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TEAM PLAYERS: Chapter 6


Uncle Walter strolls into the hallway, drifting to the front door as though he’s not quite sure about leaving me behind but has already dedicated enough time to me today. I’m really grateful, but this whole situation feels crazy. How can I sleep in a house with eleven strange men? How the hell have I gotten here?

‘You’ve got my number,’ Walter says. ‘If you need anything… I mean, anything… give me a call.’

He glances over my shoulder at Harley, who is waiting to show me upstairs. ‘Look after her.’

There’s an exchange of serious manly nods, and Walter’s shoulders lower a touch as though he’s been reassured by Harley’s response.

‘Thanks,’ I say. ‘For everything.’

‘It’s nothing.’ Walter waves his hand. ‘I’m just sorry it’s taken this to bring you back.’

I smile tightly. It feels as though there is a slice of underhanded criticism in that comment, but I can’t respond. I have to keep my mouth shut because opening it will just cause problems.

‘Will I see you tomorrow?’

‘Maybe. I’ll call you.’

Walter’s hand is on the door handle, and I take a step forward instinctively. Harley is a large and looming presence behind me. Two hundred and fifty pounds of muscle, oozing masculinity. I can practically feel the heat radiating from him and the strength. If he wanted to, he could toss me over his shoulder and carry me anywhere in this house without breaking a sweat. He could hold me down and do whatever he wanted to me, and I wouldn’t be able to do a thing to stop him. I know there’s something wrong with me when these wild thoughts make me hot between my legs. What kind of girl am I to be pregnant at nineteen and thinking about sex with a huge stranger? Not a good one, that’s for sure.

I watch Walter make his way down the steps and amble over to his vehicle. His shape and gait from the back remind me of my dad. I swallow against the prickle of a lump in my throat. I have to be strong and deal with all of this. I don’t have another choice.

‘Ready?’ Harley asks, his deep voice low and sexy enough to make the hairs stand on the back of my neck.

‘Sure.’

I wait for Harley to make his way up the stairs first, partly because I’m not the one who knows where everything is and partly because I want to check him out. Damn. I am not disappointed. His ass moves like a well-oiled machine. I’m pretty certain that he’s a monster on the field and in the bedroom. A man with power like that behind him could wreck a woman. I thought Justin was big, but Harley could pummel him into the ground.

At the top, Harley pauses. ‘There’s the main bathroom.’ He points to a door that’s open. Behind I can see a clean white tub and polished blue and white tiles. Not what I expected a house filled with men to look like. I guess my dad must have gotten them doing chores from a young age.

‘This is my room, where you can stay,’ Harley walks to a door on the left and opens it, striding inside. I follow him. It’s a big room with two beds, a door in the corner that I’m assuming is the closet, a large double desk completed with shelves of folders and two computers.

On the nightstands, there are matching lamps and photos in frames that I’m not close enough to make out. The floorboards have been painted black, and a large gray rug makes it homely. Most of all, it’s clean and tidy and smells good. That’s a total surprise.

‘This is my bed,’ Harley says. ‘I’ll get you a change of sheets.’

‘Thanks,’ I say. ‘Are you sure you don’t mind?’

‘The alternative is that you sleep in the den. You won’t get much privacy in there.’

‘It won’t be for long,’ I say.

‘You aren’t staying?’

‘I don’t know what I’m doing. This… well, it’s all out of the blue.’

‘Are you at college?’ Harley stuffs his hands into his pockets and leans back against the desk. His soft brown eyes framed with long lashes and strong brows seem to take in more than just what I’m telling him. ‘I am… but I don’t know if I’m going to go back.’

‘How come?’

‘That’s a story for another time,’ I say.

He nods slowly three times. ‘This must be difficult for you… coming back like this when…’ He pauses, stumbling over the words, “your dad had died.” No one ever seems comfortable talking about death.

‘It’s definitely not easy. I didn’t know anything about you guys.’

‘We knew about you.’ He smiles as though he’s remembering. ‘Dad was always mentioning you. I think he did it to keep his memories alive. He always wanted us to know that we had a sister out there somewhere. A sister we would need to take care of one day.’

I bristle as Harley refers to my Dad as his. This situation is so messed up, I really don’t know how to feel. ‘A sister you didn’t know. Why would you need to take care of me?’ I raise my eyebrows and cock my head to the side.

‘Because that’s what family does, Maggie.’

Harley straightens up and heads to the closet. He disappears momentarily and returns with a stack of linens. ‘Here, let me help you change this.’

He places the sheets on the desk and starts tugging at his bed, pulling the pillowcases off, the under sheet, and the comforter. He quickly remakes the bed while I stand with my arms hanging uselessly at my sides. When he flaps the comforter across the bed, my hair flies around me in the wind.

‘Thanks,’ I say. ‘I really do appreciate all this.’

‘It’s okay.’ Harley shrugs. ‘If the situation were reversed, I’m sure you’d do the same. I’ll show you Dad’s room now.’

I know that I’m going to need to face this, but just the thought of stepping across that threshold sends a wave of hollowness through my chest. Harley strides out of the room with as much purpose as he entered, and I shuffle reluctantly behind him. When he reaches a door further up the hallway, he pauses outside. I can tell this moment is as hard for him as it is for me, maybe even harder. My dad had been a parent to this man when he had no other — a rock in his life, not a virtual stranger for so many years. He was here when Dad died, and maybe he saw him before he was taken away.

‘We haven’t touched anything. It’s all as it was. Figured it was up to you to go through everything in there.’

‘I don’t know if I can,’ I say softly. Harley turns, and his eyes that meet mine are filled with empathy.

‘It’s going to be hard,’ he says. ‘I’m not going to lie and tell you otherwise. It’ll be hard, but you’ll be okay. All of this… it’s part of life. We’re born, we live, and we pass on.’ He nods once and then twists the handle and opens the door.

For a moment, I stand frozen, then a smell so familiar reaches me that I have to clutch onto the door jamb for support. I can smell my dad, the linger of his cologne still in the air. It’s so unexpected that I’m frozen.

‘It still smells of him,’ Harley says, shaking his head. Then he’s walking into the room.

I can’t follow. It’s just too overwhelming. I close my eyes, inhaling deeply, but that only makes it worse. Then I feel a hand on my arm. ‘It’s okay,’ Harley says. When I open my eyes, I find him close. Close enough that I can see the flecks of gold in his eyes and a scar on his cheek that I imagine is a sports injury. He doesn’t strike me as a brawler. I blink slowly and breathe out the breath I’ve been holding. ‘I should have been here,’ I say. ‘I’m here too late.’

‘Maybe,’ Harley says cryptically. ‘We can’t do anything about what happened in the past. We’ve already stepped over that threshold. All we can do is deal with the present. I want you to come into this room with me today. You don’t need to do anything, although there’s plenty to do. I want you to come in with me so that you get over this hurdle. Another small step tomorrow, and nothing will seem so hard, okay?’

I nod, and Harley does something I’m not expecting at all. He takes hold of my hand in his huge, warm grasp and leads me inside. It’s difficult to look around and see all the small material things that made up my dad’s life. There’s still a sweater slung over the chair and a pile of paperwork that hasn’t been sorted. The bed has been stripped, and the mattress is standing against the wall. ‘We’ll dispose of the mattress tomorrow and order a new one. If you decide to stay, this will be your space. We can help you decorate… Dad taught us how to do pretty much everything around the house.’

‘I’m not going to stay,’ I say.

‘Whatever you decide.’ Harley’s still holding my hand, and it’s so reassuring that it makes me crave more. I know that Harley’s arms would be a safe place to cry. They’re rounded with muscle, his chest broad and strong.

But he’s my foster brother and a stranger to me, and I don’t trust myself at all. I’ve already gotten into a mess by fantasizing about one relationship that could never have been real. I can’t do it again, not in my condition.

I have to learn to stand on my own two feet. I can’t let myself think of this man as anything other than someone I’m going to know in passing.

I feel his hand squeeze mine, and I catch him gazing down at me with a quizzical look in his eyes. Men certainly aren’t my area of expertise, but I feel his interest in me is more than just straight-up curiosity.

There are eleven men in this house, eleven men who could get ideas into their heads. For the duration of my stay, we’re going to be living in close proximity, and who knows where people’s imaginations might go. I need to make sure that nothing happens. I need surety that they’ll leave me alone because I don’t trust myself to be strong enough to do the right thing.

‘I might not go back to college because I’m pregnant,’ I say.

Harley’s eyebrows rise, but he doesn’t let go of my hand. ‘How many weeks?’

‘Six,’ I say. ‘I just found out. It’s the reason my mom called my dad. The reason we found out what happened.’

Harley nods. ‘I’m sorry that he didn’t get to hear your news,’ he says. ‘He would have been happy.’

‘I’m nineteen,’ I say. ‘Nobody’s happy.’

‘What about the father?’

‘Especially the father. It’s a long story.’

Harley shakes his head, squeezing my hand. ‘Well, he’s an idiot.’

‘I think I want to go and get my bags now. It’s been a long day.’

‘Sure. I’ll help you.’

It’s me who releases my grasp on Harley’s hand first to make my way out of my dad’s room and down the wide staircase. Harley helps me with my bags, and we take everything back to his room. His twin is there when we get back, gathering the things that he’ll need to sleep downstairs. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say.

‘Don’t be. It’s really no problem.’ When they’ve both descended the staircase, I take a seat on the edge of the bed and rest my head in my hands.

This has been a tough day, that’s for sure, but tomorrow I will have more strength. I have to get through it all because there isn’t an alternative. I open my purse to find my phone so that I can message Mom to let her know I’m safe. The letter my dad wrote still rests inside, but I have no idea when I’ll feel ready to open it and read what’s inside.

Step by step.

One day at a time.

I have thirty-four weeks to get ready.


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