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“It’s fine. It’s nice to see you guys so passionate about it. You’re both very lucky.”

“Do you want kids?” Murphy asks me.

“Someday, yes.”

“Can you imagine Sawyer as a father?” Rylee asks.

“Yes, I can,” Murphy says. “He’s so fun. He’s a big kid himself. I think he’ll make one hell of a dad.”

I look between the other two women at the table as if they’ve lost their minds. “Now I know you guys are crazy.”

We get interrupted by a woman walking by. “You’re Sawyer Mills’ girlfriend, right?”

I look up at her, not bothering to answer the question she already knows the answer to.

She shoves her phone at me. “I just thought you’d like to know what he’s doing while he’s down in Atlanta.”

I look at her phone to see a picture of Sawyer in a compromising position with a woman sitting on his lap. They are laughing and looking like they’re having a great time. I know it’s not an old picture, because he’s wearing a shirt I bought him last month. I don’t normally buy him clothes, but while I was out shopping, I saw a shirt that was the exact color of his eyes and thought it would look stunning on him. It does. Apparently the girl in his lap thinks so, too.

I try to swallow the lump in my throat. I try to pretend that the only reason I’m affected by this is because it’s against the terms of our contract. But I’m only lying to myself. I feel a piece of me dying inside.

Murphy pushes the phone away and asks the woman to leave us. “Don’t read too much into that,” she says. “You know how the press can blow things out of proportion.”

“Blow things out of proportion?” I ask, like a jealous girlfriend. “She was sitting on his lap. And her top was practically coming off her boobs.”

“Maybe it’s an old picture,” Rylee says.

“It’s not,” I say, wiping an unbidden tear from my eye. “I bought him that shirt.”

Rylee looks sympathetic. “You can sit here and be upset, or you can ask him about it.”

“Like a jealous girlfriend?”

“Like someone who cares about him,” she says.

I push my chair back. “I’m going to the bathroom. Please excuse me.”

“It’ll be okay, Aspen. You’ll see. We’ve both been there. Things like this happen all the time.”

“Not to me they d-don’t,” I stutter. “I n-never expected this. Why did I have to f-fall for a guy who is so clearly unavailable?”

Rylee grabs my arm before I walk away. “Was unavailable,” she says. “Was, Aspen. You are the one who is changing all that.”

I nod to the woman sitting across the room who showed me the picture. “Or maybe he hasn’t changed at all.”

I head to the bathroom and splash some water on my face. I look at my reflection in the mirror. The reflection of a love-sick girl who is getting her heart broken. No amount of money is worth this. I should leave. I should leave now. He obviously doesn’t care about me or the contract we signed.

Maybe he’d let me out of it. Maybe he’d let me keep the money he’s given me already. Then I could go back home and find a job and help Denver pay off the rest of his debt like I’d originally planned.

The door to the bathroom opens and Murphy walks in behind me. She hands me her phone. “Look,” she says.

I take the phone from her to see Caden sitting down with the same slutty-looking girl in his lap. My eyes snap to Murphy’s. “What?”

“It was a bachelor party for one of the batting coaches who’s getting married next weekend. I just got off the phone with Caden. She was a stripper. She sat on their laps. Some pictures were taken and unfortunately, a few got leaked. It was all quite innocent. Caden assured me that Sawyer didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Oh.”

I back up and sit down on the chair in the corner, my head falling into my hands as I try to swallow my tears.

Murphy comes over and rubs my back. “What’s wrong, Aspen? It’s okay. He didn’t do anything.”

“I know,” I tell her. “I just didn’t think I’d be so relieved to find that out.” I look up at her with tears pooling in my eyes as I think back over the last few months. The months that have been more confusing than any other in my life. I even think navigating my parents’ death was easier than this, maybe because I had my brother to support me – unlike now. Yet, at the same time, these months have been the most exciting I’ve ever known.

“You were right, Murphy. I do love him. I don’t think I knew how much until just now.” I shake my head. “What am I going to do?”

“You’re going to walk back to our table and sit with Rylee and me so we can come up with a plan. You’re going to make that man see what he’d be missing if he tosses you aside when your arrangement ends. You’re going to be yourself, because that is the woman he loves – we just need to help him realize it.”

I grab the tissue she’s offering me and wipe my eyes. “Do you really think we can?”

“I’m sure of it,” she says.

Before we walk out the door, I pull her aside. “Murphy, why did you tell me about the babies? You said yourself that you don’t want anyone to know about them. Why would you tell someone who isn’t even a real friend?”

She narrows her eyes at me and then puts her hands on my shoulders. “Aspen, we’ve spent countless hours with each other. We’ve had good times together. We support each other when our men are away. I’ve laughed with you and cried with you. If you think that isn’t a real friendship, then you’re not the woman I thought you were.”

“Thank you.”

“For what?” she asks.

“For being a real friend to me even when you didn’t have to.”

She pulls me into a hug. A long, tight, all-encompassing hug. A real hug from a real friend.

“Come on,” she says, grabbing my hand and leading me out the door. “Let’s go figure out how to get your man.”

Chapter Twenty-nine

Sawyer

“Ooof!”

I fall back onto the grass when Danny tackles me.

Lucy comes running out of the kitchen. “Are you okay?” she asks. Then she scolds Danny as she helps him get up. “Daniel, you’re too big to be tackling anyone.”

“But he had the football and that’s what football players do,” he says.

I brush the grass from my shorts. “It’s fine, Lucy. No harm done.”

“Your phone was vibrating,” she says, nodding back to where I left it in the kitchen. “I couldn’t help notice the text that popped up. It’s Aspen. She wants to know if you’ll be home for dinner.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

“How come you never talk about her?” she asks. “The only things I know about her are what I read in magazines.”

“It’s not like you and I have heart-to-hearts about each other’s love lives, Lucy.”

“True. I guess I’m just surprised that you never bring her name up when you visit. She must mean a lot to you if you invited her to move into your townhouse.”

I shrug.

She laughs. “It’s me. You know I won’t say anything to the press. Is it serious? Are you thinking long-term here?”

“When have you ever known me to do long-term?”

“I’ve never known you to do any term, Sawyer. That’s why I’m asking.”

I look over at Danny, who seems content tossing up and catching the football. I wish he’d just tackle me again, that way I wouldn’t have to answer her questions. I’m not prepared to answer them. My teammates don’t ask for details and my best friends don’t bother because they know about the arrangement. It’s easy enough to avoid the press. ‘No comment’ is not unexpected when it comes to them. But Lucy asking questions is something I didn’t anticipate.

“She’s nice. Smart, too.”

Lucy stares me down. “That’s all you have to say? She’s nice and smart?”

“What do you want me to say, Lucy? I can’t predict the future.”

“But you obviously like her. You love her even, according to the articles I’ve read.”

“I’m not discussing this with you.”

“Does she know about Daniel?”

I shake my head. “Danny is nobody’s business but mine.”

“You’re ashamed of him.”

“The fuck I am,” I say, then I quickly look over to see if Danny heard me, but he’s running to the other side of the yard. “I’m not ashamed of him, Lucy. But my past is nothing I want to talk about with anyone.”

“I suppose our moving will make things easier for you then.”

“That’s bullshit and you know it. I’m going to fly down and see him whenever I can.”

“It’s okay if you don’t, Sawyer. You have no obligation here.”

“I’m doing it,” I say, harshly. “Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to throw the football with him for a few more minutes before I have to go home.”

~ ~ ~

On my drive back to the city, I think about what Lucy said. I’ve thought about telling Aspen about Danny. I’ve thought about it a lot. She’s the only person I’ve ever considered telling. But maybe that’s exactly why I shouldn’t. Then again, maybe if I told her everything, she’d understand why I can’t ever be in a relationship.

Aspen is different now. Ever since I returned from Atlanta last week, it’s like she’s her old self again. She’s not avoiding me anymore. She’s cooking for me again. Well, she never stopped cooking for me, but now she waits until I get home and she eats with me instead of just leaving me a plate in the refrigerator like she did after we came back from Kansas City.

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