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"I gotta go, man," said Mark. "I told Hilary I'd meet her."
"Right." Brody grinned. "You're just mad because I was kicking your ass at Madden."
Mark rolled his eyes. "Yeah, that's it. I'm so pissed about losing that I'm using my girlfriend as an excuse. Jesus, Brody."
Brody snickered. "You have been whipped since she moved in with you."
"Just get out." Mark glared at him.
"Man, I never thought I'd see the day. . . ." Brody dodged Mark's half-hearted swing at his shoulder, grinning all the while.
"You should be so lucky." Mark managed to land one punch as Brody went to the door. They heard some thumps in the hallway, followed by a muffled voice.
"Mice?" Brody asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Nah, that's Ryan, my neighbor," Mark said. After more thumps, he said, "Come on, let's see if we can help. Ryan's got a fractured ankle. Probably needs help carrying something."
"Okay." Brody opened the door and stepped out, Mark behind him, just in time to hear a few more thumps.
Brody turned around to offer some help, and was surprised to see a woman in the hallway. She had a cast on her ankle, crutches under her arms, and he watched as she threw her purse on the floor in frustration.
"Need some help?" Brody asked.
The woman dropped her head, sighed, and looked up. "Sure," she said. "It's obviously not meant for me to do." She ran a hand through wavy auburn hair in frustration, then tried a smile. "Hi, Mark."
"Hey. Brody, this is Ryan Bancroft. Ryan, this is my teammate, Brody Lang." Mark squatted and started picking up the fallen items. "He's mostly housetrained." That got a short laugh from Ryan and a glare from Brody. Mark looked up. "How's the ankle?"
Ryan shrugged. "Okay, I guess. Not great today."
"Well, we all have bad days," Brody said. He picked up cans and boxes as he moved forward, putting them into the plastic grocery bag they'd escaped from. He took the bag, refilled with the groceries, and gestured at the little metal cart that held a few more. "Do you need any help getting that stuff in?"
"Probably." Ryan sighed and unlocked her door.
Brody followed her in and dropped his bag on the table, then went out into the hall for the cart. Mark came through with another bag and her purse, and Brody maneuvered the cart through the door and into the apartment, leaving it outside the kitchen.
"Thanks, guys." Ryan took her purse and dropped it on the counter. "I appreciate it."
Mark looked at his watch and cursed. "Ryan, I'm sorry, I'd help you put stuff away but I've gotta run."
"No problem, Mark," she assured him. "Go on. I've got it."
"I can help," Brody offered.
Ryan shrugged as if to say it was up to him.
"Sorry, Ryan," Mark said again. "I'll talk to you later. Bye, Brody." He took off.
"So, you're Ryan." Brody stared at the woman in front of him. She had on faded blue jeans, a GMU sweatshirt, and a well-worn leather jacket. Auburn hair framed a slightly angular face that had a light dusting of freckles over the cheekbones. Mischievous green eyes met his own. She was not what he had expected.
She gave him a half-smile as she made her way over to one of the bags. "You were expecting someone with a Y chromosome."
Brody felt guilty. "I, ah, yeah, I guess so. Mark said his neighbor was Ryan and I assumed it was a guy. Sorry."
She shook her head. "Don't worry. It's not the first time, won't be the last. I should change my name."
"How about using your middle name?" Brody suggested. "I have a couple of aunts who do that."
"My middle name is Riley."
"Oh." Brody wondered how far into his mouth his foot would fit.
"Thanks." She shook her head. "Sorry, I'm not trying to be difficult. You didn't know, and I am grateful for the help."
Brody was silent as Ryan leaned over the cart and began pulling the bags out. When she grabbed a chair to keep from falling, he shook his head at himself and stepped over.
"Here, let me." He set the bags on the table, began taking out the contents. "Just tell me where they go," he said.
"Look," Ryan said, shaking her head. "You don't have to do that, I can—"
"I know." He gave her a breezy smile. "I just like making myself useful to attractive women."
Ryan raised an eyebrow. "Is that so?"
"Yep." He held up a can of soup, gave her a questioning look, and turned to the cabinet she indicated. "I'm a sucker for a pretty face. Ask Mark, he'll tell you."
Ryan laughed. "Yeah, I guess Mark has a pretty face, when it doesn't have stitches on it."
Brody grinned. "I'll tell him you said that."
That seemed to break the tension and Ryan sat while Brody put the rest of her groceries away.
"You know, you should buy some real food sometime." Brody closed a cabinet and turned to look at her.
"I have plenty of real food." Ryan crossed her arms in front of her. "You just put it away."
"I don't think you had anything that wasn't microwavable. That's not healthy."
"I manage, thanks. Are you a chef or something?"
"No." He shrugged. "But I like to cook, and it kills me to see more fake food than real food in a person's kitchen." He arched an eyebrow at her. "Come on, not even bananas?"
"I don’t like bananas. There are grapes in the fridge."
"I don't believe you."
At Ryan's wave, Brody went to the fridge and opened it. He spied a small, sad container of what might have been grapes but were halfway to being raisins.
"These, Miss Bancroft, are not grapes. They are pitiful."
"I have canned peaches." She paused. "I think."
"Stop, you're killing me." Brody closed the fridge and sat across from her at the table. "So, what happened?" He gestured at her leg.
"I jumped off the Washington Monument."
Brody stared at her. That couldn't be true, but she kept her eyes on his and there was no trace of a smile on her face. He thought for a minute, then said, in a tone as serious as hers, "Where did you land?"
"The Reflecting Pool."
Her expression didn't change much, but he could see the slight grin at the corners of her mouth.
"Good call." Brody nodded. "I'd have gone for the Tidal Basin, but you'd really have to get some distance for that."
They stared for another minute, then both started laughing. Ryan shook her head.
"If only it was that interesting," she said. "No, this was the result of a 'friendly'—" she crooked her fingers in the air as she said the word "—game of touch football with my family."
"Wow." Brody looked down at the cast, then back up to her green eyes. "A little sibling rivalry at work?"
"Something like that. I'm not much on sports; I shouldn't have played. But you know how it is, it was family." Her eyes clouded and Brody suspected there was a little more to it.
"Too bad you don't like sports," he said, "I'd get you tickets to a game."
"Thanks." Ryan smiled, a genuine one, and it softened her face. "I've gone to a few; Mark's given me extra tickets. Not so many now since he has a girlfriend, but that's okay."
"Maybe you can use mine. I don't have a girlfriend. And I only live a few floors up, so delivery is no problem."
Ryan nodded. "Thanks, but it's awkward on steps with this right now. Maybe another time."
"Maybe." Brody smiled, pleased he hadn't been shut down outright. "It was nice meeting you, Ryan. You need any help with groceries again, let me know."
"I'll do that."
* * *
Later that night, Ryan lay on the couch, reading and listening to some music, her ankle propped up on a pillow. She had turned on iTunes and set it to shuffle. Some might have found it odd to hear Bad Company, then Sara Bereilles, followed by John Coltrane, but she liked it.
She put her book aside and pushed herself up, trying but failing to stifle a groan of pain and irritation as she did. She used the arm of the couch to push herself up, got her crutches, and went over to turn off the music. Normally she would have used a quiet evening to work on her own music, but the ache in her leg made it difficult to focus. Just let it go,
she told herself and took a few deep breaths. It was an accident, could have happened to anyone. Let it go.
She tried, but she was still pissed about what had happened to her leg. They'd had a family reunion two weeks ago, at her parents' house in Chantilly, and it had been fun. She'd caught up with her cousins, talked to her aunts and uncles, and had agreed—in a fit of idiocy, it seemed now—to play in the football game.
Her whole family liked sports, so the game was a tradition at most gatherings that had enough people to support two teams. Ryan had grown up on the Redskins, the Wizards (né Bullets) and Capitals. When the Nationals had come to town, the family had been stalwart in their support.
Ryan had liked sports, too—for a while. Until she realized that anything else she did never got the same respect or attention as her brothers' athletic achievements. A piano solo in the school orchestra performance? That's nice, dear. We'll make sure to record it so Dad can watch later.
Top marks on the AP Chemistry test? Good job, Ryan. We'll celebrate after JT's game.
She had tried. Ryan had held her own on the track and softball teams. She had kept at it, even though she preferred music, even though her sports accomplishments never seemed to please her parents the way her brothers' did. College had been liberating as she left sports behind. Her parents didn't care, as they had her brothers to focus on. JT was a football star in his third year at University of Maryland; their younger brother, Evan, was in first year at the same school and had earned a basketball scholarship. Get over it,
she told herself irritably. You're an adult. It's over. Get on with your life.
She decided to go to bed. It was early—before ten—but the ache and fatigue in her leg tended to spread to the rest of her. She might read or watch TV for a bit, but she'd had enough of lying on the couch.
Despite her best efforts, memories of the football game surfaced while she got ready for bed.
It had started out fun, and she'd been enjoying herself, almost to her own surprise. They'd been playing for maybe half an hour when she'd caught a pass and started running for the makeshift end zone. Laughing as she dodged the attempts to tag her, she had stepped into a small gopher hole in the yard and tumbled, one of her brothers landing on top of her.
She'd gone white from the pain, but hadn't screamed or shouted as she might have expected. Her brother, JT, had taken her initial struggles as part of the game, until she had
shouted at him and freed an arm to push him away.
What had made her furious was that instead of someone taking her to the ER at that point, it was decided to wait until the game was over.
"Nothing broken," her father had said, clapping her on the shoulder. "We'll finish up and someone will run you over."
So for another half an hour, Ryan had sat on a lawn chair, a picnic table bench brought over to keep her leg elevated. Her mother had brought some ice before returning to the game, but that was it. Ryan had been tempted to call an ambulance, but her purse with her cell phone was in the house and she couldn't get it, nor could she get anyone's attention to get it for her.
No one, she thought, had been as nice as her neighbor, Mark Gaines, and Brody Lang, a complete stranger. Who, she had to admit, she wouldn’t mind seeing again. Not just because he was tall, with a great build, shaggy brown hair and gold-brown eyes, although that didn't hurt. No, he'd been fun to talk to, and she'd liked him. You should have gotten his number, dimwit, or given him yours.
She thought about that, then shrugged. She could give her number to Mark, perhaps.
She considered it again as she climbed into bed. Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. Getting involved with an athlete, given her current feelings about sports in general, probably wasn't the best way to start anything. And of course, there was no particular reason to think he wanted to get involved with her.
Still, he'd been nice.
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