My Darling Bride: Chapter 25

GRAHAM

Having a bachelor party a month after being married is a bit unorthodox, but we’re at the Baller, a private membership club for professional athletes, and they serve a mean burger and have great beer.

Technically, it really isn’t a bachelor party. We’re here for a reason.

The waitress brings another round of tequila shots, and I discreetly push mine over in Cas’s direction. I need my wits about me. There’s a special guest arriving soon, and I want to be fully aware. Just the thought of seeing him makes my hands clench. Zero alcohol for me.

We’re inside one of the private rooms as Jasper chews on a french fry and gives me a baleful look from across the table. He nudges his head in the direction of Jane, Ciara, and Babs. “When I suggested we have a bachelor party, I didn’t know girls we knew would be invited. I was expecting hot strippers, not bookworms.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” I murmur. “I’m not into strippers.”

Jane flips him off. “We can hear you, meathead.”

Jasper uses both hands to return her salute. “I meant for you to hear, Miss Model.”

“Settle down, children. No squabbles,” Brody says as he swirls his martini, takes a deep sip, then stands and glances around the room. “Welcome, everyone, especially the ladies we have present tonight. Ciara and Mason, it’s great to see you outside the bar. The time has now arrived for us to offer our dear friend and brother, Graham, marriage advice. If you aren’t married, any good old-fashioned relationship tidbits will do. Let’s help him out, yes?”

After Brody sits, River Tate stands. The best wide receiver on the team, he came to the franchise married to his college sweetheart. He was the one who recommended Dr. Moreau, and we’ve become close. “I’ll go first. Never use the bathroom with the door open. Once you do, there’s no mystery left. There’s nothing more eye-opening than watching your loved one drop a deuce.” He grins. “Of course, I have two kids, and you wouldn’t believe the diapers I’ve changed. Pureed pears, man, don’t feed them to your baby. Turns them into shitting machines.”

“Here, here!” Brody says. “I concur! Not about the baby food, but the other. Cas and I have separate bathrooms for a reason. Namely, his bombs are death fumes.” He kisses Cas. “It’s okay, baby. I love you anyway.”

Jasper blows out a breath. “I’ve been in a few, okay several, relationships. My main piece of advice is, if a girl wants an argument, just strip. Usually, my beautiful body halts everything. Also, angry sex is the best.”

He leans in, a serious look on his face. “Also. Dude. I’ve got four sisters. Trust me when I tell you to keep track of her cycle so you can be ready with cuddles. And buy tampons for her so she doesn’t have to. Might wanna get some candy. I buy out the Walgreens for my sisters.”

“She might need her pig,” Jane says.

Brody blanches. “God, don’t tell me she has a pig and a cat?”

Andrew laughs. “Not a real pig. Wilbur, from Charlotte’s Web. He’s our stuffed animal that we share.”

“Oh.” Brody shrugs. “There’s a story there, I guess.”

Andrew does a fist bump with Jasper. “I’ve bought my share of tampons.”

I exhale. “Let’s move on from menstrual cycles.”

“All right then, say yes more than you say no,” Jasper replies. “And don’t act disgusted if she burps or farts. It’s gross, but don’t let her know. It’s fine if you do those things. It’s manly.”

“So manly,” I reply dryly.

My mind drifts. I left her at home tonight, curled up on the couch with a book.

Being stealthy, I sneak my phone under the table and text her. What are you wearing?

She sends me a pic of herself in kitty PJ pants and a tank top.

Sexy.

Having fun yet? she asks.

Hmm, it’s nice to see River outside of football, and I don’t know Mason very well, but I’ve clocked the narrowed looks he sends me. He doesn’t trust me. Maybe after tonight, he will.

I need to know when your period is so I can be prepared with chocolate.

There’s a pause, and she sends, I enjoy champagne on my period.

I’m smiling as I envision myself buying feminine products and champagne.

“Are you paying attention?” Jasper asks, kicking me under the table.

I look up. “Yeah, what did I miss?”

“I was telling you to always tell her she’s hot, even when she’s got hairy legs and pimples. That’s true love, man.”

“Like you know what true love is,” Jane mutters as she flicks back her hair.

Jasper slams down his glass. “I’ve had just about enough of your mouth.”

She pops an eyebrow. “Yeah, big boy, whatcha gonna do about it?”

Jasper pushes his chair out of the way and marches around to her side of the table.

The low conversation of the table grows quiet.

“What’s going on?” Babs asks as she straightens from a conversation with Ciara.

Jane stands up to meet Jasper and points her finger in his face, making me wince. That’s like waving a red cloth at a bull. He grabs it, pulls her to him, and lays one on her. Her arms sneak around his neck for about three seconds; then she shoves him away and gapes at him.

“You’re an asshole,” she hisses.

Brody smirks at me. “Maybe a little magic there, heh?”

“Whoa,” Cas says. “Is she going to slap him?”

“Yep,” Babs says. “In three, two, one . . .”

Smack. Jane’s hand lands on Jasper’s cheek. Red prints flare on his face as he rubs it, grins, then waltzes back to his seat.

“That should work for a few minutes,” he says as he takes a drink of his beer.

Jane sputters, then seems to gain her equilibrium and sits back down, huffing as she glances at the room. “Why is everyone smiling?”

We all go back to normal conversation, murmuring as we finish up our food.

The hostess peeks in the room and gives me a head nod.

Grim determination flows through me as I stand. “Everyone, thanks for the meal and advice. Now, we have other business to attend. Follow my lead.”

“I can’t wait for this shit,” Jasper says, then does a few jumping jacks.

Babs cocks her head as River, Brody, and Cas whisper among themselves. “What’s going on?”

Jane grabs her purse off the back of the chair, smiling. “We’re going on a mission.”

“Like spies?” Babs asks.

“More like ninjas with an axe to grind,” Jane replies, grinning in anticipation.

Of course I let my guy friends know what’s going to happen, and I felt compelled to let Jane in on it. She’s Emmy sister, and this is important to her. Mason and Babs and Ciara are along for the ride.

I toss down several big bills to cover the tab and a nice big tip, then straighten my collar and crack my neck. “Let’s go.”

Jasper grins. “We aren’t going to end up in jail, are we? I mean, I’m with you, but I need to call my lawyer real quick.”

“You should have already called him,” I say.

“Hell, yeah! I’ve never been in jail,” Cas calls out as he hooks his arm with Brody’s.

“I hope we can make bail,” Jasper says as he helps a baffled and slightly scared Babs to her feet and offers his arm as an escort. He assures her that he’ll take care of her if anything happens.

We exit the room and walk down the hall to the bar area of the Baller. Low music plays on the speakers, and a line of TVs on the wall show different sports games.

The place is half-full for a Monday evening. My tight end coach, Marlon, is here with some of the assistants and gives me a back slap as I pass by. Every table has a member of the Pythons team, from offense to defense. Deacon, one of the linebackers, whoops out a yell when he sees us, then gives me a thumbs-up.

Not that Kian seems to notice.

He’s leaning over the bar and chatting it up with the pretty bartender as he tips back a glass of whiskey.

Jasper leaves Babs behind us as he and Cas ease up on either side of me. I stand behind Kian and tap him on the shoulder. “Hey, asshole. You aren’t wanted here. I suggest you leave.”

He flips around, his face tightening when he realizes who I am. “You don’t own this place, Harlan. I paid my dues just like everyone else here.”

I smile tightly. “Men who hurt women aren’t allowed in here.”

His eyes turn to slits as red colors his cheeks. Alcohol reeks from him. “Back off, Harlan. Who do you think you are?”

“Better. Than. You.” My voice is low. Dangerous.

He shoves the barstool away and gets in my face. He’s tall, maybe six-four, but I’m taller. And he’s a big dude, but I’m bigger. Yeah, he’s younger than me, but there’s never a day in this world when he would overpower me.

I shove him with one hand, and he staggers back, his legs banging into the barstool. It falls to the floor with a clanging sound.

He juts back in my space, fists clenched. “Stay out of my way, Harlan. It’s my bar too.”

“Actually, it isn’t. The owners are revoking your membership.” All it took was a few well-placed phone calls about his abusive behavior toward my wife. I tap my chin. “Go on, take a swing. I’ll give you one free shot.”

He stiffens, his gaze taking in the crowd of Emmy’s friends behind me. Jane glares death daggers at him. Even Babs looks a little scary as she takes her glasses off and tucks them into her purse like she’s getting ready to rumble. Cas has his arms crossed, a lethal grin on his face. Mason even looks like he’s ready to throw down. I look at him and point to Kian. “This is why I invited you. I don’t know you, and you don’t seem to like me, but we have a mutual enemy. You know what he did to her, yeah?”

“I like you now, Graham,” Mason mutters with a head nod.

I turn back to Kian. “Come on. Don’t be a baby. Hit me, Kian. You want to because I married beautiful, sweet, Emmaline Darling, and you can’t have her.”

Rage grows on his face, his hands twitching. He swings at me, and I let it connect, feeling my lip split. It’s nothing.

I laugh as I wipe at the blood on my mouth. “You hit like you play football. Lazy.”

He leans back for another punch, and I catch his fist, grab him by the throat, and maneuver him against the wall of the bar. My crew gathers around me. The rest of the place just watches.

My hand encircles his neck. “This is exactly what you did to Emmy, although honestly I’m being easy with you. Want to know why? Because Emmy doesn’t like violence. She detests it,” I grind out as I put my nose to his.

“W-what . . . ,” he tries to say, then peters off.

I nudge my head to the people behind me. “They all know what you did. They also know that you’ve been following Emmy, leaving shit for her, and stalking outside the bookstore. It ends here and now. Gentle-like. I won’t hurt you. For her. But give me a reason, any reason, and I will destroy you piece by piece and make sure you never play football again. If for some reason I’m not around to hurt you, the people behind me will be. Feel me?”

He struggles to pull my fingers away, and I tighten them. “My coach and my team are here to support me. This is a private club that you are no longer welcome in. I never punched you. You hit me. So go away. Live your life and leave Emmy alone or I’ll have you arrested for splitting my pretty lips.” I glance back at Brody. “Remind him of who our dad is.”

“Powerful lawyer in New York,” he says grimly.

I look back at Kian. “Don’t call her, walk by her, look at her. If you see her coming, run in the opposite direction, and don’t you ever fucking lay your hands on a woman again.” I smile. “Say you will, Kian.”

“Y-yes. J-just let me go.”

I toss him away, and he catches himself on a table. The bar is silent, hard eyes on him as he stumbles through the place. The hostess opens the door for him as he walks away. She shuts it with a slam, and a cheer goes up in the crowd.

“How did you know he’d be here?” Jane asks.

It took some planning. “Several of the waitresses sent him a text that they wanted to see him tonight. He agreed to come. But he won’t be back.”

I raise my hand up to get everyone’s attention. “Drink and food on me.”

Whoops go up through the bar. “Now it’s a fucking party!” I say as someone hands me a shot of tequila.


It’s one in the morning when I walk in the door at home. The room is darkened, with only a lamp illuminating the area.

Emmy is asleep on the couch, her hand curled up around her chin. I stroke a finger down her face, and her eyes open slowly.

“It’s bedtime,” I murmur as I help her sit up.

“Okay,” she says around a yawn, then yelps when I swoop her up in my arms and carry her to my bedroom.

Life with her has been a blur of sex ever since the bookstore. I wake up and go to practice; she goes to the bookstore. Afterward, we have dinner with her family at the store or here, then fall into bed at night.

I’m not thinking about the future.

I can’t.

I’m just taking it one day at a time.

My wish is for her happiness. To shelter her from anything that might hurt her.

“You smell like you’ve been dunked in a keg,” she says as I ease her down, and she whips off her tank and pants and crawls under the covers with only her panties on.

I get naked and cuddle up to her. “I’m really tired,” she murmurs.

“Which is code for ‘I’m not down to fuck.’”

“Hmm.”

My fingers stroke her hair, then trail down to her shoulder. “I’m gonna sleep naked anyway,” I whisper.

“How was the party?”

“Lots of people. Drinks. Food. The usual.” I smirk, then wince as my lip stings. “Tell me about your day before you go to sleep,” I murmur, and she sinks deeper into my embrace.

“The new hires are great. Angela from the Times practically orgasmed over the window. There’s not another bookstore in New York with the same concept. The fiftieth anniversary of those books just makes it all the more relevant. You, Mr. Cream, have great ideas. How about your day?”

I caress the line of her shoulder, my fingers gliding down her arm to lace our fingers together. “Practice was good. Our first preseason game is coming up, with Kansas City. You’ll need to come.”

She stiffens in my arms.

“Don’t worry, darling. I’ll be fine.”

She doesn’t say anything, but I can hear the wheels in her head spinning.

A long exhale comes from my chest. “Maybe we shouldn’t talk about football.”

“Okay. Wanna talk about the blood on your lip, then?”

I sit up and click on the lamp on the nightstand as she props her head on her arm and watches me. “You saw it? I thought I cleaned it up pretty good at the club.”

“You don’t think I inspect you from head to toe after you’ve been to a bachelor party? I was checking for hickeys and lipstick, and what I get is a busted lip.”

I arch a brow. “Sorry?”

She moves and straddles me, her lace underwear rubbing against my hard cock, making me hiss. My hands land on her hips as she scowls down at me.

“Jane goes to a party, and you don’t think she told me what happened immediately? In graphic detail. Then she admitted that Kian’s been walking past the bookstore and leaving flowers again.”

I narrow my eyes. “Minx. Were you really asleep when I came in?”

“Hell no. I was waiting to see your lip, you jerk! You could have hurt yourself or hit your head, messing with Kian. I was worried about you! Did you really plan the entire thing, for him to be there during your party?”

I grin.

“You are diabolical,” she calls out.

I cup her face and brush our noses together. “You like me just the way I am.”

She pouts. “Did you put some bacterial cream on it?”

“Yes, Ma. Jane had some in her purse.”

She rears back. “Absolutely not. You do not get to call me Ma. That is wrong on so many levels.”

“I was just kidding—come back here,” I say when she tries to crawl away. I tug her back into my lap while she pouts. It makes me chuckle.

“Seriously. Are you mad at me for giving Kian a little taste of his own medicine? Eye for an eye—he deserved a hell of a lot more. I could have really hurt him, but I didn’t. I merely let him know that you have family. And friends. And a badass husband who will protect you until the end.”

Our eyes cling, her green to my gray, as the silence builds between us. “‘Until the end’?”

I reach over and click off the light. I do not want to talk about that.

“Can we just cuddle?” I ask as I ease her back down to the bed.

“Anytime.” She runs her fingers through my hair, then carefully inspects my split lip. Her eyes hold mine for a long time as she studies each of my features as if cataloging them for later.

“What?” I ask softly.

Her throat moves delicately as she swallows before she speaks. “No one’s ever protected me before. No one has ever been this good to me.”

“Darling, I’m yours. You never have to worry.”

She dips her face so I can’t read her eyes and snuggles into my neck. “You know my greatest fear?”

“Yeah,” I say as my fingers idly drift down her shoulder to her arm.

“I’m not afraid anymore,” she whispers. “Of this.”

Silence fills the room as I digest her words. I get what she’s telling me, and it makes my heart do somersaults in my chest. Her hand rests there as if she senses my own fear.

My throat tightens with words I can’t say. My own fear still clings to me. My armor is still intact. Right?

“That’s great,” I say before kissing the top of her head. Eventually she slides away and turns over with her back to me. A long breath comes from my lips as I curl around her, my hand encircling her waist.

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