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ougars Football franchise. The NFL. The big time. The dream he’d held in his heart ever since he was a little boy growing up in Hope Valley. His family had never had much to speak of in terms of material things, yet they’d always had an abundance of love. Once he’d made it to the NFL, Jayden had been thrilled to shower his family with a plethora of luxuries. He’d purchased this very house for his parents—a two story white Colonial with a host of amenities. There were no guarantees in life. Jayden had seen it on the field when the best athletes suffered random, career-ending injuries. Even though he knew there was no point in wallowing in his feelings, he was having a hard time accepting that his marriage was over.

There’s really no point in dragging this out, is there? Pain sliced through him as Kit’s words washed over him. His pride had prevented him from begging her to give their marriage another chance. He had lashed out at her instead, telling her in every way possible how deeply he regretted ever marrying her in the first place. He had reminded her that they’d been impetuous and foolish. Jayden cringed at the memory. His response had wounded Kit and served as the final death knell in their marriage. There wasn’t any coming back from it. He had jumped off the cliff and landed with a belly flop.

Why hadn’t he apologized? Why had he pushed things to the breaking point?

Jayden stepped out of his vehicle and walked toward the front door. His folks had decorated their house with an abundance of holiday cheer. A gaily decorated wreath hung on the front door. A small tree sat on the front lawn. Once it got dark the tree would be lit up with shimmering white lights. Since his separation from Kit, his parents had invited him to stay with them at their house. They had been fairly forceful with him, insisting that he shouldn’t be alone at a time like this. He had accepted their offer, knowing it would be better to be surrounded by family in the midst of his personal crisis.

He took out his key and let himself in the house. The smell of pine needles greeted him like an old friend, bringing to mind all the memories of Christmases past. Images of pecan pies, glass ornaments and festively wrapped presents flitted through his mind. He could almost taste his Mama’s sweet potato pie in his mouth. A sudden burst of memory assaulted him—Kit dressed in a festively ugly Christmas sweater two years ago. He shook off the memory, wishing he could fast forward to two years from now so the pain and the memories wouldn’t be so overwhelming.

As he walked toward the kitchen, Jayden heard someone rummaging around in the fridge. He wasn’t in the least surprised to see his younger brother, Derrick, bent over and looking for food. His brother was always starving, even though his physique didn’t betray his love of food. At six feet inches tall, Derrick was a bean pole. He was one of those lucky people who could eat to his heart’s delight and never put on any weight. His brother didn’t appreciate being so slender since Jayden had always had the body of a football player.

Jayden let out a chuckle. “Are they not feeding you at Colorado State?” he asked in a booming voice.

Startled, his younger brother dropped the food in his hands and whirled around in his direction. He scowled at Jayden, then picked up the items he’d dropped. “You shouldn’t sneak up on a person like that! I could have had a heart attack.”

Jayden shook his head. Derrick always tended to be dramatic. He was convinced it was due to his being the baby of the London family. Derrick had always been a little more coddled than the rest of his siblings. “Sorry to scare you,” Jayden said. “I thought you would have heard my footsteps.”

Derrick placed the food items on the counter. He held up the bag of salad. “I’m making a chef’s salad and some pasta alla vodka. Are you hungry?”

Jayden shrugged. “I’m not feeling too hungry these days. I seem to have lost my appetite.”

Derrick swung his gaze toward him. His eyes were piercing. “Is this about Kit?”

He let out a labored sigh. Everything these days was about his wife. His soon to be ex-wife. She occupied his every thought. She was the subject of all his prayers. He considered himself a man of faith, but he couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that God didn’t seem to be answering his fervent pleas. In the large scheme of things, he often wondered if he even mattered. Did God hear his prayers? Or maybe He was simply working on bigger problems like world peace and hunger.

Jayden shook his head as a feeling of sadness enveloped him. “Divorce papers have been drawn up by Kit’s attorney.”

Derrick sucked in a shocked breath. “Oh, no! Why didn’t you tell me things were this bad?”

Jayden moved toward his brother and watched as he prepared the pasta. “You have one job, Derrick. To keep your eyes on the prize and focus on your studies. We can’t wait to have a doctor in the family as soon as you graduate from college and finish medical school. I didn’t want to distract you with bad news.”

Derrick quirked his mouth. “I knew things were rough since you were staying here, but I figured you would work through it.” He shook his head. “I don’t get it. The two of you love each other to the moon and back.” His brother stared at him with a mixture of confusion and pity, then turned his eyes back toward the stove. “What happened, Jay? I thought you were trying to work things out with Kit?”

“I can’t explain it, D. One minute we were blissfully happy and the next moment everything imploded. She thinks I’ve changed since my career blew up.” He made a face. “It was always my dream to be a pro football player for as long as I can remember. I can’t believe my success has caused so much tension in my marriage.”

“To be fair, it hasn’t been easy for Kit to stay at home while you’re on the road. And all those tabloid pictures didn’t help matters,” Derrick said in a quiet voice.

Jayden frowned at his brother. “Nothing happened. I went out with some guys on the team. The girls who ended up at the hotel were with them and not me. I’ve never been unfaithful a day in my life. It wasn’t as if I was out carousing behind her back.”

Derrick held up his hands. “I believe you. But it’s like Pop always told us. You can’t put yourself in circumstances where things look sketchy. You put yourself in bad situations, Jay. That wasn’t smart as a married man.”

Derrick’s words cut him to the quick. His little brother was scolding him for his behavior. He felt deeply ashamed. Even though he hadn’t engaged in any extramarital cheating, he hadn’t acted honorably. He had put his feet too close to the fire on many occasions. Being photographed out in the clubs with other women had been foolish and hurtful to his wife. And it had all come back to bite him. Jayden lowered his head. Suddenly it all felt so overwhelming to him. He was losing Kit. The only woman he had ever loved. His life partner. The woman he had sworn to love for a lifetime. His sweet Kit. With every second passing by, he was getting closer and closer to losing her. And there wasn’t a darn thing he could do about it.

Hot tears trickled down his face. He was so deeply unhappy and he couldn’t even look his little brother in the eye. Derrick had looked up to him for as long as Jayden could remember. As the local football jock who had made a big splash in the NFL, Derrick had always thought his big brother was a hero. It hurt Jayden to realize how deeply he’d disappointed his family.

He felt Derrick’s hand on his shoulder. “Jayden, I’m not trying to make you feel sad or guilty. I just want to give it to you straight. If there’s any chance of putting a halt to things before things are finalized—”

Jayden swung his gaze up. “It’s too late,” he said in a clipped tone. “Kit is signing the papers over Christmas, then they’ll be forwarded to me for my signature.” Just saying it out loud caused a wave of nausea to roll through him. Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead.

“Don’t sign them!” Derrick implored him. “Rip them up.” There was such a wealth of sincerity in Derrick’s voice. It touched Jayden in a place deep in his soul. His brother was so sincere, yet incredibly naïve.

“It’s not that simple. We’re at an impasse. All roads of communication have broken down,” he said, sinking down into a kitchen chair. “If I don’t sign she can still petition the court and the judge to proceed with the divorce.” He frowned. “Can you imagine the headlines?”

“Who cares about the media stories?” Derrick asked. “We’re talking about your marriage here. All those rag media outlets know is Jayden London the professional athlete. They know nothing about Jayden London, the man. They don’t know your heart or your soul or the things that make you tick.”

Derrick was right. Jayden was so used to protecting his image in the media. It was almost a reflex at this point. It had always been one of Kit’s major gripes in their marriage. She’d accused him on numerous occasions of caring more about his professional image than about their marriage. Although Jayden knew that wasn’t the truth, he had to question whether he’d been guilty of making it appear that way. Had he failed Kit by not showing her that she was the single most important thing in his world?

“Tell me you don’t love her anymore and I won’t say another word about it.” Derrick gazed at him solemnly. Suddenly it hit him that his little brother had grown up into a wise and thoughtful man. He wasn’t a kid anymore. It was a bittersweet realization.

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