A heartbreaking secret stands between her and Cooper, and Lexi plans to keep it that way.
1 Peter 4:8
Cooper Jackson slid the double turkey and cheddar sandwich onto his plate, added a fistful of rippled potato chips, and hobbled into the living room, leaving his crutches behind. The metal pair gaped at him through the doorway, hideous annoyances that had taken his dignity and pride. He’d walk without them again for good, starting right now, if it killed him.
And it just might.
His knee screamed with each step. The doc said the pain would ease with time, but grueling daily therapy sessions left him exhausted. He remembered his dad’s words from their phone conversation last night. “Buck up, Coop. Wrap your mind around the pain, work through it. You know the drill.”
Yeah, he knew the drill, all right. Dad had ingrained it into him from the age of six, when he’d suited up in pads and a helmet and stepped onto turf for the first time in West Knoxville’s peewee league. No whining, no complaining. Just get in there and get the job done.
That work ethic had taken him to the top—a full ride to the University of Tennessee followed by a lucrative NFL contract with the Jaguars down in Jacksonville. The money poured in and he rode a promising wave of fame.
Until he blew out his right knee taking a late hit during the fourth quarter of a playoff game three months ago. Surgery followed, and his prognosis and NFL future were still up in the air.
Cooper massaged the sore knee over a ridge of scar, willing it to heal faster. He should feel better by now.
He bit off a chunk of the sandwich and punched a button on the remote to turn up the TV’s volume. Midday news blared from the high-def flat screen in full surround sound. A familiar voice filled the room like music. He glanced up and choked on a mouthful of sandwich.
Lexi gazed at him, her eyes rich chocolate almonds set in a face like smooth cream. Her hair was shorter than he remembered, kissing her shoulders in a sassy blonde, blunt cut. Her lips, perfectly glossed with a hint of color just the way he liked them, moved to answer the announcer’s questions.
“We’re raising money to fund programming at Thursday’s Child.” Her voice was a smooth melody. The slight southern cadence warmed him, and he imagined it worked magic on the viewing audience as well. “There are so many children who need a supervised, safe place to spend quality time. Our goal at Thursday’s Child is to get kids off the streets and into activities where they can acquire skills that will enhance their quality of life.”
“And you’re currently sponsoring an auction?” The announcer leaned closer. Cooper figured the guy was trying to cop a look at Lexi’s perky cleavage. Cooper’s face burned, but he didn’t know why he found the idea so annoying, so...personally degrading.
“Yes. But it’s not your typical auction. You see, we’ve elicited the help of a dozen eligible bachelors and bachelorettes in the Knoxville area who’ve each agreed to donate an evening’s date to his or her highest bidder.” A host of photos flashed across the screen. Cooper gasped. Lexi stared back at him, her dark eyes framed by naturally-lush lashes. She was even more beautiful than he remembered. “The auction opened just a few minutes ago, at noon. We encourage people to go online, to the Thursday’s Child website, to place their bids. The auction will close this Thursday at midnight and we’ll announce the lucky winners on Friday’s evening edition of Channel Ten News.”
Cooper sprang from the chair and hobbled over to the coffee table. He barely felt the pain that sliced through his knee as he bent over an open laptop and punched in the URL of the Thursday’s Child’s website that scrolled across the bottom of the TV screen. He kept his gaze glued to the TV as the website popped up. He couldn’t take his gaze off Lexi.
“I’ll have to check my savings account.” The announcer grinned at Lexi, and Cooper felt his gut twist. “A date with you is sure to be a real treat. Thank you for joining us.” The letch turned from Lexi to face the camera full on. “That was Lexi Taylor with Thursday’s Child. Back to you, Susan.”
Cooper turned his attention to the webpage. He clicked on a link and quickly scanned the information posted. Lexi already had three bids, the highest a hundred dollars. He punched a few buttons and sat back, satisfied.
Lexi pushed back from the interview desk. She couldn’t get away from the announcer quick enough. What a creep. She prayed his piggy bank was empty. She couldn’t imagine spending an evening in his company, even for Thursday’s Child. She tugged the wireless microphone box Renee had tucked into the waistband of her linen pencil skirt and disentangled the clip from her blouse. “Did I do OK?”
“You were awesome.” Renee took the microphone. “The pledges have already started pouring in. Go take a look.”
Lexi bent over the laptop Renee had propped open on the counter. The wireless connection streamed a live image of Thursday’s Child’s auction webpage. She gasped and tapped the screen.
Renee grinned. “Secret admirer, maybe?”
“That’s a lot of money.” A five-thousand dollar bid topped the three that had already been placed in her name—by forty-nine hundred dollars. “What’s the guy’s name?”
“Now, Lexi, you know that’s confidential until the announcement of the winners.” Renee winked and tucked a stray wisp of fiery red hair behind her ear. “The marketing department for the news team is remaining steadfastly silent. They won’t even give me a hint, so I guess you’ll just have to wait to find out like everybody else.”
“Well...as long as it’s not the creepy announcer over there, I’m good with it.” Concerned for the safety of the participants, she’d been hesitant to buy into the auction idea at first. But Renee had promised a stringent screening of the winners and Lexi trusted her. They’d been best friends since their first day of college when they shared a cramped dorm room at the University of Tennessee. “Someone with that much money to burn and a heart for our kids can’t be all that bad. Five thousand dollars will go a long way toward funding our summer programs, and that’s just one bid. Let’s keep an eye on things and see what happens.”
She grabbed her purse and headed toward the door. “I’m going to take a run before I head back to the office to finish up some paperwork. You want to come?”
“Not today. I’ve got to take care of a few errands. I’ll meet you back at the office later.”
Lexi was glad for the solitude. Bradford pear trees were just coming into peak bloom along Cherokee Boulevard, and a host of birds chattered beneath brilliant sunshine. The air was warm and dry, the humidity low and perfect for a long run. She laced up her tennis shoes and tucked the Kia’s ignition key into the hidden pocket of her navy running shorts.
She slipped easily into a rhythm along the quiet street. Mild spring air coaxed flowering shrubs and colorful bulbs to life. She wondered what it must be like to live in one of the massive, upscale houses that were nestled into meticulously landscaped lots the length of the boulevard. How must it feel to wake to such opulence each day? She wouldn’t know. Her job as co-director and senior counselor of the Thursday’s Child program left much to be desired in the form of monetary compensation for the many hours of blood, sweat, and tears she poured into the program. But the emotional rewards far exceeded what she could have ever imagined. She wouldn’t trade a moment of lost free time, not a drop of perspiration, for the smiles she saw on the kids’ faces and their excitement at hearing about a new rec league or art class.
A vision of Cooper, tall and tan the way he’d looked when things were good between them—before the lure of money and fame changed him—popped into her mind, and she would have kicked herself if she hadn’t already found the perfect stride, and eased into a perfect pace. Back then, he would have loved helping her at Thursday’s Child. Now, he would know all about what it was like to live in the lap of luxury. He owned a house in Jacksonville, on the bank of the Saint John’s River. She knew, because he’d been featured on a segment of Homes of the Rich and Famous last year.
He had a loft apartment overlooking the river in downtown Knoxville, too, for when he came home during the off season to visit his father. She imagined it was just as lavish, since his last NFL contract had brought in several million dollars plus endorsements. His contract negotiations were reported in the Knoxville papers and a highlight of local radio news.
She wouldn’t know first-hand, though, since they hadn’t spoken in years.
Six, to be exact.
Her breath caught at the thought of those final days, and she had to fight to maintain an even pace. She willed her arms to pump in rhythm and kept her head up, gaze focused straight ahead. She still remembered the clean, woodsy smell of him when he held her close, the scent of cherry-flavored gum he chewed, and she wondered if he ever thought of her, or if he’d even care that today was the anniversary of her miscarriage...the day she’d lost her baby—their baby—six years ago—if he’d known about it. But, he didn’t know. She hadn’t told him she was pregnant. Couldn’t. Oh, she’d wanted to, but it would have held him for all the wrong reasons.
For weeks he’d gushed with news of the draft, and the fact that he’d been picked up by the Jaguars, until finally there was only days before he had to report to camp. She’d held her breath, hoping he’d ask her to go with him. Even though going wouldn’t have been a viable option for her, it would have been nice—would have made things just a bit better—had he asked…but he hadn’t. So she kept the news of the baby to herself. It was obvious he didn’t love her like she loved him, and if he didn’t want her, how would he feel about being tied down by a baby, too?
So she’d let him walk out, go on with his life.
And he had.
Five weeks later, in the middle of a miserably hot summer night, she lost the baby—a boy just eighteen weeks old. She’d named him Luke, and when she prayed for him, she called him by name. And she asked God to forgive her single lapse in judgment—the only time she’d given in to Cooper’s sweet talk and promises. Because, just as she’d known somewhere in the dark recesses of her soul at the time, giving in and going against God had led to heartache and loss.
Tears clouded her vision and the sidewalk blurred beneath her feet. The memory still hurt, and the loss still overwhelmed. Days like today, when the breeze whispered sweet and mild with the laughter of children playing in the park, were especially hard. But she doubted Cooper even gave their relationship a second thought, just as he hadn’t given her a second thought when he’d stormed out without so much as a backward glance on that unseasonably hot late-April day.
She came to a crossroad, glanced both ways for oncoming traffic. She eased across the street and over to the next leg of the running trail. She’d go the full distance today and work this odd sense of disappointment from her gut. A good, long run always raised her spirits, and she hoped today would be no different.
She had an hour before Andy’s school bus dropped him at her office at the Thursday’s Child building. She’d meet him there, ask about his day. Not that he ever had more than two words to say when it came to school. “OK” and “Fine” seemed to be the favorites. Maybe he wouldn’t bring home a discipline referral from one of his teachers today—another crumpled paper slashed by red pen that outlined the many facets of his insolence. She’d need to sign it and schedule another follow-up conference with the principal. They were on a first name basis with the way things were going.
“Avoid these referrals and save a tree,” she’d told Andy when he brought one home just last week. An argument with his math teacher over a missing assignment was worth an hour-long detention. “Just do what your teachers ask. It’s not that hard.”
“Easy for you to say.” He handed over the wadded paper he’d carelessly stuffed into the front pocket of his faded jeans and flipped coffee-with-heavy-cream hair from his charcoal eyes to glance at her. The gesture reminded her of Terri, and she wondered how things were going in New York. She wouldn’t know, since neither she nor Andy had heard from his mother—her older sister—in over two weeks. Anyway, Andy’s hair was too long. It needed a cut—badly. Lexi frowned. Given the circumstances, that was a battle best saved for another day. “No one bosses you around all day long.”
She rolled her eyes and smirked. “Just wait. You’ll be an adult one day, too. Then you’ll see it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
His eyes widened in mortification. “No way. I don’t want to grow up. Grownups are crazy.”
She couldn’t blame him for feeling that way. Her sister had seemed to go off the deep end, leaving her only child to fend for himself while she chased her latest dream of becoming the next top New York fashion designer, since her last dream of movie stardom hadn’t panned out. If Lexi hadn’t intervened and brought Andy to live with her, he’d probably be another casualty of the streets. He was only twelve, after all, and he still needed a mother’s touch—badly. The boy was mad at the world, and she was at a loss as to how to soften his tough veneer. She prayed for a breakthrough soon.
Her mind wandered to Thursday’s Child. Kids like Andy were the driving force behind the program—kids who were lost in the shuffle of adult irresponsibility, who needed a safe haven, a place to belong. But, not immune to the economy’s current struggles, the program was in serious crisis. Even with a good turnout for the online auction, they’d fall short of paying next quarter’s bills. The building’s lease was up in August, and they’d have to renegotiate the contract at a higher rate or buy the building and the grounds surrounding it outright. Neither was a viable option, given the current situation. What Thursday’s Child needed was a benefactor, someone with the capital to get the program firmly on its feet. And it needed to happen soon. She couldn’t bear the thought of the kids she’d grown to love tossed back out on the street.
Her thoughts turned to the high bid she’d drawn. She’d balked at the idea of putting herself up for auction. She had no desire to date, even if the date was merely in the name of raising money. But Renee had talked her into it. How would it look, after all, for her to recruit other eligible adults if she wasn’t willing to put herself out there, as well? She grimaced. Renee could talk the paint off a wall if she set her mind to it.
But maybe Renee was right, after all. Maybe her anonymous bidder would turn out to be a prince charming with a million dollars to burn, and a real heart for her kids.
Yeah, and maybe the moon really was made of cheese.