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Duke: Chapter 16


My chest is unbearably tight as I take a seat, my eyes following Lennon as she walks back over toward the door. At first, I think she’s leaving, but she retrieves something and wanders back, a triumphant yet hesitant smile on her face.

“Here. It’s a little soft, but edible.” She holds the bowl out to me and now the mint chocolate chip reference makes sense. This girl. She brought me ice cream at two in the morning. Must have figured I was losing it. I take it from her, unsure what to say. Sitting down across from me on the coffee table, she chews the inside of her cheek, studying me. I take a bite of the softening ice cream. And by some miracle, when the cold confection hits my tongue, I let out some of the breath I’ve been holding, and the tension I’ve been carrying lessens. Whether it’s the ice cream or the fact that she brought it for me is debatable.

Actually, it’s not. There’s no doubt in my mind. Fuck no. It’s the sweetness of Lennon’s gesture that’s helping. Inside my chest, the muscle there beats abnormally, skipping over beats and losing rhythm. It aches with everything I’ve been hiding. It’s time to fuckin’ spill. If we’re going to get through this, nail down what’s been happening around here … I need to come clean. I snort inwardly. Fuck, that’s an awful, unintended pun.

“Where do we start?” Folding her hands together in her lap, Lennon looks at us expectantly.

I wish I fuckin’ knew where to begin, but I’m so deep in the mire, I’m adrift and going in circles in my mind. My eyes bleary, I rub a hand over the scruff on my cheek, at a complete loss for how to do this.

Mason sits with his elbows resting on his thighs, his hands clasped between them. He juts his chin in my direction, dark eyes boring into me. “I think we definitely need to back this entire fucking truck up and start at the beginning. From the lack of denial when Lennon brought up the prescription meds, I can only assume that your fuckhead father is the one who’s been supplying you with—what was it?” His gaze remains on me, piercing and bold.

I’m sweating fucking bullets but swallow a bite of ice cream before answering. “Oxy.”

Lennon confirms that for us with a nod. “That’s what’s in the package.”

“How long?” Duke isn’t one to mince words, especially with stuff like this.

“I was on it for months after I had surgery the first time. And only a small fraction of that was prescribed by the surgeon. You know how they are—they give you just enough but no more.” I huff out a disturbed laugh. “You know. Because they don’t want you to get addicted to it. And in my case, it wasn’t quite enough. I was still in some serious post-surgical pain. Didn’t have any idea how to manage it. I was scared my shoulder was never going to be right again.”

Lennon lets out a steady breath, then presses her lips together. “All your dreams for your future, crushed. That’s how it started, then?”

I nod. “Yeah. Dad got it for me—I never asked how—and of course, rubbed it in real good that he was doing me a favor and expected payment. If I had known the road I was about to go down, I really would have tried harder to do without. Because fuck if I haven’t paid big time in the end.” I bow my head and stare at the floor, my chest heaving as it constricts around my lungs.

“Bear. Fuckin’ breathe. We’re with you. You aren’t alone anymore.” Mason growls, “Fuck, man. I’m pissed you didn’t say anything.” Then under his breath, he bites out, “But leave it to Derek to medicate his own son, then use it against him.”

I take another bite of the ice cream, though my appetite is pretty much shot. Handing the bowl over to Lennon, she doesn’t comment, merely sets it down beside her and returns her attention to me. “I’d like to hear more.”

I meet her big blue eyes and nod. “I was so fucking”—I work my jaw to the side, my face infusing with color—“addicted. I was hooked. And I am utterly ashamed of the lengths I was willing to go to in order to get more of it—stronger, longer lasting, just more.”

In my peripheral vision, Duke shakes his head, and it makes me feel sick to my stomach, wondering what he’s thinking, hoping this doesn’t royally fuck up our friendship. Finally, he sighs and turns his head, his gaze connecting with mine. “I really wish you would have said something. I didn’t have a fucking clue any of this was going on. Makes me feel like a shit friend.”

I throw up one hand, and immediately clench my teeth at the pull in the opposite shoulder. “Don’t think like that. Please. You were both having issues of your own. I didn’t want to add to everyone else’s problems by being the friend who couldn’t get his shit under control. It was right around the time your parents were at each other’s throats over that lake house they hadn’t managed to sell after the divorce. Remember? And Mason, there was something going on with your dad at the prison. Don’t remember exactly what.”

Mason scoffs, “Could’ve been anything, knowing him. Running his very own empire from inside the slammer.”

“Anyway, I just. I dunno. I was dealing with it on my own and didn’t want to drag either of you into it.” My hands shake, and I cover my face with them.

Lennon must have scooted forward from her perch on the coffee table because her hands are on my thighs, warm and sure. “Bear, this wasn’t your fault. This is all on your dad. You know that, right? Somewhere out there, a medical professional with no conscience was willing to do your dad a filthy favor. Makes me wonder what kind of stuff he’s involved with that he has these kinds of connections.”

I press my lips together, my head spinning with everything I haven’t even gotten a chance to say yet. Because I’ll be damned if I don’t get all of this out in the open now. I pull my hands away from my face and lock eyes on her. “Yeah, but I was the one who let my own personal situation get bad. It got to the point where every moment of every day was spent counting down the hours until I could dose myself, waiting anxiously until I could get my hands on more oxy, obsessing over how many pills I had left at any given moment, and how I could possibly ask my dad to get more.” I shake my head. “It was a damn double-edged sword. I knew what it was doing to me but wasn’t able to live without it.” I hang my head, humiliation moving swiftly through me. “Nothing shows you exactly where you draw your line in the ethical and moral sand like being in the grips of an active narcotic addiction. When it got to the point where I considered slamming my hand in a car door to get a new prescription, I knew it needed to stop.” I exhale, looking at the floor between my feet, and wait for them to express their disgust with my behavior. At least they’ll see me for who I really am now.

“Gideon. I know what you’re probably thinking—”

I interrupt Lennon, my voice low and raw and hitching on each word. “I’m weak. A disappointment. Not worthy.”

“No,” Lennon whispers. “I’m so motherfucking proud that you were able to handle it on your own that first time. Kicking an addiction is so damn hard.”

Duke clears his throat. “You’ve had a setback. But this time, you won’t be going through it alone.”

“No fucking way we’ll let you down, Bear. You’re always there for the rest of us. Let us fucking help you however we can.”

“How did you break free of that cycle the first time?” Lennon squeezes my thighs, encouraging me to continue.

Thinking back to those days, I shudder. I didn’t let myself depend on anyone. “It was a nightmare. Withdrawal and trying to hide the aches and pains, muscle spasms and tension, stomach issues, insomnia. I just generally felt like shit. And I fuckin’ hid it all.” I bring my hand up over my heart. “The pounding, racing heart was the worst. Like it was going to explode.” I give them a weak smile. “Kinda like this morning.”

“But you got off it then.” Mason cocks his head to the side. “Because you’ve been fine the last few years, right?”

“Yeah. But it took me a long fucking time.” My stomach pitches at the memory of what a shitty process that’d been.

Lennon murmurs, “Doesn’t matter. You did it. But that wasn’t the end of the trouble. I see that now.”

I nod. “Right after I got clean, my dad opened up the warehouse for illegal fights. The latest in his dirty business ventures.” Meeting Duke’s gaze and then Mason’s, I grit my teeth. “I’m sure you remember how exciting it was at first. The screaming of the crowd, the thrill of a victory …” I let my gaze swing to Lennon. “But it wasn’t long before I became worried about my coach catching wind of what I was participating in.”

Mason’s eyes close, and he exhales harshly. “And we knew you were nervous about it.” His eyes flick to Duke’s briefly before coming back to mine. “But we didn’t want to be the asshole friends who told you what to do.”

I let out a beleaguered sigh. “Yeah. For the record, I wish I’d stood up to him before this. Thank you for having my back through all of it. We all knew it was only a matter of time before my involvement blew up in my face.” He slowly shakes his head. “We’ve finally arrived at the point where the bombs are primed to go off. My loss tonight is just the beginning.”

Lennon gets a funny look on her face. “Your dad—do you think he’d make good on those threats? To tell the team doctor or—”

Without a doubt in my mind, the answer is yes. “Tonight’s threats were just a reminder of how he can still control me. It’s how he’s kept me fighting for him. The very first time I questioned whether I should be in the ring, he threatened to let my drug test come back dirty with a controlled substance that I obviously hadn’t been prescribed by the team doctor. And that was after I was fucking clean. He didn’t care. And if you take nothing else away from this—he’s a powerful man. I knew he’d find a way to do it.”

Lennon lets out a slow hiss of air from between pursed lips. “And you were off any controlled substances until you tweaked your shoulder again.”

I nod. “Yes. So now, it’s more of the same, only he knows I’m on the oxy because I fucking asked him for more like an idiot. With me actually using the drug, the threat is even more real. I took it at the risk of losing everything. It’s fuckin’ terrifying. Worst decision I’ve made. I was only thinking of myself. Not my team.”

“What do you mean?” Lennon peers up at me, genuinely perplexed.

Duke lets out a frustrated groan. “Right. Because if you get caught, the entire team gets called into question.” He throws up his hands. “Who else has drugs in their system? Are they performance enhancing? Is the team doctor supplying them? Is the coach aware one or more of his players is taking a controlled substance?”

My jaw locks and my gaze bounces from Duke to Lennon and Mason, watching as the understanding dawns on their faces. I can’t believe I let this happen again. It’s a fucking shit thing to have done. “Not only that, but every single game, every win, every championship … it all comes under scrutiny. It’s questioned. And then, the greatness of our team, all the accolades we’ve earned … it could all be swept away with the surfacing of one single tainted blood or urine test. So, not only do I lose everything—my future, all my plans—but it’s possible the rest of my teammates lose out, too. All because I’ve been a fucking idiot. I made a mistake. A big one. I should have just told Doc Middendorf and Coach Cambridge I was injured. Never should have gone back to the oxy. Never should have told my dad I needed more and gotten wedged farther under his manipulative fucking thumb.” I collapse backward into the couch cushion, overwhelming frustration seeping from every pore of my body.

Lennon looks up with a furrowed brow from where she’s settled on her knees in front of me. “I don’t get it, though … Why did he withhold the oxy for this fight when it was so damn important to him? Seems counterproductive in the worst, most destructive way. He let you lose.”

I grimace. I hadn’t wanted to bring this up, especially not in front of Mason. My eyes flick to his, an apology there before I begin. I sigh, knowing I can’t keep withholding information. “So … the night of the auction—after we couldn’t find you, Lennon, and before the two of you joined me and Hunter at the front of the house—he made it very clear that we had fucked up whatever fucking plan the OGs had in mind. And that fucker told me he had a package from my dad, but he’d been instructed to keep it from me.”

Mason’s eyes crash shut. “My brother is a fucking arrogant asswipe, incapable of doing anything but dancing for them like a puppet. Sorry, man.”

My lips twist. “You aren’t to blame. I’m not one hundred percent sure Hunter even knew what it was or why I needed it. Fucking jerk thinks he’s the man, but all he’s doing is their dirty work. They definitely don’t completely trust him, though. The way he flipped out on us about supposedly messing up?”

Lennon’s brow draws together. “What do you mean?”

Duke’s tugs on his neck. “Oh, he freaked out pretty good. Honestly, I think he fucked up somehow. I’d bet he was supposed to win Elliot. Why, I don’t know, but I think that was the true fuck up. But where the hell did he go?”

Rubbing a hand over his exhausted face, Mason groans, “I kinda wonder if you weren’t taken because they fucked up getting Elliot.”

I grumble. “I feel like we’re going in circles with that. The OG Bastards said Elliot was important to their plan. But then we fucked it up. Lennon got taken. Drugged. And now, my fucking father …”

“You think the OGs were involved in drugging me?” Lennon’s teeth clamp down on her lip, her eyes going a bit wild at the idea.

“It’s a thought.” I clench my teeth together, looking down at the fear I’ve just put into her head.

Duke snaps his fingers. “That’s it. That’s what’s been bugging me. Derek said Elliot lucked out. That they’ve found something else.”

Lennon frowns, pulling her hands into her chest. “Did he mean me?”

“It didn’t seem like it.” Mason’s face contorts. “He was actually looking at me when he said it. Or am I crazy?”

The silence in the room is deafening.

“The fuck. I don’t know.” The others shake their heads.

Mason’s face has gone pale. “If Elliot had something to do with my dad and how to get him out of prison, but she’s no longer of use to them … who is?” He wipes sweaty palms on his pajama pants.

I’d voice my concern about discussing all this in a house that may or may not be bugged, but after the shit we said this morning, I’d have thought that would have brought them running. Or that my dad would have said something about it. I glance around the circle of my friends and realize I’ve missed a piece of the conversation.

“Unless they’re too busy doing other shit—like fucking you over, Bear.” Lennon taps her fingers against her lips. “So, can we go back to that for a sec?”

I inhale and puff out my cheeks before letting the air go in a rush. “Yeah. This is all such a clusterfuck. And I’m beginning to think it’s all connected. What are you thinking?”

She nervously swallows. “So … I could easily believe Derek did what he did to you tonight out of spite. To teach you a lesson. Or because he’s an abusive asshole. Take your pick.” She stops to wet her lips. “But what if it’s something more?”

Duke’s brow tugs together. “I’m not following but it’s also three in the morning now.”

Lennon takes my hand in hers. “What did I say we should be looking at?”

A moment passes by before Mason murmurs, “The money. Follow the dirty money.” His head tips to the side as his eyes widen. “You don’t think …?”

“Oh boy.” Duke’s jaw goes rigid.

Lennon gives a sharp nod. “Yes, I motherfucking do.”

My eyes dart to each of theirs in turn as the truth settles into my gut. Motherfucker. That’s why my old man wasn’t losing his ever-loving shit in the office. Sparkle Pants Morgan getting ready to do the nasty with him hadn’t been an act of consolation. It’d been a fucking celebration. He never intended for me to win that fight. He wanted me to lose … because he bet against me.


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