“So you won’t say no to Green Bay then?”
“Let’s not go crazy now. I’d like to refrain from freezing my balls off too.”
“Man, please. We’re from Chicago. It’s a miracle we got through puberty without freezing our balls off.”
We both snicker.
“What about you?” Gray sounds almost melancholy. I get that. We’re so close to it now. Early on, when the NFL was more of a distant fantasy, we would entertain ourselves by lying around and talking about what we wanted from our careers: Super Bowl, MVP, passing records, yardage records. In short, the obvious stuff. Now, it’s only months away. And though we’ve both been courted by scouts from just about every team, in all likelihood, we’ll no longer be playing together. Which sucks.
“Honestly? I want the team dynamic. I want the same synergy.”
“Dude, I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.”
“Not going to.” Because we both know that the NFL is a hard ass business. The best get paid insane amounts to keep it going. Not many teams are going to be able to shell out for top talent in all positions. Not to mention the egos involved, which always adds another level of shit that you have to deal with. I rub my sternum and pick up a spatula that resembles a Mickey Mouse head before dropping it back in the bin. “I want a big city that has diehard fans, coaches that don’t suck, and a GM that doesn’t have his head in his ass.”
“An owner that doesn’t want to play backseat coach would be cherry too.” Gray’s grin is wide and wry.
We make our way toward the opposite side of the store.
“So, Anna…?” Gray waves a hand in lazy fashion as if waiting for me to fill in the blanks. “What’s going on with you two? Something’s changed, that’s for damn sure.”
A goofy grin pulls at my mouth. I can’t hide it.
He rolls his eyes. “That bad?”
“Nothing bad about it.” In fact, it’s so good, I wonder if a person can die from pleasure. I’m willing to test the theory. As soon as I can get her to myself again.
We stop before a row of the gleaming steel appliances.
Gray’s eyes narrow. “I don’t understand you, putting this much effort into a girl. It’s like you’ve gone mental.”
I finger a price tag. $1,500 dollars. As a rule, I don’t spend much on myself. On Anna? I wouldn’t balk at $15,000. Does that make me insane? I don’t care. Making Anna happy makes me happy.
“Can you explain to me how it feels to take the ball down the field for a TD?” I ask, not looking up.
“You’re trying to equate the perfection of playing football to getting laid?” He shakes his head. “Are you shitting me? Seriously?”
I smile then, partly because I’m thinking of Anna, but mostly because I know I’m going to freak Gray out, which is always fun. “No. I’m explaining the perfection of being with Anna to playing football.”
“I’m going to be sick. All over you,” he adds with a sour look.
“That’s your problem, Gray. You don’t know what it feels like to fall for a girl. If you did, you wouldn’t question it.” I slap his shoulder. “Now, help me pick this shit out, will you?”
FUNNY THING ABOUT life, it’s so easy to view it from the outside in. We can see the exact point where our friends f**k up, do the wrong thing, are blind to what’s right in front of them. As in, why the f**k won’t they just listen to us and take our advice instead of bumbling all over the place?
We watch horror movies and know when to shout at the dumb girl who goes in the basement to investigate that noise; we revel in her stupidity, feel superior to it. If it were us, we assure ourselves, we wouldn’t be so stupid.
Sure we would; we just wouldn’t realize the danger. Because the truth is, we’re walking deaf, dumb, and blind half of the time. And even though I can tell myself this afterward, after I f**k up, it doesn’t make me feel any better. Because I’m about to do a f**k up royale. With cheese. I feel it in my bones, like an inevitable death I can’t escape, but I do it anyway. And part of me knows this even as I hurdle down the path towards destruction. The bigger part of me, in fact. Does that make me dig in my heels and try to stop? Of course not. I’m the girl walking down those dark stairs into the basement. The truth is, I’ve been her since it all began.
FROM THE WINDOW, the quad is a carpet of green, ringed by copper and gold tipped trees. Branches sway in the gentle breeze and the golden leaves dance. A pretty picture. Students stroll past on their way to one of the many red brick buildings that line the square. It’s all so silent, this vibrant life teeming just outside the window.
Inside, however, I’m facing the firing squad.
“Anything interesting out there, Miss Jones?” Professor Lambert taps her notepad with the tip of her pen.
I give her a half-guilty smile. “I love the fall. It’s my favorite season.” I’m pretty sure, from now on, I’ll always equate Drew with crisp air and gilded sunshine.
The fine lines around Lambert’s eyes deepen. “I prefer spring. The flowers and new green leaves.” Evidently tired of dancing around her intended mission, she takes a small breath, and her focus tightens. “Tell me, Miss Jones, have you given any thought to what you might do upon graduation this spring?”
I knew this question was coming. It’s why I’m here. Evaluation of my progress thus far and prodding into my future plans. As head of the department, Professor Lambert has met with me for similar discussions throughout my college career.
I lean back and cross one leg over the other. “I’ve given it thought.” When I’m not thinking about Drew, I’m thinking about that. “But it hasn’t gotten me very far.”
Understanding softens her expression. “Don’t let it worry you too much. For most of us, it takes a lifetime to truly figure out who we are and what we want. I’m merely trying to help you take a step in the right direction.”
I had thought college would be that step but, apparently, not so much. It’s only made me an intellectual dilettante.
“Have you considered graduate school?” she asks. “With your grade point average, I imagine plenty of programs would be interested in having you.”
Having a 4.0 opens doors, true. It also kind of makes you think that academia is the only safe place for you.
“No. Honestly, Professor, I have no desire to continue with school right now.” The thought makes me shudder. I study because it’s my current job, but I don’t have any passion for it. I’m freaking burnt out on school as it is. And even though it scares the hell out of me, I want to be out in the world, a little fish in a big, blue sea.
Lambert studies me, her head tilted to the side, as if by looking at me from another angle, she might unlock a clue of who I’m supposed to be. Well good luck to her. I’ve stared in the mirror for hours at this point and still haven’t got a clue.
When she speaks it’s cautious. “I understand you are involved with Mr. Baylor.”
My body turns to lead in my chair while my heart begins to pound. “What makes you say that?”
This time, her smile is soft and wry. “Come now, Miss Jones. You two are in class with me. I’d have to be blind not to notice.”
I resisted the urge to squirm like a child in my seat. Were we that obvious? Likely we were. It takes all of my willpower not to look at Drew, not to reach out and touch him when he sits a foot away from me. And Drew has always been less circumspect. Every class, I feel the heat and power of his gaze on me like the rays of the sun.
“I’m not sure how this pertains to our conversation,” I say.
She bites the corner of her lip, and in that moment, she appears much younger than her fifty-odd years. She leans forward, bracing her arms upon her desk, and her silver bobbed hair swings over her ears. “I realize this is none of my business,”—an intro that never bodes well—“but it’s easy to become lost in the fervor of love.”
There’s that “L” word again.
“Which is understandable,” she goes on. “But when it comes to someone like Mr. Baylor—”
“You fear I’ll waste my potential on a football player,” I finish for her. “And here I thought I knew better than that.” I’m not so sure I do anymore. Which scares the hell out of me.
Her mouth purses at my sarcasm. “Mr. Baylor possesses a powerful personality, one that easily overshadows others. And while most of my fellow faculty members would be urging you to keep him happy, I’m more concerned about your life.”
I lean forward as well. “You’re right. It’s none of your business. However, I can appreciate your concern.”
The corners of her eyes tighten as she peers at me. “All I ask of you is that you consider yourself first. It is all I ask of any student, by the way. Even Mr. Baylor.”
But we both know that Drew doesn’t have to worry about being lost in me. His life is mapped out in glowing pinpoints of light.
A dark chasm opens up beneath me, threatening to suck me down. Because she is right, I have no idea who I am supposed to be, or what the hell I’m going to do once college is over and Drew’s gone.
The edgy, disheartened feeling does not abate as I follow Professor Lambert into our class. I just want to go home and crawl under the covers. The room is too cold, and the tips of my icy fingers begin to throb as I take my seat and pull out my AirBook. Due to the meeting, I’m early and Drew isn’t here. But he will be soon.
I’d been looking forward to seeing him for days. Missing him and wanting him with a force that ties me in knots and robs me of sleep. Now, glancing at Lambert and then away, anxiety rolls within my stomach.
And then he’s here. As always, I sense him before I see him. But when I do, I can’t breathe.
Drew stops at the entrance to the room and simply looks at me. Then smiles. His entire body seems to light up. Like he’s plugged in to me. And that energy bounces back over me, lifting the little hairs along my skin, tripping up the steady beat of my heart. Lost. I know that now. I’ve lost myself to him. Utterly.
His grin grows as he strides forward. He’s so lit up, people stare as he walks by. And my pulse races faster. I’m practically bouncing in my seat with the need to jump up and wrap myself around him. But then I catch Professor Lambert’s knowing gaze and tense. Fucking busybody Professor.
Drew stops before my desk. “Hey.” Oh, that soft, for-me-only voice, it melts me every time.
Before I can say anything back, he leans down and captures my mouth with his. I feel it down to my core. The kiss is possessive, tender, and just enough to have me wanting to chase after him as he pulls away. But we’re in class, so I brace my fists against the desk and keep still.
The glint of affection in his eyes tells me he knows exactly what I’m doing and how affected I am. His warm hand cups my cold cheek, and I shiver.
“I missed you,” he whispers before brushing a kiss over the tip of my nose and then slipping into his seat.
I start to give him a sidelong smile but notice the sets of eyes on us. Jesus. Everybody stares. They stop as soon as Drew notices them. But he doesn’t seem to care. He simply moves his desk closer to mine, until our arms brush, sparking off more tingles of feeling over my skin.
When his fingers twine through mine, I lean into him. “Do you really have to give them more to gawk at?”
He snorts softly under his breath. “I’ll never understand why they care what I do.”
“I think it’s more about who you do,” I mutter darkly.
He laughs, his thumb caressing the back of my hand. “Well, I care about that too.”
Another glance from Lambert, and I draw my hand from Drew’s to open my laptop. He does the same, but he remains close to my side, touching me in small ways every chance he gets. And I feel suffocated, as if wrapped up in thick, hot wool. Not by Drew, but by the rest of the world, watching us from the corners of their eyes the whole time.
Notice of us doesn’t let up after class. It follows us as we walk out of the lecture hall and onto the grass. Drew, as usual, is oblivious. He’s more concerned about putting his arm around me and nuzzling my hair.
“God, you smell good,” he says. “What is it that makes you smell so good, Jones?”
I can’t help but laugh at that. “A liberal application of Moroccan oil to keep my hair from frizzing out of control is the likely culprit.”
“Ah,” he says with a small smile, “the expensive stuff that kicks my dime store shampoo’s ass, right?”
“You know it, babe.”
I think it’s the “babe” that gets to him, because as soon as I say it, I’m surrounded by Drew. One hand slides to my nape while his arm wraps around me to gather me close.
Part of me wants to melt into him and never leave. The other part feels as exposed as an open nerve. The better half of me wins as he kisses his way down my neck, heading for that spot that makes me his slave. I shudder, pressing my hand to his taut side.
“Call me babe again,” he murmurs, his breath hot against my skin.
“Why?” I can’t resist running my fingers through his hair.
His teeth graze a particularly sensitive spot. “Because I like hearing it.”
My lips twitch, as warmth floods between my legs. “Babe.”
“Mmm.” He holds me closer. “Again.”
“Goof.” I laugh softly.
“Lay it on me, Jones,” he insists, his own husky laugh lost in my curls.