A Perfect Match: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 3)
A woman betrayed and cast adrift. A man ready to prove himself professionally. Opposites who don’t match up on paper—and yet they find they are a perfect match . . .
Nova Turner was tossed out by her fundamentalist parents when she turned up pregnant at fifteen. Taken in by her bohemian artist aunt, Nova gives birth to Leo, who becomes the light of her life. Hit by a double whammy—her live-in lover betrays her and her beloved Aunt Rain dies in a car accident—Nova finds herself inheriting Rain’s house in Sugar Springs, Texas.
Cole Johnson’s storied football career as a Texas Longhorn came to an end when he tore up a knee. He shifts his focus from playing to coaching. After a decade as an assistant, he’s offered the chance to become the head coach and athletic director at Sugar Springs High School.
Sparks fly when Nova meets the handsome coach, the man her son is itching to play football for. Cole teaches Nova about the game of football—and things heat up between them.
Can an unconventional artist and single parent find happiness with a workaholic coach who’s always played by the rules?
Find the answer in A Perfect Match, Book 3 in Sugar Springs.
Each book in this contemporary small town romance series is a standalone story that can be enjoyed out of order. Read for free with Kindle Unlimited.
1 – Shadows of the Past: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 1)
2 – Learning to Trust Again: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 2)
3 – A Perfect Match: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 3)
4 – A Fresh Start: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 4)
5 – Recipe for Love: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 5)
Release date: July 11, 2023
Publisher: Oliver Heber Books
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
A Perfect Match: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 3)
October—Sixteen years ago...
Quit texting. Ace is dead.
Nova stared at the screen, dumbfounded by the words she read. Even if she weren’t pregnant—and she definitely was—her stomach would’ve done exactly what it was doing now.
She raced across the hall to the bathroom, barely making it to the toilet. She vomited what little she’d been able to keep down today. Cold chills ran through her, her mind racing.
Ace was dead.
No wonder he hadn’t replied to her texts. Or answered her desperate calls.
Had the person who’d just texted her back from his cell listened to the myriad of voicemails she’d left?
Nova flushed the toilet and rinsed her mouth with water, trying to get the bitter taste to leave. When it didn’t, she brushed her teeth, though even that nauseated her nowadays.
Because she was pregnant. Going to be a mother in seven months or so.
And the father—a guy whose last name she didn’t even know—was dead.
Or was he?
Nova, despite her religious fundamentalist background, wasn’t a very trusting person. Her parents were—as they called themselves—good Christians, but she had found that they were hypocrites worse than the esteemed Pharisees in the Bible. They didn’t like anyone who wasn’t exactly like them. They barely tolerated people of other denominations, even thinking Catholics were children of the Devil. And they believed anyone who was gay was someone out to destroy society.
She accompanied her parents to their church each Sunday, where they spent a majority of the day. The love the preacher and elders talked about was certainly lacking in the Turner household. Her father ignored his daughter for the most part. Her mother criticized Nova for every infraction, real or imagined. If charity began at home, it was definitely absent in the Turner household.
Deciding she had to know for certain about Ace, she sent a text.
I’m pregnant. Call me back now—or I go to the police and report you.
When she’d figured out she was pregnant a few days ago, after missing two of her periods, she’d gone to the library, telling her mother she had homework to do for a research project and needed the resources available there. The Turners had no computers or Internet in their home. They’d homeschooled Nova through eighth grade and then allowed her to attend the local high school in their Dallas suburb because she was so academically advanced, and neither her mother nor her father knew how to cater to her educational needs. Not that they wanted her to go to college. Neither of them had, and they didn’t plan for their only child to, either.
Still, they couldn’t have her getting married at thirteen, so they’d agreed she could attend the public high school. After graduation, it was understood that she would be married to someone in their congregation. She’d already eavesdropped on more than one occasion and knew some of the men her parents were considering for her were in their thirties and forties, which totally freaked her out.
Maybe that’s why she’d decided to sneak out when her next-door neighbor suggested it. A traveling carnival had come to town, sponsored by the neighbor’s Catholic church. Nova had gone—and met Ace there.
His arms were covered in colorful tattoos. He had curly blond hair and mischievous blue eyes and was tall and had biceps that were the largest she’d ever seen. He told her it was from being what he called a roustabout, a worker who erected the rides and tents of the carnival and set up the various booths for the games of chance.
Ace had given Nova her first kiss. When he kissed her, she was no longer Nova Turner, inexperienced, sheltered teen. She became, in her mind, strong and powerful and sexy. A woman who could do and be anything. And after her third time of sneaking out, all to see Ace, she lost her virginity once all the rides had shut down and the carnies had bedded down for the night. It hurt—but Ace told her how beautiful she was, so she didn’t dwell on the brief pain.
After that, they’d done it twice more before the carnival moved on. She’d never even thought to use any kind of protection. Nova hadn’t a clue how sex worked.
Then the early morning nausea set in. She had to face the fact that she was pregnant. Not having any confidant to ask, she had gone to the library to read every book she could find and scour the Internet on what was happening to her body and what could be expected.
She’d also starting texting Ace like crazy, calling when her texts remained unanswered.
Her cell dinged. She wasn’t supposed to have a smart phone. It was an older model, what they called a flip phone, which she’d gotten from the same neighbor who’d helped her sneak out that first time. It took forever to send a text, unlike the kind she’d seen kids at school send. They not only typed texts quickly on a keyboard, but some of them even talked into their phones, and the texts magically wrote themselves.
Call again in ten minutes. I’ll answer.
Nova decided to trust whoever was behind that text. It might be Ace, finally agreeing to talk to her. Or if Ace really were dead, it could be someone who could tell her what had happened to him.
She waited, leaving the house’s lone bathroom because if she were in there too long, Mama would beat on the door and want to know why. She returned to her room and quietly shut the door. She wasn’t supposed to close it. Papa didn’t believe in privacy for anyone in their household. But he was at work, and Mama was in the kitchen frying chicken for dinner. Nova only hoped she could have this conversation without interruption and get some answers.
Either way, she was going to have to tell her parents that a baby was growing inside her.
They would want to go to the police. She didn’t know exactly why, only that another girl at church had gotten pregnant a few years ago. The elders had met at the Turner house to discuss the situation, and Nova had listened to the conversation, perched in the hallway. She learned a little from what she heard, mainly that a girl had to consent to have relations and if she didn’t, that was called rape. Even if she did consent and she was under a certain age, the boy—or man—could be brought up on criminal charges.
That’s why she’d made the threat in the text she’d sent, not knowing exactly what that involved, but hoping it would get Ace to call her back. After all, he was nineteen.
Nova was fifteen.
The phone rang, and she answered it quickly, her gut churning. “Hello?”
“You’re the pretty one,” a young female voice said. “You’ve got the medium brown hair with the gold highlights, right? And hazel eyes?”
“Yes, that’s me,” she said, disappointed that it wasn’t Ace on the other end of the line. “I’m Nova.”
“I’m sorry, Nova,” the voice said, choking. “Ace really is dead.”
“Are you lying to me?” she asked, her voice full of steel, knowing she had to be strong not only for herself—but for the baby she carried.
A sob sounded. “No.”
She could hear crying and wished she could comfort whoever was on the other end of the line.
“What happened?” she asked quietly.
“It was a motorcycle accident. Two weeks ago.”
When she’d figured out the baby was inside her.
“We were north of Houston. The carnival had stopped for a three-week stay. We’ve got cousins there. One of them had just gotten out of the army. He had a new motorcycle. He and Ace were always daring each other to do crazy shit.”
She flinched at the curse word but remained quiet.
A pause. More sobs. “Ace ran a redlight. On purpose. My cousin said the bike was fast enough that Ace could blow through any light and not get hit. It was awful.”
The girl on the line began crying again. Nova recalled seeing her because she resembled Ace so much. He had told her it was his little sister, who was twelve. He’d called her a brat but said he loved her anyway.
“I’m sorry you lost your brother,” she said, her throat closing up with unshed tears. She didn’t want to start crying because she was afraid if she did, she might never stop.
“I’m sorry you’re gonna have his baby, Nova, but I can’t help you. My dad won’t care. Ace was from two marriages ago, and he despises that wife. He had another one and then married my mom. He doesn’t give a shit about me and barely even liked Ace. You’re on your own.”
“I understand. Thank you for calling me back. And letting me know.”
“Are you... are you gonna be okay?” the girl asked.
“I’ll be just fine. And I promise I won’t call again. I’m sorry you lost your brother.”
Nova hung up. She swallowed hard, trying to force down the painful lump. She prayed for the courage to tell her parents about the trouble she was in, trying not to think how the other pregnant girl at church, after the elders had met, had been beaten by her parents. They’d hit her so much and so hard, she had lost the baby. The man she was supposed to marry the next year had said he didn’t want damaged goods.
That girl had killed herself.
It had been a huge scandal in their small, religious community. Everyone whispered about it, but no one acknowledged the fact the girl had needed love and understanding. Instead, she’d been shamed and humiliated and physically abused until she’d lost the child she carried.
Leaving her bedroom, she went to the kitchen and set the table. She helped place all the bowls of food on it as she heard her father come in the front door and head to the bathroom to wash up.
They ate in silence. They usually did. Occasionally, Papa would tell a story about one of the houses he’d serviced that day. He was a plumber. Mama rarely contributed anything to the conversation. No one ever asked Nova about her day or what was happening at school, so it didn’t surprise her when she cleared her throat and saw the startled expressions on her parents’ faces. In their world, children were to be seen and never heard.
“I have something to tell you. I’m... going to have a baby.”
They stared at her as if she’d turned green, their jaws slack.
“How?” Papa demanded, his hands balling into fists.
That frightened Nova, but she needed to say her piece.
And do everything she could to protect her baby.
“I met a boy. We made it. Together.” She was not going to neglect her part in this. She might not have exactly understood what was going on, but she had contributed to the circumstances as much as Ace had.
“No,” Mama said, her mouth hardening. “This is wrong. You’re only fifteen.”
Papa’s eyes narrowed. “Old enough to defy us. You sneaked out to meet this boy, didn’t you.”
Nova nodded solemnly.
“It’s that school. We never should have let her go to high school with all those heathens,” Papa declared. “We must go to the principal and the authorities. This boy must pay.”
Mama gasped. “No! We can’t do that, you fool. You will lose your position as head elder in our church. I will no longer be able to lead the sewing circle. Think of our positions. We will be outcasts, Father Turner.”
“You’re right,” Papa agreed. “I was letting my tongue run away with me. The Devil was speaking through me.” He glared at Nova. “It doesn’t matter who this boy is. We cannot have you here. You are only fifteen. You will ruin our reputations.”
Papa looked to Mama. “We must be careful what we say, Mother Turner. We cannot tell the congregation she has run away. That would reflect poorly on us.” He thought a moment. “We can say we went to visit our sister congregation in Arkansas. That we had a car wreck. And Nova was killed.”
“Yes,” Mama agreed, her head bobbing up and down. “Arkansas is far enough away. Of course, we won’t actually arrive there. The accident can happen before we get there. We can sell the car. Take the bus back to Texas.”
Papa nodded, satisfied with the lie being spun. “It will bring much sympathy to us, Mother. Why, it could elevate both our positions in the church,” he declared, now beaming.
Startled by the direction things had turned, she asked, “Where am I supposed to go?”
“Anywhere but here!” her mother shouted at her, beginning to say horrible things, calling Nova a Whore from Babylon and far worse.
“I cannot stand the sight of you,” her mother proclaimed, scooting her chair from the table and storming out of the kitchen.
The bedroom door slammed, and Nova and her father locked eyes.
“I will drop you at some shelter in Dallas,” he said stiffly. “We can’t have you in our home ever again. Surely, you understand that. You have disappointed us beyond words, Nova. Your actions have humiliated us. We mustn’t ever let anyone know. You must never contact us—or anyone from the church—for help. You made your bed. Now, you must lie in the sin of it.”
Anger now rose within her, and she wanted to defend herself.
And her baby.
“What kind of Christians are you?” she demanded. “You and Mama talk about being disciples of Christ and loving and acting as he did. I am your own flesh and blood, Papa, and I need your help. Your support. Your love.” She shook her head. “Then again, I have never gotten anything from you, have I? You would help a stranger before you would your own daughter. I have never meant anything to you, have I?”
“You are nothing like a child of ours should be,” he said, his jaw tightening. “You always have your head in the clouds. You are far too smart for your own good. You waste precious time, drawing and painting, just like my sister did. Art is not practical, Nova. It will not feed you. I hope you will learn some skill so that you might support yourself. The people at the shelter will help you. They will see that your baby goes to a good home.”
“No!” she cried. “I am not giving up my baby. How could you even think that?” she asked, her voice hysterical. “This has never been a home to me. You have never been good parents, despite what you think. I will go and have this baby and care for it and love it and never see you or Mama again.”
“Go pack your things,” Papa said sternly. “I will be waiting in the car. Five minutes. And then I will take you somewhere. A place where they help wayward girls such as yourself.” He shook his head. “Thank goodness it is already dark, and no one will see us leave.”
Nova hurried to her room. She didn’t own a suitcase, so she crammed some clothes into her backpack, telling herself over and over not to cry. Not to show weakness in front of anyone.
She slung the backpack over her shoulder and picked up the flip phone before deciding to leave it behind. She had no one to call—and no one would be calling her. Snapping it in two, she dropped in her trashcan.
Making her way to her father’s car, she climbed inside. No conversation occurred as he drove from their suburban neighborhood and headed toward the interstate that led into Dallas.
Forty minutes later, he pulled the car to the curb and looked at her. “Get out,” he ordered.
“You said you would take me to a shelter,” she said defiantly, her chin rising a notch.
“I don’t really know who takes girls like you,” he said, his voice laced with venom. “I just want to be rid of you. Don’t contact us, Nova. You can never come home. As of this moment, you are dead to us.”
“I never want to see you again,” she told him. “I have more courage in my pinky than you do in your entire body. You are a hypocrite, just like the Pharisees who belittled Jesus. I don’t want to be anything like you. My baby will have a good mother. And I’ll make a wonderful home for him or her.”
Getting out of the car, she slammed the door. Her father sped away. Nova watched his taillights until they disappeared.
She was truly alone now. It was dark, the early October evening cool. She hadn’t even thought to put on her jacket when she left. From what she had learned on the Internet, she was about two months along. Her baby would come in May.
Nova might freeze to death—or starve to death—before then.
Tears began streaming down her cheeks. Fear now enveloped her as she looked about and saw a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk staring at her. He grinned malevolently, and she rushed in the opposite direction, tears now blinding her. She kept walking, though, her head down, when she suddenly crashed into someone.
“Hey, are you all right?” the woman asked, gripping Nova’s upper arms so that Nova didn’t fall. Seeing her tears, the woman asked, “What’s wrong, honey? Do you need me to call someone for you?”
She shook her head vigorously. “No.”
After a long moment, the woman said, “Would you let me buy you a meal? There’s a diner two blocks from here. I was on my way there to grab a bite to eat. I could use the company.”
Not knowing where her next one might come from, Nova nodded. She had the baby to think of now.
“Okay,” she said, her voice small.
They reached the diner, and the woman ordered soup and sandwiches for the both of them. As Nova ate, she suddenly knew who she could call.
She’d only met her aunt a handful of times, but they traded letters a few times a year. Rain’s real name was Reba, and she was what Papa called the black sheep of the Turner family. She was an artist and had encouraged Nova in her own artwork.
“May I borrow your phone, please?” she asked.
“Of course.” The woman handed her cell over.
Just as she had Rain’s address memorized, she also knew her aunt’s phone number by heart. Rain had asked her to memorize it, telling Nova that one day she might need her—and Rain would be there for her.
Even though the woman across from her would hear everything, Nova didn’t care. She dialed the number and swallowed, gathering her courage.
“Rain, it’s me. Nova.”
“Nova! How good to hear from you. I was just writing a letter to you.”
“I need... help.”
Nova explained how she had sneaked out and met Ace. How he’d been a carny who’d moved on and left Nova with a baby in her belly. How Ace had been killed in an accident.
“They told me I would embarrass them. That their church friends would say bad things about them,” she revealed, tears streaming down her face now. “Papa drove me to Dallas and left me.” She sniffed. “I’m scared, Rain. I don’t have any money. I didn’t know what to do.”
“I’ll come get you, honey,” Rain said, no hesitation in her voice. “Where are you?”
“In a diner.” She looked to the woman, who provided the address, which Nova passed along to Rain.
“It’s about a ninety-minute drive from Sugar Springs to you,” her aunt said. “Stay there. I’ll pay the bill when I get there. Don’t leave, Nova. I’m coming for you.”
“I knew you’d help me, Rain.”
“I plan to do more than help, honey. You’re going to live with me for as long as you’d like. I’ll see you soon. I love you, sweet girl.”
“I love you, too.”
Nova handed the phone back to the woman. “Thank you. My aunt is going to come get me.”
“I’ll stay with you until she comes,” the woman said. “I heard what you told her. I’m so sorry your parents tossed you out.” She took Nova’s hand. “But you have someone who cares for you. I think you’re going to be just fine. Now, try and eat something, okay?”
True to her word, the stranger kept Nova company, even buying her dessert. Nova’s appetite returned, and she ate the apple pie, enjoying every bite.
When Rain arrived, she came straight to their booth, thanking the woman for taking care of Nova, saying she wouldn’t soon forget the kindness of a stranger.
In the car, Rain said, “I meant what I said. You have a home with me now, Nova. As an artist, I’ve learned one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Well, your no-good parents threw you out like trash, but you are someone I cherish. You have a home now, Nova, a true home where you’ll be loved and coddled and even spoiled a bit. You can keep the baby or not. That will be up to you. You don’t have to decide anything right now.”
“I want this baby,” she said fervently.
Rain smiled. “Then he—or she—will have the best mom in the world.”
Nova continued thinning and raising the walls of the pot she was working on. Once the walls were completed, she evened out the top, the last step in throwing a pot. She’d already set her electric kiln to eight hundred and fifty degrees and quickly snapped a picture of this work in progress before she placed her latest creation inside the kiln for the initial twelve-hour firing to produce the bisque pot.
This was a new design she was trying out, hopeful that it would lead to another line. She’d recently held a show and sold every single piece. Now, she was back at the drawing board, toying with the direction she would head with her new series. She texted the picture to Rain and then used her cell’s voice recorder to send a lengthy text about the picture and what she was thinking about as far as this design went.
No reply came, which wasn’t a surprise. When Rain was sculpting, making pottery, or painting, she would turn off her cell, hating any interruption during the creative process.
Her aunt was still Nova’s biggest supporter and cheerleader. Nova was grateful Rain had taken her in all those years ago. In all this time, Nova had never had any contact with her parents. They never knew anything about the birth of their grandson and what an amazing kid Leo was.
He’d been such a good baby and was still a good kid, despite being a teenager. Leo had been smart from the beginning and had gone to a Montessori preschool, where he’d thrived. Nova wouldn’t have been able to afford the school during those early years. It had been Rain who paid for the doctor and hospital. For the pediatrician and preschool. For everything Nova and Leo had needed.
But she owed her aunt far more than money. A debt which could never be repaid. Rain’s kindness had meant the world to Nova. She’d been able to keep her baby even as she worked toward her GED, all the while soaking up the art lessons Rain gave her. Painting. Pottery. Sculpting. Jewelry-making. Nova had taken all those lessons to heart, thriving with each process and technique she learned, happy she was using her talent wisely.
She had left Sugar Springs when Leo turned five because she had the opportunity to apprentice under Zayden, a renown potter and friend of Rain’s. Zayden’s wife, Medora, was a painter and also guided Nova’s early works. The Austin couple was two decades older than Nova, but she was comfortable around them. Childcare fortunately hadn’t been an issue because Leo had started kindergarten, freeing Nova up for the bulk of the day.
The artistic pair rented the garage apartment above their house to her and treated Nova and Leo like family. Eventually, she started doing small shows of her own, consisting of both pottery and painting, and then adding in various pieces of jewelry at craft fairs and shows around the Austin area. She made enough to begin paying Rain back a little each month, and she continued to do so even now, years after Leo’s birth.
For the last three years, Nova had lived with Stuart Jones, known professionally as Jagger. Jagger was in his mid-thirties but never shared his exact age with her. The moody painter said age was unimportant, as was marriage. While she agreed about the marriage part, she did insist upon monogamy. While she loved Jagger, he exasperated like no one else could, due to his frequent mood swings. Nova also tried to get the artist to do more with Leo, but Jagger told her that he wasn’t interested in children. She had recently overheard him tell one of his fellow artists that Nova was perfect—except for the baggage she brought along with her. It wasn’t her emotional baggage Jagger referred to.
He meant Leo.
She had pondered long and hard the past few days since she’d heard that cutting remark, wondering if she should stay with Jagger. Doing so made her feel disloyal to her son, and Nova believed Jagger would never change.
It was time to have a come to Jesus meeting with her lover.
Nova went upstairs. They shared studio space and the rent for it, with her taking the downstairs and Jagger being upstairs. It was more convenient because of her kiln for her to be located on the lower level.
He wasn’t there.
She hadn’t heard him leave. Then again, Jagger came and went at odd hours as the spirit moved him, while she was always focused on the project in front of her and kept regular hours so she could be home when Leo got home from school. She pulled her phone from her pocket and texted her lover.
That wasn’t unusual since she and Rain did the same thing when they worked. Still, something nagged at Nova. She decided to head home since it was almost noon. Sometimes, Jagger would take a break and go to their apartment to eat or out to lunch with a friend. She liked that the apartment was only six blocks from their studio and walked the short distance home.
When she entered, she froze. The sounds of sex—loud, lusty sex—came from their bedroom. Immediately, hurt filled her. Then denial. Then anger.
Nova steeled herself for what she would see and went to the bedroom, shocked to discover her close friend Anastacia, another artist who worked as a glassblower, riding Jagger.
“Stop!” she shouted, blinking rapidly to keep the tears of anger and frustration from spilling down her cheeks.
Anastacia stopped rocking, gliding off Jagger and sitting on the bed, facing Nova. Jagger pushed up on his elbows. Neither had an ounce of guilt or shame on their faces, which immediately told her things she was loath to deal with.
Still, through gritted teeth, Nova said, “The one thing I asked of you was for you to be faithful to me. You promised you would be loyal. That you would love only me.”
Her now-former friend laughed. “You really think someone with Jagger’s looks and temperament could be tied to one woman?”
A sinking feeling filled her. “We might not be married—but we made promises to each other.”
Anastacia laughed even harder. “I’m one of many, you stupid cow.” She started reeling off the names of people Nova knew.
Men and women.
“Is this true? You’ve been seeing a parade of others behind my back?” she accused, her stomach now churning painfully.
Jagger shrugged. In that moment, Nova realized he didn’t care enough about her to even deny her accusation, much less fight for her.
“Leo and I will be gone by tomorrow,” she told him. “Don’t come home tonight so we can pack in peace. I’m sure Anastacia would be happy to entertain you at her place. Now, get dressed and get out.”
They did so as she glared at them. Nova ached at the loss of the life she had thought she had. Both humiliation and embarrassment filled her as she figured everyone in their circle of friends had known about this. Except her. She remembered how Leo had tried to warn her about something of this very nature, and she’d shut him down, one of the few times she hadn’t listened to her own child.
That brought guilt and remorse to the hodgepodge of emotions running through her although anger was now the strongest emotion inside her. Nova believed she might never get over this betrayal. Jagger was the only man she’d been with since Ace. She had devoted a dozen years to Leo before becoming involved with the temperamental painter. This incident told her she would never trust another man again. She would be destined to live a life alone once her son left home.
That thought brought despondency, losing Leo and being lonely.
She couldn’t stay in Austin. The art community was thriving but small enough that everyone would know about this betrayal by tomorrow, if they didn’t already.
Her heart told her it was once again time to flee to Sugar Springs. Rain would be there. Rain could help fix what was broken.
The two lovers brushed past her, causing nausea to rise within her, the scent of sex still heavy in the air. Once she heard the front door slam, Nova raced to the toilet and threw up. She hoped she expelled all the horrible things in her life as she flushed and then rinsed her mouth.
She started packing and tried texting Rain again, to give her aunt a heads up that she and Leo would be arriving tomorrow by noon. Rain didn’t reply, but her phone rang a few seconds later. Seeing it was her aunt’s number, she eagerly answered the call.
“Is this Nova Turner?” a stranger’s voice asked.
“Yes,” she said carefully. “Who is this?”
“I see where you’ve been trying to reach the owner of this phone.”
“Yes, I’m her niece. Rain Turner’s niece. What’s wrong? Where’s Rain?”
“I’m sorry to inform you that your aunt was struck from behind on a freeway in Dallas by a drunk driver. She was part of a seven-car pile-up and rushed to the hospital. Miss Turner, I’m so sorry. Your aunt died in surgery an hour ago.”
The woman went on to explain how she was a nurse at the hospital and was going through Rain’s things now to look for next of kin information and whom to notify regarding her death.
“I’m her only family. My son and I,” Nova said, her heart shattering into a thousand pieces. “I can contact Rain’s attorney. She lives—lived—in Sugar Springs. That’s where he is, too.”
Nova suddenly recalled Rain had mentioned going to Dallas to see an art show and that she would stay overnight with a friend before buying art supplies and heading back to Sugar Springs.
“Please do so,” the nurse said.
They talked a few more minutes, with the nurse advising Nova to arrange with a funeral home to collect Rain’s body from the hospital’s morgue, saying the funeral home would hold it until they received further instructions.
“You should come to Dallas if you’re in a position to do so, Miss Turner. I’ll hold your aunt’s personal effects, and you can collect them when you come. I’m very sorry for your loss.”
Nova hung up, grieving not only for the loss of her relationship with Jagger, but now dealing with the huge hole in her heart and her life with Rain’s permanent absence. Still, she was grateful to have Leo in her life. She couldn’t fall apart. She had to be strong for him.
She had thought to go to Sugar Springs and would still do so now, certain that Rain’s house and the studio in the back yard would be hers. Her aunt had told her of the will Campbell Cox, a local attorney, had drawn up years ago, naming her as heir to everything Rain possessed.
Taking time to compose herself, she looked online and found the website of the lawyer and called the phone number listed. After being put through by his receptionist, Nova gave Cox the few details she had regarding Rain’s death and the hospital her aunt had been taken to.
“I can handle things for you, Nova,” Cox assured her in a calm voice laced with concern. “I’m assuming you know Rain’s property and possessions go to you. Your aunt’s will stipulated that she be cremated. It would be easier to do so in Dallas. I can have my receptionist go to Dallas in order to pick up Rain’s effects and her ashes. I think you’re living in Austin now if I remember correctly.”
She swallowed. “I was about to move back in with Rain. My son, too. Can I do so, Mr. Cox?”
“That won’t be a problem. I’ve pulled up a copy of Rain’s will as we’ve been speaking to confirm everything will go to you. I can work on getting probate started immediately, but I don’t see a problem with you coming to Sugar Springs and taking possession of the house.”
She thanked him and continued packing in a daze. It was difficult to believe she would never see Rain again. Her aunt had been so full of life.
Leo came home two hours later from the part-time summer job he was working at a local tennis center. When she heard him bustling about the kitchen, she went to talk to him.
He took one look at her and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Everything,” she said, shaking her head.
Nova explained about Rain’s death, and Leo teared up, having always remained close to his great-aunt and FaceTiming often with her.
“We’re leaving Austin.”
“For the funeral?” he asked, confused. “I thought you said she was being cremated and Mr. Cox would take care of having Rain’s remains brought back to Sugar Springs. I know she’d like her ashes spread across Sugar Lake. We spent a lot of fun times there.”
Nova took a deep breath and slowly expelled it. “What I meant to say is we’re leaving Austin permanently. I think we’re done with Austin—and Jagger.”
Relief filled her son’s face. “About time, Mom. He’s such an asshole.”
Leo hugged her tightly.
“Rain left everything to me, so we have a place to stay. To live.”
“This will be good for both of us, Mom,” Leo said, obviously trying to reassure her.
She ruffled his hair. “When did you become so wise?”
He grinned. “I was born that way. Rain always said so. She called me an old soul.”
“Go pack your things. We’re leaving as soon as you do.”
“What about all the stuff in your studio? The kiln, even if it is ancient. Your wheel. That’s only a couple of years old.”
She frowned. “You’re right. We need to rent a small U-Haul.” Then she changed her mind, thinking of her aunt’s equipment in her studio. How everything was top of the line. “No. I know an artist—a potter—who would love to buy my stuff. With the show I just did, my studio is almost bare. He’ll buy the kiln and my wheel. Let’s leave it all behind and start fresh, Leo.”
While Leo packed, Nova made a call. Twenty minutes later, she walked to the studio for the last time and met her fellow potter, an up and comer she’d mentored some. She took him inside and showed him the kiln and wheel, and he agreed to pay cash. He went to a branch of his bank to make the withdrawal, and Nova packed up her jewelry-making equipment in the duffel bag she’d brought while he was gone.
Half an hour later, she and Leo loaded the car and gassed it up. When they hit the interstate in her ancient sedan, she watched Austin recede in her rear-view mirror, and her anger slowly began to dissolve. She knew she was leaving it behind—and she was ready to start a new chapter in her life with Leo in Sugar Springs.
Sugar Springs, Texas
Cole Johnson answered his cell phone, seeing it was Aunt Ju on the line, the woman who had meant the most to him because she had made him the man he was today.
“Hey, Aunt Ju,” he said. “I’m almost to Sugar Springs. Should be there in the next fifteen minutes or so.”
Her warm laughter bubbled up. “I’ll bet East Texas looks a lot better than West Texas.”
“You know no matter where I land, West Texas will always be home.”
“You just do you for this interview,” his aunt advised. “If they’re smart, they’ll want you as their head football coach. If not, you have a great job as it is. Or there’ll be other positions which open up down the road.” She paused. “You know I think you can do anything, Cole.”
“And where did I learn that from?” he asked.
Aunt Ju—Julia Johnson—had been both mother and father to Cole. She’d only been nineteen years old and a freshman in college when her sixteen-year-old sister Penny turned up pregnant. Aunt Ju had been working two part-time jobs, as well as attending college fulltime. She took in her pregnant sister, who had been living in foster care, the same as Aunt Ju had been until she turned eighteen and was no longer the state’s obligation. The foster parents had kicked Penny Johnson out, telling the State of Texas they wanted to be removed from responsibility of the pregnant girl.
Aunt Ju had slept on the floor of her dorm room, giving her younger sister the bed. Thank goodness she’d had an incredibly understanding roommate who’d kept her mouth closed and allowed Penny to remain in their dorm room the rest of the semester.
When Penny went into labor on the last day of finals that spring, Aunt Ju had taken her sister to the hospital. She’d returned to take three finals and work the late shift at her convenience store job. The next day when she arrived to visit, the nurse informed Julia Johnson that Penny had discharged herself and left.
Without her infant son.
After a ton of paperwork, Aunt Ju took Cole, giving him a name and raising him as her own. She had given up her college plans and never had the opportunity to go back. Instead, she took a job as a cook on a large cattle ranch, explaining to the ranch’s owner that she had a small nephew she was raising, and they were a package deal. If he wanted her, he would take the boy, too.
Cole had grown up on the Triple R Ranch, almost like a mascot to the cowboys who worked it. Aunt Ju made sure Cole went to school and taught him all about manners and how to treat others the right way, but it was the cowboys on the Triple R who taught him how to ride and rope.
One of those cowboys had given him a football for his seventh birthday, and he had slept with it every night for years. He did his chores and also helped Aunt Ju in the kitchen, where she fed not only the cowboys three meals a day but also the family who owned the ranch. Cole became an excellent student with a deep love of learning, encouraged by his aunt. Aunt Ju had never let him call her Mom, saying he already had one of those, even though she had abandoned him. While his aunt held out hope that one day her sister might mature and return to claim Cole, he had written his birth mother off before he hit double digits.
Cole had been the smartest kid in his grade each year, his reading level far above the other students. He also had a knack for numbers and a love for football, which burned deeply inside him. He played Pee Wee football from the time he was eight and continued playing the sport through high school, where his team won district every year and went to the playoffs, making it to the state championship game his senior year. Though they lost on last minute field goal, Cole garnered plenty of attention and received several scholarship offers. He wanted to play closer to home so that Aunt Ju could come to an occasional game, but she told him to take the scholarship offer from the University of Texas in Austin. Not only did they have a strong football program, but their academics were second to none among the state’s public schools. Aunt Ju told Cole he could be whatever he wanted to be with a degree from UT.
All he wanted to do, however, was play football.
He excelled at linebacker for the Longhorns, becoming a starter his sophomore year. He was all-conference that year and all-American by his junior year. On the way to a stellar season his senior year until he tore up a knee during the first conference game of the season. A grueling rehab followed. Cole never abandoned his teammates, however. He stood on the sidelines every Saturday, propped up by his crutches, absorbing things that became life lessons to him.
While he had a final year of playing eligibility left once he graduated, he knew his speed and cutting ability was gone, thanks to his bum knee. He was lucky to have his health and mobility and still be able to walk without pain. He had a long talk with the head coach and after it, Cole enrolled in graduate school at UT and was named a graduate football assistant. He worked with the defense, especially the linebacking corps, which he’d been a part of so recently.
After two years, he left the university with his master’s degree, as well as a teaching certificate in his back pocket. He was offered a job coaching defensive backs at an Austin area high school and took the position, teaching biology during the day and coaching after hours.
He had switched schools four years into his coaching career, moving up in the ranks to serve as the defensive coordinator at a large Dallas suburban school, which went to the playoffs every year and had a bevy of state titles.
Now, at thirty-two, he was eager to run a program of his own. That’s why he was headed to Sugar Springs, a small town in East Texas with a winning football tradition. Their coach was retiring and had been the one to recommend Cole to Joe Bob Milton, the principal of Sugar Springs High School. Cole had run into Coach Reynolds at THSCA, the annual Texas High School Coaches Association, held in mid-July each year. Bubba Reynolds had given no one an indication at that event that he was about to walk away from coaching. It was only after THSCA ended that Reynolds called Cole and asked if he might be interested in the head coaching position at Sugar Springs. With the high school being a perennial favorite to capture the district title in football each year, he would have been a fool to turn down the opportunity to interview.
The only thing which troubled him was how late in July it was for something like this to occur. Most high schools who changed coaches did so in the spring to very early summer. With the third week in July almost gone now, that could cause problems for whoever took the job.
But he wanted it. Badly.
Cole told his aunt goodbye and promised to let her know how the interview went. He cruised into Sugar Springs more than half an hour before his scheduled interview at the high school and drove around the small town for a few minutes, familiarizing himself with it. Having been raised in a small town, he was eager to get back to those roots. While a majority of coaches would have waited and put in more time at a larger school, hoping to move up in the ranks, Cole didn’t mind moving to a lower classification if it meant being in charge of the entire football program.
The attraction in Sugar Springs was not only its winning ways, but he would not be teaching in the classroom. He had taught biology in Austin and currently taught chemistry in his present assignment, but he always felt he was shortchanging his students. He had to limit the hours he tutored, and he didn’t always have time to grade every assignment he gave.
The Sugar Springs’ position involved not only being the high school’s head football coach, but it was accompanied by the title of athletic director. That meant Cole would be in charge of all sports teams in the district, not only at the high school, but the two middle schools, as well. For football, it would be ideal, because he could work with the middle school coaches to implement a similar type of offense which the high school would run. Exposing seventh and eighth graders to an offense and then allowing them to continue in that same offense when they reached high school would make for a smoother transition for those student athletes. Cole would also work with the other head coaches of various sports, male and female teams, and oversee their programs and budgets. It was a lot of responsibility for a man of his age, but he was ready to meet that challenge.
He parked in front of the school, where only two pickup trucks stood. He knew teachers and counselors had already finished up their work for the past school year and assumed he would be interviewed by the owners of these two trucks—Milton, the principal, and the current football coach and AD, Bubba Reynolds.
Entering the school, he made his way directly to the office, opening the door and finding the place deserted of clerks and secretaries. He followed a long corridor and heard voices at the end of it.
Reaching the office at the end of the hall, he stood in the doorway and said, “I’m Cole Johnson. Here for my interview.”
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