Then my hands felt all clammy. “Know what else was humiliating?”
Avery went back to wiggling her pink toes. “What?”
“I only had on a T-shirt and underwear and I pretty much flashed him my ass a few times,” I said, setting my bowl on the counter. “And not on purpose.”
“Oh, I bet he got an eyeful. I wish I had your ass, girl.” Then her mouth drew into a thin line. “Did he try anything with you?”
“No way. That’s the sweet part. He told me to pull my shirt down and even pulled it down once for me,” I said, plopping down on a kitchen barstool. “Said he didn’t want to leave me in the bathroom alone with all the horny guys in the house.”
“Really?” Avery said, dipping her head back to look at me. “Quinn just scored a few points on the good-guy meter.”
“He also said some stuff about Joel.” Shoot. Why had I let that slip out? Joel was already on Avery’s shit list for acting like a douche the last few weeks.
She twisted to give me her full attention. “What did he say?”
My voice came out sounding strangled. Even I didn’t want to admit it out loud. “He . . . kind of said that Joel wasn’t that great of a boyfriend because he was passed out in the next room.”
She aimed her nail file at me. “He’s got a point, you know.”
“I know how you feel about Joel,” I griped. “We’ve definitely got stuff to work out. It wasn’t always like this.”
“I’ll admit I liked him at the beginning. He seemed really into you. But lately . . .” She gave me a stern look. “The question is: How do you feel about him?”
I rinsed my bowl in the sink, feeling full and satiated. “I don’t know anymore.”
“Girl, you might be loyal to a fault. You need to take care of you.”
“I know,” I said, pulling down the dishwasher drawer.
“Out of all of us, you have your head screwed on straight,” she said. “The way you worked through what happened with your brother . . .”
She stared at the wall, contemplating her next words. I leaned again the counter, wondering where she was going with this. Avery knew me better than anyone, outside of my family.
“I know I rag on you for your psycho bullshit, but I realize you take it seriously. And it’s helped you work through stuff.”
“Which reminds me . . .” I pushed off the counter and then plopped down on the cushy chair across from Avery. “There was a guy who called the hotline last night.”
I laid my head against the arm of the chair, thinking about Daniel. “He reminded me of Christopher.”
“Sometimes I wonder if the hotline is such a good idea,” Avery said. “For Christ’s sake, you had a brother who committed suicide in high school, Ella. Don’t be such a fucking martyr.”
My hand absently ran over the dragonfly tattoo that Avery’s boyfriend, Bennett, designed for me last fall, in memory of Christopher.
“You’re wrong, Avery,” I said, raising my head. On this fact I was emphatic. “Working there has been so rewarding. I want . . . I need to help people.”
“Okay. Okay,” she said, lifting her hands. We’d had this discussion too many times to count. “I should know better than to argue mental health with you. I’m way out of my league.”
A key scraped in the door, and I knew it was Bennett. The guy was pretty dreamy, I’d give him that. And if I was being honest with myself, Joel had nothing on him. Sure, Joel was cute and a decent kisser, but he wasn’t straight-out sexy like Bennett was.
Where in the hell had that thought come from?
His height, his muscled forearms from baseball, his fit stomach and calves. I had always noticed him peripherally, but being in that bathroom with him had given me a more solid perspective of him. Not physically speaking, because I couldn’t see him. But I certainly could feel him. His presence. He had a quiet kind of intensity that made me feel safe and warm.
In all the wrong places.
Joel was thin, without an ounce of fat on him. And it wasn’t that I was fat, but I had hips and breasts and wished my stomach were as flat as Avery’s. If I worked out like she did, I might get rid of it, but I’d never been one to love physical exertion.
I’d also never been one to care about body type, but there was just something so appealing about Quinn. The way he moved, carried himself, with this gentle confidence. It was different from Joel, who was almost cocky.
“Hi, Ella.” Bennett plopped down on the couch next to Avery and pulled her into a steamy kiss. Damn, they were annoying to be around. Hadn’t they just seen each other a few minutes ago?
Avery pulled away, breathless. And then gave me a devilish grin. “What do you know about Quinn from the frat house, baby?”
I shot her a dirty look.
“The dude who plays baseball for TSU?” Bennett shrugged. “Why don’t you ask your friend Rachel? Aren’t athletes her specialty?”
My stomach twisted at his words. Crap. I hadn’t thought of that. She did like her jocks, and she wasn’t choosy.
Avery gave Bennett a pointed look that he seemed to understand. I wish Joel and I had a secret language we connected on. We didn’t connect on much of anything lately. Maybe we never really had. I’d clung to Joel like he was my next breath, especially after I found out he’d known my brother. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that so blindly.
Bennett mouthed Sorry and then turned to me. “You know who would know? Nate. Ask him.”
Nate was Bennett’s friend. And he spent lots of time at frat house parties. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to go around asking people about Quinn, like I had some lovesick crush or something. I had a relationship to worry about. To work out, if I could.
“No thanks. I am not on some mission to find out more about Quinn, for God’s sake.” I headed to my bedroom to jump in the shower.
I realized Joel probably didn’t know a whole lot about Quinn, either, despite living with him. Which made him all the more mysterious.
The bleachers were beginning to fill. I slid on my catcher’s mask and headed to the batter’s box to take more practice pitches from McGreevy. He was a damn good pitcher, had a killer curveball. But it was supposed to be Sebastian up there.
Bastian and I would practice for hours at Miller Park in our neighborhood after high school ball games. His fastball had probably been the best in the state, had even earned him a scholarship. I’d had to work a bit harder to earn my position on the team. I never had the kind of heart and natural talent for the game that he did.
Truth be told, there was a time that I would’ve rather been under the hood of a car than on a dusty field. It’s not like baseball wasn’t in my blood. It definitely was. The sound of the bat cracking, the murmur of the crowd as the ball hung midair over the outfield. You had to like baseball to play it so damn much.
I just didn’t have a constant hard-on for it like my other teammates. I didn’t want to make it my career. But I was good at it, and I could stand being on a team from season to season.
Working solo on an engine or a custom paint job had been my passion. My dream. My lifeline. Until the summer after high school.
“McGreevy, let Smithy take a few rounds of practice,” Coach yelled from the dugout. Then he trained his eyes on me. “You good, Quinn?”
I stood to give my knees a break and nodded. Coach had complimented me privately on my dedication to the game. Said he admired my drive. If only he knew I was carrying the load of two players. Me, and one who should have been a star pitcher on his team.
I looked up at the stands just as my parents were headed to their seats. They came to a home game every few weeks. Not to actually see their only child pay, but to keep up appearances. My father wanted it to look like he actually cared about his family while he tried to renew his seat in the House of Representatives. He was gunning for senator next and had some scary pipe dream to make it all the way to the presidency.
Mom loved being a politician’s wife, so sometimes my only escape from that cold and empty home had been to go to Sebastian’s house. His family was in politics, too. My father had helped Bastian’s father win his seat in a landslide. The difference was: They were warm, open, real.
As Smithy took the mound, I gave the bleachers one last glance. Sebastian’s mom waved at me and I tipped my head in her direction. The grief was still apparent in her eyes and the lines of her face almost three years later. She was hanging in there, trying to make it day-to-day, and that killed me.
When I saw Amber was with them today, my throat closed up. I struggled to swallow.
I hoped she wouldn’t try to corner me again. I had no desire to talk to her, to have a powwow about what had happened that night. She insisted she needed to talk and I kept saying no. I knew she was only trying to alleviate her own guilt.
She was a pretty girl with her red hair and tight body. I may have had feelings for her a couple of years ago, but there was no way that I did now.
But she was still trying to keep up appearances with Bastian’s parents. Showing up here, pretending like she and Sebastian hadn’t been about to break up, that that one night hadn’t changed everything.
Every single fucking thing.
Could I blame her, though? I was pretending, too.
Still, I wanted nothing to do with her.
I noticed my frat brothers on the other side of the stands as well. They attended the home games to show school spirit with our sister sorority. But this time I zeroed in on Ella, sitting next to Brian’s girlfriend, Tracey. That was nothing new. She’d spent a few Saturdays at this ball field with Joel and his friends.
Her long hair was pulled up in a ponytail, showcasing her cheekbones, and she wore a red Titans T-shirt. I pictured her dressed in that top with nothing else on, except maybe those same pink panties. Shit, since when did I start fantasizing about Joel’s sweet and innocent girlfriend?
I had always thought Ella was nice to look at, but something had changed the night in that bathroom. I needed to stop thinking about how she’d felt in my arms or the throaty noises she’d made when I’d placed the wet rag on her neck. I was being stupid. I knew she was off-limits. And if there was any bigger reminder of how unavailable she was, I had Amber here as a recap. She should have been a crude prompt to keep my thoughts and hands to myself.
Maybe Ella couldn’t ignore how the air had become charged between us that night, either. She’d sneaked glances at me out of the corner of her eye, not wanting to appear too obvious. And she’d followed my gaze to Sebastian’s parents, sitting with Amber. Maybe she was trying to figure it all out, and maybe she wondered if Amber was my girlfriend. She would be so wrong.
Ella was not Amber. And Joel and I were definitely not best friends.
But why the hell did I care when she was still dating that asshole? Besides, eventually she would realize she was worth more than that. And I certainly was not more. That thought was like an ice bucket being thrown at me.
Soon enough the first inning began, along with the music from the speakers. The lead batter was winding up in front of me, and I got lost in my job, gesturing to McGreevy which pitch to throw, based on Coach’s signals and the batter’s weaknesses.
But by the third batter, and no outs, I realized that McGreevy was being inflexible as shit tonight, calling off most of my suggestions. But I could be stubborn, too. I signaled for a time-out and jogged to the mound.
I placed my glove over my face so the other team couldn’t read my lips. “What the fuck, McGreevy?”
“You want to know what the fuck’s up? . . . You’re calling shitty signals tonight.”
“Yeah, then why are there runners on first and second?”
He toed the dirt on the mound in an angry pattern. “Because of your terrible calls?”
“My calls?” Man, he could be full of himself sometimes. “You’re doing whatever the hell you want up there. Get your head out of your ass.”
After a few seconds of our glaring at each other, Coach joined us at the mound.
“You two better work it out or I’m changing pitchers,” he said. “McGreevy, trust Quinn’s calls. He’s good at his job.”
That got McGreevy fired up. He hated how much confidence Coach had in me. To be honest, so did I. I was a nobody, lower than the earth under my feet. And someday he’d realize it. But for now I could pretend. I could forget how unworthy I really was.
After the game, which we won by two runs, my parents put on a show by waiting for me next to Bastian’s mom and dad. I waved to a couple of my frat buddies and then walked over to the fence.
“Nice game, Son.”
My mom leaned in and hugged me. She’d always touched me more when others were around. I’d desperately craved it from her as a kid. Thankfully, I’d been raised by nurturing nannies who gave a shit. And my mom’s sister, Aunt Gabby. She was the best.
She’d pick me up and take me places with her own kids. My cousins’ house was chaotic and loud and I loved every minute of it. It helped me blend in—even become invisible if I wanted—instead of standing out and acting appropriately as the politician’s son. Especially when I was dragged to political events night after friggin’ night.
Amber tried catching my eye but I refused to look at her. She attended a local community college and worked in her parents’ bakery. I didn’t know what I’d do if she attended the same university. It was hard enough avoiding her now.
The truth of the matter was: I was still angry with her about what went down. And frankly, I was afraid of what she wanted to say. That she’d blame me, like she did that night. I’d only ever read one of her e-mail rants before canceling my account. That had been enough for me.