“I can’t,” she admitted, her voice small as her arms tightened around me.
I wanted to pull back, to look in her eyes and demand her reasoning, but that would only get me an extra helping of silence, so instead, I waited.
“No one will believe me,” she said slowly.
“I believe you.”
“No one in law enforcement,” she corrected. “He’s a local hero, and I’m a local…nothing. I’ve seen the stats, Roman. Even if they believe me, they’re not going to do shit about it. He’s an NFL player. All it would do is horrify my parents and give the neighborhood something to gossip about.”
I speared my hands into her hair and cradled her head like I could protect her from the absolute injustice of it. I knew the stats, too. It didn’t make it right.
“You’re my local everything,” I said softly.
I felt her cheek rise against my chest. “Yeah, I love you, too.”
I squeezed my eyes shut as my chest tightened. It wasn’t new. She’d told me she loved me since we were five.
It just wasn’t the same way that I loved her.
* * *
Later that night, I stared across the blazing fire pit as Teagan laughed at something Nicole—Nixon and Liberty’s four-month-old daughter—did. Damn, she looked good with a baby on her lap. My heart twisted in simultaneous pleasure and pain—because I’d never be able to give her that.
It was just another in the long list of reasons why I kept my mouth shut about my feelings for her. She’d always wanted kids, and I couldn’t have them.
“You over the jet lag yet?” I asked Nixon as he sank into the chair next to mine.
“We’ve been home for weeks, and I swear I’m still adjusting,” he admitted, a soft smile lighting his face as he watched the same Teagan-and-Nicole show I did. He’d spent the entire off-season volunteering in Brazil with his wife, who had just earned her master’s in psychology. Guy was almost as tan as I was at this point. “But note that unlike Hendrix, I made it on time. Baby and all.”
I grinned. My phone had alerted me to the gate opening a few minutes ago, which meant Hendrix would walk in any moment. “I’m glad you came over.” My voice dropped so the girls couldn’t hear. “She needed a little human contact.”
“Anytime, but I’m pretty damned confused. She’s living here?” His gaze flickered my way. “I thought she and Rick had moved in together forever ago.”
My jaw ticked at the mention of his name.
“Something you want to tell me?” His eyes narrowed. He’d always been the most observant one on the team, which was one of the reasons he was the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL.
“It’s not something I want to tell you, but you probably need to know—”
“There he is!” Teagan called out with a wide grin as Hendrix came around the side of the house to the patio.
“In the flesh!” He threw out his arms and flashed that million-dollar smile. Between that and the dark blond hair, the guy really was Hollywood.
“I barely recognized you without some girl attached to your face,” Liberty quipped with a smirk.
“Ha. Ha.” He scooped Nicole out of Teagan’s arms and blew raspberries into her neck, eliciting a giggle from the little one. “Who says I don’t have a girl attached to my face?” he cooed.
Both the women melted.
Nixon shook his head and slowly turned my way. “You were saying?”
Teagan burst into another fit of laughter—this time directed Hendrix and Nicole’s way. I couldn’t do this here. Couldn’t ruin her night. I also couldn’t let Nixon walk into a potentially volatile situation without giving him a heads up.
“I’m grabbing a beer. You want something, T?” I called across the fire pit.
“I’m good. Thank you!”
Nixon made the same offer to Liberty, then followed me into the kitchen alone. “Spill it.”
So I did. I left out the details and gave him only what he needed to know. Rick had put his hands on Teagan, so I’d put my hands on him.
“Damn,” he breathed, folding his arms across his chest. “I knew he was a controlling son of a bitch, but I never imagined he’d been abusing her. Is she going to press charges?”
“She says it won’t do any good, and honestly, looking around the league, I can’t say I blame her. Seems like the law and the pay scale value touchdowns over character.”
Nixon’s brow furrowed. “I’m not sure Rutherford would agree.”
Weston Rutherford, the owner of the Raleigh Raptors, was a solid guy—I’d give him that. But the guy had grown up with a trust fund that had allowed him to purchase the Raptors before he’d turned thirty, so I wasn’t sure he was capable of understanding the kind of financial and emotional control Rick had held over Teagan, so I stayed quiet.
“There has to be a bigger punishment than getting socked in the face,” Nixon argued.