Publisher: Cardinal Press, LLC
Formats: eBook, print
A bad boy soccer star, a kind-hearted artist, a game neither planned on playing…
The Soccer Star
A Sports Romance
A bad boy soccer star, a kind-hearted artist, a game neither planned on playing…
After her divorce, Lucy Martin left her small hometown for the big city, never expecting to return. Now she's back, caring for her soccer-crazed nephew while his parents are deployed. She'll do anything to make him happy—including reaching out to her former high school crush and current soccer superstar, Ryker James.
Nursing an injury, Ryker plans to lie low at his parents' house until he heals. He can’t wait to rejoin his club and make amends for the trouble he caused. When the younger sister of a former teammate asks him for a favor—to coach her nephew's soccer team—he should decline. But boredom and attraction compel him to help Lucy.
Coaching forces them together, and sparks fly…on and off the field. But Lucy’s wary of romance, and Ryker can’t afford a distraction. Before the final whistle blows, will they take a shot at love or forfeit the match?
Read an Excerpt
Each day for the past four weeks, Connor’s school bus had arrived at the corner across the street no later than three thirty. Each day, except today. Lucy Martin glanced at the clock hanging on the living room wall.
Anxiety knotted her stomach, making her jittery. Her nephew should be home by now.
Was it time to call the school to find out where the bus might be, or was she overreacting? Parenting—okay, surrogate parenting—was too new for her to know for certain.
She stared out the window, hoping to see something. The street corner remained empty. That wasn’t surprising. Only residents drove through this neighborhood on the outskirts of town.
What to do?
She tapped her foot.
Her sister-in-law, Dana, had put a three-ring binder together before she left. Lucy called it the survival guide because inside were lists for most contingencies and emergencies. A late school bus hadn’t been a scenario. Lucy had checked. Twice.
No need to panic.
Farmland surrounded Wicksburg, a small Midwestern town with a low crime rate and zero excitement except for harvests in the summer, Friday-night football in the fall, and basketball in the winter. Several things could have delayed the bus. A traffic jam because of too slow-moving farm equipment, road construction, a car accident...
A chill shivered down Lucy’s spine.
Don’t freak out.
Until recently, she hadn’t taken care of anyone but herself. This overwhelming need to see her nephew right this moment was brand new to her. But she’d better get used to it. For the next year, she wasn’t only Connor’s aunt, she was also his guardian while his parents, both army reservists, were deployed overseas. Her older brother, Aaron, trusted Lucy with his only child. If something happened to her nephew on her watch...
Her muscles tensed.
The family’s cat, an overweight Maine Coon with a tail that looked more like a raccoon’s than a feline’s, rubbed against the front door. His green-eyed gaze met Lucy’s.
“I know, Manny.” The cat’s concern matched her own. She rubbed her hands together, noticing the color beneath her fingernails from the pastels she’d used in her sketch. “I want Connor home, too.”
A flash of yellow caught her eye.
She stared out the window once again.
The school bus idled at the corner. Red lights flashed.
Relief flowed through her. She blew out a breath. “Thank goodness.”
Lucy went toward the front door before stopping. Connor had asked her not to meet him at the bus. She understood the need to be independent and wanted to make him happy. But following his request these past two and a half weeks hadn’t erased the sadness from his eyes. She knew better than to take it personally. Smiles had become rare commodities since his parents deployed.
Peering through the slit in the curtains gave her a clear view of the bus stop and the short walk to the house. Connor could assert his independence while she ensured his safety.
Lucy hated seeing him moping like a lost puppy, but she understood. He missed his mom and dad. She’d tried tomake him feel better. Nothing, not even his favorite desserts, fast-food restaurants, or video games, had made a difference. Now that his spring soccer team was without a coach, things had gone from bad to worse.
The door of the bus opened. The Bowman twins exited. The seven-year-old girls wore matching pink polka-dot dresses, white shoes, and purple backpacks.
Connor stood on the bus’s bottom step with a huge smile on his face. He leaped to the ground and skipped across the street.
Her heart swelled with excitement. Something good must have happened at school.
As her nephew approached the house, Lucy stepped away from the window. She wanted his smile to remain. No matter what it took.
Manny rubbed against her leg. Birdlike chirping sounds came from his mouth. Strange, but not unexpected from a cat that barked when annoyed.
“Don’t worry.” She touched the cat’s back. “Connor will be home in three...two...one...”
The front door flung open. Manny dashed for the outside, but her nephew closed the door to stop the cat’s escape.
“Aunt Lucy.” His blue eyes twinkled. So much like Aaron. Same eyes, same hair color, same freckles. “I found someone who can coach the Defeeters.”
She should have known Connor’s change of attitude had to do with soccer. Her nephew loved the sport. Aaron had coached his son’s team since Connor started playing organized soccer when he was five. A dad had offered to take Aaron’s place but then had to back out after his work schedule changed. No other parent could do it for a variety of reasons. That left the team without a coach. Well, unless you counted her, which was like being coachless.
The thought of asking her ex-husband to help had entered her mind for about a nanosecond before she banished it into the far recesses of her brain where bad ideas belonged. Being back in the same town as Jeff was difficult enough with not-so-pleasant memories resurfacing. Lucy hadn’t seen him yet, nor did she want to.
“Fantastic.” She rubbed her hands together. “Who is it?”
Connor’s grin widened, making him look as if he’d found a million-dollar bill or calorie-free chocolate. He shrugged off his backpack. “Ryker James.”
Her heart plummeted to her feet. Splat! “The Ryker James?”
Connor nodded enthusiastically. “He’s not only the best player in the MLS, but my favorite. He’ll be the perfect coach. He played on the same team with my dad. They won district and a bunch of tournaments. Ryker’s a nice guy. My dad said so.”
She had to tread carefully here. For Connor’s sake.
Ryker had been a nice guy and one of her brother’s closest friends. But she hadn’t seen him since he left high school to attend the U.S. Soccer Residency Program in Florida. According to Aaron, Ryker had done well, playing overseas and now for the Phoenix Fuego FC, a Major League Soccer (MLS) team. Coaching a recreational team comprised of nine-year-old boys probably wasn’t on his bucket list.
Lucy bit the inside of her cheek, hoping to think of something—anything—that wouldn’t make this blow up in her face and turn Connor’s smile upside down.
“Wow,” she said finally. “Ryker James would be an amazing coach, but isn’t he getting ready to train for his season?”
“MLS clubs have been working out in Florida and Arizona. The first match isn’t until April.” Connor spoke as if this was common knowledge she should know.
Given soccer had always been “the sport” in the Martin household, she probably should.
“But Ryker James got hurt playing with the U.S. men’s team in a friendly against Mexico,” Connor added. “He’s out for a while.”
Friendly meant an exhibition game. She knew that much. But the news surprised her. Aaron usually kept her up to date on Ryker. Her brother would never let Lucy forget her schoolgirl crush on the boy from the wrong side of town who was now a famous soccer star. “Hurt as in injured?”
“He had surgery and can’t play. He’s staying with his parents while he recovers.” Connor’s eyes brightened more. “Isn’t that great?”
“I wouldn’t call having surgery and being injured great.”
“Not him being hurt, but his being in town and able to coach us.” Connor made it sound like this was a done deal. “I bet Ryker James will be almost as good a coach as my dad.”
“Did someone ask Ryker if he would coach the Defeeters?”
“No,” Connor admitted, undaunted. “I came up with the idea during recess after Luke told me Ryker James was at the fire station’s spaghetti feed signing autographs. But the whole team thinks it’s a good idea. If I’d been there last night...”
The annual Wicksburg Fire Department Spaghetti Feed was one of the biggest events in town. She and Connor had decided not to go to the fundraiser because Dana planned to call. “Don’t forget, you got to talk to your mom.”
“I know,” Connor said. “But I’d like Ryker James’s autograph. If he coaches us, he can sign my ball.”
Signing a few balls, mugging for the camera, and smiling at soccer moms didn’t come close to the time it would take to coach a team of boys. The spring season was shorter and more casual than fall league, but still...
She didn’t want Connor to be disappointed. “It’s a great idea, but Ryker might be busy.”
“Will you ask him if he’ll coach us, Aunt Lucy? He might just say yes.”
The sound of Connor’s voice, full of excitement and anticipation, tugged at her heart. “Might” likely equaled “yes” in his young mind. She would do anything for her nephew. She’d returned to the same town where her ex—now married to her former best friend—lived to care for Connor, but going to see Ryker...
She blew out a puff of air. “He could say no.”
Lucy hadn’t seen him since before her liver transplant. She’d been in eighth grade, jaundiced and bloated, carrying close to a hundred pounds of extra water weight. Not to mention exhausted and head over heels in love with the high school soccer star. She’d spent much of her time alone in her room because of liver failure. Ryker James had fueled her adolescent fantasies. She’d dreamed about him letting her wear his jersey, asking her out to see a movie at the Liberty Theater, and inviting her to be his date at prom.
Of course, none of those things had ever happened. She’d hated being known as the sick girl. She’d rarely been able to get up the nerve to say a word to him. And then...
The high-school soccer team had sponsored two fundraisers—a summer camp for kids and a goal-a-thon—to help with Lucy’s medical expenses. She remembered when Ryker handed her the large cardboard check. She’d tried to push her embarrassment and awkwardness aside by smiling and meeting his gaze. He’d surprised her by smiling back and sending her heart rate into overdrive. She’d never forgotten his kindness or the flash of pity in his eyes.
His pity had devastated her.
Lucy’s stomach churned at the memory. She wasn’t that same girl. Still, she didn’t want to see him again.
“Ryker is older than me.” No one could ever imagine what she’d gone through and how she’d felt being so sick and tired all the time. Or how badly she’d wanted to be normal and healthy. “He was your dad’s friend, not mine. I didn’t know him.”
“But you’ve met him.”
“He used to come to our house, but the chances of him remembering me...”
“Please, Aunt Lucy.” Connor’s eyes implored her. “We’ll never know unless you ask.”
He sounded like Aaron. Never willing to give up no matter what the odds. Her brother hadn’t let her quit, either. Not when she would have died without a liver transplant or when Jeff had trampled upon her heart.
Lucy’s chest tightened. She should do this for Aaron as much as Connor. But she had no idea how she could get close enough to someone as rich and famous as Ryker James.
Connor stared up at her with big, round eyes.
A lump formed in her throat. Whether she wanted to see Ryker James or could see him didn’t matter. This wasn’t about her. “Okay. I’ll ask him.”
Connor wrapped his arms around her. “I knew I could count on you.”
Lucy hugged him tight. “You can always count on me, kiddo.”
Even if she had a feeling the coaching situation wouldn’t work out the way her nephew wanted. But she could keep him smiling. At least until Ryker said no.
Connor squirmed out of her arms. “Let’s go see him now.”
“Not so fast. This is something I’ll do on my own.” She didn’t want her nephew’s image of his favorite soccer player destroyed in case Ryker was no longer a nice guy. Fame and fortune could change a person. “And I can’t show up empty-handed.”
But what could she give to a man who could afford whatever he wanted? Flowers might be appropriate because of his injury, but maybe a little too feminine. Chocolate, perhaps? Hershey’s Kisses might be taken the wrong way. Not that he’d known about her crush. Thank goodness.
“Cookies,” Connor suggested. “Everyone likes cookies.”
“Yes, they do.” Though Lucy doubted anything would convince Ryker to accept the coaching position. But what was the worst he could say besides no? “Does chocolate chip sound good?”
“Those are my favorite.” Connor’s smile faltered. “It’s too bad my mom isn’t here. She makes the best chocolate chip cookies.”
Lucy mussed his hair to keep him from getting too caught up in missing his mom. “It is too bad, but remember she’s doing important stuff right now. Like your dad.”
“How about we use your mom’s recipe?” Lucy asked. “You can show me how she does it.”
His smile returned. “Okay.”
Lucy wanted to believe everything would turn out okay, but she knew better. As with marriage, the chance of a happy ending here was low. Best to prepare accordingly. She would bake a double batch of cookies—one to give to Ryker and one for them to keep. She and Connor would need something to make them feel better after Ryker James said no.