The Wall of Winnipeg and Me(45) by Mariana Zapata

Except the house didn’t completely feel like my own. It reminded me of back when I was a kid, sleeping over at Diana’s, when I couldn’t walk around in my underwear or go braless because it wasn’t my house. Then again, I spent the majority of my time in my room working and no one was ever home, so I could pull off whatever outfit—or lack of an outfit and underwear—I felt like wearing, only running up the stairs like a crazy person when the garage door opened. Then there was the small issue of having to turn down the volume on my computer’s speakers when one of the guy’s was home and I was working.

I still hadn’t talked myself into spending time in the living room watching television even when the guys weren’t around. Fortunately, claustrophobia hadn’t gotten to me yet considering most of my time was spent in the same place, and that was because I made sure to go to the gym a couple times a week, to see Diana once a week or every other week, and took my time going to the grocery store. I watched Netflix on my TV when I was bored. I drew in my sketchpad when I felt like it. Sometimes I hung out with Zac, but that didn’t happen often because he’d been spending a lot of time away from the house after practices and meetings, seeing his girl of the season.

By the time I woke up each morning, both guys were already gone. They were basically the best roommates ever. Best of all, Aiden was the type of roommate who you didn’t have to pay rent to.

I’d brought it up, of course. That day that I’d moved in, I’d asked him what bills I could help him pay, and all he’d done was give me that bored face that my temper hadn’t become immune to. Then I’d asked again, and he’d just ignored me.

He’d said he would work on being my friend, but I couldn’t expect a miracle overnight, could I?

If it was strange for either one of them having me in this house, they didn’t say anything about it or make me feel like an intruder, mostly because they both had enough on their plates. Zac had passingly mentioned to me how stressed he was about another quarterback the team had picked up, and Aiden lived and breathed for his sport, never allowing himself to slack off. Not that that was anything new. He nodded at me every time we happened to be in the same room together and offered me his leftovers if there were any, which there usually wasn’t because the poor guy seemed to be surviving off smoothies, fresh fruit, sweet potatoes, canned beans, nuts, brown rice, and at least one frozen meal daily.

That wasn’t my business though, was it?

But every day, I would find the recyclable bin filled with more cardboard containers than the day before. It made me feel bad, guilty.

It also made me wonder again why Trevor hadn’t hired him someone who did all the same duties I’d been responsible for. I knew he’d hired Aiden someone to answer his e-mails because I’d logged on to his account just to see what the damage was and found that every few days there were replies, but no one ever appeared at the house, and sometimes I’d find mail from his PO Box sitting in the kitchen after he got home. Where was his Vanessa 2.0?

The problem with being friends with someone is that unless you want to be a shitty friend—or at least a fake friend because real ones shouldn’t be shitty—you couldn’t pretend you don’t notice if something is wrong with your buddy.

The biggest problem with my newfound friendship with Aiden was how complicated it was. What we’d done was technically a business transaction. But we sort of knew each other, and I knew that even if he wasn’t perfect and wasn’t truly my friend-friend who would donate a kidney if I needed one, I still cared about him anyway. I was a sucker like that. I figured, best-case scenario, he liked me enough to chip in for someone to donate whatever I needed. I mean, he’d gone running with me so that I wouldn’t go by myself when it was late out.

On top of that, we lived together. We were technically married.

Complicated was the best word to describe the situation.

So when I found Aiden in the breakfast nook with his leg propped on one of the other chairs and an icepack over his foot days after we’d gone for a run, mere weeks after the regular NFO season had started, I couldn’t pretend not to see it. Friends didn’t do that. Not people who had known each other for two years. Not when I knew Aiden well enough that I was aware he treated his body like a temple. So for him to have an icepack on his ankle?

Guilt flooded my chest. The Three Hundreds had some of the best trainers and physical therapists in the country. They had all kinds of advanced technology to get their players back in shape. The staff wouldn’t have let Aiden leave the facility until they’d done as much as they could for whatever was troubling him.

His facial expression only confirmed something was wrong. His jaw was jutting out and the cords lining his thick neck were more pronounced than usual. He was in pain, or at least incredibly uncomfortable.

This man whom I’d seen walk off the field like his ribs hadn’t just been fractured two years ago, much less without crying out, “Owwie,” was in clear and visible pain.

And I couldn’t ignore it. Because friends didn’t do that, did they?

I took my time circling the kitchen island, watching him, not minding that all he’d done was lift an index finger to greet me. He was eating a sandwich and reading a book on… it had the word ‘dumb’ on the front. I opened the refrigerator door to grab ingredients to make a soup, and turned my attention back as discreetly as possible to watch the big man at the small table.

“I’m going to make some soup, do you want some?” I offered.

“What kind?” he had the nerve to ask without looking away from his hardback.

I held back my smirk. “A kind you like.”

“Okay.” There was a pause. “Thanks.”

I chopped a few vegetables while occasionally glancing up. Running through a few different scenarios in my head on how to go about approaching him to find out if he was in pain or not, I realized I was being dumb.

“Aiden?”

“Hmm?”

“What’s wrong with your foot?” I just blurted out.

“I sprained it.” That was easy, effortless, no bullshit Aiden for me.

Unfortunately, his comment didn’t help or reassure me. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone had hit him with a car and the tendon wasn’t even attached to his leg any more, and he was insisting it was just a sprain.

But was I going to say that? Nope.

“High sprain or low sprain?” I asked carefully, as casually as I could.

“High,” he replied just as nonchalantly.

Between his injuries and Zac’s, I’d become familiar with the different kinds possible. High sprains tended to take less time to heal, usually a week or two. Lower ankle sprain recovery ranged from a month to two. So, it was bad but it could have been a lot worse.

“What did the trainers say?”

That had his jaw tightening. “I’m questionable for the next game.”

Not probable, questionable. Oh, brother. Questionable statuses made Aiden Graves a grumpy goose.

I lowered my gaze back down to the cutting board and the celery I had on there. “It might be a good idea for you to go see that acupuncturist you went to last year when your shoulder was bothering you.” The more I listed his past injuries, the more it made me wince. Zac had told me once that every football player he knew constantly lived with pain; it was inevitable.