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I’m no different than all the other girls he’s had in all the other cities. I’m sure most of them are in love with him too. I suppose that just makes me a groupie. But even all these months later, I know what we had was different. And after some long talks with Murphy, I know she thinks so too.

That’s not to say I’m not mad at him for walking away and not looking back. But I have no right to be. I knew what we were doing and I knew it was going to end. And even though Murphy told me his behavior has nothing to do with me and everything to do with something he lost in the past, it still hurts.

Mason Lawrence, my new boss and part-owner of the gym I now work for, walks by and nods at the life-sized Brady. “Do you think I can round the two of you up for one more shoot?” he asks Murphy.

“I’m not sure,” she says. “Their season starts in ten days. I can get you their schedule and see if we can work something out.”

“That would be great, Murphy. Thanks.” He turns to me. “How are things going, Rylee? Are you getting into the swing of things?”

“Oh, yes. I love it here. Thank you so much for the opportunity.”

“Any friend of Murphy and Brady’s is a friend of mine. And I’ve heard nothing but good things about you from our clients.”

I freeze at his mention of Brady. “Uh, you haven’t—”

He holds up his hand to stop me. “No, I haven’t told Brady you’re on my staff. Murphy gave me strict instructions.” He shakes his head before walking away. “You girls and your silly games.”

“Game? It’s not a game,” I tell Murphy after Mason leaves the room. “I just didn’t want Brady to think I followed him here.”

“He’s not going to think that, Rylee. You said you told him multiple times that you wanted to move back to New York.”

I rub my temples. “He’s going to think I’m stalking him.”

She laughs. “I’m willing to bet that will be the furthest thought from his mind when he sees you.”

“How do you know?”

“Because he still talks about you,” she says. “You have no idea how upset he was that you weren’t in Tampa when he got there in February for spring training.”

“What?” I look at her in surprise. “You never told me that.”

She shrugs. “I didn’t want to rub salt in the wound. But now you’re here and he’s back so who knows what will happen.”

I furrow my brow. “Nothing is going to happen, Murphy. I promised myself that even if he wants to see me, I won’t do it. I can’t let myself go through that again. It’s taken me a long time to get over him.”

“The best things in life are worth fighting for,” she says.

“I have the best things in life. I have Stryker. And I’m back here where I can see my mom anytime I want.”

She stares me down.

“Not every woman needs a man to be happy,” I say.

“Of course they don’t. But, Rylee, he’s changed. I’ve told you before that he was different with you.”

I shake my head. “It doesn’t matter. It’s been four months. Four. If he wanted something more he would have told me by now.”

“He’s scared. He’s been through a lot and I think the thought of loving someone terrifies him. Just do me a favor and don’t rule anything out just yet. Talk to him. See for yourself how he’s changed.”

“Does he know you and I talk?”

“No. I almost told him once. Last fall, I sensed he was getting closer to you than he’d ever gotten with anyone I’d seen him with. You and I kept in touch after my visit to Tampa so I knew about Stryker before he did. And with the losses he’s suffered, well, I just didn’t want him getting hurt.”

“Losses? As in plural? Murphy, what happened to him?”

She shakes her head. “It’s not my story to tell. And it took him a long time to finally open up to Caden and me. But I feel in my heart that you might be the one to heal him. And oddly enough, I think Stryker can too.”

“Stryker?” I look at her sideways.

“Hey, I have to run,” she says, not bothering to elaborate. “We still on for Thursday night? I’ve got some great apartments lined up for you to see.”

“Of course. Thank you. I’ve asked the sitter to stay longer so I’m yours for the evening.”

“We’ll grab a bite and then find you a new home.” She heads down the hall to her office.

“Sounds good. Wait,” I say. “How is he? You said the season starts soon. Is he … better?”

Murphy shakes her head. “He’s not pitching yet if that’s what you mean. Not hitting either.”

My heart sinks. I was hoping he’d be fully recovered by now. I hate that I can’t keep up with his progress anymore.

Gregory, the front desk supervisor, tells me my next client is ready so I head back to the designated PT room. I’ve only been here for two weeks, but I love it here. I only work on gym patrons which means a lot of high-end clients. I’ve already worked on a few off-season pro athletes, two former Olympians and one movie star.

It was almost a miracle, my landing this job, and I have Murphy to thank for it. She knew I was hoping to get back to New York so when she found out about the opening, she hooked me up with the owners. It was a hard decision, knowing I could run into Brady from time to time. But then again, had I taken the transfer the Nighthawks offered me a few months ago, I would have seen him a lot more frequently.

That wasn’t the only reason I turned down the transfer, however. It would have required traveling with the team, something I couldn’t do with Stryker. And a more desirable job with the Hawks in New York required more experience than I had.

I took some time off between jobs. What happened with Alex back in January pushed me over the edge. Between that and missing my mom, I gave my notice and was back in New York six weeks ago. My timing was deliberate. I didn’t want to see Brady when the team went to Tampa for spring training. I wasn’t about to let myself be his Tampa girl again. I knew if I had stayed, there was a good chance of it happening.

But I was also without a job. A stupid move on my part, hence the miracle when Murphy brought me in to meet with Mason just a few weeks after my move here. So I’ve been back in town for over six weeks, and now that I have a steady job again, I’m ready to move out of the hotel Stryker and I have been staying in and get a more permanent place to live.

“Mr. Stone,” I say, seeing my client waiting for me next to the training table. “Nice to see you again.”

“Call me Chad, Rylee.”

“Okay, Chad. How’s the knee today?”

“Better after our last visit. Can you remind me again never to do my own stunts?”

I laugh. “I would, but somehow I think when it comes time for the next movie, you’ll forget everything I said.” I pat the training table. “Hop on up. Let’s get started.”

Chapter Twenty-three

“You picked a good time to come,” Barbara tells me on our way to my mom’s room. “She’s lucid this morning.”

I look at her in surprise. “Really? Oh, I wish I had Stryker with me.”

We get to her room and I peek through the doorway. Mom’s face lights up and her arms open wide, inviting me into them. “My darling girl,” she says.

I try not to cry as I embrace her. The times she is aware of who I am are few and far between these days. I’m lucky to have this piece of her a few times a month.

“Mom. I’ve missed you.”

“How long has it been since you’ve seen me?” she asks.

“I was here the day before yesterday.”

She gives me a sad nod. “You visit me a lot, don’t you?”

“I try to, Mom. And now that I’m living in New York again, we can have our visits in person.”

“Why didn’t you bring that boy with you?”

“Stryker? I wish I would have, but I have to go to work right after I leave.”

“Not that boy, the other one you always talk about. What was his name, Brody?”

I scold myself for being such a jibber-jabber when I visit her. Sometimes I run off at the mouth just to have something to talk about. And I forget on the days when she’s lucid that she might remember things we’ve discussed.

“It’s Brady, Mom. He’s just a friend. Someone I spent some time with last year.”

She studies me like she used to when I was a child. “You like this boy.”

“He’s not a boy. He’s a man. And yes, I like him. But he doesn’t like me back so I can’t see him anymore. Do you mind if we talk about something else?”

She rubs a motherly hand down my arm. “Of course, sweetheart. Why don’t you tell me about my grandson?”

I spend the next half hour showing her pictures of Stryker on my phone as I go over everything that she’s missed in his life.

When it’s time to go, I don’t want to leave. I don’t know when I’m going to have her back again. She could be lucid for days at a time, or just hours.

I give her a long hug before I leave.

“You’re a good daughter,” she tells me. “Don’t ever think you have failed me in any way. I couldn’t be more proud of you. Never forget that, even when I can’t tell you.”

“Thanks, Mom,” I say through my tears. “I really needed to hear you say that.”

On my way out, I ask Barbara to call me if Mom’s still lucid tonight. I’ll bring Stryker by if she is. I want him to know his grandmother. He’s been to see her before, but never when we could all bond as a family. And if there is one thing I truly desire for my son, it’s a family.

~ ~ ~

“You’re doing much better today, Mrs. Patterson,” I tell her as I help her out of the pool. “You’ve made a lot of progress.”

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