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TEAM PLAYERS: Chapter 9


I’m woken by the rumble of footsteps in the hallway and down the wooden staircase. Whoever is moving around the house is considerate enough to wait to talk downstairs, but even then, the deep reverberation of voices can be heard all over the house. I’m not used to living with men. My mom moves around our small home as quiet as a mouse. There’s no booming laughs or feet that sound like a stampede of elephants.

I glance around, trying to familiarize myself with my new surroundings. I rub the sleep from my eyes and try to swallow down the ripple of nausea I feel just above my stomach. In my bag, I have some ginger tea and biscuits. It’s supposed to help with morning sickness. Before I head to the kitchen for my strange new breakfast, I take a look in the mirror. My hair is mussed from sleep, so I smooth it with my hands, straightening my clothes too.

Worrying about looking presentable first thing in the morning isn’t something I’m used to either.

I take my empty glass from the nightstand and cautiously make my way from the room. The stairs creak a little as I tiptoe down, half expecting to stumble across someone in the hallway. There are so many people in this house that it is doubtful that anyone ever gets any privacy.

John is in the kitchen with Reggie, Harley, and Hunter. Reggie is at the stove wearing only black joggers that hug the muscles of his ass and thighs in a way that is almost eyewatering. His chest is like an image you’d find on the cover of a romance novel, rippled with muscle and strength. He’s holding a kitchen implement and is flipping something over in the skillet. The air is filled with the delicious scent of cooking sausage and bacon that unfortunately makes my stomach turn. This baby might be the size of a raisin, but it is really affecting my mojo.

‘Just in time, Maggie,’ John says, looking up from his phone. ‘Reggie is cooking up a storm.’

‘Burning the hell out of good food, more like,’ Hunter says, sipping from a mug. There’s a half-filled pot of coffee on the counter, which I could murder right now, but I’m supposed to be avoiding caffeine. I don’t know much about babies, but I’ve read a little about pregnancy. My ginger tea seems completely unappealing.

‘I just need some hot water,’ I say.

‘Kettle’s here,’ Reggie says, lifting an old-fashioned stainless steel one from the stove.

Harley leaves his chair and reaches up into a high cupboard to find me a cup. His t-shirt rides up, revealing two inches of his back and side that my eyes seem to be glued to. Damn these men for being so sexy in the morning. ‘Did you sleep well?’ His eyes meet mine as he hands me the black mug. I’m not keen on drinking out of mugs this dark. It’s impossible to see if they’re actually clean, but I don’t want to be rude. ‘Yeah. The bed was so comfortable.’

He smiles broadly. ‘My bed is the best in the house.’

‘Yeah, without you in it,’ Hunter mutters.

‘That’s not what your girlfriend says,’ Harley bites back.

‘That’s because I don’t have one.’ Hunter shakes his head.

Harley flops down next to his brother. ‘Well, she would if you did.’

‘Ignore them.’ Reggie waves the spatula at his brothers. ‘They’re twins. They don’t know how to live with each other or without each other.”

I rest the cup on the counter, dropping the tea bag in the bottom and reaching for the hot kettle. The smell of the brewing tea makes my nose fizz.

‘What is that?’ Reggie asks, peering at the yellowy liquid with interest.

‘Ginger tea. It’s good for sickness,’ I say, shrugging my shoulders. ‘I have no idea if this works.’

‘You feeling bad?’ he asks, his expression softening with sympathy.

‘Just in the morning, really, or if I’m tired.’

‘Well, you just let us know if we can do anything to make it better.’

I smile quickly. ‘Thanks.’

It feels awkward to take a seat at the huge wooden table that I calculate can seat fourteen comfortably. I place my mug in front of me and watch in fascination as the black coating of the cup starts to change color.

‘You didn’t give Maggie Dwayne’s mug, did you?’ John asks Harley.

‘Shit, I forgot.’ Harley looks at me apologetically as the heat change reveals a very rude word and an explicit picture. I snort with laughter as John makes a move to get another mug. ‘It’s okay. I’ll keep this one. Save on dishes.’

‘Dwayne has a wicked sense of humor. Watch out for him.’

I sip from the mug, trying to avoid looking at the image, but the men at the table can’t seem to stop watching me with fascination. Maybe they’re as unused to having women around the house as I am with men. I don’t want them to think that I’m a shy wallflower who’s easily offended.

‘What are they?’ John asks, nodding at my little pouch of cookies.

‘Ginger cookies,’ I say.

‘You eat cookies for breakfast?’ Hunter screws up his face.

‘I eat anything I can hold down,’ I say.

‘So, what’s your plan for today?’ John takes a swig from his inoffensive mug. ‘I’m free to help with Dad’s room if that’s what you want to do.’

‘Sure,’ I say. ‘It’ll be good to get started.’ I remember the impact of walking in that door yesterday and have to swallow the burn in my throat. I keep my eyes fixed on the cookies, not wanting anyone to see how upset I am.

‘Most of the guys are working today,’ Harley says. ‘That’s why the house is quiet. They all left early.’

‘Really? What do they do?’

‘Logan teaches martial arts to kids. Gordon is part-time manager of a gym in town. Dwayne, Daryl, and Donovan work in the sportswear store just outside of town, and Sean and Trey are part-time landscapers.’

‘Wow… that’s a lot of different jobs. What about you guys?’

‘Me and Hunter do math tuition. Reggie does murals and paintings, and John works at a youth club.’

‘That’s so cool.’

‘What do you do, Maggie?’

‘I… well, my mom wants me to study, so she told me not to get a part-time job. I did work in the local mall for a while, but there was trouble.’

‘Your mom sounds protective.’ Hunter raises his eyebrow, and I don’t miss the underside to his comment. She might be protective, but I’m still a pregnant teen.

‘She is,’ I say. ‘In a good way.’ I don’t tell them about all the rows we’ve had over the years or about the number of times I called my mom a hypocrite for being a party girl in her youth and trying to stop me from living my life. I guess if I’d listened to her more, things would be different.

Reggie arrives at the table with a steaming plate of food, and my four foster brothers spear meat with their forks and butter hot toast.

The conversation turns to their latest football game, and as much as I try to listen, it’s all just too technical. What I do learn is that Gordon had a bad run-in with a rival player and has been temporarily suspended. None of his brothers are happy, but none of them are prepared to say a thing to him about it.

I nibble my cookie and sip my tea, feeling the swelling sickness in my stomach start to subside. ‘I’m gonna get dressed,’ I say when there’s a break in the conversation. ‘Knock for me when you’re ready to work on the room.’

‘Sure.’ John rubs his hand over his beard thoughtfully. The hair there looks soft, as though it could tickle. He smiles with his full lips and my mind skitters to what it would feel like if he kissed me. Thoughts like these need to stay out of my head, though. I scuttle back upstairs blushing with embarrassment.

 

It doesn’t take me long to dress, and I even apply some natural-looking make-up, chastising myself for being bothered by what these strangers think of me. When John knocks, I’m ready physically but still unprepared mentally.

At the door, John is holding boxes. ‘I found these in the garage.’

‘That should be good.’

He nods and turns, leading me to Dad’s room and resting the boxes on the bedframe. He turns, looking at the shelves, the nightstands, and the drawer units, taking in everything that Dad left behind.

I see his Adam’s apple bob, as though he too is finding it hard to be here.

‘This isn’t going to be easy,’ he says. ‘I can still smell him in here.’

‘I know.’ I take steps further into the room. ‘We’ll need some bags for things to give to Goodwill and some cleaning products too.’

‘I’ll get them,’ John says.

When he’s gone, I close my eyes, trying to picture my dad. My memories of my young childhood are sparse. One comes to mind of my dad boiling me an egg and teaching me how to smash off the shell. Another of him picking me up and turning me upside down so my hair hung down and my head swam with too much blood, and another riding on his broad shoulders through some fields, patting his soft dark curls as he walked.

Not enough memories for a daughter to have of her father, that’s for sure.

John returns with bags, a cloth, and some furniture spray. When he sees me perching on the chair with a somber expression, I can feel his empathy from his kind eyes.

‘Shall we start with the desk?’ he asks, nodding to the surface nearest to me.

‘Sure.’

To his credit, John seems methodical and organized. He lines the boxes up by the wall, shakes open two bags, handing me one. ‘We can use this for trash.’ He holds up the one in his hands. ‘This one for Goodwill and the boxes for keepsakes.’

I stare at the items on the desk in front of me. Papers. A laptop. There are drawers that contain unknown items. It all seems too overwhelming. John hesitates, seemingly waiting for me to begin, but I can’t.

‘Can you…’

He doesn’t ask why I need him to step in. He just takes hold of the nearest pile of papers and begins. ‘Trash,’ he says after glancing through. ‘We’re going to need a pile of paperwork for filing too. There are bills we will need to transfer. Accounts we will need to close.’

‘Okay. I’ll put those here.’ I indicate a small clear space.

We start to go through everything. There is a lot of trash and plenty of papers for the filing pile. As we open the drawers, I pull out an unmarked folder. Inside, I find envelopes with the boys’ names on them. John is quiet as I open the top one labeled Sean. Inside I find paperwork to do with the fostering arrangement. There are photographs of Sean as a young teen; scruffy and angry, he seems to snarl at the camera. I think of the flirty, happy man that I’ve met, and it’s hard to put these two people together into one package.

‘Sean was tough,’ John says quietly. ‘He had a difficult time.’

‘I’m sure you all did,’ I say, sliding the documents back into the envelope. This stuff is personal. A person’s tragedy and heartbreak wrapped up in a few forms and some pictures that never should have been taken. No wonder my dad wanted to take on this lost little boy. No wonder he ended up with eleven of them under his wing.

‘We did,’ John says, taking the folder and placing it into one of the keepsake boxes. I guess their separate histories is something that he doesn’t feel comfortable discarding, even though they’d probably all feel glad to have left behind what the contents represent. ‘But things changed when we came to your dad. We found a home. We found each other.’

‘You all seem really tight,’ I say.

‘We are.’ John picks up some more papers, glancing over them and handing them to me to throw away. ‘We all lost the security that a kid needs to thrive. Dad, well, he showed us how much stronger we were with each other. He taught us to trust each other, to rely on each other. He made us a team… his dream team, he called us. He created a family out of twelve individual lonely people.’ He sighs long and low. ‘I can’t believe he’s gone.’

It’s instinct to reach out and take John’s hand in mine. An instinct that drives me to try to comfort him. I know what he’s potentially here to do. If they voted in favor of trying to get me into a Danna style relationship, then it’s John’s role to soften me up to that. He could do that in lots of ways, but sympathy would seem like an easy option at this time.

The thing is, I have to be sympathetic. I have to empathize with him because I feel the same loss. We are in the same place of stunned grief, with the knowledge that neither of us quite has the right to feel like a child who has lost a true parent. Dad was a stand-in for these men and absent for me. I don’t know if that fact makes things different for us or the same.

John’s hand is big and warm, his fingers strong. I don’t know if he plays offense or defense, but either way, he has hands that look like they could deal with just about anything. I keep my eyes on the ground because holding his hand and looking into those dark brown eyes would be dangerous. Dangerous for both of us.

John’s fingers wrap around mine, his thumb gently grazing my skin. It’s intimate and soothing, and the empty space inside me where self-worth, love, and security should reside craves more. This is why I ended up in Justin’s bed. This is why I give myself over too quickly and don’t hold anything back. I shouldn’t look at him, but I’m drawn like a moth to a flame, too weak not to seek out the comfort that I know he can offer.

Those soft brown eyes seem to reach inside me and cup my heart like a gentle hand. I see his breath hitching in the movement of his shoulders. It’s not a static attraction that exists between us, just hurt and pain, and a deep need for something to soothe it.

I want him to kiss me. To pull me into his arms and make me forget. There is too much in my life that I wish I could put in a box, close the lid, and staple shut for good. Justin helped me do that for a while, and my life was a damn sight less complicated then.

John blinks, and his lips move as though he already imagines what it would be like to press them against mine. When he drops to his knee in front of me and does just that, I slip into his kiss like a spoon into honey. It feels good when he teases me with light exploratory kisses, and better when our mouths part and his tongue slides against mine. Oh God, I shouldn’t be touching his shoulders. I shouldn’t be letting him tug my hips until my legs are around his waist. I should have more sense than to open myself up to more hurt and more disappointment, but I don’t.

I’m like an addict for this. I seek out physical comfort, knowing it’s only a short-term fix for the emptiness that runs so much deeper. But while I’m letting John thread his fingers through my hair, and while I’m breathing in his scent and falling against him like a drowning woman, it feels too good to stop and do what’s right.

It’s not until the phone rings in another room that I’m jolted back to my senses, pulling back and breathing hard.

John’s eyes scan my face, his own shoulders rising and falling as though he’s been running. Seconds pass as we both search for what to say next. I could tell him it was a mistake. I could tell him we can’t do it again, but I don’t want to hurt him or make it awkward, and anyway, I’m terrible at being honest about my feelings. Maybe he struggles in that way too because he doesn’t find the words to explain away the craziness that just happened between us. I feel heat running over my face and neck, a blush of arousal and mortification.

It’s why I need to be warier so that this whole situation doesn’t become one big bundle of mistakes. I give John a small smile that I hope he reads as apologetic. ‘Shall we move on to the bathroom? I don’t think it’ll be so hard.’ When I pull my hand away, John doesn’t resist.

‘Sure. That sounds like a good idea.’ Neither of us says anything as we rise to continue the job at hand. I follow John into my dad’s adjoining bathroom, clutching the trash bag like it’s a lifeline. The room is small, with just a shower, vanity, and toilet. I don’t remember Dad taking a bath, so I guess that it must have suited him.

On the vanity, there is a toothbrush and a mostly empty tube of paste, which go straight into the bag. The shaving items do too. There is a bottle of cologne that I reach to pick up. I know it’s the one he used to wear because I remember the unusual shape of the bottle and the tan-colored liquid inside. If John wasn’t here, maybe I’d have the confidence to bring it to my nose and risk the tears that feel on the brink of emerging, but with John here I have to keep myself together. As I hesitate to drop it into the trash bag, John gently takes it from my hand. He does smell it and then braces himself on the tiled vanity top. ‘It feels strange that a smell that used to bring me comfort and familiarity now makes me feel so sad.’

Again, I rest my hand over his before I can care about the consequences. Our eyes meet in the white framed mirror, his soft brown and mine as black as midnight. He adjusts our hands, so mine are tucked beneath his palm, making it harder for me to break away.

‘You look like him,’ John says. ‘Not in an obvious way. I’ve seen pictures of your mom, and you guys are peas in a pod, but there’s something about you that’s the same as him. The darkness in your eyes… this bit of your brow where you frown. You have the same serious expression. It’s like seeing pieces of him hiding under your skin.’

He has no idea how much of my dad is under my skin, or rather the absence of my dad. The baby inside my belly grows because of the argument we had in the past and how it’s made me feel. Maybe it’ll be a boy who looks just like his grandfather. Stranger things have happened.

‘Why did you get stuck doing this with me?’

‘When there are eleven of you in a family, you each get known for a certain characteristic. I’m the one who’s good with people. I seem to have an ability to see them and understand what’s going on under the surface. Dad said it was my super strength.’

‘So, what do you think is going on under my surface?’

A flicker of a smile ghosts over his lips. ‘I don’t think I need to tell you, Maggie. I think you know already.’

‘You’re probably right.’

‘We know all our own secrets,’ John says. ‘Some we just choose not to accept.’

‘That’s deep.’

‘And that’s why I’m here.’ John squeezes my hand, and then he does something that I’m really not expecting. He tugs me toward him, holding me gently against his warm, hard body. ‘It’s going to be alright, you know.’

And in the comfort of his arms, I believe it for a second. He’s so tall that my face is pressed against his heart that beats with slow intense thuds, his smell a soft fragrance of fresh linen that soothes my jangled nerves. This should feel weird and uncomfortable, but surrounded by the scent of my father, it just feels safe.

We work for an hour, sorting trash and placing Dad’s precious things into keepsake boxes.

When my phone rings, I decide that it will be best for me to take a break. Danna’s calling, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be best for our conversation to remain private.


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