Jaxon Briscoe has enjoyed a decade as the beloved star center of the Chicago Blackhawks. But off the ice, a string of reckless relationships has resulted in an accusation that he's fathered a child. As Jaxon's conscience is tossed into a firestorm, he learns his nephew, Grayson, has been expelled from school, and Jax is blindsided when Gray shows up on his doorstep—for good.
Adrienne Price carries a heavy secret – pregnant at a young age, she gave up her daughter for adoption in the hopes that the child might have a better life. Now, Adrienne's vowed to help teens rise above unsavory situations. As a result of God's grace, her project, Second Chances Day School, has prospered beyond her wildest imagination.
But when Jax's troubled nephew enrolls at Second Chances, Adrianne is faced with a big challenge in the form of a hockey player with a bad reputation and a lot of boyish charm. Can Adrienne and Jax finally find real love?
“I need to know now.” Jaxon Briscoe shoved papers aside and tapped a pen over the polished glass top of a chrome coffee table that flanked his leather couch. He barked orders into the cellphone, “Right now—today.”
“I’m sorry.” The receptionist’s matter-of-fact tone was punctuated with a hint of weary frustration. “But the results of your paternity test haven’t posted yet.”
“That’s impossible. I’ll be too old and feeble to collect Social Security by the time your lab analyzes a tiny blood sample. Those results have to be floating around somewhere in your computer network or in one of your archaic charts. If the lab report gets into the wrong hands, the press will have a field day with it.”
“That won’t happen. We’re highly professional here. I assure you, Mr. Briscoe—”
“I don’t want your assurances.” Jaxon clenched the barrel of the pen and broke it in two with a single, swift crack. “I want the results—now.”
“Sir, I’m trying to tell you—”
“Then tell me what I want to hear.” Jaxon punctuated his words by launching the pen at the table. Broken shards of plastic scattered across glass and danced over the polished hardwood floor, disappearing beneath the black leather couch. “Just check once more.”
“Once more…for the fourth time today…” The receptionist drew a long sigh and released her breath in an exaggerated huff of air that made the phone line tremble. “And it’s not even noon yet. But, if you insist.”
“I do.” Jaxon’s nerves sizzled and popped. “I most certainly do.”
“In that case…”
Sketchy piano music drifted over the line as Jaxon was placed on hold once again. He kicked the couch leg and paced a tight holding pattern along the oak planks beneath his feet. Unruly black hair fell across his eyes and he ran a hand through it, feeling a rough ridge of scar buried along his hairline, a battle wound from a Stanley Cup playoff bid two seasons ago. That had been the high point of his career—leading his team to the coveted Cup. With that victory tucked neatly into his back pocket, endorsements and appearance requests poured down like summer rain. Soon, Jaxon found himself worked into a state of exhaustion in an attempt to fulfill them all, before his agent finally began to turn away all but the most lucrative. Maybe later, when things quieted down a bit, he’d manage a fly-by to the schools and hospitals that had been left-behind. At the moment, he was still recovering from the commercial fallout and the fact that he could hardly venture from the apartment to order fast food from the drive-thru without being accosted by at least a fan or two wanting to give their take on the outcome of a game or working to snag an autograph.
He never turned down a kid when it came to signing his name or posing for a photo, but the armchair quarterbacks really got on his nerves.
He supposed he should be thankful anyone even cared. For as high as the Stanley Cup season had ended, this year had proven to be the valley of all valleys. Jax still couldn’t make sense of it…dropping from the summit to the depths of the ocean like a lead balloon. And now rumors swirled about his advancing age, and the growing assumption that the best days of his career in the NHL were behind him. He was due for a contract renewal, and things didn’t look all that promising. Jaxon saw the writing on the wall, and he didn’t like the message.
That last concussion hadn’t helped much. The blow had benched him for a good part of the season and left his brain scrambled for weeks. Coach worried one more hit like that might leave him completely out of his head, hence the hold-up in his contract.
Go figure…washed up at the ripe old age of thirty-six. Break out the rocking chairs and prune juice; it was a good bet he’d just skated his final pro season. Where he’d go from here, he had no idea.
The thought coiled like a snake in Jaxon’s gut as elevator music continued to drift over the line. Seconds segued into minutes while one sleep-inducing song melded to another. In his wildest dreams, Jax never imagined he’d encounter a situation more disastrous than a career-ending season. Yet, he was smack-dab in the middle of a quagmire. The current phone call carried a sense of foreboding more ominous than an impending tornado. Each breath became more difficult as the levity of the circumstances dawned.
I might be a father.
The very thought struck Jaxon with pulse-jamming dread. A child was the last thing on his agenda…even farther down the list than retirement and marriage and white picket fences. But Shayla had shown up on his doorstep two weeks ago sporting photos of a child. She—and her slime-bucket of a lawyer—had insisted he was responsible for the sudden tangled fork in her road, swaddled in a neat little package of diapers and blankets.
Good grief, Jaxon didn’t even like Shayla, with her sun-streaked blonde hair and skirts that clung like plastic wrap to a figure way too enticing for his own good. He hadn’t seen or heard from her in months, and now he racked his brain to remember the details of their infamous…encounter. Was it before or after Margo? In Detroit or Montreal? The fact that he couldn’t place the exact time and date or even the location unsettled Jaxon. He shrugged the tension from his shoulders and thought of the string of women who waited at every venue, like flies drawn to sugarcane. How was he supposed to resist them all when they threw themselves at him? Wasn’t that a perk of his tenure as a top-ranked athlete, anyway?
Truth was, he’d sampled one woman too many, and now his escapades had come back to bite him. The thought caused a stab of embarrassment and something else—something he couldn’t quite put his finger on, yet it nibbled at his insides like a swarm of ravenous termites.
Jaxon paused to gaze through an expanse of floor-to-ceiling palladium windows that overlooked the Tennessee riverfront near downtown Knoxville. People scurried along the river walk on foot and by bike while others coasted the cerulean-blue water in ski boats and an occasional canoe or paddleboat. The Star of Knoxville riverboat rested in port, waiting for its evening dinner cruise while the mouthwatering aroma of barbecued ribs drifted from Calhoun’s Restaurant on the River.
Jaxon shook his head as he leaned against the glass and remembered that he was still on hold—again, and waiting on information that might very well change his life forever. How could the world continue to spin on its axis when his future hung in the balance by a single, fraying thread?
I swear I’ll do anything You ask, God, if you just let this paternity test come back negative.
Good grief, where had that thought come from? Jaxon hadn’t prayed in years, hadn’t so much as given God a passing glance in at least a decade…maybe more. And now he was bartering with the Man Upstairs?
Music faded as the receptionist finally returned to the line. “Mr. Briscoe? Are you still there?”
“Of course I’m still here and, like a said before, a giant leap closer to claiming Social Security benefits.” Jaxon clutched the phone so hard the case might have cracked beneath the pressure of his callused hands. “Where else would I be?”
“I’m sorry for the wait, but—”
“Save the apology. Do you have the results or not?”
“I do, right here in my hands.”
“Well…?” The single word barely came as his throat filled with sandpaper.
“Let me see here…just one moment. Yes, here it is…”
An army of ants marched up Jaxon’s spine as his hands turned clammy and his pulse kicked into warp speed.
“Mr. Briscoe, the paternity test returned negative. Not even a remote match.”
The breath whooshed out of Jaxon. He turned and pressed his forehead to the cool balcony-door glass as beads of sweat broke out across the nape of his neck. “Are you sure?”
“I’m positive. That is, the results are negative. Would you like me to page Dr. Rafferty to confirm?”
“No, that won’t be necessary. Just keep those results clear of the press and forward them to my attorney ASAP.”
“Will do, Mr. Briscoe.” Papers rustled through the phone line, followed by the tap, tap, tap of a keyboard. “I’m taking care of it as we speak. Rest assured that it will be done immediately, and with the utmost confidentiality.”
“You are most certainly welcome. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“I believe you’ve done more than enough.”
“In that case, and until next time, have a nice day.”
Until next time? Over his dead body would there be a next time. Jaxon disconnected the call with a jab of the power button and slipped the phone into the back pocket of his jeans. From this point on, he was swearing off women. Off, off, off!
He swung open French doors leading to a corner balcony and let the warmth of late-spring air wash over him. Sunlight played hide and seek with a quilt of rain clouds, and he sucked in a gentle breeze laced with the sweet, musky scent of impending rain. Along the river, Bradford pears peaked to full bloom. The pollen wreaked havoc with his allergies, but at the moment, he didn’t mind.
I’m not a father…the baby is not mine. Thanks to negative test results, he wouldn’t be bound to Shayla for the remainder of his life.
But someone would. Obviously, she’d had more than one fish in the tank, so to speak. Jaxon didn’t know why it crawled under his skin to imagine her with someone else. He certainly had enjoyed more than his fair share of the female persuasion, never giving a second thought to the flip side of that perspective. His encounters had always been laid back and easy…no strings attached and certainly no expectations. He wasn’t sure why, but he’d never considered the women he enjoyed might be dabbling in more than him.
But now that that gear was turning, Jaxon couldn’t shove the idea from his mind. And suddenly the images he conjured bothered him—very much. And the oath he’d muttered in his weakest moment came back to haunt him.
I swear I’ll do anything You ask, God, if you just let this paternity test come back negative.
Surely God wouldn’t hold him to such an oath, would He? Jaxon shook off the thought as he punched a series of numbers into the phone. Calhoun’s didn’t usually deliver this time of day but he was sure they would make an exception…for him.
Adrienne Price blew a strand of auburn hair from her eyes and pushed the rolling chair back from her desk. Files lay scattered across an oversized calendar blotter that was riddled with scribbled notes, and the clutter made her crazy. The dreaded five o’clock energy lull set in, dulling her thoughts to gauzy cotton. She needed a cup of coffee—quick.
As she rose from the chair and crossed to a coffeemaker tucked on a small table near the door, she replayed dialogue from the consultation she’d just wrapped up with a frazzled mother whose thirteen-year-old daughter was in desperate need of help.
“Shawna’s run away from home twice in the last six months.” The harried woman had paced the length of the office, wearing a path along the carpet as she retraced her steps time and time again. “She’s angry…rebellious. I don’t know what to do.”
“Not even in the picture. Never in the picture. I’m on an island here…for better or for worse.”
The woman’s sharp and somewhat caustic words resonated to Adrienne’s very soul. Were it not for one simple variation in choices, she might find herself the one being counseled instead of the one offering the counseling.
That variation was adoption.
Adrienne thought of the daughter she’d relinquished to a loving couple, desperate for a child of their own, just a few days shy of fifteen years ago. She’d been alone, pregnant…scared and, at seventeen, much too young to raise a child on her own. Her choice, though heart-wrenching, had been the right one for the baby—one that might afford the child a life of stability and opportunities way beyond Adrienne’s reach at the time.
Even so, some days the decision…the memories…crept back in to sting like an angry swarm of bees once again, leaving an empty and unbearable ache in her heart.
A few moments in her arms was all Adrienne treasured before her daughter was whisked away, swaddled in a soft rose-petal-pink blanket, to find her new path…and begin a life with her adoptive parents.
Saying goodbye to her child was—and remained to this day—the most difficult moment of Adrienne’s life.
And it was the fuel that had spurred her to pursue an advanced counseling degree from the University of Tennessee and then spend the better part of a decade learning all she could about wayward teens before she branched out on her own and opened Second Chances Day School, a place for teens to have just that—a second chance for a happy, fulfilling life.
Adrienne lifted her mug from the table and filled it with coffee. The brew had been steeping on the burner a while, and a first sip soured on her tongue. Extra cream was in order, so she squatted to open the door of the small fridge tucked beneath the table and plucked a carton of French vanilla from the shelf. She dumped in a healthy splash, gave the muddy liquid a quick stir, and the java was transformed to just this side of palatable.
Adrienne sighed…nearly quitting time. She’d leave everything on her desk, all the folders and registration forms that waited to be aggregated and then filed. She’d promised herself a night off—time to savor a meal instead of inhaling it on the go—and to curl up with the novel she’d promised herself, several weeks ago, she’d take the time to read. She’d get back to the mess on her desk in the morning even if it meant heading into the office an hour or two early to make up for the free time tonight.
As caffeine coursed through her veins, Adrienne grinned and smoothed back her bobbed hair. The summer caseload was shaping up nicely. All classes were full, except for one remaining slot in the full-day, academic/adventure session. Maybe tomorrow she’d fill it, and welcome another hurting teen to his or her opportunity for a new beginning.
Question 1: Disguised Blessings is based on scripture from 1 Chronicles 28:9, "Serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts. If you seek him, he will be found by you." What does this passage mean to you? Why do you think it was chosen for this story?
Question 2: Describe Jaxon's personality at the beginning of the story? His depth of faith?
Question 3: What is the promise Jaxon makes to God? How does this promise impact what happens throughout the story?
Question 4: How does Grayson's arrival and subsequent stay impact Jaxon's thoughts and actions? Explain.
Question 5: What secret does Adrienne carry? How has this impacted her life and her relationships with others--especially men--during the past decade or so?
Question 6: Describe the first meeting between Jaxon and Adrienne. What hints were given that a relationship was destined to begin? Explain.
Question 7: What does Adrienne mean when she says, "You win this round, Jaxon Briscoe, but you'll be waving a white flag soon enough." How does her assertiveness foreshadow what might happen in the coming chapters?
Question 8: Describe Jaxon's relationship with Grayson. How does the addage 'Do as I say, not as I do' apply? How does Jaxon's faith help him to be a better example to his nephew? Explain.
Question 9: Although Juliette's parents are never actually met by readers, we get a stong sense of their character. Describe what you see through Adrienne's eyes and thoughts.
Question 10: What do you think the future holds for Jaxon and Adrienne? For Grayson and Juliette? Explain.