Better than Perfect


  I close my eyes while Derek takes over. He’s right. I’ve never felt so loved and cared for in my entire life. He’s so gentle and patient and knows just the right thing to do and suddenly I’m crying out his name and he cries out mine. I know this dream won’t last forever and a part of me will always want him as a permanent fixture in my life.

  “You own a piece of me,” he murmurs as he holds me afterward.

  “Good,” I tell him. “And just so you know . . . I’m never giving it back.”

  Chapter 53

  Derek

  In the past, I knew what I wanted and went for it with a vengeance. When I was younger, it was football. I did what I had to do in order to be the best.

  The day after Ashtyn and I spent the night together in the shed, I’m on the plane headed back to Texas. My grandmother is sitting across from me with a stoic look on her face. I know she bonded with Brandi, Julian, and Ashtyn. Hell, I even saw her secretly feed Falkor scraps of food under the table when she thought nobody was looking.

  After we land, Harold picks us up.

  “Did you have a nice time?” Harold asks us.

  My grandmother and I look at each other. “The weather in Chicago is atrociously hot and humid,” she says in a haughty tone. “But Fremont is a charming town. With people who grew on me, I suppose. Right, Derek?”

  “Right,” I say.

  I enter my grandmother’s house and it just doesn’t feel right. It’s too big and too empty. At night, I stare at the stark white walls and know this isn’t where I want to be.

  Before the sun comes up, I walk downstairs and am surprised to find my grandmother sitting in the library all by herself. She’s got my mom’s letter in her hand.

  “You can’t sleep?”

  She shakes her head and puts the letter down. “It’s not for lack of trying. What about you, Derek?”

  “I can’t sleep, either.” I sit next to her. “You miss my mom?”

  She nods. “Yes. Very much.”

  “Me, too.” I look at my grandmother and for the first time since my mom died, I realize what I want. I want to be there for Julian and Brandi, the family I never knew I wanted. I want to be close to my grandmother even though she drives me nuts. I want to show Ashtyn what it means to be loved unconditionally—because she’s the only girl I want to be with and I don’t ever want her to feel alone again.

  I want to fight for her. And go for it with a vengeance.

  It’s been a long time since I set a plan in motion, other than a stupid prank, but that competitive instinct kicks in as if it were never gone in the first place. I feel excitement and blood rushing through my veins as I plot out what I need to do. It won’t be easy—far from it. But I welcome the challenge.

  “Grams?”

  “Yes, Derek. Did I ever tell you that I hate when you call me that?”

  “It’s a term of endearment, because I love you,” I tell her, getting me a jab in the ribs. “I want to go back to Chicago. And I want you to come with me.”

  “I’m a Texan, Derek,” she says.

  “Me, too. Think we can be Texans who just happen to live somewhere else?”

  She thinks about it for a minute, then nods. “Yes. Yes, I think we can give it a whirl and try it. I’ll have Harold help us find a decent house to live in that’s not too far from Brandi and Ashtyn. Of course Harold and the staff will relocate with us . . . and I have to come back periodically to oversee Worthington Industries. You know you’re the heir to the company, don’t you?”

  “You keep reminding me.”

  “Good.”

  This is more than fixing the mistakes I made in the past. This is bringing purpose back into my life, something I’d been missing. Ashtyn knew I had fight left in me . . . and she helped me realize that I have goals and dreams just like she does.

  My grandmother is more than happy to help set my plans in motion. It takes a bunch of calls to some universities and coaches I once played with, and pulling some strings that only an heir of Worthington Industries can pull off. I fly back to Chicago when I know Ashtyn’s got her interview at Northwestern University. I know she won’t be at practice. As soon as I land, I head over to Fremont High.

  I walk on the field, and the familiar scent of fresh-cut grass envelops me. The coach is in an intense conversation with one of the assistant coaches. “Coach Dieter,” I say, jogging to catch up with him.

  The coach turns around, his sharp blue eyes giving me a onceover. “Yeah?”

  I swallow. Suddenly I’m nervous. How could my nerves be wound tight just by talking to a small-town coach? Probably because in the back of my mind, I know this is it and I can’t turn back.

  “I’m a transfer student,” I tell Dieter. “I’m startin’ here in the fall and—”

  “Son, I haven’t got all day. State your business.”

  I tell him, straight up, “I want to play ball. Quarterback.”

  He chuckles.

  “Listen, I know you lost McKnight and your backup isn’t exactly starter material.” I can’t afford to show any weakness, only determination and confidence. “I’ll be better than McKnight on his best day.”

  Coach Dieter’s eyebrows rise. “You sure are a cocky sonofa-bitch. What’s your name?”

  I hold out my hand. “Derek. Derek Fitzpatrick.”

  The coach takes my hand and shakes it. It’s a manly shake, one of those hard ones that tests the strength of another guy and it’s over before you know it.

  “Where’d you play?”

  “Started in Alabama, then played at Sierra High in California. State champion, all-state player—”

  “What year are you?”

  “I’ll be a senior.”

  Dieter calls over one of the assistant coaches. “Derek Fitzpatrick, this is our DC, Coach Heilmann. Coach Heilmann, Derek here thinks he’s a better QB than Landon McKnight.”

  The defensive coordinator gives a short laugh, then shrugs. “What the hell. I’d give him a tryout, Bill. At this point it can’t hurt,” the assistant coach says before leaving us alone again.

  Dieter taps his pen on his clipboard. “What can hurt is egomaniac wannabes wasting my time.” Before I can tell him about my stats, he says, “Follow me, son. Let’s get you suited up and see what you got.”

  I follow the coach into the locker room, where the rest of the team is putting on their gear. He motions for me to wait outside the equipment cage while he grabs me pads and a helmet. After he hands them to me, I sit on a bench and check out my future teammates.

  I catch sight of Victor immediately. He takes one look at me and storms up, facing me head-on with fierce hatred on his face. “Get the fuck out of here, Fitzpatrick. You think you can hurt Ashtyn, then suddenly have a change of heart and expect her to run back in your arms so you can take advantage of her again? That’s bullshit, man. I don’t trust you, and neither does anyone else on this team, so you might as well go back to where you came from.”

  “I’m not goin’ anywhere,” I tell him.

  “Oh, yeah? You want to get to Ashtyn, you’ve got to get through every single one of us.”

  “No problem.” Whatever it takes. I’m not backing down.

  He pushes me. I push back.

  We’re about to get into it when Dieter blows his whistle. Everybody stops what they’re doing and suddenly the entire locker room is quiet. All eyes are on me. Obviously if Victor considers me the enemy, they all consider me the enemy.

  “Everyone on the field!” Dieter yells.

  Shit, this is not going to be easy.

  Jet pushes my helmet off the bench. “Don’t expect any one of us to kiss your ass or fawn all over you because you’re supposed to be some sort of master QB and all. We all watched Ashtyn cry for days after you left. It was fucked-up, ’cause she never gets that emotional. You got a death wish, this is the right place.”

  When I run on the field after suiting up, Victor walks right up to Dieter. “We want Butter in as QB, Coach.”

/>   Dieter doesn’t even look up from his clipboard. “I’m not planning anything but a winning season. From my experience, there’s nothin’ like shaking things up to make a team stronger. Maybe a new QB will light a fire under your asses.”

  Victor is getting riled up now, because he’s breathing hard and his fist is clenched on to the face mask of his helmet hanging at his side. “Coach—”

  “Salazar, stop whining. Now get your ass over to calisthenics. You, too, Fitzpatrick.”

  Victor stalks over to the field where the rest of the team is doing jumping jacks. Dieter grabs my elbow as I walk past him. “He’s not gonna make it easy for you.”

  “I’m not used to things coming easy,” I say.

  I better keep my mind on the game and not the girl who has invaded my thoughts and my life.

  During practice, I’m ordered to shadow the current QB, Brandon Butter. After he runs a play, Dieter sidelines him and tells me to call the same play. My handoff to Trey Matthews is textbook, but he drops the ball as soon as his hands touch the leather.

  “What the hell?” I ask Trey after he drops the ball a second time. “That was a textbook handoff.”

  He starts walking away. “For a prodigy, your skills are obviously lacking,” he mumbles, then crudely grabs his crotch for my benefit.

  “Fuck you. My skills are spot-on.”

  Jet isn’t any help, either. He tries his hardest to catch the current QB’s throws every time, even when they’re way off target, but he practically runs in the opposite direction the second the ball leaves my hand.

  The guys on the offensive line leave a hole wide open for Victor to sack me. He does, repeatedly.

  “Dude, you suck!” Victor says to me when we’re getting in formation. He chuckles, amused at my inability to show off my skills.

  “I wouldn’t suck if your teammates would do their job,” I yell.

  As the ball is hiked to me, I look for Jet but am immediately sacked by Victor again. None of my offensive linemen are protecting me.

  “That was for Ashtyn,” Victor says, shoving me to the ground as I try to get up. Then he puts a hand out to help me, but I don’t take it. It’s his damn fault I got sacked. With my frustration at an all-time high, I stand up and push him. He’s a linebacker. I shouldn’t be surprised that his feet stay solid on the ground.

  “Want a piece of me?” he asks.

  Jet appears between us. He grabs the front of my jersey and urges me away from Vic.

  It’s too late. “Give me what you got, Salazar.”

  I brace myself and keep my center of gravity as he attempts to shove me to the ground. Ha. The big guy thought he’d take me down without an effort, but I’m one stubborn motherfucker, my adrenaline is running high, and I refuse to be taken down. Frustrated, he removes his helmet and gets in my face. Dieter blows his whistle. I think he’s been blowing it ever since I got sacked, but I’m ignoring it just like everyone else at this point.

  “You can’t expect to come here, snap your fingers, and make us work for you,” Salazar says.

  I whip off my helmet. “I’ve played with freshmen who could run circles around you.”

  He rushes me just as Coach Dieter blows his whistle again. It’s not easy to fight with equipment on. We’re rolling on the ground trying to get at each other.

  “Break it up!” I hear Dieter yelling.

  A bunch of guys force us off each other.

  “Fitzpatrick, on the bench!” Dieter orders, motioning to the sidelines.

  What the hell? I’m being singled out? Fuck that. “You’ve got to be kiddin’. Coach, it wasn’t my—”

  Dieter points to the bench, cutting me off. “I’m not gonna say it again.”

  This team . . . these assholes . . . are fucking up my chance. I sit on the bench, seething from every pore of my body as the players put in 110 percent for Butter even though he sucks.

  “Fitzpatrick, get your butt over here!” Coach Dieter yells from across the field. “The rest of you, take a lap around the field, then you’re dismissed.”

  I grab my helmet and walk over to the coach. “I didn’t come here to be sidelined.” I can’t hide my frustration.

  “Listen, Derek, despite what happened on the field I can tell you’ve got a good arm.”

  “If the team’ll back me up—”

  “They won’t.” He takes his hat off and leans forward. “I can tell them until my face is blue, but for some reason the guys don’t trust you. My boys’ll take a hit to protect Butter even if it means breakin’ their bones to do it. You need to earn their respect and loyalty. Once you do that, we’ve got a real good shot this year. It’s up to you. You up for the challenge?”

  “Yeah, Coach.”

  “Good. Now go do damage control and fix whatever drama is happening off the field, then meet me back here for practice Monday morning.”

  In the parking lot, Salazar is about to get on his motorcycle. He stiffens when he sees me.

  “I’m tryin’ to get Ashtyn back,” I tell him.

  “Good luck with that,” he says with a shake of his head. “Not gonna happen.”

  “Dammit, Salazar . . .” Time to let it all out, because there might not be a second chance at this. “I love her.” I open my arms out wide. “Why do you think I’m doin’ all this? It’s for her, it’s for us, it’s for me. Shit, I don’t know. Maybe you’re right and I’m the biggest asshole who ever walked the earth. But you know more than anyone how she feels about me. If I have a remote chance of winnin’ her back . . . I’ve got to do this. Hell, I don’t blame you for wantin’ to beat the shit out of me. She wants a winning team, Salazar. I want to help give that to her. Help me give that to her.”

  He lowers his head and sighs. “You hurt her, Fitzpatrick. She cried in my arms like a fuckin’ baby, man. She’s like a sister to me and I will not let you hurt her again.”

  “I don’t intend to. I hate to ask you this, but I need your help.”

  “With what?”

  “I need to borrow tapes of every game Fremont’s played for the past three years.”

  “Every game?” Victor narrows his eyes like he did that first day we met. He looked at me like I was the enemy on a rival team. “Should I trust you?”

  I look him straight in the eye and say, “No. But I’d really appreciate it if you did.”

  Chapter 54

  Ashtyn

  I take a deep breath as I sit in front of the coaching staff at Northwestern. It’s considered the Ivy League school of the Midwest and one of the best football programs. I attended a seminar about the school and took an all-day tour of the campus. It’s beautiful here, right on the shores of Lake Michigan. I can’t help but wish Derek were here to say you can do this.

  Derek. As much as I try to push the memories of us together to the back of my mind, I can’t. He’s become a part of me, whether he feels the same about me or not. When I close my eyes and think about him gently touching my face, running his hand through my hair, or just holding me because he knows I need to be held, I actually feel a calmness I haven’t felt since my mom left.

  I want to fly to Texas, grab him, and tell him how much I want him to choose me. But if I do, I won’t be letting him choose his own path. I don’t want to ever feel like I forced or coerced him to be with me. He obviously wasn’t ready for a commitment, at least with me. I just want him to be happy. If he’s happy without me in Texas, I need to be okay with it.

  Who am I kidding? I’ll never be okay with it, and I miss him so damn bad. He’s my best friend, the one who taught me that I’m worthy of being loved. He made me feel confident that my mom was the one who was losing out.

  For the first time in my life, I actually believe it.

  “While we’re impressed with your performance last year and you received a wonderful recommendation from Coach Bennett at Elite and Coach Dieter at Fremont, we’re just not ready to offer you any kind of assistance or a scholarship,” the coach says. “We have a lot of kickers
to consider, Ashtyn. You’re on our watch list, but to be honest, there’s a bunch of players ahead of you and we want to be realistic. But we thank you for your time and interest in Northwestern. It’s a great school, and we’d love to have you as a student here.”

  I nod, thank them for considering me, and the meeting is over in a matter of minutes. Once I’m back in the elevator on my way down to the first floor, a deep pang of sorrow settles into my chest at the realization that one door is closed.

  They don’t think I’m good enough.

  When the elevator opens, I hear a familiar cranky old lady say in a commanding voice, “I’m telling you that I don’t need an appointment with the coach! I need to see him now.”

  Derek’s grandmother is wielding her umbrella like a sword in front of the doorman’s face. The woman looks ready to slice the doorman in two, or at least whack him on the head if she doesn’t get her way.

  “Ma’am, it’s against policy to let you in the elevator without an appointment.”

  “You are obviously a nincompoop when it comes to recognizing authority,” Elizabeth Worthington barks out, frustration and agitation laced in her voice. “Now get out of my way so I can see my . . .”

  Mrs. Worthington lowers her umbrella and clears her throat the second she sees me. “Hello, Ashtyn.”

  Just being in the same room with the old lady, even when she’s threatening someone, is supremely comforting. “Mrs. Worthington, what are you doing here?”

  “This heathen doorman has vexed me to no end,” she says. She sighs in annoyance while she reaches into the purse hanging from her forearm and pulls out a monogrammed handkerchief. She dabs invisible sweat off her forehead.

  It doesn’t escape my attention that she hasn’t answered my question. It’s a habit she obviously picked up from her grandson. Or maybe it’s hereditary, and they were both born with the trait.

  But I’m not about to let her off the hook. “I thought you went back to Texas. What are you doing here?”