was in my bones; icy-cold water coursing through my veins. My body trembled as I hovered on the thin ledge between consciousness and unconsciousness.

“Down here,” the voice said again, a featherlight touch running across my face.

“What happened?” another voice asked.

“Peyton... sh- she fell in the river. I dragged her out, but she was under for at least half a minute.”

“Okay, move over and let us do our job. Peyton, can you hear me?”

I tried to answer, only a murmur escaping my lips.

“We’re going to get you warmed up and into the ambulance, okay?”

Something rustled around me, wrapping me up like a burrito, then I was lifted onto a gurney, the air whooshing around me.

“X- Xander?” Panic swarmed me as I fought against the claws of darkness, my eyes flickering open. The edges of everything were blurry but I saw his face. The deep lines of concern, the grim curve of his lips.

“I’m here.” He loomed over me. “I’m right here.”

“D- don’t leave me.”

I was scared, so freaking scared.

She was gone… my mom was gone and I was all alone in the world. And I was supposed to want this. I was supposed to feel a deep sense of relief.

But all I felt was bleak despair.

I was alone.

And as the darkness consumed me, and I lost the fight against the bitter cold, the last face I saw was his.

CHAPTER ONE

Peyton

My mom was dead.

Seven days, eight hours, and twenty-five minutes, give or take.

I didn’t want to count the time. It seemed so pathetic to mourn the loss of a woman who never wanted me around. A woman who loved her next high more than she ever loved me. A woman who, in the end, had given me a parting gift I would never forget.

A gift that wasn’t a gift at all but more like a curse.

So yes, mourning Kate Myers was as undeserved as it was pathetic.

Yet, I couldn’t stop.

Seven days, eight hours, and twenty-six—

“Peyton?” My best friend Lily touched my arm, startling me.

“Yes?” I blinked over at her.

“I asked if you wanted any more pizza?”

“No, I’m fine.”

 “You barely ate your slice.” Concern laced her words.

“Not hungry.” I didn’t meet her eyes, I couldn’t.

Lily was my best friend in the whole world. The girl who knew me better than anyone. She knew my flaws and insecurities, my hopes and dreams. But she didn’t know.

How could she?

Lily had a family who supported her. She had two amazing parents who were there no matter what. I mean, they’d taken me in more than once when my mom couldn’t put food on the table or keep her shady associates out of the house.

“Go on now, you little brat. Stay in your room and don’t come out until I say.”

“But, mama,” I sniffled, my stomach cramping with hunger. I’d only had a bruised banana for breakfast and if she made me go into my room now, who knew how long I’d have to stay there for. Sometimes, she forgot about me for hours. “I don’t like it when you—”

“I said go,” she snapped. “And you don’t come out until I say.” She shooed me away with her stained bony fingers, ignoring the tears rolling down my cheeks. Sometimes, when she was like this, I hated her. God, I hated her so much.

I shook the thoughts away. I wasn’t a small helpless kid anymore, I hadn’t been for a while. Still, I would never forget my childhood.

I’d lived with the Ford’s over the summer and the start of senior year before Mom got clean, again. Then I went home to be with her.

What a fucking mistake that was.

A shudder ran through me as I stared out of Lily’s bedroom window. She had one of those window seats overlooking her family’s huge yard. There was something peaceful about sitting there, watching the trees sway gently in the frigid Pennsylvanian wind.

“I’m worried about you,” she said.

“You don’t need to be. I’m fine.”

I internally cringed at the words.

“You know, nobody’s expecting you to return to school tomorrow. It’s still—”

“Lily,” I snapped, finally looking over at her. “I said I’m fine.”

“Sorry.” She perched on the end of her bed. “I’m doing it again, aren’t I?”

“You’re not doing anything, I just... I’m fine. School will be good for me.” I needed to keep busy, to do something—anything—than sit around all day. When I stopped and my mind was still, the images ambushed me. Blood. So much freaking blood. My mom’s dull lifeless eyes as she stared up at me, her wrists shredded open.

“I’m sorry I ruined Thanksgiving weekend.”

“Peyton, you didn’t ruin anything. We wanted to be here for you.”

Lily and her family had big plans before my mom took a razor to her wrists and I... well, I got drunk, went down to the river, and ended up in hospital. Not my finest moment. But I was okay now. It was a lapse in judgment. A split second where I just wanted it all to stop.

The pain and heartache.

The constant dejection.

The years of abuse and neglect and never feeling good enough.

All I ever wanted was a family who loved me... a mother who loved me.

And now she was gone.

Emotion welled in my chest, but I swallowed it down. I’d spent my entire life locking away my feelings, I wasn’t about to break the cycle now.

“Is Kaiden nervous about the quarter-finals?” I changed the subject, turning to the one subject I knew Lily wouldn’t be able to resist.

Her boyfriend. Kaiden Thatcher.

“He says he isn’t. But he has to be. I mean, it’s a big deal, right?”

“Well, yeah. Everyone’s looking to him to bring home the championship.”

“God, I’m so nervous. I know how much it means to him.”

“He’ll be fine, babe. If anyone can do it, it’s Kaiden.”

He was kind of a big deal on the football field, and despite a rocky start to his senior year at Rixon High, he had led the team to an impressive season record.

“He and Dad spent the entire day yesterday strategizing. I swear they went from mortal enemies to best friends in the space of a weekend.”

I smiled but it didn’t reach my eyes. I was happy for Lily, she deserved nothing but good things. But feeling happy for someone and being happy were two different things. And my sunshine-o-meter was all out of juice.

“If you’re done eating, I’ll clean up.” Lily climbed off the bed.

“Actually, I’ll help you.”

“Yeah?” Her brows pinched.

“Yeah, a change of scenery might do me good.” I hadn’t stepped foot out of the Ford’s house since being discharged from hospital five days ago except to attend Mom’s funeral. I could barely remember the service. Thankfully, Lily’s parents had organized almost everything and all I’d had to do was show up.

Standing, I ran my hand through my long blonde hair and inhaled a shuddering breath. My body ached, weary with grief, but sleep refused to come easy since that night.

Seven days, eight hours, and thirty—, I checked my cell phone, thirty-five minutes, give or take.

I grabbed our glasses and followed Lily downstairs. The familiar rumble of Mr. Ford’s laughter drifted down the hall and I hesitated.

“Relax,” she said, noticing. “They’ll be pleased to see you.”

“You make it sound like I’ve been holed up in my room for days on end.”

Lily cast me a knowing look that had a sticky trail of regret snaking through me.

“I haven’t been that bad,” I murmured as we made our way into the kitchen.

“You’re entitled to space,” she said. “We just want you to know that we’re all here for you too.”

“I know.” I swallowed over the lump in my throat. “I’m lucky to have you.”

Without Lily and her family, I really had no one. Another tidal wave of emotion swelled inside me. I wasn’t used to being so battered by my feelings. Usually, I controlled them. Wrangled them the way a cowboy wrangled cattle. But this was different. When I’d slipped under the Susquehanna River, the icy-cold water flooding my lungs, something inside me snapped.

Something that felt irreparable.

Permanent.

“Hey, girls,” Lily’s mom appeared in the doorway. “It’s nice to see you up and about, Peyton.” She gave me a warm smile.

Mrs. Ford was the best. Kind and understanding, compassionate and funny, she radiated love. Fierce, unwavering love. The kind of love a mother should have for her daughters, her husband, and family. She represented everything I’d never had, but despite not being mine, Mrs. Ford had welcomed me into her house with open arms and accepted me, flaws and all.

But her acceptance could never fully repair the damage caused by the woman I got to call mom.

“How was the pizza?”

“It was fine thanks, Mrs.—”

“Felicity. You can call me Felicity, Peyton. You’re family now, sweetheart.”

Her words twisted my gut. “I- I’m going to get some fresh air.” I made a dash for the back door, slipping into the cool winter air. My breath drifted into the sky in a smoky tendril as I burrowed into my chunky knit sweater and sat on the swing chair. When I inhaled deeply, I could still feel it in my lungs, the icy sting of the Susquehanna River. I made myself take a breath, forcing the memories out.

I stared out at the Ford’s oversized yard. The swimming pool, covered for the winter, and the seating area nestled around an impressive grill. It wasn’t as fancy as some of our friends’ yards, but it was still worlds away from what I’d grown up with.

I was hardly surprised when Mrs. Ford joined me on the swing. “I hope you don’t mind,” she said, running her hands around her mug of hot chocolate. “The weather is turning.”

I managed a gentle shrug, shuffling up for her.

“Look, Peyton, I won’t pretend to know what you’re feeling or thinking. You have been through something no child should ever have to go through. But I want you to know that you can always come to me, with anything. You’re not in this alone, sweetheart.” She gently squeezed my knee. “And I know Jase is like a bumbling idiot at the minute, but it’s only because he doesn’t know what to say. He’s a man, they like to fix things. But this is one thing he can’t fix and he’s having a hard time reconciling that.”

My lip twitched. “It’s okay Mrs.—Felicity. I understand it’s weird for everyone, and I’m sorry—”

“Oh no, you don’t. We are not apologizing for anything that has happened. Apologizing suggests you are at fault and you’re not, sweetheart, okay?”

I couldn’t meet her stare.

“Peyton, look at me.”

Slowly, I lifted my eyes to hers, swallowing over the giant lump in my throat. “What your mom did, it wasn’t your fault. I need you to know that.”

A small nod was all I could manage. She meant well, but this wasn’t something you could slap a Band-Aid and a few motivational words on.

“How are you feeling about tomorrow? You know, I can speak to Principal—”

“No.” I shook my head gently. “I want to get back to classes. The holidays are coming up. I need the distraction.”

“Well, okay, if you’re sure. But if it’s too much, you just say the word and I’ll talk to the administration. I spoke with Mya too. She’d like to see you.”

“I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, I do. But I don’t need to see the guidance counselor.”

“I think the school will insist. It’s protocol after a student...” She trailed off, and my cheeks flamed.

“I didn’t... like I told you and Jason before. It was an accident.”

“Nevertheless, it was a traumatic event.” A reassuring smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “Mya—Mrs. Bennet—is there to help you. She’ll be able to refer you for grief counseling if you want it.”

“I’m fine, really.”

“Peyton, you can keep saying the words over and over, but it won’t change the fact that you’ve been through something life-changing.”

Lily peeked around the door looking sheepish. “Aunt Hailee’s here. And they... uh... Xander is with them.”

My entire body froze at the mention of his name.

“He’s here?” I breathed the words.

“Yeah. Do you want to go back upstairs and—”

“Lily.” Her mom shook her head.

“Sorry. I didn’t want you to be blindsided.” She glanced at me, chewing her bottom lip.

“It’s fine.”

So Xander was here.

It wasn’t like he’d saved my life or anything.

When I’d waded into the river that night, I hadn’t ever anticipated that I would need rescuing. So when my friend’s uncle had pulled me out and stayed with me until the EMT’s arrived, I thought I was dreaming.

Xander Chase was an enigma. Solitary and brooding, he was a man of few words. He’d recently started helping Lily’s dad out with the football team at our high school. But he wasn’t like the other coaches. There was darkness in his eyes. A shadow hanging over him like thunder clouds on a stormy day.

I knew because I’d sat and watched him enough times with Lily while she ogled Kaiden from the bleachers.

“I should probably head inside and go see to our guests. If you girls need anything just holler.”

“Thanks,” I murmured, staring out at the yard still.

Lily took her mom’s seat, lacing her arm through mine and laying her head on my shoulder. “I’ve been thinking, and I think you’re right. Going back to school will be good for you.”

“I think so.” It would keep my mind off everything, hopefully.

“And after the holidays I’ll be able to drive us.”

My eyes snapped to hers. “You’re finally going to take drivers ed?”

“Yep.” A huge smile spread over her face. “I think it’s time.”

“Wow, Lily. That’s huge.” I hugged her. “I’m so proud of you.”

“I couldn’t have done it without you. You’ve always believed in me, Peyton, even when I didn’t. You’re one of my best friends.”

“Geez, Lil, don’t get all emosh on me, you’ll make me cry.” And God only knew I’d done enough of that over the last week. In fact, I was pretty sure I was all cried out.

“Kaiden is going to give me a few lessons on the school parking lot when it’s empty.”

“You’ll ace it,” I said, my heart so full for her, and yet, so empty at the same time.

“You know if you saved your wages from Cindy’s you could save for a car. My parents don’t want your—”

“I know you mean well, Lil. But I need to do this. I need to contribute.” I wasn’t her parent’s responsibility, and I didn’t ever want to be a burden. Helping with the groceries and the bills was the least I could do.

The rumble of voices filtered out of the kitchen window and I glanced over my shoulder, watching Lily’s Aunt Hailee and Uncle Cameron laughing and joking with her parents. The second Xander appeared, my body froze, my heart racing inside my chest.

I’d hoped to see him every day since being discharged from the hospital. But he never stopped by and now he was standing right there, and all I could think was what did you say to the man who saved you?

Nothing.

I couldn’t think of a single thing that could possibly express my gratitude.

“Peyton?” Lily asked and I finally dragged my eyes away from the patio door.

“I’m fine.” The lie soured on my tongue. I wasn’t fine. I was barely stitched together at the seams and knowing Xander was here only made everything ten times worse.

I needed to talk to him about that night. About what he saw…what he thought he saw.

I needed to explain.

But it wasn’t like I could simply stroll up to him in front of all his family and friends.

God, this was awkward. And it was turning colder by the second. A shiver ripped through me, making my teeth chatter.

Lily frowned. “Are you cold? Maybe we should go inside.”

“A little bit longer,” I said, brushing her off. I couldn’t go inside, not yet. Not until I’d figured out what the hell I was going to say.

Xander was there that night. He’d watched me wade into the river, half-naked and ass-over-elbow drunk.

He’d seen everything.

I could only imagine what he thought of me. But he hadn’t stuck around at the hospital long enough to hear my side of the story. When I woke up, there was no sign of him. It hurt more than it should have.

Xander Chase wasn’t my family. He wasn’t anybody to me really, but I guess I’d always thought of myself as someone to his family, since I was best friends with Ashleigh, his niece.

Another blast of icy wind whipped around us and Lily leaped up. “I’m sorry, but I need to go inside.”

“Okay.” I gave her a weak smile. “I’ll be in soon.”

“You’re sure—”

“Go. I’m fine.”

God, I hated that word.

Lily hesitated, but I added, “Go. I’ll be right in, promise.” I just needed chance to catch my breath.

With a small nod, Lily disappeared inside, and I burrowed myself deeper into my sweater.

I liked it out here, under the stars. It was peaceful. A place to lose yourself in nothing.

The door clicked open again and I half-smiled, ready to tell Lily that I was fine again. But it wasn’t Lily at all.

Xander loomed over me as he slipped a packet of cigarettes from his jeans and put one between his lips. Mesmerized, I watched as he lit the end and inhaled a deep lungful of tobacco. It was only then I realized he wasn’t looking at me. He was also staring out at nothing.

“So I was sat here thinking about all the things I wanted to say to you,” I blurted. “But now you’re here and I can’t think of a single thing.” Nervous laughter spilled from my lips like an out-of-tune instrument. “I guess I just want to—”

“Stop.”

“E- excuse me?” My mouth went dry as I fidgeted with the hem of my sweater. Xander still didn’t look at me, inhaling another hit of his cigarette, holding it in for a second before exhaling a controlled tendril of smoke.

“You don’t need to thank me.” He flicked it to the ground and dragged his boot over it.

“But I just wanted to explain—”

“I’m not your therapist, kid.” His eyes finally slid to mine, dark and tortured.

If I wasn’t so lost in his hard gaze, I might have flinched at his use of the word kid. But as it was, I was trapped. Suspended in his sterling gray eyes.

Before I could get out so much as another word, Xander ducked back into the house like he hadn’t just rendered me speechless.

And obliterated any image I had in my head of him as my hero.

CHAPTER TWO

Xander

A minute after I rejoined my brother and his friends, Peyton slipped back into the house.

“There you are sweetie. Hot cocoa?” Fee asked her.

“No thank you.” She hovered away from us, inching toward the door. Like a deer caught in the headlights, she had big doe eyes brimming with panic.

“It’s good to see you, Peyton.” My brother’s wife Hailee said.

“You too, Mrs. Chase.” I’m just going to—” She thumbed to the door and bolted toward it, but not before her startled gaze slid right past mine.

I was a dick before, outside. But I didn’t have time for teen girl drama. From what I knew about Peyton, she’d had it rough. And until that night down by the river, she’d hidden it well.

She was one of my niece’s best friends, so I’d been around enough over the last three years to notice her. Peyton liked to be in the spotlight. She liked the attention and praise. But there was something else lurking behind her bubbly blonde veneer.

“Xan?” Cam’s voice pulled me from my thoughts, and I blinked over at my brother.

“Yeah?”

“I said are you okay?”

“What? Yeah? Sure.” I drained my beer, hating the way his eyes crinkled with disapproval.

“Did you talk to her?” he added.

“What is there to say?”

“Don’t be a dick.” He tsked. “She’s been through a lot. A little sympathy would go a long way.”

“Cameron,” Hailee shook her head discreetly.

“She thanked me; I said no problem.” My shoulders lifted in a dismissive shrug. “Life goes on, right?”

He glared at me, but it wasn’t anything new. Cameron had been riding my ass my entire life. Fourteen years older than me, he’d practically raised me. Our relationship was complicated to say the least, but family was family, and he was the only brother I had.

“Got any more beers?” I asked Jase, and he flicked his head toward the refrigerator. “Help yourself. But you’d better not roll into work tomorrow hungover. The quarter-finals are right around the corner.”

“Relax, boss,” I sniped. “I know the rules.”

Jase had given me the assistant coach gig at the high school after me and Cam got into a huge row about money. As in, I had none, and he was sick of bailing me out. But he didn’t know what it was like for me. He had an amazing wife, good kids, and friends who loved him.

My brother had it all, while I’d spent the last ten years slipping deeper into his shadow.

“Glad to hear it,” Jase grunted. “Everyone is expecting us to bring home that championship again.”

“You put too much pressure on yourself.” Fee wound her hand around his waist and leaned up to kiss his jaw.

Something inside me twisted. I’d never had that, never wanted it. But I wasn’t twenty-one anymore. Getting drunk at Bell’s and picking up a different girl every weekend had lost its appeal a long time ago. So while I had no plans to settle down, watching my brother and his best friends with their women and families did remind me of everything I didn’t have, and probably never would.

“How are things with Kaiden?” Cam asked Jase.

“He’s my star quarterback and my daughter’s horn dog of a boyfriend... how do you think things are?”

“You haven’t killed him yet.” Fee smirked. “I’d call that progress.”

“He’s a good kid, he is,” Jase let out a heavy sigh, rubbing a hand over his jaw. “But the idea of him and Lily... See, I can’t even say the words.”

“I don’t envy you,” Cameron said. “I thank God every day that Ashleigh hasn’t gotten herself a boyfriend yet.”

“At least you’ve only got Leigh to worry about. I’ve got three teenage girls living under my roof.”

“How’s she holding up, really?” Hailee asked.

“Peyton is strong,” Fee replied. “But I worry about her. The strongest glass usually shatters the most.”

I glanced over at the door. Maybe I’d been too hard on her earlier. But it wasn’t like I owed her anything. So I pulled her out of the river? I would have done the same for anyone else.

“She’s lucky to have you,” Hailee added. “I can’t even imagine what it must be like to lose your mom so young.” Her eyes found mine, widening with regret. “Shit, Xander, I didn’t—”

“Relax, it’s fine.” I brushed her off. As far as I was concerned, it was ancient history.

I’d been eight when my mom lost her battle with a brain tumor. I barely remembered it. One day she was there, the next she wasn’t. Yet, sometimes I remembered too vividly. Even all these years later, I could smell the cloying scent of the hospital, the monotonous beep of the machines keeping her alive. It was a mind fuck.

“I’m going for a smoke.” Not sticking around to hear my brother’s grunt of disapproval, I ducked outside and lit up another cigarette. I didn’t even like the disgusting things, but it focused me. Kept me from turning to other vices.

I sucked on the end, inhaling so deeply that my lungs burned, then let the smoke trail out of the split in my mouth.

What I really wanted was a bottle of Jack and my couch. I rented a small place downtown, a couple of blocks over from Bell’s, the local bar we liked to frequent. I liked it because it had a great view of the river, and I often ventured down there on the nights when sleep didn’t find me.

That’s how I’d stumbled across Peyton that night. I liked to be outside, in the dark when no one else was around. There was something settling about that time between twilight and dawn when the rest of the world slept.

Sometimes I passed the odd jogger or dog walker, but usually I had the stretch of sidewalk along the Susquehanna River to myself.

My brother’s gruff laughter pierced the air, and I shook the thoughts out of my head. I wasn’t trying to be a hero that night, I did what any half-decent person would have done. But I’d seen the way she looked at me earlier... with fucking stars in her eyes.

I wasn’t looking to be anyone’s white knight though.

Especially not hers.

~

The next morning, I rolled up to the school in my beat-up Chevy pickup. It looked like a piece of crap, but it ran like a dream thanks to the hours I spent fine tuning her. A group of girls looked over as I pulled into a parking spot, nudging each other and giggling. My arrival at Rixon High had caused quite the stir which is why I tried to keep myself to myself.

Grabbing my bag off the backseat, I pulled a Raiders ball cap on backwards and climbed out. It was cold as shit out, my lungs smarting when I inhaled a deep breath.

“Yo, Coach,” a voice called, and I turned around to find Kaiden Thatcher jogging toward me.

“What’s up, kid?”

“I was wondering if we can go over some plays again? I want to be ready for the next game.”

“You’re ready, Thatch.” Slinging my bag over one shoulder, we walked toward the gym together.

“Yeah, maybe. It’s just a lot... you know?”

I glanced over at him. Kaiden hadn’t had it easy, transferring to Rixon High in senior year. He was at a new school, commanding a new team, but he’d done it. The kid had beaten the odds to lead the Raiders straight into the play-offs. And he’d done it while his family imploded. His dad was a real piece of shit. A drunk with an old grudge against Jase. He was back in rehab but not before he’d knocked Kaiden around. The whole thing was a shit show.

I knew better than most that life was hard. It was messy and painful and sometimes it was too fucking much, but I couldn’t ever imagine lashing out at the ones who were there for me. That shit was messed up.

“Word of advice,” I said. “Enjoy it. You’ve worked your ass off to get here. It’s senior year. You have a full ride in the bag and your future all mapped out. Whatever happens in the quarter-finals is just the icing on the cake.”

The bitter sting of regret snaked through me. I remembered my brother saying something similar to me once, when I was just a senior in high school. Before everything turned to shit.

“Try telling that to Coach Ford and the rest of the town,” he murmured.

He wasn’t wrong there. Football was life in Rixon. People didn’t just like it, they lived and breathed it. And the pressure was on the team to bring home the Championship again.

“Yeah, I won’t argue there, kid.”

“Kid, really?” He rolled his eyes. “I’m eighteen.”

“And still so much to learn.” I winked, chuckling.

I follow Kaiden into the locker room, the hustle and bustle and noise like stepping back in time. There had been a time I’d lived for this. The weight of shoulder pads, the smell of freshly mown grass, the glare of the Friday night lights. I’d been the guy to beat. An unstoppable force of nature. I’d poured all my anger and grief and pain into football. And for a while, it had worked.

But nothing good lasted forever.

Kaiden headed for his guys, while I made my way into the assistant coaches’ office.

“What time do you call this, Chase?” Coach Huckley said.

“Looks like I’m right on time to me.” My eyes went to the clock hanging above his head.

“You’re two minutes late.”

“Give the guy a break,” Coach Macintosh interjected. “A couple of minutes isn’t going to hurt. Besides, you’re talking to a real-life hero, right there.”

“Mac.” I shook my head, hating the way he was looking at me.

“That was some heavy shit, Xander. Makes you wonder what the hell a seventeen-year-old girl was doing down there at that time of night.”

In a town like Rixon, where everyone knew everyone, news traveled fast. So it was hardly a surprise that Peyton’s accident had become the hot topic on everyone’s lips. One of the attending EMT’s was good friends with one of the town’s biggest gossips, which meant that unfortunately for me, there was no keeping my name out of the incident.

“Obviously up to no good,” Huckley grumbled, skirting his eyes over the clipboard in his hand.

I glowered in his direction. It didn’t sit right with me, hearing him talk about Peyton like that. It shouldn’t have surprised me though.

Most of the guys on the staff team were decent. But Huckley didn’t appreciate me walking into the job with little to no qualifications. And part of me got it, I did. But I needed this. More than he would ever know. So for the most part, I let his veiled jibes and disapproving glances roll off my back. I knew what people thought of me. Xander Chase, down and out. The guy who’d had the world at his feet and blew his shot. But they hadn’t walked in my shoes. They didn’t know what it was like.

They’d never fucking know.

“Guys, let’s go,” Jase stuck his head around the door, his eyes going to mine. “You good?”

I gave him a sharp nod, not missing the way Huckley glared at me. He didn’t like that Jase had stuck his neck out on the line for me. He didn’t like it at all. But Jase was as good as family, and he knew I needed a shot at something better. Something to get my life back on track.

“The boss has spoken,” Coach Macintosh plucked the toothpick from his mouth and chuckled. “Better not be late.”

We filed out of the office and walked through the empty locker room. Jase was a firm but fair kind of guy. He expected his players to give their all and in return, he gave his. But the next week would be on a whole other level. It was the quarter-finals, and the whole of Rixon was looking at him and the team to bring home the championship.

Which meant the heat was also on me, because like it or not I was a part of this team now.

We joined the huddle, waiting for Jase to issue instructions for our morning practice. We all knew the routine, but he liked to start every practice with a pep talk.

“Okay, bring it in,” he said. “Saturday marked the first day of a new season. Play-off season. And you went out there and got the job done. But the hard work isn’t over. We can’t afford to get complacent because those other teams are going to come at us and come at us hard. I need you all to be on your top game. Listen to your coaches, memorize every play in the book and then memorize them some more, and turn up to practice every day and put in the hard work. You feel me?”

“Yes, sir.” The team’s unified response echoed around the field.

“Good, now get out there and show me what you got. Thatcher, you’re with Coach Chase, we’re going to need you in peak condition, son.”

“Yes, sir.” Kaiden jogged over to the ball sack and plucked one out. “Ready when you are, Coach.” He threw the ball at me and I caught it with ease.

“Let’s put you through your paces.” I smirked. Kaiden was a good kid, but he knew he was good.

After setting up the drill, we got to it, focusing on his throwing accuracy. “How’s it going with Lily and her old man?” I asked as he hiked another ball toward me.

“Okay, I think. Why, has he said something to you?”

“No, kid. But if I didn’t know better, I’d say Jase actually likes you.”

“Fuck you, Coach,” he grumbled. Anyone else on the team and I might have chastised them, but Kaiden was different. He’d had been dealt a shitty hand and I’d taken a shine to him since taking the coaching position a few weeks ago.

“You kiss your mother with that mouth?” Laughter rumbled in my chest, as I changed the angle on the target.

“What about you anyway? Everyone’s calling you a hero.”

“Yeah, well, I wish they’d stop.” I swallowed over the giant fucking lump in my throat.

“Can I ask you something...?” Kaiden’s look was pensive.

“Sure, kid.”

“Do you think it was an accident?”

“Peyton says it was.” The hand rubbing my jaw masked my expression. Or at least, I hoped it did. I didn’t want to get into this with him, or anyone for that matter. Peyton was alive. She was going to be okay and get the help she needed. Accident or no accident, it was done.

But as I said the words, something deep inside me twisted. Because I wasn’t sure what I’d seen that night. All I knew was I’d dragged a barely conscious girl from the icy depths of the Susquehanna River and watched as the ambulance carted her off to Rixon General. A girl who, by all accounts, had always been so vibrant and full of life.

“Yeah, but what do you think?” Kaiden stared at me as if I had all the answers.

But even if I did, it wasn’t any of my business.

And I had no plans of getting involved.

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