I’m Christopher Colton, the crushing quarterback of this year’s championship hopefuls. If we’d not lost Jay Adamson, we would have won the big game. To add insult to injury, I had to hear of this asshole—Ryder Hanley—joining our team through social media. I’m the backbone, and no one has had the decency to tell me the man I thought was my best friend is our new starting wide receiver.
Sure, we’d played against each other each year, but he was on the field when I wasn’t. We never sought one another out.
He greeted me as Diego, and something inside me prickled with jealousy at the thought of him with another man. As my large body twists to see him, his face reddens, and eyes widen larger than I thought is humanly possible. I figured I would shock him. When I arrived at his house an hour ago, some dainty-looking man was putting the final touches on Ryder’s new digs. It must have been Diego. I fibbed a little by telling him we were best friends, and I dropped by to welcome him to the neighborhood.
This Diego person he refers to didn’t put up much of a fight, only gushed at me several times. I stare at my former best friend, and his own flush creeps onto his face. He gives out a nervous chuckle. “As I live and breathe, it’s Crush Colton.” Back in the day, he called me Christopher as much as my football name. Very few call me Christopher, and I think most of the free world thinks my God-given name is Crush.
I push to my feet, broaden my stance, and stand as tall over him as I can get. “Yeah, imagine my shock when a man I considered a brother up and left. Never returning my calls, he ignored me anytime we played one another. Now, he all of a sudden has a hard-on for playing on my team! Not to mention—of all the fucking teams in the country who had wanted to sign him. In my book this makes him an asshole, asshole.”
Ry gives me a shrug of his shoulders, peeling off his simple white T-shirt and pulling at the beer in my hand. “Fuck, it’s hotter than a witch’s tit out here.” He pauses, and it gives me just enough time to shift my gaze, hidden behind my aviators, up and down his body with him only to continue. “So, since you barged into my house, making yourself at home— with a fuck ton of assumptions, want to share some of your beer with me?”
Ryder doesn’t wait for an answer before he grabs my beer. He takes a swig, the cocky SOB, and then hands it back to me. I point at the small fridge in the corner of the outdoor kitchen.
He saunters toward it, grabbing one for him and a second for me. He’s back in my space, and the son of a bitch has grown since we last played together. He’s always been a little smaller than me, most wide receivers are, especially with the new type of quarterbacks, who are more mobile and larger, too, like I am.
But every part of him has become a solid mass of muscles, and hell, more manly than I remember, and—he’s never been a small man.
I pull for my beer and sit down in the sun as he scoots across from me at the part of the table in the shade. “Fuck, I may need to get my swim trunks on and go for a dip,” Ry begins like we’re casually shooting the shit.
“Yeah, I won’t be here long. I’ll leave you to get settled, but what fuck ton of assumptions are you talking about? You left me without so much as an explanation after you attacked my lips. You dodged my calls. You avoided me. You did this—not me, asshole.”
I stare at Ryder, but he takes his time to pull back on his beer, taking a long swig. He plops it down, a little louder than I’m expecting, and his eyes meet my gaze.
“What can I say? I was a confused asshole. I screwed up. I thought I disgusted you. Hell, I disgusted myself, yet I wanted you at the same time. I thought the distance would solve it, but those dodged calls on my part turned into years, and I didn’t know what I could say to justify what I’d done.”
His pleas are sincere and not what I remember of the cocky bastard. “And I came back to Tennessee to be closer to my family. I mean, my parents are still the unreliable shit show you remember, especially as they’ve distanced themselves from me due to their unworldly view on the fact I like men.” With Ry’s confession, he shrugs again.
“They turned their backs on you because you finally came out after all these years?” I ask, and though I’d been ready for a fight with Ryder, I’m pissed off on his behalf.
“Well, yes, but at the end of the day, it’s fine. I don’t want them. I have Kelsey and Loretta. It’s all I need in this world.”
I remember Ryder’s younger and stubborn as hell sister. But Loretta, this is a new name I’m not familiar with.
“Loretta, is she your…?” Yeah, I’m going to ask if she’s his daughter, but he stops me, perceiving this.
“Loretta is Kelsey’s daughter. She’s five and the love of my life. Kelsey found out she was pregnant on the day of our grandpappy's funeral. Named her after our grandpa. It’s like he knew I needed her in my life after losing him. And though the scumbag of her dad is no longer around, Kelsey is a nurse, and I make sure she and Loretta never want for anything in life, though my sister is stubborn as fuck.”
Again, we’re back to shooting the shit as if we have just picked up and hadn’t had this wedge between us for years. And I remember I’m pissed at him. This is supposed to be a showdown, baring my teeth, letting him know I’m in charge of my life, my team, and he’s not an issue and hasn’t been in years.
At the large outside table, I slam my beer on it. My sort of dramatics. We’re not friends anymore, and it’s the whole reason I’m here.
“What the hell, man?” he asks, and in the vulnerability of his eyes, I know I should rein in my anger. By coming out and being proud of the person he is, he’s achieved something no one in our football league has.
“I didn’t come here to catch up, Hanley. We aren’t friends. You destroyed it. For the record, I have to work with you because I want a fucking championship ring more than anything in this world. So, you stay out of my way, you catch my fucking throws, and we’ll be cool.”
I have to get out of his space and away from him, and I enter the house, heading to the exit at the front door, but he’s trailing me close.
“Shit, Crush, what can I say? I was an asshole, but I was scared and so fucking young. I didn’t know if a team would draft me if I’d come out, like I had wanted to. And that day, I was wrong. So many times, I wanted a redo on the moment we shared when I let it go too far.”
We were twenty-two and both so green and young and stupid. It was six months before I signed a contract and had more money than I knew what to do with. And Alison showed up on my doorstep shortly after the championship game—pregnant. I put a ring on her finger out of loyalty. And just six months later, I’d signed with Nashville and welcomed our little girl into the world. For years, I held onto a marriage I never wanted, but to say I wouldn’t do it again for my daughter is an understatement.
I take one look at this man, who’d been more than just a friend—he’d been my brother for four years—and fuck, I’ve missed him. But I’m hurt. He sliced me through the middle. I cared more for this man than the woman I married. And sometimes, I’d wished she would have left me, but I never wanted Ryder absent from my life.
“I gotta go. I can’t get into this shit with you. But I’m telling you now, just do your fucking job, and we’ll be peachy keen.”
I slam the door behind me without a backward glance as I make it to my truck and back to my lonely house.
* * *
“Al,come on. I just want to take her out for dinner.”
My ex-wife is a bitch. Ryder never liked her, and with his vehement disgust for Alison, it should have told me something. He loved everyone. “No, Christopher, it’s why we have a schedule.”
“But it’s four in the afternoon, what is she doing?” It doesn’t matter because even if our daughter is just watching a television show, the lying mouth of Alison can never be trusted, not when we were married and sure as shit, not when we’re this divorced couple who hates one another.
“We’re playing a board game, if you have to know.”
“Al, practice starts tomorrow. I need just a couple of hours with her since it’ll be almost a month.” I’ll try to steal time with her, but it’s always an unknown at the beginning of the season when I’ll get time with my little peanut.
I’d not thought this out properly when we were planning our schedules for the next couple of weeks. Alison has her more during the football season, and I get her more on the offseason.
She huffs in the background, and I can imagine her face is beet red in rage, but then again, she’s always had a resting bitch face. “Brooklyn, honey. Do you want to continue having fun with Mommy or go spend some boring time with daddy.”
Way to keep it cordial, bitch, I think to myself, but I stifle a laugh or try to when I hear my sweet girl squeal. “I want Pops.”
“Fine, come fucking get her but have her fed and ready for bed when she returns.” She ends the call, and this will calm my fucking heartbreak after seeing Ryder. I want to forgive him, I really do, but the pain of his absence in my life has been excruciating, and I don’t know if I can allow for the possibility of him messing me up again.
* * *
“Pops, I always win gainst you.”I laugh at my daughter’s confidence. We’re playing tic-tac-toe on a napkin at the little eatery we frequent near my house in the best part of Nashville. It’s upscale because it’s where a good portion of the music industry lives.
“It’s because you have my brains, peanut.”
We start another game before we leave for my home, where I’ll get her bathed and into pjs. And then I’ll take her back to her mother’s for the night. I’m in my own world, one belonging only to me and the white-haired angel who’s the center of my life when someone behind me clears his throat.
With the sound of his footsteps, moving around the table, he kneels, and I recognize the profile of him anywhere. “You must be Brooklyn,” Ryder says with a strand of hair falling in his face. “I’m an old friend of your dad's.”
Brooklyn looks at me, then back at Ryder. “I’m Ryder, sweetheart.”
She begins to laugh. “Yous means like Ryda, from Paw Patrol?” I figured her question would stumble him. Why would he know about Ryder, but he doesn’t miss a beat.
“Reporting for duty.” She laughs and doesn’t correct him because it’s not Ryder who says this, but it makes her warm up to him.
His face turns to me. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to leave without meeting the number one lady in your life.” He stands and turns when he replies to one of my commands from earlier. “And you don’t have to worry about me. I’ll be sure to do my job and nothing else.” He turns his gaze to Brooklyn. “Well, Miss Brooklyn, it’s nice meeting you.” His attention swings toward to me, again. “She’s gorgeous, Crush, and she’s a lucky girl to have you as a dad.”
He walks away, and somehow, I concentrate on his backside. I don’t understand this because I’ve not seen Ryder in so long, but then again, I’ve been ignoring how a man, especially even the thought of Ryder Hanley, can turn me on.