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Authors: Shannon Stacey

Under the Lights

BOOK: Under the Lights
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Praise for the novels of Shannon Stacey

“A sexy, comical, feel-good read that left me impatient for the next installment.”

—
USA Today

“Deeply satisfying.”

—
Publishers Weekly

“Books like this are why I read romance.”

—Smart Bitches, Trashy Books

“Funny, sexy and loving.”

—Dear Author

“[A] perfect contemporary romance!”

—
RT Book Reviews

“Stacey is an author who knows how to write fun, relevant dialogue within the world of romance.”

—Harlequin Junkie

“Stacey writes such fun, warm characters with the backdrop of a great small town that I was totally engrossed.”

—Smexy Books

“One of the best contemporary romance series . . . Very realistic.”

—Fiction Vixen

“If you're a fan of big families, cute romances and friends-to-lovers stories, then this book is definitely for you.”

—Under the Covers

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

UNDER THE LIGHTS

A Jove Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2015 by Shannon Stacey.

Excerpt from
Defending Hearts
copyright © 2015 by Shannon Stacey.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

JOVE® is a registered trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

The “J” design is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

For more information, visit
penguin.com
.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-18932-4

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Jove mass-market edition / June 2015

Cover illustration by Danny O'Leary.

Cover photograph of football field © David Lee / Shutterstock.

Cover design by Judith Lagerman.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

This one's for Meesha. Thank you for being the kind of sister who doesn't judge when I plan to show up for Thanksgiving dinner with a pound-and-a-half-sized bucket of crunchy cheese balls and five cans of cranberry sauce. Thank you for pretending to believe me when I promise to do better next year. And thank you for not being mad when I have to cancel on Thanksgiving morning because snow wiped out our power. Not a day goes by when I'm not thankful you're my sister and my friend.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Thank you to Kate Seaver and everybody at Berkley. I'm so grateful for the enthusiasm and hard work everybody's putting into the Boys of Fall series, and a special nod to the art department for this amazing cover!

My endless gratitude goes out to those who help me in various and invaluable ways—especially to my agent, Kim Whalen, and to Sharon, Lillie and Fatin. And, as always, so much love and so many thanks to Stuart and Jaci. With a husband and a best friend like you guys, there's nothing I can't do, even if I drive us all a little crazy in the process.

CONTENTS

Praise for the novels of Shannon Stacey

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Chapter 01

Chapter 02

Chapter 03

Chapter 04

Chapter 05

Chapter 06

Chapter 07

Chapter 08

Chapter 09

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

A sneak peek at
Defending Hearts

01

W
ith his business partner off to who-knew-where with the money he'd drained from their accounts, and his girlfriend currently stripping their apartment of any sign she'd ever lived there, the last thing Chase Sanders wanted to do was answer the damn phone.

It was only nine in the morning and he'd already fielded a call from their lumber supplier, wanting to know why their check had bounced. That was followed up by a call from his girlfriend's new boyfriend, wanting to hash out who owned the television before the guy carried it out to his truck.

Former
girlfriend, he corrected himself as the phone kept ringing. Maybe he'd hit the shitty-day jackpot and it was his doctor calling to tell him he might have contracted some horrible disease. Probably from his girlfriend—
ex
-girlfriend—and her new boyfriend.

At the fifth ring he glanced at the caller ID, and the area code snapped him out of his funk—603. And the prefix numbers were from his hometown. Why the hell was anybody calling him from Stewart Mills, New Hampshire?

He tempted fate and picked up the phone. “S and P Builders.”

“Chase Sanders, please,” said a woman whose voice he didn't recognize, not that he would expect to after fourteen years away. Her tone was warm, and maybe a little sexy, but he braced himself for bad news because that was just how his luck was running at the moment.

“This is Chase.”

“My name is Kelly McDonnell.” The last name landed a sucker punch to his gut. “You probably don't remember me, but—”

“Don't.” Chase was struck by a terrible certainty she was going to tell him Coach—her father—had passed away, and he didn't want to hear it. He had to make her stop talking.

“I'm sorry. Don't what?” She sounded confused, not that he could blame her.

He could deal with Rina reacting to the increase in penny-pinching by finding herself a new guy who wasn't losing his business. He could deal with Seth Poole reacting to the decline in the construction industry by pinching the few pennies they had left and running. But he absolutely couldn't deal with hearing Coach McDonnell was dead. Not today.

“Hello?” she said. “Are you still there?”

What an ass he was. This call couldn't be easy for the man's daughter. “I'm sorry. Go ahead.”

“But you said ‘don't.'”

“I was talking to my dog.” Not that he had a dog. Rina
didn't like dog hair and had refused to budge, even when he'd told her some of those froufrou ankle-biter breeds didn't shed.

“I'm Coach McDonnell's daughter and I'm calling to talk to you about a very special fund-raising festival we have planned for the summer.”

Fund-raising festival. “So Coach isn't dead?”

“What?”

“Sorry. Didn't mean to say that out loud.”

“Why would you think that?” Her voice was still sexy, but it wasn't warm anymore.

“You're calling me, out of the blue, after fourteen years. I thought you were going to ask me to be a pallbearer or something.”

“You've been gone fourteen years, but you think I'd ask you to carry my father's casket? If he was dead, of course. Which he's not.”

“You wouldn't ask me to be a pallbearer, but you'll ask me for money?” Not that he had any to give.

“No.” He heard her exasperated breath over the phone line. “Can we start over?”

“Sure.” Wasn't like the conversation could go any worse.

Chase tried to remember what Coach's daughter looked like. She'd been a sophomore during his senior year, so he probably wouldn't have paid much attention to her if she hadn't always been around because of her dad. Thick, straight blond hair. Not much in the way of a rack, but she'd had killer legs. That was about all he remembered. Oh, and that she hadn't liked him much, for some reason.

“Things are bad in Stewart Mills,” Kelly said. He wasn't surprised. Things were bad all over and New Jersey certainly wasn't a picnic at the moment. “The school budget's
been whittled down to bare bones and they cut the football team.”

He waited a few seconds, but she didn't tell him why she called to tell him that. “And you want me to . . . what, exactly?”

Over the line, he heard her take a deep breath. “I want you to come home.”

“I'm not sure what you mean by that, but I
am
home.”

“We need to raise enough money to fund the team until the economy swings back around, and we're starting with a two-week-long fund-raising festival. We're hoping to get as many players from the first Stewart Mills Eagles championship team as we can back to Stewart Mills to take part in the events.”

“When? For how long?” Not that it mattered.

“Next month. We'd love the whole two weeks and we're hoping for at least the closing weekend, but we'll work around any commitment we can get.”

“I wish you all the best, but—”

“Let me tell you some of the events we have planned,” Kelly interrupted. “Besides the standard bake sales and traffic tollbooths, we're planning a street fair and—most exciting of all—an exhibition game featuring the alumni players versus the current team. We'll wrap things up with a parade on the Fourth of July before the fireworks.”

Getting the crap beat out of him by a bunch of teenagers on the football field wasn't very high on Chase's to-do list. “I have a lot going on. Work and . . . stuff.”

“My dad had a lot of work and
stuff
going on, too, but he was there for you. How many hours did he spend with
you over the years, making sure you didn't flunk off the team? Bet that college degree came in handy when you were starting your own business.”

He leaned back in his chair and groaned. “That's a dirty play.”

“There's a lot riding on this. I'll do whatever I have to.”

It might be a slight exaggeration to say he owed everything to Coach McDonnell, but not much. Even if Chase's life was currently going to crap, he'd had a lot of opportunities over the years he wouldn't have had without a stubborn old man who refused to give up on him.

“I'll see what I can do.” There. That was vague and noncommittal.

“I hope to hear from you soon. Without the Eagles to coach, I don't know what'll keep my dad going.”

Even as he recognized her lack of subtlety in laying on the emotional blackmail, his heart twisted and he heard himself say, “I'll be there. I'll make it work.”

“Great. I'll be in touch soon with more details and to nail down the dates.” She was smart enough to end the call before he could talk himself out of it.

Once he'd hung up, Chase laced his fingers behind his head and stared up at the ceiling. He hadn't thought about Stewart Mills in ages, but now that he had, he couldn't help but crave a little one-on-one time with Coach McDonnell. He loved his parents, but they'd been either unwilling or unable to keep their thumbs on him academically or be a shoulder when he needed one.

He sure as hell could use a shoulder to lean on right now, as well as some pseudo-paternal advice. Besides, if he
couldn't straighten out the mess his partner had made in the next month, a couple of weeks wasn't going to hurt. For Coach, he'd make the time.

—

I
f there was one thing Kelly McDonnell had learned in her years as the daughter of the Stewart Mills Eagles high school football coach, it was that hesitation got you sacked. If you wanted to win, you had to pick your play and execute it with no second guesses.

And as much as she'd also learned to hate sports analogies during those twenty-eight years, this one she had to take to heart. She was fighting for her dad and for her town, and she couldn't lose, so she had to execute the only play she had left in her book.

It was crazy, though.
She
was crazy. Hail Mary passes didn't even begin to describe the desperate phone calls she'd made. But they were going to work, and that made all the trouble worth it.

She already had several commitments. Alex Murphy, defensive tackle, had been hard to track down but agreed to come back after she reminded him of the many times her father had bailed him out of jail after fights and taught him to channel his aggression into football. The quarterback, Sam Leavitt, was coming all the way from Texas. The son of an abusive drunk, he was probably the kid Coach had cursed the most, loved the most and done the most for. And Chase Sanders, running back, had bowed to her not-so-subtle pressure as well and was driving up from New Jersey.

So, the good news—Chase Sanders was coming back to
town. The bad news—Chase Sanders was coming back to town.

“Officer McDonnell?” Kelly looked up when the school secretary said her name, shoving Sanders to the back of her mind, where he belonged. “Miss Cooper's available now.”

Kelly nodded her thanks and made her way through the maze of short hallways—one of the joys of a hundred-plus-year-old brick school—until she came to the guidance counselor's office. She didn't have to worry about getting lost. Besides the fact that she'd walked the same halls as a teenager herself, as a police officer she'd spent a lot of time in Jen Cooper's office. The budget didn't allow for a full-time school resource officer, but Kelly filled the role as best she could anyway.

She'd barely closed the door behind her when Jen pointed at her and said, “You
have
to save football.”

Kelly laughed at her best friend's irritation and sat in one of the visitor chairs. “You know I'm trying.”

“The boys are already getting into trouble. Since March, when the budget for next school year was decided, they've been sliding, and now, with this school year almost over and finals right around the corner, they're losing their minds.” Jen leaned back in her chair, rocking it as she always did when agitated. “Without the threat of August football tryouts to keep them in line, I don't know how some of them will stay on track this summer.”

“I'm going to put them to work. If they want to play this fall, they'll have to work for it, even if it's doing car washes every Saturday all summer.”

“Hunter Cass hasn't done any homework for over a week.
I had him in today and he told me since he didn't need to maintain at least a C average to keep his sports eligibility, he didn't see the point.”

Kelly shook her head, feeling a pang of sadness. Hunter had struggled to keep a D average through middle school, and only the promise of playing football got him to work hard enough to stay above the cutoff. With the help of the peer tutoring program Jen had started, the running back was carrying a B-minus average before they announced the program cuts.

Like Chase Sanders, she realized. Football had inspired him to do better academically, too, and he'd made something of himself. The difference was that Chase had struggled with learning techniques, and Hunter just didn't give a crap.

“When we get a few more details nailed down, we'll be able to start putting the kids to work. Once they can see there's something they can do to save their team, they'll get back on track.”

Jen leaned forward so she could prop her elbows on the desk. “What if they put in the time and the work and it's not enough?”

That would be so much worse for the boys, so Kelly was going to make sure that didn't happen. “It'll be enough.”

“Where are the alumni going to stay?”

Kelly appreciated the switch to talking about things they
could
control. “To save money, we're boarding them with families in town. It's a little awkward, but since our only motel has plywood on the windows, it would cost a lot to find someplace else for them, and then we'd have to provide transportation, too. My mom decided to ask around, and she's in charge of matching them up.”

“Who gets to stay with Coach?”

Kelly rolled her eyes. “Chase Sanders.”

She appreciated the battle Jen fought to hide it, but her friend couldn't stop the grin. “Was that your mom's idea . . . or yours?”

“Mom's.” Boarding the guy she'd had a crush on in school at her parents' home, where she spent a lot of her time, would never have been her idea. “And I never should have told you I liked him, even though that was a
long
time ago.”

Jen picked up her pen and started doodling on a notepad. “He's not married, is he?”

“I don't think so. The only guy who mentioned having to talk to his wife was John Briscoe. Remember him? Tall, skinny, played wide receiver.”

“Vaguely.” Jen sighed and set the pen down, which was good since she was really burning through the ink, judging by the number of doodles already on the pad. “I'm losing them, Kelly.”

“The most important thing is that they see us fighting for them.”

Jen nodded, but Kelly wasn't surprised at the lack of conviction on her friend's face. They both had front-row seats to the toll the economic downswing was having on the town's kids. With their parents fighting unemployment, bankruptcy, foreclosure, depression and each other, the children were falling through the cracks. Alcohol-related calls were on the rise, as were domestic calls, and lately the Stewart Mills PD had seen a sharp increase in the number of complaints against teens. Drinking, smoking, trespassing, vandalizing, shoplifting. The kids were doing more of it, there was less tolerance for their behavior and their homes were pressure cookers. Somebody had to fight for them.

Kelly had to make their fund-raiser a success, no matter what, not only for her dad but for the entire town, too. She'd work her butt off and schmooze and beg if she had to. She'd also do her best to ignore the fact that Chase Sanders would be sleeping in the room where she'd spent her teenage years daydreaming about him. She had no idea which task would be more difficult.

—

C
hase managed to bash his knuckles twice on his way down the stairs with the last of Rina's boxes, which did nothing to improve his mood.

BOOK: Under the Lights
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