Playing With Fire

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Mothers of Angels

I knock on Andy’s door before the feeling returns to my face and it swings open. My best friend frowns. His cell phone is his ear and he looks irritated. “Baby, let me call you back. Uh huh. Te amo.” He cuts the call and glares at me. “What do you want?”

“You’re not so charming on your own. Unfortunately they don’t make a pill for that.”
“Fuck off, asshole. You know I can’t wait until you fall in love one day and then I can give you shit for a whole year about it. But until then, you won’t understand.”

I wish his shit was all I was going to get for it. “I just don’t know if you will understand.”
Anderson waves his hand in the air. “Quit talking in circles and get to the point, Sutton. My woman’s still in the bathtub.”

Surprisingly, I don’t hesitate. I guess some part of me knew the night I met her she was special and every moment I’ve spent with her since has been some of the best I’ve ever had. I realize I want her infectious laughs and smiles and truths more than anything. I want to come home to more than an empty condo between games. I want to spend my off seasons teaching my kids to throw a football. I’m thirty two and have nothing to show for my life except a younger brother that barely listens to me and success on a football field. I realize I want more and I know who I want it with. “I love Holli.”

Anderson doesn’t say anything, he just blinks, then groans. “Fuck, Lucas. I’m a year clean from incident and I haven’t been fined since that thing with the hockey player. Are you really doing this to me right now? My wife was counting on me to be a model client and now I’m about to put more work on her plate while I’m trying to knock her up. Motherfucker, the doctor said no stress. This is the opposite of no stress!”

I refrain from rolling my eyes. Drama queen. “Invite me in then. No witnesses.”
He glares at me. “I don’t know what I hate more, the fact that I want to kill you but wouldn’t even enjoy it if I did, or the fact that I’m not going to.”
“Hurry up so I can go to bed.”
Anderson’s fists twitch and he grits his teeth like a crack fiend going through withdrawal. I’d laugh if this motherfucker didn’t box in the off season. “We need to talk, but not right now. Now, get the fuck out of my face before I have to explain to my wife how I got arrested again.”
Knowing Lolita, she’d probably leave him there to teach him a lesson. “You should know she told me everything. And I don’t care. I meant what I said.”

Anderson pinches the bridge of his nose. “She’s the one. The girl that kicked you out of her hotel room, isn’t she?”

“She’s not a child, Andy. She’s a grown woman. Holli is capable of making her own decisions. She’s moving on and you should let her,” I tell him. “Otherwise, she won’t have made any happy memories other than those from before she was married. How does she really move on if she doesn’t take back a modicum of control over her own life?”

“So you’re just the goddamn expert now, huh? Were you there? Did you hear how fucking dead she used to sound over the phone? Or how thin she was when I went to go see her? That man was a fucking monster. He got off on kicking her while she was down, sometimes literally. She lost a child and almost died, Lucas. Do you really think that shit just gets handled over night?”

All of the oxygen leaves my body at my best friend’s words and Anderson’s face pales when he notes my expression. “I thought… I thought you said she told you everything.”
“You had no right!”
I turn around and Holli stands in the hall behind me.
“What the fuck are you doing he—Shit, get in here,” he barks.
Holli storms past me and into the suite toward her brother. I lock his door behind me.
“Don’t turn this around on me! Did it ever occur to you that I might have wanted to tell him myself? What the hell is wrong with you? Ella was my baby. Her story was mine to tell.”
Anderson raises his hands in the air. “Hol, I fucked up and I’m sorry, but what the hell? We talked about this.”
“No you talked and I listened. I met Lucas before I even knew he was your teammate. I didn’t plan for this to happen. And I know you’re not egotistical enough to believe I’d date him just to inconvenience you.”
“How long has this been going on?” He demands.
“Watch how you talk to her,” I warn. They both turn to look at me.
“How long?” He parrots through gritted teeth.
“A few weeks. I teach his brother Dale at Arbury Prep and we… reconnected when I was out for my run,” she explains, crossing her arms over her chest.

Andy looks back at me and suddenly, the weariness that I hadn’t noticed before, ages him by a decade. My guilt surfaces at not noticing it sooner. Holli isn’t the only one struggling with her past. Anderson is grieving the same kind of helplessness I felt the moment she’d told me what I’m sure is just a fraction of the fucked up things her ex did to her.

And most of all, he’s trying not to come after me because he agrees with everything I said. He may not want me for his sister, but I make Holli happy and that’s not ignorable, not even by him.
“I wasn’t aware you were ready to begin dating again,” he accuses.
“Neither was I. It just happened.”
“Yeah, but love?”
Holli stills. “Love? It’s only been a few weeks.”
Andy narrows his eyes at me. “You said you guys were in love.”
“I said I was in love, I hadn’t confirmed that with Holli yet,” I admit.
She whips around to face me with wide eyes. “You’re…”
I nod, reaching for her hand. I bring the inside of her palm to my lips and she entwines her fingers in mine. “I love you, Holli. Please don’t ever mistake my helplessness or my anger for pity. I’ll always be sorry you had to lose so much to come out stronger, but no matter how many demons you have to fight, I want to be the one that helps you win the battle.
“I promise you, I will show you how you should be loved, even if your brother never speaks to me again. I will never hurt you and if you decide your place is with me, you’re free to come and go, as long as you come back. I love you, but only you, own you, and I will never take that away from you.”
Tears spill over her cheeks and she wipes them on her jacket sleeve. “Now I feel silly for telling you off about being slow.”
I smile, brushing her hair back. I decide I miss her curls. “Slow but intentional.”
Anderson clears his throat beside us and Holli flushes. His glare seems to have warmed considerably, but not enough to be mistaken for acceptance. “You so much as misstep in my presence, you’re dead to me, Sutton.”
To be fair, that’s probably better than I could have hoped for. My face is still in tact. “We’ll let you return to your phone call.”
“Just what I wanted to spend my evening talking about,” he grumbles. “You two… Get out. Christ, I need a Valium.”
Holli stifles a giggle with her hand as her brother tugs his door open and scans the hallway before dismissing us with his sneer.
On my way past him, he stops me. “I mean it. My lawyer’s a shark and my brothers-in-law know how to make bodies disappear, you got me?”
I hide my smile. “Is that what they told you when you dropped your wife off on the side of the highway?”
Andy wordlessly slams the door behind me and I pull Holli back into my hotel room before we draw attention to us with the noise.
“Lucas, I—”
“You don’t have anything to apologize for, Holli. If I’d have known you had more to tell me I never would’ve led Anderson on for information. I’m not manipulative like that.”
She sighs, clutching her fists in my shirt, but she doesn’t meet my gaze. “I know that, and I’m not even mad at Andy. I’m mad at myself. I’d only just told him a few days prior. He’s only had that long to sit with the knowledge and I’ve had years. Now he has to grieve a niece he never knew about and his personal problems don’t help the situation.”

I nod, understanding. I know about their struggles to conceive children and I know it’s why Anderson tries so hard to control his aggression. Despite his hand holding methods with Holli, Anderson really is a great guy and my best friend for a reason.
But I also meant what I said. Holli comes first now.

“I’m telling you the truth. I do love you and in time, your brother will get over that. But Holli I still need to ask you a question and I need you to answer as honestly as possible before we continue this.”

Before I respond, I pull my t-shirt over my head, then unbelt Holli’s jacket. Slipping it over her, I let it fall to the floor, then I tug my shirt over her body.
She rests a hand on my forearm as she steps out of her tall shoes. I pull her into my embrace and inhale her strawberries and cream scent, then lead her to the sofa in my suite and pull her to my side.
“Holli, were you ever forced or strongly coerced, sexually?”
She averts her gaze and my fucking heart constricts in my chest. “He rarely touched me the last two years of our marriage which was fine by me because I was dreaming about my escape, I just didn’t know how it was going to happen. Winston kept my phone while I was with him which was just about any time he was off shift. He’d isolated me from any friends I’d made in college, my best friend at the time Janelle, and even my parents. Andy saved me because he was so damn persistent…
“The night I lost the baby, I’d only found out I was pregnant that day. That was the night I’d decided I was going to leave him. Can you believe that?” She laughs without humor. “I wasn’t even strong enough to leave on my own. It wasn’t until I’d really thought about raising up my daughter around that man that I’d made a plan of action. But then he came home. He’d been drinking and he had the look in his eye he always got before...” she trails off, her face twisting in shame. “I’d denied him and he made me pay for it.”
“All that matters is you got out. Even if it took longer than you wanted, you survived and you left. Sometimes that’s the most important part. You were in a hostile environment, baby. And you’re a mother. It’s natural you’d do anything to protect your baby.”
Her pained expression guts me. “Was. I was a mother.”
“Mothers of angels are still mothers.” My father used to say that to the moms of fallen soldiers when he was a Casualty Notification Officer for the Army. In fact, he worked with the man who’d told us that my father wasn’t coming home. He’d only been deployed a little over a month.

Losing a parent is one thing, but to lose a child?
“Thank you for saying that. I can’t talk about Ella because no one understands. They don’t think she was real because I hadn’t carried her to term, but it was real to me, every second I knew about her. Two hours. For two special, glorious hours, I’d had dreams of ballet classes and piano lessons. I’d decided I was going to buy dolls and Nerf guns because I wanted her to be well rounded. I wanted to do one good thing with my life and be the mom my mother was to me.

“She was so real, it’s like I could picture what her voice would sound like at four, sixteen, thirty… I’d had visions of wedding dresses and grandchildren. I could see all of it and when I lost her, I lost a part of me I’ll never get back. That was the first time I’d truly realized that Winston could take something from me that actually mattered.”

“You risked your life for her. You knew the risks, that it was dangerous, but you didn’t let it stop you from trying to pursue better for her. You would’ve died to save Ella if you could have. You were a devoted mother for her entire life.”
Holli wraps her arms around my torso and presses her face into my chest. I don’t know how long I hold her in my arms like that or what time we fall asleep, but when I get on the plane to go back home to Georgia, silent tears fall for everything I’ll never be able to forget. Before this weekend, I never could understand rage so hot and reckless it makes your skin too tight for your body and robs you of all sense.
In my opinion, my friends should have warned me this is what love is like—taking on their pain and feeling it like it’s your own.
I idly wonder if I could go back in time, would I do things differently and send Holli home in a cab or make the same choices and despite the heavy ache in my chest, I decide I wouldn’t change anything.

Loving Holli DeLower is heartbreaking, but I’d choose that over the alternative.

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