Taking One for the Team

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Chapter Two

The dorm hadn’t changed in the past three years. The same blank, beige walls greeted Mac, encasing a room that could only hold a bed, a dresser, and half of a closet. It wasn’t much, but it had been home for the past three years. The bathroom was down the hall, shared between the rest of the guys on his floor—mostly other footballers who weren’t rich enough to afford their own places by now.

Mac tossed his backpack onto the springy mattress just as Annabella clattered through the door with his football gear. Her face was red, cheeks puffing.

He smirked. “I thought you said you had it.”

“I do have it,” Annabella huffed, throwing his pads and helmet into the corner. “What I don’t have is enough patience to deal with your attitude today.”

Mac held up his hands in surrender. “My apologies. I’ll try to contain my attitude just for you.”

“That would be appreciated.” Annabella eyed the room. “We just need to go down and get that one suitcase, right?”

“Right.”

“You really need to decorate,” Annabella said, her nose wrinkling as she took in their surroundings. “This place is boring.”

“Why don’t you just decorate it for me?” Mac suggested.

She flashed a smile over her shoulder. “Oh, you wouldn’t want that. Trust me.”

He grimaced. She was probably right. Knowing her, she’d add in her usual flair and fun, glitter included. Annabella always told him that everything could be fixed with just the right amount of glitter. He had to disagree. Silently. If he ever said anything about it out loud, she’d glitter bomb him.

“I won’t even be here that much, anyway,” Mac said, sighing. He slumped onto the mattress, wincing as he remembered just how uncomfortable it really was. A summer away hadn’t made him forget. “I’ll either be on the field or…”

“In the library. Yeah, got it.” Annabella took a seat beside him, drawing her feet beneath her. She studied him, chin in hand. “I get that you need to keep your grades up to stay on the team, but what about fun?”

“Fun?” Mac asked. “What’s fun? Please explain this strange concept to me.”

She smacked him on the shoulder. Not that it hurt him. The guy was built like a rock. “I mean it. This is college. It’s the time where you let loose and party and make mistakes.”

“Tell that to my coach,” Mac told her. “And good luck when you do.”

“Mac.”

“Annabella.”

They glared at each other, neither wanting to budge. Finally, his best friend sighed. “I don’t understand why you can’t just let loose for a little bit. It’s our last year here. Our last year together before life will inevitably yank us down two separate currents.” She gazed out of the small window longingly.

“Has anyone ever told you you’re a bit dramatic?” Mac asked.

Annabella perked right up. “No. Why? Have you heard something?”

“Only that you’re a huge pain in the ass.”

“I try my best.”

He fell back onto the mattress, staring up at the off-white ceiling. Annabella followed suit, her shoulder pressing against him. It wasn’t romantic. They’d been friends for too long.

“Have you heard anything from your dad?” she asked quietly.

Mac tensed. “He tried to get ahold of me a few days ago.”

Annabella sat up, propping her head with one hand. “What did he want?”

“He offered to pay for my schooling this year.” He tried not to roll his eyes. “The guy didn’t even remember that I got a full-ride.”

“Maybe he meant, like, clothes and food and everything.”

“I doubt it. He specifically used the words ‘pay’ and ‘tuition fees’.”

She fell quiet for a moment. “Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing to accept his help? I mean, he is trying, after all.”

“Now. What about all those years before? I can’t just take his money now. It would feel too much like a bribe.” His voice rose a pitch. “Thanks, Dad! Let me just forget all those years you ignored our family while you were off doing God knows what!”

“Mac.” Annabella shot him a look. “It doesn’t have to be like that.”

“It would feel like that.”

“Well, whatever you say.” She avoided looking at him. He knew her relationship with her dad was rocky at best. He’d lived in Nigeria since she was little and she barely remembered him except when he Facetimed on holidays and her birthday. At least he did that. Mac’s dad had just up and disappeared for eleven years.

He’d had to take over the house when he was just a kid. His mom worked late hours as a nurse. It was just him and his little sister, Layla, at home most of the time. Not that he’d minded too much. Taking care of his little sister at least kept him off the streets of Astoria, Queens. It gave him something else to focus on besides just football and his future.

Mac stood, helping Annabella back up on her feet. “We need to get that suitcase.”

“We need to go out,” Annabella told him pointedly.

He sighed. This had been their yearly argument since the start of university. She’d insist he go out, he’d refuse for a while before ultimately giving in—because who could say no to their best friend of seven years? He’d hate every minute of it and sit in a corner watching her dance and have fun before he’d leave. It was the same cycle over and over again. Mac had no idea why she kept trying each year.

“Look,” Annabella said, catching his shoulders. “You come out with me and I’ll help you with the suitcase.”

“I don’t really need your help with the suitcase. I could just bring it up myself,” Mac pointed out, one brow raising.

“But what would be the fun in that?” Annabella countered easily. “Come on, Mac. Pretty please?” Her dark eyes widened, lower lip protruding. It was the ultimate puppy-dog look and she knew it.

He sighed. “Okay, fine. Just for tonight.”

“That’s what you always say,” Annabella hummed.

Shooting her a look, he grabbed his Columbia jacket from his backpack before following her out the door. He was driving, of course. Annabella had this weird fear of driving—especially in New York. His car was still parked at the curb and he couldn’t help but feel a thrill of pride as he saw it.

The 1967 Cadillac DeVille was a sleek cherry red, a paint job he’d done himself back in high school. His dad had found it way back when he was ten, just two years before he dipped for good. Mac had waited until he was old enough to start fixing it up himself. Taking shop class junior year had definitely helped, but most of it he had to teach himself. It was his pride and joy.

Annabella slipped into the passenger seat as he closed the driver’s side door. The engine revved to life, the wheel shaking beneath his palms. He loved that feeling. He loved it, even more, when he broke free of the city and zoomed down those highways with the engine purring beneath his feet.

“Are you going to go or just stare lovingly at the wheel?” Annabelle’s voice broke through his thoughts.

“Right.” He pulled away from the curb, careful not to let the older engine stall. Finding parts for this car had been rough enough once. He wasn’t looking to do it again.

They’d walk to the bar, of course. It was only a three-minute walk. But he wasn’t about to leave this beauty out on the curb where any idiot could ding the sides. Or worse still, break in and steal it. The trek to their usual haunt, the 1020 Bar, was nice enough. It was still warm in New York, with the last dregs of summer being drained away slowly. Mac could appreciate the weather now. In a few weeks, just in time for real football training to start, it’d be colder than Antarctica.

“How is Layla?” Annabella asked. “I haven’t been to the house recently, have I?”

“She’s…Layla,” Mac replied vaguely. Truthfully, he didn’t really know how she was, either. She’d been out most nights he’d been home, doing who knew what. He’d tried bringing it up with his mom, but she’d shrug him off. If they were back in Egypt, it definitely would have been different. But this was America.

“Ooh, does she have a boyfriend yet?”

“God, I hope not,” Mac muttered.

Annabella smirked. She was trying to get a rise out of him, and he knew it.

“She will one day, though.”

“Over my dead body.”

“Careful, she might grant that wish,” Annabella teased.

“Do you want me to come drink with you or not?” Mac shot her a look.

His friend sobered immediately. “Yes, please. I’m sorry. I just can’t help it.”

Outside, it didn’t look like a bar. The classic New York stone greeted them, green awnings hanging just above the small windows. But once you stepped inside, it was as gritty as it got in New York. The space was cramped, with the bar taking up a good quarter of the space off to the left. A pool table and dartboard hung just at the back. Chairs lined the ledge passing for a table to the right, with a few smaller tables placed just by the door.

Annabella immediately went to the bar, ordering their usual. One beer for Mac, some fruity cider for herself. Mac would never admit it, but he actually liked some of the drinks Annabella always got. They tasted better than half the hipster brews some of the bars around here liked to dole out. But everyone from Columbia came here, so it wasn’t as if he could be seen drinking any of that.

Mac nabbed a seat at the ledge, placing his jacket over the back of the high-rise chair beside him. Usually, it was busier than this, but it was moving day. The others wouldn’t come trickling in until later to set off the new school year with a bang.

Music was playing over the loud speakers. Something Mac didn’t recognize. The owners had strung up some lights, hanging from the ceiling at the center, draping down around them like an old camping tent. It was dark in here, just how Mac liked it. The fewer people saw him, the less they’d want to socialize.

It wasn’t as if he didn’t like socializing. He was usually just too focused on football or school to really hang out, and he wasn’t in a fraternity, which made it that much harder to meet friends. Sure, he had some friends through Annabella—mostly girls—and he knew the guys on his team. But…he was busy.

“Mac!” a guy’s voice called out to him from the back where a few of his teammates were playing a game of pool. Three more were huddled around the dartboard.

Inwardly, he groaned. He really didn’t want to play politics right now. Still, he gave them a wave just as Annabella returned. His hero.

She glanced over at the guys warily. “You’re not going to join them?”

“Nope.”

“They’re your teammates.”

“Great observation.”

“Don’t you want to make first-string this year?” Annabella asked.

Mac gave her a hard stare. “What does that have to do with being friendly to my teammates?”

“Well, why would a coach make you first-string quarterback if you don’t even get along with your team?” She stared right back.

“I get along with them fine.”

“Okay, fine. If you want to be a social pariah, go right ahead.” Annabella sniffed, taking a sip of something called Angry Orchard. Mac wasn’t sure how good it could be if it was angry, but whatever.

“I guess some people like the whole anti-social thing,” Annabella muttered.

Mac glanced over to where she was glaring, noticing a group of three girls hovering at the bar. They were glancing over at him slyly. He recognized them easily enough. They’d been at all of his games for the past two years.

Mac shrugged. “Cheerleaders.”

“More like fan girls,” Annabella bit back. “We can never just go out without…”

“Hi, Mac.” One of the girls had gotten brave enough to approach them. She cut between them, her back to Annabella. Mac could just see his friend’s face turn a warning shade of red just before the girl shrieked.

“Oh my gosh,” Annabella said in the sweetest voice. “I am so sorry. I accidentally knocked my cider over when you rudely stepped in front of me.”

The girl was trying to desperately save her white shorts from the spreading stain. Now Mac knew why it was called angry. That red looked like a nightmare. With one last evil look, the girl stormed away to the bathroom, her friends trailing after her like ducklings.

Annabella wiggled her fingers after the girls. “Toodle-loo.” She turned back to Mac. “That was so worth wasting like ten dollars just to see her face.”

“I don’t know why you say I’m anti-social when you’re the one scaring away all my adoring fans,” Mac replied dryly.

“Oh please. That girl wasn’t good enough to breathe the same air as you.” Annabella sniffed. “We’ll find you a better one. The last time I let you pick a girl out for yourself, she turned out cray-cray.”

“She wasn’t crazy.” Mac shifted in his seat uncomfortably. “She just…”

“Was a looney? Obsessed with you being a footballer instead of you? Shallower than a kiddie pool?” Annabella offered helpfully.

He couldn’t help but laugh. “Why are you so mean?”

“I’m not mean. I’m observant and honest. There’s a difference.” Her eyes scanned the bar. It was filling up now. Outside, the sun had sunk beyond the skyscrapers of New York, leaving their small corner in shadows. “Take that girl, for example. Her boyfriend’s breaking up with her. Probably met some other chick.”

Mac saw who she was talking about immediately. They were near the front door, by one of the smaller tables. He recognized them both. Ethan Anderson was Columbia’s starting quarterback. Everyone knew who he was. The girl in front of him looked close to tears, her face heating up considerably. Juniper Cambell, another cheerleader. They’d been dating for a while now, not that Mac had been paying attention. He just remembered Ethan talking about her in the locker rooms.

If he was anything like what he pretended to be in there then it was probably a good thing he was breaking up with the poor girl. Mac hated the guy. He was everything Mac despised; rich, never had to work a day in his life. That guy had all the connections, including ones to get him first-string when he really wasn’t that great of a quarterback, to begin with. But Mac was used to coming in second when it came to guys like that.

“He’s gonna walk out first.” Annabella was still narrating, happily sipping her drink beside him.

The girl looked beyond flustered now. Mac could see her eyes glistening from the lamps outside on the sidewalk. Red splotches had appeared on her cheeks, making them look rosy. He’d never really talked to Juniper before, despite her always being around Ethan. She was at every game, leading the cheers on the sidelines, taking the lead during half-time. Not that he noticed.

From what little he knew, the girl was nice. She was friends with just about everyone, never had any problems. And she was beautiful. Her long, glossy dark hair always looked like it had been oiled just minutes before. Her dark eyes were sultry, lined with thick lashes. Why Ethan would ever treat her badly, Mac had no clue.

“Hello, Earth to Mac.” Annabella snapped her fingers beneath his nose, drawing his attention back to her. “Where’d you go, dude?”

“Nowhere.”

She glanced back over her shoulder at the couple. Well, now ex-couple it seemed. Ethan had stormed out of the bar, leaving Juniper to fend for herself.

“Ooh.” Annabella cast him a sly glance. “You going over there?”

Mac frowned. “Of course not. She looks like she’s about to cry. I’m sure she wouldn’t want a stranger trying to comfort her.”

“I’m sure she wouldn’t mind this once,” Annabella replied, looking him up and down.

“Don’t make me accidentally spill my drink on you,” he warned.

“I’m just saying. It’s not like she’d turn you down. She just got jumped. Who wouldn’t want a hot Ivy League quarterback hitting on them?”

“Second-string quarterback,” Mac corrected automatically.

Annabella waved him away. “Whatever.”

“You just dumped your drink on one cheerleader who tried to get my attention,” Mac pointed out. “And now you want me to go hit on another one? Make up your damn mind already.”

“That first girl was completely rude to me. This one doesn’t seem like she’d be a bitch.”

“And you can tell just by looking.” Mac rolled his eyes.

“I’m very intuitive with people.” Annabella shrugged. She’d been like this ever since he could remember.

They’d met in middle school. Annabella had just moved to the neighborhood. She hadn’t made any friends. If it hadn’t been for Mac, she would have eaten lunch on her own for the next however many years. But it wasn’t until Annabella dumped her milk on one of Mac’s cheating girlfriends in eighth grade that they became inseparable. She’d been looking out for him ever since.

Mac drained the last of his beer before standing. “I’m going to head back to the dorm to finish unpacking. Can you make it back alright?”

Annabella’s attention had been snared by a girl in the back corner. She waved him off. “Yeah. I’m a big girl. I’ll be fine.”

He grabbed her arm, forcing her to look at him. “Don’t stay out too late. Classes start tomorrow.”

“Thanks, Dad,” she replied dryly. “I’ll be home for curfew.”

Shrugging back into his jacket, he wove between other students to reach the door. It had become packed in the last few minutes. The real party was about to start, but he had other things to do. Like getting a head start on some of his Business classes. Just because it was the last year didn’t mean he could slack off. It wasn’t like high school.

Stepping out into the night, Mac took a breath of fresh air. Or, as fresh as you could get in New York City. He scanned the street, eyes catching on Juniper as she hurried away from the bar. She was heading back towards the university. Probably to her sorority house. Her head was bent low, her arms hugging her sides. He couldn’t tell exactly, but it looked like her shoulders were shaking slightly.

For a split second, he debated calling out her name but decided against it. She didn’t know him that well, and she definitely looked like she wanted to be alone. Zipping up his jacket, he started down the sidewalk. Tomorrow classes started. A few days later, football would too. And this year he had plans on getting that starting title along with a nice offer from a pro league team. It was time to get to work.

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