Page 37

Heavy Eyeliner smirks. “Yeah, exactly. I can’t believe you’re here. Isn’t that kind of pathetic? Drew dumped you.”

Gray shifts in his seat, wincing. I remain stone still. There’s so much I could say about just who and what is pathetic in this scenario. And, yes, a part of me feels the familiar hot weight of humiliation and wants to hide from it.

But I take a deep breath and address what’s really important here. “Seriously, what is wrong with you? Have I given you any reason to be a bitch to me? You know what,” I say when she opens her mouth, “I don’t care. I’m done with you all. Fuck along now. Go on, fly monkeys! Fly!” I make shooing motions with my hands until they all turn beet-red and stalk off, muttering various insults under their breath.

Beside me, Gray laughs into his fist. “Women are evil.”

“Women are awesome,” I answer, not looking at him because I’m still irked. “You’ve just been overexposed to the worst of our gender.”

He grunts in acknowledgment, and we wait in silence. By the time Drew is resting in his room and visitors are allowed, his coach has already arrived and stands like a gryphon, blocking entry to Drew’s door. When Gray escorts me up to Drew’s room, his coach steps forward. I half expect him to pull a Gandalf and state, “You shall not pass!”

Which he basically does, though his delivery has southern politeness to soften the blow. “I’m sorry, young lady, but no visitors. It’s best you go on home now.”

Unfortunately for him, I’m not much in the mood for social graces. “I’m not leaving until I see Drew. He can tell me to go if he wants me to.”

The coach is a big man, and when he crosses his arms over his chest and braces his feet apart, he blocks the entire doorway. “Drew isn’t in the position to make that decision. I’m making it for him. You cannot go in.”

I smile at the coach, pleasantly as if I have all the time in the world. “I am not one of your players or your daughter. You have no authority to tell me what I can and cannot do.”

“Look, young lady—”

“Do not,” I interrupt, “use that misogynistic, patronizing title on me again. You may call me Anna, or Miss Jones if you want to be formal. But ‘young lady’ is off the table.” I raise a brow at him. “Unless you like to be called ‘old man’ which would be the equivalent insult.”

At my side, Gray clears his throat several, quick times, but I don’t spare him a look. Drew’s coach is staring at me like I’ve grown two heads. “Well,” he says in a somewhat strangled voice, “I guess you put me in my place.”

“I’m not trying to do anything other than get to Drew.”

“Coach,” Gray interjects, “she’s Drew’s girl.”

Drew’s girl. Not really. That hurts too.

“The reason why he’s been playing like the walking wounded, you mean.” Coach Smith’s eyes are hard on me, making me want to squirm.

“Which means he’ll probably feel a hell of a lot better seeing her than us right now,” Gray says.

I want to hug him, even if I’m not so sure he’s right.

Coach Smith seems to think the same.

“I’m going in there,” I say. “Try to stop me, and it will get ugly.”

This time, Gray’s suppressed laugh isn’t as successful. Coach Smith’s brows rise, but he steps aside. “If you’re that insistent. By all means.”

I move to the door when he comes in close. “But if I hear any hysterics, I’m hauling you over my shoulder and taking you out of here, Miss Jones.”

Got to love a man who protects his players like they’re his own. I nod and then open the door to Drew’s room.

Cool air and the smell of antiseptic hit my face as I walk in. At the sound of the door opening, he turns his head, but it’s an abortive movement, and he quickly looks away. His bed is elevated at the end so that his broken leg can rest higher than his head. Fading sunlight turns the picture window into a canvass of orange, and against it, Drew’s profile is sharp and clean. The fan of his lashes are touched in gold as he blinks. But the rest of him is still. So still. And though he’s a large guy, the hospital bed diminishes him.

He doesn’t move as I walk closer, but he swallows rapidly, making a series of clicking noises in his throat. His nostrils flare, and a tremor works over him. He’s trying so hard not to let go. And it kills me.

I don’t make him turn, but round the bed to his good side. To face him. The clicking in his throat gets louder. He sucks air through his nose. God, he’s pale and battered.

“Drew.” My voice is a breath, and his lower lip wobbles. His gaze darts around as if he doesn’t know where to look and is about to break.

I sink down beside him, and a shuddering breath rips out of him. He’s shaking his head as if to say no, no, no, and his face gets redder and redder. Gently, I cup his cheek. Drew’s eyes squeeze shut as he leans into my palm, and a tear leaks out.

“Baby,” I whisper, full of heartache for him.

A sob escapes. He falls into me, his head burrowing against my breast as his hands clutch at the back of my shirt. I gather him close as he lets loose. The broken sounds, his full-bodied sobs, tear into me. I curl myself around his torso, protecting him with what little I have as he cries.

I don’t say a word, don’t try to tell him it’s all right, because it isn’t right now. I can only run my fingers through his hair, stroke his broad back, and rock him slowly. His grip on my shirt pulls it tight like I’m his lifeline. And I cuddle in closer so he can feel all of me. I’m a wall. No one can get through me now. I’ll protect him with all that I have.

I lose track of time, and my leg grows numb. But I’m not complaining. Soon he goes heavy against me. But I know he’s awake. His lashes tickle my neck as he blinks.

“I’m so sorry, Drew,” I finally whisper, and it’s not just about his leg.

And maybe he hears that because a shuddering sigh leaves him. I kiss his temple, the wet rise of his cheekbone, his forehead, all the while stroking him. A soft touch along his neck, over his shoulder, his jaw. “I’m so sorry,” I say again.

His big hand opens and presses against the small of my back. I feel the heat of his lips on my neck, and he’s breathing me in.

“I’m so sorry, Drew.”

“Anna.” Just my name. But I hear the peace in it. And the need.

We hold each other now. And I’m not letting go.


I STAY WITH Drew until the hospital staff kicks me out. And I return in the morning to stay with him all over again. We don’t say much. I sit in the big armchair that I’ve pulled up next to his bed. Sometimes I hold his hand. Sometimes he just sits and plays with my fingers as he stares out the window with a pensive expression. I read Emerson to him, slow and low and just for his ears. When he grows still and silent, I stop.

“More.” His voice is rusty and soft, and his hand grasps mine in a warm and engulfing hold.

I read until he falls asleep. But I don’t leave him. I can’t. Being close like this highlights how empty I’ve felt without him. I know this man on so many tiny levels. In ways I hadn’t realized, in the cadence of his breath, the scent of his skin, how he always makes a small sound in his throat when he shifts position in bed. Little pieces of information that make Drew wholly and uniquely him.

His hospital room quickly takes to resembling a florist shop. Seemingly endless streams of “Get Well” bouquets are brought in by beaming nurses. None of which makes Drew even crack a smile. When a nurse maneuvers in a massive football-shaped balloon, flower combo, he snaps.

“Take it away.” His hand waves in annoyance. “Take them all.” He looks at the shocked nurse, and his expression becomes pained. “Please, just give them to people who need some joy. There’s got to be plenty of candidates in this place.”

The nurse, who is an obvious fan, smiles at Drew as if he’s a god. “Well, of course there are. Aren’t you sweet to suggest that?”

Only I can hear his muttered, “More like sick of the freaking smell,” and I fight down a smile of my own.

“If any more come, can you do the same?” is all he asks.

The nurse agrees, but when she picks up the vase nearest Drew, he stops her with a quick, “Wait.” The bed squeaks under him as he leans over and plucks a small, yellow rosebud from the vase. He breaks the stem off, leaving only about three inches, and then, without ceremony, tucks the rose into the meat of my high ponytail. I blush, and the nurse beams again, but Drew merely flops back onto his pillows, crossing his arms over his broad chest and glares at the TV—which isn’t even on.

“He’s a natural charmer, your man,” says the nurse as if she’s a proud mama.

“Oh, yes,” I murmur, grinning at Drew, who is blushing now. “Especially when he’s grouchy.”

“Humph…” Drew’s brows knit tighter together. “Rather look at you, anyway.”

Sighing happily, the nurse bustles out, not seeing Drew’s mouth twitching at the corners. But I do, and once she’s gone, I lean in and kiss his stubble-covered cheek. “Thanks,” I whisper. “I was trying not to sneeze with all of those flowers.” I know exactly why he hates the sight of them, but I’m happy to pretend I was the one who didn’t want them.

Drew’s head tilts back as he closes his eyes. “I just want to get out of here.”

“I know.” Gently, I run my fingers up and down his forearm. I love the tight, satin texture of his skin and could touch him indefinitely. But a shadow from the window in the door catches my attention. “Looks like the guys are here to see you.”

Drew lurches up, his eyes wild. “Oh, shit no.”

“What do you mean, ‘no’?”

“Get rid of them, Anna.” He looks positively panicked.

“Drew, I’m not going to tell them to go. They must be worried about you.”

He grabs my hand. “I don’t want them to see me like this.” His lids lower, his gaze skating away. “I don’t want to hear about the game. Or face them. Fuck!”

Because Gray is already heading in with what looks like the entire team. Evading Drew’s hand, I get up and lean over him. “These guys love you. And you love them. Don’t forget that.” I kiss him on the cheek and pretend I don’t see him glaring at me like I’m a traitor as I walk out the door.

I KEEP MY eyes on Anna’s pert ass as it sways out of my room. Traitorous woman. With her gone, I have to face the guys, who are shuffling in like they’re going to a f**king funeral. And aren’t they, really? Ladies and Gentlemen, the death of Drew Baylor’s college career. Unfortunately, he did not go out in a blaze of glory, light, and screaming fans. No, he was carried out, screaming in pain and wanting to cry for his mommy. Shit.

No one says anything as they stream in, a parade of legs filling my view, and the scent of deodorant, shower gel, and the faint smell of what I can only describe as “football” that lingers on them filling my nose.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

I have to look up. It hurts my neck to do it. My eyes burn as I fight to keep them open. Starters surround me, bench warmers and second strings spilling out into the hall.

“Hey.” I say to no one in particular.

A unified grumble of “Hey, Battle,” is returned.

It’s so awkward, I’m choking on it. Beneath the sheet, I clench my fists. I don’t meet my guys’ eyes, and they don’t meet mine. Gray steps forward and plops down on the seat Anna vacated. “Jesus, someone tell a joke or something.”

A couple of guys laugh nervously. The following silence is deafening.

“Hey,” says Gray into the void, “how did Darth Vader know what Luke got him for Christmas? He felt his presents!”

Everyone groans at that.

“Fucking lame, Gray-Gray.”

But they’re laughing more. Rolondo comes forward and slaps my shoulder. Hard. “You all right, man?” He winces. “Aside from your busted up leg.”

We eyeball each other for a beat then both laugh. It isn’t a full one but enough for now. “Yeah. Other than my busted up leg. And stinking of hospital.”

“That nursemaid of yours can’t hurt,” Dex says with a smile.

Someone coughs, “Scarlett.”

I roll my eyes, but I’m not touching that one.

Dex’s smile fades. “We kicked their ass, Drew.”

“For you, man,” adds Simms. Cool rage simmers in his eyes, and in the eyes of my guys as I look around. For a brief moment, I almost feel sorry for the players they must have pummeled. But then I remember why and a tight pain twists my gut. I don’t want to be the team’s Gipper.

“Motherfuckers had it coming,” says Marshal. A louder grumble runs through the room.

“We in the playoffs, then?” I manage to ask.

No one looks at me then. “Yeah.”

Without me. They didn’t need me after all. Is it petty that it feels like a kick to the gut? Yeah. But I say what they need to hear. Taking a deep breath, I force the words to come out with conviction, to face each and every one of their eyes. “And you’re gonna kick ass.”

A sound of agreement goes through the room, but it’s half-hearted at best.

Thank God, or whoever is listening to my pleas, that the nurse weaves through the crowd and starts to shoo them out. And they go. Having been on the other side of these sorts of visits, I know how badly they want to escape. I want to follow them.