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I breathed in, looking over Lexi’s shoulder at the people milling about the kitchen and nodded my head. Lexi wrapped her arm around my shoulders, and guided me forward.

The second we entered the kitchen, I felt all eyes on me. Nothing happened, until Lexi introduced me. “This is Elsie, y’all. Levi’s girlfriend.” My nervousness was squashed the moment Lexi announced me as Levi’s girlfriend. We hadn’t said those words—boyfriend and girlfriend—to one another. Hadn’t had that conversation yet. We had just been… us. We kissed, we talked, we understood each other, never pushing the other too far. But beyond that, I didn’t know. I didn’t know what I was meant to do when I got better. I didn’t know what would become of my life, what would become of us. What would become of me.

I didn’t know how long I could stay.

“Elsie!” a thick Alabama accent took me from my worry, and I looked to my right to see a beautiful dark haired, dark eyed woman charging toward me. I stared, actually stared, at how beautiful she was, before I was swept up in her arms and squeezed hard. She quickly let me go, and I was met with her infectious bright smile.

“I’m Ally, darlin’, Levi’s future sister-in-law.”

I nodded my head and smiled, seeing a heavily tattooed man following behind, flicking his chin and holding up his hand. A sense of unease washed through me, but immediately departed when he wrapped his arm around Ally’s waist. Ally gripped the man’s hand, now positioned over her stomach, and said, “This is Axel, Levi and Austin’s older brother and my fiancé,” she proudly announced.

“Hey,” Axel said, when his face immediately brought a flash of memory to mind. He was the man in the sculpture—making Levi shoot a gun. He was the man hovering behind him like the devil.

I swallowed and averted my eyes, only to see a pretty brunette with dark curly hair and glasses, and a handsome man with longish blond hair, holding a baby in his arms. “Hey, I’m Molly,” the pretty brunette said in what I thought sounded like a British accent. She pointed at the man behind her. “This is my husband, Rome.”

I rocked on my feet as they all watched me, when Austin walked in holding baby Dante in his arms. “Hey Elsie,” he said casually, and reached for his car keys.

Pushing myself to reply, I quietly said, “Hi.”

Austin froze, his dark eyes landing on me. In fact, they all looked directly at me. Fear of their rejection left me paralyzed, until Austin shook the keys and said, “We have to go or we’ll be late.”

Within seconds, everyone was moving out. Nothing had been said about my voice, they were all probably getting over their initial shock.

Ally’s arm linked through mine and she led me forward. I caught Lexi’s eye as I passed and she smiled at me, proudly. I found myself awash with warmth by this family’s acceptance of me. Bowled over. I felt the ever-tight clogging of my throat loosen, believing I had no reason to be afraid.

Ally led me out to a waiting car. I listened to her talk. Listened to her lyrical southern voice. On occasion I even answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ reply.

It was four times.

I managed to reply four times.

* * * * *

I felt as if we were shaking as we sat in the box at the Husky Stadium, tens of thousands of football fans stamping their feet, roaring with excitement, waiting for the team to run out. The sound was deafening to me, too loud, my heart frantic in its rhythm. I’d never heard anything like it. I’d never seen so many people congregated in one place.

I gripped the arm of my seat, when another loud roar from the crowd caused me to flinch. I lifted my hand to my right ear, protecting it from the sound. Suddenly, everyone in our box got to their feet, blocking my view of the field. I stayed down, covering my ear, until I felt someone’s eyes on me.

When I glanced to the side, Axel was watching me. His dark eyebrows were pulled down, then he suddenly walked to the door that led to a balcony outside. It had been open. Axel closed it, reducing the sound to a point where I could bear it. Axel walked back to his seat without a word. I saw the understanding dawn on everyone’s faces when I joined them on my feet, just in time to see Levi run onto the field.

The large screen at the end zone showcased his beautiful face. My stomach twisted at seeing him on the field. I felt a blush coat my cheeks as I saw him look up to the box in which we were sitting. Watched, as he lifted his hand to indicate ‘hello’.

As I fought back my smile at the rush of blood to my head, I found Axel and said, “Thank you.”

Axel’s stern expression never moved, but he swapped seats with his fiancée beside him and said, “He’s been telling me all fucking week how you were gonna be at this game watching him play. It was only right that y’all could watch it.”

The music outside abruptly died down, and I caught the faint blowing of a whistle. My eyes were drawn to the field and I saw the two teams rush forward. Almost immediately, I sought out Levi’s jersey, ‘Number 84’. My pulse raced as Levi received the ball, and I found myself reaching out, grabbing tight hold of Lexi’s arm.

“Get used to it, sweetie,” I caught Lexi say. “Our boy’s heading straight to the NFL.” She pointed to the packed stadium. “This is just the beginning.”

Two feelings collided within me as Lexi spoke these words. One was an immense sense of the pride that Levi could achieve such glory in the sport he loved. But the other came from the dread that I would feel at the limelight he would be in. I didn’t know what would become of Levi and I. But I knew I couldn’t have this, and more, as my life. I wouldn’t be able to cope. I just…

“Go on, baby bro!” I heard Austin shout and my eyes snapped back to the field. Levi was sprinting down the length of the field holding the ball, his incredible speed too much for the others chasing behind. Axel leaned forward as his younger brother ran into the end zone, spiking the ball on the ground. The crowd, and his family, went wild. I covered my ear, the incredible sound too piercing. Despite the too-loud sound, I moved to the floor-length glass and pressed my free hand on the windowpane.

I watched, in awe, as this shy boy who was stealing my heart, kept his head down as his teammates jumped on him in congratulation. I watched as he kept his head down as the crowd cheered his name. Then I watched, heart melting, as he removed his helmet. His eyes met mine from way down on the field and he pressed his hand over his heart, lowering his head. I struggled to breathe as I shakily lifted my hand and mimicked the motion; my action of thanks and his acknowledgment that I was here in the crowd. He had set me apart from the tens of thousands of adoring fans.

“Aww,” I heard someone say, and glanced to the side to see Molly with her eyes on me. I blushed and bowed my head.

“Somehow I think he might get MVP today,” Austin said, and winked at me when I looked to his smiling face. I blushed again, just as the whistle sounded.

Three hours passed, and by the end, the Huskies had won. And, as predicted by Austin, Levi was awarded MVP. If I thought the stadium had been loud before, the sound of the crowd when the final whistle blew was ear-shatteringly thunderous. Within minutes, the crowd began to disperse. Servers brought food and drink into the private box, and everyone sat round and waited.

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