“Who said you could take my dog for a walk?”
“He begged me to take him out. He obviously thinks I’m the alpha. You know dogs have a hierarchy.” I shrug. “I’m just sayin’.”
“Toss the ball back, will ya?”
I look at the football, lying there waiting to be put back on the field. I never thought I’d pick one up again. It’s not like I’m committing to play again. It’s just a football.
I slowly pick up the ball and toss it underhand to her, the familiar feeling of the smooth leather rolling off my fingers a reminder of the past. Most girls I know would be afraid they’d break a nail when a football comes flying at them, but Ashtyn reaches out and catches it without hesitation.
“You’re not the alpha. I am.” She tucks the ball under her arm and starts walking back to the field. “I’m just sayin’.”
I told Derek I was the alpha, but right now I don’t feel like one. I was totally off my game today. Seeing him sitting in the bleachers watching me practice only made it worse because I was self-conscious and too self-aware.
It’s been two days and those words are still swirling in my head. This morning Dieter called me into his office to tell me he’d heard the rumor about the pictures. He told me to forget about any rivalry and just concentrate on winning.
Landon didn’t show up to practice. He hasn’t answered my calls or texts, either. Last year he never missed a practice or game. I called him before I left the house this morning, but his phone was off. I assume he received the e-mail showcasing the dreaded pictures of my yard. Why didn’t he stop by my house like the other guys, or at least call or text me to see how I was dealing with it?
Brandon Butter, a sophomore and our backup QB, had a hard time filling Landon’s shoes. When he got rushed, his passes were all over the place. I didn’t want him to be discouraged, though, so I gave him a pat on the back after practice and told him he showed a great effort. I don’t think he believed me, but it did make him smile and hopefully boosted his confidence. Even a little bit will help.
Even though early summer practices are optional, I know Dieter is disappointed his star QB hasn’t been on the field. Truth is, we don’t have a competitive backup QB and we’re screwed if Landon gets hurt. He’s such a solid player, nobody’s been too worried about that. Until now.
After I wash up in the girls’ locker room, I call Landon again. Still no answer. I text him for the fourth time today, but he doesn’t text back. My heart sinks a little and I get a ping of anxiety. Is he not answering on purpose? Did he call back his old girlfriend Lily instead of me? Ugh, I’m never insecure about our relationship. I refuse to start being insecure now.
In the parking lot, Derek is leaning against my car with his feet crossed at the ankles.
Falkor barks a greeting and drools the second he sees me. “Can I have my dog back?” I ask, annoyed my dog seems to think he has a new owner. I grab the leash from Derek and kneel down to pet Falkor behind his left ear, his favorite spot. “If you want a ride home, my dog’s riding shotgun.” I open the door and let Falkor in the front seat.
“I don’t think so.” Derek leans into the car. “Falkor, get in the back.”
My usually stubborn dog obediently jumps into the backseat as if Derek is a dog whisperer.
I turn on the radio as I drive home.
“You might be used to bossin’ people around, but it ain’t workin’ for me,” Derek says.
“I can’t hear you,” I lie, then cup a hand over my ear.
He turns the radio off. “Why the attitude? Don’t act as if I asked to be here, ’cause I didn’t.” I wonder if he can turn that accent on and off at will. “Hell, if I didn’t get expelled and Brandi wasn’t knocked up, I’d have found a way to stay in Cali.”
Wait a minute. Did I hear him right?
“My sister’s p-pregnant?” I ask. “Pregnant, as in having a baby pregnant?”
“That’s what bein’ knocked up usually means.”
I look at him sideways, then keep driving. When I pull into my driveway, I turn to him. “Be honest for once. You’re joking about my sister having a baby, right?”
He sighs and rolls his eyes as he opens his door. Falkor jumps out after him.
I stare at the dashboard. My sister, pregnant again? She hasn’t said anything, but I never heard from her once in the last seven years. Since she’s been home, I’ve tried avoiding her like I’ve avoided Derek.
Brandi is just like Mom. It took me a long time to come to the realization that my mom was never coming back. Brandi’s back, but it’s no use getting close to her when I know she’s leaving again.
It really irks me that Derek knows more about my sister than I do. And that my nephew prefers Derek over me. And that Falkor follows Derek around like he’s the alpha.
I glance toward the garage and am shocked to see Landon sitting in his convertible with his sunglasses on. When did he drive up, and how long has he been there?
“Where were you today?” I walk toward him as he steps out of his car. I don’t even know what to say after our fight on Friday night. I don’t mention our relationship problems or Lily. “You ditched practice.”
“My parents made me go to some family brunch thing,” he says. “I couldn’t get out of it.”
“Oh.” In the past, Landon’s dad would never make him go to a family brunch instead of practice. Landon doesn’t seem to want to elaborate. “Did you see the pictures of my house online? And the ones of Bonk?”
He nods slowly. “Yeah, I saw ’em.”
“Did you post the ones of Bonk? Nobody else fessed up.”
He nods. “Yeah, but keep it on the down low.”
“How’d you get them to pose like that? I mean, I can’t imagine Bonk posing willingly.”
“I got my ways. So how was practice?”
“Butter is doing drills,” I inform him. “But the guys are getting frustrated that his throws aren’t accurate and his handoffs are sloppy. You know the team needs you.”
There’s a long, uncomfortable silence. I feel a pang of sadness as he reaches out and fingers the bracelet with a heart and football charm he got me for my birthday last year.
“Sorry about Friday night,” he says. “My old man was on my case about being a leader of the team my senior year and wearing the coveted C like he did when he played.”
I get it. Carter McKnight was a legend in Chicago when he played. He’s got super high expectations. Landon always wants to meet or exceed them. Up until I was voted captain, he had.
Coach Dieter made me realize I don’t want to give up being captain. I want to lead and motivate my team. I like knowing my place on the team means more than just being on that roster.
“I never wanted to take anything away from you, Landon.”
He avoids looking at my eyes. “Sure. Right. I know that, Ash.”
There’s an awkward silence again. I don’t know what to say to fix this . . . fix us. I can’t change what happened or turn back time any more than he can.
He touches my charm bracelet again. “Did I mess everything up between us?”
“No.” I don’t want another person in my life to leave me. At least if I have Landon, I’m not alone. “But . . . you made me feel awful Friday night. The whole Lily thing kind of freaked me out, and you haven’t called or texted in days. I don’t know what to think anymore.”
“Just forget about all that.”
He bends his head down to kiss me. For the moment, everything seems to be fixed. I want to believe him, but it’s hard. Since my mom left, I haven’t fully trusted anyone. Even Landon.
We talk about practice. I ask if he’s started packing for our Texas trip at the end of the month. We’ve both been accepted to Elite, a football training camp that’s practically impossible to get into. Only top high school players in the country are admitted. The plan is to drive there and stay in posh hotels for free by redeeming the frequent traveler points Landon’s dad has racked up and said we could use.
“So what’s the deal with that Derek dude?” Landon asks. He looks over my shoulder. Derek is mowing the lawn while listening to music with his earbuds. I have no clue why he wants to fix our place up. It’s not like my dad cares if the backyard looks nice. Dad mows the front of the house every couple of weeks, so everyone who passes can think that we’re doing just fine. The backyard represents us better.
“I have no idea. All I know is that we’ve agreed to stay out of each other’s way and I’m pretending he doesn’t exist.” It’s not exactly true. I’m trying to pretend he doesn’t exist, but he’s not letting me do a good job of it.
Landon gestures to my house. “Your old man home?”
“I don’t know. Probably not, since his car is gone.” He prefers to go to work, where he can drown himself in projects at the accounting firm he works at.
Landon pulls me close and whispers into my ear, “How about you and me go up to your room right now? I could use a back rub.”
Now? I look back at Derek. “Maybe this isn’t a good time.”
“Come on, Ash.” He takes my hand and leads me into the house. “You always say we don’t get enough private time. Let’s make use of it while we’ve got it.”
In my room, Landon takes his shirt off and sprawls out on my bed. I sit beside him and start massaging his back, kneading his taut muscles.
“That feels so damn good.” He moans as I rub his shoulders. “You totally relax me, Ash.”
“Why don’t you relax me by rubbing my foot, which is sore from kicking the ball so many times today?”
“Feet gross me out,” he says. “The only feet I touch are my own.” He turns to face me and slowly slips his hands under my shirt. He unhooks my bra, then rubs his thumbs over my nipples. “I can massage other parts of you, though.”
I still his hand, because fooling around with him right now is not going to relax me. “Landon, I need to talk about my crazy life.”
His hands are still on my breasts when he puts his lips on my neck. He kisses my pulse, then licks it over and over. It reminds me of Falkor when he slobbers on my face. “So talk. I’m listening.”
When he starts sucking on my neck about to give me a hickey, I push him off me. “You’re not listening. You’re trying to distract me.”
“You’re right. Can I listen to you later? Now all I want to do is mess around.” Within seconds, his pants are unzipped. He glances at his groin, a not-so-subtle cue for me to go down on him.
I look down at the twitching material of his boxers. “I’m just not into it right now.”
“You serious? C’mon, Ash,” he moans in a frustrated voice. “You know you want it. I want it. Let’s do this.”