Chapter One

"My watch is broken," Conner Robertson said, more to break the silence than anything else. He sat staring at his wrist, examining the still hands of his watch as if he expected them to move.

"The one I gave you?" came a voice from beside him. He didn't turn when he heard it. He didn't want to look at her.

He nodded. Rachel had given it to him for his birthday last year. It was a nice watch—he knew that, but he had never been the type of guy to wear one. He laughed. He was rarely even known to be on time.

Conner knew Rachel didn't like him being late—to dates, school, even prom—but she hated the "why" even more.


Conner had tried to explain to her that the starting quarterback couldn't be late to practice. He couldn't miss a game. Coach would kill him.

"Like that time I got detention for hitting Danny Miller in physics," he had tried to tell her, standing on the steps of her father's back porch. It had been late. He had been late.

"I thought Coach was going to explode his face turned so red." He had laughed. Rachel hadn't. "He was almost as red as my truck. You should have been there, babe. You'd know what I'm talking about."

A sigh. A shake of the head. And Conner thought it was over.

It should have been over, he thought, and curled his fist in the silent frustration that followed. When he did, his watch turned and caught the light, and Conner found himself unable to think of anything but the momentary brilliance that had been reflected to him.

And then the regret. It should have been over, would have been over, he knew, if it had actually come to something. Instead, he thought bitterly, none of his efforts-none of his perseverance-had gotten him anywhere. Not even a scholarship. Conner had known from a young age that it was naïve, even foolish, to expect reality to match one's dreams.

But he had believed that, at the very least, his output would equal his input. He had expected his diligence to reward him with something more than a busted high school career and the looming exile from the sport he loved most. The irony burned him like acid.

It burned Rachel even more.

For the last four years, Conner had filled every day of the summer and fall seasons with football. It seemed like nearly every morning followed the same routine: he would get up early before anyone else, fix himself a large breakfast (chock-full with protein and fiber), and then head out for a jog around the block, off onto the main road, turn left, then right, before finally finding himself at the front end of Oak High School. Despite the time, he would be covered in sweat, standing just for a moment to admire the large, seemingly ancient school building in front of him. Oak was a small town—was a rich town, as Conner well knew, and the old high school, which sprawled for an entire block, was a prime example. Sometimes, as dawn broke over the white building, he thought he could see the place where the present and the future collided. For just a moment, he could see himself on signing day, sitting in the school library, committing to Georgia or Auburn, or maybe even LSU.

But then a car would honk or a bird would chirp and the vision would fade and he would be standing there, hands on his knees and breathing heavily. And then he would be off, turning from the school and racing down the sidewalk towards the football field half a mile away. There he would spend the rest of his morning until classes started, or—if it were summer—the rest of his day. Throwing the football. Practicing his footwork. Running through the formations.

While Rachel waited. Undoubtedly, he thought, with her phone at hand, just in case she missed his message...

Or maybe not.

Maybe she wasn't waiting for him at all.

Now that was a thought. It made him uneasy, and he didn't like it, and sometimes when he was throwing the football or practicing his footwork or running through the formations it would pop unbidden into his head.

Not right now, he would think, and he would stand there until the thought disappeared. Sometimes it would go naturally; other times he would will it away.

Because he could. Compartmentalization was key. Work hard for now, he would tell himself, and it will pay off later. After he got his offer... Then it would all be okay. Then he could take Rachel anywhere she wanted, do anything she wanted to do.

Sometimes—most of the time, he realized with a vague sense of guilt—he would go to her at night. After practice had finished. After he had showered off and turned on his phone, only to see that he had missed her calls.

"I'm at our spot."

He would send the text and wait, and she would come. She would always come...

And sometimes that was enough. At least, Conner hoped it was enough. With every kiss, with every touch, he tried to tell her how much he loved her. He was gentle. He was loving. When he was inside her, he became someone else. He was Cam Newton; he was Tom Brady. He threw first downs; he threw touch downs. He won the Super Bowl. And sometimes, he could feel, she did, too.

But recently it had gotten worse. This year, the Oak High Titans had made it to the region championship. A last-second touchdown had extended their season and catapulted them into the playoffs. It had given him a second chance. Most importantly, it had been his touchdown. When the final whistle sounded, Conner had rushed off the field with his teammates. The locker room had been electric.

"Robertson! Fucking nice, man," Daniel Martin had said, rushing at him from the side and taking him in a bear hug. Before he had a chance to realize what was going on, another guy had piled on, and then another, until it seemed that half the team was around him.

"Where'd that come from? You whooped ass out there!" Greg Taylor said from somewhere nearby. And then the circle had started jumping and cheering.

Conner could feel his hair stand on end as he was overcome with a sense of elation, and, carried by a wave of adrenaline, he had screamed, "We're going to region!"

"To region!" the team had echoed. When the excitement had finally died down, it was five hours later, and Conner was slipping out of Daniel Martin's house, away from an after-party that had been lit. The night air had been cool and relaxing after the heat of the party. It felt good on his skin. He rubbed his face, shook his head. The alcohol had made him just a little tipsy, and the sidewalk in front of him swayed momentarily in the streetlight. He had taken a step forward, slowly, testing his balance.

You've got this.

And he did. He concentrated on the lines of the sidewalk, letting them guide him, and he was doing pretty good, until he had run into something right in front of him. He stumbled with a cry, then caught himself and looked up.

Of course it had been Rachel. Of course she had come to Daniel's house looking for him. And of course he had completely forgotten about her after the game. Her arms were crossed, and she was frowning, and he couldn't tell if she were mad at him or simply sad.

He reckoned both.

He stood for a moment, not sure what to say, and then said, "Shit, Rachel, I—"

"Save it," she had said, and there had been a definite waver in her voice. Then she had turned and walked to her car. Conner watched as she slipped into the driver's seat without looking back. He didn't move until she was well out of sight. Until any hope that she would turn around and pick him up had completely vanished. Then he had turned, and with a deep sigh of stupidity and guilt, had walked home and gone to bed.

Today was the first day she had spoken to him since then. She had ignored all his texts, refused all his calls. When he passed her in the hallway at school, she turned her head and pretended he didn't exist. After a week, he had begun to think that that was it. That there was no more Conner and Rachel.

But she had come today. "I'm at our spot" he had said. Followed by, "I'm not leaving until you get here." He hadn't expected it to work. He had driven his old, red truck down a back road, turned off onto a line of gravel, and had followed the path through a dense track of trees until it dead-ended in the middle of nowhere. And then he had waited. After thirty minutes of silent waiting (pensive in those moments that he wasn't frantically checking his phone every time it dinged), he had decided to turn around. Go home.

Then a clunking sound as Rachel opened the right-hand door, swung herself into the seat, and whammed the door shut again seemingly all in one motion. She smelled faintly of cherries; the scent struck him as delicate, as it always did. It contrasted sweetly with the sweaty odor of the practice field and locker room and spoke to him of another world. In some ways—in most ways, he realized—Rachel was nothing like him. Now that she was with him, he could feel the weight of their three-year relationship almost as if it were something tangible hanging in the air. Rachel had come, but she had brought with her a new atmosphere, one that was filled with storm clouds and lightning. Conner was certain he wasn't imagining the charge that seemed to emanate from her body. He opened his mouth to say something, but no words came out.

The two sat in silence. Conner turned to see Rachel staring out the passenger window. Her blonde hair was up in a pony-tail, and she was wearing a peach-colored shirt and slightly-faded blue jeans. Conner knew the outfit by heart, knew the back of her shirt showed the outline of the state with the words "Georgia Peach" in the middle. The sight of it conjured up a hazy memory of the two eating freshly-picked peaches together on his grandma's front porch the summer they had first gotten together. A couple of peaches for my two peaches, Mawmaw had said when she had given them out. When she had left, the two had eaten them in silence. It was a different silence than the one they shared now, punctuated not with heavy sighs and regret but by glaring sunshine and the occasional slurping of peach juice. Rachel had laughed and told Conner he was getting it all over his shirt, and he had felt embarrassed for not noticing. Somehow, she had managed to stay clean despite the fact that the two had been swinging steadily. The memory brought a renewed sense of guilt; he suddenly understood that what Rachel felt was more than just frustration at his negligence. It was exhaustion—and somehow that was even scarier. He made again as if to speak, drawing closer, but she didn't flinch when he shifted in his seat, only stared out the window as if enchanted by the billowing of the trees.

It wasn't a good sign, but what had he expected?

"Rachel," he had started, but she hadn't said anything, hadn't even turned. Conner could tell that she was in the mood for silence. And so he had sat there, not sure that anything he could say would make her feel better.

At first, he had simply stared at her. He noted the color of her pony-tail holder (red) and admired the way her skin shone olive in the waning afternoon light. Unlike the other girls he knew, Rachel never went to a tanning bed; she simply had good skin. It was one of the things he liked most about her, but staring at her then, he realized he had never told her. He turned away from her and looked at his lap. The car was filled with the sound of occasional deep breaths and the shuffling of feet, but as the minutes stretched, Conner thought he could feel her settling down—if only a little.

Ten minutes later, he finally spoke.

My watch is broken.

"Give it back, and I can get it fixed," Rachel said now. Conner turned to look at her, reluctantly because he didn't want to see her face. He didn't want to look in her eyes. Butterflies ran laps in his stomach. He realized he hadn't been this nervous in front of her since the day he had asked her out three years ago when they were still freshmen.

Still, Rachel had spoken to him, and it hadn't been too bad, so...

It's now or never...

"Look, Rachel, I know I've been an ass," Conner started. She was looking at him now, expectant; it was the moment she had been waiting on. He felt a moment of hesitation and then the words rolled out.

"I'm sorry. That was a shit thing of me to do. I was wrong."

When she didn't say anything, he continued.

"I mean, all of it's wrong. Not just last week, but all of it. I've been selfish. I haven't given enough to you." He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts.

"What I did to you after the game—I'm not proud of it…and that goes for everything. Look, I don't really know what to say except I'm sorry. No excuses."

That's what Coach always says—no excuses.

"No excuses, so can we please start over? I don't want to lose you, Rachel." His voice hitched on the last words, and he found himself wanting to look away. But this was crunch time. He had dropped back and thrown a sixty-yard hail mary, and all he could do was wait to see if it connected with his receiver or sailed into the arms of a waiting defender.

She didn't say anything, simply stared at him. Conner could detect no change in her eyes. They were simply brown, the color of his shirt; the color of the shoes he had bought her for her birthday, the ones she wasn't wearing now; the color of football. His favorite color.

Conner suddenly felt a spark of anger. What do you want? He thought, turning away from her then, away from her blank eyes and their heavy expectations. He had waited on her a week. He had sent her message after message, given her call after call. He had poured his heart out to her for nothing but a stare. He hated her silence and how small it made him feel. He hated that he was the cause of all this. He hated that, as awful as he felt, Rachel felt ten, no, one hundred times worse. He turned his arm and looked at his broken watch, wishing he hadn't said anything.

This was dumb. I should have just let it be. Called it quits...

"I forgive you."

Rachel said it so quietly that at first he thought she hadn't said anything it all. He turned back to look at her. Her expression said it all.

I forgive you this time... but this is the last time. I won't be hurt anymore.

Strong, but somehow delicate. The girl on the swing, but all grown up.

Conner felt relief flood through him. She still loved him, still needed him. And at that moment, it meant more to him than anything, even football, because he still needed her in ways he couldn't explain.

"I love you," he said. Then he was taking her in his arms and kissing her. She wrapped her arms around his back and slipped lower into the seat, deeper into his arms. He hugged her close enough to feel her breasts push into his chest. He could feel the vague imprint of a peach on the back of her shirt, and then he was pulling it off. He heard her breathing grow heavy as he undressed her and cast her clothes onto the floor of the truck, along with his worries. Nothing could bother him. He was free.

At least for now.