The Ex Project by Nia Arthurs
Duane pulled into his parents’driveway and all five of his mother’s dogs started yapping. He smiled as he carefully maneuvered into the parking spot and cut the engine.
The dogs continued their ruckus and he grinned even harder. His father was not a pet person and swore that he would never own a dog in his life, but he ended up keeping every stray their mother brought home.
Unfortunately, his mom was great at coddling the dogs and not that good at controlling them. It was a sight when she tried to get them to behave. The dogs bumped into her until she lost her balance.
“Alright, guys, calm down.” He opened the door and set one foot on the ground. The dogs swarmed him, making loud, low-pitched ‘woof’ sounds and sniffing every inch of his legs.
He gave them some pats on the head, pushed past the pack, opened the screen door and let it slap shut behind him.
“Ma,” he yelled, “how many times do I have to tell you to lock that door. Belize isn’t like it was in the sixties. You can’t just…”
“Save your breath, bro,” a familiar voice said.
Duane entered the kitchen and saw his little brother perched around the table, chowing down a large platter of garnaches—fried corn tortillas layered with beans, onions, shredded cheese and splattered with ketchup.
Duane glanced around. His mother usually matched her dogs’ excitement whenever he came to visit. He was stunned by the fact that he hadn’t gotten body-slammed by her four-foot eleven frame.
“Dad took her out to get dog food. They forgot to stock up.” Gio rolled his eyes. “You know mom would rather starve than keep her babies hungry.”
“You sound so bitter,” Duane said, pulling out a chair.
The room was well lit with several windows. Wooden cupboards gleamed from a fresh coat of paint. New, stainless steel appliances glimmered like a picture from a catalogue.
The first thing Duane had done when he got his signing bonus was renovate his mother’s kitchen. It was one of the proudest moments of his life.
“Of course I’m bitter.” Gio tapped his chest. “I’m the baby of the family. I don’t like being replaced by dogs. They don’t even know when her birthday is. Don’t you think my love is unreciprocated?”
Duane chuckled and grabbed one of the fried tortillas.
“The only thing that would replace those dogs is a grandchild,” Gio said, nudging him in the side. “Come on. You gotta give mom a human baby she can coo over.”
“She’ll have to get one from you or Manny,” he mumbled.
Both his brothers were in relationships, but Duane’s love life ended when his sports career did. He had gotten over it—the injury and the breakup—after nearly drinking himself to death.
“Me? No way. I’m not ready for kids.” Gio nudged him. “You’re the one who wants a family as soon as possible.”
“I’m too busy to date right now,” he said, but his thoughts turned to Yolanda. Her dark brown skin, regal cheekbones and sultry eyes could make any man reconsider his priorities.
“Busy? You were supposed to take some time off, remember?” Gio shook his head.
“I spent so many years in the league. It was non-stop movement. Slowing down isn’t in my veins anymore.”
“The league broke you, man. You’re a soccer machine now.”
He chuckled. After growing up in the island-style pace of Belize, everything in the world of pro football had been overwhelming. He had to work twice as hard just to stay in the game. Thankfully, he’d pushed through the challenges and the MVP trophies in his closet proved it.
Still, his brother had a point. Now that his pro football dreams were shot and he was building a life and business in his home country, there was nothing holding him back from searching for love again.
Chair legs scraped loudly against the hardwood floor. He glanced up and found Gio inching closer to him with a cheesy grin on his face.
Like Emmanuel, his other brother, Gio had dark hair and light brown eyes. Duane looked nothing like his brothers. Growing up, people often thought he was adopted because of his blonde hair and light eyes. He used to joke that he was, until his mother found out and made him write a letter to everyone he lied to.
“I have a question.”
“The answer is no.”
Gio pressed in. “Who was that woman you ran off with yesterday?”
“You’re creeping me out.” Duane pushed his brother’s face away.
Gio swerved right back in, that silly grin still stretching his lips. “Who is she?”
“No one.” Duane tried to keep his tone casual, but his heart did a crazy backflip.
“Don’t act dumb.”
“You’re the one acting dumb.” Duane dipped his butter knife into the open packet of refried beans and smeared it on the fried tortilla. “Although that’s not unusual for you.”
“I’m going to ask one more time. Who’s the girl you dragged away from the bar last night?” Gio lifted a hand. “And if you don’t tell me, I’ll call Tank and ask him myself. You know he can find out anything about anyone.”
Duane set the garnaches shell back down. “She’s none of your business.”
“Are you kidding? You almost punched a guy for her. How is that not my business?”
Duane rubbed the back of his neck. He’d been so aggravated watching Yolanda get hauled around by her ex that he couldn’t remain seated.
“I was just protecting her,” he said.
“By claiming to be her boyfriend?” Gio arched both eyebrows.
Duane stiffened. “You heard that?”
“Half the bar heard that. Come on, D. You don’t usually play those games.”
Gio was right. Butting into someone else’s business was not unusual for him, but claiming to be a woman’s boyfriend was a first.
“She was in trouble,” he murmured.
“So I broke my own rules for her.”
Duane was always professional with the parents of his players. Always. He knew their trust came with boundaries and he never wanted to cross the line.
Except last night, he hadn’t thought twice about his lofty principles. All he’d felt was pride when he came to Yolanda’s aid and she melted into his arms, playing along with the relationship story.
Seeing the smugness drip off her ex’s face was worth it.
He’d gotten a bad impression of Devon upon their first meeting. The musician had been cocky and loud, puffing out his chest and trying to get attention as he signed his son up for football practice.
Duane had met plenty of men like him on the football field. They let their egos get the best of them and always wanted to be seen. Those were the guys who, after losing a game, would pick a fight with the opposing team just to prove something that was best said on the field.
Gio wiggled his eyebrows. “When are you going to introduce her to mom?”
He pursed his lips.
“I saw you yesterday, Duane. I saw the way you looked at that woman.”
“Why are you so curious about my dating life?”
“Because your ex was a joke. She left you when you got injured and you haven’t been out with anyone since then.”
“I’ve gone on dates.”
“I’ve never seen you look at your dates the way you looked at that woman yesterday. Your eyes followed her from the moment she walked in. Though, to be fair, almost every guy was watching her. That dress…” He blew out a breath. “Wow.”
Duane glared at his brother.
Gio threw his hands up. “It’s just an observation, bro. I’m not going after your girl.”
“She’s not my girl,” he said. But the words tasted bitter on his tongue and he wished he could take it back.
“Where did you two go after the bar? You disappeared from my party. Didn’t send a text or nothing…”
Thankfully, Duane’s cell phone rang and spared him from the interrogation.
Gio narrowed his eyes and mouthed, “We’re not done yet.”
Duane smirked and spoke into the phone. “Hello?”
“Coach Marden,” a frantic voice said, “has Billy called you?”
“Billy?” His mind instantly conjured the red-haired, brown-skinned boy on his football team. “No.”
“His grandmother died yesterday, and he ran away from home.” She sobbed so hard her words turned unintelligible.
Duane’s eyes widened. Jumping into action, he swiped his keys from the table and sprinted to the door. “I’ll help you look for him.”
“You don’t have to do that. I was just…”
“Billy is a member of my team. And you need all the help you can get.”
“Thank you,” she said tearfully. “We’ve already contacted the police, but I’m so worried.”
“We’ll find him,” he assured her.
Gio followed him to the door. The sloppy grin was off his brother’s face and he grabbed him by the arm. “That sounded serious. What’s going on?”
“One of my players ran away from home.”
“How old is he?”
Gio winced. “He couldn’t have gotten far. I’ll come with you.”
They hurried to the car.
Duane tore out of the driveway, mentally skimming through all the places an eleven-year-old would go.
He’d been out of the country for almost six years, but not much had changed in Belize. The coconut trees were a little taller and there were a few more buildings reaching for the sky, but he could make his way around without any assistance. Duane pressed his foot harder on the gas pedal and the world blurred outside his window.
“Where are you going first?”
“The football field. Just in case he decided to clear his mind there.”
“You think he’s like you?” Gio asked, giving him a sideway glance.
Duane didn’t bother answering. The football field was his refuge and Billy loved the game too. He hoped that he would find the kid there but, after looking high and low, he and Gio came up empty.
Sweat beaded on his forehead. Duane flicked it away and sighed. “He’s not here.”
“Did he ever talk about a special place?”
“We don’t talk about things like that on the field,” Duane admitted, now wishing he’d paid more attention to the kid. “Although…”
“I think I know where he might be.” Duane rushed to the car and his brother scrambled after him.
“Where are we going?”
He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. “Billy mentioned that he used to go fishing with his grandmother at the foot of the Bel-Can bridge. Someone called it lame and I had to step in because it almost started a fight.”
“You think that’s where he might be?”
“We’ll see, won’t we?” He stepped on the gas.
Ten minutes later, he neared the bridge and saw a small figure sitting beneath the planks. He hurried out of the car and ran to the little boy.
Billy turned, tears in his eyes. He flung himself into Duane’s arms. “I promised Grandma I’d come fishing with her.” Billy sobbed. “If I’m here, she’ll come back. She has to come back.”
Duane hugged the weeping child and felt his entire body shudder.
Gio’s steps slowed. He saw his brother’s eyes fill with compassion. It was always tough to lose someone, but it was an incredibly difficult lesson to learn as a child.
“It’s okay, Billy.” Duane patted the kid’s back, hating that he couldn’t do anything more to comfort him. “It’s all going to be okay.”