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The Crush by Karla Sorensen



The Crush by Karla Sorensen PDF

Author: Karla Sorensen

Publisher: Independently published

Genres:

Publish Date: July 15, 2022

ISBN-10: B0B6L59Z1Z

Pages: 300

File Type: Epub

Language: English

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Book Preface

Mid-January

Emmett

It was an unlikely combination of things that made me think about the night I told Adaline Wilder I didn’t have room in my life for a relationship—a lineman’s spinal cord and a house made of pink Legos.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t thought of her in the past five years. I did think of her. Often. But those thoughts were fleeting. They’d come and go without disrupting much about my life, simply because I knew—or thought—she was happy in another relationship. They weren’t the kind of thoughts that shifted priorities or spurred me into action.

And I did best when I was in a situation where I could take action. Make a plan. Execute. Every quarterback in the league felt that way. We didn’t do well being passive. Really didn’t do well when absolutely nothing was within our control.

Sitting in the hospital waiting room, still clad in the ripped-up T-shirt that went under my pads and my jersey, was about the worst kind of out-of-control feeling.

That was the first part of how this all started—with a misjudged tackle and a spinal contusion that left my teammate Malcolm Delgado unable to move his legs.

In our post-season-ending loss against Denver, one of our veteran defensive linemen attempted a tackle and crashed helmet-first into the thigh of the receiver carrying the ball. There weren’t many words to describe what it feels like to stand on the field where you’ve dedicated your life and see one of your friends unmoving against the bright green.

It was icy hands and a hollow pit in your stomach. It was pressure in your chest and roaring in your ears.

And it was the recurring thought none of us wanted to think too long on … what if that was me?

We were all shaken, standing around him on the field while the medical staff said things like, no feeling in his legshe can’t move his feetspine needs to be stabilized.

The guys on our team—in Ft. Lauderdale blue—knelt around the field with Denver players, hands over each other’s shoulders while they prayed for Malcolm. We lost by a touchdown, too far down at that point in the game to rally, even with the emotional surge we all felt when they carted him off the field strapped to a board. But it wasn’t even that moment that had me looking back at my choices. It was later, in the hospital waiting room, with Malcolm’s four-year-old daughter, kicking her feet as she sat in the chair next to me.

“I’m bored,” she said. On her feet were sparkly pink shoes covered in gold and purple flowers. She was wearing her dad’s jersey.

On the other side of Gabriela was an empty chair where her mom had sat just a few minutes earlier. I glanced down the hallway where Malcolm’s wife, Rebecca, paced with her phone glued to her ear and her eyes red and puffy.

Gabriela slumped down in her chair with a sigh, and I gave her a sad smile. There was a strange blessing in the fact that she didn’t understand the significance of why we were here.

“Maybe we could change the channel on that TV up there,” I said.

Gabriela’s eyes widened. “He has the clicker thing. Will you ask?”

I eyed the guy she was talking about. “You’re gonna make me do it, huh?”

She tucked her little hand under my arm and leaned closer. “He looks scary,” she whispered.

I laughed under my breath because he did. The giant pouf of his white hair stood straight up, and his gnarled hands gripped that TV remote like it was a gold brick. “Maybe he’s here waiting for someone he loves too.”

“Maybe.” Gabriela looked over at her mom. “Can I see Daddy soon?”

There it was again. That icy pit, the hollow ache.

Rebecca was off the phone, but she stood leaning against the wall, her eyes closed and her lips moving in a silent plea.

What if that was me?

It felt like someone shoved a wooly sock down my throat as I glanced back and forth between them. I remembered when Malcolm told us Rebecca was pregnant, just as we started our rookie season together. They’d been dating for almost a year when he was drafted to Ft. Lauderdale. I was their first-round pick, and he was the second. I bolstered the offense, and he was the stalwart in the defense. I attended their wedding a month later, where he told me I had no business being on the dance floor.

Attempting to swallow that wedge in my throat, I gave Gabriela a smile. “I don’t know, G. Wanna see what your mom put in that backpack?”

The distraction worked well enough. She dropped to the floor and tugged the zipper open on her purple backpack. Inside were some coloring books, a tablet, a doll with terrifyingly big eyes, and a container of Legos.

“I don’t want to play with any of this, E,” she grumbled. “There’s nothing fun.”

“Oh man, sure there is.” Tugging open the front of the bag, I pulled out the container of the Legos, peering at the contents carefully. “We can make something really cool.”

“We can?”

Skepticism was stamped all over her little face, and she reminded me so much of Malcolm that I grinned. “Oh, yeah. You think I’m good at throwing a football? I’m even better at building really cool houses with stuff like this.”

“Can you make a castle?” she asked.

I blew a raspberry. “I have a degree in architecture from Stanford. A castle is nothing.”

She giggled.

I stood, glancing around the waiting room. A family in the corner watched us, the little boy giving me a wide-eyed stare. He wore a Ft. Lauderdale shirt, so I walked over and knelt next to his chair. “Hey, bud, do you mind if I borrow this little table next to your chair?”

He nodded rapidly, eyes massive in his face. “You’re … you’re Emmett Ward, aren’t you?” he asked in a hushed, incredulous whisper.

“I am. What’s your name?”

He managed it, only stammering a few times.

I held out my hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Cory.”

“Will you sign my shirt?” he said in a nervous rush.

“Of course. I don’t have a marker on me, though,” I told him.

His mom held up a hand, digging into her massive purse until she pulled out a Sharpie. He leaned back so I could scrawl my name on the left side of his chest over the logo I’d worn for the past five years.

She gave me a thankful smile as I returned her Sharpie, then wrapped her arm around her son’s shoulder. “We saw the replay on ESPN. I hope your teammate will be okay.”

“Thank you. We do too.” I stood, picking up the small table. “I’ll bring it back when I’m done, I promise.”

After I set the table in front of Gabriela, she excitedly dumped out the varying shapes and sizes of Legos in pinks and purples and teals. One Batman figure was mixed in, and she picked it up, zooming him around in the air while I sifted through the offerings. I scratched my head. A castle might be tough, but I always loved a challenge.

I gave her a serious look. “You have an important job, okay?”

She nodded.

I held up one of the larger bricks. “You need to find me all the blocks in this size.”

Tongue tucked between her teeth, she dug into her task with gusto.

Rebecca smiled as she approached. “Thank you, Emmett. I don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t here.”

“Anything you need, you know that.” I held up my phone. “I skipped all the press, so I’m sure a few other guys will be here soon. What about your family?”

She ran a hand through her hair. “Malcom’s mom is getting on a flight now. It’ll be hours until she’s here.”

We left Gabriela by the chair and moved a few feet away. “They tell you anything?”

Rebecca nodded. “They’ll need to do spinal stabilization surgery in the next day or two. They couldn’t promise he’d ever walk again, though,” she said, voice wavering.

I settled a hand on her shoulder. “One day at a time, okay? Malcolm is so damn stubborn. If anyone can prove them wrong, it’s him.”

“I know.” The tears in her eyes spilled over. “Wheelchair or walking or limping, as long as he’s here. I know he won’t feel this way, but I don’t care if this ends his football career. I want him alive. Everything else is just details.”

A nurse approached, gently calling Rebecca’s name, so I took my seat next to Gabriela again.

She climbed on my lap while I showed her how I was going to build her a castle with a tower on each corner.

“Those are the battlements, and if we make a bigger wall encircling it, then this will be the outer bailey.”

“Pink battle… battlemans?” she asked. Her elbow jabbed me in the ribs as she scooted forward to watch what I was doing.

“If we have the right sizes, sure.”

As we formed our structure, and G carefully placed the bricks down along our foundation, I watched Rebecca speak in hushed tones to the nurse.

What if that was me?

But this time, instead of the hollow ache or icy hands, it was just a moment—quick and fierce—of realization.

There would be no one slumped against the hospital wall saying a prayer. I’d have no one pacing the hallway until their name was called.

Malcolm and I were the same age. Started the same season.

And he had a wife and a daughter waiting for him. Two people who were his whole world.

I tried to snap a pink brick into place on the back tower, and my hand trembled. The last time I built something like this to cheer someone up, it was in a dark kitchen in my parents’ beach house, the night before the draft.

I did it because it made her smile, and I liked it when she did that.

I hadn’t thought of her smile in so long. There was no point.

I’d chased something else through college and into the pros. But sitting in that hospital waiting room, I wasn’t exactly sure what I had to show for it.

I had records. Trophies. A name that stood separately from my father’s.

My family loved me, and they were proud of me.

But they were across the country.

Every night, I came home to a beautiful, empty house, and it didn’t bother me. But with G on my lap, and my friend’s spine injured to a point that he might never walk again, I wondered how I’d feel if I was in his place.

The seed of a thought started building at the back of my head, something growing in form and shape, that I couldn’t quite grasp onto. Brown eyes and a big smile, a laugh that always warmed my chest.

Someone who looked at me like I was important—not because of what I could do. Adaline Wilder looked at me that way because she liked me. Me. Not Emmett Ward, the football player. Not Emmett Ward—son of the legendary player and coach.

She liked me. More than liked me, at the time. And I hadn’t given us a chance to see what that could become. It would’ve been something, of that I’d always been sure. Because I liked her too. But sitting in the hospital waiting room, with that inkling of an idea tugging at the back of my mind, I started realizing the enormity of what that something could have become.

Back then, there were no way for me to see it. But I did now.

It would have been the start of a life. One step forward with her, all those years ago, and it would have snapped something foundational into place.

I’d never built her anything out of pink Legos, but suddenly, I wanted that more than anything in the entire world.

“What the absolute hell are you doing?” a voice asked from behind me.

“Parker!” Gabriela exclaimed. She scrambled out of my lap and jumped at my teammate for a big hug.

“How you doing, half pint?” he asked.

She giggled. “Emmett is building me a castle.”

“Emmett is a notorious show-off,” he said easily.

I rolled my eyes.

G laughed, then asked to be put down. She ran over by her mom, clinging to her leg. Parker took the seat next to me, his long legs sprawled out in front of him as he eyed the half-built castle. “It’s … nice.”

“It’s not done, asshole.” I gave him a look. “You do press?”

“Just one interview and I started feeling twitchy about not getting over here. I showered, talked to Coach, and then headed out. A few other guys should be on their way shortly.”

I scratched the side of my face. “Coach ticked that I bailed?”

“You’re the golden boy. You could piss on his car, and he’d probably give you a raise.”

“Doubtful.”

Parker’s face went serious. “Any update?”

I passed along what Rebecca told me, and he digested that with a solemn expression. “Damn.”

“Yeah. I keep thinking about how she must feel.”

Parker made a noise of agreement. “You looked pretty spaced out when I walked up. Is that where you went?”

I could’ve lied to him. But that seed of an idea, that thing I couldn’t quite hold on to in the back of my head, had cleared up quite substantially.

That’s why I turned to face him. “I was thinking about your sister, actually.”

Parker laughed at first. Then he looked at my face, and the smile died. “Oh shit, Emmett. Adaline?”

With a sigh, I pinched the bridge of my nose. “I know. She’s dating what’s-his-face.”

“Nick Sullivan.” He let out a deep breath. “He does have a name, and you’ve known it all four years they’ve been together.”

Was that an annoyed growl building in my chest? Maybe. I swallowed it down because I had no right to feel jealous of him.

Adaline met someone else.

Because I told her I didn’t want to start a relationship with her. With anyone, really. But she’d been the one asking the night before the draft.

A year earlier, and I probably would’ve kissed her when she told me how she felt. Six months earlier, even. When the looming landscape of my future hadn’t been so imminent. Maybe we would’ve been here together, with a little girl a couple of years younger than G.

I rubbed at my chest, that out-of-control feeling spreading like a thorny vine.

“I honestly don’t know if I should be asking this because it’s my sister,” Parker said. “But what exactly are you thinking?”

I sat forward, clasping my hands between my legs. “I don’t know, Parker. Something about being here. It’s screwing with my head.”

He was quiet for a moment. “I get it, man. We all do.”

I wasn’t sure he did, though. All the fleeting thoughts of Adaline over the years … if I’d catch a glimpse of her picture somewhere or wonder if she was at our game once Parker joined me in Ft. Lauderdale a couple of seasons earlier, it was like they all melted together into one giant hulking thing that I couldn’t ignore for much longer.

“It’s not about having just anyone, Parker,” I said quietly. My hand had stopped trembling, and once the back towers were complete, I laid the foundation for another battlement extending out the side. “The only time I’ve ever considered placing something alongside football in my life was her. It scared the shit out of me because the next day, I was walking into a draft that would decide my entire future in this league. It felt … impossible to balance the two.”

“Fucking hell, Ward,” Parker grumbled. “Leave it to you to have some life-changing epiphany five years after you had your chance with someone. You are, without a doubt, the smartest dumbass I’ve ever met in my life.”

I laughed, the sound completely devoid of humor. “Trust me, I know how stupid this is. She has Nick.” I said the word with so much venom that Parker shook his head. “Nick and his record-breaking contract that’s moving him to … where is it? New York? Which means she’ll probably go with him.”

Parker mimicked my posture, and when he took a long, deep, very dramatic inhale, followed by the longest exhale in the entire world, I wanted to punch him. Of course, she was going with him. They’d been dating for four years.

“I’m gonna regret this,” he muttered.

“What?”

He turned his head to the side. “They broke up a couple of days ago.”

“What?” I shouted.

The family in the corner went quiet, and I cleared my throat. Breathe, Ward, just breathe. Yeah right. My heart was trying to crack an escape route through my ribs.

“Smooth.”

“Shut up, Parker.” I dug my hands into my hair and tugged uselessly. “Does she still have the same phone number?”

He laughed.

The asshole slid back in his chair and laughed.

I gave him a steady look as he finally calmed down.

“I’m glad you find this funny.”

He slapped my back. “Emmett … I give you credit. You’re good for so much more than wins and touchdowns and the most chiseled jaw in the world.”

I closed my eyes, slicking my tongue over my teeth. It was the only way I’d stop myself from smacking the shit out of him.

“You’re not going to ask what I mean?”

“No.”

“Excellent. I’ll tell you anyway.” He cleared his throat. “They broke up sometime within the last forty-eight hours.” Parker paused to let that sink in. “They dated for four years. Maybe, just maybe, you could give her some time to deal with that before you go barreling in with your”—he waved his hand toward my face—“intense eye thing you’ve got going on. My sister isn’t fragile by any means, but I hate to remind you that you are the one who told her you didn’t want a relationship.”

“Then don’t remind me,” I growled. “I didn’t…” I paused, the words crowding my throat until I couldn’t get them out anymore. I took a deep breath. “It felt impossible to start something five years ago. She was in Seattle. Everyone knew I was going to Florida.”

“Trust me, I know. I heard all about it when she came home the next week and cried to Greer about it.”

“Shit,” I muttered under my breath. “Does that feel helpful right now?”

“Completely.” He gave me a wry grin. “I’m not saying don’t go after her. Just … give her a second. The last thing Adaline needs right now is another pushy athlete trying to take over her life. She just got rid of one of those.”

Waiting.

It was, admittedly, not my best quality when I decided I wanted something.

It’s what served me so well on the field. In school. I was able to take that impatience to achieve my goals and harness it into something amazing.

And I knew, because I’d always known, that Adaline was something amazing.

Finally, I nodded. “Okay. I can do that.”

He slapped my back. “Atta boy. Hope she doesn’t ruthlessly shoot you down.”

Parker was saved by the arrival of Gabriela, who hopped right back up on my lap. “Can we finish my castle?”

I took a deep breath.

“Absolutely, G. There’s nothing I’d rather do.”

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