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 Miracle Road

Eternity Springs - 7

by

Emily March

In deep, dear, loving memory of my mother, Pauline S. Dawson, who made every Christmas a miracle for our family.

Miss you, Mom.

ONE

March

Central Texas

March Madness.

Lucca Romano stood at the window of his office on the campus of Landry University and gazed out at green grass and purple bearded irises without actually seeing them. In his mind’s eye he focused on another place, another time, when a white ten-passenger van traveled a ribbon of dark asphalt highway bisecting a barren winter plain.

Despite the warm sunshine beaming through the window glass, cold permeated Lucca’s bones, and he shuddered as the memory washed over him. Pings and whooshes as text messages arrive and depart from a half-dozen different cellphones. The rhythmic beat of rap. Young men’s laughter as a yapping chocolate brown puppy claws his way over the front passenger seat.

Everyone’s spirits are high after a win, especially after the first win of the season. Sure, it was just an exhibition game, but it proved that the Midwest State University Ravens are tough competitors.

“Keep the dog in the back,” Lucca says, reaching for the little pup. Why had he allowed Seth Seidel to bring that dog home, anyway? The kid lives in a dorm. He has nowhere to keep a dog.

He’d done it because the people selling the puppies out of the back of their truck had been puppy mill people. Lucca’s own heart had gone as soft as Seth’s upon seeing the “display.” Lucca had even loaned the kid some cash to buy the dog.

“Sucker,” he mutters, passing the pup now christened “Sparky” to the backseat.

Five minutes later, Sparky is back. Lucca sighs and stretches for the puppy. Sparky wiggles out of his hand and falls, his sharp little claws reaching for purchase and finding the driver’s arm. The driver startles and stomps the brake, and in an instant, Lucca’s world changes forever.

The wheels lock. Tires skid on black ice. The van slides … slides … slides in slow motion.

Standing in his sun-drenched office, seventeen months and a thousand miles away from the horror, Lucca swayed and reached out to brace himself against the inevitable crash.

Tires skid off the road, and the van tilts, then rolls, again and again and again. People and possessions fly. The boys scream. Lucca’s body jerks against the seat belt. His head hits something hard, and the world goes black.

He regains consciousness with a pounding head; cold, icy air; and panicked voices. “Alan? Oh, God. Alan! Coach! Somebody! Help me! Coach!”

He opens his eyes and sees splatters of blood on the dashboard.

“Coach?”

Jerked back to the present, Lucca glanced over his shoulder to see his graduate assistant in his office doorway, a puzzled expression on his face. How long had he been standing there?

Lucca cleared his throat. “Yes?”

“It’s ten after four.”

Lucca’s gaze shifted to the clock on his wall. He had called a team meeting for four o’clock, so he was late. He was never late. No wonder his assistant looked confused. “I’ll be right there.”

The young man nodded and left. Lucca wiped away the perspiration beaded on his brow and sucked in a pair of deep breaths, seeking the calm for which he was known at courtside. Unfortunately, calm proved elusive.

When his wall clock chimed the quarter hour, Lucca shook his head. He wiped the beaded perspiration from his brow, then slipped on his suit coat. As he exited his office, he attempted to gather his thoughts. He had a list of instructions to give his team prior to the event that Landry University’s athletic department had planned to celebrate the Bobcats’ success in the NCAA tournament.

When Lucca took the head-coaching job a year before, he had inherited a group of players who had the raw talent to win. Once he convinced them to buy into his system, he’d been confident they would play well enough to win their conference and make the tournament. When he’d made his traditional preseason bet with his brother Tony, the new head coach at Colorado, he’d predicted a tourney berth and first game win. Making it all the way to the Sweet Sixteen had been a thrill.

A thrill that hadn’t lasted beyond the dream he’d had during the flight back to Texas following the tournament loss.

He’d awakened with a jolt somewhere over Alabama, the repressed memories fresh, the terror real. He’d spent the balance of the flight trying to lock them away again, but as the hours passed, it was as if the nightmare had plowed the field of his psyche and kicked up a cloud of pain and misery that had churned into a tempest worthy of a 1930s-era dust storm.

He pushed open the door of the men’s locker room and got a whiff of that familiar sweaty scent that had been part of his life for as long as he could remember. Not even the high-dollar NBA venues had been able to get rid of the acrid, musty locker room smell entirely. Today when the stench hit his nostrils, his stomach took a nauseated roll. A storm was brewing inside him.

March Madness.

He walked past a locker whose door hung open. Without a conscious thought, he jabbed it with his elbow, and the metal door clanged shut. Someone had left a pair of athletic shoes on a bench, and one of them had fallen onto the floor into Lucca’s path. He swung a hard kick at the sneaker and sent it crashing against the far row of lockers. Then he picked up the other shoe and threw it hard after the first. A janitor mopping the shower floor glanced up ready to complain, but his growl transformed to a gawk when he saw who had made the noise.

Lucca understood the man’s surprise. Coach Romano didn’t slam things. He didn’t kick things. He certainly didn’t throw things. He’d patterned his professional behavior after legendary coach Phil Jackson’s philosophy of mindful basketball, which included teaching his players to be aggressive without anger or violence and stressing the value of focus and calm in the midst of chaos.

Today, Coach Romano seemed to have lost his Zen.

He exited the locker room and walked out onto the hardwood floor of Bill Litty Arena.

His assistant coaches and players stood with their attention focused on the Jumbotron hanging at center court. A quick glance upward showed Lucca that it was video of their Sweet Sixteen loss, specifically the final two minutes of the game during which his Landry University Bobcats had scored eight unanswered points and came within a whisker of making the biggest upset of the tournament. They’d been a twelve seed playing number one, and they’d held their own against one of the best teams in the country. He’d been so proud of his team.

Why he could barely manage looking at them now, he couldn’t figure. On the whole, this was a good group of kids. His point guard had a legitimate shot at making it in the NBA, and what the rest of the team lacked in talent, they made up for with hard work. They’d slipped their size-thirteen feet into Cinderella’s slippers and

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