“Stop,” she whispered. “Please just stop, Gabe. Before you say something that we can’t come back from.”
“Don’t you understand?” His voice was edged with panic. “We’re already done . . . When we were just friends, your rough and tumble ways didn’t bother me half as much. The way things stand between us now? I just can’t watch you get hurt anymore.”
“Then stop hurting me.” Her quietly wailed plea seemed to register and the panicked glaze left his eyes to be replaced by a different kind of alarm. She shoved against his chest with both hands with enough strength to send him staggering back a step. The rest of the group was trying to maintain a discreet distance but she could see that they were all hovering close by, probably not sure if they should intervene or not. “Just stop hurting me! Because that’s all you’ve been doing. You don’t think I’m good enough for you. Did you think I was ever unaware of that fact? But, I swallowed my pride and allowed you to hatch this insane arrangement—God I hate that word so much—between us. Any romantic notions I had about you died that night in my father’s den. Because I was imagining a real relationship with you, while you were trying to fix it so that we could shag regularly without anybody ever finding out.
“I felt small and cheap and stupid but I allowed it because I knew that it was the only way I could have you. I knew it was my one chance to be with you.” Her eyes were burning with the tears she refused to shed. Gabe looked completely shell-shocked and his own eyes were suspiciously bright. “And that’s on me. I should have refused but I was in love with you. I had been for years and I knew that it was the best damned offer I would ever get from you. I told myself if that was all I could get of you then I’d take it, but you know what? I deserve more than that. More than you and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to figure that out.
“I deserve a real relationship with a man who loves me for who I am. Grease, calluses, unstyled hair and all. I’ll never be good enough for you and I refuse to twist myself up in knots over that anymore—because you know what? You’re not good enough for me either. If our so-called friendship has to be sacrificed as a result of all this, then so be it because right now I don’t know why the hell I ever considered you such a good friend in the first place.”
She ignored the look of slack-jawed distress on his handsome face and turned on her heel to stalk off the field. She brushed past the men who still stood around in stunned silence, then toward the women—her friends—none of whom she dared look at for fear of bursting into tears. Billy and Chase both looked like they wanted to say something, but she held them off with a shake of her head. They retreated tactfully and she was grateful for that.
She was so distraught that she was halfway home before she noticed the tall man silently shadowing her.
“I’m not great company at the moment, Kyle,” she whispered, trying very hard to keep herself together.
“I’m aware of that,” the man said calmly. “I just figured that if you wanted to talk it would be best to do so with someone who won’t feel obligated to see ‘both sides of the story’ so to speak. Someone who’s one hundred percent in your corner and has no loyalty whatsoever to the other guy.”
“And you’re that guy, are you?” she asked softly. If she didn’t feel so completely gutted, she would have been charmed by him.
“I’m that guy,” he affirmed. “You don’t have to talk though. I’m just walking you home.” They were at the gate and out of sight of the football pitch when she turned to the tall stoic man with a wobbly smile.
“You’re quite welcome.” The three words were delivered so gently that Bobbi couldn’t hold back anymore. This man didn’t know her; he didn’t know that she never cried . . . so it was perfectly okay to cry all over him. When her tears came, he made a deep, comforting sound in the back of his throat, folded her in his arms, and simply let her weep.
Gabe watched her walk away . . . and felt a staggering sense of loss that nearly sent him to his knees. There had been a chilling finality to her words that terrified him.
She was in love with him? How could she be in love with him? They were friends. They had always been friends. Even after this physical thing between them had popped up out of nowhere, Gabe had never doubted that one truth. So how the hell could she have been in love with him? For years? How could his friend have hidden something like that from him for so long? Did he even know her at all?
If he had had access to that one important piece of information, he would never have suggested a no-strings sexual arrangement between them. He would have known that it would hurt her too much. He would have backed the hell off . . .
He would have run scared.
And that was why she had kept it from him. She knew him better than he knew her. She knew that he wouldn’t have handled the whole love thing well at all. Why would she tell him when it would probably have destroyed their friendship? He sighed heavily—the deep inhalation of breath intensifying the ache in his chest—and acknowledged that the friendship was pretty much destroyed now anyway. Neither of them had handled the situation particularly well and Gabe knew that he bore the brunt of responsibility for it. He had just lost it when he’d seen her take that body blow from Max and then the blood. He felt vaguely nauseated just recalling it. He had absolutely hated the sight of her blood. It had brought out a primal protective instinct that had made him want to pummel Max into the ground. He didn’t understand it, but it had made him irrationally angry with both Max and with Bobbi for constantly putting herself in harm’s way. How the hell was he supposed to take care of her when she was always doing things that could get her hurt?