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Taking their lead, I sat down at the table sipping a coffee. I looked to everyone in the room and felt a huge sense of loss cave in my chest. Levi, he was lost and lonely, like me. But as I watched these people—his family—who had all gathered for him today, to watch him achieve his dreams, I wondered if he realized how truly lucky he was? They loved him. Each and every one of these people adored him.

It only made me realize how truly alone I really was.

I took another sip of my coffee to push down the lump that was clawing up my throat, when someone filled the chair beside me. A hand immediately began tracing the top, a heavily tattooed hand that still wore the remains of what looked like white dust—Axel.

I shuffled on my seat, nervous at being so close to this hard and dangerous looking man. When his hand stopped, he said, “I don’t know what he’s told you about his life, but it’s been a fucking tough one.” I froze, my hands gripping the mug tightly. Axel softly cleared his throat. “I done wrong by him, Elsie. I fucking made that kid, and he was a kid, do things that were fucked up and wrong.” Even with my eighty percent hearing I could hear the tone change in Axel’s voice, as he admitted his wrongs against Levi. I thought of that sculpture of the boy being forced to shoot. I squeezed my eyes shut.

“The final nail came when our Mamma died and I got sent away.” For the first time, I glanced his way, the black tattooed cross on his left cheek catching my attention. “I did five years, Elsie, and let’s just say that Levi fucking suffered through them all. Fuck, the kid’s been suffering since he was seven years old.”

My chest ached on hearing the pain in Axel’s voice, in imaging Levi being lost all of those years. Placing the mug down, I linked my hands together. Axel leaned forward, running his hands through his long dark hair.

“That kid brother of mine has the fucking purest heart I’ve ever known. But he don’t speak much, he don’t do much of anything but keep to himself and his studies and football.”

I kept my eyes down, until he added, “But he’s fucking changed all that since he met you,” and my gaze crashed with his. “Don’t know you, Elsie, I hope that changes. I get that you ain’t had it good too, and fuck, I’m real sorry if your life has been anything like Lev’s. But I’m begging you one fucking thing.”

I waited, on tenterhooks, for what he would say, when he whispered, “Please don’t break his fucking heart. Seeing that kid so closed in, pained me every damn day. I won’t see him destroyed by the first person he’s ever let in.”

I thought I would cry at the plea in this intimidating man’s deep voice, but I pushed it aside to lean in and reply, “I could never hurt him. I…” I shook my head and lowered my eyes, “he means too much to me.”

“Good,” Axel rasped, then sat back in his seat.

Seeing everyone was still talking amongst themselves, I forced myself to say, “Your sculptures are beautiful. The angel,” I inhaled, thinking of how to put its beauty into words, when Axel’s attention darted to me.

He coughed, then asked, “Lev showed you it?”

I nodded my head, hoping I hadn’t said something I shouldn’t have. I knew I hadn’t when Axel’s eyes glossed over—it meant the world to him.

“He goes there a lot,” I explained, “to your warehouse. He’s… he’s afraid he’ll forget her if he doesn’t.”

“Fuck,” Axel swore. “I swear that kid’s gonna kill me.” I smiled, when suddenly, I heard Levi’s name being called from the back of the room.

Turning, I saw Levi walking in the door, Austin was the first to meet his little brother. “Lev, fucking game, fratello,” he said and wrapped Levi in his arms. Levi smiled, ducking his head, and I watched as, one by one, his family congratulated him on his win. Axel’s embrace held just a second longer than all the rest. I saw a flicker of confusion mar Levi’s face, questioning why, but it passed the moment he saw me at the back of the room.

Dropping his bag to the floor, Levi quickly made his way to me, a soft smile pulling on his lips the closer he got. My legs felt like Jell-O as he approached, but I stood my ground, the beautiful expression on his face making it impossible for me to do anything else.

Levi stopped before me, looking more than handsome in his team suit and tie. His fair hair was damp from his shower, and he had two scratches on his face from where he must have been hit during the game.

I rubbed my lips together, waiting for what he would do, when his warm palm cupped my cheek and he said softly, “Happy birthday, Elsie.”

I turned my cheek into his warm palm, and replied, “Thank you.”

“It’s her birthday?” I heard, whispered from behind.

“Lev said she didn’t want anyone to know,” someone whispered back, but I didn’t pay it any mind, I was transfixed on Levi whose lips were closing in on mine. As always, my heart beat like a drum, until his soft mouth was on mine and I thought it might explode.

I closed my eyes, breathless at his kiss, when he pulled back and smiled. “You ready to go out?” he asked, and I frowned in confusion. “For your birthday,” he added. I immediately felt dread at what we would be doing, with who and where. I didn’t think anything was planned.

Levi inched closer and assured, “Just you and me. Nowhere you’ll hate. Nowhere to make you nervous.” He shyly looked around the room, then back to me. “Trust me. I’ve got you.”

Relief extinguished my nerves, and I looked up at Levi’s worried face through my lashes. “You want to take me out, for my birthday?” I asked, making sure I had this right. He slowly nodded his head and I rocked on my feet. “No one has ever taken me out for my birthday.”

Levi swallowed. I could see sympathy in his face, but more than that, I could see that he wanted this. That he desperately wanted to do this for me.

“Yeah.”

“Okay,” I whispered, excitement building in my stomach.

“Yeah?” Levi questioned.

“Yeah.” I smiled.

Reaching down, Levi took my hand in his and we turned to his family. Levi’s hand tightened in mine when they were all watching us.

As if seeing our discomfort, Austin said, “Right, guys, think that’s our call to leave.”

We all piled out of the box, Levi keeping hold of my hand, only releasing me once to quickly speak to Austin. Each of Levi’s family hugged us goodbye and we headed for the Jeep.

We had just reached the door, when a voice shouted from behind. “Alabama! Wait up!”

“Shit,” Levi swore under his breath. I frowned, confused at what had him so annoyed. I followed Levi’s eyes to two boys around his age who were jogging toward us, a blond girl and a red-haired girl closely in tow.

Levi came close to me, throwing his arm around my shoulders pulling me close. I saw the surprise on the boys’ faces as he did.

“Alabama,” the blond one in the front said, then looked to me. “You’ve been keeping this quiet. What the hell? You got a girl and you didn’t say?”

Levi shrugged, then said, “Elsie, this is Jake. Ashton is the dark haired one behind.” Jake and Ashton threw their hands up in a wave. I gave them a small smile.

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