“SHOULD I HAVE BROUGHT SOMETHING?” I scanned the room and saw caterers milling in and out as Clara put out more of her chocolates on one of the long tables. She then rearranged a whole charcuterie platter with what looked like literal roses made from salami.
“What for?” She glanced up at me and whipped her red hair over her shoulder. “We’ve got salty snacks right here. Oh, crap. Can you not eat deli meat right now?” She glanced at my stomach with wide eyes.
“It’s fine, I’ll eat around it.” I shook my head and chuckled. “Honestly, you brought more than enough for us to eat, and the staff made a crap ton more. The kids and parents are going to be so excited.”
I glanced out luxury box’s window, overlooking the whole stadium. We’d set up catering tables within all 125 climate-controlled suites for children within the state’s most underfunded school districts who’d never had the opportunity to attend a game before. Declan had made it all possible with his first ever HEAT Charity Football Game.
That newscaster had got him just a few months ago when she’d interviewed him for the first time about his letter to me. I remember how she’d started the interview asking if he’d really paid a million dollars to have a dance with me. “I’d do about anything for her.”
“Right. That brings me to one of the harder questions we have. Did you aid in getting her attacker behind bars again? Andy—”
“I didn’t have to aid in getting Andrew Baldeck anywhere. The man is a rapist who put himself there.” Declan made sure to say those words loud and clear for the cameraman to catch that night.
“I know, but several women have come forward in recent months to—”
Declan’s tone turned icy. “A survivor should be able to share their story whenever they feel compelled to do so, am I right?”
“Of course.” The host didn’t push it any further but I knew the truth. The Hardy brothers and the Armanellis had done whatever they needed to do. The world was safe from Andy forever. Cade had even asked if I wanted him taken care of in prison. Declan had voted for me to say yes. I’d actually thought about it, weighed the pros and cons. He would have deserved it.
Instead, I’d given the justice system one more chance. That night, the newscaster changed the subject fast, realizing Declan wasn’t going to give her much on the Andy situation. “So, you’ll do just about anything for your wife. Does that mean you’ll give your fans what they really want? Would you play Wes Bauer in another football game?” She lifted a brow and smirked. “I hear he was sweet on Everly for a while. We’d love to have that rivalry put to bed.”
“There’s no reason for it.” Declan brushed her off at first.
“Doesn’t Everly teach self-defense and yoga to underserved kids in your fitness center? It would be a great charity event for them, don’t you think?” She teased him, but then waved it off. “I’m kidding. I’m just putting you on the spot because I’d love to see you two go to head-to-head one last time.”
I saw that look in his eye, the one where he didn’t hesitate and knew right then, they had him. “I’ll do it for her and the kids. They need to see I still got it even if Everly’s brought me to my knees a time or two in front of them.”
“Really? You spar with her?”
“The first time I met her, she probably could have knocked me out. She stole my pride that day.” He smirked. “Then she stole my heart a few months later.”
I think the woman was half in love with him at that point. And the world was in love with the idea of a charity football game with MVPs, retired or not.
And Wes agreed to be on the opposing team. The way my husband smiled every time that little tidbit was brought up had me a little nervous to see them play.
“I hope everyone loves the food.” Clara stared at the table and then picked up a cookie that was shaped like a cartoon character. “I might have overdone it though. I’m stress baking.”
“Why?” I waved her over to one of the leather seats because I was more than tired these days.
She plopped down next to me with a sigh. “Do you think a café or restaurant of mine belongs at our Pacific Oceanside Resort? What if I’m ruining it? We’ve gone through blueprints and now I’m supposed to fly there and oversee the design and—”
“Wait. Ruining?” I almost screeched at my stepsister. We’d grown so close over the past couple months that I was actually surprised she hadn’t shared more with me about her anxieties. It was more than I could say for Melinda and Anastasia who we hadn’t even invited to the game.
They’d been angry about that, but less stress while I was pregnant was best. I had to protect my mental headspace for my child now, not just myself. Declan was proud of how I made that decision quickly, not really weighing much else. I was too.
As Declan came onto all the screens, I saw he was wearing a signature blue jersey that now had our HEAT emblem on it. It matched the one I wore with Hardy across the back.
Clara pointed to the television, trying to change the subject. “Let’s see what they’re saying.”
I waved her off. I’ve never enjoyed football and had already seen how decadent my husband looked. If I stared now, I’d probably never look away. In football pads, he was twice his normal size and looked like a damn beast ready to bulldoze just about anyone. It was the only reason I considered watching the sport a bit more. “Who suggested you’d ruin anything you designed, Clara?”
“Dom freaking Hardy.” She ground out his name and then shrugged. “You know he hates my ideas for the bakery, which maybe now needs to be a café or a restaurant. I don’t know.”
“There’s no way that man hates your ideas. He’ll love whatever you decide to do, and if for some reason he doesn’t, just ply him with your food. No one can turn now your sweets, Clara.” I grabbed a blue macaroon with a smirk from the small table in front of me and took a bite, moaning loudly. “Just persuade him with these. They’re amazing.”
She groaned and shook her head. “I don’t think he even eats sweets, Evie.”
I narrowed my eyes at her, about to protest, but before I could reply, Dom walked in with a smile across his face that mirrored his brother’s. “Evie, my little brother thinks he needs you down on the field as a good luck charm.”
“What?” I glanced at the screen and saw Declan waving toward our skybox. “No.” He knew I didn’t want to be out there where the cameras would be taking pictures of us.
“He said if he’s doing this for charity, you have to do it too. Marriage shit and all.”
“I’m pregnant and can barely move,” I whined, but Clara was already up and offering me her hand as she practically danced in place at the idea.
“This is going to be so cute. You two should do a kiss cam thing or”—she flipped her dark-red hair over her shoulder, as she squealed—“have him kiss your belly. The fans will go insane. They’re so excited for the little Hardy.”
I noticed that she didn’t even look over at Dom, didn’t say hi, and almost acted like he didn’t exist.
“I’m not doing that.” I wrinkled my nose but rubbed my belly, not able to avoid her infectious joy about the baby. “Our kid is going to be so spoiled.”
Dom hovered over the table of food and said, “Damn right. That’s next gen right there. Did you eat anything today? Make sure you’re not eating any of this deli meat. Why is it even in here? Don’t they know—”
“Oh, it’s for everyone else,” I cut him off, my eyes darting to Clara who wide-eyed me and then spun around to walk over to the window of the skybox like she wanted to disappear. “Have you tried the macaroons? They’re amazing.”
I saw how Dom’s gaze drifted over to Clara as he said softly but firmly, “I don’t indulge in desserts when I can have a real meal, Evie.”
I saw how Clara whipped her head around to glare at him, how their gazes met, and the tension crackled through the room. It was a tension I’d started to think they needed to work out. “Well, there’s tons of great food here. I’ll leave you both to it for a few while I go appease my husband.”
I didn’t wait for either of them to object. I beelined it out of there and made my way down to the field.
Unfortunately, Wes was the one to meet me by the fifty-yard line after security waved me through. “So, Evie, you couldn’t wear the jersey I gave you?” He sneered at me because the man was trying to rile Declan. And he knew exactly how to do it. “Where is it?”
“I fucked her out of it the night you gave it to her, and now it’s in the trash where it belongs,” Declan growled as he walked up and shoved Wes before pulling himself into the stands and then he hauled me in close. “Should I kill him out there today for you?”
“Not for me.” I stared up at him, trying my best not to melt into a puddle as the world around us melted away. His hair curled at the tips from sweat; his face was already dirty, like he’d been rolling around in the damn mud down in the field, and still he smelled like the ocean and my man mixed together. “You’re about to push each other around for three hours just to stroke your own egos.”
“I’m doing this for all the kids!” He tilted his head toward the skyboxes that I knew were filled with them.
“Mm-hmm,” I hummed.
“Well that and I want my kid to remember that his daddy still can take down anyone who disrespected his mom.”
“Wes isn’t worth it,” I pointed out, glancing behind Declan to see that Wes had walked off but now there were cameras around us everywhere. Security was forming too, making sure no one bothered us.
“He’s not, but you are.” He rubbed his hand over my belly softly. Slowly. Taking his time like he the world could wait for this game to start. “Our baby is.”
I was just a few months away from delivering our little boy and Declan seemed to think everything was worth it when it came to him. He got the best crib, the best car seat, the best sneakers. Declan even had a whole team come in to childproof electrical outlets and the fencing around the pool. Then, he’d panicked and asked me if I wanted to move because he wasn’t sure this was our home and if I wanted to move back to my hometown.
Yet, HEAT Health and Fitness was where I could still spar with anyone who would take on a pregnant woman. Spoiler alert: no one did because Declan literally followed me around everywhere.
I needed a spot, he was there.
I needed to do squats, he was behind me saying in a low voice, “Good girl. Perfect form, baby. One more for me.” It was foreplay that led to way too much workplace sex.
I needed a sparring partner, he stood in the ring and laughed his ass off saying, “No way in hell I’m coming at you while you’re carrying our child. You can lay me out all you like.” And I did.
Declan Hardy wasn’t simply going to be the perfect husband for me, he was the perfect family man, and was going to be the perfect father.
Even when he was over-the-top.
“You’re making a scene, Declan,” I whispered to him as he leaned down, his eyes locked on my lips.
“That’s the point. The world needs to remember why I’m here in the first place.” He turned to the cameras. “Can you believe I’m doing this for my girl? I thought retirement looked good on me, but she’d rather have me on the field making sure I’m showing these kids how to play ball.”
The man had every publicist and photographer laughing and screaming at him. They all knew this game was making the kids’ schools millions, and it wasn’t only about playing football, but they ate it up. Then, they were telling us to kiss and asking if Declan was going to ruin Wes on the field today. “Is that why you’re playing defense rather than offense? You only did that in college,” one of them shouted.
Declan smiled big enough that his dimples showed before he kissed me senseless and told me to go back up to the skybox, that he’d gotten the good luck kiss he needed.
When I got back to our suite, the game had begun, and I winced at the sound of men flying into each other at catastrophic speeds.
Declan tackled Wes within the first couple of plays.
One tackle. He pointed to me and mouthed, “For my love.”
Another tackle. He held up his hand and pointed to the black string he still wore on his wrist and mouthed, “For my wife.”
He did it over and over. “For my son.” “For my family.” He even did one for all his fans. “For HEAT.”
And the world got the point.
Our marriage may have been arranged at first, but he proved to the world down there that day that he’d deliver hell to anyone who disrespected what and who he loved.
He loved the game. He loved his family. He loved his empire. And he loved me.
Probably about as much as I loved him.
~THE FUCKING END~