After the game, p.15
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       After the Game, p.15
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         Part #3 of The Field Party series by Abbi Glines
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  Gunner, then I don’t guess we should be.”

  The idea of Riley sitting with Willa made me laugh. Gunner’s reaction to that would be priceless, but I also knew him well enough to know that he wouldn’t upset Willa. He loved her more than he loved Rhett.

  “You think that’s funny?” she asked.

  “No, I think it’s awesome,” I assured her.

  She took another bite of pizza, then set her plate down. “That’s the best pizza I’ve ever had.”

  She meant more than that. I could see it in her eyes. It was being here with me that made it the best pizza. I agreed with her completely.

  The Lawton Bunch Isn’t So Tight Anymore

  CHAPTER 37

  RILEY

  I was anxious most of the day. I kept my phone close to me all morning and waited on a call from Brady. I knew he would face Gunner today, and I was worried about him. He didn’t need that right now.

  It had rained all day, so when Bryony woke up from her nap there would be no playtime. I gave her crayons and a coloring book and let her color beside me while I worked on my schoolwork. I used my extra time to get ahead, and when Mother came into the room to remind me of Bryony’s afternoon snack I realized how much time had passed. School was over and still no call or text from Brady.

  When I’d gotten Bryony to her high chair and given her some applesauce, I turned to ask Mom to watch her for me for just an hour. I was going to take the car and go to meet Brady after practice. I needed to know he was okay.

  Maybe it was because she was a mother or because I was easy to read, but the moment she turned around she said, “Go on. I’ve got her. You’ve been working all day and need a break. Tell Brady I said hello.”

  I walked over to her and hugged her tightly. “Thank you.”

  She held me against her. “Of course. It’s what mothers are for. I love you, and I like seeing you live a little. Does my heart good.”

  “I love you too,” I told her.

  “Wuv you too!” Bryony called from her high chair, and we both smiled and turned to see her grinning at us with applesauce all over her face.

  “Mom will be thrilled she’s eating applesauce if she comes in here and sees this.”

  I laughed and agreed.

  “She’s going to ask you to get some chocolate from Miller’s to take to Mrs. Bertha for tea tomorrow. Just nod your head and go on. She’s been on that line of thinking for an hour now.”

  “Who’s Mrs. Bertha?” I asked, thinking that sounded new.

  “A neighbor we had when I was in elementary school. She moved away by the time I was twelve. Mom used to have tea with her every Sunday.”

  “Tomorrow is Thursday.”

  Mom let out a soft laugh. “Don’t tell her that, either.”

  Life with Grandmamma sure was interesting.

  I headed for the living room, and sure enough, there she sat with her afghan over her legs watching television. “If you’re going out, get me some of that dark chocolate from Miller’s. Told your momma, but she still ain’t gone. They’re gonna close soon. I can’t go to Bertha’s empty-handed tomorrow.”

  “Yes, ma’am,” I replied and headed out the door.

  “Don’t forget to let Thomas back inside,” she called out behind me.

  Not sure how I was going to manage letting a cat that had been dead so long it was dust now back in the house, but I replied with another “Yes, ma’am.”

  I rarely drove the Mustang. Bryony liked for us to walk and wasn’t a big fan of the car seat. So it was nice to get behind the wheel and drive in silence. I loved my family and my life. I was thankful for it. But a day dealing with a grandmother with Alzheimer’s, a toddler, and schoolwork was mentally draining. This was normally my way of getting away for an hour and regrouping and relaxing. However, today I was tense and nervous.

  It wasn’t like Brady had promised to call me or text me today. He had kissed me before we’d gone back to the truck last night, and we had taken our time with it. Then it had been the short drive home and a good night. No promises or plans.

  Still, I was worried about him.

  It was time for practice to be over, and I didn’t want Gunner to spot me in the parking lot, so I found a spot far enough away that I wouldn’t be obvious but I could still seem them.

  Gunner’s truck was the closest to the field house, so he’d get to his truck first and be gone. Which worked out well for me. I watched the guys all leaving and only saw West as he climbed in his truck and left. Still no Brady or Gunner, and I began to get nervous. Surely West wouldn’t have left if he thought there had been a problem.

  A knock on my window startled me, and I turned around in my seat to see West, who I had just watched drive off, parked beside me and standing at my window.

  Crap. I was terrible at incognito.

  Rolling down my window I dreaded this. I should have stayed home and waited. My worry got the best of me.

  “They’re talking. Could be a while,” West said.

  “He saw us last night,” I told him.

  “I know. But things are different for Gunner now. The Lawton bunch isn’t so tight anymore.”

  I nodded, understanding what he meant.

  “You being here might not be the best idea, though. Brady will come to you when he’s ready.”

  “Are they going to be okay?”

  West chuckled. “If they tie up, Brady will take him. Gunner knows that. It’s fine.”

  I still didn’t want them tying up.

  “Go home. Trust me. It’s better for Brady.”

  West didn’t hate me. He wasn’t threatening me and there were no evil glares. Maybe things were different now.

  “Okay,” I agreed.

  He gave me a nod, then went back to his truck but didn’t start it up. He was waiting on me to leave like he had suggested. I did as he said and drove out. I didn’t head to the house, though. I still needed a break from the day. So I just drove and waited for Brady to call or text.

  It was after six, just before I was back at the house, when my phone rang.

  “Hello,” I said.

  “Hey. West said you came by looking for me. Sorry it took me so long to get out. Gunner and I had a talk.”

  “Are you okay?” I asked.

  “Yeah. At least where Gunner is concerned. It’s okay. I can’t go home, though. Dad met me in the kitchen this morning and I told him not to come to practice today or I’d walk off the field. He demanded to know what my problem was. I stormed out of the house without eating. He didn’t show at practice, but he’ll be waiting on me at home.”

  “I’m pulling in the drive now. Come here. Mom will have cooked enough. She always cooks too much. Eat with us and you can do homework in my room. I have to read to Bryony and give her a bath after dinner. Then we can go out and talk on the back porch.”

  He paused, then I heard him sigh. “Okay. I’ll be there in a minute.”

  Ain’t a Thing Wrong with That

  CHAPTER 38

  BRADY

  Gunner hadn’t said a word all day. He’d acted normal. It wasn’t until after practice that he walked up to me and said, “When are you going to tell me about Riley Young?”

  I’d snapped and told him it wasn’t his damn business. I had expected a fight then, but he had only agreed that my life was my business, but that if I was hiding her because of him, then we needed to talk.

  I let him talk, and he was of the opinion that Rhett wasn’t who he’d once thought he was, and even back then it had been hard to believe Riley could be so evil. She had always been honest and nice. If I trusted her, then so did he.

  The one thing I had walked away from the talk unsure of was his asking if Riley might let him meet Bryony. She was his niece, after all, but with all that had happened, that was asking a lot of Riley. I didn’t want her to feel threatened in any way.

  I told him as much, and he asked that I just talk to Riley about it. I would when I felt like she was ready. Right now
, though, wasn’t that time. She had to adjust to the fact that Gunner Lawton believed her. I wasn’t positive how well that would go over. She had been hurt by him and his family, and if she couldn’t forgive him, he’d have to deal with it. He deserved it.

  I wasn’t sure how comfortable I was going to be at her grandmother’s tonight. I didn’t know what her parents thought of me and if they’d be okay with me being there, but I wanted to be with Riley.

  She was a mom, and she had responsibilities. I was willing to do whatever worked best for her and Bryony. This was it, so I’d be there. If her parents didn’t care for me, they’d see I really cared about their daughter and wanted her to be happy. That would hopefully change their minds.

  My phone lit up, and it was Willa. I hadn’t gotten a call from her in a while.

  “Hello,” I said, curious.

  “Thank you,” she said.

  “For what exactly?”

  “For believing Riley Young. I like her. She didn’t deserve what happened with Rhett. I think your believing her helped Gunner let go of his hate. She should get to live in this town, not be ostracized. She took a terrible situation and made the best of it. That little girl is happy and loved. Riley’s a good person.”

  I agreed. Completely. “She’s special. I’m the one who should be thankful.”

  Willa was silent a moment, then said, “Yes, you should be. Tell her I’ll see her Friday night. I am saving her a seat beside me.”

  “I will.”

  We said our good-byes just as I pulled into the drive at Riley’s. I wished that Gunner’s acceptance and Riley’s chance at a female friendship could fix all my problems. A week ago this would have been all I needed.

  Not now. My problems were deeper. Unfixable.

  Riley opened the door before I got to it with Bryony at her legs waving at me as I walked toward them. “Mom is setting another place at the table. She’s happy you’re here. But be ready for Grandmamma. There is no telling what she will say or who she will think you are.”

  There was a smile on her face as she said it, like she was amused by her grandmother and loved her.

  “I’m looking forward to dinner with your family. Thanks for letting me escape here. Going home seems impossible.”

  Her smile faded, and she nodded.

  “Hi,” Bryony said brightly.

  I turned my attention to the little girl looking up at me. “Hello, Bryony. Have you had a good day?”

  She nodded. “I made corm bwead.” I was assuming that was corn bread.

  “I can’t wait to have some. I’ll bet it’s delicious.”

  “Oh, it is. I’ve already been brought two slices with butter. She keeps feeding me,” Riley said with a laugh. “Come on in,” she told me as she stepped back so I could enter the house.

  Her father was sitting in the recliner with a newspaper in his hands and a pair of glasses perched on his nose. He looked up at me. “Hello, Brady. Glad you could join us tonight. I’m always outnumbered by women.”

  “Thanks for having me on such short notice,” I replied.

  He waved a hand as if to say no problem. “Not at all. Anytime. We like the company.”

  “I can’t find my yellow butter dish. Have you used it?” Grandmamma asked, shuffling into the room from the kitchen.

  “No, ma’am,” Riley replied.

  She frowned. “I’ll need that if I’m gonna make the rolls for the pot roast.” She turned and went back into the kitchen.

  “She’s been trying to cook all afternoon. Lyla is exhausted from it,” Mr. Young said once she was out of the room.

  From the little I’d seen, it was like taking care of a child.

  “I’ll go see if I can help. Brady, do you want to go to my room and start homework until dinner?” She was trying to get me comfortable and not leave me alone with her dad. I appreciated it, but I needed to get in good with her father. I wanted him to approve of me.

  “I think I’ll visit with your dad and watch the news. See what’s happening in sports,” I told her.

  She didn’t hug me, but the expression on her face said she wanted to. Seems my decision had just scored me some points.

  “Okay, then. It shouldn’t be too much longer,” she said before hurrying into the kitchen.

  Bryony stayed right behind her, skipping as she went.

  “That girl loves her momma. Riley has made a wonderful mom. Couldn’t be prouder of her,” Mr. Young said as they disappeared into the other room.

  “She’s really impressive,” I agreed.

  “That she is. A strong girl. Life hasn’t been fair to her, but she seems to find joy in the little things. And, of course, in Bryony. She’s the least selfish teenage girl I know.”

  I nodded.

  He set his paper down in his lap and took off his reading glasses, then placed them on the table beside him before leveling me with his gaze.

  “You’re a good kid. I’ve always thought so. You’ve got dreams and talent. Ain’t a thing wrong with that. It’s admirable,” he began, and although that sounded good I was worried about the tone he had taken with me. “But that girl in there is my baby. I’ve never hurt as badly as I did when her childhood was taken from her. The dreams and hopes for her future were snatched out from under her. It just about broke me. But she showed me and her mother that she’s strong and her dreams and hopes could change. With that, so did ours. But her future doesn’t fit into your world.” He paused and studied me to make sure I was listening.

  “I don’t want my girl hurt again. She’s not had a friend since we left this place. Having you has helped her. I appreciate what you’re doing. But don’t let her think there could be more for the two of you when there can’t be. She’s a mother, but she’s also just a seventeen-year-old girl.”

  Hurting her was the last thing I’d ever do. My dreams weren’t what they once were either. My father had changed that. I nodded my understanding.

  “Yes, sir, the last thing I want is to hurt her. We’ve talked about the future and where our lives are headed. She’s different from other girls. She more mature and responsible. She cares about things that matter, and honestly, right now I think I need her more than she needs me.”

  Her father didn’t reply right away. He simply sat there and thought about what I’d said. I couldn’t promise him we would have it easy. However, I could promise him I’d protect her from me. I would never hurt her. If anyone was hurt when this was over, it would be me.

  “Fine, then. Good. I like you, Brady Higgens. I think you’re good for each other.”

  I breathed a little easier.

  Death by Corn Bread

  CHAPTER 39

  RILEY

  I wrapped the afghan around my shoulders tightly to block the cold night breeze. Brady was beside me on the back porch steps. Dinner had gone well, and Bryony was tucked in bed. She’d enjoyed having a new face around to perform for and entertain.

  Between her and Grandmamma, I wasn’t sure what Brady thought of my family. Bryony had kept giving him buttered corn bread, which he ate like a champ, Grandmamma had asked him three times what his name was and if he’d seen Thomas, and then to end the night, Bryony had made him a pallet by our bed and told him to stay.

  If I sat back and tried to see us through someone else’s eyes, we resembled a zoo. Dad had chuckled through all of it. Mom had kept apologizing under her breath. But Brady had smiled and assured everyone he was having a good time.

  “Are you about to vomit from all the corn bread?” I asked him.

 
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