by JJ Greene
Fresh horizons and a chance to make a difference—that’s all that burned-out Kaya Walsh wants when she leaves behind ten years of teaching in urban schools. Small town Indiana offers crisp autumn days she won’t dread. When Kaya meets Coach Ricki McGlinn she immediately realizes she might look forward to the long winter nights too.
Ricki can’t deny that she wants to run a few plays with the fiery, appealing Kaya, but her heart remembers what lies at the end of the field: nothing but grief and loss. Never again.
Even with friends Toni Davis and Rynn Callahan to advise her, can Kaya find the strength to play the ultimate game for Ricki’s heart?
Praise for JJ Greene
GCLS Goldie Awards — Finalist, Lesbian Romantic Suspense/Intrigue.
Lambda Literary Review
JJ Greene has written a multifaceted story... skillfully written and entertaining.
“I can’t believe you’re really leaving all the glamour of the city to settle down in some boondock farm town!”
Both hands on the wheel of her beat-up Honda Civic as she talked over the Bluetooth connection, Kaya rolled her eyes at her best friend’s whining. She knew the real reason Toni complained so much about her move was because she would miss her. She would certainly miss Toni just as much.
“For the thousandth time, I’m not even going that far away. And you know what the city did to me. You got the glamour, I got the grime.” She couldn’t suppress the sigh that escaped her lips, though even she wasn’t sure if it was a sigh of relief at finally leaving or something else entirely.
“Oh please, my life is hardly glamourous,” Toni scoffed.
Kaya chuckled. “Then stop using that to convince me to reconsider.”
The line went silent for a few moments as she wound her way through the cornfields of western Indiana. “I’m less than a four-hour drive from you. You know I won’t be able to keep away from the city entirely. I’ve always been a city girl. I just couldn’t handle my job there anymore.” I couldn’t handle my life there anymore.
Toni sighed. “I know. I know you need this. But can you blame a girl for trying? You had better at least come back for a couple of Bears games this fall.”
“Okay, now you’re just driving me further away!” She actually enjoyed the games that Toni often treated her to, but not so much that she’d ever admit it to her friend. It was more fun to pretend she wasn’t interested. “I guess someone needs to be there to save Rynn from your obsession, though.”
“I am not obsessed! I’m just very dedicated.” Toni’s feigned indignation made Kaya smile. She stole a quick glance at the GPS on her dash, knowing that her turn was coming up soon.
“Like I said, someone needs to save Rynn. Anyway, hon, I’ve got to go. You know how easy it is to get lost in these…what did you call them? Boondock farm towns?”
“Indeed. You’ll disappear into a cow pasture and no one will ever hear from you again.”
“I think the greater threat in these parts is the fiendish corn. Or, maybe I’ll get lured to certain doom by a crop circle. I’ll let you know how things are once I get settled into my new place.”
Kaya laughed. “Rural living is hardly fatal. But I thank you for your concern. I’ll miss you, too.”
“Yeah, yeah. Take care of yourself, Hotshot. Love and hugs.”
Kaya said her goodbyes and ended the call just in time to pass the faded Welcome sign to the right of the narrow country road. Despite her brave claims to Toni, Kaya was more than a little apprehensive about leaving the city for such a drastic change. Even though she knew this was home to more than forty-five thousand people, it still felt like a completely different world from the South Side of Chicago that she’d called home for the past ten years.
But that’s exactly why I’m here. Isn’t it?
* * *
Ricki slowed her pace to a jog as she rounded the track for her last lap. Despite the heat of the August days, the predawn air was still cool and comfortable. She loved these morning runs, some of the most peaceful moments of her day. Teaching and coaching high school were anything but peaceful, but she enjoyed her place in life.
The gridiron. She stopped at the west end zone of the field and worked through her stretches. A new school year. She usually felt a bit wistful about it. Her sanctuary had always been a football field. This football field.
She took a deep breath and watched the sun rise through the uprights. The golden rays cut through the orange haze and illuminated her haven. Light mirrored off the aluminum benches, adding a sparkling frame to the picture.
Ricki was ready for a new day. A new year. The football staff was meeting soon to continue their preparation for the coming season. Likewise, the faculty would complete their in-service today before welcoming the students back tomorrow. Time to get started.
She took one more look at the glorious sunrise before her and turned to the locker room. Just enough time for a shower.
Kaya took a deep breath and resisted the urge to drum her fingers on the pale green surface of the cafeteria table in front of her. Even though she knew it was silly, she had to admit she was anxious. First day of school jitters, just like when she was a new student, starting at another new school. She wasn’t the student this time, but that didn’t do much to calm her nerves.
Today was the in-service, when she would officially be introduced to her new colleagues and truly become a member of the faculty. That introduction should only last a moment or two, until topics turned to the other issues of the impending school year, but she would be happy when it was over nonetheless. In fact, she wasn’t sure which first impression was more vital, meeting her co-workers or her students.
She looked up as a cluster of people entered the room, chatting happily. When they noticed her, though, the chatter quieted. Two of the women offered polite smiles, but they all proceeded to a different table without a word.
Definitely the co-workers. Students, I know how to handle. Co-workers, on the other hand… Polite but not friendly. Kaya couldn’t help but wonder if the teachers here had some sort of social hierarchy that she would have to break into. God, she hoped not, but she couldn’t deny her fear that this was an indication of what small-town life would be like.
The cafeteria was slowly filling up as teachers drifted in, usually in small groups. Eventually, a few settled themselves at Kaya’s table, but after simple hellos and introductions, they resumed their conversations. Kaya tried to join in, but she was clearly an outsider.
She turned at the sound of raucous laughter behind her. Two more people walked in, apparently having just gotten to the punchline. The man tossed an arm over the shoulders of the woman beside him and they paused to peruse the room for available seats.
The woman’s gaze passed over to the near side of the cafeteria and, for just a second, locked with Kaya’s. Damn. Kaya had never seen eyes that crystalline, that ice blue. She felt her breath catch involuntarily as the newcomer’s laughter shifted ever so slightly into a cocky grin.
“Ricky! Jamie!” Someone shouted from across the room, and the woman turned and nodded to the source of the call. Kaya watched the woman as she worked her way over and sat at one of the more boisterous tables.
Despite knowing her body’s reaction was absolutely ridiculous, Kaya couldn’t stop her sudden pulse pounding. She didn’t normally respond this way to a pretty face. More than pretty. Despite herself, Kaya found she was no longer so worried about the new school year before her.
* * *
Ricki glanced back at the stranger sitting across the room as she and Jamie took their seats next to Ian and Mike. She would find out soon enough who she was, and in the meantime, Ricki went on with her normal routine. But still, there was something about the look in the other woman’s beautiful hazel eyes.
“Isn’t that right, Ricki?” She was jolted back to the conversation by Ian’s question.
“I, uh…sorry, what was that?”
Ian just rolled his eyes. “I was telling them about your little stunt with Keenan yesterday at practice. Taught that boy a lesson, didn’t you?”
“Oh,” she chuckled. “I guess so.”
Her fellow coach continued to regale the others with the story of how she had outrun one of hotheaded boys on the team yesterday. Ricki just sighed as she listened. Leave it to the men to miss the lesson she’d really tried to show Keenan yesterday. Humility in sports was not something that was easy to find.
Before Ian could finish his recap, Mr. Fisher walked in and cleared his throat, quietly demanding their attention. He was a short man who spoke softly even to the large room of assembled faculty. His head was topped with a shock of thick, pure white hair, and Ricki thought it looked like he’d gained weight over the summer. Her attention soon drifted, though, as the principal went through all the standard points to start a new school year. She didn’t realize she’d been staring across the room until Jamie nudged her and whispered, “New teacher caught your eye?”
Ricki quickly turned away, shooting Jamie a scathing glance before turning her attention back to Mr. Fisher. Internally, she denied that had been where her mind had wandered. She had just been daydreaming, that’s all. Then, Mr. Fisher finally said something that caught her attention. “And now, before we break out into our departmental meetings, it is my pleasure to introduce to you our three new faculty members this year. Ladies, if you would join me here?”
Three women, all seated near the front of the cafeteria, rose and walked up to stand near Mr. Fisher. With some surprise, Ricki realized she hadn’t even noticed the other two who now stood between the principal and the one who had caught Ricki’s eye when she had first entered the room.
The faculty’s attention held on their three new members. While Mr. Fisher introduced them each in turn, Ricki allowed herself to study the last in line. She didn’t quite look like her companions, or many of the other teachers in the room for that matter. Her loose, pale blue blouse and dark navy slacks were just a cut above the typical attire. The clothing accentuated her curves, but in a subtle way that didn’t take away from her appearance of calm, cool confidence.
“Lastly, we have Miss Kaya Walsh, our new physics teacher. Miss Walsh hails from Chicago, where she spent the past few years working in one of the South Side public schools.”
As they had done with the other new teachers, everyone studied Miss Walsh while her background was briefly outlined. Then, to Ricki’s surprise, Kaya’s eyes met her own. The slightest smile graced her lips, and suddenly Ricki needed to look away. Unexpectedly short of air, she took a deep breath before glancing back up as Mr. Fisher finished his introductions. It appeared Kaya’s attention was now on the principal, where Ricki knew hers should be as well.
“Let’s show these wonderful women a nice, warm, Glenwood High welcome!”
Ricki joined in the friendly applause, wondering at the unfamiliar feeling running through her.
As always, the first week of school flew by. On Wednesday the following week, Kaya prepared for one of her first challenges as a new teacher in a school—announcing the first test. She wrapped up the lesson two minutes before the bell would signal the end of class and grinned at the eager eyes looking up at her. Well, perhaps not all so eager as she might have hoped, but not bad for a high school classroom.
“This wraps up chapters one and two. So who wants to hazard a guess as to what that means?”
“We movin’ to chapter seven?”
Kaya smiled at the smartass student in the back of the room, now bumping fists with his buddy. She appreciated students with a sense of humor and encouraged them to participate. That didn’t mean they got a free pass.
“We’re. And close. But now the class can thank you for an extra question on the test Friday.”
As expected, the room filled with groans. Among the complaints, a girl’s voice rang out. “But Miss Walsh, it’s only the second week of school! You can’t give us a test already!”
She walked across the room toward the student but only responded with a smile and a shrug. Another boy whined, “You’re already killing us moving this fast! Two chapters in a week? Can’t we at least push the test back to Monday?”
She chuckled and shook her head, “You know as well as I do that this has all been review. You’re all ready for the test, and then we can really dive in on new material.”
The smartass from the back piped up again. “But Miss Walsh, we got a game Friday night, and coach has us practicing extra on Thursday. When we supposed to study?” A few other boys scattered along the back nodded their agreement.
Kaya sighed. It hadn’t taken her long to realize that football reigned supreme at this school. She didn’t really mind, having spent years dealing with Toni’s fondness for the game, but priorities had to be established. “Study after practice. I’m sure your coaches understand that you have schoolwork.”
“But Teach! Coach says we gotta focus on what important!”
Obviously not grammar. Kaya suppressed another sigh. “We are, Mr. Keenan.” The boy next to him opened his mouth to protest further. “But Coach said—”
She cut him off. “What qualifies your coach to determine what is important?”
At this, both boys seemed confused for a moment. Then Keenan simply stated, “Coach knows.”
Kaya had started to walk back to the front of the room, ready to end the debate, but turned at the tone in his voice. He had that typical teenage smirk that basically said “Well, duh,” but that hadn’t been all she had heard. There was something else, something bordering on reverence in the way he’d last spoken.
“Knows what, Mr. Keenan?” she asked, genuinely interested in his response.
“Coach knows what it’s like to win.” When Kaya said nothing, he went on. “Surely you heard of Coach McGlinn. Ricky McGlinn, the running back, y’all?” He slipped into an imitation of some kind, but Kaya couldn’t place the reference. Suddenly very serious, Keenan continued his explanation. “Ricky McGlinn is the best running back in school history! Led Glenwood to a state title, like, a long time ago. The only state title we ever had. I know you’re new and all, but don’t you know anything about us?” Murmurs of assent filled the room.
Kaya was surprised that his words stung a bit. Us? An “us” that she was clearly not part of. She glanced around the classroom, aware that the students were all watching this exchange, waiting for her response. “You’re right, Mr. Keenan, I am new. As such I’m still learning.” She looked around the room again, now addressing all the students. “Tell you what, you help me learn the ropes at my new home here at Glenwood, and I will come cheer you guys on this Friday.”
She saw a few smiles of approval. Students often respected teachers who cared about them beyond the classroom doors. Keenan, however, looked at her skeptically. “Does this mean no test?”
She laughed. “Nice try, but the test is still on.” The bell announcing the end of their class was almost drowned out by the groans. “Bring your questions and we’ll review tomorrow,” Kaya shouted her last instruction to the class as they shuffled toward the door.
* * *
She turned from her computer screen and waved her greeting to the tall, lanky man who approached. He spun a chair around to straddle the back and slumped down into it, leaning his arms against the worn wood. “Have you had a chance to watch that film on the Rangers for this week?”
She nodded, pointing to a spreadsheet on the screen. “Sure, Ian, I’ve got everything broken down. We’re ready for them.”
Ian looked over her shoulder, and she could feel his bulk looming over her. He was the classic high school football coach: tall, broad, perhaps a little overly muscular. His slightly balding blond hair betrayed his age, but he still retained the energy of a young athlete. He said, “Why do I get the feeling that’s not really why you’re in here?”
She rolled her eyes. “Because you know me too well. I did break down the film, but you know I’ve got other things going on right now. I spent way too much effort writing grant proposals and petitioning for this new system to not have it up and running as fast as possible.”
Ian looked at her as if she’d grown a third eye. “During football season? Come on, Ricki, can’t this stuff wait till the spring?”
She just looked at him blankly for a moment, before turning back to her computer without even dignifying him with a response.
He sighed, apparently recognizing he’d just put himself in the doghouse.
“Oh, Ricki, you know I don’t mean it. Hell, if you concentrated this much on football, I’d be out of my job as the head coach. Maybe I should be grateful you get so into this computer crap.”
She turned back to him, trying to summon patience. She did know he didn’t mean it, even if sometimes he seemed to forget that. He heckled her for her passion as a math teacher, but she threw it right back at him for “only” being a coach and phys ed guy. Ian was a good man, and despite his tough jock attitude, she knew he respected academics. He always backed her up, demanding the best from their boys both on the field and in the classroom. She also knew his flattery was just that. She had no desire to be head coach, and they were both happy with the staff they had. “Anything else I can help you with, Ian?”
He rose from his chair, knowing he’d just been dismissed. “Naw. I’ll see you later on the practice field.”
Ricki’s full attention was back on her computer before he’d even left the room.