Avery was heading off to work at the nursing home and Rachel was coming to the frat house with me. They were having another party—a bonfire—that night and she hoped to hook up with one of the ballplayers once they returned from their practice. Jimmy had said he’d bring back some guys from the team, and she had her eye on the third baseman, Sam Riggins.
I considered not going to the frat house and saving my talk with Joel for the morning, when he was sober. But it was tough to dissuade the melancholy rising up in my throat at the thought of saying my final good-byes. And deep down I knew that I needed to see Quinn again.
“So, what’s going on, bitch?” Avery asked as we turned the corner to our street.
“What do you mean?” Damn, she was observant. Almost to a fault.
“What I mean is, your stupid-ass boyfriend is drunk again and he was checking out all the other half-naked chicks at the car wash,” she said, and I cringed. “And you’re busy checking out tall and gorgeous Quinn.”
“Quinn?” Rachel asked, and I almost murdered Avery for saying it out loud. I wasn’t ready to discuss it yet. “Damn, that boy is hot. Made out with him at the fall fest last year. He’s got a pair of lips on him that would . . .”
“Okay, TMI, asshat,” I said, shutting her down.
Rachel raised her brows at me. I’d never cared when she spoke of her conquests before. She always told hilarious and sexy stories, but hearing that she’d kissed Quinn brought out the green-eyed monster in me. Where in the hell had that come from?
“See what I mean?” Avery said. “Did something happen between the two of you?”
“No!” I said a little too quickly. But I couldn’t shake Avery’s penetrating stare. “Well, kinda. Sorta.”
“What?” Rachel said. “Ms. Loyal-to-a-Fault has something going on the side with Quinn? The hot guy who never hooks up with anyone? Now I’m jealous. Spill it, bitch.”
“Nothing happened,” I said, almost tripping over a branch in my path. “I can just tell there’s something between us. Ever since he helped me that one night in the bathroom a couple of weeks ago.”
Both of my friends remained silent, waiting on more juicy details. I sighed. “Every time we see each other there’s so much damn tension between us. At first I thought maybe it was just one-sided. But not anymore.”
“Then do something about it,” Rachel said, hooking her arm through mine as we strode toward our building. “Break it off with what’s-his-face first, since I know you’re not the cheating type.”
“How are you feeling about Joel?” Avery asked sliding the key into our lock. “I know I’ve been vocal about him lately. I just care about you, girl.”
“I know,” I said, slipping inside and yanking off my shoes. “I’m starting to feel . . . indifferent. Kinda numb.”
Avery tugged her hair from her ponytail and shook out her blond locks. “If Quinn weren’t in the picture, taking up room in your thoughts, how would you feel?”
“I don’t know,” I said. She’d brought up a good point. “You know things haven’t been right for a long time.”
“Then why are you hanging in there when there’s plenty of hot-guy ass all around you?” Rachel asked, wagging her eyebrows at me.
I threw her a look. She knew that was nothing like me.
“Okay, okay,” she said, folding herself into the couch. “Just Quinn ass.”
“Why are you hanging in there?” Avery asked, grabbing us bottled waters from the refrigerator.
“I don’t have a good answer. Been asking myself that question for awhile now.” I took a long swig of water. It helped wash down the anxiety bubbling in my throat. “He knows my family. And he coached Christopher.”
“That’s not a reason to stay with someone, ass,” Avery said. “Even Christopher would be shaking his head at you.”
I knew she was right. Somehow I had veered way off course in the last couple of months. I may not have been as bold or outspoken as my two friends were. But in my own way, I knew how to stand up for myself and go after what I wanted.
Avery sat down and placed her arm around my shoulder. “Joel may have been his coach, but that doesn’t mean he makes a good boyfriend for you. Or for anyone. You know that.”
I nodded, tears stinging my eyes. Letting go was way harder than it looked. Even when everything felt wrong. That was the reason I looked for constants in my life. And I should’ve known better by now.
“You can’t just do this for Quinn, though,” she said, smoothing my hair with her fingers. “You do this for you.”
“Obviously, dill weed.” I playfully yanked a piece of her hair. “Besides, he may be attracted to me, but that doesn’t mean he’d actually go through with it. Or that he’s dating material, either.”
“Oh, to get that boy in my bed for just one night,” Rachel said dreamily.
“It would be pretty epic.” Avery winked at me. “You should try it sometime.”
Thankfully, Coach said this would be a short practice followed by a team meeting.
This breather away from Ella gave me a good chance to get my head screwed on straight.
She had a boyfriend, for fuck’s sake.
I had already messed around with someone in a similar situation and it had ruined my life.
Lots of people’s lives.
It had ended a life.
Still, I was so drawn to her and I didn’t understand why. Except the fact that Ella was smoking hot. She turned me on in ways I hadn’t felt with other girls. And so far as I could tell, Ella was cool and kind and real. Being around her not only revved me up but filled a quieter place inside me that I didn’t quite comprehend yet.
Damn, I wanted to pound her boyfriend’s face into the ground. The way Joel strung her along reminded me so much of what Sebastian had done to Amber. And it pissed me off. It brought out the caveman in me. The need to protect her, save her, show her what she was worth. Ella seemed like a smart girl, so I didn’t understand why she was putting up with his shit. And it just made me want to take care of her even more.
I needed to stay the hell away from her.
Besides, what could I possibly offer her? I needed saving myself.
At Coach’s whistle, the practice ended. The outfielders ran in while the first, second, and third basemen pulled up the bases to stack in the corner of the dugout for the equipment manager to put away. It was hot as hell out here and I was glad to wrench the suffocating catcher’s mask off my face.
I helped retrieve a couple of bats off the ground and placed them in their rack. Then I sat my ass down on the bench between McGreevy and Smithy, wiped off my face with a towel, and waited for Coach.
“You threw some nice pitches out there,” I said before taking a long swig of my Gatorade.
“Thanks,” McGreevy mumbled. He was always so damn moody.
A hint of a smile appeared on Smithy’s lips. He never showed jealousy toward our star pitcher and he could hold his own on the mound, along with the five other pitchers in the rotation. Besides, McGreevy only pitched once every few games unless it was playoff season, so most of his fandom was only in his head.
McGreevy was also pissy because he thought Coach relied on me for team stuff even though Phillips, our short stop, was the captain. He was like that damn princess book with the mattress and the peas. Everything bothered him, no matter how small, and Coach refused to kiss his ass. It became tiresome.
Normally, smart pitchers like McGreevy called their own pitches during games. But he was so temperamental that coach started asking me to study up on players the week before a match. Coach and I had gotten into a good rhythm of calling signals together and as a result we were up a few games on our biggest competitor in the league.
I couldn’t help rubbing it in when McGreevy was especially irritable. “And I’ll have some nice fucking bruises on my thighs to show for it.”
McGreevy pulled his hat lower on his head and leaned back, jutting out his legs. “Fuck you, Quinn.”
I took off my hat and pushed my hand through the mess on the top of my head. I’d never admit just how many knots I’d gotten in my shins and thighs from stray pitches. Some of them hurt like hell for days. “Hey, just taking one for the team.”
“Maybe you should learn to catch better,” he mumbled as he lounged his head against the wall.
I toed the dirt with my cleat. “Maybe you should aim better.”
The other guys on the bench howled with laughter. They enjoyed our banter, and I’d admit, it helped me blow off some steam. Smithy was way easier to deal with and certainly not as uptight as McGreevy. He called his own pitches and didn’t complain when I called some, too.
I had nothing to lose as far as baseball was concerned. Most of these guys were hoping to make it into the minor leagues and then to the big time from there. I enjoyed the game but not enough to want it as a career. I just didn’t let any of these guys know it. I pretended to be just like them—like I could jack off to seeing my own stats and shit like that.
The laughter died down the second Coach entered the dugout and a few of the players straightened on the bench. All eyes were trained on him. You didn’t mess around too much when he was here. He’d bench your ass quicker than McGreevy’s hardest fast pitch.
“We’ll be on the road the week after spring break,” Coach said, meeting each player’s eyes. “I’ll be checking the log to be sure you showed up to train before school is back in session. And I better not hear about anyone partying hard. That’s an automatic suspension.”
He paced up and down the dugout, hands on his hips. “But be ready to come back here and play some good ball. We’ve got LSU up next and then Michigan State after that.”
He spit some chew into his red cup. That habit was some nasty shit. “They’ll both be tough to beat, and we need to kick some ass, you hear me?”
The energy on the bench immediately changed as the guys began pounding their cleats in a rhythm that reverberated up and down the bench. We all put our hands in the center, yelled a Titans cheer, and were on our way.
“Joel said he’d replace our rum when we got back to the house,” Jimmy said, plopping down on the bench in the locker room. “He’s been making himself rum and Cokes all afternoon.”
Just hearing his name fired me up. I slammed my locker door shut harder than I’d intended. “Fuckin’ Joel!”
Jimmy placed his hand on my shoulder. “Whoa, where is that coming from?”
“Sorry, a little on edge, I guess,” I said. “He doesn’t do shit around the house anymore. He’s only interested in partying.”
“Yeah, dude’s been partying harder than me, and that’s saying something. Drinking for days on end,” Jimmy said, removing his cleats. “I don’t know how that girlfriend of his puts up with it.”
“Yeah, me neither.” My heart clenched at the thought of Ella being around Joel when he’d been drinking. Joel was more of a happy drunk, so he probably just passed out most of the time.
“Pulled that shit with the last one, too.” Jimmy tugged a clean shirt over his head. “Last year, before you moved into the house.”
I’d commuted to classes last year, but it had gotten difficult between the ball schedule, classes, and frat house events. I missed living at home, only because it allowed me the option to rebuild that engine in our garage. The reality was, I hadn’t picked up a wrench since the crash. I’d tried a couple of times, but I just couldn’t do it. I questioned whether I had it in me anymore. But something about what Ella had said to me earlier today about making time had sparked a longing inside me.
Right then and there, I promised myself I’d get back out there during spring break week. Or at least I’d give it a good shot. I’d go home, put up with my parents’ bullshit, and get busy on the one thing I used to love most. As long as I pretended it was a hobby, I didn’t catch any flack from them. Besides, I needed to finally finish the candy-apple-red paint job on the classic that I’d been restoring for years.
I wasn’t sure I was ready to hear what Jimmy had to say about Joel, but I asked anyway. “Pulled what shit?”
“When he wants to get rid of some chick but he doesn’t know how, he acts like an idiot,” Jimmy said. “The other day, he hooked up with this hot piece of ass from the bar and I told him not to bring her back to the house because he . . .”
“Wait a minute, so he’s full-out cheating on Ella?” My fists were clenched so tight, my nails were digging into my skin. “That’s some messed-up shit.”
“Whoa, man. What are you so uptight about?” I had Jimmy’s full attention now as he looked me up and down, from my fists to my tight jaw. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’ve got a thing for his girl or something.”
“Nope, I just have a great dislike for cheaters,” I said, trying to deflect his thoughts away from Ella and me. All I needed was a rumor to start that I was messing around with her on the side or something. She’d be crucified. But I wouldn’t mind the pleasure of kicking Joel’s ass.
“Been burned that bad by somebody, huh?” he asked, but I didn’t respond. Let him think what he wanted. They all wondered about me anyway.
“I hear you, though,” he said, spinning the combination on his lock. “Ella seems like a cool girl.”
“Yeah.” I shook my head. “What a douche.”