After the Game (Page 19)
Finally turning my attention from the road to my right, I looked over at him. He had a small grin on his face. “They’re just some I want.”
“Okay . . . well, you can’t order them online or go to Nashville to find them?”
His grin got a little bigger. “I could. But then I wouldn’t have a reason to get you far enough away from Lawton so we could enjoy ourselves for the day.”
“Are you saying this trip is so we can hang out?” I asked, my heart doing that silly little squeeze and flutter.
He glanced over at me. “Yeah. I guess it is.”
I didn’t ask any more. That was enough. Enough to make me forget this was going to end too. Most good things did.
She’s with Me
Our conversation became easy, and the two hours didn’t seem that long at all. When Riley laughed, I wanted to soak it in. The sound of it was . . . nice. No, it was more than nice. I craved it. I found myself trying to coax a laugh from her. Anything to hear her and watch her face light up.
I received a few texts, and each one I ignored. Gunner’s, West’s, and Asa’s had been expected. The one from Ivy hadn’t, but I ignore hers normally anyway. Today I wasn’t living in that world. I was living in the world I chose to live in.
“I’ve never had barbecue this good,” Riley said as she wiped her mouth with a napkin. I couldn’t think of one girl I’d ever dated that would have chosen a barbecue place to eat and then ordered ribs covered in sauce. Most of them ate things that weren’t messy. But Riley was enjoying her food. Getting sauce all over her hands and face didn’t bother her at all.
Seeing her laugh at the mess she was making was cute. I wanted to sit here all day and experience this. I picked up another hot wing and cleaned the bone. Normally I was a cleaner eater because my date was. But with Riley I felt like I could eat as if she were one of the guys. Although she looked nothing like one of the guys.
If girls realized how attractive it was to be so free and happy about something as simple as some ribs, they’d lighten up a bit. The guys two tables over from us kept checking Riley out, and although it was annoying that they didn’t seem to mind that she was with me, I couldn’t actually blame them.
I was having a hard time taking my eyes off her too.
“I’m going to have to go wash my face in the bathroom after this,” she said with a smile. “Bryony loves ribs. I wish she were here for these.”
I’d offer to take some back with us, but they’d be bad by the time we finished our day and drove the two hours back.
“I could grill some for her sometime. Y’all could come over for dinner.”
Riley paused for a moment and a mix of emotions flashed in her eyes. She put a rib down and let out a small sigh. “Yeah, maybe.”
What was that about? She seemed almost upset by my offer, or disappointed.
“Did I say something wrong?”
She was looking down at her ribs then lifted her eyes to mine. “I don’t live in a fantasy world, Brady. I’ve had too much reality for that. Truth is, when your friends find out that you’re spending time with me, it will stop. Because you’ll have to choose. They’ll make you. And I don’t expect you to choose me.”
What the hell did that mean? I wasn’t going to have to choose anyone. I was my own man, dammit, and if I wanted to pick my friends, I could. I didn’t need anyone’s permission.
“I’m not like that. I’d have hoped you knew that already. No one makes me do anything.”
She shrugged and cleaned her hands off on a napkin. “It’s not a bad thing. It just is what it is. Here we have no judgment, and I enjoy being with you. I like this. Having a friend. But I’m not delusional. I know everyone in Lawton hates me and thinks I’m a liar. Well, everyone but you.”
I had never been openly hated. I wondered what that felt like. How painful and unfair it must be. My anger rose up at all of them. Everyone who had talked bad about her. Everyone who had judged her or been cruel to her. Then I admitted to myself the hardest part: I was one of those everyones. Maybe not now, but I had been once. I wasn’t any better.
“I’m sorry,” I said honestly.
She smiled. “For being my friend?”
“No. For turning on you when I did.”
The smile on her face faded. “We were young. You thought what everyone else did. Besides, I ran out of town. It made me look even more guilty. If I had stayed, life for my family would have just gotten worse, but the fact is we left. People feel sorry for my parents because of me. But these people’ll always hate me. The good thing is I won’t always be there. I’ll get out and make my own way in life soon enough. In a town where no one knows me and I can start fresh. Me and Bryony.”
The image of Riley taking Bryony to some town far away and building a life, getting a job, paying bills, raising her daughter, all while I was off throwing a football and chasing my dream, seemed unfair. So much of her life seemed unfair. She’d missed high school and she’d miss college.
“What was your dream, when you were younger?” I asked her. I didn’t want to say before Bryony, because that sounded cold. Although that was what I wanted to know.
“You mean before I became a mom?” She was smiling as if she read my mind. “I wanted to be a vet.”
“So you love animals,” I said, feeling my heart ache for the girl who wouldn’t be able to chase her dream the way I would.
“Yes. I do. I can’t take care of one now because I can’t afford it. But when Bryony and I have our own place, we will have dogs and cats. Maybe even goats if I get enough land.”
“Could you still go to college to be a vet?”
She shook her head. “No, I need a job that makes enough to support me and Bryony. I have plans. I want to make a difference in girls’ lives like me one day. The teen mom support group I went to got me through tough times. My dream is to do that for young girls. Show them there is happiness in their future. Life isn’t over.”
She didn’t say it with bitterness or anger. Instead she took a drink of her sweet tea and stood up. “I need to go wash myself off,” she explained before walking to the back of the restaurant to the restrooms.
Why did I want her to have that dream so badly? She seemed happy enough, and I had never wanted to fix anyone’s problems as much as I wanted to fix hers. She made me want to protect her and stand by her. Even though she may have been one of the toughest people I’d ever met. If she knew what I was thinking, she’d tell me to stop. She had everything under control.
Maybe that was why I wanted to help her so much. Because she didn’t want help. She wanted to make her own way. And I knew she could.
“Hey, y’all just friends or is she with you?” one of the guys asked from the other table.
I turned to look at him, and his obvious interest pissed me off. Sure, I understood it, but I was jealous. Me. Jealous. Not the kind I felt with Gunner and Willa, but the kind that made me want to stake my claim and threaten him.
“She’s with me,” I replied in a cold tone.
The guy looked let down. “Damn” was his response.
I Didn’t Know Friends Kissed Like That
It was after six when Brady pulled into my driveway. I had kept in contact with my mom all day, and Bryony had been fine. As much as I missed her, this little getaway had been needed. I was thankful Brady had thought of it.