Changing Her Plans (Santa Fe Bobcats #7)


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Quarterback coach Clayton Barnes is ready to settle down. Finally at home with the Santa Fe Bobcats, he’s feeling the pull toward starting a family. And he has his eye on the woman that would be his match.

Single mother Kristen Keplar has one year before sending her teenage son to college. And then she’s free to explore life again. When one of the coaches makes a pass, she resists at first. Keeping it professional is her main worry. But he wears her down and takes her out. The sparks fly…

Until Clay reveals he’s ready to start a family. Kristen’s on the tail end of her parenting shift and not interested in starting over. Just as they begin to work out the details of their fledgling relationship, a bomb is dropped on their quiet world. Will they be able to handle the pressure, or will the unexpected tear them apart?

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Excerpt:

Kristen Keplar looked up as the door opened to the main lobby of the Santa Fe Bobcats offices. “Hey, honey.”

Her seventeen-year-old son let the door close behind him and walked over to her desk. He barely had to reach to lean over and kiss her cheek. God, he’d gotten even taller in the last few months. She’d thought he’d stopped growing when he turned sixteen and hadn’t budged in two years. But fate—and his father’s DNA—had decided to gift Isaac with another two inches at the last minute.

“Hey, Mom. Can I get a few bucks?”

Kristen rolled her eyes and glanced over at Marge working the secondary desk in the office. “Figures, right? It’s never, ‘Hey, Mom, I missed you,’ or ‘Mom, just wanted to stop by and say hello.'”

Isaac grinned, a few strands of too-long dark blond hair floating down to cover one eye before he shoved it off his forehead. “Hey, Mom, I missed you. Wanted to stop by and say hi.”

They both paused, then Kristen added, “And ask for money.”

“That, too.”

Grinning, Kristen shook her head and motioned for him to come around the desk. “What for this time, tough guy?”

He leaned a hip on the edge of her large, imposing desk. The desk was meant to be a staple of the room itself, as the first line of defense for the Bobcats organization. “Dylan wants to see a movie, and his mom won’t let him go without company.”

“And you graciously offered to be his chaperone,” Kristen said wryly. “Eventually that woman will have to admit her son’s almost an adult and can see a movie by himself. Damn it,” she muttered, looking through her wallet. “No cash.”

“ATM card?” her son asked hopefully, holding up hands in an innocent gesture. “I’ll bring it right back, with the receipt.”

As she debated, the door leading to the hallway and the offices of the Bobcats staff opened. Head coach of the team Ken Jordan walked through, nodding to the security that flanked the door before heading for her desk. “Morning, Kristen.”

“Morning, Coach Jordan.” She set her purse down on the floor, ready to shove her son and his need for quick cash aside for her job. This job…she loved it. Loved the purpose it gave her, the sense of accomplishment, the feeling of being indispensable. Being a mother was an otherworldly experience, but the older–and more independent–her son became, the more Kristen knew she needed challenges of her own. This job was everything she needed.

“What can I do for you, Coach?” she asked.

“Well, I…oh, Isaac. Hey there, son.” Reaching out to pat her son on the shoulder, Coach Jordan smiled. “Haven’t seen you around much lately.”

“Baseball for school finished up last weekend. We’ve got tryouts coming up for the summer’s travel teams.”

“Couldn’t get the kid to play with a pigskin, could you?” the coach asked with a teasing voice.

Kristen sighed and shook her head. “I’m ashamed to admit, he prefers the leather glove to the feel of a football. What a weirdo.”

“Thanks, Mom,” Isaac said with a groan.

“I’ll let you finish up your family thing,” Coach Jordan said, stepping back a bit.

“Oh, no, it’s fine. He just came to play the Mom’s An ATM card. Please, what can I help you with?”

“Mom’s an ATM, huh?” Ken Jordan’s eyes sparkled. He had two–no, three–daughters of his own, two of whom were still teenagers, though Irene was in college now. Kristen knew he was thinking of his own daughters and that they likely had a similar habit of dipping into their parents’ wallets for incidentals. Parental hazard of raising a teenager. “I’ve got a better idea. How long do you have, Isaac?”

Her son glanced at her, then back at the coach. “Uh, couple hours, I guess. Why?”

She debated kicking him for not showing more respect, but that would only draw attention. Instead she bit back a hiss and prayed the coach wouldn’t notice.

“I’ve got some furniture in my office I want moved around. I’m getting a new desk soon, and it’s going to change the configuration. Was planning to do that myself later, but if you’re willing and think your muscles can handle it…” He let that hang in the air, and Isaac jumped on it.

“Sure thing, Coach. No problem. I’ll help out.”

“I’m willing to pay, but only if you do the job right,” Coach warned. Isaac’s head bobbed in agreement.

Kristen blew out a breath of relief. Her son had done odd jobs around the building for years now, usually as a way to keep him out of trouble. An the cash to compensate him had come from her pockets. That someone else would offer–without being asked–made her tight budget weep with gratitude.

But she really should protest.

“Coach, you don’t have to pay him,” she began, but Jordan held up his hand to stop her.

“Kristen, if I’m using labor, it’s getting compensated. Let’s go, son. I’ll show you what I’m thinking. Kristen, he’ll be back in a bit.”

“Oh, but what did you need?” she asked, standing to follow him toward the door.

“Nothing that can’t wait. It’s spring. We’ve got time.” Coach Jordan winked over his shoulder and led Isaac back into the private office areas of the Bobcats building.

***

Clayton Barnes sat with his head in his hands, debating the need for yet another six quarterback plays.

Ken Jordan had asked him to review the play book, remove six and add in the same with fresh, new ideas. Not Clay’s style, personally. He preferred to have a solid book of plays that were tested and validated, and not play around with fancy trick plays.

But when the head coach asked you to jump, you jumped…at least in your first year. He’d been coaching for over a decade overall between college and the pros, and had no problem making waves. But he also believed in picking battles to strategically wage the war. So he’d create the new plays…but he’d push to keep the stuff that works. If he lasted with this organization—and God he hoped he did—then he’d be more confident on how to push back.

The sound of a grunt caught his attention, then a curse and what sounded like furniture falling. Jumping up from his desk, he rushed over toward the sound. He passed by Frank, the assistant who guarded the coaching offices like a dragon guarding an ivy-covered tower holding a princess. The man didn’t even look up from his typing as he grumbled, “In Jordan’s office.”

Clay rushed past him, noting Frank didn’t bother to even pick up the phone to call security. Crotchety old bastard.

Ken Jordan’s office door was open, and he looked in to find someone half-behind a bookcase that was threatening to fall over. Books scattered the floor in front of it, the obvious source of the thumping.

“What the hell’s going on in here?” he demanded, then blinked when a young man’s head popped up from behind the shelving unit.

“Sorry,” he said quickly, voice cracking a bit. Not a young man, but a teenager. “Sorry. I…I mean, Coach Jordan, he asked me to come help him out, then he had a meeting, so I’ve been struggling with this bookshelf and it’s still tipping and could you help for the love of God I’m about to lose my grip.”

Biting back further questions, Clay stepped in and gripped the bookcase easily. “Crawl out from behind there and we’ll get it upright.”

The kid scuttled out from behind the wooden shelves and sighed with relief. His dark shirt was smeared with dust, but he grinned. “Thanks, man. He wants it right here.”

Clay settled it against the wall, then they both just looked at the floor, and the pile of binders and books that littered the rug.

“Shit,” the kid muttered, then sank down to his haunches, picking them up one by one. “You wouldn’t happen to know what kind of order he had these in, would you?”

“No clue.” But he squatted down and started helping out. The kid threw him a grateful smile before continuing to pick up papers and sort them into the binders they most likely fell out of. “What exactly are you doing back here, again? Who do you belong to?”

“Coach Jordan asked me to move a few things around for when his new desk gets here next week.”

“And he didn’t have the building maintenance guys do that because…”

“Because I needed a little cash.” The teenager blushed and kept his eyes down as he picked up a book and smoothed the pages down. “He does that sometimes, asks me to do jobs he could probably get someone else in here to do. I can’t have a job right now because of baseball, and Mom’s busy socking money away like it’s going to be repossessed by the government so she can save for college. Coach Jordan knows it. He’s a nice guy, you know?”

“Yeah, sure.” He handed the kid another binder. “I’m Clay Barnes.”

“I know.” The teen shook his head, some sandy blond hair covering his eyes before he swiped it away. “I mean, I know almost everyone here. You’re still new, so I haven’t met you yet. I’m Isaac Brown.”

Clay flipped through his mental file and came up with no Browns that worked in the main offices. There was a Maalik Brown on the roster, but he had a feeling there was no relation. “So who do you belong to, again?”

“Oh, right. My mom’s up at the front desk. Keplar. Kristen Kelpar.”

Clay’s stomach tightened just at the name. Kristen freaking Kelpar. The woman was walking sex in heels. The few times he’d been near her, he’d found himself surprised by the ferocity of his reaction to the buttoned-up librarian look. She wore clothes damn well, but she had a pulled-back, reserved look to her. Very you can look but don’t dream of touching.

“I see.” He helped Isaac get the books and binders back into the bookshelf and stood with the teen. The kid actually towered over him by at least two inches. “Basketball?”

Isaac shook his head and brushed at his shirt. “Baseball, all the way. Traveling season is about to start up. I’m a senior. Well, almost,” he added, grinning. “Finals in a few weeks. Baseball is finished for us at school though.”

“Baseball’s my second favorite sport.” Clay nodded at the room. “Anything else need moving?”

“No, that was the last of it. Hey, if you like baseball, you should come see us play sometimes.” Isaac’s eyes twinkled with humor as he added, “Sometimes Mom will get one of the players to show up. Freaks the opposing team out.”

Clay laughed at that. The kid was dynamite. “Sure thing, youth sports are important. I’m all for supporting the cause.”

“Supporting the cause, huh?” Something shifted in the kid’s eyes, and then he held his hands behind his back. “You know, our second coach for our traveling team bailed at the last minute. Too much work, or something.”

“Bummer,” Clay said, leaning a hip against the door jam. So far, this conversation was the best chance he had to avoid making up new plays for the hell of it.

“You wanna do it?”

That had Clay blinking. “Whoa, what?”

“You said you support youth sports. I’m a youth. I’m in a sport.” Isaac’s smile was mischievous now, clearly enjoying that he’d surprised Clay. “We need two coaches on the team. You like baseball. It seems like sort of a no-brainer.”

“Does it,” Clay murmured. Tricky son of a gun. “Ask your dad.”

“He lives in Albuquerque. He comes to some games, especially if our tournaments take us his direction, but he can’t coach.”

That explained the different name from his mother. “I’ll…think about it.”

“Great! Here’s the first practice, and the place it’s at.” Isaac grabbed a sticky note from the head coach’s desk and scribbled something with one of Ken’s pens. “If you can do it, just come on over. The guys would lose their shit.” He held out the note to Clay, who took it without word. “Thanks for the help with the bookshelf!” Then the kid was gone, off like lightning.

Clay stared at the sticky note in his hand, musing. Somehow, Clay imagined Isaac took maybe for a hell yeah, count me in.

#

Kristen tapped one hand on the desk, debating whether to leave early. Early in the off months meant leaving at four instead of five, which she’d been given authorization to do. The entire office staff had. But it never set right, if there was something to accomplish, to take off before five. But there was nothing pressing on her desk, so…

Isaac wasn’t home, so nobody was waiting for her to cook dinner. He’d gorge out on movie popcorn and soda and pick at anything she slaved over anyway. Maybe…

“Hey.”

She jolted and shrieked, then slapped a hand over her mouth. “I’m so, so…” she started, swiveling in her chair and finding Clayton Barnes standing beside her desk. “Sorry,” she finished on a mumble. “You startled me.”

“Clearly.” His lips tilted up in a small smile, which only made him even more handsome than he already was. Damn the man. “My bad. I bet you’re fun at horror movies.”

“Wouldn’t know, I refuse to go,” she said primly, inwardly wincing at her cold tone. What was it about this man that made her throw up the defenses so fast? “What can I do for you, Mr. Barnes?”

“You can stop calling me that, like I asked you to last time, to start with.”

She nodded once. Each coach had their own preferences. “Coach Barnes, then.”

“Clay.”

“Coach Barnes,” she said firmly. She was a woman in a male-dominated world. She let her professionalism and performance speak for her.

He sighed, and she could tell she’d annoyed him. But if her being professional and dignified in the workplace annoyed him, he’d just have to find a straw and suck it up.

“I met your son, Isaac, back in the offices.”

That gave her pause. “Oh.” Then, because her mind began spinning, “Did he say something inappropriate?”

The coach laughed at that. “No, not at all. He was struggling with a bookshelf, I happened to be nearby, and helped him out.”

“Maybe Coach Jordan should have split the twenty bucks with you,” she said, inwardly pleased when he chuckled again. It highlighted that he had laugh lines by the corners of his eyes. She didn’t know his age—refused to check the HR files, though she could have—but she’d guess he was early to mid-forties. Not married, from both the lack of a ring and word around the office. She had no clue if he had children, but…

Wait, why was she analyzing the man? She wasn’t looking for a date. Especially not from him. He was ruthless on the field. Watching him coach the players scared her. She recognized all types of coaching, had seen her son experience most of them…but there was just something about him she didn’t like on the field.

But when he smiled…okay, fine. The man was charming.

“He seems like a good kid, your son.”

That warmed her. “Isaac’s fantastic. I can hardly take any credit there, actually. He just sort of came out responsible and easy-going.”

“He asked me to be his baseball coach.”

That…made her sit back and take a deep breath. “I’m sorry, he did what?”

“Hey, easy.” He crouched down on the balls of his feet, one hand on the arm of her chair, blocking her in.

“I’m…fine,” she said, her voice unsteady…mostly due to the proximity of his body, and how deeply he was staring into her eyes.

“You went white as a sheet for a second.” His dark blue eyes bore holes through her. “Either your blood sugar bottomed out, or you’re not a fan of me coaching your son.”

“What? That’s not true,” she denied, but the words were forced through a tight throat, and came out cartoonish and squeaky. Clearing her throat, Kristen tried again. “Sorry, that’s not…true. I can’t believe he asked you. That was so…exactly something he would do,” she finished on a sigh. “I’m sorry, I hope you were firm when you said no, or else he’ll come back again. He’s tenacious. A quality I usually fined endearing, unless it’s being used against me.”

“I said I’d think about it.”

That had her sitting back in her chair again. “You don’t want to do that.”

“Why not?” Something sparkled in his eyes…mischief? It added an element of good humor to the handsomeness she was finding more and more attractive by the moment.

Terrible idea, Kristen. Horrible. The worst.

“The hours are terrible,” she started, you’re outside all the time. Some of the kids are real shits. Believe me, they’re not all Isaac’s,” she added with a shudder. No exaggeration there. Her son and his best friend were two sweethearts. But so many of the others already believed they were God’s gift to baseball, and acted accordingly.

“Not to mention the parents, who are the reason most of those kids are shits.”

“Parents are definitely one thing I don’t have to deal with in this gig,” he admitted, chuckling a bit. “But it’s the off season. I’ve got some time, and you know our organization is always pressing community service. It’d be a good example to set for the players.”

How did someone argue with an attitude of servitude? “There’s travel,” she said weakly.

“Being a travel team, I suspected,” he said dryly.

“Could you…” She cleared her throat and waved a hand between them. “Could you maybe step back? It’s hard talking like this.”

“Huh?” He glanced between them, then shook his head, almost as if he had forgotten he’d been crouching down. As he stood, Kristen smoothed down her skirt, and stood herself. In her heels, she was nearly eye level with him. More even playing field.

The left side of his mouth quirked up in a half smile. “Well, I think you’ve sealed the deal for me.”

She breathed a sigh of relief.

“I’m taking the job.”

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