My mouth dried.
I didn’t know how to promise, because I didn’t know what was in my head anymore. But I whispered, “Promise.”
He waited, making sure, then let me go. “Good. Now, did you eat in there?”
Finally. Something I had done right. “I had a yogurt. And coffee.” Score for me.
He scowled, “Fucking hell.” He took my arm, walking me out the doors and back to where he’d parked. “Come on. Let’s get food in you before going to that house.”
It was the day after a game, so I hadn’t expected to see a lot of people at the stadium, but there were enough workers milling about, all saying hello to Stone, that it was slow in hitting me. And I got that Stone was a new star in the football world, but seeing all these peoples’ reactions, feeling the curious gazes as they paused wondering who was with him, a couple women shot me dirty looks—Stone was Famous Stone. He was only a year older than me, but acted ten years older. And it was because of this world, because of his career, that he’d grown up faster than most.
He’d barely come back once he left for college. I knew there had been some time off, but the rumor mill said he spent it at other athletes’ houses and in pre-training programs. This was a different world than even the college football team.
Here, there was a relaxed but professional vibe in the air. Also, a no-nonsense feel, too. Like, there was no room for tries and missteps. You either did whatever you did, or you were replaced by someone who would.
I was a little in awe, but also I knew in the back of my mind that if this had been a normal day for me, no recent trauma or loss happening, that I’d be way more intimidated by Stone—and the Stone in this world—than I was now. I was taking note of everything, almost like I was protected in an invisible car and the frame was made of firm, unbreakable glass.
Sounded weird, but it was what it was. I felt a layer of something that I couldn’t place all around me, so I wasn’t really experiencing every moment to the fullest. I didn’t know if that was good or bad. And I wasn’t going to question it.
He swung through a drive-thru and pulled away with enough food to feed a six-person family. Chicken sandwiches, minus the buns. Fries that he said were for me. Salads galore. A couple burgers, but mostly chicken. Also, grilled chicken.
The attendant fainted when she saw who was at the wheel, and a bunch of other employees came over. Stone handled it all with a polite smile, signing napkins for them, and a hat that had the fast food’s logo printed on it.
I asked when we pulled away, “Is it always like that?”
“No. Nah. Just it’s the day after a win and I don’t usually stop during the day. I’m usually coming or going at odd hours. Team’s local, too. I might get recognized only a third of the time if I were somewhere else, you know?”
I didn’t, no.
He wasn’t waiting for a response, and twenty minutes after that, he was pulling into my neighborhood. I almost sighed a little because finally I could recognize something.
“Forgot how stressful new things are.”
I was half-musing to myself. He spoke up, “What?”
“Coming here. I didn’t know anyone before I got here, and just now, I recognized the street. It made me feel comfort or something. Is that weird?”
“Makes sense to me. A lot of work goes into learning new things, places, people, and that’s not even counting your schooling. My mom said you came down here to study marine biology?”
I felt my face getting warm. It was so far from where we’d come from.
He was side-eyeing me, slowing down to park in front of my house. A few other cars were already there, and those were more things I was recognizing. Like Noel’s car. Wyatt’s car. The girls’ cars were all in the driveway and mine—I had a clear line of sight to my own parking spot from where we were parked. It was completely empty.
“Shit.” I forgot about the car. “I have to get a new car.”
His eyes flicked over, shutting the engine off. “I might know someone who’s looking to get rid of a car. Nice car. He’ll give you a deal.”
“What? You’re not going to buy me one?”
He stilled, his eyebrows pulling low. He had reached inside one of the bags and his hand paused before slowly pulling out one of the chicken sandwiches. “I could… Your debt, your schooling, the funeral costs, that was on Dad to make things right for what he did to your family. Hospital bills, paying for the towing, I took care of that. Those bills aren’t anything anyone in your position should take on, not when someone like me is there and knows you, and it just seems the right thing to do. But actually, buying you a car, I can. Thought that’d be personal, though? You’d like to pick out what you want. I know you have hang-ups about accepting financial help from someone who’s not a bank or a scholarship grant.”
His words touched me. “Thank you, and no. I was kidding. I want to do it myself.”
Just would take me a bit to save up.
I frowned. “How long do I have to take it easy with this concussion?”
“Two weeks. And if you push to be let out of the house, you and I are going to go a few rounds. You’re still struggling with remembering things.” He nodded to my lap. “Case in point, I’ve told you three times to start eating those, and you had no clue I was even talking.”
I looked down. There I was, clutching the small wrapper of fries, and I did faintly remember him telling me to eat them. I also faintly remember saying I would, and meaning to do just that because I liked fries, and then…Yeah. Distraction.
A Jeep zoomed past us, braking suddenly and wheeling into the house’s driveway. All four doors opened and out streamed Nacho, Dent, Nicole, and Lisa. Bags of food were in their arms and they were starting to head to the house when Lisa looked up, saw our truck, then saw me. Her eyes narrowed, and she paused in mid-step, but a second’s hesitation and she kept going.
Stone leaned forward. “The fuck?”
But Dent, who noticed Lisa’s hesitation, looked over. And his eyes lit on Stone immediately, then went round. His eyebrows shot up and his arms opened in a flash. His bag of food was shoved into Nacho’s chest, who took it as an automatic reflex.
Dent was already walking toward us, his head back. “Dude! Dude!” He saw me. “Dudette!”
A big smile came over Nicole’s face, which seeing that relaxed me a little. If anyone could be mad at me, it’d be her since the big ol’ ditch day. I never got the chance to apologize before the whole coma thing. Nacho, Dent, Nicole all came over, but Stone and I didn’t move.
Lisa remained by the house, even after the front door opened and Wyatt and Noel came out. Savannah and Mia weren’t far behind, but as I watched, both girls remained beside Lisa. Savannah’s face was blank, but Mia still held a grimace.
The guys were rounding to Stone’s side, but he waited, and when I looked back, he was watching me. “You and me. We got a few new things to talk about.”
“Hey, man!” That was Dent, waving at Stone.
I just sighed, reaching to open my door.
All the guys went around to Stone’s side. Nicole was the only one at my side. She stepped back as I got out of the truck. “Hey.”
Another knot of tension loosened. She looked and sounded friendly.
She hesitated, her smile still big. “Can I hug you? How are you feeling?”
A hug? That was a good sign.
I nodded. “You can hug me.”
She opened her arms and I stepped in, hugging her back.
Savannah broke from Mia and Lisa, crossing the lawn. She gave me a small grin and wave. “You’re feeling better?”
I nodded, stepping back, and then Mia was moving in. Her hug wasn’t as tight as Nicole’s, but still. She seemed friendly-ish, too. More a lukewarm friendly, but I was taking it.
“Yeah.” I spoke after we both stepped back, just continuously nodding. I’m surprised I wasn’t getting concussion symptoms, at least being dizzy, so I stopped and tucked my hands behind my back. “No hospital stay after that last time.”
The guys were still on the other side of Stone’s truck, he was surrounded by them all.
Savannah glanced over, and stepped closer. “You’re still at his place?”
I glanced, too, noting that Stone was waiting for me to look at him. He was talking to Wyatt, but his eyes were on me. He raised an eyebrow in question, and I nodded. I was okay. I didn’t need him to step in. That’s what he was asking. And how I knew that, I didn’t know. I just did.
“Yeah. For the next two weeks until my head is better.”
“That accident was so scary.” Nicole touched my arm. “You have no idea. I’ve had nightmares. You were backing up and boom, the truck hit you and then you were gone in the ambulance. They were done for the day so they were speeding out of the alley.”
“Yeah. I’ll never look at a moving truck the same.”
I almost grinned.