My Darling Bride: Chapter 21

EMMY

I blink my eyes open to the darkness in the back seat of the Mercedes. My head throbs a little from the champagne that’s now worn off. Something warm is under my cheek, and I realize I’ve leaned over and fallen asleep in Graham’s lap.

The car is quiet as I slowly rise up, moving carefully so I don’t wake Graham. His head leans against the headrest, his chest rising in deep breaths.

I pause, taking in his features in the dim light. His wavy hair is a mess, spread out like a halo of softness on the seat. His eyes are closed, and his full lips are parted slightly. His chiseled cheekbones and strong jaw are relaxed. My attention goes to his hands, resting on either side of him. They’re big and strong, able to break and hurt, but my gut knows somehow that he’d never put them on me in anger.

I lean in closer to him, wishing I could freeze this moment forever, until I figure out exactly why I’m entranced by him.

He’s my husband keeps flashing in my head.

It feels strange and unreal. That’s why I’m fascinated.

He stirs and slowly opens his eyes—probably because he sensed my eyes—and I settle back in my seat, not wanting him to know I was inspecting him like a bug under a microscope.

My head goes back to the party at the brownstone. After the toasts, we spent at least two more hours there, mingling with the guests. I met great-uncles and great-aunts, cousins, and a few close business associates from Vale’s law firm. Mostly, I enjoyed talking to Vale. We sat on a couch, and I confided in him about my parents. He was sympathetic and kind.

I look out the window and see a quaint, picturesque town, most of the businesses closed. It’s nearly midnight.

Brody glances back at me. “You’ve been asleep for about two hours. We’re almost there.”

“Where is ‘there’?” I ask. Brody told us it was a beach house, but he wanted the rest to be a surprise. He arranged with Jane to pack a bag for me, and he packed Graham’s.

“We’re in Montauk,” Brody says as he makes a right onto a small gravel road. “I have a friend who owns a bungalow on a private beach. It’s perfect for the weekend, and you’ll be completely alone.” A gleam glows in his eyes as he glances back at me. “Doesn’t that sound idyllic?”

No. I really need to be back at work, but it would look suspicious if we didn’t do something to celebrate.

Graham grunts, stirring as he rubs his face and eyes. “Are we there yet?”

“Almost,” Brody says as he gets out to unlock a metal padlocked gate, then gets back in the car. He drives up to a pale-blue wooden gingerbread-type house with wind chimes hanging from the porch. It’s one story and quaint, but probably worth millions. A thick line of trees is nestled on either side of the home.

After we’ve parked, Brody unlocks the door to the house, then hands over the keys to Graham. “I’ve arranged for a town car to pick you guys up Sunday.”

Graham nods as Cas unloads the bags and carries them inside to the foyer.

The air smells like the sea, and I hear the distant screech of seagulls. A long exhale comes from my chest. It will be good to stare at the ocean and unwind.

I step inside the cottage and look around. It’s cozy, with a large area that features an eat-in kitchen and a living area with worn couches. Artwork of the sea decorates the wall. Huge windows face the Atlantic Ocean.

“There’s a hitch,” Brody murmurs as he flits around the room and lights a few candles, making Graham scowl. “There’s only one bedroom.”

Tension fills the room.

“I’ll take the couch,” Graham says roughly, and I sigh. He’ll be a pretzel on the couch.

“Whatever works,” Brody says airily. “The fridge and pantry are stocked for you. Enjoy, my little turtledoves.”

“Drive carefully,” Graham says. “It’s late.”

I watch as they hug each other tightly. Graham ruffles Brody’s hair. “Thanks for taking care of things.”

Brody pats his back. “Anything for you. Be good.” He slants a look at me and smiles.

After they leave, I grab my bag and head down the hall, checking for the bedroom. I find it, my eyes widening as I start.

“What is it?” Graham says from behind me, and I guess I must have made a sound.

“Um . . .”

Graham pushes past me and glares down at the peony petals shaped into a heart design on the bed. He shakes his head and pinches his brow. “Christ! I can see Brody dancing around as he arranged those petals just right.”

I look at him. “Wait, are you laughing?”

He glances up, eyes crinkling as his dimples pop. “Yeah. I mean, I’m sorry if it makes you uncomfortable, but it’s typical Brody. Here, let me.” He bends over and moves them into a pile, then picks them up and throws them in a trash can near the door.

I look at them in disappointment, but he doesn’t seem to notice.

“I’m going to find something to change into, then find us food,” he says. “I’ll use the bathroom down the hall.”

After he leaves, I open my bag. My mouth parts as I gape at the contents. “Graham!”

At the same time, he says. “Fuck!”

I come out into the hall, and he’s got his hands on his hips. “Okay. What did Jane pack for you?”

“A bikini and lacy lingerie. No clothes. Some lube. What did you get?”

He shoves his duffel at me, and I open it and take in the contents.

I giggle. “A swimsuit, boxers, and dildos. Wow, that’s quite a collection of cocks. Are they yours?”

“No,” he says with a glare.

I smirk. “They pranked us.”

“I should have checked the bags before they left. Now we’re stuck here for two days with no clothes.”

I shrug. “There’s a washing machine, and thankfully, I have a slip under my dress.”

“I’m wearing a suit. It has to be dry-cleaned.”

“Hmm, guess you’re wearing a swimsuit all weekend.”

“Dammit.”

“Not laughing now, huh?”

He smirks as his fingers undo his tie, then the buttons of his shirt. I watch in rapt attention as he whips them off, his muscles rippling as he throws them over a chair.

He arches a brow, and I blink and flip around to the bedroom, where I quickly wash my face in the en suite bathroom, then hang my dress up.

When I come into the kitchen, he’s only wearing his dress pants. His feet are bare as he stands at the stove, stirring something with a spatula. My eyes eat up the defined expanse of his broad tanned back, the way his pants taper down to a slim waist. My breath quickens. Just damn.

He’s all mine now. My husband.

He glances at me over his shoulder. “I’m making us cheese omelets. There’s fruit too. Want to set the table?”

We chat idly as I arrange the fruit on a plate and get plates and cutlery. He tells me he wants water, and I grab us two bottles from the fridge. Carrying the pan from the kitchen, he slides the omelets onto our plates, then takes the pan back to the kitchen.

We sit down across from each other. Neither of us ate much of the finger foods at the party.

“Ah, before we eat . . .” Graham gets up and opens his jacket and pulls out a small box. “A wedding gift for you.”

Taking the box in my hands, I open the tissue hesitantly, and an awed gasp leaves me. Sitting nestled inside is an exquisite iguana bangle. The eyes gleam with emerald jewels, and his tail is curved with lines of glittering white diamonds. The tail thickens at the end and becomes the circular pattern of the bracelet. “Wow. Just wow. It’s beautiful. Thank you.” I slip it over my hand and up my arm. “Does it match my slip?” I smile.

“Hmm. You’re welcome,” he says gruffly.

“I didn’t get you anything,” I say, fidgeting.

“You showed up, Emmy.”

I chew on my food. “I can’t believe Jane went along with Brody on the luggage thing.”

“Brody is smooth. He’s good at convincing people.”

“Like you . . . ,” I say as I bite into a strawberry. He watches me avidly, his eyes following a trail of juice that escapes down my chin. I hurriedly wipe it away under his scrutiny.

“Hardly. I had to buy a bookstore to get you to marry me.”

And he loves Divina. I cut viciously into my omelet.

“Is everything all right?” he asks.

“I saw you with Divina.”

He pauses with his fork midway to his mouth, then sets it down on his plate. He leans back in his chair, and I battle to keep my gaze on his face and not his naked chest. “I know.”

“Brody told you?”

“There was a mirror over the fireplace. I saw you.”

That makes it even worse. Did he see the jealousy on my face?

His eyes gleam. “She found me as soon as I came in and insisted we talk. Are you upset?”

I swallow tightly. “I heard what she said. That she wants you back.”

I wait for him to reply, but he says nothing.

I exhale. “I guess if you really want . . .”

A muscle in his jaw jerks. “Are you suggesting I take her up on her offer of an affair?”

I stare down at a blueberry on my plate. “If you want to be with Divina, I’m not here to stand in your way—”

I stop abruptly when he stands up from the table. With his hands on the table, he leans into me. “I . . . don’t . . . want . . . Divina.”

He rears back up, chest rising rapidly, then stalks to the deck door, opens it, and stomps outside into the night.

Why is he angry? He’s the one who freaking told me he loved her.

An hour later, he still hasn’t returned. I’ve cleaned the kitchen already and fiddled around the cottage. I’ve picked up books and set them back down, unable to concentrate on anything but Graham. I try to see the situation from his side. Divina betrayed him with his half brother, and he’s never gotten over the sting of it. Now that he’s married, she offers herself to him. Perhaps he could even marry her now, claim the inheritance, and get back at Holden.

I pace around before marching to a hall closet. I find an old cardigan and slip it on. I exit the patio door and find the cobblestone path to the beach. The moon is white and full, illuminating the waves rolling onto the beach. I reach the edge, letting my toes feel the cool water.

Graham is about fifty yards away, staring out at the waves. My feet press into the sand as I walk to him and then stand next to him, just letting the silence of the night wrap around us.

A crab darts out of the water and inches close to me, and I squeal and dart to the other side of him.

“It’s not just scorpions, huh?” he asks.

“Just make it go away,” I say, and he shoos it away from us and onto the beach.

I study him, taking in the furrows on his forehead. “Thanks. What are you thinking about out here?”

If he says Divina, then I’ll deal with it. I’ll be cool. I’ll go along with whatever. I mean, who am I to ask him if what we have is something real?

I shake myself. Is that what I really want? No.

“Football, actually. Training camp starts Monday in Atlanta. It will give you time to acclimate to my apartment without me.” His lips twist wryly.

“Do you have mixed feelings about playing?”

Instead of answering me, he bends down to pick up a seashell, studying it carefully. A wind blows, ruffling his hair as his scent fills the air, thick with cherries and leather. I inhale it deeply.

“Graham? You can talk to me.”

He clenches the shell in his hand, and it shatters. “I saw a doctor, who warned me about CTE. Do you know what that is?”

We start walking, our shoulders side by side. “It’s caused from concussions, right? Lots of famous people have had it. It’s believed Muhammad Ali did. Brett Favre has admitted to over a thousand concussions and says he doesn’t know what it is to be normal anymore.”

His jaw pops, emotion flitting over his face as he tosses the crushed shell into the sand. “Yes. There’s no way to diagnose it when you’re alive; instead it’s by symptoms—personality changes, anger issues, depression, suicide. Several players have even murdered people or committed suicide. Eventually, it can lead to dementia and Parkinson’s.”

The words settle around us heavily. I thread my fingers through his, and he starts. He stops, gazes at me, and then looks down at our hands. No one’s here to see us pretending, but I don’t care. I want him to know that he can come to me, talk to me. “And you’re worried about it because you had a bad concussion.”

“My headaches and dizziness are gone. My sensitivity to light. I’m great physically.”

“Mentally?”

He pops an eyebrow. “What are you insinuating?”

“So you would have married a girl who stole your car anyway?” I tease.

“I’d do anything for my brother, so yes.” He stares out at the ocean. “I’m the same as I always was, I think, except for one thing.”

“What’s that?”

He turns to look at me, and his eyes hold mine for several moments, until I’m breathless.

“Graham?”

“Nothing. Never mind.”

My instinct senses that he just needs me to listen, so I stuff my questions away as he tells me more about his appointment with the French doctor, about MRI scans and autopsy reports. His doctor sent him more information after his appointment, about a famous player and sports analyst who recently passed away at age seventy-one. He donated his brain to science to raise awareness of the disease, and they discovered stage-four CTE, the most advanced, which presents as severe cognitive and behavioral issues.

In an interview, the player’s widow said that in the last years of his life, he’d isolated himself from everyone, even her, and that he’d struggled daily with balance, memory loss, paranoia, and severe depression. He was terrified to watch football games with his buddies because he didn’t know what was happening on the field anymore. When asked about how many concussions he’d had during his fifteen-year career, he’d said ten but possibly more, since he’d played at a time before the NFL kept an official count.

Graham picks up another shell, his fingers tracing it. “Boston University has a CTE center, where they do a lot of research. Five players who committed suicide, one of them only twenty-seven years old, had CTE. On the other hand, the NFL is making helmets stronger and making new rules about tackles. We aren’t ignoring CTE.”

A deep unease and anxiousness rises inside me as the enormity of his issue dawns. He wants to play, but he’s also worried about the future, of getting Parkinson’s, of losing his memory.

I study his profile, and he notices, stopping to gaze down at me.

“What?” he asks.

“If I were your real wife, I’d beg you not to play. Every time you go out there, you’re taking the chance that you’ll have another concussion.”

His lashes flutter against his cheek. “You don’t understand.”

“I have the gist of it. You’re playing a game that can potentially damage your brain.”

He frowns. “I scored the last points of the Super Bowl. The Pythons took a chance on me, and I delivered. People are counting on me to come back, and it’s not just that—who would I be without the game? I don’t have anything else.”

Brody. Cas. Me?

“I’m taking a risk, but every day is a risk. I could go swimming in the ocean tonight and drown. I could have a car accident. Yeah, I worry about knee injuries, and my head, but most pro players do. Some of us are terrified, but we shove it down and keep on going. When I win a game? It’s the highest I get. The adrenaline, the knowledge that I’m the best at what I do? It gives me pleasure, a sense of belonging. The pressure from the team, the fans, the feeling that if I quit, then I’d be giving up the best thing I’ve ever had, the only thing that’s been consistent and true to me. This is who I am. It’s made me famous. Who would I be without football?”

“You’d be you,” I say softly. “You could start over, do anything you wanted, belong to something else. The world is open to you.”

“Are you?”

I start. “Am I open to change in my life?” I huff out a laugh. “I married you. That’s a change.”

His gray eyes capture mine, then look away. “That’s not what I meant,” he says as he turns away from me, looking at the ocean.

A lone seagull squawks in the distance as the tide rolls in over our feet.

“You told me in the kitchen at the store that you loved someone else. You meant Divina.”

When he doesn’t answer, I continue. “Not that it matters, because this is a marriage of convenience, but I’d like to know if you plan on being with her.”

He stuffs his hands in his pockets. “I feel nothing but regret that she fooled me. I realize now how lucky I was to get away from her. Not only did she cheat on me, but she’s ready to cheat on Holden, although he’s never been faithful to her.”

“Then you lied to me when you said you loved her.”

“I knew you didn’t want to get your heart involved, so I wanted to assure you that neither did I. And you? Talking to Kian on our wedding day?”

I huff. “I’m sorry, okay! I only did it to protect you.”

He groans. “Emmy, never protect me. Always consider your own safety. Never see him again. Promise me.”

“Okay,” I say quietly on a sigh. “But you . . . you kissed her.”

“So we’re going to fight on our wedding night?” He sends me a wry smirk.

I kick sand at him. “Stop being cute. This isn’t a real wedding night. I just want to know what’s going on. If you want her, fine, fuck her, but you can be assured that I despise Kian.”

“I don’t want her,” he mutters. “I thought I made that clear. You assumed I kissed her. If you’d stuck around, you would have seen me push her away. It’s not the first time she’s come on to me, Emmy. Last Christmas, she sat next to me at dinner and couldn’t keep her hands off me. Touching my arm, my leg, whatever. She isn’t a good person. She isn’t you.”

My heart dips, and I blink. “Oh.”

Before I realize it, we’re back on the path of the cottage and on the deck. The silence between us stretches like a rubber band as we rinse our feet at the outdoor faucet, then go inside.

I busy myself with cleaning the kitchen again, and when I finish, I turn to see him in his boxer shorts in the den. He’s fluffing an extra pillow he must have gotten from the linen closet. He tosses it on the couch, then turns around to face me.

He is magnificent. All hard, marbled body muscles as if he’s just stepped out of a Michelangelo painting. I lick my lips nervously, then clear my throat. “There’s no way you’ll fit on that couch. The bed is big enough for the two of us.”

He rubs a hand over his jaw. “It isn’t.”

“It’s a king-size bed.”

His gaze lingers over my face, then down to my cleavage, peeking through my slip.

“If I get in that bed, I’m going to ask to fuck you, and you’ll say yes, and we’ll make up an excuse that it’s to ‘break the tension’; then . . .” He stops, an eyebrow raising. “You want that?”

My throat prickles with the word yes. “No.”

He moves so fast that I blink when he’s right in front of me. “Is that so? Then explain to me why those pretty green eyes are blown, Emmy.”

I tilt my head up at him, ready for a comeback, but I have nothing, not when I see the desire on his face, the lascivious way his gaze drinks me in as if he’s a man starved in the desert.

I press my hands on his chest, sliding them up until I curl my arms around his neck.

“What are you doing?”

“Kissing my husband good night.” My lips lightly brush over his. It was barely even a kiss, yet I watch with bated breath as I pull back, and he brushes his fingers over his lips, as if savoring the taste of my kiss.

Part of me wants to fall into his arms, but I can’t.

It happened once, but . . .

“Go to bed, wife,” he says with hungry eyes.

I feel his eyes on me the entire way down the hall. I shut the door and lean against it, shuddering. Jesus. What am I going to do about Graham and these feelings? Wait for them to pass? Ignore this fantastical connection we seem to have?

Ugh. Whipping off my clothes, I step in the shower and let the hot water wash everything away. All of it. Graham, his family, Kian. I slip on the lingerie Jane sent and consider calling her and being pissy about my lack of clothes, but I figure Londyn is asleep.

I curl up in the bed and fall asleep, my dreams turning dark as Graham is on the football field underneath a pile of players.


The next morning I’m awake by six as I try to remember where I am. The beach. I get excited when I find a fluffy white robe in the back of the closet. I slip it on and tiptoe out into the den.

He’s not on the couch. In fact, it looks as if he hasn’t been here at all.

I’m making coffee when I find the manila envelope with a note on top of it on the counter.

Emmy,

I left after you went to bed. I’m certain no PI followed us so no one will know. Enjoy the beach. In the envelope are keys to the apartment and cash for whatever pops up. I’ll be in Atlanta, then I’m going to Seattle to handle some personal things. I’ll text you soon.

G

My heart thumps erratically, and I tense up, a chill running down my spine as I drop the note. Pressing my hand to my chest, I gasp in a deep breath and exhale slowly out of parted lips. Inhale, exhale. Gradually, it steadies itself, and I’m unsure if the episode was simply due to the fact that Graham left me or something else.

Just enjoy the day. Bask in the sun. Fine, I can do that. Alone.

On Sunday, the car picks me up at noon. By three, I’m standing in front of the Wickham apartments, wearing the dress I got married in. Brody meets me and introduces me to the doormen and desk workers. Once on the elevator, he keeps darting his eyes at me.

He points out his smaller apartment, then shows me to Graham’s. We walk inside, and I blink at the seventies throwback. In the den is the penis statue, about four feet tall and lime green.

“It’s worth a few grand,” Brody tells me. “Graham says I can have it, but it’s bolted to the floor. Looks like you’re stuck with it.”

“I won’t be here long,” I murmur. “Just until your inheritance comes in. Do you ever wonder if all this was worth it?”

Brody’s face grows serious. “Marriage was never my idea. Mostly because I don’t want to see my brother hurt.”

I say nothing.

“Guess the honeymoon wasn’t so hot?”

“He left.”

Brody nods sagely. “And if you think hard enough, you’d know why.”

I swallow, looking away.

“Come this way, and I’ll show you your bedroom.”

We pass Graham’s bedroom, and I peek in. It’s huge and done in shades of white and navy. There’s a balcony outside his room that connects to the one in the den. Brody tells me there are views to Central Park.

Across the hall is my room, the next-biggest bedroom. The white metal bed frame looks new, with a plush white duvet and velvet pillows in cream. I take in the white wicker dresser, a fancy armoire, and a big mirror propped against the wall. What makes my breath catch is a sketch of the bookstore, framed on the wall. I marvel at the detail, a smile coming from me when I notice that the woman in front of the store looks like me.

I glance at Brody, who’s fluffing a pillow. “Who did this? When?”

“Oh, that. I put it up yesterday. The artist is Francesca Avery. She’s super talented and happens to be married to a former player on the team, Tuck. Graham’s friend Jasper put him in touch with her. Sketching buildings is one of her specialties.”

“But when?”

“Graham sent her a pic of the store and the one of you at Borelli’s. She works fast. She’d be a great friend to you. They stay in the penthouse on and off.” He pauses. “Maybe Graham will let you keep it, you know, afterwards.”

“Right. Is all this bedroom stuff new?”

“I picked everything out, and Graham approved it. I wish he’d let me redo the entire place, but he wanted to start with this room.”

He could have just put a cot in here, and I would have been fine with it, but these little touches, the new furniture, the sketch, his bangle, the money after our divorce—he’s done more than was required. I’m unused to someone else taking care of me.

In the kitchen, Brody gives me a paper with a schedule on it that tells me a grocery delivery is sent every Tuesday that I’ll need to pick up downstairs, or they’ll deliver it to the door if someone is here. A housekeeper comes every two weeks, on Monday mornings.

“If there’s anything you want moved here, such as furniture, I can set that up,” Brody says, and I tell him no, seeing no point in moving in anything but my toiletries and clothes, and Jane is bringing those to the store tomorrow in a duffel. I can get more as I need them.

He makes to leave, then pauses at the door. “Cas and I have cocktails in the apartment in the evenings. Come join us sometime if you want.”

“Thank you. Wait,” I say and then chew on my lips, my head churning.

“Yeah?”

“Your dad asked about my siblings and wants to meet them. He gave me his card. What do you think about a dinner with your dad, here at the apartment? I actually love to cook, but the stove at our place is always on the fritz. It might give your dad a chance to see that we’re connected as a family.”

He thinks about it, his hand tapping his leg.

“Super casual,” I add. “Just letting him know how crazy I am about Graham.”

“And are you?”

My hands clench around the paper I’m still holding, and Brody smiles broadly. “Fine, set it up. Dad would love to be invited here. He’s never been.”

After he’s gone, I walk the apartment again, peeking in all the closets, except in Graham’s room. I walk out on the balcony and take in the park.

A deep loneliness sets in.

My heart feels hollow and empty.

I try to ignore it but can’t.

I wish Graham were here.

I wonder where he is. Most of all, I wonder if he’ll be safe at camp. I can’t stop thinking about CTE and the absolute unknown of the disease.

His absence leaves a strange void at the center of my being. I look at my phone, hoping for a call or message from him.

An undeniable feeling of dread overcomes me as I drop into a chair, my head in my hands. The truth is that I long for him with every ounce of my being, and I can’t deny it any longer, not the sparkle in his eyes when he smiles, his dimples, the way his nose flares slightly when he’s near me yet doesn’t make a move. I relish in his banter, the way he opens up to me when I least expect it.

My stomach drops as the realization hits me. I’m falling for him. His warmth, his vulnerability, the way he wants to keep me safe at all costs, his unconditional love for his brother, the look of despair that lingers on his face whenever he speaks of losing football.

How do I navigate this and survive with my heart intact?

I won’t. I can’t.

Jesus. I need to stab this feeling right in the center of my chest and rip it out.

Needing a distraction, I call Jane, then the rest of my friends.

A few hours later, I’ve got enough Chinese delivery for a feast. Jane, Andrew, and Londyn arrive first, then Babs, Ciara, and Mason. Magic finds his litter box, does his business, then goes to sleep in my lap.

I’ve tossed a blanket over the giant penis for Londyn’s sake.

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