Zach Dawson is dealing with the loss of his football career, his latest love, and the one thing he can’t talk about, when he returns to Kellersburg, Ohio, his hometown. He’s trying to get his life back on track by helping with a charitable endeavor.
Maisey Norberg’s life is turned upside down when she learns that Zach is back in town. She’s been his biggest fan since she was six and he was fourteen. Are her feelings the remnants of a childhood crush on the boy down the street or something grown up?
Zach and Maisey are thrown together for the Twelve Dogs of Christmas documentary as they help a philanthropist give deserving children a dog. Will this shared experience help them find true love?
“Hey, sis, guess who’s coming to dinner?”
Maisey Norberg turned at the sound of her older brother’s voice. “Is that supposed to be some kind of reference to an old movie?”
“No, but only my little sister, the old movie buff, would catch that reference.” His short light-brown hair still wet from a shower, Wes strode up the center aisle of the church, then hopped onto the stage, where Maisy was helping with the sound equipment for the praise band. He took her gently by the arm and pulled her to the side. “Mom called me just as I was going out the door.”
Maisey frowned as she pulled her hair back and captured it in a scrunchy. “Are you going to make me guess?”
Wes chuckled. “No point. You’d never guess anyway.”
“Then quit messing around and tell me.” Maisey placed her hands on her hips.
“Zach Dawson and his parents.”
The name made Maisey’s breath hitch in her throat. She stared at her brother until her heart rate slowed to normal and she could breathe again. Images of Zach with his dark-brown hair and hazel eyes paraded through her mind. She’d had a crush on him since she’d been six years old and he’d been a freshman in high school. “Not possible.”
“Yeah. The Dawsons are back in the country and plan to move into their old house again while their new house is under construction. Can you believe it?”
“No.” Maisey walked over to the keyboard
“Believe it. They’re going to be here at church this morning, too.”
Maisey couldn’t wrap her head around the information. Of all the Sundays for Zach to show up—the Sunday she had to sing and play keyboards instead of being in the back on the drums. His celebrity status and disarming smile would have her thinking about him rather than the music. She would have to pretend he wasn’t there. “How did this all come about?”
“Mom said she ran into Lara Dawson at the gas station. They’ve been staying in a hotel until their goods arrive from overseas. Then they’ll move into their old home.” Wes gave Maisey a knowing look. “Of course, Mom invited them all for dinner, and we’ll be expected to be there. We didn’t have anything planned to eat at our house anyway.”
“So is Zach just visiting for Thanksgiving week?” Maisey played a few chords on the keyboard. “What about Samantha, Zach’s sister? Is she here, too?”
“Got me.” Wes shrugged. “I think I heard Mom say Samantha’s still in Germany. A job and a boyfriend or something.”
“What’s Zach doing now that he’s not playing football?” Maisey walked a fine line between too much interest in Zach and not enough.
Wes shook his head. “Don’t know that either. Haven’t heard much about Zach since he had that terrible injury in the football game right after Christmas last year.”
Maisey tried to block the vision of Zach sandwiched between two monstrous defensive linemen and how his seemingly lifeless body had lain there while medical people rushed onto the field. Even a year later, a sick feeling sat in the pit of her stomach as the images stuck in her mind like a piece of gum on her shoe.
She’d followed his football career along with her parents and most of Kellersburg. High school. College. The pros. She’d watched every game he’d ever played.
And she’d loved him that whole time.
Maisey busied herself by untangling cords and flipping through her sheet music. It wouldn’t do to let on to Wes that Zach interested her. “Yeah, he just kind of fell off the radar.”
But not Maisey’s radar. She hated to admit she cyberstalked him. And now she would share Sunday dinner with the man she’d had a crush on forever. Did Wes even have a clue about her obsession? Hopefully not. Wes had been twelve when Zach went away to college. Slim chance her brother would know about her bad case of puppy love.
Maisey was Zach’s superfan, sometimes an overexuberant one. What would he say if he knew she had saved video clips of his most memorable moments on the field or that she had a scrapbook of articles clipped from newspapers and magazines? What would Wes say?
Wes grinned. “Cool that we’re having dinner with a celebrity.”
“Not cool if you gush over him.” She’d remind herself not to do just that.
“Yeah, I suppose, but I have no idea how to act around someone who’s famous.”
Maisey chuckled. “He used to babysit you. Think of that.”
“I barely remember.” Wes shook his head. “I just remember him playing football. Mom and Dad would take us to the high school games to watch him play, and we would sit with the Dawsons.”
Maisey remembered that, too. She also remembered how her heart almost beat out of her chest when their families spent time together and when Zach smiled at her. Sometimes she’d thought she might melt into a puddle right there in front of him.
And mostly she remembered the day he had rescued her from the class bully.
That day would be forever etched on her mind, the day he’d become not only her crush, but her hero. On a spring afternoon at the end of her second-grade year, as she walked home from school, a boy in her class followed her. She’d ignored him when he called her the teacher’s pet. She’d just prayed she would get home before he carried out his threat to steal her backpack.
She had walked faster and faster, hoping to outdistance him, but her short legs were no competition for the biggest kid in class. Tears stung her eyes, but she blinked them away. As she hurried down the sidewalk just a block and a half from her house, she tripped on a crack and sprawled face first on the hard concrete, scraping her hands and knees. The mean kid snatched the backpack that lay beside her and raced away.
Pain radiated through her body as she sat up. Tears stained her cheeks, and she sniffled. She scrambled to her feet, determined to retrieve the backpack. Blood dripping down her legs, she charged after the horrible boy who was only half a block ahead of her.
She ignored the pain as she raced down the sidewalk. “Stop, stop, you meanie! Give me my backpack!”
Just as the boy reached the end of the block, someone sprinted across the street and grabbed the kid by the arm and jerked him to a stop, then grabbed the backpack. Panting and out of breath, Maisey slowed her pace as she squinted and tried to figure out who had rescued her backpack.
“Don’t you ever let me catch you doing that to anyone, especially Maisey. Now get out of here.” The words of the raised voice carried all the way down the block.
Maisey’s heart jumped into her throat as she recognized Zach Dawson, who lived across the street and three doors down from her house. She watched him approach with her backpack slung over his shoulder. Her heart pounded in her chest, like the thundering herd of unicorns that graced her backpack.
“I believe this is yours.” Zach held the pink-and-purple backpack out to her.
Maisey couldn’t find her voice. She merely nodded as she took the backpack and held it close, all the time thinking that Zach had touched it. She would never get a new one.
“Whoa. Are you okay? Looks like you took quite a tumble.” He glanced down at her legs where blood still formed little red rivers.
She nodded again, still unable to speak. Why had she chosen a dress today instead of pants? Pants would’ve given some protection for her knees and hidden her skinny legs from Zach’s eyes.
“You don’t look okay. Let’s get you home.” Zach picked her up and cradled her in his arms, as if she weighed next to nothing. “You let me know if that kid ever bothers you again.”
Maisey still hadn’t found her voice, and she nodded for the third time. Was she dreaming? The pain in her knees told her no.
When Zach reached Maisey’s front porch, he rang the bell with his elbow, then turned the doorknob with the hand of the arm he had under her knees. The door swung open. “Mrs. Norberg, it’s Zach. Maisey’s been hurt.”
In seconds her mom, Annette, hurried into the living room. “Maisey, what happened?”
As Zach set Maisey on the couch and sat beside her, he explained about the bully. After he finished, her mother cleaned and bandaged the wounds. The whole time Zach didn’t move from his spot, and Maisey had relished every moment. Every day for weeks she remembered how it felt to have him hold her.
A grown-up now, Maisey knew her romantic thoughts were the stuff of puppy love and crushes, but that didn’t keep her from thinking about Zach. Today he would grace one of the pews in this church. Could she find her voice to sing with him sitting there? She had to, even though Zach was certainly more famous today than he was all those years ago. She wasn’t a starstruck little girl anymore.
“Earth to Maisey.”
Maisey looked at her brother and hoped he had no clue what she’d been thinking. “Did you say something?”
“Yeah. I asked if you’re ready for your finals.”
Maisey sighed, relief washing over her. Wes didn’t even think twice about Zach, and neither should she. “I don’t want to study too far ahead, or I’ll forget everything by the time the tests roll around after Thanksgiving.”
“You’re smart. You’ll remember.”
Maisey played a chord on the keyboard as she checked the sound. “I wish I had your confidence.”
“Hey, if I can graduate from college, you can, too.”
Maisey laughed as she shook her head. “You know you’ve always been smarter than me.”
“Yeah, I am.” Wes laughed. “Now what do you want me to do?”
“Check to see if all the connections are good in the sound equipment. The others will be here in a minute, and we’ll make a quick run through all the songs.” Maisey tried without success to quit thinking about Zach.
“It all looks good to me.” Wes’s statement brought Maisey’s thoughts to a halt.
She looked up and imagined Zach moseying down the aisle, a lopsided grin across his handsome face. Instead, Julianne and Lukas Frye, the couple who led the praise team, came into view. Julianne and her sister, Elise, were part of the Keller family, descendants of the town fathers. They were VIPs in Kellersburg, but not as VIP as Zach Dawson.
Maisey waved them onto the stage, wishing she could strike thoughts of Zach from her mind. “Wes and I have checked all the connections. We’re all set.”
“Great.” Lukas hopped onto the stage. “Elise isn’t coming this morning because the baby’s sick.”
“Oh no. I hope it isn’t something serious.” Maisey wrinkled her brow.
“No. Just a runny nose and a low-grade fever,” Lukas replied.
“Will we be okay with one less female voice on the vocals?” Maisey stepped around the keyboard.
“I wasn’t scheduled to sing today, so I’ll take Elise’s place. Seems like my sister and I are always stepping in for each other. That’s what happens when you have little kids.” Julianne joined her husband on the stage.
“Do you know the songs?” Maisey asked.
Julianne nodded. “I do, and thankfully, we have a chance to practice everything before the service.”
“Let’s get started.” Lukas plugged in his guitar and strummed it.
Maisey readied her music and thought about how the church music had changed since she’d been in high school. The choir that had sung every Sunday when she was a kid now sang once a month, when they sang the old hymns. She liked the music the praise band did, but like many of the older folks in the congregation, she still liked to sing the hymns that her grandmother loved. Was she out of step with her own generation? Sometimes she thought so.
Maisey joined the others while they practiced the morning worship songs. As the time for the service drew closer, more thoughts of Zach strummed through her mind, like the guitar chords Lukas played. She hoped Zach would sit in the back and not in the front, where she couldn’t help but look at him.
Minutes later Maisey’s wish was not realized. Wearing khaki pants and a cream-colored sweater underneath a brown leather jacket, Zach Dawson sauntered down the center aisle with his parents, Lara and Ken. Zach looked almost the same as he had in high school, except his dark hair was cut in a short, neat style rather than the longer unkempt style of his youth.
He stopped along the way as Melanie Keller’s boys, Ryan and Andrew, raced over to get Zach’s autograph. He smiled at the boys as he signed their church bulletins. That smile made Maisey’s pulse pump in double time. She took a deep breath and gathered her emotions. Before Zach joined his parents in the third row, he signed more autographs and shook hands with numerous people—people who had known him while he was growing up in Kellersburg.
Maisey wondered whether her gaze would be drawn to him against her will. She surely didn’t want to get caught staring at him. Maybe he was used to that type of thing—women falling all over themselves to get his attention.
She. Did. Not. Want. To be one of those women.
If rumors were to be believed, Zach was quite the ladies’ man. He’d had a string of girlfriends throughout his career. According to the tabloids, the latest one had broken up with him just before his injury. Was he still nursing a broken heart almost a year later?
Maisey determined she would either look at her music and the keyboard or stare at the back of the auditorium. She wouldn’t let her gaze stray to the pews closest to the platform. That was a promise.
Zach focused on one of the big screens on either side of the stage, where a countdown clock indicated less than five minutes until the beginning of the service. He turned to look back down the aisle in search of Phil Waller, the man who had helped save Zach from himself. Phil was a friend of the owner of the football team that Zach had played for and had taken an interest in him from the beginning of his career. His parents had treaded lightly in their advice, but Phil had come right out and told Zach he needed to get his life on a different track. The older man had been like a grandfather to him, giving him advice and direction.
Just as the clocked ticked down to ten seconds, Phil slipped into the pew. “Sorry for the last-minute entrance. I was talking with the guy in charge of the Christmas-tree lighting, Nathan Keller. Nice guy. He says we’re all set for Friday night.”
Zach nodded. Nathan, who had graduated by the time Zach had entered high school, was part of the big Keller clan. Nathan’s father owned the local bank. Maybe Nathan worked there.
Zach didn’t know what had changed in his hometown since he’d left. He had good memories of the place, but it hadn’t been on his radar for over ten years. A few months after his high school graduation, his parents had moved to Munich, Germany, when his dad had taken a job as the international liaison for the medical devices plant in Kellersburg. During Zach’s college years, having parents on the other side of the Atlantic had served as a major challenge.
The chatter floating through the auditorium faded as musicians took the stage and played a soft tune. Zach’s gaze was drawn to the young woman on the keyboard. A pretty blonde dressed in a bulky red sweater and slim black pants. He didn’t need another pretty blonde in his life. The ones he’d dated had only brought him sorrow.
His mother leaned closer. “Do you recognize Maisey Norberg on keyboard?”
Zach knit his eyebrows. “Maisey?”
His mother smiled and nodded as Zach leaned back in the pew and took another look. Maisey, all grown up and prettier than he could have ever imagined. He’d always been attracted to blondes. A weakness that had led him astray too many times. But he didn’t need to worry about her, no matter how pretty she was. He would be here a week and then gone.
Sitting between his dad and Phil, Zach tried to concentrate on the words of the hymn displayed on the screen, but his gaze kept finding its way to Maisey. Thankful he’d be gone soon, he quit fighting his attraction. She was nice to look at, and she had a sweet singing voice. For all he knew, she could be married or at the least have a serious boyfriend. He should quit ogling her and sing, but even with the words on the screen, he didn’t know the songs.
The differences between the church services he’d attended here in the past and this one now astonished him. But then, he’d forgotten his roots and the promises he’d made as a high schooler in this building. He’d let fame and fortune lead him away from the faith he had professed here and the God who had showered Zach with blessings, so much more than he deserved.
Zach had anticipated the guilt washing over him as he listened to the songs and read the words. Remorse for the way he’d lived during his pro career inundated him. He’d partied too hard with teammates and disregarded God’s instruction about sexual relationships. Was there any redemption for him? Phil said there was. Zach almost believed it. Sometimes.
The song service ended, and the congregation settled in the pews as the band left the stage. Zach let his gaze follow Maisey until she was out of view in the front pew on the opposite side of the auditorium. A good spot for her to help him keep his mind from wandering during the sermon, but maybe he’d rather have her as a distraction. Then the words of the sermon wouldn’t puncture his heart.
A middle-aged man in casual dress took the stage, Bible in hand. Zach eased back in his seat, but tension knotted his shoulders. After not attending church for years, he’d been attending with Phil at his home church in Florida in recent months while they’d worked on a project. Zach braced himself for words that would pierce his heart. Every sermon he’d heard as an adult seemed crafted just for him. They reminded him of his sin. Guilt ate at the corners of his heart. When would he shake that feeling?
The pastor prayed, then opened his Bible. “Today we’re going to study a couple of different passages from the Scriptures that talk about God’s forgiveness. Let’s look at Psalm one hundred and three. We’ll start in verse eight and read through verse twelve.
‘The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.’
“Now we’ll look at Jeremiah thirty-one. In verse thirty-four, look at the last sentence. It says,
‘For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.’”
The pastor looked out at the congregation as he flipped through the pages of his Bible. “One more verse from First John one verse nine. ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.’”
Zach let the words roll through his mind. The concept of God’s forgiveness was something Zach understood, so if God could forgive, why couldn’t Zach forgive himself? The verse from 1 John rattled through Zach’s brain again and again. He didn’t feel as though he was purified from all unrighteousness. His sin smothered every good thought and weighed him down with guilt he couldn’t shake.
Despite the good news of God’s forgiveness, Zach’s heart ached. Sin littered his path with regret and shame. Jesus had done the undoing. Jesus had taken the blame. Jesus had made the way for freedom from the punishment Zach deserved. The head knowledge didn’t help, because the message hadn’t penetrated his heart and given him peace. When would that happen? When would he quit torturing himself over his past?
The rest of the sermon was lost on Zach. His mind wandered through the past, piling on more guilt and regret. Thoughts of Jayla Shaw, a former girlfriend, filled his mind. Could he ever forget the haunted expression painting her face the last time they’d spoken? She had moved on with her life. A new boyfriend. A fancy new house. A promising movie career. Her successes mocked him from the front pages of the tabloids.
Nothing he could do could change the past. Phil kept telling Zach to look forward and not back, but the past was like a never-ending film flickering through his thoughts. His failings from the past had a vice grip on his mind. He wanted to remember the good parts, but the bad ones devoured the wholesome ones and left him feeling unworthy of anything good. He prayed the next few weeks, as he launched himself into Phil’s project, would help ease his guilt.
Phil elbowed Zach in the ribs. He looked up to realize the pastor was introducing Phil and Zach. This was it. Time to put on the show he didn’t feel. How long before the charade of his life would all come crashing down around him?
“Please welcome Phil Waller and Kellersburg’s own, celebrated quarterback Zach Dawson.” The pastor motioned them to the stage.
Zach manufactured a smile and followed Phil until they stood side by side behind the pulpit. Thankfully, Phil would do most of the talking.
Phil grasped the sides of the pulpit top and looked over at the pastor, then out at the congregation. “Thank you, Pastor Rob, for allowing us a few minutes to talk about this very special project. Possibly over the last year and a half, you’ve seen ads for The Twelve Dogs of Christmas project.”
Pastor Rob nodded. “I love the title.”
Phil chuckled. “It fits. I’ll give a quick rundown about the documentary being filmed in the next few weeks, which will be shown about this time next year. We spent the early part of this year choosing our recipients for one of the twelve dogs we’ll be giving away during December this year. We have picked out twelve special children who wrote an essay about why they wanted a dog. Of course, we got permission from the parents before we combed through the finalists to pick those twelve children. We’re in Kellersburg to kick off the celebration by including your town’s tree-lighting ceremony in the documentary, since this is Zach’s hometown and he’s a major player in this film. We invite everyone to take part, but you must sign a release form to be included. The ushers will have forms and more information for you as you leave today. Now I’d like for Zach to say a few words.”
Zach stepped behind the pulpit, his heart pounding. He’d much rather be facing down a charging defensive lineman than talking to the congregation of his boyhood. They all thought he was an upstanding person, but he was a fraud.
“Thanks, Phil. I’m excited about this project.” That part was true. “Many of you know me from the years my family lived in Kellersburg. I’ve been blessed to have a football career that has given me this opportunity to give back. That’s why I’ve joined Phil in this project. We hope you’ll be part of the tree-lighting ceremony, and you might even see yourself on TV next year.”
As Zach stepped away from the podium, Pastor Rob took over. “Thanks, Phil and Zach. Let’s say a prayer for this project.”
While Pastor Rob prayed, Zach tried not to think of himself. He’d been doing too much of that this morning. He needed to pray for the families who’d be impacted by the gift of a dog. He prayed it would be a blessing to them.
After the prayer, the pastor escorted Zach and Phil to the back, where they answered questions and passed out flyers. As the folks filed by and greeted Zach, many said how sorry they were about the injury that had ended his career. Despite the pain and lengthy recovery, Zach realized in the end that his injury was the wake-up call he’d needed to get his life back on the right track.
The kindness of the people who greeted him made him remember all the good folks in this small town. He was sorry he’d never made an attempt to visit, even though his parents no longer lived here. He should’ve been more grateful for the coaches who’d taught him how to play football. If only he’d followed their other lessons as well—lessons on how to lead a good life and be a good person.
As the line finally dwindled, Zach’s mom approached. “Remember we’re invited to the Norbergs’ for Sunday dinner.”
Zach nodded. How many years had it been since he’d heard the expression Sunday dinner? The phrase conjured up visions of pot roast or fried chicken with all the trimmings. He moved closer to his mother. “I have to take Phil to his hotel, then I’ll be over.”
She laid a hand on his arm. “Nonsense. Phil should come, too.”
“You can’t just invite another guest.”
“Zach, this is Annette and Bryant we’re talking about. They’ll welcome one more guest with open arms. You should know that.”
Yeah. He should know that, but he’d forgotten. His mom and Annette had been closer than sisters when his family had lived across the street and a few doors down. His dad and Bryant had worked together at the medical devices plant.
Their families had spent hours and hours together over the years, enjoying meals, playing games, and sharing a common faith. The Norbergs had been like a second family while he’d been growing up. He’d let that relationship fall by the wayside, too.
“You should check anyway before you issue the invitation.” Zach gave his mom a pointed look.
She returned his look with an indulgent smile. “Okay. Just to make you happy.”
Not sure what would make him happy, he watched his mom sashay down the aisle toward Annette, who conversed with her husband and his mother, Carol, near the front. Zach’s mom hugged Annette, then the two of them talked, nodded, and laughed as they looked his way and waved. He took that as a sign.
“Hey, Phil, my family’s going over to our friends’ house for lunch—”
Phil waved his hand at Zach. “That’s fine. I can fend for myself while you visit.”
“Not necessary. They’ve invited you to join us, if you’d like.”
“That’s great. I’d love to. Meeting the locals is on my list of things to do.” Phil pointed a finger at Zach. “And one person I want to meet is that young lady who played the keyboard this morning. Do you know her?”
What was that all about? Zach had a bad feeling. “Funny you should mention that. She’ll be there. We’re eating at the Norbergs, and she’s their daughter.”
Phil clapped Zach on the back. “This day is turning out better than I ever expected.”
Zach wished he could say the same, but something told him whatever Phil was thinking might just be the worst thing for Zach.
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