After the game, p.22
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       After the Game, p.22
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         Part #3 of The Field Party series by Abbi Glines
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  “This is my daughter,” I stated with firm authority. There would be no question as to who she belonged to. She was mine.

  “Gunner told me she looked like me,” Rhett Lawton said as he stared down at Bryony, who had thankfully fallen asleep. I didn’t want her to see him or remember him.

  I liked Gunner, but at that moment I was not liking him very much. I trusted him and allowed him around Bryony. However, Rhett was out of the question. He was evil, and I wanted no evil touching my daughter. She was nothing like him. Her heart was pure.

  “When was she born?” he asked, still studying her sleeping form.

  “Why?” I spat back. I wanted him to leave me alone. Leave us alone. Lawton had become a welcoming safe place for us. With Rhett here that changed. He wasn’t safe.

  “She’s mine, Riley. We both know it. I always knew it.”

  Anger boiled in my veins, and I wanted to grab the nearest rock and hurl it at his head. She wasn’t his. “She is mine,” I repeated. “Mine.”

  He sighed and for a second he resembled Gunner. Someone who I trusted. Rhett wasn’t to be trusted.

  “I fucked up. I’ve fucked up a lot. But I was young and scared out of my mind.”

  I laughed then. It sounded a bit crazy. Like the laugh you hear from insane people. But his words were insane, so my manic laughter fit the situation.

  “You were young? Scared?” I repeated the words like they tasted sour on my tongue. “Really? Well, boo-fucking-hoo. I was fifteen and pregnant from a rape that the father claimed didn’t happen. I was a virgin, Rhett, or were you so drunk you didn’t notice? You took my innocence, left me pregnant, then turned the entire town against me. My family had to leave here because of you. You almost destroyed me.” I paused. “But you didn’t. She saved me.”

  He didn’t seem remorseful, just guilty. Like he knew what he had done was wrong, but he wasn’t going to be able to change it, so he wouldn’t focus on it too much. “You came back; they accept you now. My reputation isn’t that great here. In the end, you won.”

  I was ready to hurl more angry words at him until that last sentence.

  I won.

  In the end, I had won.

  I had a beautiful daughter I couldn’t live without. My family never left my side. I had friends who cared about me and were a part of my life and Bryony’s. And for now I had Brady.

  Rhett had nothing.

  “They say karma is a bitch” was my response to that. Maybe it was cold, knowing that his world had also exploded this past year. But I wasn’t ready to accept him. I doubted I ever would be. But I could forgive him.

  “I don’t want you in my life and especially not in Bryony’s. The story of her conception isn’t anything she ever has to know. But for what it is worth, I forgive you. I will never forget, but I will forgive. Because in the end I was given Bryony.”

  He didn’t respond at first, but he finally nodded. “I just wanted to see her, Riley. I wasn’t trying to be a part of her life. I don’t want to be a father. I have no example and I would suck at it. But I did want to see her and know what happened . . . what I did . . . all ended okay.”

  I could tell him that what he’d done had almost ruined me. I had lived in so much pain and anger that I had to see counseling. But none of that mattered now. It was a part of my story. It was a part of me.

  “It did,” I replied.

  He looked back down at Bryony one last time. “I hope she has a good life.”

  “She will have the best life I can give her.”

  He nodded, then turned and walked away.

  It was as if a chapter had closed in my life. The spring breeze brushed my hair across my face, similar to that of a page turning. I exhaled, then took a step forward, ready for the next chapter life had for us.

  What the Hell Would I Do without Her?

  CHAPTER 54

  BRADY

  Riley had seemed different all evening. It had been hard to concentrate on the questions my mother asked and listen to the things I had missed here with Riley being quieter than usual and almost standoffish.

  Something was wrong, and I was ready to get her alone and figure out what it was. Maggie had left to go to West’s house to watch a movie, and Mom was playing with Bryony in the living room. She had bought Bryony several toys for our house. The blocks seemed to be her favorite. I could hear Mom suggesting they build a castle.

  “Come with me,” I told Riley, taking her hand and leading her out to the backyard so Mom wouldn’t get all weird about us staying too long up in my room.

  She went with me easily and without question. Once I had her outside and away from the house, I turned to look at her. “What’s wrong?”

  I had missed her something fierce this week. Being at Alabama was fun and exciting, but I wanted her there beside me. I wasn’t going to be able to stay away from her . . . and Bryony. I missed her too. I realized, being gone, that they had become part of my family. The most important part.

  I had asked about football players who had kids and how that worked. If they had special housing, even if I wasn’t married. They did. If I had a girlfriend and a child, they could put me in family housing. Convincing Riley of that, though, was going to be difficult.

  “I saw Rhett today,” she said, snapping me out of my thoughts.

  “Did he come to your house?” I asked, feeling a surge of protectiveness. He was going near what was mine. He had no claim to them.

  “No, we saw him on our way home from the park. Or I saw him. Bryony was asleep, thankfully. He just wanted to see her. Nothing more. I almost . . . almost felt sorry for him.”

  I hadn’t seen Rhett since homecoming, and I didn’t care if I ever saw him again. But hearing her say she felt sorry for him made me wonder how he was. His parents’ lies had affected him just like they had affected Gunner.

  “Is that why you seem distant tonight? Did he upset you?”

  She looked away from me, then her shoulders lifted and fell with a sigh.

  “I wanted to wait until closer to graduation to talk about this. You still have almost two months of school left. No reason to deal with the future just yet.”

  But it was obviously bothering her. My being gone to Alabama all week had reminded her that things would change soon. Until I had spent a week away from her and Bryony, I hadn’t thought it through. Being apart from them had made me think. She must have gone through the same thing.

  “I think we should talk about it now. We need to plan, and I have an idea. I spoke with my representative there, and they have family housing. You being my girlfriend and Bryony being my child, we qualify for a place in family housing. I don’t have to stay in a dorm room. Y’all can come with me.” Saying it took a weight off my shoulders I’d been carrying for months when I thought of leaving her.

  Riley pulled her hand out of mine and put some space between us. I didn’t like that response. It wasn’t what I had expected. My stomach knotted up as I studied her face.

  “What would we do? I have no family there to help me with Bryony. I wouldn’t be able to hold a job and pay for day care and go to school without help. I can’t just stay at the family housing and wait on you to have time for us. This is your future, Brady. All you’ve fought for. All you’ve planned on. And you need to live in a dorm and go out to bars and enjoy being in college. You don’t have a child. The fact that you’re willing to sacrifice all that for us doesn’t mean I will let you. I have plans. Plans that work for us. For me and Bryony.”

  What plans? We hadn’t talked beyond my going to college and them visiting.

  “I want you with me,” I told her.

  A sad smile came and left. “But we can’t be. It isn’t what’s best for any of us.”

  I started to argue, and she held up her hand to stop me. “I’m getting a job in Nashville. Bryony is going to day care here, and my parents are paying half of it. Nashville State Community College has online courses so I don’t have to go to all my classes on campus. For t
he next two years I’m going to school there, then when Bryony is ready for kindergarten we will make a move. I’ll get my teaching degree and find us a house of our own.”

  I stood there as she built this future without me in it. One where she and Bryony were moving on and leaving me behind. I couldn’t find words. It was like being blindsided. I’d thought she wanted to be with me as much as I wanted to be with her. She’d said she loved me. Did love not mean the same thing to her?

  “It’s what’s best for all of us,” she said.

  “No! It’s what’s best for you, maybe. But not me. I love you too much to plan a life without you in it. Obviously you don’t feel the same way.”

  She shook her head, her eyes filling with tears, but I was angry, hurt, and my chest felt like it was about to explode. “If you didn’t want me, why did you let me love you? I don’t fucking trust love. Does it not mean the same to anyone else? Is that it? I’m the idiot?”

  “Brady, no!” she said, taking a step toward me. I backed up. It was my time to put distance between us. I couldn’t imagine planning my future and leaving her and Bryony out of it. But she had done that easily enough.

  “Don’t, Riley. Don’t. You want me out of your future, fine. I never wanted you out of mine. All damn week I missed you and thought about how I couldn’t do life there without you. You are where I get my happy. You. And while I was there trying to figure out how to take you with me, you were here planning me out of your life.”

  “I was here trying to prepare for what was to come. I can’t take Bryony off to a college campus, Brady. Surely you see that. She’s secure here. That’s not a place for a baby.”

  Other guys did it all the time. “They have family housing for a reason, Riley! It’s obviously done all the damn time.” She was using it as an excuse.

  The fact was that Riley didn’t love me the way I loved her. She’d have destroyed me in the end. If she loved me enough, she’d make it happen. But this was her excuse. Her way out.

  What the hell would I do without her?

  He Thinks He Wasn’t Enough for You

  CHAPTER 55

  RILEY

  I wiped the tears from my face and took a deep breath before going back inside Brady’s house to get Bryony. He had turned his back on me and told me to leave. Our conversation was over. We were over.

  Coralee frowned when she saw my face, then turned to look outside where we had been for her son.

  “Thank you for dinner, but we need to be going,” I said, my voice cracking.

  “What happened?” she asked me.

  I picked up Bryony and put her diaper bag over my arm. “We don’t agree on next year. He sees it differently than I do,” I explained. My eyes filled with tears again. “I need to go,” I said, then hurried for the front door with Bryony on my hip.

  I got her buckled into her car seat and headed for home. The tears streamed freely down my face now, and Bryony was unusually quiet. She knew something was wrong, and she wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t like to scare her, so I tried to stop, but another sob broke free.

  When we pulled into the drive, I dried my face before getting out and knew that my parents would know I had been crying. They’d want answers, and I wasn’t ready to give them that yet.

  I never imagined it ending like this. But then I’d never imagined the ending. It had hurt too much to think about.

  Bryony patted my face with her little hands as if to console me. I squeezed her tightly against my chest and told her I was fine.

  When I walked inside, my mom looked up from the crossword puzzle she was doing on the sofa and an immediate frown crossed her face.

  “What happened?”

  “Mommy sad,” Bryony said by way of answering for me.

  I refused to cry again in front of her. She didn’t need to be upset and confused. “Mommy is okay. Let’s get you a bath. Go pick out your pajamas and bath toys, and I’ll be right there,” I told her.

  She nodded and ran down the hallway.

  “We talked about next year. We don’t see it the same way. It ended badly,” I told her. “But let me get her in bed. If I talk about it, I’ll cry some more, and she doesn’t need to see that.”

  Mom nodded. “Okay. Go take care of her. I’ll be here.”

  She would always be there. She was my safety net. I wanted to cry thinking about how important she was to me and how making tough decisions for Bryony wasn’t just my job but what I wanted to do. Because one day I wanted her to know I was her safety net. I was always there.

  Brady would look back on tonight and thank me. Maybe not to my face, but he would think it. That I saved him from throwing away his youth on a girl and a kid that wasn’t his. He deserved to live his life at college like he had always planned. Taking us with him was impossible not just for us but for him, too. He had practices and games and classes. We didn’t fit into that.

  Knowing my decision was right didn’t make it any easier. Telling myself that one day it wouldn’t hurt like this didn’t help me. Not in this moment. In this moment I loved Brady Higgens, and life without him broke my heart into a million pieces.

  The fear that I’d always love him was there. That this pain wouldn’t go away and that moving on would never really happen. Because my heart would go with Brady. He’d have it even when he no longer wanted it.

  * * *

  Once Bryony was bathed and asleep in bed, I went back to the living room, where Mom was still sitting, her crossword puzzle forgotten in her lap as she stared out the window in thought. She was worrying about me. Again.

  “He wanted us to move to Tuscaloosa and live in family housing with him,” I told her.

  She sighed and patted the spot beside her. “That would never work.”

  “I know,” I replied.

  “Did you tell him your plans?”

  “Yes. He didn’t take it well. It ended in him yelling and telling me to leave.”

  “Oh, honey,” she said, wrapping her arm around me and pulling me against her side. “He just loves you and doesn’t want to be away from you. He’ll calm down and regret it.”

  I had seen the look in his eyes, and I knew he wasn’t going to understand and come apologize. He was hurt. I had hurt him, and after what he had gone through with his dad he wasn’t going to forgive this kind of hurt easily.

  And I couldn’t agree to go with him just to make him happy. That wasn’t the answer for either of us.

  I had to keep reminding myself that one day he would see I was right.

  It didn’t make right now hurt any less.

  * * *

  The next week Bryony said Brady’s name for the first time. After three days of no call or visit from him, Bryony had looked up at me with a confused expression and asked, “Bwady?”

  I had no way of explaining this to her. She was too small to understand, and I’d let him into our lives. I wondered if she would ask about Coralee next. I didn’t want to take her away from Coralee. She enjoyed Bryony just as much as Bryony enjoyed her. But that was an impossible situation. Especially right now.

  Maybe one day it wouldn’t be hard.

  The doorbell rang on Thursday, and I had just checked on Grandmamma in her room. She was sorting through old books. I wasn’t sure why, but that was what she was doing to occupy herself. I was afraid to ask, thinking it may confuse her when she had to answer.

  Bryony ran to the door and tilted her head back to look up at the knob she couldn’t reach yet. I went behind her and opened it, knowing it wouldn’t be Brady. He was at school. The small hope still stirred inside me pointlessly.

  Coralee stood on the other side of the door with a plate of cookies in one hand and a lemon cake in the other.

  “I brought treats,” she said with a smile.

  “Cowee,” Bryony called out in excitement at the sight of her friend and jumped up and down to make sure we both understood how happy she was about this.

  “First he says Brady and now Coralee all in one day,”
I told her, stepping back to let her in. “She’s missed you.”

  Coralee smiled down at Bryony. “And I’ve missed her. Very much.”

  I took the two plates from Coralee and walked them to the kitchen while Coralee bent down to scoop up Bryony. I knew this visit wasn’t just about Bryony. She was here to talk about Brady. I just didn’t know what her view would be.

  I walked back into the living room and sat down in the recliner. “How have you been?” I asked her, since I had grown used to seeing her regularly.

 
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