Playing at Love
Show choir teacher Tess Johansson loves three things: music, her job, and sharing that passion with her students. But when a school budget crisis forces funding to be pulled from either the sports or music programs, she finds herself going head to head with Jack, the gorgeous new football coach who broke her heart fifteen years ago.
Jack Marshall wants two things: to be closer to his young daughter and to make his mark as a football coach. Taking the new job, with the promise that he’d have time to build a solid team, gave him both. But now he must win the season with a group of boys who aren’t anywhere near ready or he’ll lose everything he’s worked so hard for. Being pitted against Tess, the summer love he never forgot, is like being fourth and long with only seconds on the clock.
On opposing sides of a fierce battle and with everything at stake, Tess and Jack find themselves torn between doing what it takes to win and doing what it takes to be together.
Praise for Playing at Love:
“Captivating and delightful! I rooted for both characters—and I’ll admit it…I swooned.”
- Diane Alberts, author of On One Condition
© 2012 Ophelia London
With one hand on the doorknob and the other holding a blueberry muffin, Tess Johansson stood outside the teachers’ lounge. Their meeting was in ten minutes and classes started in just under two hours. It was the first day of school after a sunny, restful, nearly perfect summer.
“Hi, Tess,” Alan Ball, the psychology teacher, said as he slid past her into the lounge. “How was your summer?”
“Nearly perfect!” she called out to him, even though he’d already gone inside. She broke the muffin in half, tossed the smaller piece in the trash, and popped the rest in her mouth, promising to go for an extra-long run tomorrow.
“Move it or lose it, sister.” Tess felt a poke in the ribs from behind.
After sputtering out a muffiny cough, she turned around to find Mackenzie, her best friend. Short and cute, Mac looked more like one of her high school students than a fellow teacher—even though she was dressed in a trendy-looking black skirt suit.
“Ready for the first official teachers’ meeting of the year?” Mac asked, motioning toward the door, then tucking some of her blond hair behind her ears.
“Absolutely.” Tess smiled widely. “I just wish I could’ve slept in a little more. Or maybe I’ll go to bed extra early. Now I feel like my whole evening is going to be thrown off schedule.”
“Your schedule of dinner for one that ends with kissing your houseplants good night?”
“Har-har.” Tess rolled her eyes. “Says the still-single feminist.” She gave Mac a knowing look. Tess had gotten pretty great at deflecting her friend; Mac’s comments were almost always dead-on.
“Single by choice.” Mac slid on her black-rimmed glasses, the ones Tess knew she wore in an attempt to look more sophisticated (and older than eighteen). “Men are well and good, but I don’t need one to make me happy.”
“So I’ve heard.” Tess bit her lip and looked over her shoulder at the trash can, wondering about the other half of that muffin. Did it have more lemon icing?
“And?” Mac jerked her chin. “What was all that ‘nearly perfect’ crap? You spent your summer here with me.” Mac put on the cutest pouting puppy face, making Tess snicker. “Why was that not wholly perfect?”
“Maybe because, as part of our perfect summer, I believe you were supposed to create for me a social frenzy. And did you?”
“I set you up on exactly six blind dates—”
“Each ending in its own unique brand of disaster.”
“Speaking of,” Mac said, taking her friend by the arm and leading them toward the path between buildings so other teachers wouldn’t overhear. “How was your date Saturday night?”
Tess narrowed her eyes at her best friend. Just because Mac happened to have successfully set up two of her other friends—who had just become engaged!—she thought Tess should be in a relationship now, too. Tess ran a hand through her long dark hair, then twirled the ends out of habit. “I’m seriously beginning to think there are no eligible men in this town.”
“And you’re such a major hottie,” Mac said, knocking her hip against Tess’s. “What a waste. Oh, but don’t worry. I heard there’s speed dating at the hotel next week.” She grinned. “I’m signing you up, babe.”
“No way.” Tess lifted her hands. “No more setups. Not after Saturday.”
“That bad?” Mac’s smile dropped.
Tess laughed without humor while looking over Mac’s shoulder, past the administration building and toward the running track, thinking that she would have felt more prepared for the day if she’d had her normal workout that morning instead of sleeping in and stopping at the bakery.
After Tess didn’t answer right away, Mac raised an eyebrow. Tess leaned back against the stucco wall of the building and was about to describe how her date had talked about himself all evening, hadn’t asked her a single personal question, and then had the nerve to feel her up in the coatroom of the restaurant.
“I’ll tell you later,” Tess said, adjusting the strap on her bag. “After we’ve both had more caffeine.” It was six thirty in the morning, which wasn’t unusually early for Tess, but it felt early today. The air was still warm, teasing her with thoughts of the summer vacation that had ended the night before.
Mac took a step forward, squinting into the early morning sun behind Tess’s back. “Your date was with Jeff, right?” Mac asked. “What did he do?”
Tess twisted her lips, stalling her reply. It wasn’t what he did, necessarily. All men talk about themselves. It was more about what Tess felt—or didn’t feel. The guy had been good-looking, but there was just no attraction, no spark—even when they became up-close and personal behind a row of lost-and-found raincoats.
Even if there had been a spark, Tess was pretty sure they wouldn’t have progressed any further emotionally. No matter how hard she tried, romantic relationships never really worked out for her. It started when she was first dumped at fifteen and continued right up until two years ago when Sam—a guy she was just starting to like—had broken things off pretty much out of the blue. Trust. Once she lost that, she kind of lost the will to put herself out there and risk another heartbreak.
“Nothing, nothing,” Tess finally said, determined to not treat herself to an internal pity party. “He just wasn’t…you know.”
“At least he was better than Mike,” Mac offered with a grin.
Tess returned her smile. “That was a disappointment.” She lowered her voice when a group of early-arriving students walked by. “I still can’t believe he went on and on about how he’d just bought a new necklace. For himself!”
“Yeah, probably not the most masculine thing in the world,” Mac agreed, but then didn’t go on.
Tess knew Mac’s expressions and she knew her friend had stopped speaking for a reason. “What?” she asked.
Mac started messing with the charm pendant on her bracelet. “I just think…maybe you’re a little, um, picky.”
Tess felt her mouth fall open. “Picky?” she repeated, aghast. “I couldn’t care less about a man wearing a necklace—although, for heaven’s sake, call it a chain, at least.”
“You keep waiting for the perfect guy,” Mac said, touching her arm. “And sweetie, he doesn’t exist.”
Tess nodded solely to appease her friend, because she didn’t happen to agree. It wasn’t that she was looking for “the perfect guy;” she was looking for the perfect guy for her. Someone she could love and trust with her whole heart. And she knew he was out there somewhere. In fact, she’d had a glimpse of him once. But that was a million years ago. Back then, no one had told her the first boy she loved would also be the first boy to smash her heart to bits.
“Sorry,” Mackenzie said, bringing Tess’s thoughts back to the present.
“It’s okay.” Tess smiled, reminding herself that not every male on the planet was out to hurt her like that first one had. “You tried.”
“I’ll try harder. My cousin from Alabama is coming for a visit.”
“The one with no teeth?”
Mac bit her lip pensively. “He’s got good hair.”
The two women laughed. “No, thank you,” Tess said. “No time for men anyway. It’s going to be a very busy year. I’m taking the choir to Fiestaval in British Columbia in the spring. It’s gonna be huge.”
Mac lifted her eyebrows, looking impressed. “Walker okayed the funding for a trip like that for the entire choir?”
“Not yet,” Tess said, feeling a twinge of excitement at running the idea past their principal. “But he will. I’ve got big plans for this year and since we placed so high at Nationals, he won’t tell me no. We’re on a roll.”
“Your show choir is the backbone of this school’s arts program,” Mac said, bending over to fix her strappy sandal. “I’m sure you’ll get carte blanche. Go get ’em, tiger!”
Tess smiled, her head filling with grand musical ideas—sparkles and glitter and lots of spotlights. “I plan on it.”
“Look.” Mac pointed to the teachers’ lounge where Principal Walker was motioning for them to come in. “Let’s get in there so we can show up to class before the evil youth descend upon us.”
Tess gave an over-wide grin. “The little dears,” she said.
Though they often joked about the darling monsters they taught, Tess truly loved her job. She’d been Franklin High School’s choir teacher for seven years, head of the music department for three, and absolutely adored the kids, thriving on their successes right along with them. She couldn’t think of doing anything else as a career. Plus, she believed the theory that music was a healing agent and actually helped kids learn and adjust. She knew she was doing an important job that was bettering the world in its own unique way.
Both music and teaching were in her blood. Her mother had sung in their town’s light opera company and her father had taught science at Franklin High for twenty-five years. They were both retired now, but Tess still relied on her family for advice on everything…except her love life. Her parents and older brother, Charlie, had always been extremely adept at embarrassing her in front of boyfriends, anyway.
Tess slid into the chair next to Mac at the far end of the second row and dropped her heavy bag full of the sheet music for “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” a song she planned to teach her show choir that semester. It was a funky yet safe arrangement that was sure to sit well with the judges at the Invitationals in October and then Regionals later on in the month. And after that: Fiestaval.
Once seated, she crossed her legs, causing the front slit of her new dark gray skirt to split apart and reveal too much leg. She quickly pulled the two slits together, making a mental note that this probably wasn’t the best outfit to wear to work. Lesson learned.
Tess was only half listening as Joe Walker stood at the front of the room, sifting through a stack of papers on the lectern in front of him. She toyed with the band of her watch until it suddenly came unclasped and fell to the floor, causing everyone in her row to turn and stare.
“Sorry,” she mouthed. When she leaned forward to pick it up, she noticed one person was still looking at her. He must be one of the new teachers, she thought. And wow, he was gorgeous. Dark wavy hair, nice jaw, and built like a quarterback. At least, that’s what she could detect from her distance of ten chairs away. After messing with her watch, she glanced his way again. He was still watching her, and when their eyes met, he pulled back a sexy half grin. Despite herself, when she smiled in return, her stomach made a tiny flip.
Talk about spark. If only he had backed me into that coatroom the other night.
She felt instantly attracted yet comfortable, which she found just a little odd.
Wait a minute. Did she know him? Had they met? Oh snap, he wasn’t one of the guys she’d gone out with earlier in the summer, was he? Their faces were all starting to blend together. She couldn’t quite place this guy’s face, but she knew she’d met him. Somewhere. When she took another glance at him, the guy lifted his hand a few inches and actually—though very subtly—waved.
Tess knew her cheeks were about to turn an embarrassing shade of pink as she sat back in her chair, feeling slightly flustered now. Maybe he really was one of her dates from the summer. Had she become that forgetful? And why hadn’t she bothered to look over the teachers’ roster that was finally e-mailed last night? She might have recognized his name. She smiled and looked down at her lap, imagining him as the new sex ed teacher. If a man so incredibly handsome was teaching a bunch of hormonal girls, heaven help the poor guy.
As everyone else around her was listening to the principal, Tess played with a strand of her hair, nonchalantly glancing down the row. She could only see the guy’s right leg now. He was wearing khakis—pretty casual for the first day of school. Most teachers tried to make a good impression at the beginning of the year. Just as she was about to slyly lean forward to check out what he was wearing on top, the guy stood up. Tess gasped, wondering what he was doing. Did he realize she was checking him out and was giving her a better look?
It was only then that she realized Walker was talking to him, or about him, introducing the new members of the faculty.
“I’d like you all to meet,” Walker said in his dry voice, “our new head football coach.”
A-ha! I was right. Tess inwardly congratulated herself. He probably was a quarterback once upon a time. But where? Why does he look so familiar?
“We’re very excited to have him aboard as a last-minute team member,” Walker continued. “He was the assistant coach at his last school, which went all the way to State.”
The other teachers were murmuring in approval.
Tess vaguely remembered something about the previous football coach stepping down in the middle of July, right before summer training camp, but she didn’t follow the sports program much. Although now—and she couldn’t help looking across the room at him—maybe she might start attending the football games and not skipping out after halftime when her choir was finished.
“So please,” Walker went on, “join me in giving a warm welcome to Jack Marshall.”
While everyone was giving the new coach a round of applause, Tess felt all the blood drain from her face.
“He’s gorgeous, don’t you think?” Mac said, jabbing an elbow into Tess’s ribs. “And look at his hands; they’re huge. Tess, why are you wringing the front of your shirt?”
“I’m…” But Tess didn’t know how to finish. She was staring at Jack Marshall—the boy she’d met the summer she was fifteen. The boy who was her first real kiss. The boy who swore he would meet her that last night in August but never showed up. Jack Marshall: the very first boy to break her heart.
The expression on her face was puzzling. She actually looked pissed off at him. Why? A mere two minutes before Walker had made him stand up, hadn’t they had a moment? He’d made it a point to catch her eye and smile—which usually worked for him, and it seemed to have worked on her. She’d smiled back.
And then he’d waved. Like an idiot.
Jack had spotted her the instant she’d walked through the door with that shorter teacher at her side, the one who looked like a miniature Barbie doll. Jack had never been into the Barbie-doll type. He liked his women to look real and curvy. And the one with the dark hair, whoever she was, was exactly his type, right down to that sexy button nose.
When she’d sat a few chairs down from him, he’d almost sprung to his feet right then. But in that same instant, the principal walked to the front of the room. Jack had watched her for a while, waiting for her to look his way. She’d crossed her legs and the front of her skirt slid open, showing about a mile of thigh.
Walker was done with the introductions now, and he’d started talking again, something about scheduling, but all Jack could concentrate on was the exact spot in the room where the brunette was sitting. He wanted to talk to her, but this wasn’t a sports bar, and honestly, Jack wasn’t exactly in the most stellar position to be even thinking about picking up some woman.
He clenched his fists, feeling like he wanted to swear out loud, but he stopped himself, remembering the personal promise he’d made to ease up on the foul language, especially on the field around the guys. Today’s young adults needed to broaden their vocabularies, and if Coach was using four-letter words in every sentence, that wouldn’t be setting a very good example.
Despite his resolve, Jack couldn’t help glancing her way again. When he did, it seemed as though she’d been looking at him but he’d just missed it. He was dying to get a look at her face again, straight on. One of her legs was crossed, her top foot rocking up and down. He realized he was staring but couldn’t seem to do anything about it. Her leg was hypnotic.
When he heard the other teachers around him start to murmur in confusion, he looked up, wondering what he’d just missed.
Joe Walker wasn’t speaking. He was just standing there, pushing a hand though the side of his hair like he was nervous. Jack noticed that Walker’s expression looked nervous, too.
“There was a vote last night,” Walker said after a long pause. “Garcia was fired as superintendent.”
“He’d been in for too long,” the man beside Jack murmured after nudging him. Jack had introduced himself right before the meeting. The guy’s name was Delgado and he taught history. “Everyone knew he’d been overspending for years,” Delgado went on, looking at Jack then pointing his chin toward the front of the room. Jack didn’t know much about his new district’s school board, so he had no opinion.
Walker said, “The board discovered a major issue with the budget.”
Jack moved his eyes back to Delgado, who was nodding in a “See, I told ya, buddy” manner.
“It’s completely unfair,” Walker continued, thrusting another hand through his hair, “but the board feels we’re in need of a drastic quick fix. And with the economy the way it is, we’re all going to have to cut back and make sacrifices.”
Jack’s head snapped to attention. Cut back? What sacrifices? Jack hadn’t been told about cutbacks when he was hired six weeks ago.
The murmurs around him were growing louder and more agitated. Jack kept his eyes glued on Walker.
“We’ve run the numbers,” Walker added, “and we’re finding the only way to not have major staff layoffs next year is to cut something large out of the budget. Unfortunately, a difficult choice will have to be made very soon.” Walker adjusted his glasses, but his pause went on longer than necessary, causing Jack to lean forward in his seat.
“So,” Walker finally said, “we’ve decided that one of the major extracurricular programs has to be cut. Last night, we narrowed it down to a choice between two.”
Jack heard the word in his head before Walker spoke it.
Jack felt his temper flare. He’d had five job offers; none of the other schools were having budget issues. He’d chosen this school over the others because of its high ethical standards and its long-standing tradition in athletics. True, the football team had been in a slump for a few years, but that was why he’d been brought in. He was thought of as an up-and-comer, and he was promised time to build a solid team.
Besides that, Jack needed this job. Badly. His house back in Chicago hadn’t sold yet, so he was currently paying two mortgages. Pretty steep on a high school coach’s salary. Plus, there was the tiny, insignificant fact of Jenna living so close by. His daughter was the real reason he’d chosen this school. And with the new custody hearing coming up in a few months, he could not be out of a job. No way.
And now the football team was on the chopping block? Dammit.
Jack was on his feet before he’d realized it. “You’re telling me we could lose football? That my whole coaching staff could be out on the street, just like that?”
“We don’t know that yet, Coach Marshall,” Walker said. Jack noticed that his boss was standing straight for the first time, probably wanting to take control of the meeting before things got out of hand. “We want to be fair,” he added.
“Fair?” Jack couldn’t help repeating. He was trying to control his anger; he was the newest member of the faculty and didn’t want to come across as an instigator. But this was his livelihood they were talking about. His future.
Delgado rose to his feet. “Yeah, fair?” he echoed. Jack looked at him, wondering if he also coached track or maybe volleyball. He didn’t care, as long as he had comrades.
“Yes, fair,” Walker confirmed, setting down his stack of papers and crossing his arms. “The school board has made its decision and I support them. We know if one of the large programs goes, then all the others will be covered.”
Jack nodded, accepting this logic. After all, he was a coach, not an accountant. “Okay,” Jack conceded. “So, besides football, what other program could be cut instead?”
“Choir,” Walker said.
Jack noticed that the murmurs around the room started up again, maybe a bit louder this time. But he could only shake his head. He couldn’t believe it. Choir? It was almost a joke.
“The board didn’t vote on which program, however,” Walker said, talking over the murmuring crowd. “That’s up to us.”
Jack couldn’t help laughing. “This is the Midwest.” He motioned for the other teachers around him to agree. “Football is king.”
“Yeah, you know it, Coach,” Delgado said, and that same sentiment was repeated a few more times throughout the room.
Feeling encouraged by the approval around him, Jack kept going. “Are you seriously comparing the legacy this school has on the football field to a glee club?”
Jack turned his head toward the new voice and watched as the woman at the end of his row—the woman he had been eyeing only minutes ago—stood up.
“This school’s show choir has participated in music festivals all over the country for years,” she said. “And won. We’re the legacy.”
Jack was speechless as he watched her glaring at him from across the room, her hands placed on her curvy hips. This was not how he thought their first conversation would go.
“And if you think those of us in the arts are going to sit back and let a bunch of jocks steal our funding”—she pointed at him—“you’d better think again.”
“Tell ’em, Tess,” Jack heard the blond teacher whisper to her.
Walker lifted his hands. “Thank you for your thoughts, Ms. Johansson.”
Jack’s head snapped to the side. And he stared, as if he were seeing a ghost.
When Franklin High had first headhunted him over the summer after last year’s championship, the name of the town automatically rang a bell in his head. Ha! More like fire alarms. He knew this was the exact small town where Tess Johansson had lived—that tan, perky, incredible girl he’d spent the summer before his sophomore year with. And then, at the end of that amazing time together, the night before both families were leaving, he’d made a terrible mistake. Something he still felt guilty about all these years later.
Not in a million years did he think she would still live here, work here, at the same high school she’d once attended. He cursed himself for not taking two seconds to glance through the teachers’ roster when it arrived last night. At least then he might have been prepared, he might’ve planned out what to say to her.
But before he could say anything now, ten more teachers were on their feet, fighting for their voices to be heard. Then another ten were up. Soon the entire room was vocal. It didn’t take long to see that everyone was taking sides, splitting the staff right down the middle.
“Hold on, hold on!” Walker shouted over the noise. “No one’s cutting anything today. Sit down.” Taking back control, he didn’t speak until everyone was quiet.
Still feeling stunned, Jack turned back to Walker.
“I made the board promise to give us this semester to decide which program stays and which goes,” Walker said. “They feel that is sufficient time to prove your worth.” Walker took off his glasses. “Until then, do what you have to do.”
As Walker stepped away from the lectern, the room once again erupted in buzzes of conversation. Instinctively, Jack turned his head to the right to find Tess Johansson staring at him. Her arms were folded across her chest, a condemning look in those big blue eyes. He hadn’t seen her since they were teenagers, but if he’d been paying closer attention, he probably would have recognized her. She looked much better now, of course—she was a woman. Tall and stylish and curvy. But she still had that long brown hair that curled at the ends, and those lips. He’d fallen for those candy-glossed lips fifteen years ago and today they were painted a luscious raspberry.
“Coach,” Walker said as he passed by Jack. “In my office.” He pointed at Tess next. “You, too. Now.”