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There are almost two dozen little kids scattered over the turf, dressed in either red or blue. Evidently toddler soccer is more popular around here than I would have guessed. I note with relief that Austin is among them.
David and Hayden come back to the bleachers and we settle in to watch the game. But as much as I try to concentrate, I’m too aware of Hayden’s warm, solid body pressed up against my shoulder and thigh. And Beth’s comments about him never bringing nice normal girls around buzz through my head.
• • •
The game ends in a one-to-one tie. The players did more shouting, giggling, and rolling on the grass than actual soccer, and the referee called several time-outs for temper tantrums or crying over scraped knees. But the kids seem like they had a good time, which is the whole point of sports anyway. And watching them run around in circles chasing the ball was adorable.
As soon as David suggests going to a local pizzeria to celebrate, Georgia snaps awake. She insistently repeats peese-a, peese-a all the way across the parking lot until we separate into our own cars. And now I’m sitting with Hayden’s extended family again, crammed into a plastic booth in a loud, colorful restaurant.
His younger sister, Gracie, who’s closer to my age, arrives and slips into the booth next to Hayden. Her eyes land on me, and when Beth introduces me as Hayden’s new friend , Gracie’s eyes go as wide as the plates on our table.
“Oh. Um . . . hi?” she says, offering me her hand across the table.
It’s like I’m the main attraction at a freak show. I take her hand and shake it. “Hello.”
I have no idea what to say next. Gracie is gorgeous. Where Beth is put together in a no-nonsense way, with her bobbed haircut and friendly eyes, Gracie exudes an air of feminine beauty and innocence. Wide-set blue eyes and tousled wavy hair that’s chestnut-colored, but with flecks of gold where it catches the light. Her high cheekbones and pouty lips make me envious. Having nothing else to say, I glance back over to Hayden.
I’m watching him bounce his tiny niece on his knee and feed her bites of cheesy bread. And I’m still wondering what the hell I’m doing here. What this all means; what I should do next.
I’m confused all over again, and I have no idea how to feel. Hayden is so sweet with his nephew and niece, so playfully combative with his sisters, so chummy with his brother-in-law—he’s clearly capable of love and affection. So why is he so closed off when it comes to women?
He still hasn’t opened up about his past, no matter how much I prod and poke. Did something specific sour him on romantic relationships? Is he distrustful because he’s scared? What happened to make him this way?
I want to corner Beth and ask her, but something tells me she may be more forthcoming with information if I can get her away from all these distractions—and pump her full of sangria. I make a mental note.
Georgia is an absolute mess, with sauce smeared all over her face and the front of her frilly dress. Hayden is laughing and tickling her. Beth and David are fussing over Austin. Gracie sits quietly, taking it all in with a fond smile.
Watching them, despite my confusion, I can’t help but feel content. Strangely soothed. They’re a picture-perfect family. And Hayden’s grin—unrestrained, dimples showing, blue eyes crinkled almost shut as he laughs—is nothing short of beautiful.
I remember the way he touched my face after dinner on Saturday. I felt an unmistakable spark of warmth and wanted to lean into his hand, wanted him to . . .
But none of that should ever happen. It’s best that nothing did happen that night. Even if we both feel funny in our pants for each other, sex just isn’t a good idea. We won’t work in the long run. Period.
So then . . . what do we do? Continue this friendship that nobody seems to think Hayden is capable of? In the end I just eat my mushroom pizza, drink my soda, and let myself soak in the warm, comfortable atmosphere. And if I admire Hayden more than I should, I don’t think too hard about it. Because there’s nothing to think about.
Hayden and I arrive back home at the same time. We walk together through the front entrance and upstairs to my door. “Thanks for coming,” he says as I unlock it. “It was nice to have another grown-up in the mix.”
I turn to him, my keys still dangling from the lock. I want to ask why he invited me today. I want to ask why he ever started talking to me in the first place. But all I say is, “Sure . . . thanks for inviting me. I had fun.”
He opens his arms slightly. “Hug good-bye?” His crooked smile says that if I don’t accept, he’ll pass it off as a joke. Something he never really meant in the first place.
I hesitate for a second, then step into his embrace. He is so warm, so solid and real, and it’s been such a long time since I’ve been touched. I inhale his cologne, that same smoky spice that riveted me the first moment we met. My cheek rests against his neck where smoothness meets stubble, and I can feel his pulse fluttering. I can feel the angled, muscular body under his casual clothes. And one very particular angle pressing into my stomach . . .
I pull back my head just far enough to look into his stunning eyes. “Stunning” is exactly the right word—they paralyze me, pin me, make me helpless. Our mouths are less than an inch apart, and I realize that my heart is hammering. Just as fast as his.
Desire and fear make me brave . . . or maybe just stupid. “What are we doing?” I ask him, not meaning for it to sound like a plea.