“Shit,” he says, surreptitiously wiping at the corner of his eye, “you’re going to have me bawling like some stupid man-baby.”
“Cuz you are a man-baby,” I answer, rubbing my forearm over my own eyes.
The wind blows again. It’s too cold to be standing around.
“Well come on, then.” Gray goes to his Barbie car and grabs something from within. My insides dip but my heart speeds up when I see the football.
Gray gives me a challenging look and throws me the ball. I either have to look like an idiot and let it fall or catch it.
I catch it.
“We’re tossing around the ball.” Gray’s tone brooks no argument.
The ball feels so good in my hand that I want to clutch it to my chest like it’s a baby. “You going long?” I ask.
“You gonna throw down?”
My arm tightens with the need to let the ball fly. “Like a hammer.” Some of my cockiness leaves as I glance back at the stadium. “But not here.”
“We’ll go to the park.” Gray moves to the passenger side of the pickup.
“Not in the glamour mobile?” I say as we both get in the truck.
He looks disgruntled as hell, but he’s smiling. “You owe me big for that car, you know.”
I do. I owe him for more than he’ll ever know.
“Anna’s making bourbon pecan pies. I told her to bake four.” And she’d called me a pig, as if that would be some kind of deterrent. “I’ll give you two of them.”
Gray grins wide. “That’s a start.”
THE CAR ENGINE ticks as we sit in front of the brick townhouse. Neither of us moves to open a car door. Drew takes a slow breath. His profile is to me as he stares out of the window. “Last night,” he says, “I had a nightmare. I was in the house, trying to find you. But you were gone. Your stuff was gone. Like you’d never been there.”
His mouth quirks bitterly. “Suddenly, I’m tearing through campus trying to find you, when I realize that I’m running. My leg is perfect, there’s no pain. Coach appears and he tells me it was all a dream. The bad sack, my leg getting trashed. It never happened.”
I turn toward him in my seat, and he swallows hard.
“Then I see you. You’re with Mr. Yuck, and you just look at me like I’m scum.”
Shit. I reach for his hand, and his warm fingers link with mine. He gives me a little squeeze of reassurance, like I’m the one who needs comfort. He’s gone silent, just looking down at our hands, his so much bigger than mine that all you can see of me are my pale fingers threaded through his darker ones.
“You should know,” I say, “I left Mr. Yuck at the bar. He never stood a chance. I was in love with you.”
A sad smile plays on Drew’s lips, but it grows into one of satisfaction. He pulls our linked hands onto his thigh and his thumb glides over mine. “Well, in the spirit of sharing and honesty, I hung around all those girls to make you jealous.”
My eyes flick up. He has the grace to look sheepish. “It was shitty, I know.” His expression grows somber. “But I never touched them.”
But then his lashes sweep down, hiding his eyes. “One of them kissed me, and—” he shakes his head, “I couldn’t stand it. You don’t know how much that pissed me off at the time,” he says with a wry laugh.
“I bet,” I say sourly, but I’m not really pissed, and he knows me enough to get that. Because he’s smiling at me now. The smile turns tender, and his thumb continues to stroke mine.
“The thing is, when I saw you in the dream, walking away from me like we never were and never would be…” He goes pale. “It tore me in half, Anna.”
“Drew, no…” I cup his cheek with my free hand.
He leans into it a little as he keeps talking. “I felt so empty. Even when I woke up. Like I’d never experience happiness again.”
“I’m here,” I say softly. “I’m here.” I hate that he’s felt that sinking empty pain again.
“That’s the point, baby,” he answers. “Ending my college football career the way I did? Facing the fact that eventually an injury might end everything one day? Yeah, it’s doing a number on me. It scares the shit out of me. Football made me what I am. But I’ll have to deal with it regardless. No one plays ball forever. And at the end of the day, when the game is over?” His golden eyes hold mine. “I’d rather have no football and feel whole with you than play and feel empty and at sea like before.”
“Drew.” I wrap my arms around his neck and hug him hard. And he hugs me back, his breath warm against my cheek as he nuzzles it, breathing me in like he always does.
I press my lips against his temple. “You’re wrong about one thing. Football doesn’t make you. You make football.”
He grunts in wry disagreement, and I shake my head, brushing my lips over his ear. “Anyone can pick up a ball and throw it. But you? You turn the act into something magical. Something wonderful.”
He shudders, a sigh escaping him. The sound is equal parts sadness and relief. I hold him tighter, kiss his jaw. “It’s you, baby. Your light. Your joy. Your soul. You bring that to everything you touch. To the game, your friends, me. It won’t end with football, I promise.”
“Anna.” He drags me across the armrest and into his lap to bury his face in the crook of my neck. “I love you so much. It’s like my life truly started when you walked into it. I want what my parents had, Anna. I want it with you and only you.” He strokes my hair, his breath a burst of heat against my skin. “I’m going in there today to get my shit together for me and for us.”