Sarah was sitting on the bench across from me, but I was choosing to drown out her bitching instead of indulging on her temper tantrum. Practice all week had been a little dull, especially since I opted out of helping Sarah, yet again, choreograph new routines for the squad. I was so tired of being used that I could physically vomit. If she wanted to be the leader so badly, then she needed to step up to the plate and stop using me as her permanent crutch.
I rolled my eyes absentmindedly as she continued on, oblivious to the fact that I wasn’t even paying attention. I finished tying off my shoes and looked up to see Jaylyn finally making an appearance. Relief washed through me, quickly replaced by confusion. She had a whimsical vibe rolling off of her, almost dreamy. She plopped down next to me and tried hiding the smile that stained her lips.
“You okay?” I asked, clearly not in the loop.
“Yeah.” Her face instantly straightened.
Clarity hit me. “Ooooooooh. You must have been with Ryker.”
“Shush.” Her eyes darted between the girls, checking to see if I had been overheard.
“You, shush.” I smiled. “I expect details later.”
“Fine.” She nudged me playfully.
At least she was in a better mood than the past few days. Getting up at the crack of dawn was starting to wear me down, and I don’t think I could have kept up much longer. Her face was more relaxed than usual and she had a flush. Must have been some conversation. I smiled to myself, which instantly turned into a frown when Sarah started yelling again.
“Move it, ladies!”
I grabbed my poms and kept close to Jaylyn when she did the same and we exited out onto the field single file. As soon as the lights hit my face, I put on my biggest smile and began to wave along with the others. I fell in line and the fight song started, signaling for our start as the announcer boomed over the loudspeakers introducing the senior varsity team. The crowd cheered in a full wave around the stadium as the team flew through our tunnel. Ryker’s number thirty-two slowed only a little right in front of Jay and he nodded in her direction. Her cheers came earnestly after his departure and I felt genuinely happy for my friend.
She needed somebody. Someone to coax her out of hiding, so to speak.
We all rallied together in a large huddle on the track on our side of the field after the introductions were made and the first quarter was starting. Jay looked more out of breath than usual, and I smirked at her.
“Don’t even.” She laughed between gulps of water.
When half-time came, we centered on the track, a wide line of cheerleaders and smiling faces. The routine was rather quick and way too simple compared to the routines I had previously composed, but everyone did their individual job perfectly, and the crowd cheered for us as we finished. Sarah looked dissatisfied, but no one bothered to give her any sympathy.
Quicker than we caught on, we were right back into the third quarter. Jaylyn was starting to open up to some of the other girls and laugh with them as we watched the game in between cheers. In a moment of brief distraction, our quarterback threw the ball. My eyes widened as I watched it spiral right towards us, Ryker chasing it down. Jaylyn was leaning to the side, saying something to another girl and wasn’t aware of the incoming impact.
I quickly shoved her aside into the other girl and backed up with only a second to spare before Ryker’s padded body came slamming down on the track beside us. The refs whistle blew and Ryker stood tossing the ball back to the field. He stopped, and I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he had a tender hold on Jaylyn’s arm and looked as if he were inspecting her for injury.
I could see her mouth the words ‘I’m fine’ before she straightened his helmet and he rushed back onto the field. He headed straight for the quarterback and shoved him in front of the entire audience, and the ref instantly pulled out a yellow flag.
“Watch what the fuck you’re doing, man!” His anger echoed back to us and Jaylyn huddled next to me to keep warm.
“I don’t know why he was so angry. You pushed me out of the way. No harm done.” She watched the scene out on the field.
“Yeah, but what would have happened if I wasn’t paying attention?” I whispered. Not that that excused his behavior, because it didn’t. But Ryker had a temper. Rare. But it was there.
“He’s starting to act like we’re together or something.” Irritation laced her voice.
“That may be true. But at least he cares about you.”
“You think so?”
“Well, I think he’s definitely beginning to. He doesn’t act this way around Emma. That’s for sure.” It was like word vomit and it poured out of my mouth before I could stop it. After it was said, I wanted nothing more than to eat the words back up, in hopes that Jay wouldn’t hear it.
Her eyes glinted a brief image of sadness before cool disinterest replaced it. “Yeah. But who really knows how he treats Emma anyways, right?”
“Right.” I felt bad. I shouldn’t have said anything.
Jaylyn kept quiet for most of the rest of the game, and I knew it was my fault. In our short breaks, she kept glancing at her phone and ignoring the same incoming call every few seconds. She put her phone face down on the bench with our things before she came back into formation. Sarah called out for our final victory cheer as Ryker jumped into the endzone, ending the game, thirty-six to thirty. The stadium broke out into a victory cry as the team huddled on the field, celebrating their first victory of the season.
In the middle of our routine, I noticed Jaylyn’s body tense, and her eyes kept darting off to the side while she continued moving her arms. She wasn’t smiling anymore. I could feel her anxiety like it was a tangible thing, so I followed her line of sight to see a man standing off in the distance next to our locker room entry, leaned up against the wall. I had to squint, trying to make out his face, and then it hit me. It was the gorgeous God from her texts all week.
When the cheer was over, we grabbed our stuff.
“What’s he doing here?” I whispered closely to her shoulder, still watching him as people began to exit the bleachers.
“I have no idea.” Her tone was sharp, but I knew she had to be internally freaking out.
We lined with the crowds, our intentions leading us to the locker room.
“Maybe, if I just pretend he isn’t there, he might disappear.” She said, more to herself than to me.
“I doubt that.” I said flatly, nodding my head in his direction so that she would realize he was getting ready to approach us.
He obviously wasn’t shy as he dodged the people leaving and continued staring straight at Jaylyn. She stepped a full step in front of me, blocking my way. I couldn’t hide the worry that lined my eyes, but she didn’t say anything and only shook her head once, clearly telling me to keep my distance.
A knot formed in the pit of my stomach, catching the angry look in the guy’s eyes, as I backed away from them.
Ryker. Get Ryker.
I tried to only shuffle quickly across the AstroTurf of the field, hoping that people wouldn’t find my behavior odd. Giovanni slid a hand out and caught me by my elbow.
“I have to get Ryker.” I pulled against his hold.
“What’s going on?”
“Jaylyn. The locker rooms. Ex-boyfriend.” I managed between gasps.
His grip slipped and I fell away, weaving through the crowd of still cheering football players until I landed in front of the person I needed.
“Woah, there, Els. What’s wrong with you?” Ryker held my shoulders.
I was panting at this point trying to catch my breath. “Jay. Her ex is here. He looks pissed.”
“Where are they?” He stretched on his feet to look over the crowd of heads.
“Outside the locker rooms.”
He took off in a dead bolt and I had to strain my legs to keep up with his. We flew past the field and into the shadows from the trees blocking out the artificial lights of the stadium. I could hear muffled yelling, but I wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted us as we rounded the corner.
Do you remember being in grade school, and when they did the fire drills? It was a system put in place that if a real emergency ever happened, the teachers as well as the students would be prepared. They would set off real alarms, and the children would have to shuffle single file out the closest exit to our classroom. Their teachers would shuffle them across the school yards, and take role to make sure everyone got out appropriately. The catch was since they were so young, they would be told in the morning about the drill, and around the time it was supposed to start, they would have already long forgotten it between the juice boxes and recess. So, the loud alarm and flashing lights would send them into a state of anxiety, until they remembered there was no real emergency and that they were safe.
This was kind of like that, except the anxiety was real and it wasn’t going away. The alarms going off in my brain alerted me to the approaching danger that Aiden posed as he openly stared at me from the side of the field. He stayed perched against the wall just outside the opening that led to the locker rooms, and the look of bewilderment on his face was apparent. This was bad. Really bad.
He risked my whole operation just by being here.
The final quarter of the game came to an end and Elsie fell in step beside me as we gathered our belongings on the side of the track.
“What’s he doing here?” She whispered to the side.
“I have no idea.”
It was an honest answer, because realistically there was no reason for him to be here. In the on and off of what normal people would call a relationship, Aiden and I had never really taken the time to get to know one another. Or, at least, I didn’t care to. He was just another blimp on my map of trying to be normal, but if push came to shove, I could easily admit that I had never really felt anything for him at all.
“Maybe, if I just pretend he isn’t there, he might disappear.” I dearly hoped, even though nothing in my life had ever been that easy. So why start now?
“I doubt that.” Elsie confirmed and motioned in his direction with her chin as we walked towards the locker rooms.
Aiden had pushed himself off the wall and was making as direct path for me. He looked confused, shocked, angry even. I only felt the fear spike in my chest at his presence. This would be the end of me. Dominik would kill me for letting my cover be blown so easily.
Goodbye, cruel world, it wasn’t so nice knowing you.
I broke away from Elsie and she gave me a concerned look. I shook my head. She didn’t need to be a part of this, and if Aiden were to yell out my transgressions, I would be done for. One less loose string for Black to tie up. She just looked at me and then turned back toward the field, walking faster than her normal pace.
Great. I don’t need help.
Aiden came to a stop in front of me and his nostrils were flaring. For some reason, it reminded me of how much I hated the way his breath felt on my skin. His dark eyes were burning and I knew he was angry, even if I partly didn’t understand why.
“What the fuck is this?” He spat, finally.
“What are you doing here?”
He flipped his hand out, matter-of-factly. “You would know if you bothered to answer any of my texts or calls.”
“Aiden. We broke up.” I responded flatly.
“And why the fuck are you a fucking cheerleader, Jay? This isn’t you.” He questioned.
I gripped him by the elbow and dragged him out of the pathway of wandering eyes.
“Will you keep your voice down?” I shushed him, looking over my shoulder to see if anyone had followed us.
“No! I want answers, Jay! I want to know why you’ve been avoiding me!” He was getting louder and the pain in my chest was getting sharper with every syllable.
“I’m not your girlfriend, Aiden. I never was. We were never a couple. We had sex occasionally. That’s all it was. I’m not interested in you. And you need to go home.” I huffed, turning on my heel.
His hand whipped out and snatched my wrist painfully tight, and he yanked me back around. My feet barely had time to keep up with the sudden motion and I almost fell, until Aiden crushed his body into mine against the concrete wall.
“I know you’ve missed me.” He practically begged in my ear, inhaling just behind my ear, buried in my hair. The smell of alcohol invaded my nose. “I’ve missed you.”
“Aiden, you need to let me go. I don’t want you. I never did.” I snarled, gasping at the tightness of his weight crushing my chest.
I turned my head sharply in the direction of the intruder, and saw Giovanni looking at me confused until he realized who had me pinned against the wall. I didn’t want to cause a gigantic scene, so talking Aiden down from his power trip seemed to be the only option.
“Gio, no!” I shook my head and motioned for him to stay back. “Aiden, let me go. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“So, you’ll spend time with other men, but not with me?” His words were dangerous and sharp. “How many of us are there, Jay? Do you put a front up with them as well?”
One of his hands snaked upwards and crushed against my throat.
“Do they know you like I do? Have they seen your darkness? Should I give them a show?” He snickered.
“Aiden, please.” I gasped on no air. “Stop, now.”
Time stood still. Giovanni was frozen with panic and stars danced behind my eyes. I was going to have to hurt him. It would be self-defense if I had to explain it to the school, and Giovanni could be my witness.
Just as quickly as his body had crushed mine, the weight was suddenly lifted and I gulped for air. Aiden’s body had dramatically fallen to the side as he caught himself before he had a chance to collapse to the ground. I looked up from my bent position and yelped when an arm encircled my waist and tugged me in the opposite direction of my assaulter.
“Keep your fucking hands off of her.”
Ryker was beyond pissed. His anger radiated off of him like the steam from an over-heated engine. His jaw was clenched, his fist was bleeding, and it took a minute for me to ascertain that Ryker had punched Aiden. Even though his nose appeared broken, draining blood that ran directly over his lips, Aiden laughed while hunched in a half-laying position.
“You have no idea who you’re defending, man.” Laughter raked his chest, and the anger in me boiled over. “Are you fucking her yet? She’s a lousy lay.”
I wrestled out of Ryker’s hold and launched a kick straight for Aiden’s ribs. “You. Don’t. Get. To. Touch. Me. Ever.” Each word was enunciated with an impact to his abdomen.
“Enough, Jaylyn.” Ryker pulled me off my feet and away from him.
He wrapped a solid arm over my shoulders and guided me to keep walking away, even though I wanted nothing more than to kill the man lying there choking on his own blood. Gio and a terrified Elsie flanked us, and she reached out and squeezed my hand.