I HADN’T IMAGINED HAVING this conversation out in the cold, but Bex bundles herself in her coat and leads the way out back, and I don’t argue. At least she hasn’t kicked me to the curb. I was afraid that would happen, since I got in touch with her even though she’s the one who said she wanted space.
She crosses her arms over her chest, shivering slightly. I take my cap and stick it on her head. It’s flurrying lightly, adding to the snow that’s been on the ground since last month.
“James,” she says. “Your ears look frozen.”
“I’ll live.” I pat my chest before sticking my hands into my jacket pockets. The photograph is still tucked against my chest. Good. “How have you been?”
“Shitty,” she admits.
She gives me a half-smile. “I won that photography contest, though. My work is going to be in a gallery in the West Village.”
My mouth drops open. “That’s incredible!”
She bites her lip, probably to keep her smile from getting any bigger. “Yeah. It’s really awesome. I just found out before you got here, actually.”
I desperately want to pull her into a hug and kiss her silly, but I hold back. As much as I’d rather avoid it, we do need to talk. I can’t make her change her mind about thinking she’s not right for me, but I want to do my best to try and nudge her in the right direction.
“I’m so happy for you.” I can’t help reaching out to clap my hand over the cap on her head, relieved when that makes her laugh a little.
“I forgot how short you are.”
“Fun-size,” she says.
I try to swallow. “Yeah. That’s you, baby.”
The amusement bleeds away from her expression. “I’m going to report Darryl.”
She takes in a deep breath, hugging her arms around herself. “Did you hear anything yet? Are you getting suspended?”
“I don’t know. Coach vouched for me. Told them I didn’t start the fight.”
It’s her turn to say, “Good.”
We stand there for a moment, looking at each other. It’s never been awkward between us; even when we didn’t know each other very well, the conversation flowed, so I’m taken aback by the tension in the air.
“I love you,” I can’t help but say.
“I love you too,” she whispers.
“I’m so sorry my dad made you feel like you couldn’t tell me what happened.” I take in a deep breath. Since the talk with my mom, I’ve been a little calmer about the whole thing, but I haven’t tried talking to my dad again yet, and I’m not sure when that will happen. Getting Bex back comes first. “I want you to know that I’m always going to choose you.”
Her expression shutters. “James.”
“I know it’s going to be hard,” I continue. “I know I need to prioritize things better. I know that when I’m on the field, I need to focus on it completely—but when I’m off the field? When I’m with you? I’m choosing you, no matter what.”
She looks up at me, her cheeks ruddy, eyes shining with unshed tears.
“I love you, Bex. I love the way you scrunch up your nose when you’re concentrating. I love your laughter. Your talent with a camera. I love your passion and your loyalty and how fucking smart you are. You’re everything to me. If you asked me to stop playing football, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
She sniffles, shaking her head. “Don’t do that.”
“Good. Because I thought about becoming a math teacher, and I don’t know if I’m capable of that.”
She laughs wetly. “Probably not, babe.”
“If you need to stay here for the diner and we have to be long-distance, I’ll hustle every single day to make it work. I promise. It doesn’t scare me anymore, because I know that everything will be worthwhile if I get to call you mine.”
She looks away, rocking in place as she shivers. Quiet so long I start to get a little worried. “What if I’m not… enough?”
She meets my eyes. Her lip is wobbling. “What if it’s two years in and I’m here and you’re wherever and you realize it’s not worth it? That I’m not worth it?”
I take a step forward, pulling her into my arms. I don’t care that I’m supposed to be giving her space to think, she’s cold and upset and I can’t stand that. “You really think that?” I say. “You’re my princess, you’re worth the whole world.”
She presses her lips together. “I’m nobody special.”
“And I’m just some guy who’s good at throwing a ball.” I laugh softly, the sound caught in the cold wind. “Maybe neither of us are special, but that’s not the point. The point is you’re the best person I’ve ever met, and I wish more than anything that that’s how you saw yourself too.”
I reach into my jacket, pulling out the photograph. “I took this a couple of weeks ago. I know it’s shit, but I love how happy you look.”
She takes the photograph, looking down at it. It’s a simple picture I took with my phone, and I liked it so much I printed it out. Put it in my wallet. It’s of Bex taking a photograph in Red’s. She’s wearing a fuzzy pink sweater and those pie-slice earrings, her eyes lit up adorably as she fiddles with the camera.
“I remember this,” she says softly.
“That’s how I see you. When I close my eyes before I go to sleep, when I daydream—I imagine you just like that, making beautiful art. Being you.” I reach out, tweaking her earring; she’s wearing the hoops I got her for Christmas. “You’re worth everything, and you can do whatever you want to do, but don’t sell yourself short, either. This is what you deserve to be doing.”
She leans up and kisses me.
I accept the kiss gladly; some of the tension literally leeches away from my body at the feeling of her lips on mine, her hands clutching the front of my jacket. This is what I needed to feel right again, my girl in my arms.
When she breaks away, she cups my jaw with her cold hand. I just crowd closer. “I need to think,” she says. “Not about us, but about me. About the diner. I made my mom a promise that I would take care of it, and I can’t just… does that make sense?”
I nod. “I’ll be ready when you are.”
She presses her forehead to mine. “Thank you.”
I kiss her again, hungry for more of her kisses after nearly two weeks of missing them. “Whatever you need to do, we can handle it. Together.”
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