Finding chase, p.10
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       Finding Chase, p.10

           Lacey Weatherford
 
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  In that instant, one thing became glaringly obvious. There was no place for Jennifer in my life. She was too sweet of a girl for me to lead on because I was lonely. I needed to break things off with her when I got home . . . hopefully in a kind enough manner we could still remain friends. I didn’t want to hurt her.

  Making the decision was half the battle apparently, because a sudden wave of calm came over me. This was the right thing to do, I was sure of it. Now I just needed to, once again, focus my attention on football. Maybe that would keep me distracted enough from the other things going on in my life.

  Straightening, I threw my jacket over my shoulder and headed down the edge of the creek, meandering slowly as I tried to immerse myself in the nature surrounding me. I redirected my thoughts to old fishing and camping trips I’d taken occasionally with my dad or my grandpa when I was younger. Those had been relaxed days—feeling the soft breeze whisper through the pine needles, smelling the fresh mountain air, laughing together as we excitedly pulled fish after fish out of the water. My mouth watered remembering some of the delicious fish fries we’d had afterward. I missed doing things like that.

  My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of someone walking up behind me, and I turned to see Brittney approaching. My heart leapt, but I only gave her a small smile and returned my focus to the creek, laying my jacket on a waterside picnic table.

  “Hey, Rockstar. What’re you doing wandering around by yourself?” she asked.

  I grinned. “Worried I’m gonna get lost in the forest?”

  “You? Never. I could see you stripping down to take a swim, though.” She smiled and I laughed.

  “Yeah, my mom would kill me if I did that today.”

  “Most likely.” She came along beside me and linked her arm through mine. “We haven’t had many chances to talk lately. How’re things going? I hear you’ve been going out a lot with Jennifer.”

  I raised my eyebrows. “From who?”

  “From Jennifer, duh. She can’t stop talking about what a great kisser you are.”

  I sighed. What a mess. I didn’t want Brittney thinking things were getting hot and heavy with Jennifer. “She’s a nice girl.”

  “Uh oh.”

  “What?”

  “You just said nice. I know how you feel about that word. You’re not gonna stop seeing her are you?”

  I nodded, staring into the rushing water. “I think it would be for the best. I don’t want to lead her on.” I looked up to see how she was taking the news, searching for anything that would tell me she was glad about this development, but she frowned instead.

  “I thought she was good for you. It’s the first time you’ve seemed happy in ages.”

  “She was good for me. Getting to know her helped me straighten a few things out in my head—but I feel like I’m using her. I think I’m attracted to her because she reminds me of Nikki. That’s not fair. She needs someone to like her for her.”

  She paused before patting me on the arm. “I’m pleased you don’t want to take advantage. You’ve always had a good, strong sense of character.”

  I snorted. “You really don’t know me that well, do you?”

  She arched an eyebrow. “I think I know you very well.”

  “If you did, you wouldn’t be saying that. Character has never been my strong point.”

  “No, I disagree. I think character has always been your strong point. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. Quit looking at the things in your life from a negative standpoint. Do you realize the tragedies you’ve overcome—the hardships? You standing here now is a tribute to the kind of character you have.”

  “If you say so.”

  “I do, and we both know . . . I’m always right.” She grinned, lifting her chin a bit as if she were daring me to contradict.

  “I’ll let you win—this time. I’m not in the mood to argue today.” I glanced farther down the slightly visible trail we were standing on. “Walk with me for a while? I just wanna chill and enjoy the day, but I’m not really feeling the whole crowd thing right now.”

  “I always love hanging out with you. You know that. Anytime, anywhere—all you have to do is say the word and I’m there.” She gripped my arm tighter.

  “Really?” I asked, wondering if she was serious.

  “Really, Chase. You’re one of my very best friends. I’d do anything for you.”

  It wasn’t a declaration of love by any means, but I was willing to take her up on it. Maybe if we spent more time together she’d see me in a different light and things would naturally develop between us. It was worth a shot.

  “I’m glad you’re in my life, Brittney. I don’t think you realize exactly how much it means to have you there.” I slipped my hand over and intertwined my fingers through hers. It didn’t appear to bother her that I wanted to hold her hand while we walked together. The path was uneven, scattered with rocks and large clumps of heavy natural grasses. She was wearing dress shoes, and I didn’t want her to fall.

  “You look very pretty today, by the way.” I glanced from the top of her head over the pale pink halter dress she was wearing which showed off her sun-kissed skin and delicious looking curves. I decided to go for the safer topic. “I’ve never seen you wear your hair that way before.”

  She shrugged. “I thought it would be fun to do it fancier for the wedding.”

  I watched the small tendrils brushing against her neck and cheeks, escaping the messy loose bun adorned with tiny dried flowers. I wanted to brush those places as well.

  “Again, it’s very pretty. But you always look that way, I guess.”

  She squeezed my hand and laughed. “Now I know why Nikki fell so hard for you. You’re a good sweet talker.”

  I smiled. “Not trying to sweet talk. Simply stating the facts.” Okay, maybe I was trying to sweet talk a little. I wanted her to notice me.

  She laughed. “Whatever. Admit it. You’re putting that Chase Walker flirt on me hardcore. I know how you are.”

  “If I was flirting with you, you’d know it.”

  “Are you sure about that?”

  “Positive.”

  “Hmmm.” She sounded doubtful.

  I abruptly yanked on her hand, causing her to stumble forward, and caught her against me. I slipped my free arm around her waist, holding her there. Our faces were only inches apart as I stared down, and she looked at me with wide eyes. I released her hand, lifting mine to lightly stroke the side of her face, trailing my fingers to her neck and dipping lightly into the hollow at her throat. Her pulse was beating rapidly under her skin, and her breathing increased.

  I leaned forward, closer to her slightly gaping mouth, my lips descending before pausing, our breath mingling together. “Can you feel me flirting now?” I whispered, nudging the tip of her nose with my own.

  She swallowed hard. “Uh . . . , maybe.”

  “Don’t tempt me to go farther, Brittney, unless you mean it.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because you are a girl I could lose myself in,” I replied honestly.

  Her lips pressed into a firm line, and she took a step away.

  Rejected again. “What’s the matter?” I tried to put a teasing quality into my voice to diffuse the sudden awkwardness of the situation. “Are you chicken?”

  She shook her head. “No,” she said flatly, not breaking eye contact.

  “Then what is it?”

  She reached up and tugged on her earlobe nervously, glancing around quickly before settling her gaze on me once again. “I can’t be a rebound for you, Chase. I know you like me because I’m easy for you to be with. You know me already. But I won’t risk our friendship over a quick fling with you.”

  “Who said anything about a quick fling?” I asked, a wave of exasperation rolling through me.

  “No one needs to. Anyone can plainly see your heart is not in it.”

  “You have no idea what my heart is feeling.”

  “Then why don’t you tell me?”


  I could do that. “Do you know what I’ve been going through since we kissed? Do you know how often it plays over and over again in my head? It’s like a broken record—but you act like it didn’t faze you in the least. You picked up and moved on with another guy without blinking an eye. Why would you do that?”

  “You called me Nikki, Chase! You weren’t kissing me . . . , you were kissing her! I can’t and won’t compete with a ghost. She’ll never be anything but perfect in your eyes. Don’t you see? You’ll constantly be comparing us, and I’ll be the one who always comes up short. I love her, and I love you, but I love me too much to put myself through a disaster like that! If it means all you and I can ever be together is friends, then fine. As long as you’re still in my life—I’m okay with that.”

  I stood there, stock still, trying to absorb everything she’d just said, wishing I knew the right words to say to make her see.

  “I’m not okay with that,” I finally muttered. “I want—”

  “You want Nikki. I get it. I’m sorry her death has damaged you so badly. If I could bring her back to you, I would. I want you to be happy.”

  I reached and grasped her by the hand. “You’re not listening to me, Brittney. Please, hear me out for one minute.”

  She waited, and again I was at a loss for words. I stepped closer and traced her lips with my thumb and finally decided to be straight with her. “I think you could be the one who makes me happy.” I felt her breath intake at my words, and I hurried to continue. “I’m sorry I called you her name, and I’m sorry I raced out of there like that. You’re right, I’ve been very confused, but I told you that being with Jennifer helped me clear something up. That something was you. I don’t want to be with her . . . even if she reminds me of Nikki. It’s you I can’t stop thinking about.”

  I searched her eyes for an indication of how she was feeling, hoping I was getting through.

  “I don’t know, Chase,” she finally said. “Everything is so complicated. I believe you care for me, but I know how you love her too. That’s a lot for a girl to get past.”

  I dropped my hand and stepped back. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have told you all this.” I felt my hopes beginning to shatter.

  She placed her hand on my arm. “No, I’m glad you did. It’ll help me understand things better. I think I’m going to need some . . . time, I guess—a little space to consider what you’ve told me.”

  I gave a strangled laugh. “Take all the time you need. I’ve got nowhere to be.”

  “Don’t talk like that. Don’t go all pity party on me. You’ve got great things to look forward to, and you know it. Your career in football is starting to take off. There are big things ahead of you.”

  “Football makes a damn cold bed partner, Britt,” I snapped.

  She looked up, shocked. “Is that where you want me to step up?”

  “The thought has crossed my mind, yes.”

  “Chase . . . ,”

  “And before you start filling your head with anymore lies of this being about Nikki, you might want to consider one thing.”

  “What’s that?” she asked, confused.

  “Nikki was never in my bed.”

  Her eyes widened, and she fidgeted nervously with her hair, my meaning apparent. She cleared her throat. “I see. Um, I think it’d be best to head back to the reception now.” She started walking in the direction we’d just come.

  “Britt,” I called, and she glanced over her shoulder. “Give it to me straight, right now. Is there any hope at all for you and me?”

  She stared at the ground for a moment, kicking at a pebble with the toe of her shoe before looking up again. “I can’t profess to know what the future holds, but I do know one thing I’ve learned in my life —there’s always hope, Chase. There’s always hope.” She smiled ever so slightly and walked away, but my heart lifted as if it were on wings.

  She didn’t say no. It was a fragile offer, but an offer nonetheless. I followed her to the reception, sitting by my grandpa at one of the tables and then visiting with Nikki’s mom before playing a rambunctious game of tag with Timmy and Clara.

  I didn’t get another chance to talk to Brittney alone, but she would often look over and give me a quick smile as she chatted with other guests. It significantly warmed my heart, and suddenly things seemed like they were looking up.

  Chapter Fifteen

  My mood was drastically less positive by the end of the following week. My carefully explained reasons for calling things to a halt with Jennifer hadn’t been well received at all. She couldn’t grasp why I wanted to call it quits when we seemed to have such good chemistry. When I finally got frustrated and blurted out she reminded me of my dead girlfriend—well, it had been entirely the wrong thing to say. She’d stormed away that night, leaving me standing alone in the parking lot outside her uncle’s restaurant.

  I’d seen Brittney watching our exchange through the window with a sorrowful expression on her face. I was unable to stop staring until she gave a shrug and shook her head, returning to work.

  I went home and waited up for her, hoping she’d come talk to me, but she didn’t. I lay on my bed rolling a football between my hands as I listened to sounds from her room on the other side of the wall. She had her music playing, and I wondered what else she might be doing. She was so close, but still so far away.

  Things went from nerve-wracking to downright unbearable when I passed Brittney as she left with Jeff, not one, but two nights during the week. It was all I could do to force a smile and be cordial when Jeff paused to ask me about football, casually draping his arm around Britt’s shoulders. I imagined what it would feel like to punch him in the face without any warning, and my fists curled of their own accord, forcing me to call an abrupt end to the conversation and hurry into my apartment. I was losing it.

  “What’s up with you these days?” Brett asked as I rammed into the sleds after practice.

  “What do you mean?” I gasped as I charged and hit them again.

  “I mean you’re not a lineman, Chase. Why are you doing this? Besides, practice is over.” He waved his arm around the tented, air-conditioned practice field. “Everyone is gone. We’re the last two people here. Let’s go home. I’m hungry.”

  “Go ahead,” I grunted. “I’m not stopping you. I’ll run home.”

  “Dude, you drove. What the hell is eating you so badly? I swear you’ve been on your damn period for a week now!”

  I stopped; snorting as I laughed. “You seriously did not just go there.”

  “Yes, I did.” He came over and grabbed my shoulder pads, turning me toward the locker rooms. “You’re acting worse than my sister.”

  The thought of Britt made me sigh in frustration. “I’ll be fine. Just trying to work through some stuff.”

  “When did you become such a wuss?”

  “Excuse me?”

  “You’re not the Chase I used to know—the guy who never let anything stand in his way. You wanted something—you went and got it. Don’t you remember how you chased Nikki down until she finally gave in? Now you sit around acting moody all the time. I mean, I know you’ve been through hell and back, but you’re worse than a mopey dang girl these days. I don’t know how much longer I can take it.”

  “I’m not that bad,” I grumbled.

  “Dude you were listening to love songs by the Backstreet Boys in your room last night.”

  “It was an old playlist mix Nikki made for me,” I said defensively, and he rolled his eyes. I sighed, relenting. “Fine, I give up. I may have been acting a little grumpy lately.”

  “A little?” He raised his eyebrows. “I’ve been ready to call your mom and tell her she should come talk to you.”

  “Don’t do that. She’s only been married a week. Let her enjoy it. I’ll be fine.”

  “How do I know that? Are you going to do something about it?”

  “About what?” I asked, confused.

  Brett shook his head. “About Brittney. Are you
going to mope around, or are you going to man up and get your girl.”

  I was shocked. “How do you know this has anything to do with Brittney?”

  “Blind, dead dogs can see you have a thing for her, bro. Every time the two of you get within twenty feet of each other it’s like the air starts lighting up with electricity. What’s the hold up? Get it over with, and put the rest of us out of our misery. Besides, it’d be fun to double date together.”

  “It’s not gonna happen.”

  “Why not?”

  “Have you talked to your sister about any of this?”

  He shook his head. “No. She’s as tight lipped about things as you are. What’s going on?”

  “She doesn’t want me,” I stated bluntly, as I pulled my gear over my head as we walked into the locker room.

  “Bull.”

  I shrugged, reaching to undo my practice pants. “Believe it or not, it’s your choice. I tried talking to her about it, and she said she didn’t feel like it was a good thing. She thinks I’ll constantly compare her to Nikki, and she’ll be competing against a ghost that’ll always be perfect in my eyes.”

  Sitting on the bench, I took my shoes and socks off before grabbing a towel and heading to the showers, not waiting for Brett’s reply. I turned the water on as hot as I could stand it and let it sluice over my skin as I braced against the wall, trying to relax my tight muscles. I hurt everywhere—inside and out—and I couldn’t help thinking some blunt would be the perfect thing right now to take the edge off.

  I only allowed myself to entertain the thought for a few seconds before forcing myself to move on to the subject of food and what sounded good for dinner. I was getting dang sick of pizza lately. It seemed like that’s all Brett and I ever ate these days.

  “Let’s go eat somewhere good tonight,” I hollered to Brett as I grabbed the soap and started washing off.

  “Like where?” he answered loudly from wherever he was.

 
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