***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 Lyssa Kay Adams
There was a reason Gavin Scott rarely drank.
He was bad at it.
As in, face-planted on the carpet while reaching for the bottle bad. And too drunk to see in the dark so might as well stay down bad.
Which is why he didn’t get up when his best friend and Nashville Legends teammate, Delray Hicks, pounded on the door to his hotel room, a fourth-floor state of depression that reminded him every minute that he could at least screw up like a champion.
“Izz open,” Gavin slurred.
The door swung wide. Del flipped on a blinding overhead light and immediately swore. “Shit. Man down.” He turned and spoke to someone else. “Help me.”
Del and another giant human lumbered toward him until their four massive hands grabbed his shoulders. In an instant, he was upright and leaning against the shitty couch that had come with the room. The ceiling spun, and his head fell back against the cushions.
“Come on.” Del smacked his cheek. “Look alive.”
Gavin sucked on air and managed to lift his head. He blinked twice but then ground the heels of his hands into his eye sockets. “I’m drunk.”
“No shit,” Del said. “What have you been drinking?”
Gavin lifted his hand to point at the bottle of craft bourbon on the coffee table. It had been a gift from a local distillery to every member of the team at the end of their season a few weeks ago. Del swore again. “Shit, man. Why not just pour grain alcohol down your throat?”
“Didn’t have any.”
“I’ll get some water,” said the other guy—whose blurry face sort of resembled Braden Mack, owner of several Nashville night clubs, but that made zero sense. Why would he be there? They’d only met once at a charity golf thing. Since when were he and Del friends?
A third man suddenly walked in, and this time Gavin recognized him. It was one of his teammates, Yan Feliciano. “Como es el?”
How is he? Gavin understood that. Holy shit, he could speak Spanish when he was drunk.
Del shook his head. “He’s about one shot away from listening to Ed Sheeran.”
Gavin hiccupped. “No me gusta Ed Sheeran.”
“Shut up,” Del said.
“I don’t stutter when I’m Spanish.” Gavin hiccupped again. Something sour came up with it this time. “When ‘m drunk.”
Yan swore. “Que paso?”
“Thea asked for a divorce,” Del said.
Yan made a sound of disbelief. “My wife said there was a rumor about them having trouble, but I didn’t believe it.”
“Bleeveve it,” Gavin groaned, dropping his head against the couch. A divorce. His wife of three years, the mother of his twin daughters, the woman who made him realize there really was a thing called love at first sight, was done with him. And it was his own fucking fault.
“Drink this,” Del said, handing Gavin a bottle of water. And then, speaking to Yan again, said, “He’s been staying here for the past two weeks.”
“She kicked me out,” Gavin said, dropping the unopened water.
“Because you’ve been acting like a douchebag.”
Del shook his head. “I warned you, man.”
“I told you she’d get sick of your ass if you didn’t get your head out of it.”
“I know.” Gavin growled it this time, lifting his head. Too fast. He did it too fast. A wave of nausea warned that the bourbon was making a run for the nearest exit. Gavin swallowed and drew in a deep breath, but, oh shit . . . sweat dampened his forehead and his armpits.
“Oh fuck, he’s turning green,” Might-Be-Braden-Mack yelled.
Massive hands grabbed him again and hauled him to his feet. They barely touched the floor as Del and Pretty-Sure-It-Was-Mack dragged him to the bathroom. Gavin stumbled to the toilet just as something the color of bad decisions exploded from his mouth. Mack swore with a gag and bolted. Del stayed, even when Gavin grunted like a tennis player in her backswing and heaved several more times.
“You never could handle the hard stuff,” Del said.
“I’m dying,” Gavin groaned, falling to one knee.
“You’re not dying.”
“Then put me out of my mishery.”
“Trust me. I’m tempted.”
Gavin fell onto his ass and leaned against the beige bathroom wall. His knee collided with the beige tub hidden by a plastic, beige shower curtain. He made $15 million a year and was stuck in a shittier hotel room than his days as a minor leaguer. He could afford way better, but this was punishment. Self-imposed. He’d let his pride ruin the best thing that ever happened to him.
Del flushed the toilet and closed it. He walked out and returned a moment later with the water. “Drink. I mean it this time.”
Gavin opened the bottle and sucked down half. After a few minutes, the room was no longer spinning. “What are they doing here?”
“You’ll find out.” Del sat down on the lid of the toilet and leaned forward, elbows on knees. “You all right?”
“No.” Gavin’s throat convulsed. Shit. He was going to lose it in front of Del. He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed the pad of his thumb into the space between his eyebrows.
“You go ahead and cry, man,” Del said, tapping Gavin’s foot with the toe of his sneaker. “No shame in that.”
Gavin propped his head against the wall as twin tears rolled down his cheeks. “I can’t believe I lost her.”
“You’re not going to lose her.”
“She w-w-wants a divorce, asshole.”
Del didn’t react to his stutter. No one on the team did anymore, mostly because Gavin had stopped trying to fight it around them. Which was one more in a long list of things he had Thea to thank for. Before he met her, he was self-conscious, hesitant to speak even in front of people he knew. But Thea was completely unfazed the first time he stuttered in front of her. She didn’t try to finish his sentence, didn’t look away in discomfort. She just waited until he got the words out. No one else besides his family had ever made him feel like he was more than just an awkward, stammering jock.
Which made it that much more of a betrayal when he discovered her lie a month ago. And that’s what it felt like. A lie.
His wife had been faking it in bed their entire marriage.
“Did she say that?” Del asked. “Or did she say she thinks it’s time to think about divorce?”
“What’s the fucking difference?”
“One means she’s definitely done with you. The other means you might still have a chance.”
Gavin rolled his head against the wall in sloppy disagreement. “There’s no chance. You didn’t hear her voice. It was like talking to a stranger.”
Del stood and towered over him. “Do you want to fight for your marriage?”
“Yes.” Jesus, yes. More than anything. And shit, now his throat was closing again.
“What are you willing to do?”
“Do you mean that?”
“W-w-what the fuck? Of course, I mean it.”
“Good.” Del offered his hand. “Then come on.”
Gavin let Del pull him to his feet and then followed him back into the main room. His body felt like it weighed a thousand pounds as he stumbled toward the couch and collapsed onto the cushions.
“Nice place you got here, Scott,” Mack said, emerging from the kitchenette area. He polished a green apple on his shoulder and then took a large, loud bite.
“That’s mine,” Gavin grumbled.
“You weren’t eating it.”
“I was going to eat it.”
“Sure. Right after you reached the bottom of that bottle.”
Gavin flipped him off.
“Knock it off,” Del ordered Mack. “We’ve all been where he is.”
Wait. What? What the hell did that mean?
Yan claimed the seat on the opposite end of the couch and clunked his cowboy boots onto the coffee table. Mack leaned against the wall.
Del looked at them both. “What do you guys think?”
Mack took another bite and spoke with his mouth full. “I don’t know. You really think he can handle it?”
Gavin dragged his hand down his face. He felt like he’d walked into the middle of a movie. A crappy one. “Can someone please explain to me wh-what’s going on?”
Del crossed his arms. “We’re going to save your marriage.”
Gavin snorted, but the three pairs of eyes looking back at him were serious. He groaned. “I’m screwed.”
“You said you were willing to do anything to get Thea back,” Del said.
“Yes,” Gavin mumbled.
“Then I need you to be honest.”
Gavin tensed. Del lowered himself onto the coffee table. It protested under his six-four frame.
“Tell us what happened.”
“I told you. She said—”
“I don’t mean tonight. What happened?”
Gavin darted a glance at all three men. Even if Yan and Eating-My-Apple-Mack weren’t there, Gavin wouldn’t talk about that. It was too humiliating. It would be bad enough to admit that he couldn’t satisfy his own wife in bed, but to also have to own up to the special kind of dumbfuckery that made him freak out, move into the guest room, punish his wife with the silent treatment, and refuse to hear her explanations because his ego was too fucking fragile to handle it? Yeah, no. He’d keep that to himself, thank you very much.
“I can’t tell you,” he finally mumbled.
“We’re talking about your marriage. Of course, it’s personal,” Del said.
“But this is too—”
Mack cut him off with a frustrated noise. “He’s asking if you cheated on her, slapnuts.”
Gavin swiveled his head to glare at Del. “Is that what you think? You actually think I would cheat on her?” Just the thought made him want to bend over the toilet again and evacuate what remained of his liquid dinner.
“No,” Del said. “But we have to ask. It’s a rule. We don’t help cheaters.”
“Who the hell is we? What the fuck is going on?”
“You said she seemed like a stranger last night,” Del said. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe she is a stranger?”
Gavin shot him a what the fuck look.
“All spouses become strangers to each other at some point in a marriage,” Del said. “All human beings are a work in progress, and we don’t all change at the same pace. Who knows how many people have gotten divorced simply because they failed to recognize that what they thought were insurmountable problems were actually just temporary phases?” Del spread his hands wide. “But hell, you two? It’s a wonder you two ever got to know each other at all.”
“Is this supposed to be making me feel b-b-better?”
“You guys dated, what, four months before she got pregnant?”
Mack coughed into his hand. It sounded like the word shotgun.
“Right,” Del continued. “And the next thing you knew, you were getting married on a whim in a courthouse, and before the twins were even born you got called up to the bigs? Hell, Gavin, you’ve been on the road most of your marriage while she’s been raising those girls practically on her own in a strange city. You think she’s going to be the same person after all that?”
No, but dammit, that wasn’t the problem with him and Thea. Sure, she had changed. So had he. But they were good parents, and they were happy. At least, he thought they were happy.
Del shrugged casually and sat up straight. “Look, all I’m saying is that our careers are hard enough on couples who date for years and know exactly what they’re in for before getting married. But you two jumped into the deep end of the pool with no life jackets. No marriage can survive that, even in the best circumstances. Not without some help.”
“It’s a little late for counsheling.”
“No, it’s not. But that’s not what I’m talking about, anyway.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
Del ignored him and instead eyed Yan and Mack again. “Well?”
“I say yes,” Yan said. “He’ll be useless to us next season if we don’t get them back together.”
Mack shrugged. “I’m good, if only to get him out of here. Because goddamn, dude.” He gestured widely at the room.
Gavin slumped toward Yan. “How do I say fuck off in Spanish?”
Mack took a final bite of the apple and tossed the core over his shoulder. It landed perfectly in the sink. Gavin hated him more than anyone else in the entire world. “My daughters gave me that apple.”
“Oops,” Mack said.
“Listen up,” Del said. “Sleep this off tonight. Tomorrow night, you’ll meet us for your first official meeting.”
“First official meeting of what?”
“The solution to all your problems.”
They stared at him as if that explained everything. “That’s it?”
“One more thing,” Del said. “Under no circumstances are you to go see your wife.”
Nothing on Earth is as strong as a woman who’s good and fed up.
Of all the bits of folksy wisdom her Gran Gran had imparted over the years, Thea Scott hoped at least that one was true because, holy crap, this sledgehammer weighed a ton. Four attempts to hit her mark had only resulted in a minor dent in the wall and a major pulled muscle in her back. But dammit, Thea was not giving up. Three years they’d lived in this house, and for three years she’d been fantasizing about knocking this wall down.
Seeing how her marriage had officially come crumbling down yesterday, it only seemed fair that today it should be the wall’s turn.
Besides, Thea really, really needed to hit something.
She swung the sledgehammer one more time with a grunt. Finally, the heavy end connected with a satisfying thud and left a gaping hole. With a whoop of victory, Thea yanked the hammer free and poked her face into her handiwork. She could almost feel the light from the other side just waiting to burst free from its sensibly beige prison. Who the hell would put a wall there, anyway? What architect in their right mind would separate the living room from the dining room and block all that glorious light from flowing through the downstairs?
Thea swung again, and a second hole joined the first. A chunk of drywall dropped to her feet as dust coughed into the air and coated her arms. Holy crap, that felt good.
Panting from exertion, Thea let the hammer fall to the plastic tarp she’d bought to protect the hardwood floor. Massaging her shoulder with one hand, she turned and surveyed the living room. Yes. Right here. Right by the French doors to the backyard. This was the perfect spot for her easel and paints. Someday, after finishing her degree, maybe she’d have her own art studio. But for now, she’d be satisfied just to paint again. She hadn’t touched a blank canvas since the girls were born. Her greatest creative accomplishment these days was dyeing her white T-shirts to make the stains seem intentional.
She’d tried to make it work, the wall. She’d hung family photos in quirky patterns. Framed the girls’ handprints and artwork. Displayed Gavin’s favorite bat from high school. All with the idea that someday she’d fix it. Someday she would paint it a more vibrant color. Or maybe add built-ins. Or someday just knock the entire damn thing down and start over.
Thea knew someday had arrived the instant she woke up this morning, eyes still swollen from a weak moment in the middle of the night when she’d cried in the bathroom with a fist pressed against her mouth to smother the sound.
Tears were pointless. Regrets wouldn’t help her start over. There was only one way to move forward, and that was to come out swinging.
So after breakfast, Thea sent the girls off to dance class with her sister, Liv, who’d been living with her since Gavin left. And then Thea dug out her old paint overalls, drove to the local hardware, and bought the sledgehammer.
“You know how to use this?” the man at the counter asked. His arched eyebrow screamed mansplainer.
Thea curled her lips into a semblance of a smile. “Yep.”
“Make sure your strongest hand is at the butt of the handle.”
“Yep. I got it.” Thea shoved the change in her pocket.
The man tugged on his suspenders. “Whatcha knockin’ down?”
“Patriarchal power structures.”
“Make sure it’s not load-bearing first.”
The need to hit something surged again like a bad case of Twitter rage. Thea hoisted the sledgehammer onto her shoulder, but just as she started to swing, the front door flew open. The girls ran inside, their tutus bouncing over little pink tights and their blonde pigtails swinging in unison. Their golden retriever, Butter Ball, patiently followed behind like a K9 nanny. Her sister, Liv, brought up the rear, holding Butter’s leash.
“Mommy, what are you doing?” Amelia asked, screeching to a halt, a combination of awe and trepidation in her tiny voice. Thea didn’t blame her. Mommy probably didn’t look like Mommy right now.
“I’m knocking down a wall,” Thea said, keeping her voice light.
“Aw, yeah,” Liv said, rubbing her hands together. “I’m getting in on this action.” Dropping Butter’s leash, she crossed the room and reached for the sledgehammer. “Can I pretend it’s his face?”
“Liv,” Thea warned quietly. She knew her sister wouldn’t intentionally say anything bad about Gavin in front of the girls. They’d both learned the hard way that the only people who suffer when one parent badmouths the other are the children. But Liv’s mouth had a way of acting on its own sometimes. Like now.
“Whose face, Aunt Livvie?” Amelia asked.
Thea shot an I told you so look at her sister.
“My boss,” Liv answered quickly. Liv worked for a notoriously tyrannical celebrity chef at a famous Nashville restaurant. Liv complained about him enough that the girls didn’t question whether Liv was telling the truth or not.
“Can we hit the wall too?” Amelia asked.
“This is dangerous grown-up work,” Thea said. “But you can watch.”
Liv swung hard with a Tarzan cry and knocked another chunk of drywall to the floor. The girls cheered and jumped up and down. Ava let out a whoop and karate kicked the air. Amelia attempted a cartwheel. It was officially on in the living room.
“Damn, that felt good,” Liv said, handing the sledgehammer back to Thea. “We need music for this.”
As Thea took possession of the tool once again, Liv dug out her cell phone, swiped the screen a few times, and then the Bluetooth speakers throughout the house blared with the voice of Aretha Franklin demanding R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Liv grabbed Gavin’s bat from the floor, held it like a microphone, and started belting out the lyrics. She extended her hand to Thea, so Thea joined in for the girls’ benefit, who laughed as if the impromptu concert was the funniest thing they’d ever seen.
And just like that, she and Liv were teenagers again, singing at the top of their lungs in the stuffy bedroom they shared at Gran Gran’s house. It was there, while their mother was off finding herself in a haze of anger and alimony and their father was too busy cheating on wife number two to pay attention to his daughters, that they memorized P!nk songs and promised to never trust a man, to never be as weak as their mother or as selfish as their father, and to always protect each other.
It was them against the world. Always.
And now again. Only this time, Thea didn’t just have a little sister to protect. She had to protect the girls. And she would. No matter what it took. She would make sure they never knew what it was like to grow up surrounded by tension or as the pawn between two warring parents.
A swell of sudden emotion stung the corners of Thea’s eyes as an ache spread through her chest. Her voice caught on the lyrics as her throat convulsed. Spinning away from the girls, she swiped at her face.
Liv casually covered for her. “Hey, girls. Run upstairs and change your clothes, OK? First one to the stairs gets to pick the movie tonight.”
The promise of competition sent the girls scrambling toward the stairs. Seconds later, the song quieted.
“You OK?” Liv asked.
A painful lump blocked Thea’s voice. “What if I’ve already hurt them?”
“You haven’t,” Liv said sharply. “You are the best mom I have ever known.”
“All I wanted, have ever wanted, was to give them a life that we never had. To give them safety and security and—”
Liv grabbed Thea’s shoulders and turned her around. “He’s the one who moved out.”
“Yes, because I told him to go.” She hadn’t been able to take one more minute of the cold shoulder after nearly a month of him refusing to talk about anything and pouting in the guest room. Two toddlers in the household were her limit.
“And he couldn’t go fast enough,” Liv said.
True. Still, guilt gnawed at Thea’s edges. There were things Liv didn’t know. Gavin was wrong to react the way he did when he discovered Thea had been faking it in bed, but Thea shouldn’t have let him find out that way. “It takes two people to ruin a relationship.”
Liv tilted her head. “Sure, but I’m your sister, which means I’m biologically predisposed to only take your side.”
They stared quietly at each other, silently thanking God once again that they had at least one person they could always count on.
Thea once thought Gavin was that person too.
Damn him! Thea retrieved the sledgehammer. It was time to stand on her own two feet. To pick up where she left off when she gave up everything for him and his career. Time to start living up to the promises she and Liv made all those years ago.
Thea swung, and another hole broke the wall.
Liv laughed. “I’m not the only one picturing his face now, am I?”
“No,” Thea growled, swinging again.
“Good. Get it out. You’re a badass who doesn’t need a man.”
The speakers blared an angry Taylor Swift song about burning pictures.
Liv grabbed Gavin’s bat from the floor again. “Watch out. I’m coming in.”
“Wait! That’s his favorite bat!”
“If he wanted it, he should’ve taken it with him,” Liv said.
Thea ducked as Liv swung. There was a loud bang as it connected with the drywall.
Thea dropped the sledgehammer and wrenched the bat from Liv’s hands. “We can’t break that.”
“It’s just a bat.”
“He won the state high school championship with it.”
Liv rolled her eyes. “Men and their wood.”
“It’s important to him,” Thea said.
“Isn’t that the problem?” Liv snapped. “Baseball was always more important than you.”
“No, it wasn’t.” The sudden deep timbre of Gavin’s voice sent them both whipping around.
He stood ten feet away, as if their conversation had summoned him out of thin air. Butter barked and jogged toward him traitorously with a happy wag.
A tremor shook Thea from the inside out as she watched Gavin drop a hand on Butter’s head for a distracted ear scratch. He wore a pair of faded jeans and a plain gray T-shirt. His damp hair stood askew, as if he’d raced through a shower and simply rubbed a towel over his head. His hazel eyes were bloodshot and rimmed with dark circles. At least two days’ worth of brownish blonde stubble darkened his jaw.
But he still somehow managed to look irresistibly, unfairly sexy.
Liv turned the music down and crossed her arms. “What do you want, asshole?”
“Liv,” Thea warned again. Then to Gavin, she said, “You don’t live here anymore, Gavin. You can’t just walk in.”
He motioned to the door behind him. “I tried knocking.” His eyes darted between the broken wall and the sledgehammer on the floor. “What—what are you doing?”
“Tearing down the wall.”
“I see that,” Gavin said slowly. “Why exactly?”
“Because I hate this wall.”
Gavin’s eyes pulled together. “Is that my bat?”
Something hot and petty burned a path through her common sense. “Yep. Works great.” Thea turned and slammed the bat into the wall.
Gavin ducked instinctively.
“I’m going to set up my easel here,” Thea said. She slammed the bat again. “This stupid wall blocks all the good light.”
“Maybe we should talk about this before you—” Gavin winced as Thea swung the bat a third time.
“Maybe we should have talked about a lot of things,” Thea snapped, stepping away from the wall. She wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead.
A sudden squeal from the stairs interrupted them. “Daddy!” Amelia leapt from the bottom stair and raced toward Gavin. She threw her arms around his legs. “Mommy is breaking the wall!” she laughed, raising her hands to be picked up.
Gavin, still staring warily at Thea, hoisted her in his arms. Amelia instantly cocked her head. “Are you sick, Daddy?”
“Uh, no, honey,” Gavin said. “I just didn’t sleep very well last night.” He kissed her cheek. “You smell like syrup. Did Mommy make special Saturday pancakes for breakfast?”
“Yeah, with chocolate chips!” It came out chocate thips.
Gavin met Thea’s eyes, and for a moment they stopped being combatants and just became parents. Amelia had been showing signs of a lisp the past several months, and Gavin feared it was the beginning of a permanent speech problem like his. Thea offered a soft smile. “It’s just a lisp,” she said quietly.
Gavin reached his other arm toward Ava, who had shuffled slowly behind her sister. “Hey, squirt.”
Ava wouldn’t go near him and instead came to stand next to Thea. It was an act of instinctive protectiveness that broke Thea’s heart, even more so when Ava lifted her chin in a bold tilt and declared, “Mommy cried.”
Oh, no. Ava had been climbing into bed with her in the middle of the night ever since Gavin left. Had she heard Thea sneak into the bathroom last night? She didn’t want the girls to ever hear her cry.
Gavin swallowed slowly. His eyes moved across Thea’s face as if he’d never seen her before, stopping on freckles and blemishes she hadn’t bothered to cover with makeup before he met her eyes again. Thea flushed under the weight of his stare. Why the hell was he looking at her like that?
“Can we take Butter for a walk?” Amelia said. That was their thing—taking the dog for a walk around the neighborhood. Or, at least, it used to be when Gavin still lived there.
“Another time, sweetie,” Gavin said. “I need to talk to Mommy.”
Amelia made a pouty face—a new, devastatingly effective technique she’d recently discovered. Gavin swallowed hard, and Thea almost felt sorry for him. “I’ll be at your school musical Monday,” he said. “Maybe we can walk Butter after that?”
“I’ll take them for a walk,” Liv said, putting just enough fuck you in her voice to make a point.
Butter danced at the door as Liv reattached his leash and helped the girls into their fleece coats. She walked out but then ducked her head back in the room. “Don’t take too long. We still need to set up your online dating profile.”
The screen door slammed.
Gavin made an indecipherable noise.
Thea hid a smile.
“You’re not answering your phone,” Gavin said as soon as the girls were out of earshot.
“The battery died last night. I didn’t feel like charging it.”
He stepped closer, his eyes softening with concern. “Are you OK?”
Thea ignored the tiny ping-pong of her heart. “I’m not the one who smells like he spent the night on the whiskey trail.”
“I got drunk last night.”
Thea turned toward the wall, ready for another blow. “Celebrating your freedom?”
“If you actually think that, I’ve fucked up worse than I thought.”
The crunch of bat against wall wasn’t as satisfying this time. “Well, that’s kind of a problem, Gavin, because you fucked up pretty bad.”
He didn’t argue. “Are you really setting up an online dating profile?”
“God, no,” Thea snorted, wiping a hand across her forehead. “That’s the last thing I need.” Another man in her life? More promises that couldn’t be trusted? No thanks.
Gavin nodded, relief plain on his features.
“If you’re here to pick up some of your stuff, make it quick because the girls won’t be gone long.”
“I’m not here for my stuff.”
“I w-w-w . . .”
Thea’s heart did the ping-pong thing again as she watched him fight against the muscles of his throat.
Gavin finally rushed into his sentence. “I want to talk.”
“There’s nothing left to say.”
“Please, Thea.” Goddamn ping-ponging heart. “Fine.” Thea shoved his bat at him and stomped toward the kitchen. She turned her back on him to fill a glass of water from the tap and silently seethed as she studied the massive whiteboard calendar that covered a four-foot square of wall space beside the refrigerator. Thea used to relish being impulsive and carefree, but now she lived and breathed by the color-coded control center where she scheduled every minute of their lives—dance lessons, dentist appointments, dinner menus, preschool volunteer days, and, in red letters to denote status-level FORGET THIS AT YOUR PERIL, reminders to find Ava’s favorite tights before Monday’s school musical.
The calendar also used to be full of charitable and social engagements as an official member of the Nashville Legends’ WAGs’—wives and girlfriends—club, but ever since rumors began circulating that she and Gavin were struggling, many of the wives and girlfriends had started to distance themselves from her. They didn’t even invite her to their stupid luncheon this month, and that was before she’d asked for a divorce.
She’d never felt like she belonged, anyway, no matter how much she tried. Thea could never shake the feeling when she was around them that she was perpetually that one—the girl they all secretly suspected had gotten pregnant on purpose to trap herself a rich, professional athlete.
Little did they know that the very last thing in the world Thea would ever marry for was money. She’d seen firsthand growing up how money corrupted and corroded everything around it.
Nope. She had married Gavin for love.
But seeing how well that turned out, she might have been better off marrying for the cash.
Thea had been completely unprepared for life as a baseball wife. Being a Legends WAG brought its own kind of celebrity and responsibility. Between the charity events and promotional appearances, it was like being yanked into a sorority she never meant to rush. She didn’t have anything against sororities. She’d even been in one in college—an artsy collection of theater majors and music majors and feminist studies students who protested cuts to the women’s center.
But this sorority was different. This one demanded conformity and total obedience—the opposite of everything Thea once stood for. But Thea had had to figure it all out on her own with infant twins because Gavin was gone more than he was home. And somehow in the process, she got lost until she no longer even recognized herself. How had Southern Lifestyle magazine described her last summer in a feature about Tennessee’s pro athletes and their families? Wholesomely pastel. That was it. And they were right. Her entire Lilly Pulitzer wardrobe had become a walking tribute to cotton candy. She used to wear vintage Depeche Mode T-shirts and black Chucks, for God’s sake.
The article was like a bucket of cold water over her head. A wake-up call. She’d sputtered and stumbled and realized she’d become everything she once despised. And Gavin either hadn’t noticed or hadn’t cared that she had morphed into some kind of sanitized version of herself.
Or, worse, he preferred the sanitized Thea.
At the sound of his clearing throat, Thea finally turned around. The shadows beneath his eyes were more pronounced under the kitchen lights, like twin bruises. He really did look awful. Gavin could never handle the hard stuff. And she didn’t just mean the alcohol.
She slid her glass across the island toward him. “Do you want an aspirin?”
“Already took some.”
“Not really.” He cocked a half smile. His hand wrapped around the glass she’d just shared, his thumb rubbing up and down the cool condensation. There was no holding back the zing of surprised longing that made certain parts of her ache and other parts tingle. She had either reached pathetic level bless her heart or was just starved for affection if the sight of his thumb distractedly stroking a glass of water could make her pink parts stand at attention. He hadn’t touched her since that night—the night of the Big O-No. But despite what he apparently believed, she had always loved being touched by him. She had never faked that.
Damn him. “I want to keep the house.”
Gavin cocked his head as if he didn’t hear her correctly. Like a dog. “W-what?”
“I know it’s a lot to ask, but I won’t need as much child support if you’re willing to pay it off for the girls and me. I’ll work, obviously, but—”
Gavin pushed the glass away. “Thea—”
“I think things would have been easier for Liv and me if Dad hadn’t sold the house after he left Mom. And since this is the only house the girls have ever known—” Her voice caught. She sucked in a breath to cover it up. “We need to tell them together. I’m not sure when the right time is, though. Before the holidays? After the holidays? I don’t know. I don’t even know if they’ll understand what it means. They still think you’re just off playing baseball, but that’s not going to hold much longer—”
The staccato of his voice was as jarring as it was atypical. Thea jumped in her own skin. “Stop what?”
“I don’t want this.”
“No! Fuck!” He dragged his hands across his hair. “I mean, yes. I want the house. I w-w-want you and the girls in the house.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I want you!”
Thea’s mouth dropped open. Surprise stole her voice for a moment before cynicism gave it back. “Stop, Gavin. It’s too late for this.”
Gavin squeezed the edge of the counter until veins protruded from his thick forearms.
“No, it’s not.”
“It’s best to do this now while the girls are still young and won’t remember . . .” She couldn’t finish the sentence over a sudden thickness in her throat. She didn’t have time for this emotional crap.
Gavin’s face hardened. “Remember what? That their parents were ever married?”
“I’d rather they never remember that than be forced to endure the pain of their family being torn apart.”
“Then let’s keep our family together.”
“You tore it apart the minute you moved out.”
“You told me to leave, Thea!”
“And you couldn’t go fast enough.”
His mouth opened and closed for a moment before he blurted, “I needed time to think.”
“And now you’ll have all the time you need.”
Gavin bent, dropped his elbows on the island, and held his head in his hands. “This isn’t going the way I w-wanted.”
Thea bolted away from the counter. “Really? How exactly did you imagine this going? Because you seem to think that all you had to do was show up here, and I’d just smile and pretend everything was fine. I’ve been doing that for three years, Gavin. I’m done.”
She headed back to the wall. She needed to hit something again.
“Wh-what the hell does that mean?” he asked, following closely behind.
“It means that orgasms were the least of our problems!” That’s what pissed her off the most. He was mad at her for faking it in bed, but didn’t he know she’d been faking everything for years?
Thea picked up the bat and swung as hard as she could. Another hole appeared in the wall.
“Thea, wait,” Gavin said, wrapping his fingers around the bat to stop her from swinging again. “Please, just listen to me for a second.”
She spun around. “We’re beyond the listening stage, Gavin. I’ve asked you to listen to me a thousand times since that night, and you refused!”
“Not everything about that night was awful, Thea.”
Thea advanced on him, propelled by pent-up rage. “Are you kidding me? You think now is a good time to remind me of your glorious grand slam?”
It would be funny if it weren’t so not funny. The perfect pun. The night of his greatest career achievement—a walk-off grand slam in the sixth game of the American League Championship series—was the night of an even bigger home run in bed for Thea.
“I’m talking about what we did after the game,” Gavin said, closing the distance between them, lowering his voice to a seductive tone. “That wasn’t awful.”
“Then why did you move into the guest room afterwards?”
Gavin held his hands up in a truce-like gesture. “Because I overreacted and fucked up, OK? I know that. And I w-w . . .”
His mouth worked to push out words that his muscles were determined to hold in. He dragged his hand along his jaw and then gripped the back of his neck. He finally looked at the floor with a growl, frustration tugging his lips into a frown.
The front door suddenly flew open for the second time that morning. Gavin bit back a curse as Amelia and Butter ran into the house with Ava and Liv following slowly behind. Amelia stopped in the hallway and held a dog treat as high in the air as her little arm could reach. “Daddy, look!”
Amelia commanded Butter to jump. The dog merely lifted his head and took the treat from Amelia’s fingers, but Amelia squealed as if she’d taught Butter to talk.
Gavin smiled softly. “Very cool, baby,” he said, voice strained.
Liv caught Thea’s eye as she walked into the kitchen. A few seconds later, “All the Single Ladies” blared from the Bluetooth speakers.
“She’s subtle,” Gavin said quietly.
“No one is as loyal as a little sister.”
“We’re going to go jump on the trampoline,” Liv said, picking up on the still-unresolved tension in the room.
She turned up the music before going out back with the girls.
Gavin approached Thea cautiously. “Just tell me what it w-w-will take. What do I need to do?”
His face conveyed a beseeching plea that reminded her way too much of the fake baby, please tone her father would use whenever he begged her mother for a second chance. Or a third or a fourth. How many times did her mother believe her father’s promises and take him back? Too many. Thea wasn’t going to make that mistake.
“It’s too late for this, Gavin,” Thea sighed, repeating her words from earlier.
Gavin’s face blanched. “Just give me a chance.”
She shook her head.
His eyes pinched at the corners. With a strangled noise, he spun around, hands stacked on top of his head. His T-shirt tugged over taut back muscles that bunched and bulged as he battled his thoughts. A moment fraught with tension passed before he spun back around. Determination drove his steps as he ate the distance between them. “I’ll do anything, Thea. Please.”
“Why, Gavin? After all this time, why?”
His eyes dropped to her lips, and, oh my God, was he going to—
Gavin let out a growl, slid one hand to the back of her head, and slanted his mouth over hers. Thea stumbled back and grabbed the back of the couch to keep from falling, but she didn’t need to because Gavin wrapped an arm around her back. A strong, protective, bulging, masculine arm that held her against his hard body. His mouth plundered hers. Over and over. And when his tongue swept between her lips, she couldn’t stop herself from responding. She curled her fingers into the front of his shirt and opened wider for him with a sigh. He tasted like toothpaste and whiskey and a shot of long-lost dreams.
But the shot came with a chaser of confusion and betrayal. Was she really this easy? One wild kiss and she was literally weak in his arms? One kiss and she forgot everything that had happened between them?
Thea wrenched her mouth away. “What the hell are you doing?”
“You asked why,” Gavin panted, eyes dark. “That’s why.”