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The Wall of Winnipeg and Me: Epilogue

“IT’S OVER. THE SAN DIEGO GUARDS HAVE MADE THE COMEBACK OF A LIFETIME. THEY’RE GOING TO THE SUPER—”

I smiled, and bounced the two butts on each of my thighs as the television anchors went over the game that had finished an hour ago. Most of the game hadn’t gone the way anyone in the box wanted it to. Hell, I thought at least 70 percent of the audience hadn’t wanted things to go the way they had.

Because the Guards had been losing by fifteen up until the last quarter. The disappointment in the team’s family box had been tangible. Heavy and sedated, I thought we were all some degree of numb up through the beginning of the fourth quarter.

We all wanted them to win, but for me, I probably wanted it at a little more than everyone else in the room besides the worried mothers.

This was Aiden’s last season, and I’d known how badly he wanted to win. How much he wanted to go to the biggest game of them all. For once.

He was arguably the best defensive end in the league and had been his entire career. He’d won player of the year three more times since we’d gotten married, been to every All Star Bowl, and won achievements on television award shows… But he still hadn’t gotten a ring. The Ring. He had made it to the playoffs but the teams he was on had never made it to the championship before the big game until now.

And in this last season, the team had been doing so well, everyone had assumed this would finally be it. Then, it had all started to go terribly wrong, and the dream began to slip away. One of the linebackers had dislocated his shoulder. A cornerback had limped off the field after a play. The team’s defense had been in shambles. But in some sort of miracle, the Guards’ offense staged the comeback of the century, the defense got it together, and they won.

Seeing it with my own eyes didn’t help make it more believable.

They had won. They’d fucking won. I felt like I’d won. As if I’d be the one going to the big game in two weeks.

“You want me to take one of them?” one of the wide receiver’s girlfriends asked from her spot in the seat next to me as we hung out in the room that had been assigned for team members’ families.

I gave her an appreciative smile and shook my head. “I got it, thanks. I’m sure they’ll be out in a minute.”

The younger woman nodded, wringing her hands as she smiled wide. “Yeah. I can’t wait.” She bit her lip and looked around, her knees bobbing under the table. The energy coming off of her was infectious.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Yeah, yeah.” She smiled. An early-twenties brunette, I knew she hadn’t been with her boyfriend for long. Last season, there had been a different woman who showed up to the family room for number eighty. “I want to scream. I can’t believe they did it.” Her voice had started to rise in volume before her eyes strayed to the two little monsters on my knees. “Matt said Aiden was planning on retiring after this season.”

There it went.

“Yep.” It was a bittersweet thing. For one, I was relieved. I’d read too many articles about the long-term effects football had on players’ brains and bodies over the last few years, and I knew Aiden had been more than relatively lucky in his career. He’d never really had any injuries that weren’t minor since that incident with his Achilles tendon so many years ago, and that was better than most other people had it. On the other hand, no one knew how much he loved playing better than I did. Football had been everything he worked hard for, and he was hanging up his cleats and jersey, and retiring at thirty-five years old.

A huge chapter of his life was closing, and I was just slightly worried about how the transition would go in the months to come. Over the years, we’d found a balance in our relationship that worked, that thrived more and more every day despite his schedule and my workaholic tendencies, but… well, he was quitting football. His great love.

“Oh! Look! They’re coming,” the girl said, already pushing back and getting to her feet.

All of the guys who began trickling inside the family room had ecstatic expressions on their faces.

On the other side of the room, I spotted Trevor standing there with arms across his chest, talking on his phone. He must have sensed me glaring at him because his eyes moved across the crowd of people to land on me. I gave him the middle finger behind Sammy’s back and he simply stared, shaking his head in disbelief but not doing anything else.

Asshole.

Just because he was a ruthless bastard who made sure Aiden got what he wanted, didn’t mean I had to like him. At this point, after so many years, I think my hatred for him was more for fun than anything, but he was still a shark without a heart.

A shark who had gotten Zac a really good deal with a new expansion team in Oklahoma a year after he’d gotten cut from the Three Hundreds. They hadn’t gone very far this year, but Zac was playing better than ever, a starter for the third year in his career. He was actually my quarterback on fantasy football and had been since he’d been signed on. He was still single, still dumb. Still one of my closest friends, and already referring to himself as Uncle Zac any and every time he came by to the see the boys.

Some days I couldn’t wrap my head around how much I loved the two greatest things I would ever have a part in creating. There wasn’t a single thing I wouldn’t do for them, and that knowledge was only slightly painful once in a blue moon when it made me think about my own mom and her failings. Nothing between us had really improved, and I was well aware that was my fault. There was too much I was unwilling to let go of, but at least at this point in my life, I couldn’t regret the decisions I’d made. I was happy, happier than happy, and I wouldn’t feel bad about it.

I sat on the chair and waited, watching as the players filtered in and headed straight for their families. People cheered and hugged, overjoyed. It didn’t take long for Aiden to lurch his way over, his face with that same blank, careful expression on it as he looked around the room. The big guy was finally going to the big game and he wasn’t even smiling. Why did that not surprise me?

Then he spotted us in the back corner.

Sammy saw him at the same time. His hands thrust forward. “Mommy! Look! Daddy!”

And the smile that came over the love of my life’s face made me grin like an idiot. The honesty, openness and genuine joy in Aiden’s expression still reached this part of me that hadn’t existed before him.

It was my smile. Our smile. The one he saved up for moments when it was only our little team together. And it didn’t hold a trace of anything football related in it, as he gazed from me to the two small ones at my sides, wearing matching jerseys in sizes much larger than someone their ages should wear. Little chubby asses. I’d honestly been relieved to have to go through C-sections to give birth to them. Those big heads just like their dad’s would have done some serious, serious damage.

I could remember Diana holding Sammy after he’d been born, shaking her head. “This head would have ripped your ass wide open, Vanny.”

When I’d started having contractions while pregnant with Gray, a little over a year later, that had been the mental picture I’d gone into the hospital with. It was just what I didn’t need to worry about. Fortunately, everything had worked out fine.

The big guy looking at us as he crossed the room in the wake of a tremendous win confirmed that. Aiden didn’t hesitate to drop to his knees in front of us, his gaze going from Sammy to me and then to Gray. He always did that, like he couldn’t choose what to focus on. Some days he looked at me longer, some days it was Sammy, other days it was the tiny guy. Every day was Leo, the last member of our group who was waiting patiently at home.

This would have been year five in our agreement, but Aiden had gotten his conditional green card, and then his residency years ago and had passed his citizenship exam already. We’d nailed the two interviews we had to sit through with an agent questioning us to make sure we were a legitimate couple, and I liked to think we passed with flying colors. I remembered complaining over how I couldn’t deport him if he got on my nerves anymore.

Aiden didn’t say anything as he wrapped those massive arms around all three of us, ducking his head to kiss one dark head of hair after another. Then he smiled at me and leaned forward to kiss me. To really kiss me, like we weren’t surrounded by people cheering and yelling over the second biggest possible win in the NFO.

I knew right then. I knew that he was fine, that everything was going to be more than okay regardless of whether he won the big championship or not. We would figure the future out. This guy who gave everything—his career, me, and now the boys—his all, didn’t half-ass anything. He never would; it just wasn’t in him.

“Are you happy?” I asked.

With his arms still around the three of us, he looked up at me through those incredibly long lashes, and nodded almost distractedly. “Yes.” Those massive hands went to the small spines of his mini-me’s before detouring to gently touch the pudgy cheeks, his smile growing even wider as his gaze landed on mine once more. “But I can’t remember anymore what it’s like to not be happy.”

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