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Authors: M.E. Carter

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BOOK: Change of Hart
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Jaxon beamed. “Did you know you are my hero, Mr. Hart?”

“I am?” I asked with a smile. “How come?”

“Well, you know you play really good football.”

I chuckled. “So I’ve heard.”

“But my dad used to say you were really nice.” I tilted my head, taking in everything Jaxon said. “He said you helped people who were sick and you were nice to kids. He said if I was gonna grow up to be a football player, he wanted me to be like you.”

My jaw dropped and I looked over at Lindsay. She smirked and shrugged at me.

I cleared my throat. “It sounds like your dad was a really nice man,” I said.

“Yeah,” Jaxon said, looking at the floor again. “He was. I miss him.”

I took a deep breath, steeling myself to say the words I hadn’t said out loud in years.

“My dad died, too,” I said.

Jaxon looked up at me with wide eyes. “He did?”

I smirked at him. “Yeah. When I was about your age. Maybe a little older. I was in third grade when he died. It really sucked.”

“Yeah,” Jaxon said. “It really sucks.”

We talked for a while longer about our dads and football and his teacher, Mrs. Arrevalo, who he said smelled like cheese. Mrs. Teske snickered at that one. Adam took some pictures and promised to email them to the school.

This time, when Jaxon went to hug me goodbye, I got down on my knees to hug him back. As he wrapped his little arms around my broad shoulders, I heard him loud and clear . . . “This has been the best day ever, Jason. I love you.” Then he turned around and literally skipped out of the room.

 

 

“T
hirteen, fourteen, come on, Deuce! One more!” I shouted. “Fifteen. Nice job.” I grabbed the bar and helped guide the weights back onto the rack. Fifteen bench presses may not sound like a lot. But when you’re pushing three hundred and twenty pounds to the sky, it feels like way more.

“Thanks,” Deuce said, sitting up and wiping his face off with a towel. “This workout is killing me today. You’d think I’d never bench-pressed before.”

I barked a laugh as I adjusted the weights.

“It’s all that home cooking you’re getting now that you finally made an honest woman out of Vanessa,” I reminded him.

Deuce stood up and threw the towel into the bin by the wall.

“Don’t I know it,” he said. “If she had told me what a good cook she was when we first started dating, I would have married her two years ago.”

Michael “Deuce” Johnson was my teammate and best friend. We were both traded to the team at the same time four years ago, and we immediately clicked. We were so much alike in personality, our teammates joked that if we weren’t different races, we could be mistaken for brothers. With his dark African-American skin tone and my lily whiteness, I personally thought we looked like an old Benetton ad whenever we took a picture together. Except for our height, we couldn’t be more different physically. He had black, shoulder-length dreads. I had cropped black hair. His eyes were dark brown. Mine were blue. His build was muscular and cut. I was shaped more like a square.

Deuce and I worked out together every day of the week except Sundays. And during the season, we saw each other on game day Sundays, too. The only time in four years that we didn’t see each other every day was a couple months ago when he got married to Vanessa and took her on an extravagant honeymoon to Bali.

Vanessa was this tiny little Hispanic woman. And I do mean tiny. At 6’ 3” and 6’ 5” respectively, Deuce and I towered over her. Even by average height standards, Vanessa still came in on the short side at 4’ 11”. But what she lacked in height, she made up for with her feisty Latina attitude. And her culinary skills.

“Don’t start going into details about her cooking,” I said as I lay down on the bench and adjusted my body so I didn’t fall off. “The season is just starting. The last thing I need is some of her enchiladas.”

I pressed the bar up with a grunt.

“Tell me about it,” Deuce replied while I counted my own reps. He always seemed to forget that was part of his job when he was the spotter. “Taking a couple weeks off to relax was nice, but I feel like I can’t catch back up to where I was. In muscle tone only, of course. I actually got in a lot of good endurance exercises while I was gone,” he said, waggling his eyebrows up and down. “What number are you on?”

“Twelve!” I grunted and kept pressing the bar skyward, trying not to laugh at his perverted joke.

“Vanessa wants me to invite you to dinner tomorrow night,” he continued. “She says she misses you. I don’t get why she misses
you
when she’s got this hunk of man to come home to.” Deuce grabbed the bar and spotted as I dropped it down on the rack.

I sat up and took a quick gulp of my water.

“Yeah,” I said. “I think I can do dinner. I already fulfilled my PR obligations for this month so I don’t think there’s anything on the schedule.”

“Oh yeah!” Deuce said. “I forgot about that school thing you had to do. How did it go, anyway?”

“It was . . . interesting.”

I filled Deuce in on how the media tracked me down and April Gill’s intrusion. Deuce made a face when I got to that part. Thankfully, he’d been smart enough to never fall victim to her deceptions, but that didn’t mean he was happy to see other people get sucked into her trap.

By the time I finished telling him about Jaxon’s reaction to seeing me, the barbell and our workout had been long forgotten.

“That’s really weird,” Deuce kept saying. “I get that the kid looks up to you, but . . . that’s really weird.”

“I thought so, too,” I said, wiping my face with my towel again. “But there’s something about this kid. I can’t stop thinking about him and wondering how he is.”

“Well, yeah,” Deuce agreed. “His dad just died, man. Of course you’re wondering about him. You’ve been there.”

“Yeah,” I said thoughtfully, resting my elbows on my knees.

“What?” Deuce asked.

I looked up, confused. “What, what?”

“You have that weird look on your face. Not the one that’s just your face. I’m used to that weirdness. The one that means you’re trying to decide something.”

I ignored his good-natured ribbing. “I don’t know. I just feel like I should be doing something for him.”

Deuce thought for a second before speaking. “Is this about your own dad?” he asked. “Are you feeling some sort of weird connection to this kid because he reminds you of yourself?”

I sat up and stretched out my back. “I don’t think so. I just . . . I don’t know. You should have seen his eyes light up when we talked about football. He was so animated. And he’s just this bundle of energy. It was so fun just watching him be excited about things.”

“Okkkaaaaay,” Deuce said crossing his arms. “I’m starting to get a little creeped out by your strange fascination with a little boy.”

“Shut up,” I replied, snapping him with my towel. “Maybe I just wanna help. Be his friend or something.”

“So invite him to the stadium. Take him on a personal tour of the locker room. Play catch with him on the field. He’d probably love it,” Deuce said, walking around the bench to spot me again.

“That’s not a bad idea, Deuce,” I said lying back down to resume our workout. “I’ll see if Lindsay can help me get in touch with him.” I pushed up the bar with a grunt and started counting.

We spent another thirty minutes lifting before getting in five miles on the treadmill. A two-hour workout wasn’t very long for us, but practice had been kicking our butts lately. And Deuce was still in that newlywed phase of his marriage and anxious to get back to Vanessa. Besides, I could come back to the weight room later if I wanted. There was always someone milling around looking for a spotter.

After a quick shower, I jumped in my black Range Rover and headed toward home. Once I got on the highway, I hit the hands-free button.

“Jason’s phone,” the computerized voice said, followed by a beep.

“Call Lindsay,” I responded.

“Calling Lindsay,” it replied and beeped again. As I waited for the call to connect, my mind wandered back to Jaxon. I wondered how his birthday had gone after I left the school that day. I wondered how his dad had died. And I wondered if getting involved was really something I wanted to do. He was a really sweet kid. But even sweet kids had parents and you never know what you’re going to get when the adults start getting involved.

“Well hello there, Mr. Fancy Football Man,” Lindsay teased as soon as the call connected. “This is a nice surprise.”

“Hey, girl,” I said with a smile. “How goes the wonderful world of recorder practice these days?”

“Ugh. Don’t remind me. I was just sitting here thinking about the joys of drinking heavily on the weekends, trying to get that noise out of my head.”

I laughed. “Hey now, you are molding young minds!”

“While slowly but surely losing my own in the process,” she said dryly. Her sarcasm was always one of the things I liked the most about her. “Oh! I meant to tell you, Sam wanted me to invite you over for dinner. He says a single guy like yourself deserves a home-cooked meal every once in a while.”

That was two dinner invites in one day. I felt like I had won the lottery of real food. “Well that was nice of him.”

“Maybe. Secretly, I think he just wants you to help him upgrade his season passes from the nosebleed section to on the field. But don’t tell him I let you in on his secret agenda.”

“Are you kidding?” I admonished, glancing over my shoulder to change lanes. “You only let that poor man sit in the nose bleed section?”

“It costs a ton of money to go to these games,” she said defensively. “Between parking, food and tickets, it can get pretty pricey. It’s a good thing you’re good at your job or I might have nixed the nose bleeds a long time ago!”

A laugh burst out of me again. “Well then I guess I’d better come to dinner so I can help that man get an upgrade. Can’t do it this week though. Maybe sometime next week.”

“That works,” she said. “Just let me know your schedule. I’m gonna have to go shopping to make sure I have enough food in the house to feed someone your size.”

“Don’t go out of your way. I’m a bachelor. I’m used to living off string cheese and hot dogs.”

She laughed. “I will make sure to stay away from dairy and processed pork products that night. Show you what a real meal looks like. Maybe encourage you to stop sowing those oats.”

I groaned. “Are we back to this again?”

“I just worry about you,” she sighed. “I know you’re perfectly content. I’m just looking forward to watching
the
Jason Hart finally fall head over heels for someone.”

“Don’t hold your breath, Lin,” I said. “I am not stupid. I have a very limited amount of time in this line of work. My focus is on football. Once I retire, I’ll still be young and virile.”

“Ew,” Lindsay said. “I don’t need to know anything about your virility. It makes me gag.”

I died laughing. “You started it!”

“That I did,” she sighed. “So is this a professional call? Or did you just call for a friendly chat?”

“Actually,” I hesitated just briefly. “I wanted to ask you about Jaxon.”

“Jaxon Bryant?” she asked. “From the pep rally?”

“Yeah. That Jaxon.”

“What about him?”

“What can you tell me about him?”

Lindsay paused. “I think Jaxon already told you most of it himself. Just turned seven. Lives with his single mom now that his dad has died. What else are you wanting to know?”

“How long ago did his dad die?”

“Um . . . I guess about six months ago. Right around Valentine’s Day. Car accident on his way to work.”

“Oh.”

“Why are you asking about him, anyway?”

“Well, he’s been on my mind a lot lately.”

“How so?”

“I don’t know how to explain it,” I said, rubbing the top of my head. “I just can’t stop wondering what I can do to help him. I’ve been right where he’s at, but I had a fantastic uncle that just stepped right in when my dad died. I just . . . I know Jaxon said he had a Pee-paw, but does he get to see him a lot?”

“I don’t really know,” she said. “Jaxon’s mom has been kind of tight-lipped about the whole thing. She wasn’t terribly forthcoming with personal information to begin with. But she kind of closed up a little after the accident.”

“So you know his mom?” I asked.

“Sort of,” Lindsay said, pausing as I heard what sounded like her taking a drink. Probably a large gulp of wine, knowing her. “She used to volunteer at the school once a week. She was super nice. From what I’ve pieced together in passing conversations, she went back to work over the summer. “

“Oh,” I said, lost in thought. My mind was kind of spinning as I thought about all the interactions I’d had with Jaxon and how much I enjoyed him. Was it weird that I kind of wanted to be friends with a little boy?

“Ok spill, Jay . . . what’s going on in your head?” Lindsay finally asked, cutting through the silence.

“This might sound really weird, Lin,” I started, “but I kind of want to spend some time with the kid. There’s something about him. He kept saying I’m his hero. And I have a chance to make a difference with him. That sounds kind of creepy, doesn’t it?”

BOOK: Change of Hart
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