Hank looked past me and smiled, and I turned around to see Raegan and Kody walk in. Raegan was walking quickly, searching in her purse for something, and Kody was a few steps behind, trying to keep up.
Raegan sat down on a stool, and Kody stood next to her. “I can’t find my damn keys. I’ve looked for them everywhere!”
I leaned forward. “Seriously?” Our apartment keys were on that key ring.
“I’ll find them,” Raegan assured me. She lost her keys at least twice a month, so I wasn’t going to stress over it too much, but I always wondered if the next time would be the time that we would have to pay to change the locks.
“I’m going to glue those damn things to your hand, Ray,” I said.
Kody gave Raegan’s shoulder a gentle, reassuring squeeze. “She had them last night. They’re either in my truck or in the apartment. We’ll look again later.”
The side door shut, and we all watched the door at the end of the hall to see the last of us, Chase Gruber, stroll in through the employee entrance in his typical attire. The six-foot-six college junior wore shorts year-round. In the winter he wore an ESU Bulldogs hoodie over the random T-shirt, but his short, curly hair was always covered by either a helmet or his favorite red baseball cap. His laces were untied, and he looked like he just rolled out of bed.
All of the football guys called each other by their last names. To be honest, I wasn’t convinced they knew each other’s first names. Gruber was quickly nicknamed Gruby during practice, and sometime after Gruber started at the Red, Kody began calling him Booby. It was funny last year, but the name had lost its shine, for Gruber and for everyone else but Kody.
Gruber sat on the empty stool next to Blia with his elbows on the bar and his fingers intertwined. “Fuck off, Kody. Coach ran our asses off today because we lost last night.”
Kody laughed once and shook his head. It was true. Kody did quit the football team before the season started, but that was because he blew out his knee at the end of the last game of his sophomore year. He suffered multiple ligament tears, one was shredded, and his kneecap was dislocated. I didn’t even know the kneecap could be dislocated, but the orthopedic surgeon said he would never play again. Raegan said he didn’t talk about it, but he seemed to be dealing with it well. As a true freshman, Kody had helped our little university win the national championship. Without him, the team was struggling.
The door shut again, and we all froze. It was too early for patrons, and unless someone followed Gruber, only employees knew to come in through the side entrance. We all sucked in a collective gasp when T.J. appeared. He was holding up a set of shiny keys.
“I went by the apartment. These were lying on the stairs.”
I jumped up from my stool and walked quickly over to him. T.J. took me into his arms and gave me a tight squeeze.
“What are you doing here?” I whispered.
“That’s sweet, but what are you really doing here?”
“Here?” I said, pulling away from him to see his face. He was being truthful, but I knew he wouldn’t tell me more.
T.J. smiled, and then kissed the corner of my mouth. He tossed the keys to Kody, who effortlessly caught them.
Raegan laughed once. “On the stairs? Did they fall out of my hand or something?” she asked in disbelief.
T.J. leaned in to whisper into my ear. “I can’t stay. My plane leaves in an hour.”
I couldn’t hide my disappointment, but nodded. There was no point in protesting. “Did you do what you needed to do?”
“I think so.” T.J. took my hand, and nodded to the rest of the crew. “She’ll be right back.”
Everyone waved, and T.J. led me out the side door to the parking lot. A rented, shiny black Audi was parked just outside. He’d left it running.
“Wow, you weren’t joking. You’re really leaving right now.”
He sighed. “I debated whether it would be worse to only see you for a second, or to not see you at all.”
T.J. slid his hand between my hair and my neck, and pulled me into him, kissing me with the lips that made me fall in love with him. His tongue found its way into my mouth. It was warm and soft and forceful at the same time. My thighs involuntarily tensed. T.J.’s hand slid down my arm, and then to my hip, to my thigh, where he squeezed just enough to show his desperation.
“Me, too,” he said, a bit breathless when he finally pulled away. “You don’t know how much I wish I could stay.”
I wanted him to, but I wouldn’t ask. That just made it harder on both of us, and might make me look pathetic.
T.J. got into his car and drove away, and I walked back into the Red, feeling emotionally drained. Raegan’s bottom lip was pushed out a bit, and Hank was frowning so severely that a deep line had formed between his brows.
“If you ask me,” Hank said, crossing his arms over his chest, “that little bastard rushed home to piss on you real quick.”
Gruber nodded. “If Trent’s coming around, then that’s exactly what that was.”
I shook my head as I sat on the stool. “T.J.’s not threatened by Trent. He’s barely mentioned him.”
“Well, yeah. I’m not trying to hide it.”
“You think he’s here to talk to Trent?” Kody asked.
I shook my head again, picking at a hangnail. “No. He’s not big on announcing our relationship, so he definitely wouldn’t approach Trent about me.”
Hank grumbled and walked away, coming right back. “I don’t like that, either. He should be shouting to the world that he loves you, not hiding you like a dirty secret!”
“It’s hard to explain, Hank. T.J. is a very . . . private person. He’s a complicated individual,” I said.
Blia rested her cheek on her hand. “Holy shit balls, Cami. Your whole situation is complicated.”
“You’re telling me,” I said, lifting my buzzing cell phone. It was T.J., saying that he missed me already. I returned the sentiment, and set my phone on the bar.
For the first time in months, I didn’t have to return to the bar after the Sunday employee meeting, which wasn’t completely horrible, since it was thundering outside, and rain was pelting the windows. I had already caught up on my studying, all of my homework was complete, and the laundry was folded and put away. It felt weird having nothing to do.
Raegan was working the east bar with Jorie, and Kody was manning the entrance, so I was home alone and bored out of my mind. I watched a rather fascinating zombie show on television, and then pushed the power button on the remote, sitting in complete silence.
Thoughts about T.J. began to creep into my mind. I wondered whether continuing with something that seemed so futile was worth dragging my heart through the mud, and what it meant that he’d come all the way here to only see me for three minutes.