After the Game (Page 28)

He glanced up from the menu, which we already knew by heart. “Lost. F*****g 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 f*****g better, that’s what.

You Look a Lot Like Your Mommy

CHAPTER 33

RILEY

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 like 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.

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