Home > The Wall of Winnipeg and Me(11)

The Wall of Winnipeg and Me(11)
Mariana Zapata

I did a good job, hardly ever complained, and always did what needed to be accomplished even if I didn’t want to do it. I tried to be nice to him, to mess with him even though he definitely didn’t care for it, because what was life if you took it too seriously?

But he’d pretty much just told me to “shoo” in front of other people.

“Is that all?” Aiden’s rough voice snapped me out of my thoughts. “I have a workout I need to finish.”

It was an oddly relieving sensation that pierced through my chest right then. I felt… like I could breathe. Standing there, I felt right. “Yeah, that’s all, boss.” I swallowed, forced a smile on my face, and walked out of there with my head held high, thinking, I’m done. I’m so done.

What was wrong with him?

I’d been around Aiden dozens of times when he was having a bad day. Bad days with Aiden Graves were nothing new or anything to particularly hold on to. Even practices with the Three Hundreds were serious business for him. Every mistake he made was like a strike against his soul that he dwelled on. He’d said so in interviews plenty of times in the past, how he lay in bed going over plays until he went to sleep.

He was cranky on days that the sun was out and he was cranky on cloudy days too. I could handle grouchy men who preferred their own company. Usually he just glared and maybe snarled a bit.

No big deal. He didn’t throw things or yell.

But acting like an asshole with me in public? Saying that kind of stuff? That was new even for him, and that was probably why I was handling it so badly. Sometimes the worst things you could ever hear were wrapped in sweet tones and calm voices.

I walked out of the facility distracted. I even drove my car muttering to myself under my breath. Twenty minutes later, I pulled into Aiden’s subdivision and parked on the street like usual. When I opened the front door, I realized something was wrong when the alarm system wasn’t beeping.

The alarm wasn’t beeping.

“Zac?” I yelled, reaching into my purse for my pepper spray at the same time I made my way through the kitchen, toward the door that led into the garage, to see if there was a car in there.

I didn’t make it that far.

Sitting on the onyx countertop right next to the refrigerator were dangling long legs stuffed into brown leather cowboy boots. I didn’t need to look at the upper body above them. I knew what I would see: a threadbare T-shirt, a narrow, handsome face, and light-brown hair hidden beneath that black Stetson he’d owned for years.

Zachary James Travis was draped across the counter with a bag of chips in his lap. At six foot three, Zac was the second string quarterback of the Dallas Three Hundreds. Plagued by one injury after another, Austin, Texas’s once-upon-a-time star had stumbled through the last six years of his career. Or so the sports analysts said.

But that wasn’t how I knew Zac. With a twang in his accent, clothes that told everyone the only thing he worried about was them being clean and comfortable, and a smile that made most women swoon, he was my buddy. My confidant where his roommate was not.

And I hadn’t seen him in almost three months since he’d left to go back home for part of the offseason.

In that instant though, I didn’t miss him that much. “You almost got sprayed in the face! I thought you were coming next week.” I panted with my hand on my chest, the other hand clutching my pepper spray.

Dropping his boot-clad feet to the floor, I finally let my eyes go up to find that he was standing there with his arms open, smiling wide. He was fresh faced, tanner than usual, and, eyeing his middle section, maybe a little thicker. “I missed ya too, darlin’.”

Temporarily pushing aside the veil Aiden’s crappy mood had put over my head, I couldn’t help but smile. “What are you doing here?”

“I figured it wasn’t gonna kill me to come back a little early,” he explained as he rounded the kitchen island and came to stand in front of me, pretty much towering over my five-foot-seven frame. Before either one of us could say another word, his arms were around me.

I hugged him back. “The only person that might be getting killed soon is you-know-who. I’ve almost poisoned him a few times these last couple of months.” I took a sniff of him and almost laughed at the scent of Old Spice he insisted on wearing.

“Is he still alive?” he drawled the question lazily but seriously.

Thinking about his comment at the facility had me scowling into his shirt. “Barely.”

Pulling back, the smile Zac had on his face withered, his eyes narrowing as he studied my features. “You look like hell, sugar. You’re not sleepin’?” he asked as he kept eyeballing what I was sure were the circles under my eyes.

I shrugged beneath his palms. What was the point in lying? “Not enough.”

He knew better than to give me shit; instead, he simply shook his head. For a second, I thought about how Aiden would react to the four or five hours I usually squeezed in. He was even more religious about getting anywhere from eight to ten hours of snooze time daily. That was also part of the reason why he didn’t have any friends. Thinking about Aiden reminded me of the conversations I’d had recently and how I hadn’t talked to Zac in two weeks.

“I finally told Aiden,” I blurted out.

His thin mouth fell open, those milky-blue eyes going wide “You did?”

Zac had known what my plans were. Soon after we started getting to know each other, he’d seen me working on my tablet while I was having lunch one afternoon, and asked me what I was doing. So I’d told him.

He’d simply grinned at me back then and replied, “No shit, Van. You got a website or somethin’?”

Since then, I’d redone the logo for his personal website—after I’d insisted how much of a good idea they were for branding himself—and done various banners for his media pages. As a result, he’d gotten me more work through a couple of the other players on the team.

I threw my hands up and put a smile on my face at the same time I wiggled my fingers. “I did it. I told him,” I practically sang.

“What he say?” the most unapologetically nosey man I’d ever known asked.

I fought and lost the urge to grimace at the memory of how much Aiden hadn’t said. “Nothing. He just told me to let Trevor know.”

One of Zac’s light-brown eyebrows twitched. “Huh.”

I ignored it. It didn’t matter if Zac thought the same thing I did: What a dick thing to do. “Yay,” I muttered, still giving him spirit fingers because even memories of Aiden weren’t going to rain on my parade of quitting soon.

He eyed me speculatively for a moment before the emotion was wiped off, and he slapped me on the shoulder hard enough to make me go Oof. “It’s about damn time.”

I rubbed my arm. “I know. I’m relieved I finally sucked it up. But between you and me, I still want to hurl when I think about it.”

He watched my hand for a second before making his way back around the island. With his back to me, he said, “Aww, you’ll be fine. I’m gonna miss the hell out of your meatloaf when you’re gone, but not all of us get to do what we love for a livin’. I’m glad you finally get to join the club, darlin’.”

Some days, I didn’t completely understand why I wasn’t madly in love with Zac. He was a little full of himself, but he was a pro football player, so it wasn’t exactly a surprising trait. Plus, he was tall, and I loved tall guys. In the end though, all I felt and had ever felt toward Zac was friendship. The fact that I’d gone out to buy him hemorrhoid cream a couple of times probably helped solidify the lines in our friend zone.

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