My legs were tingling. There was a pull in my gut. My foot was aching, needing more and more. Harder. Faster.
I played with Zeke, easy keep-away game until the ache was too much for me to ignore. The grass wasn’t long enough. There was space on the side of Aspen’s house and kicking the ball farther, I pushed off. I left Zeke in my trail, handling the ball between myself. I moved it up and around, jumping, spinning. I stopped it, the back of my heels imprisoning it and I flipped it up and over to the front of me. I loved doing that. I caught it in the crook of my calf and knee, then tossing it to the grass and moving it forward once more.
I got lost, playing, pushing myself.
I forgot time.
This was how it was with soccer. I needed a worthy adversary. I needed to let out my pent-up tension. I needed to be forced away from it. I needed to go back in, stealing it, knowing that victory. Relishing that victory.
I was salivating all over again.
Yeah. I was ready for soccer to come back. Only another month and I’d have to start training, then another month after that and I’d be on the field again. I couldn’t wait.
I stopped, sweat pouring down me, and a burst of applause came from the sidelines.
Aspen and Zeke were both there.
Zeke was wearing that knowing smug look. Aspen’s eyes were big, dazed, and her lips had parted. I recognized the look. I was feeling it too, and there was a whole other urge I had to fight off because I really wanted to grab her, tell Zeke to piss off, and drag my girl upstairs.
“Long time coming, man.”
I grunted, reaching out and Zeke hit his fist to mine.
Yeah. Long time coming.
“I didn’t know you played soccer.”
I shrugged. “I’m kinda on break, so I haven’t talked much about it.”
She frowned a little. I saw the questions, but then she nodded to me.
We headed back, my hand slipping into Aspen’s.
As if there’d been a conversation about it, both Zeke and Aspen didn’t bring up soccer again. Instead, we showed Zeke the movie room and he was stoked. (His word.) There was more I hadn’t known about.
Aspen showed us the tricked-out basement. There was an even larger theater room down there, which her parents used for their work. She’d mentioned that before, but it was cool to see it.
There was also a gaming room, which had a pool table, air hockey, table football, and a basketball-shooting game. Benny and Miss Sandy kept bringing down snacks and drinks, so we hung out in there most of the day. Zeke and I had reverted to being little boys, and we were in game heaven. Aspen played too, laughing at us, and I couldn’t help myself. Any excuse to touch her, and I took it.
When Zeke went to the bathroom, I had her pinned in the far corner in a heartbeat. She moaned, and we were both panting when Zeke returned and cleared his throat. “Dude.”
I flashed him a grin, raking my hand through my hair.
He rolled his eyes and challenged Aspen to an air hockey game.
Before they began, he made a point of telling me to go for a walk and think grandmotherly thoughts.
I shot him a cocky smirk, but did as he said. When I came back, they were both laughing.
“I’ve never seen my dude so happy,” I heard Zeke tell her. “You’re the reason for that.”
“Yeah?” Aspen replied.
I had to smile. She sounded nervous and hopeful all at once.
Someone just scored.
“Don’t hurt him, okay?” Zeke added after a moment.
“That goes for you too,” Aspen responded, her tone chilled.
Zeke grunted. “Man, I really like you. Have I mentioned that?”
I heard the soft thud of the puck on the table.
“You sure you went to FCA?”
They began playing. Slap. Thud.
“Since the fall,” Aspen said.
“Huh. Are you like a silent assassin or something? How’d I never see you?”
I could hear her smile. “Because I’m a silent assassin.” Slap, ping. “I win.”
I took that as a sign and walked back into the room.
Zeke shook his head, standing back from the table. “Your girl kicks ass at air hockey.”
Aspen’s grin turned shy. “I used to play with my brother a lot. We had these at Hillcrest.”
Her brother. Owen.
I made a note that it was time to push her about him. She was ready.
Crossing the room, I moved to stand behind her, and put an arm against the table on either side of her. She was trapped, and I looked over her shoulder to Zeke, who was shaking his head. The walk hadn’t helped me, not even a little bit.
“What’s the plan for tonight?” I asked.
He gave me a look. “You tell me.”
Zeke could easily go party. I could read that from him, yet he was here. He was worried about me, and I wanted more time with both of them. Just them. I straightened, pulling Aspen back against me. “Let’s get food and booze and watch a movie here.”
Zeke flashed a cocky smirk back. “Sounds perfect.”
We’d just headed out in my truck when Zeke said, “I like her.”
Aspen had chosen to stay behind, but we were going to Roussou for the pizza she wanted. It was supposedly the best, and she wasn’t having it when we suggested any place in Fallen Crest.
So, we were driving to Roussou.
“Why didn’t you tell me about her brother?” Zeke asked.
I slowed, pulling up to the gate. I nodded as Carl waved, and I pulled through.
“Because…” Fuck. What could I say here? “Because I don’t know much. She doesn’t talk about Owen that often, and I don’t know what happened. I’ve not pushed her.”
“I’m not talking about that brother,” Zeke said. “But I’d like to hear about him too.”
It took a second.
I clued in and glanced over.
Holding on to the handle above his door, he lifted an eyebrow. “Yeah. That brother.” His mouth set. “Why the fuck didn’t you tell me?”
Shit. “You know?”
“We watched a movie. The account said Aspen Monson. That house? Your girl said she moved to town in the fall. I know those directors moved to town at the same time.”
I gripped the wheel. “It’s new with her and me. I’m not used to giving a shit about someone, and she’s got some…”
Zeke relented, his hand dropping from the door handle. His head rested against the headrest. “She’s got some hang-ups. I get it. And you were worried about me going all fanboy? You think I’d push an angle to use your woman or something?”
I gave him a look.
Zeke’s face got hard. “Dude. Seriously? I don’t give a fuck about them. They ain’t you. They ain’t someone who’s made you smile. I can be normal, you know.” He cursed under his breath, looking out his window. “I mean, I get it. The reason I like Mason Kade so much is because you took off. Mentors and shit—I don’t have one. You anchor me. No one anchored me when you were gone, but the idea of…how not to be? Mason Kade provided that. It’s why I look up to him so much. That make sense?” He cursed again, looking embarrassed. “Look, whatever. You don’t have to worry about me. It’s cool who she is, but that’s it. I know you heard us, and I meant what I said to her. As long as she takes care of you, I won’t be a dick to her.”
“Got it. Thanks.” My voice felt strained.
This had quickly gotten to be too much talking, too much sharing. Both of us cleared our throats. I expected a comment about someone’s pussy to break the mood, but instead I got: “Daniels hit on me.”
I expelled some air. “I forgot about that situation.”
“I handled it. I won’t touch her. I wouldn’t do that to you, but she’s rallying. You gotta know that.”
“I forgot. I’ve had my own crap, you know?” I turned onto the highway that’d take us to Roussou.
We drove in silence.
We were ten minutes out when he asked, “What are you going to do?”
“She said she and the girls were going to go after Aspen. So I guess keep Aspen away?”
“We got three months of summer. I don’t want to not hang out with my best friend.”
I didn’t want that either. “I’ll figure it out.”
He nodded, and we finished the drive in silence.
I’d never been to the Roussou pizzeria, but the place was busy when we pulled in. Inside, Roussou students were everywhere, and conversation stalled at the sight of us.
“Should I call the guys?” Zeke lowered his voice.
Seeing who had gathered around a table in the back, I wasn’t sure.
“Nah,” I told him. Fuck whatever was going to happen. If we busted heads, fine by me. I’d not let myself think much about last night, about what my brother and his friends had found out, but screw them. I wouldn’t let myself walk scared, even if we were in their town.
I went to the counter and put in Aspen’s order.
The girl was taking it down when suddenly her head popped up. “Is this for Aspen Monson?”
I almost bugged out. “Yes, and keep it down about her name.”