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“Brady, hold on.” I hear her talking to someone who yells at her before the voices go silent and a door shuts in the background. I could swear it was Dennis’s voice I heard. “Are you on your way?”

“Yes. What happened? And why hasn’t anyone been answering the phone? Was that your dad? Why was he yelling at you?”

“He … he thought it best not to bother you during the game. He knows how much the game meant to you.”

“Wait, hold on a damn second. He told you not to bother me during the game? Just how long have they been in the hospital?”

“About five hours.”

“Five hours?” I shout into the phone. “Why didn’t you call me? Why didn’t someone get me out of the game? Hell, that was before the game even started. What the fuck happened, Katie?”

I can hear her crying. Shit.

“Katie?”

“J-just get here as f-fast as you c-can, okay?”

“Katie, what the hell is going on?”

The line goes dead. I check the time to see we’re still about twenty minutes out. “Drive faster, Dan.”

When we reach Lincoln Memorial, he drops me at the emergency entrance and I run in and tell them who I am. A nurse buzzes me through to the back and puts me in a room where she tells me to wait for a doctor. I pace around the room as I wonder where Katie and Dennis are. Where my family is.

A short and stocky man with a white coat walks through the door. “I’m Dr. Lathem,” he says. “I was the doctor on call when your wife and son were brought in.” He gestures to a chair. “Why don’t we take a seat.”

I don’t want to take a fucking seat. Taking a seat is what they tell you to do when they have bad news. Taking a seat is how they keep you from falling down when they deliver it.

In the end, though, I do take a seat, because I double over when I listen to what the doctor has to tell me. I sit in the fiery pit of hell as he describes in detail what happened to my wife and child. I lose the contents of my stomach when he tells me my son is gone and my wife is critical.

A nurse rushes in with a glass of water for me as someone starts cleaning up the mess I made. Dr. Lathem asks if I have any questions. I have a million, but I can’t put two words together to ask them. I just need to get to Natalie.

The nurse takes my arm, telling me she’s going to bring me up to Natalie’s room in the ICU. She goes over some of the things that the doctor told me on the way up.

“Do you understand what he told you?” she asks. “Your wife may be aware, but she’s unable to move or speak due to the damage to her brain stem. It’s called locked-in syndrome. You can talk to her and if she’s awake, she can communicate with you with eye movements. Blinking and such.”

“Oh my God,” I say, doubling over in the elevator. Our life. Our perfect life with the three of us – gone in an instant. All because of me and my stupidity.

I can’t even think about Keeton right now. I’m compartmentalizing this. I can only deal with one thing at a time. Natalie is alive. I have to focus on that. I have to be strong for her.

When I get to her room, Katie and Dennis come outside before I reach the door. I’m trying to plow past them, but Dennis stops me.

“Get your fucking hands off me,” I tell him. “You’ve kept me from her long enough. What the hell were you thinking, not calling me earlier? I could have been here hours ago, you bastard. You robbed me of this time and I’ll never forgive you.”

Katie steps between us. “What’s done is done,” she says. “It wouldn’t have mattered, Keeton was …” She chokes up and tears roll out of her blood-red eyes. “He w-was gone when they brought him in.”

“It does matter!” I yell. “I could have been with Natalie. She needs me more than she needs anybody.” I look at her dad with fire in my eyes. “More than she needs you.”

I put my hand on the door, but Katie covers it with hers. “Wait. We haven’t told her about Keeton. She needs all her strength to fight this.”

My forehead falls to the wall as reality sinks in. My son is dead. My wife is dying.

My world is over.

“You two stay out here,” I say, before walking through the door.

There are all kinds of machines hooked up to Natalie. Despite that, she looks perfect except for the bandage around her neck and some cushions holding her head in place. Tears cloud my vision as I walk over to her and take her hand.

Her hand is limp and heavy in mine. I squeeze it hoping she can feel it. The nurse in the corner of the room coughs and Natalie’s eyes open. When she sees me standing over her, tears fall down the sides of her face. I wipe them. And then I wipe my own.

“I’m here, babe.”

Her nurse comes over and explains what I’ve been told. She says I can ask Natalie questions and she knows to blink once for yes and twice for no.

“Are you in pain?” I ask.

I watch her eyelids close once, then again, and I breathe a sigh of relief.

I lean down and place a kiss on her forehead. Her eyes. Her lips. “I love you so much, Natalie.”

She blinks her eyes three times. She’s telling me she loves me.

I ask her a few more questions but then she starts batting her eyelids like crazy and looking to the door. I don’t have to ask what she’s trying to say. I know she’s asking about Keeton.

She might hate me for lying to her. She might never forgive me. But there is nothing I can do for him. She’s my priority now. And even if it kills me, I have to be strong. “Keeton is fine,” I lie. “He’s waiting for his mommy to get better so she can hold him and sing to him. They won’t let him in here because he’s too young. He wanted me to give you a kiss for him.”

My words break up and my voice cracks and I wonder if she can see through all the lies I just told. More tears stream down the sides of her face. She blinks her eyes three times again and then they close. Then alarms go off in the room and the nurse rushes over, pushing me away from Natalie as she presses a button and calls “Code Blue” before more people come swarming in the room.

Someone pulls me out of the room as I fight to get back in. “No!” I yell. “No!” I try to push and claw my way through everyone to see her again. I have to be with her. It can’t happen like this. This is not how our story is supposed to end.

“Brady!” someone yells, shaking my shoulders.

I look up and see Rylee, worry etched into her face as she pulls me from my nightmare.

I look around the room and remember where I am. Soaked with sweat, I hop up from my chair and run outside just in time to vomit into the bushes.

I hear footsteps behind me, then a gentle arm on my back. “Brady, are you okay?”

I shake my head and wipe my mouth with my t-shirt. “Isn’t that what I should be asking you? How is he?”

“He’s going to be fine, thank God. They did a CT scan to rule out any bleeding in the brain. They said he has a mild concussion and will stay overnight for observation. They are putting a cot in his room so I can stay with him.”

I look at what she’s holding in her hands. Two stuffed toys – a stingray and a tiger. She follows my gaze. “Hannah grabbed them on their way out. She knows they are his favorites. I’m watching them while they move him to his room.”

“Good. That’s good news.” It’s all I can manage to say as I stare at the stuffed animals thinking about another three-year-old boy who loved them.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about Stryker,” she says.

“No need to be sorry.” I shrug. “It’s my fault. My rules.”

She puts a hand on my arm. She nods back at the hospital. “What just happened in there? It’s like you were in a trance or something.”

“I’m fine. I just need to get out of here. I can’t be here. I … I can’t do this. Do you need anything?”

She shakes her head sadly. “Hannah is going back to my place to get me a change of clothes. But thanks for asking.”

She looks at me like the broken man that I am. She feels sorry for me. She feels sorry for things she doesn’t even know about me. This is why I don’t tell anyone. They ask too many questions and shed too many tears. I don’t need their sympathy.

I back away slowly, looking into her green eyes. The green eyes I thought could maybe heal me. I was stupid to think such a thing. Nothing can heal what is broken beyond repair.

“Good luck with everything,” I say. “I’m glad your boy is okay.”

She cocks her head to the side, studying me.

“Goodbye, Rylee,” I say, slowly backing up into the darkness.

I think I see a tear escape the corner of her eye. “Goodbye, Brady.”

I walk down the sidewalk, away from her. Away from my pain. When I reach the corner, I turn around to see her sliding down the wall, head in her hands as her body shakes with sobs.

Yeah, it fucking hurts, I think, feeling my own heart being squeezed like it’s in a vise.

But it could be worse.

Part Two

Rylee

Chapter Twenty-two

Four months later …

He’s everywhere.

On posters pinned behind glass on subway platforms. At bus stops. I even saw him on the top of a cab the other day. I can’t get away from his chiseled face; his hard body that I’ve felt with my own hands.

Even here, at work – especially here at work – likenesses of him are plastered everywhere.

“You’re going to see him sooner or later, Rylee,” Murphy says, catching me staring at a cutout of Brady by the front desk at my new place of employment. “They got back from spring training yesterday.”

I nod. I know only too well. I follow their schedule more than I’d like to admit. I follow it even though I’m no longer employed by the Nighthawks.

I follow it because I’m a stupid girl.

And no matter how much I tried. No matter how many times I convinced myself I wouldn’t let it happen, it did anyway. I went and fell in love with Brady Taylor. The most ineligible bachelor to ever walk the earth.

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