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By:Joan Swan

“Heads up!” someone yelled from the beach.

Josh looked over as the football sailed toward them. In split-second intervals, he calculated the trajectory, pushed to his feet, and dove across the table, intercepting the ball inches from Rubi’s face. The ball slammed into his outstretched hand, torquing his shoulder. Pain knifed down his arm, up his neck, and across his chest. Burning, shooting, fiery pain that stabbed.

“Motherfucker—” He fell against the table and clenched his teeth against the pain. “That boyfriend of yours has a good arm.”

“And you’ve got some good moves,” Rubi said, standing now, her hand lying gently on his back. “Are you all right?”

Some days, he felt like a fucking cripple. “Will be, thanks.”

He straightened, stemming a wince at the slice along his shoulder.

Wes jogged toward the table, sand still clinging to his T-shirt, a frown of concern pulling his brow. He hooked an arm around Rubi’s shoulders, wrapped a hand around the back of her neck, and pulled her forehead to his. “God, I’m sorry, baby.”

“You got lucky,” she said, grinning. “Marx saved you from a dire fate.”

Wes brushed his fingers across her cheek, staring into her eyes, but spoke to Josh. “Thanks for saving this beautiful face, man.”

And he kissed her. Passionately.

That was the last straw for Josh. He was happy for all the love in his friends’ lives. First Jax and Lexi, then Wes and Rubi. Now Rachel and Ryker. He wasn’t envious of what they’d all found, not really, but the constant reminder of what he didn’t have wore on his nerves.

He picked up his briefcase and slid his other hand into the pocket of his slacks to take the weight off his shoulder. “I’m gonna hit the road.”

Wes and Rubi broke from their kiss, and Wes glanced his way. “Leaving already?”

“I’m not getting anything done here.”

“Dude,” Wes said, pulling Rubi in front of him and slipping his arms around her waist, “it’s Sunday. Get out of those work rags and take a few laps in the waves. You need to learn how to relax.”

Agreed. He sucked at relaxing. But his younger brothers always beat Josh’s ingrained conservatism away within a day of meeting up. And it had been far too long since the three of them had spent any quality time together. The thought of heading home for Christmas really turned his mood around. This was exactly what he needed.

“I’m headed that direction right now. Tell Jax I’ll e-mail the assessment as soon as I’m done, but I don’t see any problems.”

Josh turned for the parking lot and his car with a steady sprinkle falling from the sky. He pressed the remote on his key fob, popping the locks on his Lexus. His phone rang. He fished the cell from his belt and glanced at his watch. His mind veered to the flight he needed to catch. With a two-hour drive back to LA, that gave him an hour to pack and an hour to negotiate traffic on the way to the airport. He’d be in Philadelphia, celebrating his first holiday home with his family in eight years, by about midnight local time.

The first sense of excitement Josh had truly experienced in a year pushed into his chest.

He pulled the driver’s door open and answered the call. “Marx.”

“Hey, buddy. Can’t believe I got you on the first try.”

Josh didn’t immediately recognize the voice, but he did know that rough connection—

“Happy anniversary, dude,” the caller said. “How’s retired life? Do I have a lot to look forward to?”

“Beck?” Josh asked, picturing his teammate—skull-cut dark hair, nearly black, laser-sharp eyes, slightly crooked nose. “Is that you?”

“It’s me,” he said, upbeat. “How the hell are you, man?”

“Good, great,” Josh lied, his brow tightening as he tried to work out Beck’s reason for calling—the happy anniversary bit was complete bullshit. A flash of electric current stung Josh’s gut, and his smile dropped. “Are you all right? Are the guys all right?”

“Yeah, fine. Everyone’s fine. Didn’t mean to worry you.”

Josh’s body uncoiled, and he slumped into the leather surrounding him as the sprinkles outside turned to fat drops. He closed his eyes, rested his elbow on the window ledge, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Shit, you know how to give a guy a heart attack.”

Beck’s rough laugh crossed the line. “You’re goin’ soft.”

“Gone. Long gone.” Josh opened his eyes and stared out the rain-blurred windshield toward the ocean. Hearing from Beck automatically made him think of Grace. In many ways, losing her had left a bigger hole in his life than losing his career. “Where are you?”