“Easy, don’t go!” I gestured to the backpack. “Don’t finish packing. Don’t get your passport. Don’t get on a fucking plane, and don’t take my daughter away from me!”
The color drained from her face as she staggered backward and sat on the bed. “She’s my daughter, too.”
“And I guess possession really is nine-tenths of the law in this case, right? Because it’s not like I can stop you.” My chest ached with every breath I dragged into my lungs. “I thought you loved me?” The words came out just as broken as I felt.
“I do,” she answered softly. “Don’t you see how hard this is? I’ve never put down roots before. I’ve never given my entire soul over to someone because I knew I was leaving or they were. I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you, Nixon.”
“It looked pretty damned easy a few minutes ago.”
She rubbed circles on her belly absentmindedly as she looked back at her pack, her face stricken. “I’ve been so focused on achieving the dream that I guess I didn’t realize what it would cost me if I got it.”
“You’re not the only one paying the price. I will. She will.”
“Come with us.” Her hand splayed over the curve of our daughter.
My jaw hit the floor. “Come with you? I’m on contract. I can’t just pick up and leave for Brazil. That’s not how any of this works. I can’t even go rock climbing with my contract, so I’m pretty sure hiking through the Amazon definitely isn’t allowed. I only have a decade left on the field, if I’m lucky. A decade, Liberty. And you of all people know why I can’t just take off my jersey and go use my considerable football skills in a medical camp in Brazil,” I finished with a note of sarcasm that she didn’t appreciate. “I don’t just play for me!”
“So what? I have to give up my dream so you can keep yours?” She looked at me like I was a complete and utter stranger. “That’s not love, Nixon. Love is when you put someone else’s needs ahead of yours. Love isn’t throwing a tantrum because you’re not getting your way.”
“Throwing a tantrum?” I stood and then sat my ass back down on the dresser. Nothing good would come of me walking away or getting closer to her. We’d either end in anger or end up in bed, which was exactly what got us here—not talking our shit out. “I’ve had exactly,” I looked at my watch, “thirty-two minutes to adjust to the thought that you’re leaving me and taking my kid! I didn’t do anything wrong! I didn’t fuck this up. I let you in. I put my whole heart out there, and somehow we still can’t win!”
“It’s not about winning!” She stood suddenly. “You can’t control everything. I know you want to, but you can’t. You just have to accept the fact that not everything can go according to your plan. You can’t stick me in this cage—no matter how beautiful it is and tell me to be happy. There is no outcome in life that’s guaranteed. We make the best of whatever life gives us, and life has handed me this,” she gestured between us. “It’s given me this baby to raise and nurture, and it’s given me a love so deep I know I will feel you from an entire continent away. And it’s given me this opportunity to make a difference in the world—not just the scoreboard.”
“I love you.” It wasn’t a confession—it was an outright plea.
“Then don’t make me choose.”
I glanced at her pack and felt the empty void in my chest begin to grow, consuming me bit by bit with blessed numbness. “I never realized that I was your consolation prize, but I get it now. Loud and clear. Hell, you said it to begin with, right? You didn’t want me. You didn’t need me. You were going to raise our baby all on your own. This was just a pit stop in your life. I’ve been the one holding on to something that never existed because you never really wanted me, you were just settling. Jesus, Lila wasn’t even this cruel. She faked a baby. You faked a future.”
She startled, then stared at me before slowly shaking her head. “They warn people to never meet their crushes. They told me you were an asshole, but I never imagined you could be this selfish.” She barked. “You’ve had your dream for the past eight years! I haven’t even had mine for an hour, and you can’t let me have it? You can’t be happy for me? Proud of me? You can’t think about a compromise? One where we fit our lives together instead of me fitting mine into yours? Is this really who you are? Are you that scared of who you’ll be when everyone stops chanting your name that it’s your way or nothing at all?” She batted away a furious tear, and the sight of it shredded me all over again.