I study myself in the mirror, looking at the same colored shirt and shorts that I wear five days a week. My blond hair is pulled back with a few wispy strands shadowing my face. My makeup is minimal, the color neutral and warm. I rarely notice a difference in my appearance, especially since my mother became ill. Your life changes when the one person you’ve counted on your whole life now has to count on you. You forget the simple things, like some blush to rosy up your cheeks or that new shade of lipstick you saw a commercial for but can’t remember the name of when you’re picking up a prescription. You learn to get by with the basics because you’re too exhausted to do anything else.
And that is when people, mostly men, stop noticing you. You pretend not to let it bother you. It does, but you’re too busy with life to let it take hold of you until you’re lonely.
Cooper likes me like this. He likes the Ainsley who is tired at the end of the day, who hardly wears makeup and never does her hair because putting it up in a bun means I get ten more minutes of sleep.
Cooper likes the woman staring back at me in the mirror, the one who originally brushed him off and told him no repeatedly. I know that bothered him, because it bothered me, too, but he stayed. He kept coming around, even after I’d rejected him. It showed me his strength and character, showed me that maybe he’s not the person I had pegged him to be.
Last night that all changed, and this morning I’m tired, and my cheeks are naturally rosy from just thinking about the attention he gave me. My lips are plumper, pinker, from the sensual kisses that still linger in my mind. And my body—I may be exhausted and achy, but it’s well worth it.
Still, the athlete thing plagues my mind. Growing up, it’s all I’ve heard and witnessed. I have friends who have been dubbed cleat-chasers because every season they’re looking for some unsuspecting fool to sweep them off their feet.
Now I guess I can be put into that category. A man whom I didn’t want to have anything to do with was persistent and has swept me off my feet. Guarding my heart is going to be a challenge, though, because I can already see him taking a piece of it when he leaves.
Now that I’m looking at myself in the mirror, I see a woman who is happy. I see the Ainsley I used to be, long before death started knocking on our door.
“You didn’t come home last night.” My mother appears in my doorway. Her bald head is uncovered, showing small tufts of hair that haven’t fallen out yet.
When I was little, I used to love to play with her hair. She kept it long and would let me brush, braid, and even curl it. Growing up, I was a momma’s girl and she was my best friend.
Now she’s a shell of who she used to be, and it’s not fair. The cancer that she carries inside is eating her alive. I know she doesn’t feel well and is probably tired of me nagging her about getting out of the house to enjoy life—because, believe it or not, she still can have one—but she refuses. She’s given up before the battle has breached the front line.
“I was out with a friend and didn’t want to wake you.” Part lie, part truth.
“What’s his name?” she asks, as she comes in and sits on my bed.
I hesitate with my answer because I don’t want to lie to her about what Cooper does. I hate not telling her the truth, but she should be happy for me. That is all I want—a little bit of happiness—and Cooper is providing that for me at the moment.
Taking a deep breath in, I look at my mom with her expectant eyes and spill. “His name is Cooper. He’s the one I mentioned the other day.”
“The baseball player?”
The smile on my face is unpreventable. Just thinking about Cooper and what he may be doing right now makes me feel alive with excitement.
“Is my warning falling on deaf ears?”
“It’s not, Mom.” I sit down next to her and bring her hand into mine. “For years, I’ve listened to the warning, and for the most part, I’ve followed. I’ll never forget the pain I went through back in college. Sometimes it’s still fresh in my mind, but I can’t let that fear guide me forever.”
I hold up my hand, letting her know that I’m not finished.
“All my life you have steered me away from athletes, which is funny considering where we live, and I’ve never asked you to tell me why. I’ve accepted that you had a bad experience and are trying to protect me. I love you for that, Mom, but I can’t live my life that way. Cooper is different. Besides, you should see him, Mom. He’s so handsome that he can have any woman he wants, and he chose me. Cooper chose me, and it feels really nice to be chased.”
There’s a tear that escapes and falls down her cheek. I wipe it away and bring her into my arms. We stay like this for a few minutes until she pulls away from me.
“I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I know. Believe me, that is the last thing I want, and I honestly think Cooper isn’t going to hurt me.”
“Ainsley, you know he’s not staying here.”
I nod, and my chest grows tight. I don’t want to think about Cooper leaving at the end of the month. I’ve already looked up his schedule and know that I’ll see him a few times a year when he’s down here, but any quality time can all be forgotten until October at the earliest.
“Long distance can work, but that’s beside the point,” I tell her. “We’re friends, and we’re having fun, enjoying each other’s company.”