The whole world might be in love with him. But all he’s ever loved is her.
Grant Turner’s name is synonymous with football. The fans and media can’t get enough of the player known as The Invincible Man, a nickname he earned while growing up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the country and the nickname he’s kept by being one of the best players in professional football today. No one can take him down. He’s unstoppable.
But even a suit of armor has its weak point, and Grant’s has always been Ryan Hale.
They were a couple of kids when they fell in love, and just when it looked like the happy ending neither expected was within reach, Ryan disappeared. No explanations. No good-byes.
Grant coped by throwing himself into the game for seven years, and he’s finally moved on. Or so he thinks.
When she walks back into his life, all of those feelings come crashing back, despite the warnings in his head that tell him she’ll leave him again. Grant can withstand the league’s toughest defensive line, but he’s always been weak where she’s concerned.
No man can take Grant Turner down.
But one woman certainly can.
One woman will.
ONE MOMENT YOU’RE soaring. The next one, you’re touching down, scraping rock bottom.
I never planned on coming back here. The day I fled The Clink was both freeing and debilitating for a multitude of reasons I had no interest in revisiting. It had been the only home I’d ever known. It had housed the only people I’d ever loved. Still, I knew when I left seven years ago, I’d never be able to come back. That was the way it would have to be.
So why was I coming back now?
For another multitude of reasons I had no choice but to respect. That was what I kept reminding myself of as I turned onto the block that had been the one beacon of hope in this urban heart of darkness. Juniper Avenue was the official name, but all of us kids had only known it as Aunt May’s.
All of us kids who’d grown up in one of the prison-like subsidized housing complexes stretched across the one-square-mile stretch of land known as The Clink. It was one of the toughest neighborhoods in the country—violence the way of the land, drugs the currency of the kingdom. Murder, domestic violence, drug use, unemployment, ex-cons—The Clink was known for every last one of them.
It was basically a cesspool of humanity. My childhood home.
If it hadn’t been for Aunt May, I never would have escaped The Clink. If it weren’t for her, none of us would have. That was why I’d come back. For her. To say good-bye.
But I’d also come back to see him. To say what had been seven years coming.
Aunt May’s funeral was my chance to make my peace with the dead. And the living.
Just thinking about confronting him made my hands tremble, which made trying to squeeze my old Toyota into the parking spot tricky. As expected, the streets around Aunt May’s house were packed. Everyone from the corner drunk to the mayor knew who Aunt May was and would want to pay their respects to the person she’d been.
The lives she’d saved from these streets couldn’t be counted on a hundred sets of hands. I was just one of those lives. He was one of the others.
Even though he lived thousands of miles away now, I knew he’d be here tonight. I needed him to be here tonight because I’d run out of options, and one day, I’d run out of time too.
Typically these streets were not a place a woman wanted to roam on her own at night, but tonight, I wasn’t worried. Tonight, in honor of this woman, the streets would be at peace. Tonight, the gangs would set aside their turf wars, and the criminals would play nice. It was The Clink’s version of an armistice.
After locking my car, I forced myself to take each step that brought me closer to Aunt May’s house. Each one became harder to take, until the one that would lead me up her front walk felt impossible.
The sight of her house hit me harder than I’d expected. It looked exactly the same, from the lace curtains hanging in the windows, to the beds where her rose bushes had been put to rest for the season. Flowers didn’t grow in The Clink—mainly because people didn’t have any disposable income to spend on them or any patience to tend to them—but they grew here. They had always grown here, and something about realizing that now that Aunt May was gone, that might change, made my eyes burn.
The house was packed with so many bodies, people were starting to trickle out onto the front porch. There was music playing in the background, friends were catching up, lovers were embracing, and it looked more like a summer party than a fall funeral. But that was the way Aunt May would have wanted it. She wouldn’t have wanted people to mourn her death—she would have wanted them to celebrate their own lives.
From the looks of it, she’d gotten her way.
Despite the dread clawing up my throat, a smile started to journey into place as I watched the scene before me. That first step onto hallowed ground became possible, and before I knew it, I was crossing the threshold of the front door.
A few people nodded at me in passing, but it was too dark outside for recognition to settle into the brief exchange. I knew that would change when I stepped into the light of the house.
How right I was.
I could practically feel the whoosh of air crash over me as it felt like every head in the room twisted my way when I stepped inside Aunt May’s house for the first time in seven years. Some of the faces I recognized, some I didn’t, but it felt like every person recognized me. I was met with everything from eyes filled with accusation to brows raised in judgment, but I knew I deserved it.
I hadn’t just been another one of the many children Aunt May set a warm meal in front of or provided a safe haven when there was no other safe place. I’d been one of her favorites.
If you asked her, she’d say she loved all of us the same, but certain ones of us had been labeled her favorites. The truth of it was, it wasn’t because Aunt May held any more affection for us than the others; us “favorites” were the ones whose home lives were the most fucked up. The ones who spent more time with Aunt May than the rest because going back to our shithole apartment in one of The Clink’s Tower Apartment Complexes felt like playing a game of Russian Roulette each day.
So yeah, I’d been deemed one of Aunt May’s favorites because my childhood had come right out of the Fucked Up Guidebook. He’d been one of her supposed favorites too, for the exact same reason. That was a big part of the reason we’d bonded as kids. Our connection had been forged in the fires of a proverbial hell on earth. Our bond built by our shared struggle to survive.
We’d all paid a price for reaching adulthood. For some of us, the cost had been our innocence. For others, it was our soul.
My price for being here today was both. And more.
As my inspection moved from one person to the next, I felt my heart crawl higher into my throat, knowing he was close. Feeling he was close.
That was when I saw him. He was in the middle of the living room, surrounded by a crowd of people and towering even more above the mob than I remembered. It had been seven years since I’d last seen Grant Turner. An entire lifetime had passed in that time. But instead of feeling the anesthetization seven years should have tempered the pain with, the sting felt seven seconds fresh.
Time hadn’t dulled the pain; it had clearly only sharpened it.
I’d barely had a moment to brace myself for the onslaught of feelings that came at me from seeing him again, before his head finally followed the direction most of the others in the room had taken. Right toward me.
His jaw set the moment he saw me, his posture going rigid the moment after that. Clearly, time had not eased any of his pain from my betrayal either.
Then, as quickly as his attention had fallen on me, it fell away. He angled himself so his back was to me, putting up what I hoped wasn’t an impenetrable wall between us. I knew leaving the way I did must have hurt him. I knew it had to have confused and angered and betrayed him . . . but it had been seven years. Grant Turner wasn’t the same boy struggling on the streets of The Clink. His name was known by millions, his life a true Cinderella story. The troubled boy from The Clink became the man whose name was synonymous with professional football.
His life had gone from microscopic to all-encompassing. I’d assumed he’d buried what had happened between us in some unmarked grave and forgotten about it and me years ago. I’d come prepared to remind him of who I was and then bridge the reason why I was back, but I had not come prepared to take on a scorned lover. I’d come equipped to explain myself, not to defend myself, but from the look on his face just now, I’d have to do both.
Following his lead, most of the people in the room got back to doing what they had been before I showed up, seeming as content to ignore me as he was.
My arm curled around my stomach like it was trying to keep me from breaking in half. Too much. Too fast.
What had I been thinking, coming back after all this time? After the way I’d left? After the way I’d hurt Aunt May and Grant with my abrupt disappearance? What I had to tell him would be difficult to tell a closest confidant—how was I supposed to explain it to someone who clearly couldn’t stand me being in the same room as him? How could I expect him to listen to what I had to say once I worked up the courage to voice it?
I looked over my shoulder, eyeing the door I’d just come through with a bit too much longing. I couldn’t leave. I’d come to make peace, and I was going to do just that. No matter how much it cost me.
That was when I felt an arm slide through one of mine, as someone started to lead me into the kitchen. “Welcome to The Pariah Club. Your membership card’s in the mail. Here’s a new member tip—if it feels like everyone in the room is silently judging you, it’s because they are.”
The voice was familiar, and when I matched it with the equally familiar face, I nudged my fellow pariah in the side. “How much are the annual dues?”
Cruz tapped his chin a few times as he steered us through the herd of people that had overflowed into the kitchen. “Just your dignity, self-respect, and faith in humanity.”
I felt a smile surfacing. Cruz’s gift of making people smile had transferred into adulthood. “What a bargain.”
After Cruz had steered us into a somewhat private spot in the kitchen, he crossed his arms and waited with an expectant look on his face. I wasn’t sure what he was waiting for, but that might have been because I was still reeling from being plunged so suddenly into my past.
“So?” he prompted, rolling his hand a few times at me. “Are you going to explain what happened seven years ago, or are you just hoping I’ll be content to pick up right where we left off?”
My forehead creased. “Kinda hoping we can just pick up where we left off.”
Cruz looked like he was considering that for a minute, which gave me the opportunity to catch my breath. Confronting The Clink, Aunt May’s house, and Grant all within the same five-minute span made me feel like the room was spinning. Not to mention the eyes I kept feeling zeroing in on me—everyone’s thoughts were almost as loud as their words.
At least with Cruz, I knew I was safe from the judgment. Safe because he’d been a lightning rod for it, growing up as one of the few openly gay kids in The Clink. Being one of the only out-of-the-closet gay boys living in a neighborhood where testosterone and overt male bravado ruled the streets hadn’t been easy for him. He’d survived it though, his humor and ability to laugh at himself his saving grace.
“Lucky for you, I’m one of those people who’s okay with forgiving and forgetting. Even when a good friend bails without so much as a good-bye or an occasional call to let her worried-sick friends know she’s okay.” Cruz’s brow carved higher into his forehead. “But I know someone who isn’t so into the forgive-and-forget philosophy.”
My gaze followed Cruz’s into the living room, where it was impossible to miss Grant’s imposing frame. His back was still to me, almost like he was acutely aware of where I was and determined to keep his back pointed my way.
My shoulders fell. Once upon a time, we’d been each other’s everything, and now, I felt as though we had nothing left of what had been so grand and beautiful. “He was really angry with me, wasn’t he?”
“Oh, cupcake, angry is for guys who wear polo shirts and walk miniature doggies. Angry is not for the likes of Grant Turner.”
Cruz and I exchanged a look. The realm of average human emotion had never been quite appropriate for Grant Turner. From the time he’d moved to The Clink with his dad all of those years ago, I’d known that. There’d been an intensity about him, a spirit that wound deeper into his core than most.
“So you’re saying he was really angry after I left?”
Cruz smiled tightly, patting my arm a few times. “He was the human equivalent of Chernobyl. How about we leave it at that because that’s as fitting of a metaphor as I’m capable of right now?”
My heart ached as I imagined the pain I’d caused him—for the one-millionth goddamn time. “That was forever ago. He’s moved past it, I’m sure.”
“Sure, sure,” Cruz agreed, waving in Grant’s direction. “Just look how at moved on past it he is.”
My eyes stung from watching how Grant seemed to prefer the company of everyone besides me. It felt like yesterday when the opposite had been true. I wouldn’t cry though, no matter how badly my eyes burned. I’d dried myself out years ago.
“I never meant to hurt him,” I whispered. “I never meant to hurt any of you.”
Cruz wound his arm through mine again. “I know that. Aunt May knew that. Hell, even Grant knew that.” Cruz paused, his face turning toward mine. “But that doesn’t mean you didn’t hurt us.”
My body leaned into his, almost like I needed his support because I was unable to stay upright on my own. It was odd the way our roles had shifted. Back then, it had been Grant and me who Cruz leaned on for support, and now, I was leaning on him.
“I’m sorry.” My words came out louder than I’d intended, drawing the attention of a few people close by.
If Cruz noticed my louder-than-needed apology, he didn’t show it. “Apology accepted.” His arm wound around my back when my head dropped to his shoulder.
“Do you think apologizing to Grant will be that easy?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.
“Has anything been easy where Grant Turner and you are concerned?” I didn’t have to give that a moment’s consideration.
“No. Nothing ever has been.”
It never would be either.
Nicole Williams is the New York Times and USATODAY bestselling author of contemporary and young adult romance, including the Crash and Lost & Found series. Her books have been published by HarperTeen and Simon & Schuster in both domestic and foreign markets, while she continues to self-publish additional titles. She is working on a new YA series with Crown Books (a division of Random House) as well. She loves romance, from the sweet to the steamy, and writes stories about characters in search of their happily even after. She grew up surrounded by books and plans on writing until the day she dies, even if it’s just for her own personal enjoyment. She still buys paperbacks because she’s all nostalgic like that, but her kindle never goes neglected for too long. When not writing, she spends her time with her husband and daughter, and whatever time’s left over she’s forced to fit too many hobbies into too little time.
Nicole is represented by Jane Dystel, of Dystel and Goderich Literary Agency.