I don’t know why I looked up. Might’ve been the hairs on the back of my neck shifting. They didn’t stand up. It wasn’t that type of feeling that was trickling down my back, but it was an awareness.
I glanced up and that nice soft trickle ramped up in volume. I was scorched to the bone.
Reese Forster was staring at me.
He sat at a table a few yards away, and while his teammates were talking, he was looking right at me.
I paused with the dishes.
The whole thing only lasted a second or two, but the world melted away. I felt a pounding in my chest. Maybe it was my heart. Maybe it was Damian wanting to tear out of me. Whatever it was, I swallowed over that damn lump that seemed permanently lodged there, and I stopped what I was doing.
Until he looked away.
One of the guys spoke to him, and he turned to answer.
The spell was broken, but I felt the remnants still inside of me.
I was a mess—a very literal jumbled mess that had bones and skin keeping it together, but it really hit me at that moment. I mean, it had hit me at various times over the last year, and I was doing this whole denying routine to keep myself from falling apart, but in this moment, the reality of how destroyed I was inside became crystal clear.
I was nearing thirty. Three years away was really not that long.
I’d been fired from a job I kinda enjoyed doing, but also didn’t really give two craps about at the same time. It was something that paid the bills and I hadn’t hated it.
I was now doing dishes at my old childhood job, literally hiding from my life, and I had no idea how to move forward.
I snuck a look at Owen and Hadley. It made sense that they were here.
Owen had a plan. The normal kitchen staff were off, otherwise Owen was the one who usually ran things around here. Even Keith being here made sense. He was the director. Those were two respectable careers, and Hadley was here to support her husband. They had kids. She was a mom too. That was the most important job in the world.
Grant was head of the maintenance crew. That was a good job anywhere.
What the hell was I doing?
I had no kids. No boyfriend. No life.
I was trying to keep myself from becoming a gawking stalker. I mean, pathetic much? That was me.
The normal staff were usually college kids, doing a fun job during the summers while they went to school to get to the real careers they wanted in life. Even they had direction.
I was embarrassed.
I literally jerked out of my thoughts, stepping backward and hitting the wall behind me. Two drying crates hung there crashed to the floor.
Keith had been making an announcement, but he stopped, and everyone looked at me.
I hissed, feeling the tears on my face.
Grant had been the one to say my name, his eyes now narrowing before he looked around us.
He stepped forward, shielding me from the rest of the room, except I looked around him. Reese Forster still had a direct line of sight to me, and he was staring like everyone else—except his jaw was clenched. His eyebrows pulled down, and he frowned.
Was he mad at me? Because I was crying?
Feeling an irrational burst of anger, I flipped him off.
The dish window hid most of me, but I raised my hand to my waist, with just the one finger showing. His eyes dropped to it and lingered.
I waved it from side to side until I realized what I was doing and tore myself away.
Then I did what I always did.
I went to the back of the kitchen and hid. What’s one more embarrassing moment to pile on with all the others?
My heart raced and beat loudly in my ears as I bent down at the back sink to wash my hands. When that didn’t help calm me, I cupped a handful of water and splashed it on my face.
That helped. A little. It disguised the tears anyway.
Owen and Hadley had been in the office, so they didn’t know what happened. They were coming out now, and I heard Grant ask them, “Where’d Charlie go?”
Hadley answered, “I don’t know. Why?”
I tensed, waiting for Grant to tell them. But he only said, “I had a question for her…” He saw me, and his voice trailed off. “Never mind.”
He came over to stand next to the sink.
We waited in silence until Hadley grabbed what she had come out for and went back to Owen’s office.
“You okay?” Grant asked in a low voice.
The answer was no, so I didn’t answer. I couldn’t bring myself to meet his gaze either. If I did, I was going to start crying, so I stared at a wall to the side of us.
When I trusted my voice not to crack, I said, “Thanks for covering for me.”
He nodded. I caught the movement from the corner of my eye. “That’s what we used to do.”
He was right.
He’d been my best friend all those years ago.
I still couldn’t say anything—I was doing everything I could not to cry—but I reached out and blindly grabbed for his hand. He held it out, shifting something to his other hand, and I squeezed it once.
“We can talk later, if you want, but one of the Thunder’s trainers was asking who’s in charge of the courts. He’s going to leave breakfast early to meet with you, go over what they might need from us. Can you handle that?”
Work. Distraction. I needed that like I needed air.
“Yesssss,” I breathed out. Grabbing a paper towel, I wiped my face. “I’m going to go now.”
“Get some food,” he said again. “I remember how you used to not eat when you were upset.” He started for the door. Then he stopped and looked back. “Oh. Hey. My fiancée is coming today. I’d like you to meet her.”
“What’s her name?”
His voice got lighter when he said her name. So did his face. He relaxed, the tight lines around his mouth softening.
He loved her. He truly did, and he was happy.
He was worried about me, but she made him content. I saw it all in an instant because I knew him so well. That had never gone away, and despite the reason for me coming here, I was glad for it.
It was time to stop and face some of the people I had run from before.
I smiled. “I’m excited to meet her.”
He nodded and was gone, and because I was feeling more myself, my eyes returned to Reese Forster. I should just embrace the stalker inside of me, right?
With a jolt, I found he was looking at me again.
As our gazes met and held, he reached forward. His gaze was almost smoldering. He grabbed his milk, his own middle finger splayed out on the side of the cup. Tipping it to his lips, he never broke eye contact, even when he put it back on the table.
I bit down, squelching a smile.
The ghost of a grin teased on his face too, and I had to bite down harder.
I shouldn’t find that exciting, but I did.
And because I felt a question wanting to be blurted out, and knowing it was going to be highly inappropriate, I ripped my gaze from his.
I headed out.
Then I smiled.
The balls were all there, in the same spot where I’d left them.
They were good balls, trainable balls. I felt an odd amount of pride in these two inanimate objects and scooped them up. Cradling them as if they were my balls, I took them inside the cage.
The screen door creaked open and slammed shut a second later, and a guy walked around to the front of the cage, decked out in all white.
He had the swoosh symbols on his shoes, his pants, and his warm-up windrunner, and over his left chest was the Seattle Thunder lightning bolt. His hair was shaved on the sides with the top long and healthy, a sandy mix of browns. I wasn’t even sure if he was blond or had brown hair. The length was pulled back into a messy bun—one I was jealous of.
He moved toward me briskly, as if it were his normal speed, but he was constantly being told to slow down for the rest of us mere mortals.
“Are you in charge of the courts? Charl—” He cut himself off, his head cocking to the side.
I would’ve bet money that he knew my name was Charlie, but he wanted to be the guy who called me Charlotte instead. That wasn’t my name, but some men felt special, thinking they’d guessed the right name and called me that instead of the nickname everyone else used.
There’s a reason it’s used, and that’s because I like it.
I finished for him, “ie.”
He blinked. “Huh?”
“Charlie. That’s my name.”
“Right.” His head lowered, but his eyes remained trained on me. His eyebrows pinched together as if he’d stepped into an invisible pile of poo, but he couldn’t see it or smell it. He only had the feeling it was there. “Charlie. That’s you?”
“You’re a girl.”
It came out accusatory.
I scowled. “You’re a boy.” This game was fun.
He frowned. “Yes?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
He scratched behind his ear. “What’s happening here?”
I was tempted to scratch behind my ear too, but I refrained. Barely. “Nothing. What’s going on with you?”
His frown deepened. “You’re…”
Here we go again. I almost sighed. “A girl. Yes.”
I relented. “You’re Aiden?” And he was confused by my name?