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“You okay?” I asked when he took me in his arms.

“Yeah.” He sighed. “Just sucks.”

“You played well though.”

Levi gave me a private humored smile. “Still lost, bella mia. We still lost.”

Lifting up, I kissed his lips. When I pulled back, I said, “Did that make it any better?”

Levi laughed and nodded his head. “Always.”

Levi greeted his family, then we all made our way to a restaurant. We ate and laughed, and as the night drew on, Levi let go of his disappointment, where my nerves only built up.

When we left the restaurant, we walked down the street, and Lexi suddenly said, “Anyone want coffee?”

Levi stopped and squeezed my hand. “Sure?” he replied, then looked around. We were standing in front of the coffee house where he’d brought me to listen to Sarah Carol, a poetry house that we came to often to listen to the open mic, or special guests if we could.

“Is this place good?” Lexi asked and walked toward the door with Austin.

“Yeah,” Levi replied, “me and Elsie come here a lot.”

“Great!” Lexi said and walked inside. The minute we entered, Lexi beelined for a small cluster of sofas and we all sat down.

“Poetry?” Rome Prince asked as he looked around the room. His eyebrows were raised as if questioning why the hell we were here.

“Broaden your horizons, babe,” Molly said to her husband and rolled her eyes.

“Put it this way, cuz,” Ally sat forward, “ain’t no one in here gonna recognize you and Aust and accost you for autographs. I’m thinking in this place, to these people, football players are akin to the anti-Christ!”

Axel laughed and pulled his fiancée back, just as a server came to give us drinks and the emcee announced that the floor was open for readings.

I watched speaker by speaker, and I felt completely overcome with nerves. Levi’s arm was tight around my shoulders, when he asked, “You okay, bella mia? You seem tense.”

I nodded my head and smiled. “I’m good, just tired.”

Levi eyed me strangely, but I sipped at my coffee, hearing an opening on the stage. My heart beat in my chest, and my hands shook with nerves, but I abruptly forced myself to my feet. Our family and friends all paused in their conversations to look up at me, but I sought out Lexi, who nodded her head and encouraged me with a smile.

“Elsie?” Levi questioned and sat forward. Leaning down, I pressed a kiss to his forehead, his face confused, then turned to the stage. The lone microphone stood underneath the glare of the bright spotlight, but I moved forward, forcing myself to do this.

It was something I had to do.

I stepped onto the stage, and from my jean’s pocket, pulled out a piece of paper. My words were written in my usual black handwriting, and I held on to that paper tight, just to do something with my hands.

I took in a deep breath, and when I did, I looked up. I looked up and immediately sought out Levi who was sitting on the edge of his seat. His gray eyes were huge and his expression was shocked as he watched me on this stage.

The room was silent, waiting for me to talk.

I scanned my eyes around the room, seeing all the attention was on me. The crippling fear took hold. My breathing came harder, the sound echoing through the room.

I closed my eyes. I closed my eyes and remembered why I was up here. I wanted to face my demons. I wanted to stop hiding my voice. I needed to show the world that no matter how far I’d been brought down, I wouldn’t be kept down.

I would rise.

And I’d be heard, on my own terms.

Forcing my eyes to open, I focused on the tiled floor and read the title aloud. “Sweet Soul,” I said, internally wincing when the words echoed through the mic.

Inhaling again, I lifted my eyes, and this time, Levi was on his feet. I could see that he was terrified for me, but at the same time, I could see the utter pride glaring in his eyes. That pride caused me to lower the paper.

Because I knew this poem by heart. It was him.

All of this was him and me:

“Born into silence, a world with no sound,

Living in coldness, words trapped and bound.

Kept in dark pain, by fears and by rain,

The needles brought poison, venom to vein.

Snatched in the night, in darkness she fell,

Taunted and tortured, muteness her cell.

Voices inside, a loop in her mind,

Like daggers they pierce, no scars would they find.

Tempted by sharpness, immersed in the flood,

Two strikes to the flesh, the welcome of blood.

Brought back to fear, no heaven she met,

A shadow she fled, hard streets cold and wet.

Alone and afraid, long endless nights,

‘Til pure he came, no malice, just light.

Took into warmth, heart torn and too low,

A smile and a jar, Leander and his Hero.

He gave her the world, a life so unknown,

Heart finding beat, their fate it was sown.

Fear pushed aside, no victim, no choice,

He gave her the moon, her twin soul, her voice.

She gave him the shine, a stitched up heart hole,

The blessing to her, the purest sweet soul.

She, the silent girl, bereft and alone,

He, the silent boy, who through love, brought her home.”

As the poem came to an end, the mic echoed my last word. The house dropped to silence, but then broke into loud claps. My heart slammed in my chest, and I looked up to see Levi pushing through the crowd, tears flooding his face.

I stepped off the stage, my head low, when suddenly Levi was before me, his finger under my chin. I lifted my eyes on a deep breath, and was met with disbelieving eyes. The gray eyes I loved.

“Baby,” he rasped, unable to speak. I watched his mouth work, but he had no words. This time I would be his voice.

“I wanted to show you what you mean to me. And I wanted to do it proudly, not hiding my words.” I brought my hand to my chest. “It came from my heart. I wanted to speak from it too.”

“Elsie,” Levi croaked and pressed his mouth against mine. I could taste the salt from his tears on his lips. He broke away but his hands were in my hair, his warm breath drifted across my face. “I’m so proud of you, bella mia. So proud that I have no words… that poem… your beautiful voice… the bravery to get up on that stage.”

“Was because of you,” I whispered, the tears leaking from my eyes. “All of this. What I am now and who I’ll be one day… is because of you.”

“No,” Levi shook his head. “You don’t understand. You did that for me. I was Leander, Elsie. I was the drowning man. But where he lost Hero’s light in the storm, you let yours shine for me. You brought me from the dark. You brought me home safe.”

Sighing, I fell into Levi’s arms, knowing that I’d conquered my fears. I’d been given my voice back. I had a reason to live.

And live we both would.

One shy lost soul had found one silent lonely heart.

We were both no longer lonely.

We were both no longer lost.

We were found.

And we were blessed.

Epilogue

Levi

Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Eighteen years later…

“It’s just through here, come on.”

Jackson and Penelope came barreling through, Penelope pushing her twin brother, Jackson, out of the way.

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