“Someone eats like they run up and down a field for a living,” Grady commented, grinning as he glanced over at me. “Unlike the rest of us.”
Cam chuckled. “Don’t hate.”
Picking up the glass of Coke, I took a sip to ease my dry throat and calm the nervous buzz trilling in my veins. “So, Avery was saying you work at Shepherd?”
Grady nodded and spoke directly facing me, obviously aware of my partial deafness. “Yes, but my job is nowhere near as entertaining as Cam’s. I teach chemistry.”
“He’s just being modest,” Cam said, waiting until I turned to him before he continued. “He’s the youngest professor in the science department.”
“Wow. That’s impressive,” I commented, wondering if he knew I’d dropped out of college and what he thought about that. You had to be pretty smart to teach chemistry. “How long have you been there?”
As he answered my question, I saw his gaze drop from mine, flickering over my cheek, but his expression didn’t change, and I wasn’t sure what that meant. “They were telling me you attended Shepherd?”
I nodded, glancing at Avery. “I did . . .” I closed my mouth, not sure of what else to say. Silence trickled out, and I grabbed my glass again.
Cam came to the rescue, bringing up the subject of seven-year-old Ava’s fixation with soccer. “She’s so going to play.”
“She’s going to dance,” Avery corrected.
“She could probably do both,” Grady jumped in. “Couldn’t she?”
It took me a moment to realize he was talking to me. “With her energy? She could do dance, soccer, and gymnastics.”
Avery laughed. “Our girl is . . . well, she’s a handful.”
“It’s so strange that Alex is the mellow one out of the two,” Cam mused. “Would’ve expected him to be all over the place.”
“Give him time,” she replied dryly. “He’s only eleven months old.”
“He’ll be playing soccer too.” Cam leaned in, kissing Avery’s cheek before she could respond. “You’ll be carting them both around to practice in a minivan.”
“God help me,” Avery laughed.
The waitress appeared at our table then, stopping abruptly when her gaze roamed over Grady and then halted on me. I hastily looked at the menu, settling on the roasted chicken and potatoes. I didn’t look up at her when I placed my order because I didn’t want to know if she was staring at me or not.
Once she left to put in the order, the conversation picked up again, and I loved listening to Cam and Avery banter back and forth with one another. Those two made me smile even when I wasn’t comfortable with the way it felt or looked.
I was quiet while the appetizers arrived, murmuring my thanks when Grady offered to load up the small plate for me.
“Cam was saying you’re starting a new job on Monday?” he asked, genuine interest shining through his eyes.
“I totally told him who your father is.” Cam’s grin was sheepish. I wasn’t surprised. Cam was a total Lima fanboy. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” And it really was. Even though I’d distanced myself from my father’s profession, I was still thoroughly proud of what my father and his brothers had accomplished. “My last name kind of gives it away.”
“I wouldn’t have known,” Grady admitted, his cheeks turning pink when I looked at him in surprise. “I mean, I don’t really follow the whole mixed martial arts thing.”
That mixed martial arts thing had been a part of my life for a long time.
Dad had been at me for years, especially once he opened his new state-of-the-art mixed martial arts and then some training facility in Martinsburg, less than fifteen minutes from where I’d been attending college at Shepherd University. God, I’d been so pissed when I’d discovered that my family had practically followed me to college. Dad would’ve stayed at the Philadelphia location, but one of my five thousand uncles would always be with stalking distance.
Dad had wanted me to come back home and work at the center in Philly, but he’d finally caught on about two years ago to the fact that was never going to happen. Ever. There were too many memories there, too much that reminded me . . . reminded me of him and of the way I used to be.
But about six months ago, Dad started on me again. So did my mother. So did Uncle Julio and Dan and Andre and, oh my God, the Limas were like mogwai fed after midnight. The pitch had started off differently this time. Andre, who was currently the General Manager of the Lima Academy in Martinsburg, wanted to move back to Philly by the beginning of October, because I guess West Virginia just wasn’t cool enough for him. Dad wasn’t offering me the GM position, but the position of assistant to the GM—a manager position that hadn’t existed before at the Martinsburg location. The assistant manager would oversee the day-to-day functioning of the Academy while helping expand services. He wanted someone he could trust and who knew the business while he found a new GM. The offer was, well, very tempting, but I’d turned it down.
Then Dad showed up at my apartment and handed me a piece of paper that had my salary written on it, along with a slew of benefits, and I would be the stupidest and most stubborn person to refuse that, but even though the offer was amazing, it wasn’t the real reason why I finally accepted it. He just came at the right moment, when I just . . . just was so damn tired of the windowless room and working a job I didn’t give two craps about. The offer poked and prodded at the Jillian I used to be, and a part of me knew that was who Dad had been trying to reach this entire time with one crazy job offer after another.