It was so fun to see all the guys. I could tell they were all excited to see me too. Other than Skyler. He seemed almost mad at me. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe because we were all standing around talking rather than getting started.
We’d have to save the reunion celebrations for later in the day. Maybe some of them would want to come with me to get brunch at Shea’s Diner after practice.
“Warm it up,” Skyler’s gruff voice demanded from just outside the circle. “Run the perimeter of the field twice.”
“Ah, man, come one,” Jayce complained. “It’s the first practice. Do we have to go around twice?”
“Nope—” Skyler stepped right up to look Jayce in the eye. “We’ll go three times instead.”
“Thanks a lot, Jayce,” Connor mumbled as he took off to the edge of the field. Others followed Connor, some grumbling, some resigned expressions.
I hung back to run with Skyler after he set down his gear. We’d always run together. We needed to be in sync. Perfect harmony. I needed to know what he was thinking all the time so I could be in the right position at the right time to make the plays count.
I needed to know instinctively if I was to be a decoy or his target, but the opposing team couldn’t suspect either way. To have a connection that strong required years of working together. We had that unique connection.
Skyler didn’t start a conversation. I’d love to claim we ran in companionable silence, but that wasn’t the case. Our run was uncomfortable. Still, I wasn’t going to be the one to break the ice. If he was having a bad day, I would just be there for him, running by his side.
I chanced a sidelong glance at Skyler’s profile. His chestnut hair was shorter. He usually styled it with a little gel to hold back the bangs that naturally flopped to the side. This more natural length didn’t need gel and was probably cooler for the muggy Michigan summers.
He’d grown over the past three months. He looked like a man. A kinda hot man. Okay, a really hot man. Amberlyn was lucky to have him for a boyfriend. I wondered if I’d ever have a boyfriend.
Guys didn’t see me like that, like a potential girlfriend. I was one of them. They talked about things in front of me that they would never say to a girl they liked, or even a girl they wanted to hook up with. Their cadence changed when girls were around, but not with me.
Today I was at a loss for words. Part of me wanted to ask how his summer vacation had been. I was curious if he and Amberlyn had driven to the U.P. to go to the Hessel Boat Show again this year. I also wanted to know what strategies he had planned for our first game, just three short weeks from now. I wanted to know if he’d chosen a college yet, if he’d heard any talk of scholarships.
But I didn’t ask him any of it. I just ran beside him. He barely acknowledged me, almost as if purposely avoiding eye contact. I wondered if my presence was annoying him.
Only a few of us were winded from the quick warm-up. It was obvious who had kept in shape over the summer and who had sat around playing video games and eating junk food. Aiden in particular looked a little green and clammy. We needed him on the defensive line. He needed to get back in shape, and fast.
When we sat on the grass to stretch, Connor sat particularly close and asked me in a low voice, “What are you doing after practice?”
“I was thinking about going to Shea’s Diner and having brunch,” I answered. “You wanna come?”
“Heck yeah,” Connor said.
“Can I come too?” Jayce asked.
“Definitely, I want all of you to come.” The guys within earshot are all smiles. I notice Skyler pull his brows into a scowl. What’s his problem? I looked away.
“That’s enough stretching,” Skyler said much sooner than he normally would. “I want lunges to the fifty-yard-line, side shuffles to the end zone, then walking knee hugs all the way back here.”
“Weird sequence,” Connor mumbled, but hopped to his feet. He offered me his hand to help me off the grass like a gentleman. “Milady.”
“Why thank you, sir.” I imitated my best Southern Belle accent, slipped my hand into his and let him pull me practically into his arms. I pushed him away playfully and brushed grass off my backside.
“I said lunges,” Skyler called. Several of the guys around me seemed to wake up from a stupor.
I led the way, trying once again to be a good example. I almost felt like a mamma duck with all her little ducklings falling in behind. When we switched to side-shuffles at the fifty-yard-line I found them surprisingly easier than in years past. It was almost as if my center of gravity was more balanced now that I’d become a woman. I felt like a dancer and seemed to glide the rest of the way down the field. Walking knee hugs on the way back stretched my gluts perfectly. I was ready to start drills.
Skyler and Logan were the last two to complete the warm-ups and seemed to be in deep conversation when they came to a halt. They stood side by side as Skyler called, “Bring it in, let’s talk.”
We formed a semi-circle around them and waited for direction. Connor and Jayce flanked me on either side, and I sensed a pattern. I had a feeling the three of us were going to be best friends this season. Skyler seemed to cock his head to the side while staring at the three of us. I cocked my head right back and raised my eyebrows. His expression shifted as if remembering the task at hand and he reached his arm around Logan’s shoulders.
“We have in our midst one of the best running backs in the district,” Skyler said. Logan’s mouth gaped as if this was news to him. He was good, yes. But the best? “Because of this, I intend to rely heavily on our running game this season.”
My stomach dropped. There were two main plays in football: running plays and passing plays. The only plays that involved the wide receiver were passing.
He was rendering me irrelevant. What the heck?
I lowered my gaze and fought the emotions threatening to surface. My rule since elementary school had been to never cry on the football field. No matter how many times I got tackled, or how hard it hurt to hit the turf, I would take it like a man. I would not let them see me as anything less than their equal. I could handle anything physical they threw at me.
But getting snubbed by my quarterback? That hurt on a deeper level. I barely heard his remaining instructions and missed the opening play call.
The next thing I knew I was flat on my back and Connor was leaning over me with his hand outstretched. “Are you okay, Jonnie?”
I used his arm as leverage to hoist myself off the ground, dusting off my backside. I was reminded of my earlier internal dialogue about not hurting when I got tackled. I take it back. That hurt. I looked up to Skyler scowling.
“Pick up the slack, Gillis. Get back in position.” Skyler turned away and called out, “Same play.”
Oh crap. What a way to start our first practice of the season. I was in trouble.