But stepping back to the mirror, I did wash up a little bit. Carrying everything inside had made me sweat, so after, I felt more refreshed. Cammie hadn’t moved, just watched me. I went to the door, saying, “I’ll see you out there.”
She didn’t respond or nod, but I opened the door and stepped out.
Ben was waving me over, his eyes a little frantic. He pointed to his watch. “They’re coming up soon. Any minute.”
I could do this.
Picking up the tray, I went to wait at the door and smoothed a hand down my front, just to help ease my anxiety, but I was good.
This was a normal day at work.
I was still telling myself that as Cammie came out of the bathroom. She picked up her tray, standing beside me. And we heard people coming down the hallway. They were nearing, getting closer. Louder. Louder. Even louder. They were right outside the door.
It was opening.
I could do this.
They walked in.
It was the Kings’ coaching staff first. I recognized them.
A player, Colby. He picked up a champagne glass, said thank you, ran his gaze over Cammie, and moved inside. He hadn’t recognized me.
A few more players, some family members. Or I was guessing. A wife. Girlfriend. Colby didn’t have a date. That was interesting. I couldn’t remember if he was married or not, but then Cortez came in, the Kings’ halfback. Jake was behind him, his arm around a woman. Both picked up champagne glasses, said thank you, and moved on.
No one recognized me.
I slipped behind Cammie, going to the bar. Ben was ahead of me. He had a tray waiting for me, so I picked it up and returned in line.
Head up. Eyes forward. A nice and polite smile on my face. Professional. We were here representing the Quail, but we were also here for the tips.
The door closed, and I kept waiting.
My stomach was in knots.
I was expecting him to come in any second.
Still longer. We waited.
Cammie was done, so she murmured, “I’m going to start the walk-throughs.”
I nodded. I had three glasses on my tray. “Should I wait?”
She opened her mouth.
The door opened.
But it wasn’t who I’d been worried about.
It was worse.
My eyes met hers first, and the polite greeting I uttered, saying, “Welcome!” died in my throat. I knew this woman, had known her all my life. She’d seen me when I laughed, when I bled, when I cried, and she’d been the reason for some of those moments.
Barbara Reeves stepped through the door. She was still slender, but always had been. Her hair was cut short, still a dirty blonde, and she had it styled so it glistened and had good volume. She was dressed how rich people dressed. A white sweater that I knew without touching it, would be the softest material I’d ever touched. She was wearing tan khaki capris and sandals that were woven up her legs. For middle-aged, she was very chic and sophisticated, and I knew I never would be able to pull an outfit like that off, regardless of my age. She was very earthy and woodsy and natural, but I knew she probably spent a fortune to look like that.
Crystal earrings. A diamond bracelet on her wrist.
She was still just as beautiful as ever.
And she picked up a champagne glass, a frosted smile on her face, but she winced as she took in my hair. “Thank you, dear.” She moved right along, not recognizing me just like everyone else.
Ben had moved out from the bar just then. He handed Cammie a full tray of champagne and switched over my last glass, then gave me a tray of appetizers instead.
I held them up, seeing that they looked like a gourmet version of pigs-in-a-blanket.
Barbara had seen and she paused, coming back a few steps. Her eyes were trained on the appetizers, and I knew her. I knew she was hungry, knew she wanted them, but knew she was right now battling herself in her head because she so rarely ate.
So I smiled, my hold steady, and I said clearly, “I mean, it’s not lasagna, but it’s still a little treat.”
Her eyes lifted to mine, and she narrowed them, but any confusion she might’ve had left because in the next breath, Charles Reeves stepped in behind her. “Let’s go, honey. Ooh. Those look delicious.” He swooped in, grabbed a champagne, then grabbed two appetizers. “Damn good.”
He smiled at me, at Cammie, and at Ben who had paused at my statement.
I was forgotten, and Barbara moved forward, her smile turning plastic once more. It was the type of smile she reserved for us, for the ‘less thans.’ I was the help and I was beneath her, but I’d always been beneath her.
I sucked in a shuddering breath.
They were gone, but this woman, this man, they were still here. I wished I had said more, but the moment was gone. She would recognize me if I drew attention to myself.
My tray was starting to tremble.
I was going to lose it. I felt it coming at me like an out-of-control freight train.
The food was going to fall to the ground, and everyone would look, and everyone would say ‘how disgraceful.’ And I’d be fired, or at the very least, they’d look down on me even more.
“I got it.” Cammie’s voice was a soothing whisper right next to me, and she took the tray. As soon as her second hand had ahold of it, I stepped back and drew in a rasping breath. Her smile upped in wattage, and she took over.
I needed a minute, just a minute.
“Blue,” Ben hissed at me from the bar.
I held up a finger, knowing it wasn’t steady, and I started to move behind Cammie.
Stone’s dad had been talking to the head coach. As soon as both men cleared the door, Stone was there.
He was there.
I halted, freezing in place, and he rolled right in.
Not a look my way.
He saw Cammie, dipped his head in a greeting, and went right past her, too.
Her smile was frozen, and she looked to me once he was past us. Her eyes were almost bulging. And mine, I couldn’t look away from him.
He looked so fucking good.
I never took a minute. I couldn’t get myself to leave the room.
Through the game, a part of me wanted Stone to recognize me.
I wanted him to pull me aside, touch me, hold me, say the nice and comforting words I knew he would, but the other part of me knew that couldn’t happen.
My head was messed up. There was no clear thinking with me, and that was translating to my heart. I used to hate the guy, for God’s sake. What? A few kind acts, a few amazing nights, a few times he’d made my body bend and shudder and quake from exquisite agony, and that was enough to make me fall for him?
I didn’t think so.
A few weeks couldn’t and wouldn’t erase the damage from all the years before.
Or, at least, that’s what I was telling myself the one time I stepped forward to take Stone’s emptied glass. He didn’t look up, not once. None of them did.
To their credit, I kept my head down, and I knew over the last four weeks, I’d lost another ten pounds. It wasn’t intentional. It was just grief. A different form of grief over the loss of Stone, but grief, nonetheless. My housemates kept the house stocked with food, and every now and then, when the feeling hit me and if I had time, I’d go and whip up a feast for them. The guys especially brought over extra ingredients for me, and if they saw me heading to the basement empty-handed, they’d signal. A full plate would be put in my hands. I used to fight it, but once Nacho leaned in and said gruffly, “Let us care. Okay?” That shut me up and I couldn’t deny that I now had a soft spot for Nacho. I had a soft spot for all of them, even Mia and Lisa. They were my people. My tribe. But here, here I was out of my element surrounded by these people and their families.
There were no breaks to watch the game, but I did keep an eye on the scoreboard.
When Wyatt scored, I stepped into the hallway to send a congratulations text. I did the same thing for all the guys if they did a play or helped in a big play. It was my way of letting them know I supported them back. My people. My tribe.
The game was winding down. Texas C&B was up thirty-one to ten and the box was emptying out, as well. No one got too loud. Most everyone watched the game, cheered them on, and returned to conversation in between. A few of the coaches headed out first. The families went after them, especially the two who brought a couple younger children in with them.
Jake went out with his date. His arm was fully resting around her shoulders.
Cortez was next. He hadn’t walked in with anyone, but he spent most of the game either talking to Stone or spending time at a table of women. He walked out with one of them now, holding her hand. Charles and Barb were after them. Stone was right after them. His mom was turning around, and I overheard them making plans to have dinner later.
It didn’t hurt.
I was trying to tell myself that.