After the game, p.8
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       After the Game, p.8
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         Part #3 of The Field Party series by Abbi Glines
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  a lot to prove. Especially now.

  As we ran back onto the field, Gunner came up beside me. “We’ve got this.”

  That was his way of apologizing. Making sure we were okay.

  I nodded in agreement. Because we were. We’d win this game tonight. Then we would prepare for next week. It was almost at an end for us and Lion football. Graduation would be our next step.

  I was ready for the future, but the smell of the fresh-cut grass and the cheer in the crowd while the guys who learned to play football with me when we were kids were all huddled around me—that would be missed. We’d never get that back.

  Because of them, because of that memory and all the others that went with it, I gave everything I had and then some I didn’t know I had. With each play called, I focused harder than ever. I drowned out the roar of the fans. I ignored the pop shots called at me from the other team. I had one mission. One drive. To win this game.

  And we did. By three touchdowns.

  I Owe Tonight to You

  CHAPTER 19

  RILEY

  If I said I went to bed without staying up to watch the news, I would be lying. I was nervous. I had never been nervous over a football game in my entire life. But I was now. I had barely been able to eat dinner, but I had forced myself to so my mother wouldn’t question me. Typically I had a great appetite.

  Dad was sitting in his recliner with his feet propped up and one of the many blankets my grandmamma had knitted thrown over his legs. His evening bowl of cereal was in his hands as he watched the local news come on. I never watched the news with him, so I tried very casually to walk in and take a seat on the sofa.

  Mom was much more observant, so I was thankful tonight she was soaking in a bath at the moment and not out here watching the news with him. She’d question my being out here.

  “You still awake?” he asked as if I went to bed early every night. I normally went to my room relatively early, but rarely to sleep. I’d play a game on my phone or read a book. Those sorts of things.

  “Yeah,” I replied, hoping he left it at that. Normally my dad wasn’t a big talker. But when he had something to say, it was always important. He didn’t waste words. That’s what Mom always said about him.

  Thankfully the reporter started talking about gas prices, and Dad fell silent. I could hear him eat the crunchy flakes in his bowl and was glad he had something else to do with his mouth other than talk.

  After they covered soaring gas prices, a house burning down in a neighboring town, and the president’s new insurance plan, they finally played the clip of a football flying through the air, which meant the local teams’ scores were about to be posted.

  “The Lawton Lions have done it again” were the first words out of the news anchor’s mouth, and I let out an actual sigh of relief. The lady droned on to say that Brady Higgens had struggled through the first half but he’d come back in the second half and owned the game. The Panthers hadn’t been ready for him, or at least that was the Panthers’ coach’s take on it when they asked him. He seemed impressed, and although he was sweating and tired-looking from the game, he agreed that Higgens was the best quarterback in the state. He’d now experienced it and looked forward to following the boy’s career.

  A little burst of pride welled up in me, and that was silly, but it was the truth. We had been friends as kids but not anything special. I had been friends with all of them. Brady had always been the leader, even when we’d all been playing together on the swing set at the park.

  It made sense that he was the leader now. I stood up to leave when the recaps of tonight’s game moved on to something else.

  “Guess you can sleep now knowing that boy had a good game,” Dad said as I was leaving the room.

  I paused and winced. I was a little obvious walking out just after that news. “He was nervous and possibly the only friend I’ll ever have in this town.”

  That was the best explanation I had, and it was the truth.

  “He’s a good kid. Talented athlete. But I will say I’m more proud of him for ignoring the rest of them and reaching out to be your friend anyway. He has a lot riding on him, so to see him take a stand like this gives me hope for that bunch after all. Brady is their leader. They may buck him at first but eventually . . .” He trailed off.

  I wasn’t going to think that way, nor would I get my hopes up. Brady couldn’t take away all the hate that was set in from what happened with Rhett. I often wondered, would this all have been better if I had just left town and not told anyone? I would never know the answer to that, and figured that was okay. I didn’t need to know. My life had turned out the way it was supposed to. I was a firm believer in fate. So far fate had given me Bryony and I couldn’t complain. She was perfect. My perfect.

  “Good night, Dad,” I said before leaving this time.

  “Good night, sweetheart.”

  I went down the hall and slowly eased the bedroom door open so I wouldn’t wake my sleeping princess. She was curled up into a ball with most of the covers, and I loved watching her like this. She was safe and secure in the life I’d given her. She knew nothing about how she was conceived or the pain that had followed it. There was no need for her to know.

  Bending down, I kissed the top of her head, and the sweet smell of baby shampoo met my nose. I loved smelling her. The house had smelled like this—baby—when I had brought her home from the hospital. That smell reminded me of sleepless nights but also of first smiles, first kisses, first words, and first steps. I loved everything about that smell. I often wondered if I could convince her to keep using the same shampoo into her teen years. I doubted it, but there was always hope.

  My phone was sitting on the nightstand. Although it was on silent, the screen lit up the room. I never got texts or calls unless they were from my parents. The only person who had my number now was on a bus celebrating a victory.

  I hurried around the bed and picked it up.

  Brady’s name appeared, so I swiped my finger over the screen and read his words.

  Thank you. I owe tonight to you.

  That wasn’t true. He owed tonight to the fact that he was a star. I had nothing to do with it.

  I seriously doubt that, but congratulations, I replied.

  He would be leaving town this summer. Going off to live his dreams. And I would be here with my parents until I could get a place of my own in a town where I could start over and have a life.

  If you hadn’t talked to me today, I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate, he replied.

  Had my going over to his house really bothered him that much? I wanted to let the flutters in my stomach fly free and enjoy this, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t a girl in high school who could flirt and have fun. I was a mom and a daughter with responsibilities. I lived a life he didn’t understand and I didn’t expect him to fit into.

  “Enjoy your win. I watched the news. You deserved it.”

  I didn’t wait for him to reply. I turned my phone over and laid it down. Young girls’ fantasies were not for me.

  Fun Game Last Night, Huh?

  CHAPTER 20

  BRADY

  Saturdays after a game I should sleep in. However, sleep didn’t come easily last night, and the smell of bacon woke me up earlier than I’d have liked. I reached for my phone and checked to see if Riley ever responded to my last text. She didn’t.

  Jerking on a pair of sweats, I headed downstairs to the kitchen for breakfast. My mom was piling up a stack of pancakes with her pink-and-white apron tied around her waist. I had bought it for her five years ago for Mother’s Day with money I’d made mowing grass. She wore it all the time.

  “Morning,” I said as I headed over to the fridge to get the milk.

  “You’re up early. I expected you to sleep until noon,” she teased.

  I hadn’t slept until noon, well . . . ever. She knew better. “I smelled the bacon,” I told her. “A man can’t sleep when there is bacon.”

  That got a laugh from
her.

  Mom had always been that mom. The one who made our lunches and cooked us breakfast. The mom who made cookies and let me have a den full of guys over. She believed in me and was proud of me. In return I wanted to continue to make her proud. I had been given a mom most guys weren’t lucky enough to have. At least not in my group of friends. I was lucky that way. Not a lot of moms were as perfect as mine. For example, Gunner’s mom. I wasn’t even sure she deserved that title. She hadn’t done much for him in life.

  “You sore from last night?” Mom asked as she placed a plate of pancakes and bacon on the table for me.

  I had a few sensitive spots but nothing worth mentioning. Those were from some ringers in the first half that I deserved. My head hadn’t been where it needed to be. “I’m good,” I assured her.

  She smiled at me, then went back to the pancakes. “I saw the hits you took in the second quarter. You’re bound to have a few bad spots.”

  I shrugged and reached for the syrup to coat my pancakes in. “Dad still in bed?” I asked, changing the subject.

  “No, you know your dad. He got up early and headed to the office. Said he needed to get caught up on things, and he’d see us at dinner. I’m sure he’ll be ready to talk football by then.”

  My dad always had to be doing something. He worked a lot, and being idle wasn’t even in his vocabulary. He was funny like that.

  I started to make a joke about it when my phone screen lit up. I grabbed it and saw Riley’s name. I glanced back to make sure Mom wasn’t looking my way before opening the text. Not that she would disapprove. I knew she liked Riley. Mom was the least judgmental person I knew. But I didn’t want my parents to know yet. Not about my friendship with Riley. I was still holding that close. Just for me.

  Sure, if you need someone to ride with you to Birmingham today, I will. Mom said she could watch Bryony. Why are we going?

  I had just thrown that out there. A two-hour drive to Birmingham had been the only thing I could think of. It was far enough away from Lawton that we could safely enjoy ourselves without running into someone we knew. I hadn’t thought of a reason why I needed to go. I’d just said I did. Now I needed something. Any excuse so she didn’t know I was simply going there so we could hang out. Alone.

  And why was I doing that?

  She needed a friend, and I wanted to be her friend, but there was more to it than all that. Last night, when I was distracted, I wanted to believe it was because I was worried about her or something that innocent. But the truth was, I liked her.

  I liked Riley Young. She was interesting. She was strong, She was a good person, and I respected her for all of that. I wanted to be around her. Away from the same group of people I was always around. Maybe that was why I had liked Willa. She was different. Not the same crowd doing the same things.

  I liked her even though my being her friend was going to cause a stir eventually. The confrontation with Gunner was the one I dreaded the most. But honestly, it was time he faced the fact that his brother had lied. After all they had been through lately, I didn’t think it was going to be too big of a stretch for him to believe Riley’s story now. We weren’t kids who let others tell us what to think anymore.

  I finally replied. I have some birthday money still in my savings account, and I wanted a pair of boots that are sold out here. Birmingham has better options.

  I doubted that sounded believable since Nashville was only an hour away. But I went with it anyway.

  “It smells wonderful in this house,” Maggie said, walking into the kitchen. Her hair was still messy from sleep, and she was wearing a pair of pajama pants and one of West’s shirts. He had made sure she had several of them. It was his way of being with her all the time. I used to make fun of that, but now I thought it made sense. Not that I’d tell him that. I liked the idea of Riley wearing my shirt. Which also meant my feelings for her were changing into something more than friendship.

  “Have a seat and I’ll get you a plate,” Mom told her.

  Maggie ignored that and walked over to pick up her own plate. “You’re still cooking. I can fix my own plate. Thank you, though.”

  Mom smiled as if Maggie were the perfect daughter she never had. They were good for each other. Mom was the kind of mom who needed a daughter, and Maggie had lost her mother tragically. They weren’t as close as a mother and daughter could get, but I expected over time they would fill that hole in each other’s lives.

  Maggie sat down across from me and yawned. Just a couple months ago this would have been a very silent table. It was nice that Maggie actually spoke now. “Fun game last night, huh?”

  Her comment sounded innocent, but I knew what she meant. She was the only person who had an idea of where my head had been that first half. I looked up at her as I put a bite of pancake in my mouth. I wasn’t amused. But the smirk on her face said she was.

  “It about gave me a heart attack,” Mom said with a chuckle. “Lord, I’ve never been so nervous over a game in all my life.”

  “The games are going to just get harder. Winning the championship isn’t meant to be easy.” I realized I sounded annoyed and wished I hadn’t said that.

  Maggie raised one eyebrow as if to say she knew better. Why couldn’t she just have stayed upstairs in bed? I was having a perfectly peaceful breakfast until she came in and brought this all up.

  “Oh, I know. I realized last night I needed to calm down and prepare for this to just get worse.” Mom’s voice was still gentle and understanding.

  “I’m sure it’s hard to keep your focus with all that pressure,” Maggie added, then grinned before eating a piece of bacon.

  I was either going to stop eating and leave the table with an excuse or change the subject. But I wasn’t full and I wanted more pancakes, so I went with the subject change. “Want me to take Dad some breakfast before I head to Birmingham?” I asked.

  Maggie snickered. I was about to throw my last pancake at her amused face.

  She’s My Spot of Sunshine in Life

  CHAPTER 21

  RILEY

  My parents hadn’t really questioned Brady picking me up to go to Birmingham for the day. I gave them the reason why Brady needed to go, but neither looked as if they believed it. I wondered myself if that was really the reason. I figured Nashville had just as good shopping as Birmingham. I could assume that he had found a pair in Birmingham. However, the idea that he was making up this excuse to spend the day with me made my heart do funny things. I liked it. Again I was feeling too much, and I really needed to be more cautious.

  I didn’t let Dad talk too long to Brady when he arrived. He of course told him good game and said he wished he’d seen it. I had pushed him out the door and escaped before Dad could say too much else. I never knew what was going to come out of his mouth.

  Brady’s truck wasn’t what I assumed a teenage guy’s truck to be like inside. For starters, it was clean. No trash on the floorboard, it didn’t stink like a locker room, and it wasn’t even dusty on the dash. He kept it really nice.

  “Do you get your truck detailed often?” I asked as I looked around at the cleanliness for the first time. The last two times I was in this truck I was preoccupied and hadn’t really paid attention.

  “My dad would take this truck away from me if I paid someone to clean it,” Brady said, sounding amused. “He’d also take it away from me if I didn’t keep it spotless.”

  Interesting. He was the football star, but that didn’t give him special treatment from his parents. I would have thought otherwise. Especially in this town. I imagined he had people begging to clean his truck for free.

  “Sounds like my dad. He expects me to do my part. Not that I wouldn’t anyway, but I know if I slack off he is there to remind me to get my ass in gear.”

  Brady chuckled. “Yeah. I know that feeling.”

  We were quiet then for a few minutes. I didn’t feel the need to talk just to make conversation. There were plenty of things I could ask him. Like why were we rea
lly going to Birmingham? But for now I wasn’t doing that. I’d enjoy the ride and being out of the house with someone my age. It had been two years since I’d done anything like this.

  It made me feel older than I was. Brady didn’t make me feel old, though. He wasn’t blaring music and talking about himself. That was how I remembered guys my age. But then I wasn’t used to the way they aged. My only experience was watching television shows and movies. This was much more pleasant than I had expected.

  I didn’t want to enjoy it too much because the fact that this could all end abruptly was there. Hanging in the distance. When it came down to it, I didn’t expect Brady to choose me over Gunner. And that would be the outcome when Gunner found out. Our town was small, and for a couple weeks we could keep our friendship hidden, but it would come out. Brady was being optimistic. He believed it would all work out.

  I’d lived through hell. I knew how it all ended. Hopefulness and optimism were things I’d grown out of.

  “When is the last time you’ve been to Birmingham?” he asked.

  Good question. I wasn’t sure. “Years, I guess. I can’t even remember.”

 
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