Now here you go again, you say you want your freedom
Well, who am I to keep you down?
It's only right that you should play the way you feel it
But listen carefully to the sound of your loneliness
Like a heartbeat drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering what you had
And what you lost
And what you had
And what you lost
Oh, thunder only happens when it's raining
Players only love you when they're playing
Say, women, they will come and they will go
When the rain washes you clean, you'll know
(Christen - “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac)
I saw the part of you
That only when you're older, you will see too
You will see too
I held the better cards
But every stroke of luck has gotta bleed through
It's gotta bleed through
You held the balance of the time
That only blindly I could read you
But I could read you
It's like you told me
Go forward slowly
It's not a race to the end
Well, you look like yourself
But you're somebody else
Only it ain't on the surface
Well, you talk like yourself
No, I hear someone else though
Now you're making me nervous
(Tobin - “You’re Somebody Else” by Flora Cash)
The heaviness was still there, as was the crushing weight on her chest, but at least Christen had been able to pull herself out of bed this morning. She padded over to the coffee maker, turning her phone on as she waited for her first cup of the day to brew.
She scrolled through social media notifications and texts from Amanda and Kelley, assuring her the missed trainings yesterday were fine and to let them know if she needed anything. She paused when she saw she had three text messages from Tobin Heath.
Her stomach tightened as she hesitantly opened the messages, grabbing her coffee and walking over to the window seat along the far, floor-to-ceiling window she had in her apartment.
It was this window seat that had sold her on the place. She remembered the way her mom had gushed over it, talking endlessly about how Christen could add throw pillows and a thick cushion on top of it. Christen remembered her mom telling her that she could welcome a new day in the city that never sleeps with a cup of coffee from this very window seat. It hurt to remember, but she remembered.
She sank down onto the navy cushion and leaned the side of her head against the cool window, her attention falling to her phone.
The first message was a blurry picture of Tobin sitting at a table, a plate of some kind of food in front of her. Christen could tell it was Tobin because of that lopsided grin she had on her face, even if she wasn’t looking at the camera.
The second was a rambling series of words that she guessed was written by Scottie, saying that Scottie missed her and hoped she was feeling better. And then she’d asked if Christen liked quesadillas.
With a small smile, Christen scrolled to the last message and felt her smile widen. It was a cute picture of Scottie, a quesadilla held in the air next to her head, a beaming grin on her face.
Her smile quickly dropped when she re-read Scottie’s message. Scottie had asked if she was hungry, because they’d made extras and could give her a quesadilla if she wanted one. The gesture was beyond sweet and thoughtful and it was too much.
Christen quickly liked both of the pictures and sent a quick message back. All she said was thanks for the well wishes and the invite for quesadillas, then she quickly locked her phone before she did something silly like ask if she could cash in the invite today.
She gazed out the window and lifted the mug to her lips, sighing when she realized that not even her first sip of coffee would bring her any semblance of peace this morning.
Yesterday had been a cruel reminder that she wasn’t okay. She was so very far from okay. She’d spent six months drinking and partying and one-night-standing her grief away, and now it was all catching up to her.
It was like once she’d accepted the coaching job and met Scottie and Tobin, once she’d stopped going out and running away from her emotions, she finally had felt the true power of everything she’d been hiding within her. Her grief had brought her to her knees yesterday and she hated it. She hated how weak it made her feel, how useless and powerless and alone she felt. She hated that Tobin and Scottie had broken down her walls and were making her feel again. She hated that she couldn’t ignore her grief any longer, because of an almost 8-year-old and a pair of warm brown eyes that saw too much.
She hated how much she didn’t actually hate it at all.
“Don’t give me that look,” Christen sighed, pulling on her cleats. She was sitting on the grass next to Kelley, getting ready for their morning training session, and she was already regretting getting out of bed and skipping the second cup of coffee.
“What look?” Kelley asked pulling her socks up to cover her shinguards.
Christen pushed her hand against the side of Kelley’s face and shoved her over into the grass.
“Pity doesn’t help anyone, so don’t give it to me,” Christen grumbled, finishing tying her cleats.
“I’m not pitying you. I’ve never pitied you. I worry about you sometimes, and I love you all the time, but I don’t pity you,” Kelley said, leaning back on her hands.
Christen just shrugged. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t have to lie and say that you’re fine. I’d be more concerned if you were fine after everything,” Kelley sighed.
“I’m-” Christen sighed, running her hands across her hair and then down her ponytail. “Okay, I’m not fine today and I wasn’t fine yesterday. So I’m glad I didn’t show up at training.”
“I’m glad you took the day if that’s what you needed,” Kelley said. “Not that you weren’t missed. Your kids asked about you.”
Christen bobbed her head silently for a second, her throat tightening. “How were they?”
“Tobin looked overwhelmed when I asked her to help, but she managed,” Kelley snorted, remembering how they’d made her run around after them during the entire practice.
Christen couldn’t help it. A small smile pulled at her lips at the mention of the brunette who was lingering in her thoughts and in her mind and maybe even in her heart, all without her permission.
“I would have paid to see that,” Christen replied.
“She asked about you,” Kelley mumbled, trying to act as nonchalant as she possibly could.
Christen ignored the way her stomach fluttered, choosing instead to focus on the heaviness lingering inside of her. The one that reminded her that she wasn’t okay and had no business bringing anyone else into that equation, least of all two literal rays of sunshine.
“Good to know,” Christen whispered.
“It is good to know,” Kelley nodded. “She seems really nice and chill and like someone you’d totally go for.”
Christen shook her head. “I can’t, Kel. I’m a fucking mess and they’re not going to be the ones I unload it on.”
“You aren’t a mess. Why don’t you let Tobin decide if she’s willing to-”
“Because it’s not just Tobin I have to think about,” Christen shot back, getting to her feet, very done with this conversation.
“Tobin would never do anything to put Scottie in a bad situation, and you know that,” Kelley said.
“Then she never should have started bringing me coffee,” Christen mumbled, jogging away from the sidelines and onto the field for warm-ups.
Tobin set up a small table for Scottie to use in the corner of her studio, draping a sheet over it and putting out a few different paint colors and a few different pieces of thick paper to paint on. As much as she absolutely loved having Scottie around all summer, it was a little more difficult to get work done with a kid talking and running around everywhere. When Roni had left on her first vacation of many during Scottie’s first year with them, Tobin had quickly learned that the best way to get work done was to wait for Scottie to fall asleep or distract her with something.
Tobin never wanted Scottie to be glued to a screen, refusing to buy her an iPad, despite several other parents suggesting it. In the early days, Tobin had hardly slept, staying up at night to paint with a sleeping Scottie in a daybed that sat in her studio and waking up early in the morning to make Scottie breakfast and spend time with her. Now, though, Scottie could entertain herself a little more during the day, especially enjoying the opportunity to work in tandem with her mom.
Tobin tried not to look over at Scottie’s work table, not wanting to see what she was painting for Christen but also desperate to know what she was going to give her. Tobin forced herself to look ahead at the large canvas, covered only in a base coat of dark blue paint. Some wealthy, Wall Street guy had commissioned it as a gift for his son’s promotion. It was going to hang in his new office. The only things she really knew about the son were his favorite colors and that he loved abstract art, but other than that, she was flying blind, just hoping she made something that they liked.
“What do you think is Christen’s favorite color?” Scottie asked, turning to look at Tobin. She already had a dash of pink paint on her cheek.
“I don’t know, buddy,” Tobin shrugged. “Your pink was probably a good choice.”
“I was going to pick pink, but then it reminded me of that gross medicine you made me drink when I got the flu. So I think I’m going to go with happy yellow,” Scottie decided, raising her brows in Tobin’s direction for confirmation.
“Happy yellow sounds perfect, little bit,” Tobin said, smiling softly at Scottie to give her the green light.
“She’s happy yellow, and I’m awesome purple, and you’re goofy orange. I’m going to use all of them,” Scottie announced, getting back to work.
“I’m goofy?” Tobin asked, putting her hands on her hips and getting paint on her white t-shirt.
“Duh, Mommy. You put faces on my pancakes with blueberries this morning.”
Tobin grinned before turning back to her canvas and deciding to go with the stencil idea she’d had earlier that week. She’d already made all the stencils, so she set about measuring and marking the canvas with tape before she airbrushed some of the stenciled shapes to see how it looked. Tobin worked intently, her mind sinking into the work at hand, experimenting a little bit with texture. It wasn’t until her stomach growled that she looked down at her watch and saw that it was already 5:30 and she and Scottie had hardly had more than a late brunch that day.
“You ready to make dinner?” Tobin asked.
“I’m starving!” Scottie said, bouncing out of her seat and wrapping her arms around Tobin’s waist, getting even more paint on the white shirt.
Tobin glanced down at Scottie’s paintings, admiring the bright colors and funky shapes on each of the pages. She settled on one that looked like a painting of a rainbow and smiled a little bigger at the sweet little fingerprints Scottie had used to form the clouds on either end of the rainbow.
“Let’s let these dry,” Tobin said, taking each of Scottie’s paintings and laying them on a drying rack.
“Yours looks really cool, Mommy,” Scottie said, her head slightly tilted as she stared at Tobin’s canvas on one of the easels. “You didn’t use a lot of colors.”
“The guy who asked for the painting likes dark blue and mustard yellow, so it probably won’t be as pretty and colorful as yours,” Tobin shrugged. “The art pieces at MoMA are really colorful, though.”
“I know. I saw them all here before they went to the museum,” Scottie said, walking over to Tobin and holding her arms out to get help with her smock.
“You excited to go see them again with Grandma?” Tobin asked, draping Scottie’s smock on a hook by the sink before turning on the water and helping Scottie scrub the paint off of her hands.
“Yes! I miss the paintings, and I love Grandma,” Scottie grinned.
“We’re doing that in two weeks,” Tobin reminded her.
“After your big fancy party and my weekend at Grandma’s?” Scottie asked.
“That’s right,” Tobin nodded. “It’ll be a boring adult party for museum people to see the art before other people.”
“But I saw it first,” Scottie beamed.
“You always get to see it first,” Tobin hummed, reaching out for a towel to dry their hands off.
Christen might hate whatever Gramercy bar she’d stumbled into, with its sticky floors and cheap beer smell, but at least this bartender knew how to make a whiskey sour.
Finishing off her second, Christen slid the empty glass back to the bartender and signaled for another. She didn’t mind the way the alcohol dulled her senses and quieted her mind. In fact, she was desperate for it. She’d felt too much yesterday, too much grief and sorrow and loneliness. And then she’d felt too much care and sweetness and thoughtfulness when she’d gotten those texts from Tobin. She didn’t want to feel those things, any of those things.
She wanted to forget the way Tobin’s brown eyes made her heart flutter. She wanted to forget how right it had felt to walk down the street, her hand in Scottie’s, swinging the girl between her and Tobin. She wanted to forget how Tobin had stirred something within her that she was too damn terrified to think about.
Christen reached out and grabbed the new whiskey sour from the bartender, dropping another twenty into her tip jar.
“What’s a woman like you doing in a place like this?”
The line had Christen rolling her eyes. She’d heard some variation of it before, quite often in fact, over the past six months. But tonight she wasn’t going to be picky. She was going to cope the way she always did. She was going to self-destruct the way she always did. She was going to do that because she was a mess and she didn’t deserve Tobin or Scottie or the good they promised.
Christen turned to look over her shoulder, finding a gorgeous woman standing at her elbow. She wore a tight red dress and her black hair fell in loose waves around her shoulders. Those loose waves reminded Christen of Tobin.
At the thought of the brunette, Christen quickly took a sip of her drink. She then turned back to the woman with a smile on her face.
“Waiting for a woman like you to offer to take me home,” Christen replied smoothly, laying on the charm. She wasn’t going to beat around the bush. She had one destination in mind.
“Awful forward of you, isn’t it?” the woman replied.
Christen shrugged, her smile never dropping even if it felt a little forced. “Are you opposed to the suggestion?”
Getting a soft, ‘No,’ in response, Christen stood up, dropped another twenty-dollar bill into the jar, and grabbed the woman’s hand. She led them out of the bar and back toward her place, trying her best to ignore the pit of shame growing in her stomach.
Christen managed to ignore it as she led them back to her apartment, as she and this woman found their way to the couch, as she lost her shirt and she’d unzipped the back of the woman’s dress and pulled it down her shoulders. She managed to ignore it until she’d informed the woman that she didn’t do second times or breakfast in the morning.
“You got yourself a deal,” the woman replied, lowering herself back down to kiss Christen again and suddenly Christen wasn’t able to ignore the pit in her stomach any longer.
Christen put a hand on the woman’s chest and gently pushed her backward, her eyes falling shut as her stomach rolled and her heart ached. She couldn’t help but think of Scottie at the sound of those words. She couldn’t help but think of Tobin and of the smile they’d shared after Scottie had said that same phrase to her a few weeks ago. The thought of Tobin and Scottie had her wanting to put an abrupt stop to this night.
She couldn’t do this.
She couldn’t keep falling down the downward spiral.
She couldn’t do this.
“What?” the woman husked, breathless and impatient to keep going.
“I can’t,” Christen whispered, shaking her head slightly. She pulled away and got off the couch, grabbing her shirt from the floor and slipping it on. “I’m sorry.”
“Did I do something wrong?” the woman asked, pulling the straps of her dress back onto her shoulders.
“No, of course not,” Christen assured, running a hand through her curls. She huffed and sat down on the coffee table, her eyes fixed on a spot on the hardwood floor. “It’s not you. I shouldn’t- I mean, I never should have-”
“You’re married, aren’t you?” the woman asked, rolling her eyes a little like this wasn’t the first time she’d been in this kind of situation.
Christen barked out a laugh and finally looked back up at the woman she’d foolishly brought back to her place.
“Not at all. I just...I don’t think I’m this kind of person. Not anymore. And I didn’t realize it until now,” Christen admitted, somehow finding it easier to be honest with this complete stranger than anyone else in her life.
“Zip me up?” the woman asked, finally standing up from the couch.
“Sure,” Christen nodded, getting to her feet and zipping up the dress. “I am sorry,” she added, smiling tightly at the woman.
“Don’t sweat it. You’re a good kisser, so I enjoyed myself. And whoever it is…” the woman started, trailing off a little, not wanting to overstep. “If they’re able to make you send me away, I think they’re probably pretty special.”
Christen laughed, much easier this time. That pit was still there, but the shame was bleeding away.
“Let me pay for your cab at least,” Christen offered, trying not to focus on the way her heart fluttered slightly at the thought of the ‘pretty special’ reason she’d put a stop to things tonight.
“That’s okay. Save your money for whatever date you’re gonna take this person on,” the woman shrugged, picking up her purse and making her way to the door of Christen’s apartment.
Christen watched her door close behind the woman, a long breath escaping her lips.
If you’d told her a month ago that she’d send a beautiful woman, a woman very ready and eager to share her bed, packing, Christen wouldn’t have believed it. This was how she coped, this was how she dealt with the tangled mess of feelings inside of her that she’d boxed up and left unattended since she’d buried her parents. But tonight, she realized that maybe she didn’t have to cope like this anymore.
As she crawled into bed, still feeling the effects of her whiskey sours and with a hangover looming, Christen scrolled back through Tobin’s texts, smiling a bit easier now at the pictures she’d gotten of Tobin and Scottie.
Maybe she could deal with the tangled mess of feelings inside of her instead of ignoring it. Maybe she could do all of that and find time for Tiramisu on Saturday nights. Maybe she could try to be good enough for that and for them.
“Mommy, hurry up!” Scottie begged, wanting Tobin to get out of the car with the tray of coffees as fast as she possibly could.
Tobin glanced over at the field, making sure that one of the coaches was there before saying, “Run ahead if you want.”
Her heart fluttered in her chest as soon as she saw Christen sitting in the middle of the field, sorting pinnies. She didn’t want to admit it, but she’d missed her. Not seeing her at Scottie’s last practice had felt wrong, making Tobin feel unbalanced for the rest of the week.
“CHRISTEN!” Scottie squealed, racing across the field.
Christen winced at the high-pitched squeal. She was fighting a mean hangover and the sheer volume of Scottie’s voice had made the pounding in her head slightly worse.
“Not so loud today, Scottie Heath,” Christen said with a tight smile, shielding her sunglasses-covered eyes with her hand as she looked up at the girl. “We’re going to practice our inside voices.”
“Oh, sorry,” Scottie whispered, plopping down on the field beside Christen.
“Don’t apologize, kid,” Christen replied, reaching out to grab some pinnies from the ground and dropping them on Scottie’s head playfully.
After giggling at Christen and tossing a couple of pinnies back at her, Scottie couldn’t contain her excitement for what she’d brought for Christen. “You were sick. Do you feel better?” Scottie asked
Shockingly, the answer to Scottie’s question was yes. For the first time in a long time, the answer was yes. Christen was feeling a bit better. Sure, she still felt heavy sometimes, and that bad day had knocked her on her ass. Sure, she still had a lot of twisted, knotted, complicated emotions to unpack and sort through. She still had to grieve. But she was actually feeling better today, better than she had in a long time.
“You know I wasn’t feeling great, but then I saw this smile right here-” Christen paused, reaching out to poke the slight dimple on Scottie’s cheek, “-and now I feel like a million bucks.”
Scottie’s smile grew even more, practically showing all her teeth. “I brought something to make you feel even better.”
Christen’s heart melted. “You didn’t have to do that, your smile’s enough,” she replied with a wink.
Scottie opened her soccer bag and reached in, pulling out a silver thermos. “Well, Mommy actually made this, but it was my idea. It’s chicken noodle soup.”
Christen was confused for a moment until she remembered that her version of sick wasn’t the same as a seven-year-old’s. Scottie, and maybe even Tobin, had assumed she had a cold or the flu or something. But even if that wasn’t the case, she wasn’t about to turn down homemade soup.
“My favorite,” Christen replied, taking the thermos with a small smile.
“When I’m sick, Mommy lets me sleep in her bed, and she draws me doodles and puts them all over the house for me to find,” Scottie said, reaching into her bag and retrieving a folder, taking a piece of paper out of it. She handed Christen the painting she’d done of the rainbow, only now there were two cartoon doodles standing under the rainbow.
“I painted it a couple days ago, and then Mommy did the doodles, but I told her what I wanted them to look like. See?” Scottie pointed to the cartoon version of Christen with a bun and a soccer ball at her feet. “That’s you.” Scottie moved her finger to the smaller cartoon version of herself with a ponytail and a huge smile. “And that’s me. I told Mommy she could draw herself, but she said it was my gift, so it should just be the two of us.”
Christen had no words. She was stunned, speechless, overwhelmed in the best possible way. She also was on the verge of tears at the thoughtful and sweet gesture, and she was very grateful for her sunglasses.
“Wow,” Christen whispered, clearing her throat when she heard how weak her voice had sounded. She looked down at the painting and at the doodles, completely awestruck. “This is...this is the coolest thing I’ve ever gotten. Thank you.”
“Tar Heel brought coffee!” Kelley yelled, knowing it would aggravate Christen’s hangover headache.
“Well Scottie brought me a painting and soup,” Christen countered, reaching out to squeeze Scottie’s hand and ignoring the way her headache worsened at the volume at which Kelley chose to speak.
“You didn’t waste any time, little bit,” Tobin laughed.
Christen looked past Kelley, her eyes landing on Tobin. The brunette sauntered up, her signature lopsided grin on her face, her snapback on backward and her brown eyes shining. Christen couldn’t help but smile up at Tobin, choosing not to ignore the flutter in her heart this time.
“You took a long time to get out of the car, Mommy. I was too excited to be patient!” Scottie sighed dramatically.
“I hear you did the doodles?” Christen asked, tilting her head to the side a bit.
“Yeah, Scottie’s the only one who likes it when I draw people, so I have to cash in when I can,” Tobin shrugged.
“I wouldn’t say she’s the only one,” Christen replied, her words a little brazen. She quickly ducked her head and struggled to get to her feet, letting out a small sigh as her headache worsened.
“Ooookay,” Kelley mumbled, taking Becky’s coffee from Tobin’s hand. “I’m gonna help Becky.” Kelley walked off with a smile on her face.
“You feeling better?” Tobin asked, watching Christen carefully.
“She feels like a zillion bucks!” Scottie replied for Christen, grabbing ahold of Christen’s free hand and swinging it between them.
“Just a million today, but maybe I’ll feel like a zillion tomorrow,” Christen corrected with a small chuckle. She let out a short breath and squinted behind her glasses as the sun seemed to get just a bit brighter now that she’d stood up.
Tobin couldn’t help but notice how Christen’s face looked pained, how she kept reaching for her head, how she kept talking in a low voice, much quieter than usual. The sunglasses were new too, and Tobin couldn’t decide if Christen just had a really bad headache from whatever she was sick with or possibly a hangover.
Tobin had experienced enough hangovers in her own lifetime to know the telltale signs. She didn't want to jump to conclusions, but she couldn’t help but feel a little bit of concern coil up in her chest.
Abby had told her that Christen had been through something, but it had admittedly been hard to remember that when Christen had seemed so happy with Scottie and the other girls at practice the past few weeks. Now, though, Tobin wished that there was something she could do, that there was a way for her to soothe any kind of pain that Christen might be feeling.
“Scottie, you want to put the soup and painting on the bench and get your soccer ball out?” Tobin asked, glancing down at her daughter.
Christen got the unspoken message and handed the painting and thermos over to Scottie, feeling a small flicker of nerves at the prospect of standing here with Tobin alone, with no kid buffer. Even if she’d decided to do better and be better for Scottie and Tobin, she still wasn’t entirely sure she was capable of it. She was still nervous to really even try. She was even more nervous because those damn brown eyes stirred something within her, something foreign and real.
Tobin watched Scottie race away, knowing that she had a very limited amount of time to talk to Christen.
“Are you really feeling okay?” Tobin asked, readjusting her snapback, almost nervously.
Christen knew now wasn’t the moment to word vomit and unload everything. Now wasn’t the time for complete and total honesty. And honestly, she didn’t really feel like she could be that honest right now. Growth didn’t happen in a handful of hours.
“I’ve been better,” Christen said, settling on a vague answer. “I appreciate everything you’ve done though. The texts were very sweet.”
“That was Scottie. All I did was spell the word quesadilla,” Tobin said, pushing some stray hairs behind her ear.
“And you spelled it so well,” Christen teased, the corner of her mouth twitching up slightly. “It wasn’t all Scottie, though. So...thank you .”
“I hope you feel better. If the headache’s too much, there’s Aspirin in my car,” Tobin offered, handing Christen her coffee as she said it.
Christen took the coffee with a shy smile. “I’m already on a few Aspirin and praying they kick in soon.”
“Gotcha,” Tobin nodded, not really knowing what else she could say.
“Mommy!” Scottie squealed, running straight into Tobin’s side. A sheepish smile appeared on her face when Christen winced at the loud noise. “Sorry,” Scottie whispered. “Mommy, Christen could go to the museum with us after practice.”
Christen didn’t feel as much hesitation this time, if any. She readied herself to accept the offer, knowing she had a free night, but then Tobin spoke up.
“Buddy, Christen has a headache. I bet she just wants to go home and sleep after this,” Tobin said softly, brushing baby hairs away from Scottie’s forehead.
“But she can see the exhibit before it opens with us,” Scottie begged, glancing between both women.
“I mean, I-” Christen tried to say, ready to say that she’d love to go. She wanted to know about this museum and this exhibit and why Tobin and Scottie got to see it before it opened.
“What did I say about begging for people to do things,” Tobin said, interrupting Christen, keeping her voice soft but firm.
“That it isn’t cute,” Scottie grumbled.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea, little bit. We’re just going to look one last time before the exhibit opens. It’s not just for fun. It’s for work,” Tobin said, keeping her focus on Scottie.
Christen deflated slightly at Tobin’s words. Even if she could appreciate that Tobin seemed to be giving her an out due to her hangover and headache, it felt like there was something else there too. ‘I don’t think it’s a good idea’ didn’t just sound like concern. That sounded like Christen going with them to the museum wasn’t a good idea in a general sense, like maybe doing anything with them wasn’t a good idea.
“Right,” Christen replied, her voice a little tight.
“Maybe Christen can come with us when it’s open next week, then,” Scottie said.
“Maybe,” Tobin nodded. “We can try to pick a good day for Christen’s schedule when she feels better.”
Christen cleared her throat and took a small step back. “I’ll have to look. We’re going to Seattle this weekend for a game, so,” Christen said, her thumb scratching against the side of the coffee cup.
“You’ll love the exhibit! There are soooo many colors,” Scottie said, unaware that there was tension from either of the adults with her.
“Very cool. I hope me seeing it is a good idea, then,” Christen offered, taking another step back.
Tobin cocked her head slightly, not realizing that her words had landed differently for Christen. Now, though, she could hear the disappointment in her voice and see it in the way her shoulders slumped forward a little, and Tobin’s heart clenched painfully in her chest. “Shit. You should have just let her come, hangover and all.”
“I’ve got to get things ready. I’ll see you guys in a bit,” Christen said, shooting Scottie an attempt at a bright smile. She then turned on her heel and walked away, her shoulders slumping with every bit of space she put between her and Tobin and Scottie.
“Whoa, what happened?” Kelley asked as soon as she caught sight of Christen. “You were little miss sunshine a minute ago, even with a hangover.”
“I’m so mad at you, Kelley Maureen O’Hara,” Christen grumbled, setting her coffee down on the bench.
“Why?” Kelley asked, her eyes growing bigger at her full-naming her.
“You get my stupid fucking hopes up, and when I finally decide to listen to you, Tobin says this isn’t a good idea,” Christen replied, her throat getting a bit thick.
“Wait, you asked her out, and she said it was a bad idea?” Kelley gasped, reaching out and taking Christen’s hand in her own.
“Not exactly. But the message was pretty clear,” Christen huffed, wrenching her hand out of Kelley’s grasp and stalking away, not wanting any part of this conversation anymore.
“So, you didn’t ask her out or you did?” Kelley tried to clarify, her words falling on deaf ears.
“I think the room looks perfect,” Kyle said, walking over to Tobin and Scottie’s side.
“I really like it,” Tobin nodded, glancing around the room at her paintings.
“Look it’s the cotton candy painting,” Scottie grinned, pointing at a smaller painting near the end of the room. Scottie wasn’t wrong; some of the strokes did look wispy like cotton candy, and the happy pink color added to the similar look. She’d loved that painting when Tobin had started working on it. Scottie had put her own handprints on the painting, although they were hardly visible after all the layers of paint that Tobin had added.
“Is that your favorite?” Kyle asked.
“Yeah, Mommy said it’s my painting,” Scottie nodded.
Tobin grinned, running her hands over Scottie’s hair gently. “Yep, this one is all yours.”
“Can I take a picture and send it to Christen?” Scottie asked, looking up at Tobin with the best puppy dog eyes she could manage. “When we did shooting today, she said the pictures we sent were really nice to wake up to.”
Tobin’s heart clenched a little more, wishing she hadn’t hurt Christen’s feelings by suggesting she didn’t come with them to the museum. She hadn’t really thought that a hungover Christen would want to spend the rest of her day with an energetic seven-year-old in a bright museum. But, looking back on it, Tobin probably should have let Christen decide for herself or, at least, told Christen why she thought it wouldn’t be very fun for her.
“Sure, buddy. I’ll take your picture,” Tobin nodded, pulling her phone out to take a picture of Scottie in front of the cotton candy painting. Scottie posed with both of her thumbs lifted in a thumbs up and a huge smile on her face.
“I’ll send the picture and write her a message,” Scottie said, skipping over to the phone.
“Ms. Heath, we do have one question about the windows. Would you mind looking at a couple ideas we have?” Kyle asked, pulling Tobin’s attention away from Scottie and toward his iPad.
“Sure,” Tobin nodded, letting Scottie hold her phone and stepping to the side to look over Kyle’s shoulder.
“We could always leave the windows as they are or we could cover them with a couple of different kinds of fabric curtains. We have a unique idea, though. There’s another local artist who does glasswork, and we could cover them with some of her stained-glass pieces,” Kyle hummed, swiping through a few photos of the stained glass work.
“Is that a serious question?” Tobin laughed. “Obviously, I choose the art. Stained glass is awesome, and the colors will match the entire vibe of the collection. The more art the merrier.”
By the time Christen actually realized that maybe she’d overreacted, that she’d maybe read too much into Tobin’s comment, she was already in Seattle. She was sitting across from Kelley in the hotel’s breakfast room on the day of their game, sipping shitty coffee and trying not to feel like a complete asshole.
“What did you mean when you said that you finally decided to listen to me?” Kelley asked, still curious about their conversation after the last Development Academy practice.
Christen flushed and tried to find her bowl of cereal super interesting to avoid Kelley’s questioning gaze.
“You can’t judge me or make a sassy comment,” Christen mumbled, already hating the fact that she was going to admit this to Kelley. But it was only because she needed a second opinion. She needed someone to tell her that she’d royally misread things and that Tobin was just being kind and sweet, not pulling her and her kid away.
“I will be a perfect angel,” Kelley said, batting her eyelashes at Christen.
Christen snorted and ran her spoon through the soggy cereal in her bowl. “I went home with someone on Wednesday and-”
“Not Tobin?” Kelley verified.
Christen’s flush deepened. “No, not Tobin. But before anything could really happen I realized that maybe...maybe it wasn’t such a good idea.”
“What made you change your mind?” Kelley asked, keeping her face neutral.
Christen shrugged and dropped her spoon. She sat back in her chair, her eyes shifting around and avoiding Kelley’s gaze.
“Like you have to ask,” Christen sighed.
“You thought about Tobin and Mini Tar Heel,” Kelley said, no hint of a question in her voice.
Christen nodded. “Yeah. Which on the one hand should piss me off. I was doing just fine before they waltzed into my screwed-up life, with their matching smiles and thoughtfulness,” she added, her words lacking any real bite. She didn’t actually feel that way and both she and Kelley knew it.
“Sure, I’ll humor you and say you were doing just fine, even though we both know that’s a lie. But why be fine when you could be way more than fine with thoughtful people who actually care about you?” Kelley asked.
“I guess I realized that for myself...but then at training, Scottie invited me to come to some museum with them and Tobin basically said it wasn’t a good idea. So what was the point of doing all that soul-searching and finally deciding to listen to your not-so-terrible advice when Tobin was just going to say no anyway?” Christen asked, her eyes finally meeting Kelley’s.
“Pressy, you clearly had a hangover at practice. Anyone who’s ever had a hangover could see that. I bet Tobin was trying to spare you an afternoon with a hangover and an excitedly loud kid,” Kelley suggested. “You’re blind if you haven’t seen the way Tobin looks at you. She definitely wouldn’t say no just to keep you from spending time with them.”
Christen had realized the hangover bit for herself this morning, but it was nice to hear it confirmed for her. Even if it was by Kelley.
“What if she still says no?” Christen asked quietly, voicing her deepest worry.
“The only reason she’d say no is if she were trying to protect Scottie. I firmly believe that. You just need to show her that you’re seriously there,” Kelley hummed. “If you do seriously want to be there, that is.”
“I…” Christen trailed off, her mind immediately jumping to Tiramisu and Central Park and every moment spent with Tobin and Scottie so far. “I think I want to be; I just want them to know what they’re getting in all of this too.”
“I’m pretty sure Tobin would listen if you told her,” Kelley said, her voice soft and gentle.
“I haven’t talked about it, Kel. With anyone. I don’t know if- I don’t even know how,” Christen admitted, swallowing thickly.
“Well, I suggest you take her some coffee and start with the information you’re comfortable sharing,” Kelley offered.
Christen nodded, her mind already jumping through every possible scenario, every way that she could tell Tobin what had happened in her life, and every way that Tobin could run or reject her or deem her unworthy of being in Scottie’s life as anything more than her coach.
At the thought of Scottie, Christen felt a small smile tug at her lips. She remembered the sweet texts she’d gotten two days ago. She’d gotten another picture of Scottie, only this time in front of a painting. She’d then gotten another slightly blurry picture of Tobin, this time standing in front of a window, engaged in conversation with an elderly man. And then she’d gotten a short message along with the pictures: ‘Mommy’s doing boooring adolt things I miss you and wish you were hear to see the art Mabe next week?? PLEEEAASSE Love Scottie’
Christen’s heart had warmed at the pictures and the message. She’d quickly sent a selfie back, of her sitting in the away locker room in Seattle’s stadium, with Scottie’s painting hanging behind her inside of the locker. She’d then sent a short message back - I miss you too, kid. I’ll see you after Seattle! Love, Christen
It was becoming increasingly clear that Christen shouldn’t disappoint this sweet, innocent, easy-to-love and easier-to-hurt little girl. She wouldn’t. She needed to be open and honest with Tobin, to tell her where she was at and what she was capable of giving right now.
She also needed to see if there even was anything to explore here. Sure, Kelley said that Tobin looked at her in a special kind of way, and maybe Christen felt it too. Okay, Christen definitely felt it too. It went beyond curiosity and intrigue. She liked Tobin, she really liked her and she wanted to be a part of Tobin and Scottie’s life. But she still needed to see where Tobin was at.
When it came down to it, Christen needed to remember that there was more than just her and Tobin to consider. Scottie was a factor, a big factor, and she just prayed that her worst fears, the ones whispering to her that Scottie and Tobin were better off without her, would be proven wrong.
“If and when this backfires on me, you’ll owe me so many drinks,” Christen replied with a weak chuckle.
“I’ll be your personal barkeep,” Kelley smirked. “But for the record, I don’t think it’ll backfire.”
Christen didn’t exactly share in Kelley’s confidence, but she smiled anyway.
“Scottie, that’s a total handball!” Tobin laughed, running after Scottie and making her squeal with laughter.
“Mommy, no!” Scottie giggled, as Tobin wrapped her arms around her waist and pulled her off the ground to tickle her sides.
“Are you gonna follow the rules?” Tobin asked, tickling even harder.
“Yes! Yes!” Scottie squealed, squirming in Tobin’s arms.
“Okay,” Tobin laughed, setting Scottie down on the ground again and watching her run after the soccer ball. They were playing around on the indoor turf field in the basement, spending their Sunday learning new tricks and kicking the soccer ball around.
The intercom from the front door buzzed, alerting both Scottie and Tobin to a visitor.
“Who’s coming over?” Scottie asked, looking over at Tobin.
“No one. It’s probably a delivery or something,” Tobin shrugged. “Keep playing. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Tobin raced up the stairs and into the garage. She pushed the button on the wall to open the garage door and made her way out onto the sidewalk, surprised when she turned to look at the front door and saw Christen standing there, her feet moving back and forth. Her heart fluttered at the sight of Christen Press standing in front of her door on a Sunday when there wasn’t any reason for her to be around.
“Hey,” Tobin called from the open garage.
Christen whirled around, her eyes widening a bit in surprise at where Tobin’s voice had come from. She quickly shook herself out of it and walked down the steps and over to the garage, her nerves almost all-consuming at this point.
“Good game in Seattle. We watched,” Tobin said, hoping that the tension from last time they’d talked was going to be gone. But from the slightly skittish look in Christen’s eyes and the way her hands seemed to shake, Tobin had a feeling the tension was sticking around.
“Thanks. Um, I brought you coffee,” Christen blurted, holding out a package of coffee beans from the best coffee shop in Seattle, according to an extensive Google search. She’d had all Saturday and all morning to think about what she was going to say when she saw Tobin again, and that rushed-out sentence was not one she’d practiced. She’d planned to say hi and ask to talk, to apologize for overreacting. She never planned to all but yell at Tobin that she’d brought her something back from Seattle.
“Oh, cool. Thanks...” Tobin replied slowly, taking the package.
“I mean technically it’s not coffee. It’s just coffee beans. But there is no coffee without coffee beans, so…” Christen rambled, scratching at her jaw nervously after handing over the package to Tobin.
“No, this is great. I hear Seattle has amazing coffee,” Tobin said, bringing the bag up to her face to smell the rich coffee scent.
“They do,” Christen nodded, crossing her arms over her chest and wondering if it was going to be possible to work through the awkwardness hanging between them.
“Um...so about last Thursday,” Tobin started, pushing her hair away from her face.
“Yeah, I’m really sorry!” Christen interrupted, throwing her words at Tobin again because she was apparently incapable of anything else today. “I overreacted, I think. Possibly. Hopefully? And I was also a little hungover, so,” she added a little sheepishly.
“I had a feeling that was the case. Scottie’s seven, and seven-year-olds don’t really filter or lower their volume well. I thought it might be torture for you to spend any more time than you had to with a kid with that going on,” Tobin admitted.
“No time spent with Scottie is torture,” Christen replied quickly with a sharp shake of her head.
“Well, that’s very sweet of you, but I can’t imagine that’s how you’d like to spend your free time,” Tobin mumbled, leaning against the door frame of the garage.
Christen’s brow furrowed, hearing the same insecurity lacing the words that she’d heard the last time Tobin said something like that. It had her wondering if maybe she wasn’t the only one carrying baggage into this...thing, whatever it was.
“How about next time, you let me accept the invitation since that is how I want to spend my free time,” Christen hummed, finally uncrossing her arms and stuffing her hands into her pockets.
“You got yourself a deal,” Tobin smiled, feeling her heart start to race in her chest at Christen’s words.
Christen felt her breath catch at the smile. She realized that this was the moment for her to say something, something she wasn’t sure if she was even ready to say.
“Is there um, I mean, can we...talk?” Christen asked.
“Sure,” Tobin nodded.
“Without kid ears present?” Christen added.
“She’s in the basement cheating at soccer,” Tobin grinned, stepping back into the garage and clicking the button to close the garage door as soon as Christen followed her. She walked toward the door that led into the bottom floor of their apartment, which happened to be her studio.
Christen huffed out a laugh. “It’s not cheating if she’s just better than you,” she replied, following Tobin inside. She marveled at the studio space Tobin led her into, at the half-finished paintings and the blank canvases, at the sheer size of the house.
“It is when she picks up the ball and runs away with it,” Tobin countered, flipping on a few light switches.
“Oh yeah, that’s definitely cheating,” Christen laughed, her eyes holding on a painting tucked into the corner of the room, half-covered with a sheet.
“I’m going to tell her to stay put, I’ll be right back,” Tobin said, walking to the basement and leaving Christen alone in the studio.
Christen let the painting she’d spotted pull her in, having a moment alone to look at it. She walked over to it, inexplicably drawn in. Without thinking, she moved the sheet away from the canvas and felt a gasp of wonder leave her lips.
“I haven’t gotten that one right yet,” Tobin mumbled, walking back into the studio. She joined Christen by the painting that Christen had revealed. It was the only painting in the studio that wasn’t abstract at all. It was a painting of Scottie at the age of three, right when Tobin had brought her home for the first time. “It’s been a couple years of getting frustrated and starting over.”
“Why start over? This is beautiful,” Christen whispered, her fingertips ghosting across the canvas.
“Her eyes aren’t right,” Tobin shrugged. “I don’t think I’m ready to scrap it yet, but I’m still fiddling with that one. My mom takes all the ones I don’t like. She has like five Scotties hanging in her house.”
Christen smiled at that, her gaze still trained on the painting. She filed away all of the new information she’d just learned, how Tobin wasn’t just some artist in her spare time; she clearly did it well enough to make a living at it. A good living. She filed away how Tobin had a mom who supported her. She filed away that Tobin seemed to not realize how perfectly she’d captured the girl, that Tobin seemed overly critical.
“You got her smile right, though,” Christen hummed, turning back to look at Tobin.
“I guess so,” Tobin nodded, turning away to pull out two chairs from the back wall of the studio and making sure they didn’t have wet paint on them before she sat down.
Just like every time she spent time with Christen, Tobin was painfully aware of how she had some stains on her shirt from the lunch she’d made for Scottie that afternoon and paint on her hands from working earlier that morning. She was aware that she looked tired, with her hair in a messy bun and no makeup on. Christen, on the other hand, looked flawless in dark jeans and a loose-fitting tank top, her hair perfectly placed and a tiny touch of makeup on her face.
“Scottie’s practicing a new move, so we’ve got maybe ten minutes,” Tobin said, dropping into one of the chairs.
“Do you invite all of your daughter’s coaches into your studio?” Christen asked, settling into the other chair and not giving it a second thought that there was dried paint splattered across it.
“None of my daughter’s coaches have brought coffee to my house and asked to talk,” Tobin answered softly.
“Right,” Christen nodded, chuckling weakly. She pushed a hand through her hair and tried to remember why she was doing this, why she felt the need to be honest. It wasn’t just for Scottie or for Tobin, it was for her as well. “I...I don’t even know where to start, which is ridiculous since I’m the one who asked to talk,” Christen admitted with a small shrug.
“Do you want to talk about sports?” Tobin offered, trying to ease the tension. “Or are you interested in real estate in SoHo? I can’t promise I really remember much, since I’ve lived here for four years, but I have some friends in real estate.”
Christen huffed out a laugh, seeing what Tobin was doing and feeling immensely thankful for it. “Maybe later,” Christen replied softly.
“Hmm…” Tobin sighed. “We talk about Scottie a lot, so I don’t think you’d be nervous if you were wanting to talk about her. It probably isn’t about soccer either, then…”
Christen was ready to deny the fact that she was nervous, but she knew there was no point. If Tobin could read her that well, there was no point in lying.
“I’m- I’m just going to say something. And if I’m totally off base or crazy, then feel free to kick me out of this cool studio and never bring me coffee again,” Christen started, wringing her hands together in her lap.
“I probably won’t do that, but go ahead,” Tobin nodded, wishing she could do something, anything to keep the nerves away from Christen.
“I don’t date,” Christen blurted out, mentally cringing at the choice of words. This was definitely not how she had imagined starting this conversation. She ran a hand over her face, willing her blush to subside. “Not that I don’t get asked out on dates, I do. I get asked out a lot. Wait, I don’t mean like a lot, a lot. It’s totally a normal amount. I just-” Christen blew out a short breath and dropped her hand from her face.
“I just mean that I haven’t dated a lot since...well, for the last six months,” she said, looking deep into Tobin’s brown eyes, letting them tether her to this moment. But at the way they were narrowed slightly in her direction, Christen faltered. “And now you’re giving me a slightly confused look so I think I’m just going to make a joke and change the subject,” Christen rushed out, her cheeks flaming, the blush doing the opposite of subsiding.
“You’re rambling. I didn’t expect you to do that when you got nervous,” Tobin hummed, trying to sound calm, despite the loud thudding of her heart.
“My mom used to say that I was a leaky faucet when I got nervous. You couldn’t shut me off or make me stop,” Christen admitted, the pang in her chest still painful, but a little less so than usual.
“I can see that,” Tobin nodded. “I don’t date a lot either. Not successfully, anyway,” Tobin offered, hoping that the honesty would make Christen feel a little better.
“How is that even possible?” Christen scoffed, unable to fathom how someone like Tobin Heath, someone with her heart and her mind and her looks, ever dated unsuccessfully.
“It usually starts and ends with drinks once the single mom thing is mentioned,” Tobin shrugged, feeling her throat get a little tight with the direction that this conversation was going in. “Most people my age don’t want complicated.”
“Nobody seems to want complicated, even if we all are complicated,” Christen replied distractedly. With a quick shake of her head, she came back to the moment, scratching a bit at the corner of her jaw. “But, um, back to the dating thing...I don’t- I mean, maybe I’m crazy, but I don’t feel like just Scottie’s soccer coach anymore,” she said softly. “I haven’t felt like just her coach for a while now.”
“You aren’t crazy,” Tobin sighed, brushing a hand over her hair and pushing the pieces that had slipped out of her bun away from her face. She wanted to jump out of her chair and run to Christen’s side, to tell her that she couldn’t stop thinking about her, that she’d stared at that adorable selfie she’d sent to Scottie for far too many minutes.
The words were a good thing, but the resigned way Tobin had said them didn’t make Christen feel better. Tobin now seemed to be the one hesitating, and for a moment, Christen wondered if she’d completely misread everything. She wondered if there truly wasn’t anything here to explore, if she’d shown up foolishly on Tobin’s doorstep with coffee beans, ready to talk about how her parents had died and sent her into a downward spiral she was desperate to come out of. She wondered if she’d done something silly like develop feelings for someone who wouldn’t want her or her mess of a life. She wondered if she was making a mistake.
Christen pulled her bottom lip between her teeth and tried not to let the apprehension twisting around in her stomach make her get up and run away from this studio, from Tobin, from the regret Christen could see swirling around in those brown eyes.
“You’re Scottie’s,” Tobin mumbled, her face flashing with sadness.
Christen’s brow furrowed slightly, her worry further rolling around inside of her. “I don’t understand…” she trailed off, desperate for answers for the sadness and the regret Tobin was doing little to hide.
“I, um- I met this girl in college,” Tobin said, swallowing down the hesitation she had about sharing her and Scottie’s story with someone else. “And she said that she wanted the whole picket fence and family thing. I was injured and couldn’t get drafted, and I thought that I loved her, and so we got married right out of college,” Tobin choked out, not having told this story all that often. The only people who knew about it were people who saw it happen firsthand.
Christen instinctively reached out and laid a hand on Tobin’s knee, giving it a comforting squeeze. She wasn’t quite sure what had possessed her to cross this line, to touch Tobin in a way that was too familiar, but she couldn’t take the cloud she could see hanging over Tobin’s head. She kept her hand there, feeling the way her palm tingled at the warmth radiating from Tobin’s skin.
“We traveled around for a bit before we settled down in New Jersey near my parents. I wanted to start working more permanently and set up some roots, and I thought she did too. We adopted Scottie when she was three, and my entire world changed. I live for her...but my ex-wife didn’t. She didn’t know how to take care of her, and she didn’t seem to want to learn. Weekend trips turned into week-long trips until one day she decided not to come home. Scottie doesn’t remember enough, but I know it hurt her. I can’t do that to her again. I can’t take someone from her,” Tobin whispered, feeling her eyes start to burn a little at the admission.
Christen retracted her hand slowly, bringing it back into her lap. Even if she’d been slightly prepared for a no, despite desperately hoping for a yes, it still hurt to hear. It hurt to know what Tobin and Scottie had been through. It hurt to know they’d been hurt. It also hurt to know that what this other woman had done to the both of them was going to cost Christen the chance at more.
“I see,” Christen mumbled, clenching her teeth tightly together and willing the rejection not to sting so much.
“I can’t, Christen. I’m sorry. No matter how much I want to,” Tobin added softly, trying to look up at Christen but not particularly wanting to see that her eyes were watery.
“I understand,” Christen nodded tightly. She fiddled with the ring around her middle finger, twisting it repeatedly. “I- um, I appreciate you sharing that with me. And I’m sorry it happened to you both. You deserve better than that.”
“Scottie adores you,” Tobin mumbled.
“Yeah, it’s mutual,” Christen whispered, her words coming out a little tight. She couldn’t take the way Tobin’s eyes started to fill with something too closely resembling sympathy. She’d seen enough looks like that in the last six months, and she hadn’t even told Tobin the story that warranted it. She couldn’t stand the sight of it now, not when her heart hurt and her eyes burned.
Christen abruptly stood up from her chair and smiled weakly at Tobin. “I’m sorry if I made things weird or anything.”
“You didn’t,” Tobin assured her. “If things were different-”
“Yeah,” Christen interrupted. “I’ll...see you on Tuesday?” she asked.
“Bright and early,” Tobin nodded.
With one more tight smile, Christen walked out the way she came in, wishing like hell that things were different. That Tobin’s ex-wife hadn’t done what she did. That Tobin and Scottie hadn’t been hurt and disappointed and left behind before. That she was stronger and better. Mostly, she wished that she was enough to convince Tobin to take the risk.
Tobin hit the garage door button, hating the giant pit in her stomach that she felt building. She could hear Scottie’s laughter from downstairs echoing into the garage, and the pit only grew. She didn’t ever want to feel anything but love toward Scottie, but at times like this, she wondered what her life would look like if she didn’t have her. She shook her head, feeling like the absolute worst person in the world.
“I’m really sorry,” Tobin choked out, her voice just loud enough to be heard over the garage door.
Christen’s steps faltered at the broken apology sent her way, the garage door falling shut before she could turn around and see if she’d really heard Tobin say those words to her.
“I’m sorry too,” she whispered at the closed garage door. Taking a deep breath, Christen turned and started to walk slowly down the tree-lined street, not really knowing where she was going.