Dylan dropped back several steps, catching the ball tight at his chest. Shaking his head, he adjusted it until it fit comfortably in his hand.

“Keep it tight, G. You’re giving it too much air. You don’t want to make me work this hard,” he corrected as he threw the ball back and glanced at his watch. He’d agreed to the extra practice but he’d also made it shorter than usual and asked Tamar to meet him at the field so he could spend some time with her.

“Sorry, Ramsey. You need to go?” Garrett asked watching Dylan check his watch as he’d done after almost every toss. He had a good guess as to what had Dylan so anxious.

“Not yet. Give me another throw.”

Tamar self-consciously brushed a curly strand of hair from her face as she approached the door, her heart doing mini-somersaults as she heard male voices on the other side. She suddenly wanted to turn back. With an annoyed frown, she recalled Bekah’s concern that she was getting soft. Shaking her head, Tamar straightened her back and pushed the door open, immediately moving to the wall where she was intent on waiting for Dylan.

Dylan caught a couple of more passes and made several more corrections before shifting down the field to give Garrett an example. It was when he moved to the right that he caught sight of the petite female leaning against the wall just inside the door. A grin spread across his face as he tossed the ball back to Garrett.

“Alright G-man, let’s wrap it up for the day.”

Garrett barely caught the ball before turning his eyes in the direction Dylan’s gaze was fixed. He wasn’t surprised to find the woman who’d been the talk of the campus for the last few weeks. He glanced back at Dylan before looking to her once more. “Do I get an introduction?”

Dylan was already crossing the field toward her when he heard Garrett’s question. He shrugged. “Make it quick,” he tossed over his shoulder.

Tamar happened to look up from her scuffed boots and saw Dylan walking her way. She could feel a goofy grin spread her lips as she watched him stride across the field with his long arms and legs moving powerfully, muscles flexing with every purposeful move. She’d already lost her breath by the time he stood to her. She forgot about their surroundings and who she was compared to him, and just met him halfway. ”Hey,” she greeted Dylan breathlessly, her eyes dancing up at him.

“I do. Cherish you. For the rest of my life, you don’t have to think twice,” he sang softly as he cupped her cheeks and drew her in for a light kiss. “Hey pretty girl,” he returned with a crooked grin once he pulled back.

Tamar smiled wider and moved back into his arms. Screw popularity, she wanted to kiss him again. Hooking her arms around his neck, she pressed her mouth against his again. She’d wanted to do that last night but with the strange end to their evening, it seemed only right to do it now… even if it was in front of his entire football team. Pulling back a little, her eyes twinkled up at him. “Am I too early?” Tamar  peered over his shoulder at his teammates, some of them pausing their drills to acknowledge the team captain’s guest. Her cheeks warmed under their open perusal but she didn’t move an inch from Dylan’s arms.

“Huh?” he asked a bit distracted, his focus on her lips and his mind on the kiss she’d just given him. He hadn’t expected it, not in front of the team, and it made him feel a few inches taller. He kept one arm wrapped around her waist , wishing they were already alone. Wolf whistles made him groan and drop his head. “Give me a minute to wrap things up with the guys and we’ll get outta here.”

Tamar playfully wrinkled her nose at his grumbling and laughed. To her surprise, the wolf whistles weren’t nearly as daunting or offensive as they should have been. Than they used to be. The attention with Dylan sure beat jeering and mocking laughs directed at her any day. “No rush. I can stay for a while longer.”

“Just a couple more plays,” he promised and snuck another kiss before jogging back across the field, catching the ball that was thrown at him as he went.

He fell into position, the defense setting themselves up against the offense and running through the play with almost flawless execution. There was something about having his top favorite things at the same time: his girl and the game. The last few plays of practice he was on the top of his game, drawing lots of ribbing from the guys as they wrapped up.

“Hey Ramsey, let me know when you’re done with her. Could use some luck.”

Just that quickly, Dylan’s smile dropped and he stepped toward the man. “Watch your mouth. As a matter of fact, she doesn’t exist to you. Keep her name out of your mouth. Got it?”

“Whoa Ramsey, take it easy.” One of the guys wrapped his arm over Dylan’s shoulder and drew him back a few steps. “Josh didn’t mean anything by it. Go on and get outta here. Rest the golden arm.”

Garrett watched with interest. His eyes darted from Dylan to Tamar. He’d never seen him so riled up about a woman and he made note of it. It seemed things were heating up. At least for Dylan.

Tamar had lowered her head to answer Bekah’s text but quickly glanced up again to check on Dylan when she spotted the entire team huddled in the middle of the field. Curiosity piqued, she lowered the phone and tried to find Dylan in the crowd.

When Dylan didn’t show any signs of backing off, Luke tugged harder. Dylan almost lost his balance but his eyes never left Josh. He felt another hand grab him.

“Dang, Josh. Apologize or something,” someone muttered.

“Hey, I didn’t realize it was serious. My bad.”

“Yeah, make sure it’s not your bad again,” Dylan warned as he shrugged off Luke’s hold and started to break away from the crowd.

“What in the world…” Tamar mumbled as she finally spotted Dylan flanked by two guys, both with their hands on his shoulders as if to stop him from lunging forward. The stormy look on Dylan’s face sent her heart racing and her hyperactive imagination immediately started again, wondering what his teammates had said to offend their beloved quarterback. In the back of her mind, Tamar knew it had something to do with her. Tamping down a sigh, she waited for either Dylan’s stormy expression to ease off or for him to tear away from the crowd.

Garrett broke away from the crowd, following after Dylan who was already taking off his gloves as he strode toward Tamar.

She finally allowed herself to breathe again when he started toward her. “What was that about?” she asked, frowning up at him as he approached her.

“Nothing for you to worry about,” he assured her with a faint smile. “Let me hit the locker room and I’ll be ready.”

“I’ll be here.” She shrugged, watching his forced grin before he turned away. He was lying to her but she wasn’t going to nudge him further, knowing she was keeping secrets of her own.

Garrett watched Dylan let himself inside before strolling up to her and offering a hand with a warm smile. “Tamar, right? I’m Garrett.”

A bit distracted by Dylan, Tamar jumped slightly at the unexpected company and squinted against the sunlight at the man standing before her. She blinked momentarily and then managed a smile, recognizing him instantly. “Yeah, I remember you… from the eatery.” She nodded her greeting before peering over his shoulder at the dispersed crowd. “What was that about back there?”

He dropped his hand and slipped it into his pocket. He couldn’t fight the grin when she remembered him. That was something. “Ramsey didn’t tell you? One of the guys had something smart to say. He needed to be corrected.”

She tilted her head to look at him, her brow furrowed. “At whose expense?” she said quietly before looking over her shoulder to where Dylan retreated. If he reacted like that every time someone had something “smart” to say about her, his revered popularity on and off the field would be jeopardized. She swallowed a sigh and shook her head. They would have to discuss that later.

He waved off her concern. “Ramsey’s alright. Besides, a pretty girl like you deserves to be defended.”

Tamar blinked up at him, surprised by his words. Then she scoffed lightly. “No need for the brown-nosing, Garrett…” She shoved her hands in her pockets and eyed him curiously. “How long have you known Dylan?”

His smile was easy, genuine.“No brown-nosing. I’m just being honest. Dylan’s known me for about a year. We met when I joined the team last year.”

“Hmm, I see…” she muttered under her breath, deciding that he wasn’t the person to ask the question nagging her all day. “He’s a good guy, isn’t he?” Tamar asked instead, smiling back at him.

“He can be.” He smiled to offset his words and glanced over her head to see Dylan heading back their way. He took a few steps back, starting to return to the field. “I’ll see you around, Tamar.”

Tamar merely waved and quickly turned to greet Dylan with a weary look as he approached her. “You okay?”

“Fine. How was your day?”

She scoffed again and reached up to tousle his damp hair. “Fine but you’re pouting?” Tamar shook her head, deciding that even with his lips pursed like that, she wanted to kiss him soundly. Rolling her eyes at her wanton thought, she nudged him with her elbow. “Can we get outta here now?”

“I don’t pout.” Watching and feeling her play in his hair erased the pout he claimed not to have and a smile peeked out. He held the door open for her before he did something to warrant more wolf whistles.

Tamar laughed softly, stepping around him through the door. For now she’d forget about the curious glances from his quiet teammates and focus only on his cute expressions. Spending time with him was definitely the highlight of her day. “Where are we going now?” she called over her shoulder, walking ahead of him. “Are you hungry? Lunch on me.”

“Pretty girl, lunch is never on you. You know that but lunch is good.” He’d worked up an appetite but no matter what she’d suggested, he would have willingly gone along with it just to spend time with her.

“Bend the rules this once, Casanova,” she countered gently, drawing back to walk beside him. Her eyes scanned his chiseled face and she smirked. Although it was just a night ago, Tamar had missed being with him. “Consider it a thank you for last night…”

“That would work if I wasn’t the one who owed you a thank you for last night. Nice try though.” He linked his fingers through hers as they left the stadium and started down the sidewalk.

“It seems there’s never a point to argue with you…” The feel of his fingers entwining with hers sent warm shivers down her spine and Tamar bit her bottom lip. The warmth that exuded from him comforted and assured her that she was doing the right thing; standing up against Neecy and whoever else dared to tell her she wasn’t worthy of Dylan’s attention. In that moment, with his fingers laced through hers, Tamar felt safe and wanted. She didn’t want that feeling to ever go away, if she could help it.

“Ahh, finally she sees the light.” He laughed and squeezed her hand. “What’s for lunch?”

Tamar twisted her mouth in slight protest. “Well, let’s see. I’d invite you back to the dorm for lunch but Bekah would have my hide…” She fought back a wince, realizing that she’d spoken too soon. Shrugging, she delved in. “We’re moving off campus, by the way.” There was no point delaying the inevitable.

“Am I not allowed in the room anymore?” He slowed his steps when he heard her last words. “Kind of sudden, isn’t it? Why the move?”

“Living on campus is kinda lame.” She smirked up at him. “I mean, it can be a bit suffocating living in that studio room,” she replied, eying him carefully.

He thought it over and finally just shrugged, lifting her hand to his mouth for a kiss. “If that’s what you want then do it. Tonio and I will help get everything moved in and out.”

Tamar laughed, just realizing that she’d been holding her breath. Her gaze lowered to his lips pressed against her skin and felt her cheeks flush. “Thanks for your approval… I think it’ll be a good move. No more curfews and I can have sleepovers.” The corners of her mouth lifted impishly as she eyed him openly, retrieving her hand.

He looked over at her then, laughing at the mischievous look on her face. “People really have no clue how wicked you are. You know, we could get started moving stuff in today…”

She giggled. “We have to find the place first, Casanova. Slow your roll.” Peering over his shoulder, she smirked. “What are you in the mood for?”

“I’m just trying to let you know the kind of service you’ve got on hand. We wouldn’t want you wastin’ time.” He stepped out onto a crosswalk then. “I could eat pretty much anything. A lot of anything.”

“Don’t take back your offer when it’s time,” she warned him good-naturedly before sighing. “That’s not narrowing down anything. Pick something to eat, besides burritos or ice-cream.” She was in no mood to run into either Neecy or any of Dylan’s fan base members.

“Are you gonna call me a cheap date if I tell you I really just want some burgers and fries?”

“Cheap, no. Boring, yes.” Tamar squeezed his hand, giving him a teasing wink. “Honestly, I want that too, so it’s okay.”

“I can take boring. I can always make that up.” Changing direction, he started for the Checkers. “You gotta love an agreeable woman. You get a gold star for that.”

Scoffing lightly, Tamar nudged him in his side. “By the way… How’s Crystal?” She snuck a peek at his face to gauge his initial reaction. He hadn’t called her after she left the house, so she wondered if they’d managed to resolve whatever it was that had his sister hung up during the night.

He rolled his eyes playfully. “She’s fine. Fine enough that she’s turning into a mini mom. She’ll want to apologize again for last night. Don’t take it easy on her.”

Tamar raised a brow but shrugged it off. “It’s okay… If I had an older brother and he brought a lady friend over for the first time, I’d be a bit wary too.” She flashed him a smile. “Don’t be hard on her.”

“That doesn’t make it okay to be rude and she knows that,” he said firmly. He’d told Crystal as much during their conversation the previous night.

“Relax, it wasn’t that bad…” Tamar rolled her eyes and chuckled lightly. “If anything, she was just being assertive and protective of you. I’m not the least bit offended.” Then she slowed in her step and turned to face him, lifting a hand to pinch his cheek lightly. “Although, I have to admit it’s rather cute that you’d defend my honor like that. But please, let it go.”

“Woman, you’re ruining my tough guy image right now,” he mumbled but made no move to get from under her touch. “I’m always going to have something to say if I don’t like the way somebody talks to or about you. You might as well get used to that.”

At his honest declaration, Tamar’s smile waned and her fingers stilled by his cheek. That pesky warm shiver skittered down to her toes and her blue eyes darted to his own, gazing up at him. The sincerity in his gray eyes threatened to undo her but she managed to remain upright, letting his words wrap around her like a security blanket to ward off Neecy’s scathing glares and contentious words that had filled her thoughts throughout the previous night. “Can I?” Tamar whispered softly.

“Yes, Tamar. You can. Nobody talks about my girl but me.” Just the thought of comments similar to the ones he’d already heard threatened to get him angry all over again. No, he wouldn’t sit back if anybody was stupid enough to say something in front of him.

She lifted a hand to frame his cheek, entranced by the protective glint in his eyes that threatened to turn her into a puddle of goo. Standing in his arms and gazing into those gray eyes made her want to believe that she could finally let her guard down and like him as much as she wanted to, without worrying about the ridicule and scorn of others. He could protect her and honestly, she wanted him to. Tamar lowered her lashes and moved her hand away from his face to his shoulder. “Bekah thinks I’m becoming soft… Do you think I am?” she asked, her voice barely audible.

His brow furrowed quizzically. “Soft how? I think you’re soft in all the right places but I don’t think that’s what you’re talking about.”

Tamar bit her bottom lip to keep from smiling, peeking up at him. “That mouth of yours…” Her eyes drifted down to said mouth and felt her cheeks warm. She lifted her gaze back to his. “I’m serious. Before I never used to care what people thought of me, what scornful things they’d say next. Now… not so much.” She frowned slightly, tilting her chin up. “You understand now?”

“You like it,” he said knowingly before growing serious and considering her question. “I don’t think it makes you soft to care about what people say. It makes you human. I think you’re starting to let yourself feel and that means everything, the good and the bad. I wouldn’t call it soft.”

Tamar smiled this time, lifting both hands to brace his shoulders. The words might have seemed casual to him but to her, it meant more than just a simple observation. She was starting to let herself feel again instead of numbing herself to dangers and risks around her. Her smile widened, eyes glinting in admiration as she gazed up at him. “Since when did you get so wise?”

“I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or you’re saying you thought I was stupid up until now…”

“You’d do best to take it as a compliment.” She chuckled lightly and squeezed his arm before stepping away.

“Yeah, I think I like it better as a compliment too,” he echoed after a moment and fell into step with her.

<<Chapter 19 || Chapter 21>>