Talk of the Town - By Beth Andrews


THERE WAS NO place like home.

Or some sentimental, greeting-card bullshit like that.

Neil Pettit swung his duffel bag out of the back of his rental car and then slowly climbed the paved walkway toward the dark house. He supposed for some people going home was a big deal. A good deal. That it meant returning to a place of happy memories, home-cooked meals and comfort. A place where they belonged.

For others, it was nothing but a pain in the ass. He wished it wasn’t. But instead of proving how far he’d come, whenever he returned to his hometown, all he remembered was what he’d come from.

Maybe his agent was right. Maybe he could do with a hefty dose of therapy.

He shifted his bag to his other hand and knocked on the front door. This house, with its fancy windows and various roof lines, its immaculate lawn and professional landscaping, was what he’d always dreamed of, what he’d worked so hard for. It was a testament to his work ethic, skills and talent.

He’d promised himself that when he was one of the top players in the NHL, his family would have the fanciest, biggest, most expensive house in Shady Grove. Mission accomplished.

So why did he still feel like that scrawny kid from the wrong side of town waiting on the stoop for someone to let him in? As if everything he’d always wanted for his family, for himself, was just out of reach.

Always out of his reach.

He rolled his head from side to side. Knocked again. A minute later, the porch light came on and the door opened to reveal Geraldine Pettit, her short, curly red hair disheveled, her mouth a thin line.

“Neil Pettit,” she said, yanking the ties of her light blue robe together so tightly, Neil was surprised she didn’t strangle a kidney. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”

He nodded once. “It’s early.”

He shifted before remembering that, not only did he have twelve inches and one hundred pounds on her, but he was also an adult now. Her disapproving look no longer had the power to affect him.

She turned that look up a few degrees. Set her hands on her nonexistent hips.

Sweat beaded on his upper lip. He couldn’t stop himself from hunching his shoulders.

“Sorry if I woke you,” he said before she fried him with another glare.

“Of course you woke me. It’s not even six a.m. Your flight wasn’t due to land until eight.”

“I got an earlier flight.” He scratched the side of his neck. “Should I wait out here for a few more hours?”

She harrumphed. “It’d serve you right if I told you to go on and do just that. Lucky for you,” she said with the nobility of a queen, “I’m a forgiving soul.”

A point her husband might dispute but one that was essentially true. “I appreciate it.”

“As you should.” But her expression softened and she finally stepped back enough to give him room to enter the airy foyer with its glossy woodwork and high ceiling. She shut the door. “It’s good to see you.”

Before he could evade, he was wrapped in a hard hug.

Still holding his bag, he awkwardly patted her upper back with his other hand. He wanted to push her away. Worse, so much worse, he wanted to pull her closer and just hold on.

“You saw me last week,” he said as he stepped back. She and her husband, Carl, had come out to Seattle for game seven of the Stanley Cup playoffs not five days ago.

“You look much better now.” She took his chin in her hand and turned his face this way, then that. Did another harrumph at the thin scar under his eye. “At least that new team doctor stitched you up nice and pretty. But I still can’t believe the refs only gave that Russian bully two minutes in the penalty box. He should’ve been ejected from the game.”

“It’s all part of hockey.” Though he could have lived just fine without getting whacked in the face with a hockey stick. “We won that game. That’s all that matters.”

“I suppose. But took great satisfaction in that goal you scored when you returned to the ice.”

“How’s a man supposed to sleep around here with you two yakking?” a male voice grumbled.

Neil glanced up then quickly looked down at the floor. But the memory of Carl Pettit—and his hairy legs and round stomach—stomping down the stairs in nothing but a pair of black-and-white checked boxers was permanently etched in his