After the game, p.13
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       After the Game, p.13

         Part #3 of The Field Party series by Abbi Glines
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  “I’ll sit far away from them,” I told him.

  He nodded. “Thank you. For last night. For this. I know it’s asking a lot.”

  I shrugged. “It isn’t. I’m not the same girl who left this town. I found my strength. They can’t hurt me now.”

  His hand closed over mine. The touch made my entire arm tingle, and I let the warmth soothe me. Turning my attention back to Bryony, I watched as she played with a little boy whose nanny brought him every Monday and Wednesday afternoon at this time. She had spoken to me a few times, assuming I, too, was a nanny since I was so young. I didn’t correct her; I just let her talk. No reason to make her act weird around me and possibly not come around with the boy when Bryony was here. Small towns could be judgmental, and it fell on the innocent too many times.

  “Looks like she has a friend,” Brady said.

  “His name is Luke, and he’s three. She plays with him twice a week here. I wish she could go to preschool next year. She loves being around other kids. But if we are still in this town, that isn’t possible.”

  His hand squeezed mine “We will make sure she gets that.”

  We. As in him and me? When did we become a we?

  I didn’t ask or bring it up, but I pondered it. The rest of the time we sat there in silence, speaking only about Bryony and other things that had nothing to do with football or his father. Eventually he laced his fingers through mine and we just enjoyed each other, I cool fall air, and the laughter of the kids. In that moment I wasn’t a single teenage mom and he wasn’t a guy whose dad was about to ruin his family. We were just us and life was okay. For the moment.

  Welcome to the Club



  I made it to practice that afternoon and avoided the questions. The truth was, I was there because of Riley. She had made me see that I had to do this and that I could. If she was willing to brave this town and come to a game alone, then I could show up and play ball. Problem was, I wanted everyone else to fuck off and get out of my face.

  Coach watched me closely at the first, expecting me to play like shit, I guess. But after I channeled my anger into the practice, I was more aggressive and played better. I was getting slapped on the back and shit when it was over; no one seemed to care that I’d played harder and faster. Or even why. Because they didn’t care. It was all about winning.

  West met me at my truck when I walked out of the field house. He might have been the only one on the field today to see the difference for what it really was. “Good practice. You want to go get some dinner?” In other words, not go home and blow off our families.

  “Yeah,” I replied. “I’ll let my mom know.”

  He nodded. “My mom’s at her mother’s again in Louisiana.” She had been doing that since his father’s death. I knew it concerned him, but like with everything he didn’t talk about it much. I knew he had Maggie, and he talked to her, so I didn’t worry.

  “Where did you go today?” he asked, climbing into the passenger side of my truck. He was leaving his car here, apparently.

  “To the park to see Riley,” I replied honestly. I wasn’t hiding her. I had to hide my dad’s fucked-up secret, but I wasn’t hiding Riley like that.

  “You like her a lot, then.”

  I nodded. “Yeah, I do.”

  “When it happens, it happens. Can’t help that.”

  And I didn’t want to help it. I wanted to change the past and give her a life here. Let everyone see the truth and support her. I wanted Bryony to get to go to fucking preschool and play with the other kids. That was what I wanted.

  “Rhett took a lot away from her,” West said. He knew if I believed her, then she was telling the truth. He trusted me.

  “He’s a cocksucker.”

  West chuckled. “I guess he is. We were young then and caught up in his local fame. Believing him was easy.”

  “Believing him was wrong,” I corrected.

  He nodded. “Yeah, it was. The little girl seem okay?”

  “Bryony. Her name is Bryony, and she’s a great kid. Happy and well adjusted. Riley is a wonderful mom.”

  We didn’t say much more before we got to the Den for dinner. It was the one place we’d always have a table and get 20 percent off our meal because we were on the team. Plus their burgers were the best in town.

  “You and your dad okay?” he asked right before we got out of the truck. Maggie had to have told him about the fight this morning. I could get pissed at her, but then I thought about how I told Riley all my shit. I understood Maggie’s need to talk to someone and why it was West.

  “No. We’re not” was the only answer he was getting. Then I stepped out of the truck and headed for the door. Not waiting on him or answering any more questions.

  “Don’t be mad at Maggie,” he said, catching up to me.

  “I’m not. I get it.”

  He didn’t respond as we went inside and got a table immediately. Serena was there with Kimmie, and I wanted to leave at the sight of them, but I decided I’d ignore them and get my food.

  “Hey, boys,” Serena called, waving over to us.

  We both ignored her, and I shot West a look. He had messed around with Serena enough and hurt Maggie with it. He wasn’t about to look her way.

  “Ever wonder where you’d be without Maggie?” I asked him.

  He glanced up from the menu, which we already knew by heart. “Lost. Fucking lost.”

  Yeah. I got that. “Funny how that happens. One day you’re good on your own. Then, bam, you need someone. They walk into your world and you need them.”

  West studied me a moment, then shook his head. “You’re sunk. Welcome to the club.”

  I could argue with him and say my situation was different. That Riley and I were just good friends. Who kissed and held hands and possibly more. But I would be lying. Leaving for college didn’t sound so good anymore. Facing that without her scared me. Especially right now. I wasn’t ready to think that way.

  If I told Riley that, she would freak out. She was insistent that I follow my dream and that my dream was football. She’d be right. It had been since I was a kid. But I needed to remember if it was my dream originally or one that my dad pushed onto me. What if I had other dreams? What if football wasn’t what I was meant to do?

  “Swear to God, if she comes over here I’m walking out,” West said under his breath.

  “I’ll handle it,” I told him.

  He smirked. “Yeah, Mr. I’m Too Nice to Break Up with a Girl I Don’t Like Because It Will Hurt Her Feelings will handle it.”

  He had a point. But I wasn’t that Brady anymore. That Brady died yesterday. Along with his innocence. And possibly his dream.

  “I’ll handle it,” I repeated.

  West shrugged, looking amused. I almost hoped she would walk over here so I could prove it.

  In the end, what good would that really do? Make me feel fucking better, that’s what.

  You Look a Lot Like Your Mommy



  Went out to dinner with West after practice. Didn’t want to go home was the text I got from Brady around eight that night.

  How was practice? I wanted to know. He’d been ready to just quit earlier today, and I couldn’t let him do that.

  Good. I played out my anger and it made me a better quarterback. Aggressive.

  Smiling, I thought about Brady as aggressive and the two didn’t mix. Glad you found a way to make it work.

  He had a lot to face over the next few weeks. I understood why football wasn’t at the top of that list. His mother was. The pain she’d suffer. It was killing him to think about her hurting. Her future wasn’t going to be easy. Brady knew that.

  I looked over at Bryony sleeping beside me. So peaceful and secure. She didn’t have that concern yet; one day she would ask about her father. Where was he? Who was he? And I would need something to tell her. The actual truth was too much for a child. I never wanted her to feel l
ike a mistake.

  I wish I had seeing you at school every day to look forward to. That text was sweet but just reminded me how I’d never fit into his world. We could kiss and hold hands, but I wasn’t a teenage girl with a crush on a boy anymore. That would never be my first concern.

  I stared at his words, trying to think of a response that didn’t sound harsh or uncaring. He was hurting right now and my lecture on why I couldn’t be that girl for him didn’t seem appropriate at the moment.

  Finally I texted, You’re stronger than you know. And if you want to see me after practice you know where I am.

  That was enough for now. I was the only person who knew his secret. He needed me and I could be there for him. But he would heal from this. He would move on and he would go live his life. I needed never to forget that.

  Can you go to dinner tomorrow night? We could take Bryony too.

  Where? To the Den, where everyone in town would see us? Gunner flipping out was not what he needed right now.

  That might get sticky. With only three days to go before the game.

  This town wouldn’t just accept me because Brady did. They didn’t forget and they didn’t forgive. I knew that more than anyone. Although I had nothing to be forgiven for. Unless telling the truth was offensive.

  I don’t want to hide you. Gunner can get over it.

  My heart did a little squeeze and flutter from his words. That didn’t change the facts, but it made me feel good. You don’t need that battle right now.

  Bryony rolled over and curled up against my body. I smelled her hair, then kissed her head.

  I need you was his response.

  How was I supposed to argue with that?

  Okay, I replied. Because if he was ready for this, then so was I.

  * * *

  The next day after our park visit I strolled Bryony over to the pharmacy to get Grandmamma’s prescriptions. The door opened before we got to it and a familiar face walked out. It was Willa Ames. I remembered her from my childhood, and just a month or so ago I’d given her a ride. She’d been walking home from a field party.

  “Hello,” she said to me with a genuine smile on her face. Either she was still grateful for the ride or Gunner hadn’t yet filled her head with bad things about me.

  “Hey,” I replied, and Bryony caught her attention. She bent down to eye level with Bryony.

  “You look a lot like your mommy,” she told her, and Bryony smiled brightly. “What’s your name?”

  “Bwony,” she told her with pride.

  “That’s a beautiful name. I’m Willa, and it’s very nice to meet you.”

  I watched Willa talk to my daughter, and it was obvious she knew Bryony was my child, not my sister. The kindness in her eyes made me like her even more. If she was still hooking up with Gunner, I’d be surprised. She seemed too smart for that.

  “Are you homeschooling still? Haven’t seen you at school. I hoped maybe you would eventually show up.”

  What all did Willa Ames know about me?

  “I have my grandmother to take care of while my parents work, and Bryony. School isn’t an option for me. Besides, no one wants me there.”

  Willa raised an eyebrow. “I do. Very few females there I’d be willing to call a friend.”

  Did she mean she would be my friend? How had this girl not heard all about me by now? Was she a recluse?

  “I wouldn’t be an option either. You must not have heard my story.”

  A small frown tugged at her lips. “I’ve heard it. I just believe there’s some truth and facts missing.”

  I liked this girl. Now I really hoped she wasn’t messing around with Gunner Lawton. He’d ruin her. Even if he and Willa had been friends as kids. He was different now.

  “Thanks. You may be the only one in town who thinks that,” I replied.

  Her frown turned into a small, knowing smile. “Oh, I don’t know. I think maybe Brady Higgens may believe as I do.”

  What? Had Brady told her something?

  “I’ve got to get this medicine to my nonna. She’s dealing with a migraine. But don’t be a stranger. Maybe come to a game. I could always use a friend to sit with.”

  All I could do was nod. This was surprising and confusing. Were she and Brady friends? And if they were, why hadn’t he told me?

  “Bye-bye,” Bryony called out, and Willa turned and waved at Bryony. “Bye!”

  I opened the door and pushed Bryony inside. When I had given Willa a ride, she hadn’t been that nice and open. She had been closed off and sad. It was as if this town had helped her. The town that had torn me apart seemed to have made her a happier person.

  “Canny!” Bryony announced, pointing to the candy aisle. I would have to get her something to keep her from pitching a royal fit. I walked over and picked up some yogurt-covered raisins. They were the least of all the evils, I figured.

  “Be good while I get the medicine; then you can have the candy,” I told her.

  She made a move like she was zipping up her lips, and I laughed. In moments like these I couldn’t imagine my life any other way.

  My Life Isn’t Gunner’s to Control



  Another successful practice. Anger really made me better. I wasn’t worried about anyone or the rest of the team. I just zeroed in on me and everyone seemed to like it. Tomorrow was Wednesday, and my dad normally came to Wednesday practices. If he did this week, I was walking out. I didn’t want this to be about him.

  If I began to feel like this was about him, I’d quit just to hurt him. It would never hurt him as much as he was hurting us, but it was all I had as ammunition. I focused on seeing Riley tonight, and that made it easier to push thoughts of my father out of my head.

  “Excellent practice,” Coach said as he walked past me. “Whatever has gotten into you, keep it. Best you’ve played in your life, and I didn’t know it could get much better.”

  The bitterness of what had gotten into me simmered, and I could only nod before heading to the field house to shower and change. I wasn’t about to go home and face my father. I was avoiding him the best I could. He hadn’t been home last night when I got there, so I went to bed after hugging my mom and assuring her I was okay.

  It had taken all my willpower not to slam my bedroom door and lock it when I went to my room. He wasn’t home, and it was after eight. His working late and after hours wasn’t actually working. It was fucking. Damn son of a bitch.

  I tossed my clothes into my bag and quickly showered then dressed in my jeans and a clean T-shirt. I needed to see Riley. She’d calm me down. I wanted to hit something or someone. Anything to get all this aggression out of me.

  “You okay?” Gunner asked, walking beside me as I left the field house.

  “Yeah,” I replied, not wanting to get into anything with him.

  “You’re different. Angry. Shit’s going on and you’re keeping it to yourself. Reminds me of . . . me.”

  Nothing about me was like him. He was a cold, heartless bastard when he wanted to be. I was never like that.

  “I’m good. Just got things on my mind. Don’t want to talk about it.”

  He sighed. “Been there. But I found someone to talk to, and she was what kept me from drowning or losing my goddamn mind. You need to talk.”

  I was talking. With the one girl he hated above all others. Telling him that would shut him the fuck up.

  “I’ve got someone to talk to. Don’t need anyone’s approval.”

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