The road was covered with black ice. Leaning forward, Hannah Price focused intently on the strip of narrow highway beyond her flapping windshield wipers. But the dark countryside and the whirling snow made it difficult to see. Gripping the steering wheel until the stark white of her knuckles glowed in the light of her instrument panel, she took a deep breath in an effort to calm down.
They can’t be far. I’ll find them.
Thoughts of her two sons being whisked away without her permission had pumped her body so full of adrenalin she barely blinked when her tires slid around the next curve. The back end of her minivan swung onto the shoulder and almost hit the guardrail separating the road from a steep drop. But she quickly recovered and, fixing a picture of Brent and Kenny in her mind, increased her speed. According to her neighbor, Mr. McDermott, her ex-husband had less than a five-minute jump on her. She could make that up if she hurried.
Dashing through the snow… Christmas music played on the radio, but she barely heard it. She was too focused. She’d find Russ. She had to. According to Mr. McDermott, Russ had his Jeep loaded down with beer and was acting like he’d been drinking already. Her neighbor had also mentioned that Russ had two carloads of his survivalist buddies following him. No doubt they’d have a grand time at the cabin, getting drunk and shooting at anything that moved. It wasn’t safe for the boys. Brent and Kenny were to remain with her for the holidays; it was all laid out in the custody papers.
…Bells on bob tails ring…making spirits bright…
The most perilous part of the journey between Dundee , her small hometown, and Boise was coming up fast. She managed to navigate the first of the hairpin turns without sliding all over the road, but soon came upon a pickup that was barely moving.
With a curse, she slowed to a crawl. At this rate, Russ would cross into Oregon before she could reach Boise . Then her boys would be lost to her until her ex decided he didn’t want the responsibility of caring for them anymore and deigned to bring them home. If they survived until then.
She needed to get them back now, where she knew they’d be safe. Before another incident happened like last year, when one of Russ’s redneck friends held a knife to Kenny’s throat.
…What fun it is to laugh and sing a sleighing song tonight.
The lyrics mocked her anxiety as she glanced hesitantly at the double yellow lines in the middle of the dark, shiny road. Veering into the other lane, she hoped for a chance to get around the truck. But it wasn’t possible. The turns were too tight.
The disc jockey came on to say the next song was believed to be Welsh in origin and came from a tune called “Nos Galan” dating back to the sixteenth century.
Deck the halls with boughs of holly…
Panic prickled Hannah’s scalp as she remained trapped behind the slow-moving truck. She felt the seconds tick by, imagined Russ taking the boys farther and farther away from her with every passing minute.
…Tis the season to be jolly…
Russ insisted the knife incident had been a joke. But Hannah didn’t find it funny, and Kenny hadn’t laughed about it, either. The only joke, to Hannah, was that she’d ever been stupid enough to marry Russ in the first place. If her mother hadn’t died when she was just out of high school, leaving her all alone… If she hadn’t felt so cast adrift and desperate for an anchor… If she hadn’t succumbed to Russ’s unrelenting pursuit and gotten pregnant… Then things could have been different.
But it wasn’t any use wallowing in regret. She’d made a colossal mistake, but she’d been young and naïve. And once she was pregnant, she’d felt as though she had no choice.
…Follow me in merry measure…
Brent and Kenny. That was all that mattered now. She couldn’t let Russ get too far ahead of her. She didn’t know where the cabin was located.
Hannah floated to the left again, her eyes boring holes in the thickly falling snow as she tried to see around the next bend.
It was no use. She couldn’t pass.
…Heedless of the wind and weather….
Easing back into her own lane, she laid on her horn, hoping the truck would pull over or at least speed up.
Brake lights flashed as the driver slowed even more–she’d only succeeded in rattling him.
They wouldn’t be out of the mountains for another twenty miles…. Hannah wanted to bang her head on the steering wheel in frustration. She had to pass. It’d only take her a moment. A quick dash around, then she’d be on her way.
…Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Once again, she checked for oncoming traffic. A car rumbled past, then nothing. There was another curve not far ahead, but she felt fairly confident she could get around the truck if she didn’t hesitate.
Another carol, Hannah’s favorite, came on as she put the pedal to the floor. The engine shifted and the van lurched forward.
Silent night, holy night…
Moving into the other lane, she came even with the truck, but a pair of oncoming headlights suddenly appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.
…All is calm, all is bright…
Hannah slammed on her brakes and tried to swerve to safety, but her tires couldn’t grip the ice-covered road. The van swayed sharply and began to fishtail; headlights rushed toward her, blinding in their brightness.
…Sleep in heavenly peace…
She screamed as a sudden, gut-wrenching jolt threw her chest into the steering wheel. The unforgiving crunch of metal on metal clanged in her ears. Then she tasted blood, and everything began to spin around and around as her van shot over the edge and tumbled toward the bottom of the ravine.
…Sleep in heavenly peace.
Nearly three years later…
Gabriel Holbrook frowned as he saw Mike Hill get out of his SUV and start through the dappled sunshine toward the cabin. He’d known Mike would be paying him a visit. He’d been expecting it for more than a week, ever since he heard the Hill Family’s sad news. But he still wasn’t prepared. What was he going to say?
Mike’s knock sounded—as solid, decisive and determined as Mike himself.
Lazarus, Gabe’s Alaskan malamute, dashed expectantly to the door.
With a sigh, Gabe let the blind fall back into place at the front window and wheeled himself across the living room. It wasn’t as if he could pretend he wasn’t home. Mike knew, since the accident three years ago, Gabe hardly went anywhere. If he did go, to the grocery store or the stadium, he took Lazarus with him.
At least Mike hadn’t brought his wife. Gabe wasn’t ready to deal with Lucky….
As always, the heavy pile of the carpet made it difficult to maneuver. Turning too soon, he accidentally clipped the corner of the kitchen table. Because he’d made that table out of metal and hadn’t yet finished off the edges, it cut his shoulder. Irritated that his preoccupation had caused him to be careless, he cursed, and Lazarus whined as he opened the door.
Mike’s somber expression turned to concern as soon as he saw Gabe’s arm. “You’re bleeding.”
“It’s just a scratch.” He moved back and whistled for Lazarus to do the same. “You wanna come in?”
Tall and lean, with close-clipped brown hair and hazel eyes, Mike doffed his cowboy hat and stepped inside. “How’d you cut yourself?”
Gabe glanced at his bicep. He’d been lifting weights when he heard Mike’s car pull into the drive. Had he been wearing anything more significant than a muscle shirt, he probably wouldn’t have been hurt. “It’s the damn carpet,” he said with a shrug.
“So why don’t you tear it out and put in a hardwood floor? Take life a little easier?”
Because Gabe permitted only the most necessary concessions to his handicap. Special allowances made him feel weak, feeble…useless. Besides, he wasn’t planning to be in a wheelchair much longer. He was going to walk again.
He didn’t say so, though. He knew Mike would only give him a patronizing smile. No one believed him.
Absently petting his dog, a gift from a guy he used to play football with, given to him as a puppy just after the accident, Gabe curved his lips into the good ol’ boy smile he used to deflect certain questions. “You kiddin’? It’s real wool. Cost me a fortune.”
His hayseed charm didn’t work as well on Mike as it did on other people. The way Mike’s eyebrows lifted indicated he knew Gabe had sidestepped the real issue. “You can afford it.”
Gabe wasn’t particularly eager to bring Mike to the reason for his visit. But neither did he want his friend to start harassing him like he had for the past year. When are you going to quit holing up in that cabin of yours and get back to the business of living?
Gabe couldn’t exactly call what he was doing ‘living.’ It certainly wasn’t life as he’d always known it. He avoided people, even his family, and attended few events. But he was meditating, training, growing his own food, and working. Mike just didn’t understand. Mike hadn’t lost his ability to walk, and with it his life’s dream, right before the Play-Offs. He hadn’t been forced to sit back and watch his team lose in the Superbowl because their starting quarterback had nearly severed his spinal cord. The damage to Gabe’s back was low, which meant he could do more than a lot of paraplegics, but it was still an injury doctors couldn’t fix. They pointed to stem cell research as a possibility for the future, but Gabe couldn’t count on something so uncertain and far away. He had to take matters into his own hands, overcome it with hard work and the power of positive thinking. That’s how he’d always handled everything else.
“I’m sure you didn’t come all the way out here just to talk about my carpet,” he said.
Bending the rim of his hat, Mike slid it through his hands in a circular motion. “No.”
Again, their eyes met and Gabe had the uncomfortable feeling that Mike was about to ask for something he couldn’t give. But they’d been friends too long. Gabe couldn’t see any way to avoid hearing Mike out.
“Have a seat.” He motioned to the couch, which was about the only piece of furniture in the cabin Gabe hadn’t made. Working with wood—and recently experimenting with other mediums like metal—gave him purpose beyond his therapy. But having such a hobby and spending so much time at it made for an odd collection of furnishings. Not that he particularly cared. Very few people came to visit. His old football buddies used to call and want to drop by, but he turned them away so consistently that most eventually gave up and moved on. They didn’t like seeing the league’s MVP reduced to half a man, and Gabe hated how uncomfortable they felt in his presence. He couldn’t help resenting their pity.
“What’s with the table?” Mike asked as Gabe wheeled over and grabbed a paper towel to wipe the blood off his arm.
Gabe considered the monstrosity he was currently creating. Eight feet by six feet, it was made in mission style, but the sheen of the metal and the large rivets gave it a very urban feel. Gabe had seen something similar in a magazine once. “I’m branching out.”
“It’s unusual, but…nice. In a creative sort of way.”
Gabe chuckled at Mike’s diplomacy. He missed the old days when they’d been close. Before the NFL. Before the accident. Before Mike had married Lucky.
“We’ll see how it turns out.” Pushing himself back into the living room, he studied his friend’s face. He could tell by the lines of fatigue around Mike’s eyes and mouth that the past ten days had been hard on him. It was nothing more than Gabe had expected. Coach Hill’s heart attack had come out of nowhere.
“I’m sorry about your dad,” he said, and meant it. Coach Hill had been like a second father to him. Because Gabe had skipped both fifth and eighth grade, he’d been two years younger than the other boys in his class, which put him at a disadvantage athletically. It was Coach Hill who recognized his talent and refused to let the other coaches cut him from the team when he went out for football his freshman year. It was Coach Hill who dared start him as a senior. Without Mike’s father’s influence, Gabe never would have played for UCLA, which was where he really matured and began to excel.
A muscle flexed in Mike’s cheek, revealing his deep emotion. “Thanks for coming to the funeral. It was the first most folks have seen of you in a long time.”
Gabe didn’t respond to Mike’s subtle jab. He was too busy wondering how he’d feel if it had been his dad who died. He’d barely spoken to his father since last year, when Garth had ruined his bid for Congress by announcing something he’d managed to keep secret for twenty-four years….
“I’ve been busy,” he said, yanking his thoughts away from that dark moment. “So…what can I do for you?”
“I think you know why I’m here.”
Gabe raked his fingers through his hair, which fell in layered waves almost to his shoulders. He rarely bothered to have it cut anymore—having it cut required a trip into town, a trip that wasn’t rewarded with food or the prospect of seeing a football game. “And I think you know what kind of answer you’re going to get.”
“It’d be good for you, Gabe.”
Gabe scowled. Everyone thought they knew what he needed. “Don’t tell me what’s good for me, Mike.”
“Then do it for the town. The season starts in two weeks. The school board’s frantic, wondering who they’re going to hire as a replacement. I know they’d go with you in a heartbeat, if only you’d take the job.”
“I don’t want the job.” If he wanted to work, he had plenty of other opportunities. Someone from ESPN called him nearly every month, begging him to co-host NFL Sunday Countdown. But he couldn’t settle for less than the brass ring—the Superbowl ring he’d been denied. He couldn’t let anything get in the way of his focus, least of all coaching a small high school football team. “Why can’t one of your father’s assistants take over?”
“No. His arthritis is getting too bad.”
“So you’re suggesting Melvin Blaine?”
Gabe squared his jaw at the challenge in Mike’s voice. “I guess I am, if there’s no one else.”
“That’s who the board will probably choose if you don’t step up. But you played for Dundee High, Gabe. You remember Blaine ’s temper. I don’t want him to have any more power over those boys than he already has. My father wouldn’t have wanted that, either.”
“But I’ve never coached before!”
Mike set his hat next to him and leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. “No one knows football better than you do.”
“There’s more to the job than knowing the game. Coaching is about…getting a bunch of individuals to play as a team. It’s about…inspiration.”
“You can inspire. Hell, most of those boys worship you already. You’re a local hero.”
Gabe felt a headache coming on and began to rub his temples. “They worship what I used to be.”
“You’re still the same man.”
He wasn’t the same at all. The accident had cost him more than his ability to play ball. It had stripped him of his identity. He wasn’t even sure what was important to him anymore. He’d thought it was his family, until he’d learned about his father’s deception. He had to find his way back to the man he used to be. Coaching would only get in the way. “It’d be a huge undertaking. Every coach’s style is different and with only two weeks to get ready for the first game—”
“You could handle it.”
Maybe he could. But he refused to let himself be distracted. He had to hang on to who he used to be since he didn’t know who he was now. And there was another problem….
“Won’t Kenny Price be playing on varsity this year?”
At last, Mike began to look a little uncomfortable. “He doesn’t have to. He’s only a sophomore.”
“But he’s good.” Gabe knew how good because he’d seen him play. Since he’d lost the ability to walk, it was always a bittersweet experience to visit the stadium, but he hadn’t been able to stay away. When football season rolled around, he drove into town to watch both the junior varsity and varsity games. Besides an occasional trip to the grocery store so he could eat and buy dog food, it was one of the few places Gabe still bothered to go.
“I know you’ve got to feel strange toward his mother. If you don’t think you can live with having him on your team, it’s no big deal,” Mike insisted. “Let him play JV another year.”
Strange didn’t begin to describe how Gabe felt toward Hannah Price. But even at sixteen, Kenny was a better quarterback than senior Jonathon Greer or junior Buck Weaver. “I wouldn’t play a kid based on his age. I’d go by talent. And from what I’ve seen, keeping Kenny on JV wouldn’t be fair to him or the team.”
“Gabe, unless you take over as coach, Melvin Blaine’s going to get the job.”
If he could turn down a multi-million dollar contract with ESPN, he could certainly turn this away, he told himself. “So maybe it’s a throw-away year. Replace Blaine after the season’s over, when the board is able to find someone better suited to the job.”
Mike looked at him as if he had to be crazy. “A throw-away year? You think that’s fair to the boys? Would you have wanted to bust your ass for a team with no promise?”
Gabe was far too competitive for that, and Mike knew it.
“Besides, it wouldn’t be that easy to replace Blaine ,” Mike went on. “If he gets in, he’ll stay until he does something stupid. Something like he did to you. You really want to give him that opportunity?”
Gabe continued to rub his temples but said nothing.
“Come on, it’s only for one season.”
Wadding up the paper towel he’d used to wipe the blood from his arm, Gabe banked it off the wall, into the kitchen wastebasket. “I loved your dad, Mike. I owe him a lot. But—”
“Then do it for him, Gabe.”
Shit… The memories Gabe had been fighting finally intruded, and he pictured Coach Hill asking to meet with him at the beginning of his junior year, just after he’d been caught ditching school. Because he was so much younger than the other guys, he’d been trying to prove himself, which at that age somehow equated with drinking and being careless about grades and rules in general. He’d never dreamed Coach Hill would notice or care about a fifteen-year-old junior. Until Duane Steggo blew out his knee a month later, Gabe wasn’t even on varsity.
But Coach Hill did more than notice. Late one afternoon, he called him in and sat him down in an otherwise empty locker room. Then they had the talk. Coach Hill explained that there were two kinds of men: strong men, who remained true to their internal compasses regardless of all else; and weak men who were easily misled and wound up cheating themselves of all they could be. He’d told Gabe he only wanted strong men on his team, and asked which kind of man Gabe wanted to be. That’s when Gabe quit worrying about fitting in and decided to put his energy toward being the best—at everything—and wound up graduating with a 4.0 grade point average and a football scholarship to UCLA.
He wasn’t sure he would’ve turned around without Coach Hill. His own father had tried to motivate him in many ways. But somehow it was Coach Hill who’d made the difference.
“Gabe?” Mike pressed.
Gabe scrubbed a hand over his face, then frowned when Lazarus laid his snout his Gabe’s lap and stared up at him as though he was on Mike’s side.
Maybe Gabe could turn away a national sports show but, given what Coach Hill had meant to him–what Mike meant to him–he couldn’t turn away his best friend or his old alma mater. “Fine,” he said at last. “But tell the school board to find a replacement for me as soon as possible because one year’s the most they’re gonna get.”
Grabbing his hat, Mike stood and clasped Gabe’s hand. “Thanks, buddy. I knew I could count on you.” He strode to the door but hesitated there. Predictably, his visit wasn’t over yet. “Don’t suppose you’d consider coming to my house and letting Lucky feed you dinner in the next week or two,” he said.
Gabe clenched his jaw. Mike extended such an invitation almost every time they saw each other. But Gabe couldn’t really hold it against him. He loved Lucky. Of course he’d try to get her whatever she wanted, and ever since Gabe’s father had taken that paternity test, it was no secret that she was eager to become friends with the family she’d so recently discovered.
“Maybe sometime,” he said.
Mike sighed. “The old, ‘Don’t call me, I’ll call you,’ huh?”
“You got me to coach. Be happy with that.”
“I am happy with that.”
From his friend’s sudden smile, Gabe suspected Mike was secretly congratulating himself despite the failed dinner invitation. He’d just handpicked his father’s successor and dragged Gabe back into society at the same time.
But coaching was a concession Gabe had to make. He owed Coach Hill. And he hated Melvin Blaine.