Brady comes out of my bathroom and slips under the covers, pulling me over to lie on his chest.
For the past two weeks, he’s snuck into my bedroom every night he’s been home.
Well, snuck is not exactly the right word when I invited him. He comes over after my son goes to bed and leaves before Stryker wakes up. Needless to say, we’ve both been sleep deprived. We’ve discussed more than once that as soon as he’s back playing, he won’t be able to do it. It’s a bittersweet thought.
How have I gotten used to sleeping with a man in my bed in just a few short weeks?
“You’ll be playing soon,” I tell him. “And despite how much I want that to happen, I will hate for this to end.”
“Who says I’ll be playing soon?” he asks, holding up his hand. “The damn thing is practically useless.”
“Listen to me, Brady. Listen to your doctors. We all think it’s only a matter of time. Be patient.” I put my hand on his chest and balance my chin on it as I look up at him. “You are going to make the biggest comeback in Hawks history.”
“God, I love how optimistic you are.”
‘God, I love you, Rylee,’ is what I want him to say. I think he does. I can feel it. We spend every minute together that we can. Will he ever say it? Can he say it? I realize it’s only been a few weeks since we’ve officially been together, but it’s been the most intense few weeks of my life.
He kisses me on the tip of my nose. “Who says this has to end when I start playing again?”
“We do,” I say. “We’ve talked about this. You’re burning the candle at both ends. We’ll figure something out. Maybe I can find a sitter who can stay the night and we could sleep at your place once in a while.”
“Once in a while isn’t good enough,” he says. “I want you every night.”
“That’s not possible.”
“It is if you live with me.”
I sit up, stunned. I scoot back and sit against the headboard and pull the sheet up to cover me. “You have got to be kidding.”
He shrugs. “What?”
“One: we’ve only been a couple for two weeks—”
“That’s not how I see it,” he says, interrupting me. “We were together last fall. And we started dating more than two months ago, Ry, and you know it.”
“And two,” I say, “There’s my son. Brady, he doesn’t even know we’re together.”
He shifts around uncomfortably. “So, we’ll tell him. He likes me, doesn’t he?”
“Only because you bring him animals.”
“We’ll put him in the office, or I’ll get rid of the weight room. Hell, we can move and get a bigger place.”
“Wait. No. We are not discussing this. It’s ridiculous.”
He pulls me to him. “It’s not ridiculous, Rylee. You know how I feel about you.”
I pull away and get off the bed. I wrap a robe around my naked body. “Actually, I don’t. You’ve never told me.”
“Well, you’ve never told me, either, Ry.”
“You want to hear me say I love you?” I say, trying not to cry. “Fine. I love you. Now you say it.”
He looks at me, panic-stricken, as if he’s lost the ability to speak – or maybe just the ability to speak those three little words.
I hear Stryker call out and I run into the other room. “Hush, baby. Were you having a nightmare?”
He whimpers in my arms for a few minutes while I tell him a story. I tell him a story we made up about the animals Brady brings him. I rub his back and speak to him softly until he falls asleep.
When I go back to my room, Brady is sitting up in bed.
“Are you ready for that?” I ask, pointing to Stryker’s room. “Nightmares. Bed-wetting. Preschool. Babysitters. Illnesses. Birthday parties. Boo-boos. Are you ready to take it all on?”
He looks horrified.
“See that look on your face? That’s why we can’t move in together. I need my son to more than like you, Brady. I need him to love you. But more importantly, I need you to love him. I’m not about to bring a man into his life who won’t be there permanently. Do you want to be there permanently?”
It hurts me to say these things to him. I know exactly why he can’t love Stryker. I’ve known it for months. Yet I still let myself fall for him knowing he could never be who Stryker needs him to be.
He looks at the door to the hallway and then down at his hands. “I … I don’t know.”
I feel like the worst kind of bitch knowing what happened but being so selfish that I’m giving him ultimatums. “And that’s why you need to leave, Brady. That’s why this won’t work.”
Tears stream down my face as I hand him his clothes.
“You’re kidding, right?” he says. “You’re ending this because I asked you to move in?”
I shake my head. “I’m ending this because I should have known better from the beginning.”
“I’m sorry, Brady. I have to do what’s best for my son.”
He dresses in silence, the whole time pleading with me with his eyes.
“Change your mind, Rylee. We can make this work.”
“I just don’t see how.”
My eyes sting and my throat burns as I watch him walk out my bedroom door and then my front door. He looks back before closing it. And he looks as broken as I feel.
I run back into my room and collapse onto my bed, pulling my pillow to my face so Stryker doesn’t hear my sobs.
I cry until my stomach hurts and I have nothing left but hiccups.
My phone pings and I wonder who would be texting me after midnight. I check it.
Brady: Open the door, Rylee. I need to talk to you. Please let me back in.
I dry my eyes and walk to the front door. When I open it, I see a man who’s been crying. I pull him inside. I lead him back to my bedroom in case Stryker gets up again.
He has something in his hands.
I sit down on the bed and pull my robe tightly around me. “What did you want to say?”
He sits on the bed and hands me a picture frame. It’s the picture from the box that day.
“I was married once,” he says with a shaky voice. “And I had a son. But they’re gone now. They’re dead.”
My hand covers my heart as it breaks for him. “Oh, Brady. I’m so sorry.” More tears spill out of my eyes. I know how hard this must be for him. I’m glad he’s finally telling me but at the same time I feel terrible that I pushed him into it.
He studies my face. “Did you know?”
“Your reaction at the hospital last fall. I suspected you lost someone.”
He nods. “It’s why you’ve been so understanding.”
I laugh sadly. “I just kicked you out. I’m anything but understanding. I’m a selfish bitch.”
“No, you’re not, Rylee. Everything you said was exactly what you should have said. Your son should be your priority. You shouldn’t settle for someone who won’t make him a priority, too.”
He takes the picture back from me and looks at his boy. His eyes close and a tear rolls out. “Keeton was only three when he died. The same age as Stryker. I … I want to love your son. I think maybe I could love him, but I need time. I need you to give me time, Rylee. And I hope that you will. Because” —he looks at the picture again and then back at me— “because I love you. And as crazy as it sounds, I tried really hard not to. I feel like I’m trading my old family for a new one. And that makes me a bastard. I’m a bastard because if I love you, I’m betraying her. And if I love your boy … I’m replacing Keeton.”
I move over on the bed so our legs are touching. “Brady, you’re allowed to love again. You could never replace them. And I would never ask you to.”
“It’s more than that. What if I love you … love him, and then …” He puts his head in his hands. “What if I fail you like I did them? What if something happens to you, too?”
I put a hand on his back and rub it around gently to try and comfort him.
“They are gone because of me. Because I was a self-centered asshole who didn’t even think about them when they needed me the most.”
“Did you leave them?” I ask.
“No. God, no. I would never have.”
I take the picture from him and run my finger over their faces. “What was her name?”
He looks at me like he’s not sure he wants to say it. Like he’s scared to open up to me. Like maybe he thinks I will replace her if he lets me in.
“It’s okay, you don’t have to talk about it.”
I hand the picture back to him and get up off the bed. I need a drink of water. All the tears I’ve cried have dehydrated me. But Brady takes it the wrong way.
I walk to my bedside table and pick up my water bottle. I take a drink and then climb back on the bed, settling myself against the headboard. Letting him know I’m ready to listen if he’s ready to talk.
He looks relieved. He thought I was going to throw him out again. He takes his shoes off and scoots up the bed. He reaches over me and turns the light off. Then he pulls me to him, spooning himself behind me. He breathes into my hair. He rubs a hand along my arm over and over and over. He finally stills. He’s so still I wonder if he’s fallen asleep.
“Her name was Natalie,” he says softly. “But I called her Nat.”
I don’t say anything. What is there to say?
“We met in high school. She followed me to Nebraska when I got a baseball scholarship there. We knew we were going to be together since we were sixteen. When she got pregnant our freshman year in college, I wasn’t even mad. It was always in the plans to have kids, it just happened sooner than was ideal. But we made it work. We lived in student housing. She only went to school part time after Keeton came. She was born to be a mom.”