“Hey, sweetheart. Why don’t you bring me a little something over here?”
I sucked back what I really wanted to say to the big oaf wearing only his shoulder pads and football pants as I crossed the locker room filled with college football players in all stages of dress. I plastered on my ‘I could give a damn’ face and maneuvered around the players, careful not to get too close to what they didn’t bother covering up with me in the room. I extended a water bottle to the idiot.
A smug smile slipped across his face. “I didn’t say I wanted water.”
The room exploded with cackles and hoots of laughter.
I stifled my annoyance as I pulled back my shoulders and turned away from him like it didn’t faze me.
“Hey. Where you going, sweetheart?” he drawled.
I caught the sky-blue eyes of the quarterback seated on the stool in front of his locker lacing up his cleats. He looked surprised I’d held my tongue. Hell, I was surprised I’d held it when all I really wanted to do was tell the offensive lineman I’d come to hate—the one who’d been razzing me since I’d begun with the team a week before—where to stick his jockstrap.
My eyes flashed away, seeking out my spot in the corner of the room where I waited for someone who actually needed a drink to signal me over.
Coach Burns burst into the crowded locker room rattling off the game plan for the start of their first closed scrimmage of the season. Fall semester began in a couple weeks. Football players and team staff started early, hence my presence on campus during the last few weeks of summer.
I looked out at the football players, all primed with black paint under their eyes for a battle against a local college. They sat focused on the coach’s words like football was life. Like it meant anything in the grand scheme of things.
I inhaled a deep breath. I could do it. I could be there. A hundred miles from home. Starting college at a school I never planned to attend. One I never even considered attending. It was never my dream. It had always been his.
Cole ran across our backyard. He was taller and leaner than most of the ten-year-old boys in town, owing his athletic build to football. He played every day whether he had practice or not. And on days when he had no one to play with, in other words when I wasn’t around or didn’t feel like it, he threw into a tire swing our dad hung from an old oak tree in the backyard.
I pulled back my arm and tossed Cole the ball. Though a little wobbly, he reached over his head, nabbed the off-center pass, and tucked it against his side. He took off running toward our mother’s flower bed at the edge of our property, celebrating when he reached it like he just caught the game winning pass in an actual game.
I brushed my long dark hair out of my face and dug my hands into my hips, waiting for his excessive celebration to stop. Even at ten, my twin’s confidence drove me nuts. He was such a showoff. Rightfully so, but it still irked me. So did my friends who came over to play with me but ended up staring at Cole the entire time.
He finally stopped his ridiculous dance and turned to me, his face suddenly serious. “You throw like a girl.”
My eyes flared. “I am a girl.”
“Yeah.” His lips pulled up in one corner. “Sometimes I forget.”
I stuck out my tongue. “Idiot.”
We both laughed as he tossed me a perfect spiral which I caught easily. Growing up with a football phenom taught me some impressive skills.
“Maybe by the time we go to college, there’ll be more female football players,” he said as I tossed him back the ball.
I scrunched up my face, completely thrown by his admission. “You think I’m good enough to play?”
He shrugged. “You’re better than most of the guys on my team.”
I smiled on the inside, never letting my brother know how much his words meant to me. He thought I was good. Cole Thatcher, football player extraordinaire, thought I was good.
* * *
I stood on the sideline under the unbearable August sun. There was no reprieve from an Alabama summer. Pool water turned to bathwater, and lakes were overcrowded. So, unless you were brave enough to jump into a cold shower, you dealt with the heat. And out there in the open stadium, the sun beat down like a mother.
A couple players ran over to the sideline, pulling off their shiny red helmets revealing damp hair and sweaty red faces. The once menacing black paint trailed like tear drops down their cheeks. They grabbed the water bottles I extended to them. “Thanks,” the shorter one uttered, while the taller downed the contents of his without taking a breath.
They tossed me back the empty bottles. I grabbed two more from the bench and searched for anyone else looking for sustenance. When no one caught my eye, I hurried to my back-up supply in the big jug behind the bench and filled the empty bottles.
Ugh. That freaking voice.
“Get your ass over here.”
I turned, eyeing the asshole approaching me with nothing but disgust. And while I had a million comebacks for his inappropriate comments, I held my tongue—at least for the time being. I needed to be there. A prick like him wasn’t going to drive me away.
“Didn’t you see me motioning for you out there?” he growled.
Yup. I shook my head. “Sorry.”
“Well, give me a damn drink,” he ordered, colder than usual.
I bit down on my bottom lip as I handed him the bottle, wishing I’d spit in it first.
He ripped it from my hand. “Coach might’ve gotten one with tits this time,” he said to no one in particular. “But she’s sure dumb as dirt.”
I sucked back a sharp breath.
“Grady!” a deep voice shouted. “That’s enough.”
I froze, startled that someone actually had the balls to stand up to the three-hundred pound brute.
Grady’s eyes lifted over my shoulder. A cold calculated grin—nearly concealed by his pathetic attempt at a beard—tugged at his lips. “This don’t concern you, Brooks.”
“Leave her alone,” the quarterback warned.
Grady laughed wickedly before his eyes shot back to mine. “Don’t get your hopes up, sweetheart. Brooks ain’t nobody’s Prince Charming. He’d fuck you then ditch you in a matter of seconds.” Grady downed the water and tossed the bottle to the ground as he lumbered away.
I didn’t turn around. I knew who Caden Brooks was. I’d known before I even arrived on campus. Junior star quarterback. His conquests epic, making his way from his home state of California to Alabama in grand-freaking-style. And his looks…well, he certainly was pretty. If football didn’t work out, his dirty blond hair, blue eyes, and body people bowed down to would be gracing underwear billboards in Times Square in no time. But the last thing I needed to see was Brooks waiting for a thank you. Waiting for me to fawn all over him like every other girl.
Not a chance in hell that was happening.
“You okay?” Brooks asked from somewhere behind me.
My head whipped around, my dark ponytail slapping me in the face. My eyes locked on his sweaty face, his eyes prominent in the bright afternoon sun. “I could’ve handled it,” I scowled.
His head recoiled, the lack of appreciation catching him off guard. “Yeah, looked like you were handling it.” Of course he recovered. Guys accustomed to people kissing their asses always recovered, never letting anyone see them falter. As if on cue, his features sobered. I watched it happen. I watched him realize I wasn’t worth his time.
I wasn’t. Nor would I ever want to be. I hated Caden Brooks. I hated him with everything I had left in the world.
“No worries,” he said. “I won’t make that mistake again.” He turned and walked toward the other end of the sideline.
I didn’t need him.I didn’t need anyone.