I stuff my underwear into a bag. “Yeah, I have to discover what I want to do with my life. I could end up with the greatest career in the world, but at the end of the day, who I come home to, who I share my accomplishments with is what makes the struggle worth it. And for me, that’s Drew. So, yes, it’s reckless and it may blow up in my face, but I am not afraid. I’m more excited than I’ve ever been. So just… support me, will you?”
“Shit,” George drawls on a smile. “We’ve got her monologuing.” He ducks a sock I chuck at his head. His expression turns serious. “If you’re that sure about it, then you have my blessing, young Anna.”
I kiss the top of his head. “Thanks, Georgie.” Then I give his head a light whack. “Smart ass.”
He laughs. But Iris doesn’t. Her dark eyes are still troubled. Which troubles me. “'Ris?”
Slowly she shakes her head. “I still say you’re crazy. But I’m with George. If you’re that sure, I’ll support you.”
“I’ve never been more sure of anything.” I thought I had lost myself in Drew. But the truth was that I’d found myself in him. It never occurs to me that Drew might be the one to lose faith.
I DON’T SEE the trouble at first. All I see is Drew. The only thing that occupies my time is the way we instantly click together when I move in. We get along so well, it’s like having an endless sleepover with my favorite person in the world. So of course I miss the signs.
It isn’t until another week passes and his friends start showing up that I notice something’s wrong. For one thing, Drew doesn’t want to see them. These are his teammates. These guys practically live in each other’s pockets. And now? Now Drew is hunched on the far recliner, staring off at nothing, while his boys hang out on his couch, watching an NFL game. They’re a boisterous lot, shouting and laughing and trading good-natured insults. I like them.
They also eat. A lot. I’m bustling back to the kitchen for more chips when Drew snags my arm. “You don’t have to feed them, babe.”
I run a hand over his hair. “I’m half-Irish, half-Italian, and all Southern, Drew. It’s like physically impossible for me not to offer food and drink to company.” Honestly, I think I’d die of shame if I didn’t.
His brows snap together as he glances over at them. “Then I’ll tell them to leave. Problem solved.”
Laughing, I kiss his forehead, and his arm instantly wraps about my waist. I lean into him, because he seems to need it. “But I like that they’re here. They’re your friends. Which means they’re mine too.”
He grumbles something under his breath, but I ignore it, hoping that his mood will elevate now that he knows I’m not put out by company.
It doesn’t. It gets worse. He sinks into a silence that somehow shouts loud and clear that he’s displeased.
“Yo, Drew,” his friend Rolondo calls over to him. “Man, you need to settle down over there. I swear, you talk any more and you gonna bust a gut.” He grins as he says this and chucks a cheese puff at Drew’s head.
Drew swats it away. “Pretty sure you do enough talking for all of us, ‘Londo.”
There’s no humor in his tone. I haven’t had much interaction with the star wide receiver, but I know Drew and Rolondo are close. Rolondo’s glaze flicks to mine, and I see the worry there, and it feeds my own.
It gets worse when halftime comes on, and one of the guys changes over to ESPN. As luck would have it, they’re talking about Drew and his chances of still being a top draft pick. Apparently, most experts had slated him to be the number one pick. Now, with his injury, it’s all up in the air. Everyone stiffens, Drew most of all, but no one seems capable of changing the channel.
The light of the screen flickers off of Drew’s stony expression as he watches some oversized guy in a slick suit speculate about his leg. And my heart aches for him. Until they mention their visit to campus. Instantly, my gut plummets. Shit. I’ve been the one who’s gone out for food—or sustenance as Drew’s taken to call it—and I hadn’t exactly been left alone.
I edge closer to the remote. “Maybe we should watch—”
“Here’s what Anna Jones, Drew Baylor’s girlfriend had to say,” announces the reporter.
My face shows up on the screen, microphones being shoved under my nose as I try to escape from the parking lot at the Piggly Wiggly. I feel my cheeks heat. God, does my face really look that round?
Instantly, everyone perks up, shooting glances as me, then back at the TV. I can’t even meet Drew’s eyes. I want to cry. I stare at the TV instead. The footage splices to my face, the very moment, I’d broken, tired of hearing the doubt in the reporter’s voices, of seeing them turn against their hero. I’d wanted to punch each and every one of them.
“You named him Battle for a reason,” my voice snaps through the speakers. I look angry. I remember that anger. It had fueled me, made my words come out hard. “Because he never quits. You’re going to have to trust that he won’t give up on this either.” My TV self pushes past them then and escapes in Drew’s car.
My face is positively on fire now. Every eye is on me, but I only care about one set, and he isn’t looking my way. And then I notice that the rest of the guys are grinning.
“You tell ‘em, Scarlett,” says Marshal, which for some reason earns him a bap on the head by Dex.
“Ain’t nobody messing with our boy,” Rolondo insists. “Not with our girl kicking ass.”
Gray catches my eyes, and a small, bemused smile plays about his mouth. I blush harder.
And then they’re all laughing and talking as if nothing happened.
I stare at Drew until he finally lifts his head. I can’t tell what he’s thinking, and that scares me. I move close to him, afraid to touch him. I shouldn’t have talked. Never talk to the press. Even I know that.
Still not quite meeting my gaze, Drew collects my hand. His is cold and dry as he links his fingers with mine and brings them up for a kiss. “You defended me.” It’s a quiet murmur.
“Of course I did. I’ll always defend you, Drew.”
He presses his lips against my fingers. “I’m sorry you had to deal with that.”
“I’m not,” I say. “I’m only sorry that they had to ask. Of course you’re coming back.”
He looks away. Not long after, he hobbles into our room, claiming that he’s tired. He doesn’t come back out. And from then on, he doesn’t ask the guys over. Avoids them all with a skill that would be impressive if it didn’t worry me so much.
“I only want you,” he whispers against my neck in the dark cocoon of our bed. “Only you.”
It ought to please me. But it doesn’t.
AS LONG AS I don’t think about football, I’m all right. But the world doesn’t want me to stop thinking about football. I’m beginning to resent the claim the game and its fans have on me. I’ve given it my all. I’m tired now.
Coach expects me to come to practice, there’s only one game left, and it’s the National Championship. I need to be there, show my support. The coward in me wants to hide. I don’t want the pity looks. But my team deserves better from me. So I’ll go. But Coach also wants me to go to physical therapy. I need to stay in form as my leg heals.
I promise to go to PT, but I don’t. I don’t do anything. And it becomes a weight on my chest. But I can’t seem to snap out of it. I know Anna notices. She hasn’t said anything, but it’s coming. She wouldn’t be Anna if she kept her opinions to herself.
Worse? The nightmares. They hit me like a sack. I wake shaking and sweating. It takes me too long to realize that I’m not on the field, my mask buried in mud, turf in my mouth, and my leg bone snapped in half.
But I’m okay. As long as I don’t think about football, I’ll be okay.
Hard not thinking about something you love.
Anna has gone out with Iris. She was antsy as she left, fidgeting with the car keys and kissing me almost absently as she bustled out of the door.
I sit on a stool at my kitchen counter and spin a bottle cap. Is she disappointed in me? Does she want me to go out more? I rub my fingers against the stubble on my jaw. Hell, I haven’t gone anywhere in weeks, not wanting to see people. The last time I ventured out for a checkup, the sheer number of pity pats, get well soons, and you were the best we’d ever had—one incident accompanied by a grown man literally crying on my shoulder, God help me—was an absolute nightmare. I’d broken out into a sweat and almost threw-up before Anna had reached the house.
She hadn’t said much then, just that people were f**king weird. When we were safe at home, she’d taken me to bed and kept me occupied for the night. It isn’t right, the way I’m leaning on her. It’s yet another thing I can’t seem to stop.
A knock on the door jerks me out of my funk. I literally flinch, my back tightening and my heart beating too hard. With a snarl of irritation at myself, I push back from the counter and get the door.
Coach stands on the threshold, his weathered face shadowed by a baseball cap. He’s going casual, which, for him, means slacks and a polo shirt. It also makes me suspicious. Coach is probably not aware, but he has tells. A suit means he’s going to kick your ass in a hurry. Casual means he’ll come at you as a friend, hoping to sneak past your resistance before you realize you’ve been played.
“Hey, Coach.” I step back to let him in.
“Drew.” He heads for the kitchen. He’s been here enough to know where it is. Coach helped me pick the place. Helped me pick my ass off the floor when my parents died. And I don’t want him here. The smell of his expensive cologne makes my throat close up.
He turns and looks me over. “How you doing?”
“Good.” I limp to the counter. A half empty beer bottle rests on it. I want to drink it down, and at the same time, shove it away, hide it from Coach.
I settle for resting my hands on the cold marble. “You want a beer or something?” God, I just want him out of my house. His presence is choking me.
He gives me a level look. “You drink often?”
I can’t help but snort. “I’d like to think I’m not so prosaic as to become a drunk. Or a druggie,” I add because I know his next question will be about my painkillers.
Annoyingly, he smiles in that way of his, like I’ve made him proud. Which makes me want to smash things. But the smile falls. “You’ve missed another PT session.”
What can I say? Nothing. The weight on my chest grows.
I feel him watching me.
“Want to tell me why you missed? And practice too? You might not be able to play, but you are still a member of this team. It reflects poorly on you and the team when you don’t show.”
Never have I heard such subdued disappointment from my coach. I clear my throat. I can’t tell him the truth. How can I tell this man that I don’t want to return?
The giant clock my mom salvaged from a downtown building in Chicago ticks away in the dining room. And then Coach takes a step toward me.
“If you could see yourself the way I do.” He shakes his head. “I just don’t want all that potential to go to waste, Drew.”
“Yeah, well neither do I.” Unfortunately some things aren’t under my control. I shift my weight further onto my good leg, and say what I need to say to get him out of here. “Look, I won’t miss another PT.”
The choking sensation is growing, clogging my throat, filling my lungs.
“The break is clean,” he says. “You’re young and strong. You’ll heal and be back to top form in no time.”
I make the mistake of meeting his eyes. And shit, that was stupid because our gazes lock, and I know he sees everything. That he gets what’s going on in my head, that I’m spooked. That the instant I heard my leg snap, something within me did as well, and I’d realized everything I’d ever relied on was as solid as smoke.
Maybe he too is thinking of my dad, whose pro career was snatched away by a college injury. My dad wasn’t a bitter man, but the loss haunted him. I’d seen it in his eyes, in the way he’d grow distant sometimes when we walked about me going to the NFL. My dad was the best man I’d ever known. But I don’t want to become him, not that way.
Coach had to understand this. He’d been friendly with my dad. The silence between us stretches tight, and I want so badly to look away that I grind my teeth.
“Drew,” Coach pauses, and I know it’s going to get worse. “Maybe it’d be good if you saw a counselor—”
“No,” I shout despite me desire to keep calm. “I’m not f**kin—” I take a sharp breath and hold up a hand. “I’m not going to a counselor, all right? So just get that off the table now.”
His eyes are hard. “There’s no shame in talking to someone.”
“You think I don’t know that?” I hobble over to the kitchen island with enough force to make my leg ache. “I was there enough when my parents died. I’m fine.” I glare at him. “Fine.”
Coach sighs. “Just think about it, son.”
“I’m not your son.” Great, I sound petulant now. I grip my hair to keep from shouting again.
“I know that,” he says quietly. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t care about you and what you’re going through.” His gaze pins me. “And I promised your parents that I’d look out for you. I don’t go back on my promises. Neither do you.”