This behavior was crossing some kind of line. AJ damn well knew it, but he couldn’t make his feet budge. To be fair, when he’d jumped out of his truck and hit the ground running in Lizzy’s driveway, he’d expected her to be awake when he blew through the closed door of her bedroom. Not curled up like an adorable kitten in a mess of sunny yellow sheets, sleeping the morning away. Now that he’d gotten eyes on Lizzy, seen she was alive and well, he remembered the medical box in the hallway, the discarded tennis shoes, and knew she’d been working late.
Which might account for his two brothers—also known as the full-time bodyguards he’d hired to keep the press off Lizzy in his absence—being sprawled out on her couch, sawing logs loud enough to deafen a man.
Three days he’d been out of town, but it felt as if a decade had passed. Or maybe only thirty seconds. Because he knew as soon as Lizzy opened her eyes, they would pick right up where they’d left off, like he’d never been gone. Lord, that certainty was something huge. So huge he couldn’t walk out and leave the girl to sleep. Staring down at her like a lovesick moron, instead. An accurate description of a man who’d damn near broken his leg getting off the plane an hour ago, he was so sick without her smile.
Sick about so many things, really. Seeing the footage of her walking out of the barn enough times that he’d memorized the paling of her face, the dread in her eyes. And worst of all, the sag of her shoulders that told AJ she’d seen that moment as the beginning of the end. Which it wasn’t. Not as long as he had breath left in his body. He’d become better acquainted with Lizzy’s past while out of town in a way he hadn’t anticipated, but that was the beauty of finding someone who made your heart soar and ache all at once. Nothing could get past the magnitude of it.
As if he’d wished Lizzy awake, she turned over amongst the sheets, revealing a definite lack of shirt. Or pants. Tight, white underwear with blue hearts on them. A design that obviously appealed quite a bit to everything south of his belt buckle, because his cock plumped and lifted so fast, bursts of light went off behind his eyes. “Uh oh,” AJ rumbled.
And that’s when Lizzy screamed, jackknifing in bed, jerking the sheets over her breasts and attempting to scramble away.
“Sweetheart, it’s just me.” AJ held up his hands, belatedly realizing he hadn’t even turned on a damn light, probably making him seem like the Yeti, come down from the mountains to terrorize her. Fast as he could, AJ reached toward a lamp…and knocked it off the dresser where it shattered on the floor.
His head fell forward on a whooshed sigh, even as his heartbeat kick-started at the sound of Lizzy’s husky sleep voice. “You know it’s me because I broke something. That’s…great.” He faced the bed again, sort of glad he’d broken the light, so she couldn’t see his red ears. “I’ll buy you a new lam—”
He caught Lizzy in midair as she leapt. Pink sugar smell went to his head, delivering a mental knockout, rendering him incapable of doing anything but almost crushing her to death, just to get more of the scent into his nose. More feel of her smaller form against his chest. “Hi,” she murmured into his neck, her lips teasing the ends of his hair. “Remember when you said you tend to come on too strong?”
Not sure he was able to speak just yet—because who the hell was lucky enough to get a welcome like that?—AJ grunted a yes instead.
“I think it rubbed off on me.”
AJ’s laugh turned into a groan when Lizzy used her thighs as leverage, pushing up higher into his hold. Fitting their lower bodies together and gasping. “You can thank those panties for what you’re feeling.” He swallowed hard. “You think maybe you could wear clothes to bed when I’m not around? I barely slept being away from you with everything going on. If I’d known you were naked, I probably would have cut and run during halftime.”
“No, you wouldn’t have,” Lizzy laughed into his shoulder, the vibration of it making him feel whole. Calm and aroused and thankful and useless and powerful all at the same time. “Can I…can you…”
He cupped her backside in both hands, swaying them from side to side. “Can I what, sweetheart?”
“Can you lie down on top of me?” The whispered words were laced with shyness. “I want to feel your weight.”
Maybe someone else would have found that request odd, but AJ, without even realizing it, had been hoping she’d ask. What kind of amazing voodoo was that? “Some of my weight, Lizzy,” AJ said gruffly, easing them down into the bed. “I like pancakes for breakfast, but I don’t want one for a girlfriend.” He kept his knees planted on the mattress, his forearms too, but pushed down on her in degrees, more and more, when every ounce he allowed himself to release made her moan. Or maybe that was him. “You needed this, too?”
Lizzy’s feet slid into the back pockets of his jeans as she nodded, her eyes at half-mast. “You seemed so far away when I watched you on TV.” Her toes curled against his ass. “Now you can’t be any closer. I can feel you all over me.”
Oh Lord, could she feel his heart thumping, too? Had to. He could feel hers hitting right back. “I don’t want to feel far away to you.” He allowed just a little more of his weight to ease down, both of them gasping at the added pressure, courtesy of his neglected cock. “Come with me next time.”
When he rocked forward, Lizzy’s breath hitched, her touch dropping from his shoulders, coasting down his back…and lower. “I don’t think that’s a good idea...” Warm hands slid inside AJ’s jeans, nails digging into the flesh of his ass, tugging him into the notch of her thighs. “You n-need to focus.”
“I’m…so damn focused,” he ground out, before remembering they were talking about football. Why were they talking about football? “After the games, Lizzy, I’ve still got all this…I don’t know. Testosterone. So I usually stay late, watching game film, lifting weights, running sprints. Whatever I need to do to lose the energy.” He tweaked his hips and felt a shiver run through Lizzy. “If you were there, sweetheart…Jesus. I can’t even think about what kind of a monster fucking I’d lay on you.”
Those fingernails buried in his buttocks drew blood. “How?”
“How?” AJ growled back. “Maybe I’d take you down to the weight room and orgasm you between reps. Hell, maybe during.” Something very male, very animal rippled in his middle. Something only Lizzy had ever coaxed into the light. “Or maybe I’d slam that pretty ass up against my locker enough times to make a dent, so I could look at it the next day and know I made an impression on my woman.”
Lizzy’s hands began tugging on his waistband, legs restless on either side of him. “I need you now. I need you—”
“Hey, man, what are you doing in there?”
Frustration smacked AJ square between the eyes at the sound of his brother’s voice. But unmanly tears very nearly appeared when his second brother piped up.
“Mom’s outside, AJ. So you might want to, uh…wrap it up. Or unwrap it. Depending on what stage you’re in at this point.” A pause. “No way around it. This is awkward.”
Lizzy started squirming beneath him, pushing at his shoulders. “Your mom is here?” She wasted no time diving out of the bed when he rolled off her body. Her sweet, tight, ready-for-AJ body. “What…I have nothing to-to wear or eat or…and my grandfather must be wondering…”
AJ turned onto his back, praying for deliverance from the boner gods. “I couldn’t hold her off. She said she’d wait until I got back to come meet you.” He sat up with a wince. “I’m back. So here she is.”
Something about the flustered flush on Lizzy’s cheeks made his head spin. Like his brain was working double time to record the memory of Lizzy meeting his mother. The lead up. Her beautiful nerves. How they meant she had a stake in this. In him.
“I’ve lost my damn mind over you, Lizzy.”
She froze in the process of fastening her bra, tongue sliding out to wet her bottom lip. “Every time a player on the other team bashed into you during the game, I wanted to punch through the television and break their stupid noses.” Her face split into a lopsided grin. “Maybe I’ve lost mine over you, too.”
“No maybe about it,” AJ said gruffly. “I know you. I can feel we lost them together.”
“I know,” she whispered back, her gaze sliding toward the door. More nerves coming out to play in her pretty face. “Is this going to be okay?”
He held out his hand. “I won’t let it be anything else, sweetheart.”
AJ’s mom had brought baby pictures. Four leather-bound albums worth. She thunked them down on Lizzy’s kitchen table, patted the seat beside her, and picked up as if they’d been friends for a decade. It was hard to concentrate on the stories that went with each picture, however, thanks to AJ sitting across from them, grinning like a lit-up jack-o-lantern. Not that Lizzy minded. She had three days’ worth of missing his face to make up for.
Three long days of waiting for the other shoe to drop, too, now that they’d been pictured together. Wondering which form that falling shoe would take. How AJ would react. If he’d be around to share his reaction at all. Scariest of all, how would she handle the fallout? Lizzy had lived stress-free for six years for good reason. Slipping now in the face of adversity would be a devastating setback. Not just for her, but the family that had stood by her through the dark times. Her sister, her grandfather…
Lizzy slowly filled her lungs with oxygen. She wasn’t letting anything spoil this morning. This perfect morning in her bright kitchen, with AJ’s two brothers knocking around like flannel-covered wrecking balls, trying to throw breakfast together, his mother glowing with pride over her boys, and AJ. Just…AJ.
“Mom, tell Lizzy about the time AJ slept on the top bunk.”
Bonnie Lott flipped a few pages of the album and pointed. “There.” Lizzy leaned in, viewing the picture of a teenage version of the future defensive end, lying among broken pieces of wood, a wool blanket pulled up to his chin. “Shattered the whole piece of furniture, crashed to the ground and didn’t even wake up.”
“He’s faking sleep because he’s embarrassed,” Lizzy murmured, leaning back in her chair with a dreamy smile. But it faded when she realized everyone was staring at her. “I mean…right?”
“Were you?” One of the brothers turned from the stove to ask him.
“Yeah,” he answered, eyes locked on Lizzy. “I was.”
A few heavy moments later, when his mother said, “Oh my,” Lizzy realized they’d been staring at each other across the table for an interminable length of time. “Someone better feed my son before he takes a bite out of Lizzy.”
AJ and Lizzy pushed away from the table at the same time—both looking sufficiently sheepish—AJ going to help his brothers plate breakfast, Lizzy going to refrigerator for orange juice. She poured the pulpy liquid into cups Bonnie pulled from the cabinets, no idea what to do with her hands once the task was finished.
“Oh, I forgot.” AJ waved the spatula too wide and his youngest brother ducked to avoid it without batting an eyelash. “I picked up something for Lizzy and Mom in Indianapolis, before the Colts game. Out in my truck. Just let me go—”
“I’ll go,” Lizzy interjected, grateful for a chance to regroup. She hadn’t been this social in a while, let alone with people who mattered so much, and hoped some fresh air might calm her nerves. She took the keys AJ extended, breath hitching when his thumb brushed over the back of her hand, and fairly danced out of the kitchen.
“Well done, AJ,” Lizzy heard Bonnie say, as she reached the door. With an impossibly wide smile on her face, she unlocked AJ’s truck, checking the back seat for their presents first. Not seeing anything, she went to close the door, but something caught her attention. Sticking out of a slouchy gym bag that had been stuffed beneath the seat was a manila envelope, torn open enough that a hint of the contents were visible. Contents that included her….name.
A dull thud beginning in her ears, Lizzy hesitated only a moment before reaching out for the envelope, shaking a document and two photographs into her hand. And her knees buckled, slamming into the truck’s running board. She barely recognized herself in the first shot, taken when she was probably eighteen. In it, she sat on a floor, staring lifelessly into a glass of liquor, while the person beside her cut lines of cocaine on a makeshift, cardboard box table. The other picture was a mug shot, taken the day she’d been arrested for public intoxication. The last day she’d taken a drink, to be exact. Just knowing AJ had seen the pictures caused her stomach to heave, moisture gathering and pushing behind her eyes.
Quickly, Lizzy scanned the contents of the accompanying letter through blurry vision. Blackmail. An anonymous someone wanted a huge payout to keep the pictures and other information about Lizzy out of the media.
God. She’d expected something like this, but the reality cut like razor-sharp claws dragging along her skin. Because AJ had seen these photographs, he’d read the letter…and he was still there. He’d still introduced her to his mother. And that was when she knew, if she didn’t leave him, he would let her past drag him and his good-guy image right down into the gutter. No way could she let that happen.
Not to anyone. But especially the man she’d fallen in love with.
Wanting one more afternoon, pretending to be blissfully ignorant just a few more hours wouldn’t hurt, though. Tomorrow…that was when reality wouldn’t be staved off anymore. When Lizzy realized her gaze had snagged on the glass of liquor in the first picture, she shoved the documents and photos into the envelope, placing it back in the gym bag. Grabbing the gifts—two novelty dartboards in the likeness of Peyton Manning’s face—Lizzy went back inside and ate breakfast, tugged into AJ’s warm side, trying to ignore the loud countdown ticking in the back of her mind.
“Come home with me after this?” he asked against her ear, one big hand settling on her thigh beneath the table.
Lizzy nodded into his shoulder.
“I can’t make it, sweetheart,” AJ huffed, wedging his arm between Lizzy and his front door, just in time to soften the impact. But not enough to keep the glass pane from rattling, probably along with his poor Lizzy’s teeth. “I can’t make it to the bedroom.”
“Me either.” Her palm skated down his erection, then drew back up slowly, lifting his heavy cock, ripping a groan from his throat they likely heard a mile away. “Just get me inside.” Seductive green eyes flashed beneath black lashes. “Or not.”
His pained laugh cut off abruptly when Lizzy rubbed her tits back and forth over his abs, her breath catching, head falling back. A fantasy straight out of the devil’s playbook—and he wanted in the game. “Pick a pocket. If we get the keys, I’ll try and make it to the kitchen. There’s a condom in the other.” He tucked his fingers into the neckline of Lizzy’s shirt, ripping it down the center to uncover ripe, braless breasts. Christ, they were gorgeous. “The second pocket is your ticket to getting banged up against my front door.”
Lizzy’s mouth fell open, as if unable to believe his temerity. Hell, he was a little shocked himself, but he allayed his concerns by vowing to buy her a new shirt. A Texans one. Maybe pink. “I already know which pocket the condom is in,” she whispered. “I had my hand in your pocket the whole way here.”
“I’m aware,” AJ growled, planting a rough kiss on her mouth. “It’s why I’m in this state. Can’t even get my woman over the threshold like a damn gentleman.”
That made Lizzy’s eyebrows draw close, but she reached into his pocket and handed him the keys before he could explain that it had been the best ride home of his life. Her pretty voice bathing his ear, her touch teasing up and down his belly, along the inside of his thighs, over the bulging ridge of his dick. Lord, he might have kept driving if pleasing her body wasn’t his foremost concern.
They fell through the front door a moment later, AJ catching Lizzy up against his body, stumbling toward the kitchen…and wishing his mind were slightly clearer. Clear enough to reach through the sweet desperation he’d sensed in her, back at her house. How it continued to mount. And with it, their sexual fervor grew. And grew. Until getting inside Lizzy and asking questions later was his only option.
Or maybe he could get through to her now. With his body. God knew when they touched, his heart bore the impact. It had to work the other way around. Had to. He was losing her somehow and couldn’t figure out why. She knew nothing about the letter. Nothing about the meeting he’d taken on the road with his lawyer. The team lawyer. A private investigator. And he wouldn’t be telling her, either, until there was a clear-cut solution. Or he risked her running. But no one was taking Lizzy away from him. Not if he had to take on thousands of bloodsuckers, one by one.
Possessiveness surging in his blood like blue fire, AJ positioned Lizzy against the wall of his kitchen, sliding his fingers into the sides of her hair. “You think there’s anything I wouldn’t do for you, Lizzy?”
She stilled before jolting back into motion, unfastening his pants with an unsteady smile on her face. “Why should you even be required to think like that? Why should you have to consider all the obstacles that might come…when you could have something easier—”
“Because I fell in love with you.” His heart pounded right up into his throat. “And I’d love you if this was easy or hard or in between. It’s the love that matters, not the way we get there. It doesn’t care about obstacles.”
Time seemed to slow down as Lizzy watched the words come out of his mouth. Watched as they crystalized between them. Thoughts streamed past behind her luminous green eyes, almost tangible enough to reach out and grasp, if they would just slow down. AJ held his breath when Lizzy went up on her toes, laying a kiss over his rocketing heart. “Do you love me enough to let me save myself? Save…us?” She wet her lips. “No questions asked?”
Lord, she’d asked him for the one thing AJ wasn’t sure he was capable of giving. His instinct was to protect her, to save her, to take on all-comers, but Lizzy had asked for the opposite. Asked him to…watch from the sidelines? Not remotely easy for a man who lived to confront. Time to put your money where your mouth is, he thought, even as his stomach rebelled. “Yes,” he rasped, letting his forehead hit the wall above her. “But it’s not going to be easy for me, sweetheart.”
“I know.” Her hands stroked up beneath his shirt, over his abdomen and chest. Then back down to remove the condom from his pocket, shoving his jeans down and rolling on the latex. “Don’t make it easy for me, either,” she breathed. “Let me take on some of your frustration. Give it to me.”
With helplessness biting at the back of his neck, that invitation couldn’t be passed up. He stooped down, shoving a forearm beneath Lizzy’s ass, lifting, sucking on her tits with a bone-deep growl. She arched her back, allowing the brutality to happen, whimpering through it, encouraging him with fingers combing through his hair. “Tell me to stop…” He groaned the words into the valley between her tits. “I can’t hold back when I feel you disappearing on me, Lizzy.”
“Don’t hold back.” She sobbed AJ’s name when he reached down, cupped his hands beneath her knees and lifted her high, high on the wall, level with his mouth. His head clouded with lust as he ripped off the panties covering her pussy and set to work licking, needing to ready her tender flesh for the pounding his body was giving him no choice but to deliver. Fingernails ripped at his hair, and he welcomed the sharp flashes of pain, welcomed the cries she loosed above his head, the insides of her thighs squeezing tight. “Oh God…AJ.”
They were both frantic by the time AJ had gotten her primed. He allowed her to slide down the wall, wasting no time pumping her full of his ready cock, driving into her tight body, fucking her with the kind of ferociousness he’d be ashamed of tomorrow. “Feel me now. Feel me,” he gritted out. “You remember how much I need you, Lizzy. You’re going to be my wife one day. You’re going to wear a ring, and I’m going to wear you out. Every chance I get. And I’m going to love you through all of it. So you damn well remember that. Don’t leave me with all this love and nowhere to put it.”
They climaxed together, banging into the wall and shouting, like two crazy people who’d gone crazy together and owned it. When their breathing regulated, AJ carried Lizzy—slumped over his shoulder—into the living room, sitting her down on the couch. And then, fulfilling a wish he’d harbored since meeting her, AJ fell asleep with his head in Lizzy’s lap. When he woke up, he knew she’d be gone. But he would have faith, difficult as it would be. He’d have faith in the woman he loved, because she deserved every ounce of it.
Lizzy laid her palms flat on the closed laptop and took a deep breath. She was glad she’d asked the hotel to remove the mini bar from her room prior to checking in, because that added temptation would have been too much.
Was she really going to do this?
Yes. Loving AJ had fitted her with armor. She wanted to live inside it for the rest of her life, rejoicing in the privilege of experiencing it. Even for a short time. Even if her next course of action made retaining that armor impossible. But there was no other way. People wanted to take advantage of the man who’d placed his trust in her, so her only option was to take away their power. And in doing so, expose herself. Every single part.
With shaky fingers, Lizzy opened the laptop and employed the video recorder. She stared back at her moving reflection on the screen a moment, reminding herself she wasn’t the girl pictured in the photographs. The ones she’d unearthed last night, the ones spread across the hotel room table. That withdrawn, visibly unwell girl was still living inside Lizzy, but Lizzy had found a way to manage her. Bringing that girl to the surface, introducing her…it would be difficult. And it might lose her AJ, who no doubt wanted to keep her past quiet, if for no other reason than to save her the pain and embarrassment.
But she refused to watch her problems test his goodwill over and over again. Refused to let people use her past against AJ. Those monsters would never stop reappearing unless she chased them away, once and for all. Maybe letting AJ cough up money to keep things quiet would have kept them together longer. Maybe he wouldn’t feel the same about her once everyone was aware of her shortcomings. But that was the risk she had to take. Saving AJ might also mean…letting him go.
With one final bracing breath, Lizzy hit the record button. “Hi, my name is Lizzy Dixon and I’m an alcoholic…”
AJ was busy trying not to flip a table. He wasn’t angry. No, he couldn’t be mad when his girlfriend had just done the bravest damn thing he could have imagined. In fact, that bravery had choked him up to such a degree that table flipping was really his only viable option. Where else could he expend the energy? Searching the background of the video—which was nearing three hundred thousand views already—hadn’t given him any indication of her specific whereabouts. So grabbing Lizzy and squashing her up against his chest wasn’t happening. Yet.
Soon, though. Please God, soon. He missed her so much he couldn’t stand up straight. He looked like an old man going around, bent forward at the waist, hands constantly falling to his knees so he could take a breather.
Sick of his phone ringing off the hook, possibly preventing Lizzy from getting through, AJ hit the ignore button on another call. Every time he’d tried calling her, it went directly to voicemail, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave one, needing to hear her answers, her breath, her laughter. Eventually, listening to her recorded voice had hurt too much, so he’d stopped calling, ordering himself to be patient.
Holy hell, that woman. His woman. What had that look on her face meant? At the end of the video? AJ swore she’d been looking right at him, almost as if to say…
It’s up to you now. Whatever you decide, it’s okay.
AJ dropped into one of his kitchen chairs. Had Lizzy been giving him an out? Did she honestly think he wouldn’t want the hero in that video? The hero he’d known she was all along? Because ‘want’ didn’t begin to cover the bone-deep requirement he had for her. So damn deep and tangled with his organs, it couldn’t be unearthed. The urge to impart that information to her was so strong…
Maybe he could. Lizzy had asked for him to stand aside, to let her fight the demons on their heels. And he had. But now it was time to support her, lift her up the way she’d done for him. Turning on a heel, AJ took the steps to his upstairs office two at a time, retrieving his laptop.
Lizzy probably shouldn’t have come to the Texans game. She wasn’t worried about being recognized from the video, now nearing a staggering one million views. No, she was proud of what she’d done for herself and others like her. For AJ. She wouldn’t change freeing him from potential legal battles and unwanted responsibilities for anything. Her concern was that being so close to AJ—and not touching him—might actually kill her. Already, swallowing was impossible, her palms sweating, pulse pumping. Just knowing they were in the same arena.
Even sitting in one of the nosebleed seats, Lizzy’s heart went wild when the Texans came through the tunnel. AJ was impossible to miss, the giant, red ninety-nine emblazoned across his chest. Seeing him caused such massive relief, she forgot to be sad for a minute that he hadn’t contacted her. Granted, it had only been one day since she’d released the video and returned home, but if he still wanted her, wouldn’t he have been in touch?
Lizzy was distracted from her miserable thoughts when an elbow nudged her side. She turned to an elderly woman on her right, finding a phone offered in her direction. A phone…with AJ talking on the screen? Unable to hear his voice over the crowd, Lizzy held the speaker against her ear, closed her eyes and listened.
“What does a hero look like to you?” God, his voice. She’d missed it so much. “Six foot five, like me? Maybe some days. On others, they look like my future wife, Lizzy Dixon.” She stopped breathing, her eyes popping open to stare down at the field, seeing only a sea of green. “Admitting you have a problem and overcoming it, facing it head-on every single minute of the day? That’s harder than what I do on the field. I’m in awe of that kind of strength. But there are men and women who need help being their own heroes, like Lizzy. I might not have found the woman I’m going to make my wife, had that help not been available to her. Her video started the conversation, now let’s keep it going. Go to Stand with Lizzy dot com to help.” He was quiet a moment, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck, before imploring the camera. “And for the love of God, Lizzy, come home to me and give me a place to put all this love. Before I overflow, okay? Please, sweetheart.”
She couldn’t listen to any more because her hand was shaking too violently to keep the phone aloft. It dropped into her lap, just in time for her to realize every screen in the stadium was displaying the Stand with Lizzy website address. She would never know how she found the ability to rise on unsteady legs, walking down the steps toward the field, almost in a trance. Getting close to AJ seemed to be her only life goal in that moment. Murmurings started around her, but she was only mildly aware of them. Until they got louder and louder, drawing the attention of various Texans staff flanking the field sidelines. When the voices started calling her name from all sides, she could no longer ignore them, or the cheering that started. The way it swelled and lifted around her like a summer storm.
Since the game hadn’t even begun, the premature cheering drew more and more attention, until a camera person began filming Lizzy and—much to her red-faced horror—projected her image onto the ten-story screen overlooking the field. But nothing, not even her embarrassment mattered, when the one voice she needed to hear so desperately broke through all the others, drawing her attention back to the field.
AJ stood at the fifty-yard line, facing Lizzy. He removed his helmet, dropping it, the same exact way he’d done the first time they’d met. And Lizzy didn’t think, she took the hand offered by a smiling Texans staffer, who called her by name, jumping down onto the field. And then she ran as fast as she could toward the love of her life, the crowd roaring in her ears like thunder. Looking as though he didn’t quite believe Lizzy was real, AJ only moved to hit the ground in a kneeling position, opening his arms so she could fling herself into them, knocking them both backward onto the field.
“Marry me,” he rasped against her ear. “Tomorrow.”
Tiptoeing was not AJ’s strong suit.
He and Lizzy had gotten home late last night after an appearance at the local hospital, where AJ had dressed like Santa Claus, handing out presents in the children’s ward. At the last minute, Lizzy had surprised him by climbing into his truck dressed as Mrs. Claus. As if he’d needed a reason to love the woman any more. Afterward, his exhausted wife had taken a few steps inside the house, lain down on the couch and fallen asleep in front of their Christmas tree, still dressed like Mrs. Claus. His heart squeezed up tight just looking at her.
Forcing himself to stop staring at Lizzy, AJ finished placing her final present beneath the tree—
And knocked off an icicle ornament, crunching it to death under his king-sized slipper.
“AJ?” Lizzy said sleepily from the couch.
His smile didn’t quite allow him to pull off his affronted sigh. “You know, it could have been a clumsy burglar. I’m sure there’s at least one out there.”
“I don’t mind you breaking things,” she murmured, stretching out like a cat on the sofa, clearly still half-asleep. “It lets me know you’re coming. And I get so happy.”
Lizzy snuggled up against a throw pillow and closed her eyes once more, giving AJ a chance to stare again without getting caught. Almost a year and a half had passed since Lizzy ran out onto the field and promised to be his wife. He hadn’t given her time to change her mind, marrying her in a private ceremony the following afternoon in the stadium tunnel where they’d met, when Lizzy had asked him to autograph a football.
Without Lizzy having to ask, he’d moved her grandfather into the guesthouse right out back, finding a part-time nurse to help out when Lizzy was working. Or her husband needed her undivided attention, which as it turned out, was pretty damn frequently. Football took up an enormous amount of his days—and often evenings—so by the time he walked through the front door of their house, he tended to be a little territorial where his wife was concerned, asking very politely for everyone to give him some Lizzy and AJ time. Getting a fix of her green eyes brought him right back to earth, but it was only half the battle. Sometimes, after returning from out of town, he couldn’t even put a sentence together until he was skin to skin with Lizzy, his arousal driving her up the bed, those hands on his ass to yank him closer.
God, he loved when she did that.
And hell, he probably shouldn’t be thinking about making back-in-town love to his wife while wearing nothing but a pair of Rudolph boxers. The reindeer had sprung a third antler just in time for Lizzy to stir again on the couch, rubbing her eyes as she sat up. “Good…morning.” Her mouth fell open. “Is that my present?”
The tips of his ears felt hot. She still did that to him. This woman from whom he kept not a single secret. Well. Except maybe when it came to her Christmas presents. “Lord, I even get turned on when you’re dressed like Mrs. Claus.” He blew out at breath. “I’m a lost cause over you, sweetheart, and I love it.”
Lizzy’s hands flew to the gray wig that had slipped sideways on her head, sending her into a fit of laughter. Over the last year and a half, that laugh had changed subtly. Grown more confident, more joyful. Stronger. A lot like the Stand with Lizzy Foundation, of which she’d become the fearless leader, helping countless men and women overcome their addictions. He’d held Lizzy’s hand through her first speaking engagement, his pride overflowing when she did the next one on her own.
“Well, I can’t let you be the only one in their underwear on Christmas morning, can I?” She tugged the wig off, letting dark hair flow free, before lifting the costume over her head and casting it aside, leaving her in nothing but candy cane stockings. “Merry Christmas, AJ.”
His breath went uneven at the sight of her breasts, gorgeous in the glow of Christmas tree lights. “Get over here before I die from lack of holding you.” The love in her smile knocked him back a step, but he recovered in time to catch her, wrapping her up in his arms like a present and inhaling the smell of pink sugar. “Are we going to start a new tradition of opening presents naked? Because I have to tell you, I probably won’t even make it through one.”
Lizzy slid teasing fingers down his bare chest, tracing the edge of his boxers’ waistband, slaying him with a throaty little whimper. “One each, then you take me back upstairs.”
“Deal,” he growled, releasing Lizzy long enough to stoop down and grab a rectangular box wrapped in silver paper.
Her forehead wrinkled as she studied it—so damn adorable—but when she got the paper off, her eyes grew shiny. “You kept the Sharpie?” Her laugh was watery as she turned over the glass display case housing the implement she’d left behind the day they’d met, giving him a way of finding her—forgetfulness he thanked God for every day of his life. “I love you, AJ. I knew it when you showed up in my living room.” She ran her index finger along the polished edge. “What if I hadn’t left it?”
“I’d still be looking, sweetheart. When someone makes you realize your chest has felt half-empty all along until they walked in, you don’t forget.”
“You make me feel full, too,” Lizzy whispered. She buried her face against his chest, trailing her lips up to his pounding heart, planting kisses there. “Your turn.”
AJ tried to avoid looking at her tight backside as she retrieved his present from beneath the tree. But he failed. And poor Rudolph’s face stretched even more in an effort to keep his erection covered. “I’m losing focus, Lizzy.”
Apparently dedicated to making it through the single round of presents, Lizzy handed him a tiny white box, surrounded by a red bow. With a deep breath for patience, AJ undid the red decoration, rubbing the smooth edge over Lizzy’s pert nipples, before letting it fall to the ground. “Not fair,” she breathed.
His rumbling laugh cut off when he opened the box lid and tugged out a tiny piece of mesh material. A miniature Texans jersey. “Who is this going to fit on?” Everything came into sharp focus when he turned it over…and saw their last name on the back. His heart went flying into an impossible rhythm, his eyes seeking out Lizzy’s green ones for confirmation. “Baby? Are you…are we…baby?”
She nodded, her happy tears brimming over to coast down her face. “Due in late May.”
Her hands pressed to her cheeks, but AJ grabbed them, pressing them to his own. A shout of pure happiness worked its way up his throat, bursting free. Oh Lord, his knees wobbled so bad, he had no choice but to kneel down, wrapping his arms around Lizzy’s middle. “That seals it. I’m the luckiest man on the planet.”
Lizzy’s fingers combed through his hair before resting on her stomach. “We get you. That makes us the lucky ones.” Her exhale was full of contentment, matching the feeling blanketing his soul. “I love you both.”
That did it. His happiness meter hit its maximum and exploded. “I love you both, too.” AJ stood, carefully scooping up his wife—God, she was glowing—and moving toward the staircase. “We need to get an actual car, Lizzy. You can’t put a baby seat in a truck. Can you? And names…we should discuss names…and now is a really good time for me to stop breaking things…”
Their laughter drifted down the staircase.
If he winks at me one more time, I’m going to introduce his nuts to my size seven stiletto.
Hayden Winstead circled her ankle slowly underneath the bo...