Rush me, p.71
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       Rush Me, p.71

         Part #1 of New York Leopards series by Allison Parr
 
Page 71

  “And that’s why I said all that. I wasn’t really thinking. I was just—flinging out all the crap in my head, all my worries. And it just spun out of control, and I didn’t know how to stop it.

  “I’ve spent the last two weeks not having a clue what to do, or how to talk to you about it, I didn’t even know you’d come by since I told the concierge that first day not to let you up again, and I’d blocked your number. It never occurred to me you’d actually try to get through. And I wrote these foolish, ridiculous letters, and tried to come up with some grand gesture that wasn’t idiotic and wouldn’t make you roll your eyes. But I couldn’t come up with anything. All I could think was that I—ruined us.

  “And here you are. ” He shook his head. “Making the grand gesture. While I’m sitting back on my heels and did nothing. ”

  “You can still do a bit of a gesture. You know. If you want. ”

  He grinned. “Yeah? Like what?”

  “Well, if I told you, it wouldn’t be much of a gesture, would it?”

  He cocked his head. “All right, Rachael Hamilton. How’s this for a gesture?” And he finally, finally wrapped his arms around me and banished that space between us, until we were locked together, close as one. He tasted sweet and familiar and wonderful, and happiness rushed through my body, curling my toes, sighing through my chest.

  He drew back. “I love you, Rachael Hamilton. ” His lips brushed mine. “I love your humor and intelligence and the way you narrow your eyes and get flustered and blush and how you get so serious and your enthusiasm and the way you plot ways for the NFL to take over America and make me ride carousels and that you like that guy from Iowa, and that I think you would even if I wasn’t a quarterback. ”

  “Of course I would. ” I stood on my tiptoes and pressed my lips to his jawline. “And just to make it clear, I don’t like that guy. I love him. ”

  “I love you, too. ” Then he looked up and away, and I followed his gaze to find the dozens of Leopards hooting while flash bulbs went off and journalists shouted questions. “But not in public,” he said, laughing, and he drew me into the private enclosure, and away, and home.

  Epilogue

  “Okay. ” Ryan sounded nervous as we drove up the long driveway. “This is it. ”

  So far, it looked just like the rest of the ride from the airport: rolling hills, agricultural pastures, and tall grasses sprinkled with light snow. If we had a white Christmas, it would arrive with very short notice. Still, the temperature hovered around freezing, and even in the heated rental car, Ryan stayed as stiff as though the cold had frozen him through and through.

  The drive meandered past a low-lying pond, along fences, and finally up to the rambling white farmhouse that stood up against the horizon. To my delight, it did have a wrap around porch, but no one sat on the swinging bench. We pulled the car up at the end of a long line of cars and truck. We were the last to arrive—Ryan’s schedule had kept us in New York until the twenty-fourth.

  After he took the key from the ignition, I took his face in my hands. His eyes, soft and bright and hopeful, focused on me. “Ryan. Relax. It’s going to be fine. ”

  “Yeah. ” Ryan blew out a breath of warm air. “You’re right. I know. ”

  He still looked as though we were walking toward a firing squad as we knocked on the door.

  Half a second later, it swung open. A brief wash of impressions gave me a diminutive woman standing before several giants with Ryan’s coloring. “Oh, Ryan!” his grandmother cried, stepping forward to hug him. His older brothers—Luke, Rich, Scott, and Tim—grinned at me before stepping forward to pound Ryan on the back. He barely had time to introduce me to his grandmother before he’d disappeared under swinging arms.

  I’d imagined Ryan’s grandmother to be of the Iron Lady mold, with a stiff-spine and steely gaze. To my utter surprise, she blinked rapidly, saying “It’s so good to meet you, my dear,” as she embraced me. She smelled like lavender soap, and I could swear she murmured, “And you look so normal. ”

  I chose to take that as “compared to Ryan’s other girlfriends” rather than because Ryan had described me as exceedingly weird.

  “Thank you for having me. ” From my bag, I presented her with a box of peppermint bark that Eva and I had made two days ago, and violet tulips. “Ryan says so many good things about you. ”

  She looked fondly at her grandson. “He’s an angel. ” She was still looking at him when she said, “He’s never sounded happier than in the last few months. Thank you. ”

  That day and night we spent with his brothers and their wives and girlfriends, with his uncles and his father, a large, laughing man with an entire wall done up with Ryan’s old awards. Late in the evening, we retreated to Ryan’s old room. I stood in front of a picture of a teenage Ryan sitting next to his mother, overlong hair falling into his eyes.

  “What are you looking at?” Ryan came over to my side. “Ah. ”

  “I’m sorry she’s gone. She would have been so proud of you. I mean it, Ryan,” I said when he remained silent. “Even though she wanted you to be a teacher. After all, she can’t have hated sports more than I did, could she? And you were her baby. ” I took his face in my hands. “She would have been so amazed by everything you’ve done, by all the effort and courage and thought you’ve put into it. She would’ve come to every game. I have no doubt. ”

  Finally, he nodded. “I’m glad you came. ”

  “Me too,” I said, and we fell into bed.

  Christmas morning, we woke to the scent of fresh cinnamon rolls. Snow still hadn’t fallen, but one or two clouds hovered in the bright sky. Ryan zipped me into a red and black dress and I straightened his red tie, and then we went to mass where the family took up two rows amidst a room full of old friends and neighbors.

  Later, after presents were opened and lunch consumed, after the credits of It’s a Wonderful Life had rolled, we stole away, wrapped in coats and scarves, gloved hands intertwined. The barn wasn’t far, but the air was cold, and we pressed against each other for warmth.

  “Here we are. ” We entered the big red building, and the air changed from the scent of winter to that of hay and horses. Giant heads with long noses and perked ears poked out of stalls and tilted toward us. I almost stopped, but Ryan tugged me along until we reached a brown-coated beauty with a white streak running down her snout. “Her name’s Bailey. Say hello. ”

  I followed his actions and lifted my hand to touch her cheek. She turned her nose, snuffling my palm, and I drew back with a startled laugh.

  “She’s looking for a treat,” Ryan said, a smile in his voice. He gave me a small carrot. “Here, give this to her. Keep your hand flat. ”

  After Bailey had charmed me by deciding we should be best friends, Ryan pulled me into the tack room, and tossed riding boots, gloves, and a helmet at me while he pulled down a saddle. “Put those on,” he said, and disappeared.

  When he came back, he grinned widely, adjusted my helmet, and then handed me Bailey’s reins. I swallowed as Bailey turned her head and regarded me with huge, liquid brown eyes. “She’s really, really big. ”

 
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ALLISON PARR SERIES:

New York Leopards