Excerpt


CHAPTER 1
ATLANTA, GEORGIA

LANDON REED EMERGED from his two-year prison sentence into the
muggy warmth of an August morning wearing the jeans, gray T-shirt,
and sandals that Kerri had dropped off the day before. He squinted as
he left the dingy interior of the Fulton County jail and stepped into the
crisp, brilliant light of the sun. He held a paper bag containing the suit
and shoes he had worn to court two years earlier when he pleaded guilty.
There were sunglasses in the bag as well, but Landon had decided not
to wear them, concerned they might send the wrong message—a former
all-star college quarterback still trying to play it cool.
He had been sentenced for his role in a point-shaving scandal, and it
was not surprising that only one former teammate came for his release—his
best friend and center, a mountain of a man named Billy Thurston.
While Landon served his time, Billy had been drafted by the Green
Bay Packers.
The media formed a semicircle around Landon, cameras rolling to
capture the scene. The same reporters who had crucified him two years
earlier were back to record his moment of freedom and to rile up the
Southeastern University fans all over again. Landon didn't hold it against
them. He had changed in prison, his bitterness replaced by contrition.
But he didn't expect people to understand.
He held it together as he hugged his mother and older sister. They
didn't say anything, mindful that the cameras would capture every word.
Kerri waited in line, just as she had waited for two years, true to her
word, enduring the scorn of most of her old friends. On her hip was the
little girl Landon knew would grow into the same kind of strong-willed,
independent, beautiful woman her mom was. Maddie had been born
after Landon started serving his term. He had never held her outside the
prison walls.
Landon and Kerri had scripted this moment. There would be a brief
hug; then Landon would say a few words to the press about how much
he appreciated Kerri's loyalty. He would answer a few questions. They
would keep it low-key. The emotional dam would burst later.
But when Kerri stepped forward to hug him, the script no longer mattered.
She started crying, though they had agreed she wouldn't cry and
neither would he. Unbidden, tears rolled down his face as well. Kerri buried
her head on his shoulder, and they held each other for much longer
than they had planned, with little Maddie right there between them, an
arm around each of their necks. For the old Landon, the hotshot quarterback
of three years ago, this public display of emotion would have been
embarrassing. But the new Landon was beyond all that. Once you've been
humiliated in the national press, crying in public is no big deal.
The questions started even before the little family disengaged. Kerri
handed Maddie to Landon, and when he turned to face the reporters,
his little girl turned her back to them, hiding her face in Landon's chest,
holding on for her life. It was all overwhelming for an almost-two-year-old.
"What're your plans now?"
"Are you going to play football again?"
"What do you have to say to your teammates and coaches?"
He took them one at a time. "I'm pretty sure my football career is
over." Who would want me? "I'm grateful for everyone who stood with
me during these last two years." He put his free arm around Kerri's
shoulder. He nodded toward his mother and sister, standing on the
other side of him. His mom, always a slender woman, looked wiry
and gaunt, with tears streaking her face. Prison had aged her even
more than him.
"I'm sorry that I let my teammates and coaches and fans down.
I know I can never undo the damage I've done to Southeastern
University or my own reputation."
Kerri held her head high, as if she were standing next to a prince.
His mom and sister kept their chins up as well.
"I'm incredibly grateful to Kerri for waiting for me these past two
years. I certainly wouldn't have blamed her if she had moved on to
someone else. In terms of what I'm going to do, one of the first things
will be tying the knot."
Kerri had her arm around his waist and gave him a little squeeze. The
questions kept coming and he patiently addressed each one. Reporters
were a cynical lot. Marriage, yeah, yeah—that's quaint. But what about a
comeback on the gridiron?
"Are you saying you haven't been contacted by any NFL teams?"
"That's what I'm saying."
"Are you planning on attending any tryouts?"
It was Billy Thurston who decided enough was enough. He stepped
between Landon and the microphones and made a little announcement.
"Let's respect this family's privacy and let Mr. Reed go about
rebuilding his life," he said. And then, as he had done so many times
in the past, he cleared a path for his quarterback to follow.
The reporters took this as a cue to ask the same questions louder,
shouting at Landon and the others as they worked their way toward the
parking lot. Landon, no stranger to the spotlight, knew the drill. Once
you've decided the press conference is over, keep your head down, ignore
whatever they say, and just keep moving.
They had almost completed the gauntlet when Landon spotted Bobby
Woolridge, an older reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who
had always been more than fair. Bobby believed in redemption and had
written a piece a few months ago about Landon's jailhouse conversion.
Unlike the others, Bobby didn't assume it was just part of a sophisticated
PR campaign.
"You going into the ministry?" Bobby asked.
Landon grinned a little and kept walking. "No, Bobby. I hardly think
I'm qualified."
"How are you gonna feed your family?"
"I'll figure something out," Landon said. He was tempted to tell
Bobby. Sooner or later, it would all come out anyway. But he and Kerri
had talked about this. They would keep their plans private until this
new wave of publicity had washed over. He had finished his undergrad
degree in prison. Now they would start a new life miles away from
Atlanta, in a town with lots of history but few SEC football fanatics.
"Good luck," Bobby said.
Billy had double-parked his Land Rover, and they all hopped in,
leaving the media behind to snap a few final pictures. As they pulled
away, Landon could feel the pressure in his chest begin to loosen. He
was a free man again. He could do whatever he wanted.
"Where to?" Billy asked. "Pizza? Burgers? The Varsity?" For Billy,
it was always about food.
But Landon had a commitment to keep. "Trinity Church," he said.
"We've got our best man and flower girl in the car. No sense giving the
bride a chance to change her mind."
Kerri was sitting in the back with Maddie. She leaned forward and
placed a hand on Landon's shoulder. "She's had two years to think it
over," Kerri said. "She's not getting cold feet now."
They had been planning this day for six months, and Landon
couldn't believe it was finally here. It wasn't exactly a dream wedding,
but Kerri didn't seem to care. Even her parents' refusal to attend hadn't
fazed her. They would have each other, she had said. What else did
they need?
That afternoon, the minister at the small church Kerri had been
attending made it official. Kerri Anderson became Kerri Reed. And
when they made their vows, pledging to stick with each other for
better or for worse, the minister actually paused for a moment and
turned to Kerri.
"I think you've already got this part down," he said.
Kerri was beaming, as was Landon. And they didn't stop smiling until
long after the minister pronounced them man and wife.
Later that day, Kerri said it was the most romantic wedding she could
ever have imagined. With just the seven of them in the small sanctuary,
it somehow felt more private and intimate. She had been smiling, she
said, because it felt so surreal she almost had to pinch herself. The three
of them were officially becoming a family. She was Mrs. Landon Reed.
Maddie would have her daddy home.
Landon didn't tell her the reason he had been smiling. Like Kerri,
the whole experience had felt like a dream. The entire two years behind
bars, he kept thinking that any day Kerri might come to her senses, find
somebody else, and bolt. She was beautiful and smart with a larger-than-life
personality. But she kept coming back. And now, Landon was married
to her.
That was enough to make any man smile. But there was also one
other thing.
The honeymoon would start that night.




(Continues...)