Category: love story

Joe’s Diner looked dark on the inside as Nic led Allie
to the front door of the place where they first met just a few months before.

“What’s going on?” Allie asked. She had decided to
wear a knee-length black floral print dress with tan colored open-toed shoes on
her date with Nic to celebrate her surgery’s success. Given the sentimental
value it had for them both, seeing it closed was doubling disappointing.

She scratched her head as she looked from the darkened
neon sign above the building to the street packed with cars parked alongside
it. “I don’t remember seeing a notice or Ellie saying anything about it closing
down early tonight, did you?”

Nic shrugged as he peered through the glass and then knocked
on the front door, which had a sign that said in large capital letters,
“CLOSED.” To Allie’s utter surprise, Ellie quickly appeared and ushered them
in.

Once they were both inside, Ellie closed the door and
then turned on the lights. Allie gasped in surprise and raised her hands to her
face as she watched her friends and relatives in party hats scream
“Congratulations!” and lustily blow into their noisemakers. The diner had a
large banner hanging on the wall which read, “Congratulations Allie” while
streamers of every conceivable color hung from the ceiling. To top it off, a
large bouquet of red roses was placed at the head of the table along with a box
of Allie’s favorite See’s chocolate truffles.

Nic stepped back to give friends like Nicole and
Brandon, who had come from out of town for the occasion, the time and the space
to greet and catch up with her. As he watched the happy scene unfold, he felt someone
come up beside him. He looked to his left and saw that it was Joe Tibbits, the
owner of the diner, standing next to him, arms folded, with a satisfied look on
his face.

“She looks great,” Joe said. “Happy, too. I guess that
we all have you to thank for that.”

Nic smiled and said, “It was kind of you to close the
diner early just for her.”

“Allie’s a very special customer. I wouldn’t do it for
just anybody.” Joe cleared his throat, then leaned in and said in a low voice,
“A little birdie told me that you were planning on making some kind of special
announcement during the party.”

His smile broadened as he nodded in the affirmative.
“I asked my padre to come. He should have been here by now.”

“When did you hear from him last?”

“He sent me a text when he landed in LAX earlier this
afternoon. He told me that he was going to rent a car and meet a friend for
lunch before driving up here. It’s not like him to be late for an event as
important as this one. He’s usually very good at letting me know where he’s at,
especially if he’s going to be late.”

“Is this the first time your dad and Allie will meet?”

“Yes,” he replied and pulled his phone out to check
for messages. “They’ve spoken over the phone a few times, but this is first
time that they will see each other face to face.”

“Maybe he just ran into some traffic,” Joe replied and
checked his watch. “I think I better see what’s going on in the kitchen and
make sure Mel’s not taking a nap back there.”

Nic laughed and said, “Sure. I’ll talk to you later.”

Just then, he felt a tug on his arm. He turned to his
right and saw Nicole smiling at him.

“How are you?” she asked and gave him a hug.

“I’m good,” he replied. “I’m glad that you and Brandon
could make it.”

“We wouldn’t have missed this for the world.” She glanced
over at Allie, who was chatting with Brandon and her cousins, and said, “I’m so
happy for her. And it’s all thanks to you.”

“Please don’t—”

“Don’t be so modest. From what she’s told me, you’ve
been a model boyfriend and roommate. And you’re also the reason she can see
again.”

“All I did was help her get the money to pay for her
eye surgery,” he replied with a shrug. “I’m sure that everyone here would have
done the same if they could have.”

Nicole shook her head. “I’m not just talking about
that. You filled in the gaps when I moved out and were there for her after she
lost Charlie. That’s nothing to sneeze at. I’ll have you know that there are a
lot of single girls out there who would kill to be with a guy like you.”

“She’s given me a lot too. More than I can ever repay.”

Nicole nudged him in the arm and said, “From what I
hear, she has no intention of ever letting you go.”

They were soon joined by Brandon, who greeted him with
a slap on the back and a warm handshake. “You’re looking good man.”

Nic smirked. “So are you. How’s work going?”

“Busy. Getting the hang of things. Finding my way
around. You know how it goes. How about you?”

“I’m in the final stretch. I have a few group projects
to finish up and three finals to take at the end of this semester.”

“Will you be staying here this summer or are you
planning on going back to Spain?”

“My plans are still kind of up in the air,” Nic
replied. “A lot depends on how things work out with Allie tonight.”

“Oh, okay,” Brandon replied with a quizzical look.

Not wanting to give away the surprise he had in store
for Allie, he opted to quickly extricate himself from the conversation. “If
you’ll excuse me, I have to make a phone call.”

Nicole and Brandon dutifully stepped aside. He immediately
moved toward the glass door and was about to call his padre when Joe informed
everyone there that dinner was about to be served and invited everyone to take
a seat at the extra-long table that was specially configured for the occasion.
While Ellie and a few other servers brought out the food, Nic sat down next to
Allie, who was seated at the head of the table. At his request, the seat next
to his remained empty.

After a few words of welcome from Joe, Allie, Nic and
all the rest of her invited guests happily dug in to their burgers and fries
with Joe’s specialty milkshakes and/or sodas. Time passed quickly and everyone
seemed to be enjoying themselves as they ate and exchanged funny stories about
the guest of honor. The only person keeping track of the time was Nic, who was
becoming increasingly worried by his padre’s continued absence.

It wasn’t until they were halfway through their meal that
Nic finally received a text from his padre. After quickly scanning the message,
he excused himself from the table and headed straight for the door.

He breathed a sigh of relief as soon as saw his padre,
who was wearing jeans and a black buttoned-down shirt, walking toward the diner’s
front door. He opened it for him and gave his padre a hug and a kiss on each
cheek. He asked, “Where have you been?”

“There was a horrific accident on the highway,” his
padre calmly replied. “The traffic was backed up for miles.”

“Why didn’t you call or text me?”

“My cell phone was acting up and I forgot to pack my
charger in my carry on. Is everyone still here?”

Nic nodded. “We’re still eating. I’ll tell them to
bring you a plate. Are burgers and fries okay?”

“What do you think I am? A snob? Of course it’s okay.”

He then leaned his head toward his padre’s ear and
whispered, “Did you bring the ring with you?”

His padre smiled as he took it out of his shirt pocket
and handed it to Nic. “Does Allie have any idea that you’re going to ask her to
marry you?”

“No.” Nic replied as he opened the jewelry case
holding his mother’s engagement ring inside and gazed at the two-carat diamond
set in a platinum band with loving reverence.

“Are you nervous?”

Nic grinned as he snapped the jewelry box shut and put
it in his jacket pocket. “Scared to death.”

His father placed a reassuring hand on Nic’s shoulder
and said, “If she loves you as much as I suspect she does, her answer will
definitely be yes.”

“I hope you’re right. Either way, we’ll know soon
enough.”

Nic escorted his padre directly to Allie. He tapped
her on the shoulder and said, “Allie, I’d like to introduce you to my padre,
Sergio Martinez.”

“It is a pleasure to finally meet you.” His padre bent
down and kissed her hand. “I apologize that I wasn’t able to be here sooner.”

Allie looked flustered as she stood up and gave Nic’s
padre a hug. “Oh my gosh, it’s so nice to see you. Please sit down.”

Nic’s padre spent the next few minutes regaling
everyone present by telling them about all the things he encountered on the way
to the diner. Near the end of his tale, he mentioned the fact that Nic had
asked him to come to deliver a gift that he wanted to give to Allie. With that
said, all eyes fell on Nic.

Allie turned to him, wide-eyed, and smiled. He gazed
into her eyes and placed her hand in his. It was time. He gave her hand a
squeeze and then stood up to face everyone there.

He smiled as his eyes drifted across the table and
said, “I want to thank you all for taking the time to come and celebrate what I
think we can all agree is a very momentous occasion in Allie’s life.”

“When I came to Wagner University to get my MBA, the
last thing I expect to do was fall in love, but that’s exactly what happened
when I came into this diner on a crowded Wednesday last fall. I was about to
walk out when Ellie encouraged me to stay and set me down next to this
beautiful girl and her guide dog, Charlie. As luck would have it, she just
happened to need a new roommate at the time and asked me if I was available to
move in with her. I said yes. And then, as the weeks and months past, I found
that the bond of friendship that we’d created was turning into something more.
At first, I worried that taking that step might ruin our friendship, but then,
as my friend Matt so aptly pointed out, what was the harm in trying to see if I
could have the best of both worlds. And so, I let Allie know how I felt and
asked her if she felt the same. To my surprise and relief, she said yes. And
so, without any further ado, I hope you’ll all indulge me while I take this
opportunity to ask Allie a very important question.”

Nic pushed his seat back and promptly got down on one
knee. Allie placed a trembling hand over her mouth while he took out the small
jewelry box from his jacket pocket and opened it. He took his madre’s ring out
and reached for her hand as he said, “Te quiero, mi amor. I can’t imagine my
life without you, and nothing would make me happier than if you would take this
ring which once belonged to my mamá and be my bride.”

Allie quickly nodded and said yes. The room immediately
erupted in loud and raucous applause as the newly engaged coupled sealed the
deal with a hug and a kiss.

“Now that’s a happy ending,” Ellie said as she stood
next to Mel, the diner’s head cook, and their boss, Joe, and dabbed the tears
from her eyes with a napkin. “I just knew that he was the one for Allie the
minute he walked into the diner.”

“You definitely called it,” Mel replied. “Do you think
they’ll want to have their wedding reception here?”

“Why not?” Joe chimed in. “In this life, anything’s
possible. Just look at them. They’re living proof.”

The End.

After a month-long wait, the time for Allie’s
all-important follow-up post-surgery appointment was finally at hand. To Nic’s
chagrin, it was set at the same time as his marketing class. Although he’d
offered to skip it and go with her instead, she was adamant in her insistence
that he not miss it. In was in the midst of this discussion, and others like
it, that he formed the distinct impression that she wasn’t being completely
forthright with him. Nevertheless, after some thoughtful consideration, he
ultimately decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. And so, in the end, he
acquiesced without protest or fuss.                                                  

But on the actual day, he began to question whether he
should’ve, in retrospect, allowed her to talk him out of coming with her so
easily as he grabbed his laptop backpack and headed out of the apartment. He sensed
an inordinate amount of anxiety in her during breakfast and got as far as the front
door before stopping in his tracks. He turned to her and asked, “Are you sure
you’re going be okay with me not coming?”

Allie, who was finishing up her bowl of cereal at the
kitchen table, replied, “Go on, you’re going to be late for class. I’ll be
fine. Aunt Lara and Uncle Mike should be here any minute.”

Despite this assurance, Nic still had his doubts. He
strode to her side and said, “Te quiero,” as he put his arms around her.

She rested her forehead against his and asked in reply,
“Did anyone ever tell you that you worry too much?” He frowned and said no. She
responded by saying, “Well, you shouldn’t. Things usually have a way of working
themselves out. You know that as well as I do.”

He pursed his lips and gazed at her face one last time
before turning to go. After walking out the door, he paused a moment before
inserting the key into the lock and turning it.

While walking to class, Nic almost ran into several people
along the way and barely avoided tripping on the various curbs and ruts in the
road. Miraculously, he made it to class in one piece with minutes to spare and
took a seat in the back of the room. He powered up his laptop but kept his
phone stashed away in his jacket pocket to keep himself from being tempted to
check it for messages from Allie during class.

It didn’t, however, take long for him to conclude that
he should never have come. His eyes flitted from the clock on the wall to the
window and back again like windshield wipers during a torrential storm as the
professor droned on and on about sales and distribution management. He groaned
inwardly and drummed his fingers against his desk while trying to keep his mind
focused on where he was and what he was doing. At the end of class, he looked
at his computer screen and saw that it was nearly blank. Disgusted, he slammed
down the lid of his laptop and stuffed into his backpack. He pulled out his
phone and checked for messages. Nothing. He sighed in frustration as he got up
and exited the classroom.

The day was uncharacteristically warm and humid. Nic
forced himself to slow down so as not to get overheated in his rush to get home.
He stopped at the corner when the light turned red and pulled out a bottle of
water from the side of his backpack. He unscrewed the cap and proceeded to gulp
down half the bottle. He pressed on as soon as the light turned green. Just a few more blocks.

He could feel the anxiety within him increasing at an
exponential rate as each step brought him closer to home. Everything is going to be all right. He repeated the phrase like a
mantra to ward off all the negative thoughts that were threatening to overtake
him. He came to a dead stop as soon as he turned onto his street and scanned
the area for any sign of Aunt Lara’s car. Seeing none, he slowly proceeded
forward. After fumbling for his apartment key, he opened the door and spotted
Allie sitting alone on the couch. Her eyes looked red and puffy. His heart
sank.

Nic closed the door and then walked over and knelt
beside her. “How did it go?”

With trembling hands, Allie put a pair of black
colored glasses up to her face. A tremulous smile spread across her face as she
reached out and placed her hands on his cheeks and said, “I see you.”

He felt his eyes begin to well up with tears. Thank God. She ran her fingertips over
his face as she continued to gaze at him. What
does she think of me?
After a long and drawn out silence, he finally drew
up the courage to ask, “What do you see?”

“The man I love,” Allie replied as she leaned in and
gently pressed her lips to his.

His whole body shook with relief and joy. It felt like
his heart was going to burst wide open as he pulled her into his arms and
buried his face in her shoulder. “This is the best news. I am so happy for you.”

“And I owe it all to you,” Allie replied, her voice
thick with emotion. “Isn’t it funny how life works sometimes? My old parish
priest, Father Oliver, used to tell me that God brings people into our lives
when He thinks we need them most.”

“You didn’t need me,” Nic said, shaking his head.

Allie was quiet for a moment, then said, “Nic. I
know.”

“What are you talking about?” he blurted out.

She sighed. “Nic, didn’t we promise each other when we
decided to start dating that we’d always be completely honest with one
another?”

He hung his head and looked away. She knows. “Who told you?”

“To be honest, I suspected fairly early on that you
might have had something to do with it. But I didn’t know for sure until Conner
told me just before my surgery.”

Nic felt his entire body tense up as his face flushed
with anger. “How did he find out?”

“His mother overheard my aunt talking to the parish
priest at St. Jude’s about it. He said that he felt obligated to tell me.”

“I bet he did,” Nic said as he got up and sat down
beside her. He could just imagine how gleeful Conner must have been to break
the news to her. “Are you angry with me?”

“No,” Allie replied and placed her hand on his. “I’m
just sorry that you didn’t think you could tell me what you’d done.”

“Would you have agreed to do it if I had?”

“Probably not.” She laughed a little, then said, “I
guess you know me too well. I kept wanting to say something to you about it,
but the timing never seemed to be right.”

“Was that at least part of the reason why it felt like
you didn’t want me to be at today’s appointment?”

“Is that what you thought?” Allie asked, taken-aback.
She was quiet for a moment and looked like she was searching for the rights
words to say. “It’s not so much that as it was about me not wanting you to see
my disappointment if things hadn’t turned out well. I didn’t want you to see me
upset or acting in a way that would make you think that I was ungrateful for
having been given the chance to see again.”

Nic shook his head and said, “Those kinds of thoughts
would’ve been the furthest thing from my mind.”

“You think I’d know that by now, wouldn’t you?” Allie
replied with a remorseful look. “I guess I still have a lot to learn when it
comes to relationships. Luckily for me, I have a very patient and understanding
boyfriend.”

He smirked. “Did you ever think about backing out after
you found out that I was the donor?”

She shook her head. “Both you and my family went
through so much to make it possible for me to have this surgery that I didn’t
think it would’ve been right for me to not go through with it.”

“When I discussed it with my padre, he approved of my
plan and told me that he wanted to help me to help you in any way he could.”

Allie cocked her head to the side and asked, “Is that
why you didn’t want me to go to L.A. with you?”

He nodded. “I went there to ask him for advice on
liquefying some of my assets in order to pay for your surgery. After I told him
why I wanted to do it, he insisted on paying for the whole thing instead. And,
by the way, don’t even think about trying to pay him back.”

She arched her brow and pursed her lips but made no
attempt to protest. “So I guess that’s where you get your stubbornness from.”

He snorted as he pointed to her glasses and asked, “Exactly
how does this thing work again?”

“The glasses send signals to the electronic receiver
that was implanted in my retina. The signal is then sent to my brain to create
visual pictures. Dr. Severin said that there’s a good chance that my current
vision will get even better over time.”

“Technology. Isn’t it amazing?”

“Totally.” Allie inched closer and rested her head on
his shoulder. “So, what do you want to do now?”

Nic smiled. “It
doesn’t really matter, just as long as I’m with you.”

It was cloudy, threatening rain on the morning Aunt
Lara drove Nic and Allie to Wagner University’s Eye Institute. Nic was beset by
conflicting emotions as he held Allie’s hand in the back seat of the car and
contemplated what might lay in store for them after her retinal implant surgery.
Although he was eager to see the fruits of his efforts finally come to
fruition, his fears about the numerous ways it could all go wrong gnawed away
at him like a gnat buzzing around his ear.

Nic glanced at Allie, who was biting her lip and
twirling a strand of her hair around her finger. He gave her hand a squeeze and
asked, “Are you all right?”

“Just a little nervous, I guess,” she replied, her voice
tremulous.

“You’re going to be fine,” he said in a reassuring
tone. “You’ll see.”

Allie opened her mouth to speak but then stopped herself
before uttering a single word. He’d sensed a restlessness about her in the two
days leading up to her surgery that he suspected had little to do with her
impending surgery. Was it due to something that Conner might have said to her
when they’d met for coffee? If it was, Allie was being maddeningly tight-lipped
about it and had, thus far, shown no sign that she was at all inclined or ready
to divulge that information to him any time soon.

He continued to focus on this train of thought until
Aunt Lara drove up to the Eye Institute’s entryway to drop them off. They
exited the car and proceeded, hand in hand, to the third floor of the building
to check in while her aunt parked her car. One of Dr. Severin’s nurses called
out Allie’s name shortly thereafter.

They stood up and embraced. It was an emotional moment
for them both. She looked anxious and vulnerable, which was so unlike her
normally confident and irrepressible self. He racked his brain for some words
of comfort or inspiration to impart to her, but every word or phrase that came
to mind sounded too quaint and inadequate to express all that was in his heart
and mind. In the end, he simply said, “Te quiero.”

“Love you more,” Allie replied with a faint smile and
pressed her lips to his. She then turned to her aunt, who had just walked into
the reception area, and said, “It’s time.”

“Just think positive,” Aunt Lara replied, sounding
upbeat, even though her eyes and overall demeanor expressed a very different
emotion. “Nic and I will be waiting for you right here and will come see you as
soon as the doctor gives us the okay.”

Allie hugged her aunt. “Thank you so much for
everything.”

Aunt Lara gently patted her back and kissed her on the
cheek. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat honey. You know that your uncle and I
would give you the world if we could.”

“Miss Jacobs are you ready?” the nurse asked. Allie
nodded. The nurse then offered Allie her arm and led her away.

Nic felt a lump in his throat as he watched Allie
disappear behind the hospital door. Aunt Lara came up beside him and said, “I’m
going downstairs to get a cup of coffee and a snack. Would you like to join
me?” Nic said yes even though he wasn’t feeling particularly hungry or thirsty and
accompanied her to the elevator down to the first floor.

The cafeteria was near the entrance to the building.
It was bland and sterile with white walls and bright lights. Nic snagged a
chocolate chip muffin off a shelf and filled a disposable paper cup with
steaming black coffee and then joined Aunt Lara at a table by a window.

They said little at first as they sipped their drinks
and mindlessly nibbled at their pastries. He wondered if Aunt Lara, like
himself, was thinking about the donation his padre had made to the Eye
Institute in order to pay for Allie’s eye surgery and mulled over whether she’d
be able to keep that fact a secret from her niece for the foreseeable future.

Aunt Lara was the first one to break the silence. “Would
you do me a favor?” she asked and pulled a small envelope from her purse. Nic
nodded. “Can you mail this card to your father for me? I just wanted to thank
him for paying for Allie’s surgery.”

Nic took it and put it in his jacket pocket. “I will.
That’s very thoughtful of you.”

“It’s the least I could do,” Aunt Lara replied with an
apologetic look. “I wish I had the money to pay him back. Mike and I talk about
that all the time.”

He shook his head and waved his hand. “Neither he nor
I would ever consider it. He did it out of the goodness of his heart. Besides,
he’s made more than enough money as a football player and a vintner to take
care of himself and his family many times over. He’s donated both his time and earnings
to many worthy causes over the years. He’s an extraordinary man in more ways
than one.”

“And so is his son,” Aunt Lara replied as she reached
out and patted Nic’s hand. “It’s just too bad that we have to keep your part in
making this surgery possible a secret.”

“Your niece is a very proud and independent woman,”
Nic said matter-of-factly. “She made it clear to me early on in our relationship
that she would never knowingly accept money from a friend in order to pay for
this surgery.”

“Do you think you’ll ever tell her what you did for
her?”

“I don’t know,” Nic replied slowly.

Aunt Lara paused to take a bite of her chocolate croissant,
then said, “She’s talked to me and her uncle about wanting to find out who paid
for it. To be perfectly honest, neither of us think that you’ll be able to keep
this from her forever. Knowing her like I do, she’s going to keeping digging
until she figures out who her donor was.”

Nic furrowed his brow. Aunt Lara was right. The
question was, would Allie be grateful or angry with him at that point? In
truth, he could see it going either way. “I’ll just have to cross that bridge
when I come to it.”

After playing out various scenarios in his head, he
asked, “Have either you or your husband talked to anyone other than the doctors
at the Eye Institute about it?”

Aunt Lara’s eyes dropped down to her hands while she
fidgeted uncomfortably in her seat. He, in turn, felt his blood pressure spike
as he gripped his paper cup filled with coffee and waited for her to respond. “I
did say something to Father Marcus, my parish priest, about it not too long ago,”
she said in a slow and halting manner. “It was after our weekly bible study. He
asked me about Allie and it just came out somehow during our conversation. But
don’t worry, he’d never tell another soul about it.”

Nic felt far from reassured as he pursed his lips and
tapped his fingers against the table. “I don’t doubt that, but do you know if
there was anyone who might have overheard the two of you talking?”

“Well, Conner’s mom, Betty, and two other ladies from
the church stayed afterward but they all went upstairs to help members of the
Youth Group prepare for the annual Easter egg hunt on the church lawn. As far
as I know, Father Marcus and I were alone in the main hall.”

Conner’s
mom was there?
Nic groaned inwardly as alarm bells went
off in his head. “Was Conner there too?” Aunt Lara shook her head. He breathed
a little easier.

Just then, a little brown-haired girl of no more than
five ran past their table. Aunt Lara smiled. “Allie wasn’t much older than that
she was when her father died. Has she told you much about her parents?”

Nic shook his head. “She only has a vague memory of
her father and has said that she often remembered her mother being sad.”

“Her father, Sam, was tall, rugged-looking man with
curly brown hair. My sister, Cathy, was an ER nurse and was just coming off her
shift when they met. He’d responded to an emergency call and had accompanied
the paramedics, who needed an extra hand, to the hospital. He asked her for her
number and took her out to an Italian bistro in Little Italy the next day. They
hadn’t even been dating three months before Cathy called and told my parents
that he’d asked her to marry him.”

“It sounds like it was quite a whirlwind romance,” Nic
replied, smiling.

“It was. They flew out to California and got married
at St. Jude. They had Allie less than a year later. They wanted to have more
kids, but my sister miscarried twice after Allie was born and then…” Aunt Lara
paused and brought her coffee cup to her lips. He studied her face as she
stared past him and took a sip. She looked distraught. “Cathy was at home with
Allie on 9/11. She called us as often as she could to give us updates. As you
can probably imagine, the phone connection into and out of New York City was
sporadic at best. For days on end, we just kept hoping and praying that Sam was
still alive somewhere under all that rubble.” She sighed then as she leaned
forward and rested her head in her hands. “It’s hard to believe that it’s
already been over eighteen years since it happened.”

An image of a five-year-old Allie crying for her
father while her mother frantically waited for news of his whereabouts flashed
through Nic’s mind, followed by thoughts of what the last few moments of Sam
Jacobs’ life might have been like as he raced up the North Tower’s stairwell
with his fellow firefighters. He shuddered as he pictured a sea of concrete
raining down on those brave men, then said, “Was that when her mother started smoking?”

Aunt Lara shook her head. “She was only a teenager
when she lit her first cigarette. It was the cool thing to do. Both my parents
warned her against it, but you know how that goes. In one ear and out the
other. She tried to quit a couple of times and swore to me that she never took
a puff while she was pregnant with Allie but losing Sam broke her spirit. I
think that part of her just lost the will to live after that. She went to
counseling and often spoke to St. Jude’s parish priest at the time, Father Oliver,
but nothing seemed to help. She was smoking up to two packs a day when the
doctors gave her the bad news. She died less than three years after we lost Sam.”

Nic handed her a napkin. Aunt Lara thanked him and dabbed
her eyes with it. He said, “Allie’s often tells me how grateful she is for the
love and support that you gave her while she was growing up.”

“What else were we supposed to do?” Aunt Lara replied.
“That poor child. Losing both her parents at such a young age and then having
to deal with losing her sight on top of that. We took her to every eye doctor
and specialist we could to see if any of them could help her, but they all said
the same thing, that her condition was irreversible. She was tough though and took
it all in stride.”

“I doubt she could have gotten through it without
you.”

Aunt Lara smiled. “Thank you for saying that, but I
can’t take all the credit for who she is now. As you well know, she’s always
been a very strong willed and independent-minded young lady.”

“I’ve noticed,” Nic replied with a laugh. “She doesn’t
like it when people treat her like an invalid.”

“Poor Conner,” Aunt Lara remarked out of the blue. “I
don’t suppose he’ll ever learn, will he?”

Nic chose his words carefully and replied, “It’s not
for me to say. You know him much better than I do.”

“That was a very diplomatic thing for you to say,”
Aunt Lara said with a snort, “especially after all the things he’s said and
done. I know you don’t like him very much, and with good reason, but he’s
really not as bad a person as you think he is. Conner’s had his eye on Allie
since grade school. His mom, who’s my best friend, loves Allie to death and has
probably told him a million times what a nice couple they’d make and how much
she’d love to have Allie as a daughter in law.”

Nic cringed inwardly at the thought and knew, based on
the numerous conversations that he’d had with Allie about Conner over the last
couple of months, that that was about as likely as a snow storm in the Sahara
desert. Still, for the sake of propriety, he held his tongue.

Aunt Lara continued. “Imagine what it must have been
like for him when you came into the picture. You completely upended his plans. Unfortunately,
love doesn’t always bring out the best in people, especially when those feelings
aren’t returned. Even so, I think he’s a nice young man who’s made a few bad
decisions where Allie’s concerned because he thinks you’ve taken away the one
girl he’s always wanted.”

“That makes no sense. How could I have taken away
someone who was never his to begin with?”

“That may be true, but my guess is he thought he’d
eventually wear down her defenses and get her to give him a second look.”

Nic was quiet for a moment as he tried to put himself
in Conner’s shoes. After listening and thinking about what Aunt Lara had said,
he almost felt sorry for the guy. But still, he doubted that he would have said
and done all the things Conner had if the roles had been reversed. Although he
would’ve felt wounded by her decision to be with Conner over him, his pride and
his love for her would never have allowed him to do anything but step aside and
move on with his life rather than sabotage Allie’s relationship with Conner at
every turn.

“Do you think that either he or his mother know
anything about what I did for Allie?”

Aunt Lara cocked her head to the side and gazed at Nic
with a curious expression. “What makes you think that he would know anything
about it?”

“I can’t say,” Nic replied. “It’s just this feeling
I’ve gotten ever since Allie met him for coffee on Saturday. I think he said
something to her…maybe not about what I did for her necessarily but something
else about me that’s given her pause. There’ve been, for example, more than a few
times when it seemed like she had something was on her mind but didn’t feel
comfortable telling me about it.”

“Well, with the surgery and all, I’m not at all surprised
to hear that she’s been a little out of sorts. Wouldn’t you be too? For
goodness’ sake, it isn’t every day that a blind person is given the chance to
see again. I wouldn’t worry about it too much if I were you.”

“I guess you’re right,” he conceded.

“Can I ask you a question?” Nic nodded. “What made you
decide to do it?”

Nic sat back and twiddled his thumbs as he went over
the reasons why he’d done it. Although he could have cited a few bases for his
actions, he quickly homed in on the one that had motivated him from the moment
he’d laid eyes on her. And so, he simply said, “I love her.”

“Anyone with eyes can see that,” Aunt Lara replied
with a smile.

Nic continued. “After my accident, I felt like I’d
lost everything. My career, my girlfriend, and almost everyone else I’d called
a friend or acquaintance, for that matter, except my family. I felt unlovable
and guilty that I had lived while my friend and teammate Diego had not. I
thought I looked grotesque and felt just as ugly on the inside too.”

“My padre and abuelos did what they could to help me,
but it soon became clear to me that there were certain things that I needed to work
out for myself. That’s part of the reason why I came here to study…And then I met
Allie. She helped me to accept who I am and to make the most of the life that
I’d been given. With her, I think that I’ve become a better person. Less selfish,
more open and appreciative of the things and people in my life.”

“Do you know what you want to do and/or where you’re
going to be after you finish your MBA program?”

Nic tried to hide his smile as he pondered how to best
answer the unspoken question Aunt Lara had posed. “We’ve only talked in the
most general terms about what might happen in the future. I’d like to think
that she’ll be a part of my life for years to come but…”

“But what?”

“Do you think she’d be willing to move to a country
where she doesn’t speak the language or know anyone but me?”

Aunt Lara nodded. “Allie’s a practical girl but she’s
also got a romantic streak a mile wide. She’s a lot like her mom in that way. In
fact, knowing her the way that I do, I think she’d do and try just about
anything in order to make things work.”

After finishing their snacks and drinks, they headed back
to the waiting room on the third floor. At first, Nic tried to study while Aunt
Lara flitted through several magazines. He found it hard to concentrate as he
read and reread sentences in the marketing textbook he’d brought with him. He
eventually gave up and pulled out his cell phone instead. He played video games
and exchanged texts with his padre and friend Matt about Allie.

A few hours later, Dr. Severin, who was still wearing
scrubs, walked into the reception area. He came up to them and said, “She’s
doing well and is being wheeled over to the recovery room as we speak. The
nurses will monitor her there until the effects of the anesthesia have worn off
and we’re sure she’s stable enough to be transferred to a hospital room.”

“How did it go?” Aunt Lara asked.

“As well as can be expected at this point,” the doctor
replied. “There were no complications or surprises and the procedure itself
went according to plan. As I told you before, we won’t be able to assess how
much of her sight we’ve been able to restore until we take the bandages off and
put the glasses on in a couple weeks. It’s different for each person.” She
nodded while Nic stood stoically beside her.

“Give us a few minutes and then I’ll have one of my
nurses escort you to her.”

When a nurse finally came for them, Aunt Lara immediately
followed. Nic, however, remained where he was. His feet felt like they were
rooted to the spot. Aunt Lara turned to him as she reached the hospital door and
said, “Are you coming?”

“Yeah,” he replied meekly as his leaden feet slowly
carried him forward.

They were led to a rectangular shaped room lined with
patient beds partitioned by curtains. Allie had been placed in the middle of
the room and still appeared to be unconscious. He placed his hand on the bed
rail and remained standing while a nurse hovered over her and checked her
vitals. Aunt Lara took a seat opposite him near the head of the bed. He tried
to think positive. For good or ill, he knew his destiny was sealed. He’d made
his choices and had acted accordingly. So now, he could do little else but wait
and see what fate had in store for him.

Once the nurse had moved aside and closed the curtain,
Nic placed his hand over Allie’s. She looked so fragile and vulnerable, which
was so unlike the woman he knew and loved. He closed his eyes and prayed. Please God, let everything turn out all right.

Three months passed. Nic woke up in a cold sweat after
a bad dream. Allie’s bed creaked as he sat up and held his bald head in his
hands. He reached for his phone on the nightstand to check the time. It was 5
a.m. That’s just great, he muttered
to himself and laid back down. He stared up at the darkened ceiling and began
to relive the nightmare he’d just had, frame by frame. He cringed when he got
to the part where Allie saw his burn-damaged face for the first time and gasped
in horror. Even worse was the portion where she accused him of deceiving her
for hiding the fact that he’d paid for her surgery. Try as he might, he was
unable to block out these humiliating and heartbreaking scenes from his mind.  

Once it had played out in full, Nic looked over at Allie
and immediately felt better. Unlike him, she was sleeping peacefully as his
eyes slowly skimmed over her body. Her skin was soft and smooth…not like his
own, which was rough and mottled in so many places. He yearned to caress her
and lose himself in the warmth of her embrace. With her heightened sense of
touch, it was hard for him to understand how she could bear to come into
contact with those parts of his body night after night without feeling some
sense of revulsion. But she did, and for that he felt both humbled and
grateful.

He turned away with a sigh and pulled the covers back.
Knowing that there was little chance of getting back to sleep, he slid his legs
over the side of the bed and was about to get up when he saw Allie stir. He
glanced back and watched her as she yawned and stretched.

“What time is it?” Allie asked as her eyes fluttered
open.

“Too early for you to be getting up,” he replied with
a smile as he climbed back into bed and folded her into his arms.

She rested her head on his shoulder and asked, “Then
why are you awake?”

“I had a bad dream,” Nic confessed. “I was trying to
get up without waking you.”

“I can feel your every move in this bed,” Allie
replied. “You’re not exactly subtle when you shift around at night.”

“This mattress is old and creeky. What do you expect?”

Allie made a face, then said, “Don’t hate the bed. I’ll
have you know that I’ve been sleeping on this mattress since I was ten.”

“I can tell,” Nic said with a smirk. “It’s definitely
got a broken-into feel to it.”

With lightning speed, Allie reached back for her
pillow and swung it at him. They both giggled as they fought for control of it.
He wrested it from her grasp after a brief struggle, then threw it aside and straddled
her. When she continued to put up a fuss, he leaned in and whispered in her
ear, “You’re being a very bad girl. What shall I do with you?”

A mischievous smile spread across her face. “Do whatever
you want. I dare you.” He laughed and tickled her in the ribs. She howled in
protest and tried to bat his hands away. Eventually, he agreed to a truce and
sealed the deal with a kiss.

Minutes passed. As they lay side-by-side in the dark, Nic
asked, “What are you thinking about?”

Allie didn’t respond immediately. He got the
impression that something was troubling her. Finally, she said, “I was just
thinking about the person who donated the money for my surgery.” Another pause.
“Don’t you think it’s kind of weird how it all just kind of happened out of the
blue?”

He blurted out, “Not necessarily. Rich people donate
money to worthy causes all the time.”

“I know, but everything about this just seems so…mysterious.
For one thing, it looks like the donor did everything he could to conceal his
identity.”

“It could be a she, you know.” Allie nodded. Nic
pulled her closer. “Anyway, he probably has his reasons. I wouldn’t worry about
it too much if I were you.”

“I just wish there was some way I could thank that
person, you know.”

While stroking her cheek with the back of his hand, he
said, “If I were that person, I think that knowing that I was giving you the
chance to regain your sight would be more than thanks enough.”

Allie was quiet for a moment, then asked, “Are you going
to get up soon?”

“I think so,” Nic replied, stretching. “I’m feeling
kind of restless and I doubt that I’ll be able to get back to sleep even if I
tried.

“Is everything all right with you?”

He lied. “As far as I know. Why do you ask?”

She shrugged and said, “You’ve seemed kind of stressed
out and preoccupied lately.”

Images from the nightmare suddenly flashed through his
mind. He quickly shoved them aside, reminding himself that there was no way for
him to honestly answer her without admitting what he’d done or sounding like a
selfish prick who was more worried about his own needs and feelings than his girlfriend’s,
who was just two days away from undergoing a life-altering operation. So
instead, he deflected. “Don’t worry about me. You’ve got more than enough on
your plate without adding my problems to it.”

Allie shook her head. “We’re a team, remember? I’m
here for you too. You know that, don’t you?”

“Of course I do.” Nic said as he grasped her hand and
raised it to his lips. “So, what are you up to today?”

“My aunt is going to take me out to lunch and I, umm, also
kind of told Conner that I’d meet him at Starbucks too.”

Nic frowned. “Why?”

Allie replied, “He called me the other day. He said
that he felt bad about the way things have been going between us and wanted to
bury the hatchet.”

“Can’t it wait until after your surgery?”

“That’s what I was thinking but he insisted, and my
aunt told me that she doesn’t see the harm in meeting him over coffee.”

“I can’t believe that your aunt is taking his side.”

“You gotta understand. My aunt and his mom are like
sisters. They confide in each other about almost everything. I’m sure he’s told
his mom about how we’ve been on the outs lately. I’m guessing that she talked
to my aunt about it and asked her if there was a way to smooth things over
between us.”

“I have a bad feeling about this,” Nic replied and shook
his head. “He’s probably up to something. You know that, don’t you?”

“There’s nothing he can possibly say that would change
my mind about you.”

“That’s not what I’m concerned about, but still—”

“It’ll be fine. I can handle him.” After a brief
pause, she asked, “What about you?”

“I was going to do some research at the library and…”

Allie smirked. “Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘All
work and no play makes Nic a dull boy?’”

“Is this your way of saying that I’m boring and overly
studious?”

“Not at all,” she replied with a chuckle. “You’re tons
of fun. But taking a break from your studies and doing something besides hanging
out with me might be just what you need right now. It’s been awhile since
you’ve seen your friend Matt, hasn’t it? Why don’t you give him a call?”

Nic arched his brow and cocked his head to the side.
“Are you trying to get rid of me?”

“Never,” Allie said as she propped herself up on her
elbows. “Just promise me you’ll have some fun and won’t go straight to the
library and study all day while I’m out and about.”

“Will do.” He paused, then said, “You know, I think I
will give Matt a ring and see what he’s up to.”

“That’s the spirit,” she replied cheerfully and
punched him in the arm. “Live a little. You deserve a break.”

It was mid-afternoon when Nic walked into Jesse’s
Saloon. He looked around the dimly lit room with dark wood panels, tables and
chairs. It was only half full as his eyes drifted from the front of this
establishment, which had a large window with the bar’s name written on it in
large red letters, to the back where two guys and a girl were playing pool.  Seeing no sign of Matt, he took a seat at the
bar and watched TV to pass the time.

The bartender, an old man with gray hair and a gruff
voice, looked at him with a wary eye. He approached him slowly and cautiously. “Are
you lookin’ for somebody?”

Nic nodded. “I’m meeting a friend. He should be here
any minute.”

He then leaned in and said in a low voice, “I don’t
want no trouble.”

Puzzled, he said to the bartender, “Neither do I.”

He pointed to Nic’s face and said, “No offense, but it
sure looks like you’ve been roughed up a time or two.”

If
you only knew
, Nic thought to himself and ordered a
beer.

Just then, he saw Matt walk in. His big, burly friend patted
Nic on the back and sat down in the empty bar stool next to his. He slapped his
hand on the bar to get the old man’s attention and said, “I’ll jus git what
he’s havin.” The old man grunted in reply and turned toward the tap to get
their beverages.

Nic shook his head in mild disgust at the man’s total
lack of grace and customer service, then turned to Matt and said, “It’s been
too long. How’ve you been, man?”

“Just livin’ my life and doin’ my thang. What ‘bout
you?”

“Studying mostly and working on reports for my classes.”

“Sounds like you been havin’ a grand ole time,” Matt
teased. “Betta you than me. How’s yo boo?”

“Good, good,” Nic replied as he cleared his throat and
shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

He shot Nic an inquiring glance as the bartender
handed them their beers. “Lay it on me, brotha.”

“Her eye surgery is tomorrow.”

Matt looked confused. “Dat’s good, init?”

Nic nodded. “Assuming everything goes well, there’s a
good chance that she’ll be able to see again.”

His friend scratched his head, then asked, “Then why
you trippin’?” Nic pointed to his face. “Oh!” Matt exclaimed with dawning
comprehension.

Just then, the bartender placed a bowl of mini
pretzels between him and Nic. Nic grabbed a handful and quickly popped a few
into his mouth while Matt looked like he was trying to think of something to
say.

“You scairt dat she’s gonna skedaddle once she sees yo
face?”

“Something like that,” Nic replied as he stared at his
beer mug.

For a time, they said little as they watched the Duke
Blue Devils play the North Dakota State Bison in the first round of the NCAA
Tournament. They ate pretzels and drank beer in companionable silence before Matt
finally said, “I think yo blowin’ things outta proportion. From what I seen, she
don’t seem like the kinda girl dat would do dat. You know what I’m sayin’?”

Nic agreed. Allie had told him as much on more than
one occasion. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only concern that was weighing on
his mind.

“Where she at?”

“She went out to lunch with her aunt and is supposed
to meet someone for coffee afterward.”

“Who she seein’?” Matt asked with one raised eyebrow.

“It’s this guy, a family friend that she’s known
forever.”

“You okay with dat?”

“I trust her,” Nic quickly replied. “Him, not so much,
but whatever. It’s complicated.”

Matt furrowed his brow. “You think she’s with him
now?” Nic shrugged. His friend replied, “Then why don’t you call and see how
she’s doin’?”

Nic looked down at his cell phone, which he’d put on
the counter next to his beer and shook his head. “Nah, I can wait.”

“You sure ‘bout dat?” Nic nodded despite his
misgivings about Conner and what he might be saying to Allie at that moment. Clearly
unconvinced, Matt replied, “I’d do it if I was you.”

“I know you would,” he said, laughing. “But like I
told you. We’re good. Solid as a rock.”

“I jus knew you two were goin’ to get together. I saw
dat train comin’ a mile away,” Matt said as guzzled down the rest of his beer
and stuffed a few more pretzels into his mouth. He promptly requested more of
both from the bartender, then asked, “Do you love her?” Nic said yes. “Does she
love you?”

“She tells me that at least once a day,” Nic replied
with a smile. “Sometimes more.”

“Then you got nothin’ to worry ‘bout. From what I see,
yo drivin’ yourself crazy over nothin’.” If
only that were true
, he thought to himself. For a split second, he toyed
with the idea of telling his friend about how he’d secretly paid for Allie’s
surgery, but then reconsidered. The fewer
people that know, the better,
he reminded himself just as his friend said,
“Jus’ do yo self a favor and go home to yo woman and live yo life.”

Nic took a walk around campus and then the park next
to his apartment before heading home. Along the way, he walked by small groups
of undergraduates, an old couple, and a young mother pushing her baby girl in a
stroller. To his surprise and wonder, none of them gave him a second glance as
he walked by. Nothing about him had changed…at least on the outside. But then
again, maybe he had. It must be the Allie
effect,
he thought with a smile and picked up his pace.

He made it to the front door just as the last rays of
the setting sun were fading from the sky. He inserted the key and turned the
lock. As he opened the door a crack, he stopped and sniffed the air. Smells like baked bread and pasta. His
stomach growled.

As soon as Nic stepped inside, he spotted Allie standing
by the microwave.

“Dinner will be ready in a few minutes,” Allie said
without skipping a beat. “My aunt dropped off some chicken linguine when she
picked me up this morning. I’m warming up some rolls to go with it.”

“Sounds delicious,” Nic replied as he came up from
behind and hugged her.

Allie turned toward him and wrapped her arms around
his neck as she placed her forehead against his. “How’s Matt? Did you have
fun?”

“Yeah, we had a good time,” Nic said and nuzzled her
neck. “But it’s nice to be home.”

“Glad to hear it.” Allie replied in a breathless tone while
Nic nibbled and kissed his way from her earlobe to her lips. “We should start
eating before the food gets cold.”

Reluctantly, Nic stepped back and said, “You’re right.
How was your day?”

For a brief second or two, Allie’s face clouded over
but then quickly reverted to the way it had looked before as she sat down at
kitchen table and said, “My aunt took me to this Greek restaurant called Zeus
Palace that she and Uncle Mike like to go to sometimes. I ordered a gyro while
Aunt Lara ordered chicken souvlaki. We each got a baklava for dessert. It was
so good.”

“You’ve got the biggest sweet tooth of anyone I know,”
Nic replied and joined her at the table.

“What can I say? For me, it’s the best part of every
meal. Eating dessert and drinking coffee are two of my favorite pastimes.”

“Speaking of coffee, how did your get together with Conner
go?”

“Fine,” Allie replied. “You know him. He always has
something to say whether you want to hear it or not.”

Nic rolled his eyes and made a face. He could just
imagine all the horrible things Conner had probably said to Allie about him.  “What did you talk about?”                                                                                                        
                                         

At first, she seemed hesitant to answer. Alarm bells
went off in his head as she reached for her glass of water and took a long,
slow drink. Finally, she said, “He kept apologizing to me for the way he’s been
acting and swore that he’s turned over a new leaf.”

“And you believed him?”

“He’s a friend of the family, so the likelihood of me running
into him on occasion for the foreseeable future is pretty high. It would be a
lot easier if we found a way to get along.”

“What else did he say?”

Again, the question appeared to unnerve her. Her hand
shook ever so slightly as she brought a piece of her bread roll to her lips and
then cleared her throat twice before speaking.  “We talked about all kinds of stuff. School…my
surgery…”

“Did he say anything to upset you?” Allie lowered her
head and was quiet for a moment.

Nic sensed an inner struggle raging within her. He
asked, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

She shook her head. “You’ve already done too much.
Believe me.”

He reached out and placed his hand over hers. “There’s
no such thing as too much for me where you’re concerned.”

She bit her lip and squeezed her eyes shut. She looked
like she was on the verge of tears. “Oh Nic…”

“What is it? Tell me.”

“I don’t deserve you.”

Nic exclaimed, “What are you talking about?”

She picked up a napkin and dabbed her eyes with it. “Don’t
mind me. I guess I’m just a little nervous about my surgery.”

“You’re going to be fine. I’ll be with you every step
of the way.”

“I know you will,” she replied with a faint smile.
“You’ve been like my guardian angel since Day One.”

“I hate to break it to you, but I think most people
would say that I look much more like a gargoyle than an angel.”

Allie frowned. “Why do you say things like that?
You’re the kindest, most generous person I know. Honestly, I could care less
what you look like. How many times will I have to tell you that before you
believe me?”

Swallowing hard, he replied, “You say that now, but
once you’re able to see—”

“No it won’t. Besides, there’s no guarantee that the
surgery will even work.”

“You will see again,” Nic replied matter-of-factly.

Allie, however, looked decidedly less certain about
the outcome of her upcoming surgery than he did. “But what if that doesn’t
happen?”

“Then at least you can tell yourself that you tried.
My padre often told me that, in the end, the only things that you will regret
are the things you didn’t do.”

“Your dad is very wise man who raised a wonderful
son.”

“You think so?”

Allie smiled. “I know so.”

A few days later, Nic had his computer and textbooks
spread out in front of him at the kitchen table when he heard Allie’s phone ring.
The sound of her ringtone nearly made him jump out of his seat. He glanced at Allie,
who was sitting on the couch, listening to cases studies she’d been assigned in
class through screen reading software on her computer. He watched as she picked
up her iphone and tapped it twice before putting it up to her ear. Was it her aunt? Her doctor? He stopped
what he was doing and listened in. At first, her responses consisted of long
pauses and a maddeningly short series of yeses and umms. But then, near the end
of her conversation, he distinctly heard her say, “I can come in and see Dr.
Severin tomorrow morning. 9 a.m.? Yes, that shouldn’t be a problem.”  

Nic waited a moment or two after she’d hung up before
walking over and plopping himself down next to her. “Who was it?” he asked in
as casual a tone as he could muster.

“It was Donna, my eye doctor’s appointment secretary,”
Allie replied with a bewildered look. “She said that my ophthalmologist wants
me to come in for an evaluation.”

“Why? What’s going on?” he pressed, even though he
knew the exact reason why she’d gotten the call.

“She told me that the Eye Institute just received some
money from an anonymous donor. That person apparently specified that it be
spent on someone it deems qualified to receive retinal implant surgery who
would otherwise be unable to afford it. Apparently, Dr. Severin thinks that
that person should be me.”

“What did you tell her?”

“I said yes,” Allie replied, her voice quivering. “She
asked me to come to his office tomorrow morning for a consultation. She said that
he’d give me more details about the surgery itself as well as where and when it
would take place.”

“That’s great, isn’t it?” he asked and placed his hand
over hers.

Allie nodded. “Oh Nic. Do you know what this means?”

“It’s the chance of a lifetime.” He squeezed her hand.

She scooted closer to him and rested her head against
his shoulder. “I can’t believe that this is happening to me.”

“This calls for a celebration. What would you like to do?”

Allie paused a moment to think. “Can we go to Luigi’s?
It’s walkable and they’ve got the best coffee and desserts in town.”

“Sounds good to me,” Nic replied as he helped her get
to her feet. “My treat.”

“Have you tried their cappuccino or stracciatella
gelato yet?” Allie asked as Nic guided her to the front door. “They’re just to
die for.”

He smiled and said, “Really? Maybe I will tonight. Just
wait for me here. I’ll go and get our coats.”

Nic and Allie snagged the last available outdoor table
underneath the café’s awning after purchasing their drinks and desserts at the
counter. A nearby heat lamp kept them warm as they clinked their cappuccino
mugs together and then dug into their gelatos with gusto. It wasn’t long,
however, before their private celebration was interrupted by Conner, who just happened
to be walking by them at the time.

Nic saw him first and alerted Allie just as Conner,
who was wearing jeans and a Wagner University sweatshirt, strode up to them and
said, “Hi Allie, long time no see.”

“Conner?” Allie’s face fell. “Is that you?”

“The one and only,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s been
awhile. How’ve you been?”

“Good, good,” Allie replied. “What are you doing
here?”

“I was just dropping off some clothes at the dry
cleaners across the street. I saw you sitting there with your…umm…friend so I thought
I’d come over and say hello.”

“Well…that’s great.” After a long and awkward pause,
she said, “Don’t let us keep you. I’m sure you’ve probably got a million other
things do.”

“That’s all right. I needed a study break. I’ve got a
pile of textbooks and class outlines that I have to go over when I get back to
my fraternity house. All that can wait as far as I’m concerned.”

“Do you mean to tell me that you and your frat
brothers actually study?” Allie asked. It was hard for Nic to tell if she was
being serious or not. “That’s not the impression I got from your mom the last
time I saw her at my aunt’s house. She seems to think that your fraternity’s
motto is “All Play and No Work.”

“Have you been checking up on me?” Conner teased. “I’m
flattered. You still going the Joe’s every Wednesday?” Allie nodded. “Maybe
I’ll surprise you and stop by while you’re there. It’ll be like old times.”

“Nic and I have been doing a lot of stuff together,”
Allie replied.

Conner frowned as he shifted from foot to foot. “Just
‘cause you’re with Nic doesn’t mean you have to forget about everyone else.”

“What are you talking about?” Allie shot back. “I’ve
been doing no such thing.”

“Then why didn’t I see you at Father Marcus’
retirement celebration? He told me that you haven’t gone to his Thursday
evening bible study class with your aunt in months.”

“I’ve been really busy this semester,” Allie replied
defensively. “Between my classes and my internship at the Development Services
Department, I barely have time to breathe. I’m usually pretty beat by the end
of the day. Just ask Nic, he’ll tell you.”

“Then maybe you should cut back and stick around an
extra semester or two.”

“No way,” Allie cut in. “I can’t afford to do that.”

“What about your aunt and uncle?” Conner replied. “I’m
sure they’d help you.”

“I can take care of myself,” she replied, lifting her
chin. “Besides, they have their own kids’ college expenses to worry about
without me adding to their financial burden.” At that point, she stood up and
said, “If you’ll excuse me, I need to go to the ladies’ room.”

“Do you need me to help you walk over there?” Conner
asked.

“God, no,” she snapped. “I mean no thanks. I can find
my way there on my own. I’ve been to Luigi’s plenty of times and I have my walking
stick right here to help me get to where I need to go.”

Nic stood up and opened the door for Allie. He purposely
turned his back on Conner and watched her until she’d reached the back of the
café and walked into the restroom. When he turned around, he was dismayed to
find that Conner hadn’t moved an inch. He cursed under his breath and braced
himself for what he imagined would be a rather unpleasant conversation.

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you,” Conner said while Nic
sat down and breathed into his cold hands for warmth.

“I think that you made your feelings about me being in
Allie’s life quite clear the last time I saw you.”

“And there’s nothing that I’ve seen or heard in the
time in between to make me think any differently,” Conner said with a smugness
that Nic found irritating to the extreme. “Her aunt says that the two of you
are dating now.”

“That’s right,” Nic
replied curtly. “What’s it to you?”          

“Allie needs someone stable. Someone she can rely on.
No offense, but I don’t think you have it in you to be any of those things for
her.”

And
you think you do?
Nic longed to say but bit his tongue. For
Allie’s sake, he simply replied, “I’m sorry to hear you say that.”

“My guess is that you’re probably not planning on
sticking around after you graduate. Am I right?” Rather than show Conner that
he was getting under his skin in any way, Nic simply chose to stare at his
nemesis, his face inscrutable, and say nothing. After a moment or two of
silence, Conner continued, undeterred. “What happens to her then? I’ll tell
you. You’ll leave her heartbroken while you go on your merry way.”

Nic felt blood rush to his face as he clenched his
fists and fought the urge to get back at him somehow. What does this slow-witted busybody know about him or what’s best for
Allie? Nothing.
With great effort, he retained his composure and said, “You
give her too little credit. You’ve known her since you were children but she’s
not a child anymore. She’s a smart, independent and savvy young woman who knows
what she wants and how to get it.”

Conner retorted, “You don’t think I know that? Allie
was doing just fine before you came along. She had everything and everyone she
needed until you came along and stuck your nose in her business.”

Nic’s patience was wearing thin. And so he simply to
cut to the chase and said, “Look, I’m sorry if I’ve ruined your plans but I
think she’s made it clear to you on multiple occasions that she has no interest
whatsoever in being anything other than your friend.”

“Of course she’s told you that. Why would she say
anything else after you weaseled your way into her life and…and corrupted her virtue?”

Nic blinked, open-mouthed. Did he really just say that? What century did he think they were living
in?
He took a deep breath, then said, “I’ve tried, for Allie’s sake, to be polite
to you even though you’ve been nothing but rude to me. For some reason, you’ve got
this deluded notion that she’s going to wake up some day and realize that she’s
in love with you. Well, here’s a newsflash for you. That’s never going to
happen, so stop acting like you’re some kind of white knight that’s going to
come in and save the day. She doesn’t want or need you.”

Just then, Nic felt a hand on his shoulder. It was
Allie.

“Conner, I think it’s time for you to go.”

Nic froze. How much had she heard? He glanced at
Conner, who was glaring at him. In fact, the guy looked like he was ready to
punch him out. But instead, he just shoved his hands into his pockets and said,
“Would you mind stepping away for minute? I need to speak with Allie alone.”

She replied, “Whatever you want to say to me, you can
say in front of him too.”

“Fine,” Conner said with a disgruntled look. “This guy
has trouble written all over him. Why can’t you see that?”

“Because I think you’re wrong, so I guess we’re just
going to have to agree to disagree on that,” she replied calmly.

Undaunted, Conner pointed his finger between his eyes and
said in a low, menacing voice, “You’re up to something, I can feel it. And when
I finally figure out what it is, you’re going to be sorry.”

“Conner, that’s enough.”

“Okay, fine.” Conner raised his hands and backed away.
“I’ll see you later.” He then turned on his heel and strode off in a huff.

Allie looked troubled as she slid her hand down Nic’s
arm and then gripped his hand. “I’m so sorry. Are you all right? What Conner
just did was so not okay. I mean, seriously, where does he get off thinking
that he can just come up and bad mouth you in front of me like that?”

“I’m fine. I’ve dealt with worse.”

“I thought he’d leave if I got up and went to the
restroom. Guess that didn’t work, did it?” she said with a sigh. “What did he
tell you?”

“Do you want to long or short version?”

Allie covered her face with her hands and said,
“Whichever you prefer.”

“He basically told me that he thinks I’m a jerk who’s
going to use you and then leave after I graduate.”

She groaned in dismay. “What did you say?”

“I told him to buzz off and get a life.”

“Good. I owe you one,” she replied, giggling with
relief. She then shook her head, adding, “He’s something else.”

“You can say that again,” Nic replied as he let go of
her hand. He leaned forward and picked up the still steaming cup of cappuccino,
raising it to his lips. After taking a sip, he placed it back on the saucer and
said, “This is pretty good.”

Allie nodded. She looked pensive. He wondered why as
he watched her scoop up a mouthful of her increasingly soupy looking gelato.

He patted her on the knee and said, “Talk to me.”

“I was just thinking of how good we are together,”
Allie replied while twiddling her thumbs. “On paper, you wouldn’t think we’d
have that much in common. On the one hand, there’s you, a worldly ex-footballer
from a wealthy Spanish family whose spent his life hobnobbing with celebrities
and sports stars. And then there’s me. A working-class girl who’s spent most of
her life with people who live paycheck to paycheck and have to scrimp and save so
that they’ll have the money to pay a plumber when the water heater goes out or
to buy a new appliance when the old one stops working.”

“I like your family. They’re honest, hardworking
individuals. Having money doesn’t make you a better person. A lot of those rich
and famous people I used to hang out with were actually rather shallow and
self-centered. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t that much different from them
at the time. I talked a good game and said the right things in public, but it
was mostly an act. I was happy to go with the flow and I rarely stopped to
think about the consequences of my actions.”

Allie seemed to shudder at the thought, “That’s hard
to imagine. The guy you’re describing sounds nothing like the one I fell in
love with. You’re conscientious, loyal and don’t seem at all like the kind of
person that would go and do something behind my back.”

Nic flinched. He was glad that she couldn’t see him. He
knew he looked and felt guilty. But weren’t his intentions good? In the end, wasn’t
that what really mattered? He replied, “Please don’t put me on a pedestal. I’m
far from perfect. You of all people should know that by now.”

“Your faults make you human. Just like me,” she said,
smiling warmly. “I appreciate the fact that you’ve always treated me like you’d
treat anybody else and not like a disabled girl who needs special treatment. It’s
also nice to know that I can count on you to have my back.”

“And you have mine,” Nic replied. “It’s not every day
that someone can say that they live with a person who’s their best friend,
lover and closest confidant all rolled into one.”

Allie blushed as she paused to take a sip of her
cappuccino. “I liked you from the start, but, believe me, I had no idea that
our relationship would turn out the way it has. It’s been great. Fabulous. But…”

“But what?”

“I think it’s also important to be realistic about
things, you know what I mean?”

Her words caught him off guard. Where exactly was she
going with this? Alarmed, he asked, “Please tell me that you don’t actually
think that anything Conner said was true. Do you honestly believe that I’m just
going to go back to Spain and forget all about you once I get my degree?” Knowing
that Allie was not one to mince her words or to refrain from speaking her mind,
her silence spoke volumes. He said, “Don’t you know what you mean to me? You’ve
changed me for the better and helped me to turn my life around. Do you really
think I would just walk away from you after all that we’ve been through?”

Allie’s mouth began to quiver as an errant tear
slipped down her cheek. She wiped it away and said, “I love you, Niki, so so much.
These last few months with you have meant the world to me but I know full well
that you had a life before you got here and that you’re most likely going to go
back to it. And when that time comes, I want you to know that I’ll be okay.”

“Te quiero, mi amor,” Nic replied in earnest. “I have
no intention of going anywhere now or in the future without you.”

“You say that now but what about the rest of your
family? I’m as blind as a bat and haven’t got a penny to my name, and I can
count the number of Spanish phrases I can say in one hand,” Allie stammered. “What
would they think of me?”

Given the lengthy conversations that he’d recently had
with this padre about her, Nic confidently replied, “They’d welcome you with
open arms and grow to love you just as I have.”

“Do you really think so?”

“They’re big hearted people who are well aware of the
physical and emotional pain that I’ve had to endure these last two years. I
came out of that car accident a broken man. The doctors both here and in Spain put
me back together as best as they could but you’re the one who brought me back
to life.”

Allie nodded and then was quiet for a moment. “Then I
guess you’re going to be stuck with me for a while.”

“Is that a threat?” Nic asked playfully.

“No,” Allie replied with a tearful smile. “It’s a
promise.”

“Are you ready to go?” Allie asked and lifted a
spoonful of cereal to her mouth. It was a little after eight o’clock in the
morning on the day before Thanksgiving.

“Yes,” Nic replied, hoping she wouldn’t ask many more questions
about his short trip to Los Angeles to visit is padre. “He’s a very busy man
and travels a lot to promote the family’s wine business.”

Allie looked thoughtful as she picked up her glass and
drank some orange juice. “How long did you say he’s going to be in the United
States?”

He replied, “A few days. But his schedule is going to
be packed with meetings and social events with friends who are in the area.”

“Are you going to stay with him the whole time he’s
here?”

“It depends,” he said, eyeing her curiously. Where was
he getting at with these questions? “At least a day or two, which is fine since
school’s out this week for Thanksgiving.”

“Oh, okay,” she replied in a feeble attempt to sound
casual and unconcerned.

Nic felt her anxiety growing with each question she posed
to him. And so he asked, “What is it? I can tell that something’s bothering
you.”

Allie made a face as she tore pieces off the paper
napkin in her hand but said nothing at first. Nic waited. Finally, she said, “Are
you embarrassed to introduce me to your dad? Is that why you’re not taking me
with you to see him?”

Nic was stunned. “Of course not. How can you say such
a thing, or even think it?”

“It’s just that you’ve been so evasive about this
whole trip,” Allie replied, biting her lip. “Every time I’ve asked you about
it, you always try to change the subject. It feels like you’re keeping
something from me. Am I wrong?”

No,
you’re not,
he thought, but said, “There are a lot of
personal matters that I need to discuss with him in private. You can understand
that, can’t you?”

“I do, but…” She huffed in frustration as her voice
trailed off.

Nic knelt beside Allie and took her hand in his. He
wanted to reassure her that all was well. “Te quiero mucho. Eres mi chica. You
know that, don’t you?” She nodded. “Like I said before, his schedule’s pretty
tight, and I actually feel kind of lucky that he was able to fit me in.
Besides, if you went with me to L.A., you’d miss Thanksgiving with your family.”

“I guess you’re right,” Allie reluctantly conceded. “And
I do have a term paper to work on. I suppose I won’t see you until this weekend
then.”

He said yes and asked, “Do you have any big plans
aside from school work and going to your aunt and uncle’s house for
Thanksgiving?”

Allie shook her head. “Thanksgiving at the Welch’s is
an all-day event. We basically eat from sunrise to sunset so don’t be surprised
if there’s a lot more of me to love when you get back.”

He laughed. “I’m sorry that I’m going to miss the fun.
Maybe next time.” He took his cell phone from his back pocket to check how
close his uber driver was to the apartment. He said, “I better wait outside.
The uber app is telling me that my driver is less than two blocks away now.”

“Have fun.”

“I will,” he replied as he stood up and then kissed
her on the forehead before picking up his backpack on the way out the door.

Three hours later, the uber driver dropped Nic off in
front of the Hyatt Regency near Los Angeles International Airport at around noon.
It had been a long and uneventful drive. He’d spent much of the time either surfing
the internet on his phone or napping as the car sped southward. Once there, he entered
the hotel and followed the signs to the unity la restaurant and found his padre,
a distinguished-looking man in a custom-tailored black suit with wisps of gray
hair sitting at a square-shaped wooden table closest to the entrance. They
greeted one another with a hug and kisses on each cheek before sitting down in light
gray padded seats.

“How are you?” his padre asked.

“I’m doing well. I’m getting high marks in my classes so
far and my English is much improved.”

“Excellent,” his father said with a smile. “I’ve
ordered a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon for us. Go on and take a minute to look
over the menu.”

Nic took a sip of water and perused the menu while his
padre checked his cell phone for messages. Once he’d decided on ordering the
rib eye steak, he asked, “How is everyone back home?”

“Good,” his padre replied as he dipped a piece of
bread into a small bowl of seasoned olive oil. “Everyone sends their regards.
Your abuelas want to know if you’ll be coming home for Christmas.”

Nic shook his head. “It takes over twelve hours to fly
from California to Spain without stopovers. It took me at least two days to recover
from jet lag and so the idea of flying back and forth like that for just a
two-week trip wouldn’t make sense.”

“Have you driven at all since you’ve been here?”

Nic stiffened and said, “No. My apartment is fairly
close to the business school and Allie’s aunt drives us to the grocery store
whenever we start running low on food.”

“Do you plan to?”

He hadn’t since the night of the accident and had no
desire to do so anytime soon but knew better than to say that outright to his
padre. So instead, he replied, “At some point, I suppose. Luckily for me, the
rideshare companies and mass transportation system in Hilton City are quite
good. I rarely have a problem getting where I need to go.”

His padre nodded, then asked, “Have you gone out much
since you’ve been here?”

“Yes. I like to take walks around the park near my
apartment to clear my head after class. I also go out with my friend Matt to
local sporting events or meet him for a drink at a bar on occasion.  But it’s Allie who’s really had the biggest
impact on me since I’ve been here.”

His padre sat back in his seat, looking thoughtful. “She
seems to have had a very beneficial effect on you. You look happier and more
content.”

“She’s a wonderful girl. I’m lucky to have her in my
life.”

“I look forward to meeting her at some point.”

His padre’s words triggered thoughts of the somewhat
tense conversation he’d recently had with Allie before leaving for L.A.
Although he could have confided this to his padre, he chose not to. Instead, he
asked, “How are Monica and Alejandro?”

“They’re well,” he replied. “Your hermano took his
first steps last week. He’s growing fast. You probably won’t be able to
recognize him the next time you see him.”

“Are you and Monica going to have more?”

His padre shook his head. “I’m getting too old to be
running after little ones. Monica understands that.” Their conversation took a
brief pause when their waiter, Jose, arrived with the bottle of wine his padre
had ordered.

As their glasses were being filled, Nic asked, “Have
you visited Mamá’s grave recently?”

“I went there last week and put a huge bouquet of red
roses on her gravestone,” his padre replied. “Those were her favorite.” A brief
silence ensued. After Jose had taken their orders and departed, he raised his
wine glass and said, “To Elena, until we meet again.”

Nic clinked his glass against his padre’s and took a
sip. They then spent some time reminiscing and exchanging stories about his
madre while scrupulously avoiding any mention of her illness or the
heartbreaking months leading up to her death.

“Do you miss her?” Nic asked.

His padre looked pensive as he swirled the wine in his
glass and stared at its contents. “I miss her every day. She left us far too
soon.”

“Did you know at once that she was the one you wanted
to spend the rest of your life with?”

He snorted and said, “Yes, I did. I was at a bar in
Madrid with a few of my friends when she walked in with another man. Not that I
let that stop me. I was already a fairly well-known goalkeeper for Real Madrid
so she and her companion were only too happy to have me join them at their
table. I slipped her my number before I left them to rejoin my friends. She called
me later that same day. The rest, as they say, is history.”

“What happened to the man she came with?”

“She left him. He was a few years older than she was
and rather plain looking. I don’t mean to sound boastful but I think that I was
clearly the better choice, don’t you agree?”  

Nic laughed as they clinked their glasses together once
again. “I miss her too. I think she would have liked Allie.”

His padre leaned forward and asked, “Tell me more about
her. Do you have a picture of her on your phone?”

He nodded and pulled his phone out of his jacket
pocket. He tapped the photos app, scrolled through his album and brought up a
picture he took of Allie in the park with Charlie. He then handed his phone
over to his padre, who took out his reading glasses and studied it carefully.

“She’s very pretty…and that’s quite a dog she has
there. What was his name?”

“Charlie. Losing him was very hard on her. They were very
close. It’s hard to believe that he’s been gone almost a month.”

“She has you,” his padre replied just as the waiter
arrived with their meals. The conversation continued as they ate. His padre
talked about his itinerary and invited Nic to join him for a few of his non-work-related
events. Nic agreed to some but demurred to others. “I made arrangements to come
and see you as soon as I got your text. I apologize that it took me as long as
it did to get here. As you well know, my work schedule is fairly hectic and I usually
book my business appointments weeks in advance. My secretary had to clear my
calendar and reschedule everything this week in order for me to make this
trip.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Nic replied. “We
could’ve just handled this over the phone.”

“Nonsense,” his padre replied with a dismissive waive
of his hand. “So, how do you propose to pay for this retinal implant surgery
without Allie knowing about it?”

“If you agree to help me, I plan on going to her aunt
and uncle and asking them for their assistance in making some kind of
arrangement with her eye doctor so that she will think that the money came from
an anonymous benefactor.”

“$150,000.00 is a lot of money.”

“I have more than half of that amount in liquid
accounts and easily convertible assets. I just need some help from you to come
up with the rest of it. But don’t worry, I fully intend to pay back every penny
that I borrow.”

“But Niki, if you do that, how would you live?”

“Papá, you don’t understand. This surgery could change
her life. Weren’t you the one who always told me that there’s no better way to
spend your money than on those that you love?”

“I did say that, didn’t I?” His padre leaned back in
his chair and rubbed his chin. “Do you see yourself having a future with her?”

“For my part, yes,” Nic replied without hesitation.

“What about Allie? Do you think she feels the same way
about you?”

Nic replied, “She’s told me that she loves me often
enough and, in my heart, I know that she’s being sincere when she says it.
But…”

“But what?”

“Look at me Papá. I’m hideous.”

His padre raised his eyebrows in indignation. “Are you
telling me that you think she might leave you because of the way you look?”

“She’s never done or said anything that would lead me
to think that she would,” Nic replied in Allie’s defense. “In fact, she’s made
it quite clear to me that he could care less what I look like now. In all honesty,
my deformities are probably more of an issue for me than they are for her.”

His father shook his head. “I’ve never understood your
need to punish yourself again and again over something you had no control over.”

“Even you must admit that what happened to Diego and
me was at least partially my fault. I’m the one who encouraged him to go
drinking with me after we lost the game. Neither of us should have been behind the
wheel after all the alcohol we consumed.”

He pointed his finger at Nic and said, “It was an
accident. You were a passenger in the car. It was Diego who chose to drive
while he was impaired and run that red light, not you.”

“I should have stopped him. We could have called a cab
or uber.”

“Niki, there’s nothing to be gained by constantly
rehashing mistakes that you made in the past and have no way of remedying now.
What’s done is done. You’ve suffered enough. It’s time to move on.”

Although his padre’s view of what had happened was
shared by his abuelos and Monica, he knew that was not necessarily true of others.
“Then why did so many people turn away from me? I lost everything and nearly everyone
around me.”

“Many of those people weren’t your real friends to
begin with. Others tried to be supportive, but you shut them out.”

“And Lourdes?”

His padre snorted in disgust. “I never liked her.
Neither did Monica or your abuelos. She was a social climber and an attention
whore. Consider yourself lucky that she left you.”

Although his words stung, Nic found could find no
fault in his padre’s assessment of his ex-girlfriend. But rather than dwell on
her, he pivoted, saying, “I felt so alone and angry before I met Allie. I hated
going out in public. I thought that I had to cover up and wear a mask wherever
I went to avoid being ridiculed and stared at. Being with her changed all that.
She’s given me a whole new outlook on life and a reason to be hopeful about the
future.”

“It’s good to see you smile again and in such high
spirits. For that, I owe her a great debt.”

Nic nodded. “I need to do this for her. I know it’s
the right thing to do. But still, there’s a part of me that’s afraid she might—”

His padre raised his hand and cut in. “If Allie is
even half the person that you say she is, then you should have absolutely nothing
to worry about.”

Just then, Jose walked by their table and asked them
if they were enjoying their meals. Nic’s padre smiled and told him to give his
compliments to the chef. As soon as the waiter moved on, Nic asked, “Will you
help me?”

Instead of providing him with a direct response, his
padre asked, “How soon will you need the money?”

“The sooner the better. From what Allie has told me,
these procedures are scheduled weeks if not months in advance, so I’d like to
get the ball rolling as quickly as possible.”

His padre reached for the wine bottle and poured it
into his wine glass, nearly filling it to the rim. He asked, “Would you like
more?”

“Yes,” Nic replied and held out his glass to be
refilled, his pulse quickening with nervousness as he waited for a definitive
response.

His padre said little for the next minute or two as he
took another bite of his steak and sipped his wine.  Nic did likewise and did he best to appear outwardly
calm even though the suspense was killing him. Finally, his padre said, “I’ll transfer
the funds directly into your checking account. $150,000.00. Is that the right
amount?”

Nic’s eyes widened in shock. “No, not that much. As I
said before, I only need to borrow the difference between what I have and—”

His father raised his hand and shook his head. “I
won’t have you emptying all your accounts when we both know that I can cover
the amount of money that you need to pay for Allie’s eye surgery.”

“I can’t ask you to do that. What would Monica say?”

“I’ve already discussed this with her at length. She
agreed that it would be best to do it this way. And don’t try to talk me out of
it. The issue is settled as far as I’m concerned and nothing you can do or say
will change my decision.”

Knowing that once his padre had made up his mind about
something that he was unlikely to alter it, he simply replied, “Thank you, Papá.”

“You’re welcome, and don’t even think of trying to pay
me back. Think of it as an early Christmas present.”

Nic smiled. “Do you think Mamá would approve?”

His padre nodded. “She loved you with all her heart,
as I do. If this makes you happy and will significantly improve the life of the
woman you love, I have no doubt that she would have given me her blessing to do
this.” He paused, then asked, “Do you think that you’ll be able to keep what
you’re about to do from her indefinitely?”

“The only people I plan on talking to directly about
this are her aunt, uncle and her doctors. The fewer people that know the
better. I don’t think they’ll have a problem with keeping this bit of
information from her if I ask them to.”

“But what if she finds out later? Will you tell her
the truth or try to deny it?”

Nic shrugged and said, “I’ll deal with it if and when
that eventuality comes to pass. But for now, all that matters to me is that she
be given this chance to see again.”

“I wish you well,” his padre replied. “Rest assured
that both you and Allie will be in my prayers.”

Late that evening, Nic lay on one of the queen sized
beds in his padre’s studio suite thinking about Allie. He’d declined his
padre’s invitation to join him for dinner and had instead opted to stay in and
have room service bring him his meal. He thought about the part of the conversation
he’d had with him about what he’d do if she ever found out that he’d paid for
her surgery. He guessed that she’d be upset and disappointed, maybe even angry
that he’d defied her express wishes. But, in the end, she’d forgive him,
wouldn’t she?

He dialed her number. She picked up on the second ring
and said, “Hey baby. Are you having a good time with your dad?”

“Yes, we had a couple of hours to catch up before he
went out to dinner with some friends. I was tired so I decided to stay in. What
did you do today?”

“My aunt picked me up not long after you left. I’m staying
with her and Uncle Mike through Thanksgiving. The apartment’s just too quiet
without you and Charlie there.” After a brief pause, she said, “I miss you.”

“I miss you more.”

“I doubt that,” she replied, giggling. “Te quiero. Did
I say that right?”

“Music to my ears, mi amor,” he replied, grinning. “I
love you, too.”

“Come back soon. Things just aren’t the same here
without you.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he replied as he thought
about how radically different and much improved Allie’s life might soon be after
his return.

“Are you ready to go?” Allie asked and lifted a
spoonful of cereal to her mouth. It was a little after eight o’clock in the
morning on the day before Thanksgiving.

“Yes,” Nic replied, hoping she wouldn’t ask many more questions
about his short trip to Los Angeles to visit is padre. “He’s a very busy man
and travels a lot to promote the family’s wine business.”

Allie looked thoughtful as she picked up her glass and
drank some orange juice. “How long did you say he’s going to be in the United
States?”

He replied, “A few days. But his schedule is going to
be packed with meetings and social events with friends who are in the area.”

“Are you going to stay with him the whole time he’s
here?”

“It depends,” he said, eyeing her curiously. Where was
he getting at with these questions? “At least a day or two, which is fine since
school’s out this week for Thanksgiving.”

“Oh, okay,” she replied in a feeble attempt to sound
casual and unconcerned.

Nic felt her anxiety growing with each question she posed
to him. And so he asked, “What is it? I can tell that something’s bothering
you.”

Allie made a face as she tore pieces off the paper
napkin in her hand but said nothing at first. Nic waited. Finally, she said, “Are
you embarrassed to introduce me to your dad? Is that why you’re not taking me
with you to see him?”

Nic was stunned. “Of course not. How can you say such
a thing, or even think it?”

“It’s just that you’ve been so evasive about this
whole trip,” Allie replied, biting her lip. “Every time I’ve asked you about
it, you always try to change the subject. It feels like you’re keeping
something from me. Am I wrong?”

No,
you’re not,
he thought, but said, “There are a lot of
personal matters that I need to discuss with him in private. You can understand
that, can’t you?”

“I do, but…” She huffed in frustration as her voice
trailed off.

Nic knelt beside Allie and took her hand in his. He
wanted to reassure her that all was well. “Te quiero mucho. Eres mi chica. You
know that, don’t you?” She nodded. “Like I said before, his schedule’s pretty
tight, and I actually feel kind of lucky that he was able to fit me in.
Besides, if you went with me to L.A., you’d miss Thanksgiving with your family.”

“I guess you’re right,” Allie reluctantly conceded. “And
I do have a term paper to work on. I suppose I won’t see you until this weekend
then.”

He said yes and asked, “Do you have any big plans
aside from school work and going to your aunt and uncle’s house for
Thanksgiving?”

Allie shook her head. “Thanksgiving at the Welch’s is
an all-day event. We basically eat from sunrise to sunset so don’t be surprised
if there’s a lot more of me to love when you get back.”

He laughed. “I’m sorry that I’m going to miss the fun.
Maybe next time.” He took his cell phone from his back pocket to check how
close his uber driver was to the apartment. He said, “I better wait outside.
The uber app is telling me that my driver is less than two blocks away now.”

“Have fun.”

“I will,” he replied as he stood up and then kissed
her on the forehead before picking up his backpack on the way out the door.

Three hours later, the uber driver dropped Nic off in
front of the Hyatt Regency near Los Angeles International Airport at around noon.
It had been a long and uneventful drive. He’d spent much of the time either surfing
the internet on his phone or napping as the car sped southward. Once there, he entered
the hotel and followed the signs to the unity la restaurant and found his padre,
a distinguished-looking man in a custom-tailored black suit with wisps of gray
hair sitting at a square-shaped wooden table closest to the entrance. They
greeted one another with a hug and kisses on each cheek before sitting down in light
gray padded seats.

“How are you?” his padre asked.

“I’m doing well. I’m getting high marks in my classes so
far and my English is much improved.”

“Excellent,” his father said with a smile. “I’ve
ordered a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon for us. Go on and take a minute to look
over the menu.”

Nic took a sip of water and perused the menu while his
padre checked his cell phone for messages. Once he’d decided on ordering the
rib eye steak, he asked, “How is everyone back home?”

“Good,” his padre replied as he dipped a piece of
bread into a small bowl of seasoned olive oil. “Everyone sends their regards.
Your abuelas want to know if you’ll be coming home for Christmas.”

Nic shook his head. “It takes over twelve hours to fly
from California to Spain without stopovers. It took me at least two days to recover
from jet lag and so the idea of flying back and forth like that for just a
two-week trip wouldn’t make sense.”

“Have you driven at all since you’ve been here?”

Nic stiffened and said, “No. My apartment is fairly
close to the business school and Allie’s aunt drives us to the grocery store
whenever we start running low on food.”

“Do you plan to?”

He hadn’t since the night of the accident and had no
desire to do so anytime soon but knew better than to say that outright to his
padre. So instead, he replied, “At some point, I suppose. Luckily for me, the
rideshare companies and mass transportation system in Hilton City are quite
good. I rarely have a problem getting where I need to go.”

His padre nodded, then asked, “Have you gone out much
since you’ve been here?”

“Yes. I like to take walks around the park near my
apartment to clear my head after class. I also go out with my friend Matt to
local sporting events or meet him for a drink at a bar on occasion.  But it’s Allie who’s really had the biggest
impact on me since I’ve been here.”

His padre sat back in his seat, looking thoughtful. “She
seems to have had a very beneficial effect on you. You look happier and more
content.”

“She’s a wonderful girl. I’m lucky to have her in my
life.”

“I look forward to meeting her at some point.”

His padre’s words triggered thoughts of the somewhat
tense conversation he’d recently had with Allie before leaving for L.A.
Although he could have confided this to his padre, he chose not to. Instead, he
asked, “How are Monica and Alejandro?”

“They’re well,” he replied. “Your hermano took his
first steps last week. He’s growing fast. You probably won’t be able to
recognize him the next time you see him.”

“Are you and Monica going to have more?”

His padre shook his head. “I’m getting too old to be
running after little ones. Monica understands that.” Their conversation took a
brief pause when their waiter, Jose, arrived with the bottle of wine his padre
had ordered.

As their glasses were being filled, Nic asked, “Have
you visited Mamá’s grave recently?”

“I went there last week and put a huge bouquet of red
roses on her gravestone,” his padre replied. “Those were her favorite.” A brief
silence ensued. After Jose had taken their orders and departed, he raised his
wine glass and said, “To Elena, until we meet again.”

Nic clinked his glass against his padre’s and took a
sip. They then spent some time reminiscing and exchanging stories about his
madre while scrupulously avoiding any mention of her illness or the
heartbreaking months leading up to her death.

“Do you miss her?” Nic asked.

His padre looked pensive as he swirled the wine in his
glass and stared at its contents. “I miss her every day. She left us far too
soon.”

“Did you know at once that she was the one you wanted
to spend the rest of your life with?”

He snorted and said, “Yes, I did. I was at a bar in
Madrid with a few of my friends when she walked in with another man. Not that I
let that stop me. I was already a fairly well-known goalkeeper for Real Madrid
so she and her companion were only too happy to have me join them at their
table. I slipped her my number before I left them to rejoin my friends. She called
me later that same day. The rest, as they say, is history.”

“What happened to the man she came with?”

“She left him. He was a few years older than she was
and rather plain looking. I don’t mean to sound boastful but I think that I was
clearly the better choice, don’t you agree?”  

Nic laughed as they clinked their glasses together once
again. “I miss her too. I think she would have liked Allie.”

His padre leaned forward and asked, “Tell me more about
her. Do you have a picture of her on your phone?”

He nodded and pulled his phone out of his jacket
pocket. He tapped the photos app, scrolled through his album and brought up a
picture he took of Allie in the park with Charlie. He then handed his phone
over to his padre, who took out his reading glasses and studied it carefully.

“She’s very pretty…and that’s quite a dog she has
there. What was his name?”

“Charlie. Losing him was very hard on her. They were very
close. It’s hard to believe that he’s been gone almost a month.”

“She has you,” his padre replied just as the waiter
arrived with their meals. The conversation continued as they ate. His padre
talked about his itinerary and invited Nic to join him for a few of his non-work-related
events. Nic agreed to some but demurred to others. “I made arrangements to come
and see you as soon as I got your text. I apologize that it took me as long as
it did to get here. As you well know, my work schedule is fairly hectic and I usually
book my business appointments weeks in advance. My secretary had to clear my
calendar and reschedule everything this week in order for me to make this
trip.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Nic replied. “We
could’ve just handled this over the phone.”

“Nonsense,” his padre replied with a dismissive waive
of his hand. “So, how do you propose to pay for this retinal implant surgery
without Allie knowing about it?”

“If you agree to help me, I plan on going to her aunt
and uncle and asking them for their assistance in making some kind of
arrangement with her eye doctor so that she will think that the money came from
an anonymous benefactor.”

“$150,000.00 is a lot of money.”

“I have more than half of that amount in liquid
accounts and easily convertible assets. I just need some help from you to come
up with the rest of it. But don’t worry, I fully intend to pay back every penny
that I borrow.”

“But Niki, if you do that, how would you live?”

“Papá, you don’t understand. This surgery could change
her life. Weren’t you the one who always told me that there’s no better way to
spend your money than on those that you love?”

“I did say that, didn’t I?” His padre leaned back in
his chair and rubbed his chin. “Do you see yourself having a future with her?”

“For my part, yes,” Nic replied without hesitation.

“What about Allie? Do you think she feels the same way
about you?”

Nic replied, “She’s told me that she loves me often
enough and, in my heart, I know that she’s being sincere when she says it.
But…”

“But what?”

“Look at me Papá. I’m hideous.”

His padre raised his eyebrows in indignation. “Are you
telling me that you think she might leave you because of the way you look?”

“She’s never done or said anything that would lead me
to think that she would,” Nic replied in Allie’s defense. “In fact, she’s made
it quite clear to me that he could care less what I look like now. In all honesty,
my deformities are probably more of an issue for me than they are for her.”

His father shook his head. “I’ve never understood your
need to punish yourself again and again over something you had no control over.”

“Even you must admit that what happened to Diego and
me was at least partially my fault. I’m the one who encouraged him to go
drinking with me after we lost the game. Neither of us should have been behind the
wheel after all the alcohol we consumed.”

He pointed his finger at Nic and said, “It was an
accident. You were a passenger in the car. It was Diego who chose to drive
while he was impaired and run that red light, not you.”

“I should have stopped him. We could have called a cab
or uber.”

“Niki, there’s nothing to be gained by constantly
rehashing mistakes that you made in the past and have no way of remedying now.
What’s done is done. You’ve suffered enough. It’s time to move on.”

Although his padre’s view of what had happened was
shared by his abuelos and Monica, he knew that was not necessarily true of others.
“Then why did so many people turn away from me? I lost everything and nearly everyone
around me.”

“Many of those people weren’t your real friends to
begin with. Others tried to be supportive, but you shut them out.”

“And Lourdes?”

His padre snorted in disgust. “I never liked her.
Neither did Monica or your abuelos. She was a social climber and an attention
whore. Consider yourself lucky that she left you.”

Although his words stung, Nic found could find no
fault in his padre’s assessment of his ex-girlfriend. But rather than dwell on
her, he pivoted, saying, “I felt so alone and angry before I met Allie. I hated
going out in public. I thought that I had to cover up and wear a mask wherever
I went to avoid being ridiculed and stared at. Being with her changed all that.
She’s given me a whole new outlook on life and a reason to be hopeful about the
future.”

“It’s good to see you smile again and in such high
spirits. For that, I owe her a great debt.”

Nic nodded. “I need to do this for her. I know it’s
the right thing to do. But still, there’s a part of me that’s afraid she might—”

His padre raised his hand and cut in. “If Allie is
even half the person that you say she is, then you should have absolutely nothing
to worry about.”

Just then, Jose walked by their table and asked them
if they were enjoying their meals. Nic’s padre smiled and told him to give his
compliments to the chef. As soon as the waiter moved on, Nic asked, “Will you
help me?”

Instead of providing him with a direct response, his
padre asked, “How soon will you need the money?”

“The sooner the better. From what Allie has told me,
these procedures are scheduled weeks if not months in advance, so I’d like to
get the ball rolling as quickly as possible.”

His padre reached for the wine bottle and poured it
into his wine glass, nearly filling it to the rim. He asked, “Would you like
more?”

“Yes,” Nic replied and held out his glass to be
refilled, his pulse quickening with nervousness as he waited for a definitive
response.

His padre said little for the next minute or two as he
took another bite of his steak and sipped his wine.  Nic did likewise and did he best to appear outwardly
calm even though the suspense was killing him. Finally, his padre said, “I’ll transfer
the funds directly into your checking account. $150,000.00. Is that the right
amount?”

Nic’s eyes widened in shock. “No, not that much. As I
said before, I only need to borrow the difference between what I have and—”

His father raised his hand and shook his head. “I
won’t have you emptying all your accounts when we both know that I can cover
the amount of money that you need to pay for Allie’s eye surgery.”

“I can’t ask you to do that. What would Monica say?”

“I’ve already discussed this with her at length. She
agreed that it would be best to do it this way. And don’t try to talk me out of
it. The issue is settled as far as I’m concerned and nothing you can do or say
will change my decision.”

Knowing that once his padre had made up his mind about
something that he was unlikely to alter it, he simply replied, “Thank you, Papá.”

“You’re welcome, and don’t even think of trying to pay
me back. Think of it as an early Christmas present.”

Nic smiled. “Do you think Mamá would approve?”

His padre nodded. “She loved you with all her heart,
as I do. If this makes you happy and will significantly improve the life of the
woman you love, I have no doubt that she would have given me her blessing to do
this.” He paused, then asked, “Do you think that you’ll be able to keep what
you’re about to do from her indefinitely?”

“The only people I plan on talking to directly about
this are her aunt, uncle and her doctors. The fewer people that know the
better. I don’t think they’ll have a problem with keeping this bit of
information from her if I ask them to.”

“But what if she finds out later? Will you tell her
the truth or try to deny it?”

Nic shrugged and said, “I’ll deal with it if and when
that eventuality comes to pass. But for now, all that matters to me is that she
be given this chance to see again.”

“I wish you well,” his padre replied. “Rest assured
that both you and Allie will be in my prayers.”

Late that evening, Nic lay on one of the queen sized
beds in his padre’s studio suite thinking about Allie. He’d declined his
padre’s invitation to join him for dinner and had instead opted to stay in and
have room service bring him his meal. He thought about the part of the conversation
he’d had with him about what he’d do if she ever found out that he’d paid for
her surgery. He guessed that she’d be upset and disappointed, maybe even angry
that he’d defied her express wishes. But, in the end, she’d forgive him,
wouldn’t she?

He dialed her number. She picked up on the second ring
and said, “Hey baby. Are you having a good time with your dad?”

“Yes, we had a couple of hours to catch up before he
went out to dinner with some friends. I was tired so I decided to stay in. What
did you do today?”

“My aunt picked me up not long after you left. I’m staying
with her and Uncle Mike through Thanksgiving. The apartment’s just too quiet
without you and Charlie there.” After a brief pause, she said, “I miss you.”

“I miss you more.”

“I doubt that,” she replied, giggling. “Te quiero. Did
I say that right?”

“Music to my ears, mi amor,” he replied, grinning. “I
love you, too.”

“Come back soon. Things just aren’t the same here
without you.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he replied as he thought
about how radically different and much improved Allie’s life might soon be after
his return.

A week later, Allie and Nic arrived with Aunt Lara at
the Welch residence at noon with Charlie’s cremated remains. Uncle Mike had dug
a hole next to the shade tree in his backyard the night before while Aunt Lara
had set up a table in the backyard with flowers and framed pictures of Charlie
on it. They were greeted by a small group of friends, family members and a few
dog owners whose pets had often played with Charlie in the park.

After placing Charlie’s urn on top of the table in the
backyard next to Charlie’s photographs, Allie joined in on the potluck set out
on the dining room table. Nic and Aunt Lara sat on either side of her while her
cousins and Tara Olsen, the woman who had raised and trained Charlie to be a
guide dog, sat across from her. For an hour or so, they fondly exchanged
stories about Charlie as they ate their meal and expressed their condolences to
Allie over his passing.

Once everyone had finished eating, they all gathered around
Allie as she stood with the urn in her hands in front of the shade tree. The
mood was solemn as Nic and the others watched her place it in the hole in the ground.
He looked up at the darkening sky and prayed that it wouldn’t rain.

Allie, who seemed oblivious to the weather and
everything else that was going on around her, bowed her head as she sat on the
ground with her hands on the lid of the urn and prayed. When she was ready, she
stood up and turned around to face everyone. “Thank you all so much for coming,”
she said, fighting back tears. “As you can all probably imagine, it’s been a
very difficult week for me. Charlie just wasn’t a pet. He was my right-hand
man. He was also my protector and best friend. I’m going to miss him.”

With that said, Nic took her hand in his and held it
tight as she came and stood by his side.
Uncle Mike came forward, shovel in hand, and began to fill the hole with
dirt while everyone in attendance paid their final respects before departing.  

Nic and Allie went over to the porch swing directly
facing the shade tree and sat in companionable silence for some time afterward as
they slowly rocked back and forth.  He had
his arm around her while she leaned her head against his shoulder. Finally,
Allie said, “Do you believe that pets go to heaven too?”

Nic smiled. “If there was ever a dog that deserved to,
I bet Charlie would be at the top of the list.”

“I can totally see my parents spoiling him right now,”
Allie replied. “My dad’s sister, Aunt Susie, told me how good he was with dogs
while they were growing up. I just wish I’d had more time with him, you know.”

“Do you remember much about him?”

Allie shook her head. “I was only five when he died on
9/11.” She bit her lip, then added, “The only clear memory I have of him is
running into his arms after opening all my Christmas presents. Right after he
died, Aunt Lara said that she often found me crying while looking through
family photo albums with him in it.”

He pictured her as a little girl and wished that he
could go back in time to comfort her and tell her that everything was going to
be all right. “Tell me about your mother. What was she
like?”

“I was only eight when my mom died of lung cancer so
even my memories of her have gotten a little fuzzy,” Allie replied with notable
regret. “I remember watching her through the screen door while she smoked. She
always seemed kind of sad. I don’t think she ever really got over losing my
dad.”

Nic replied, “I was thirteen when my madre died of
breast cancer. She was diagnosed when I was twelve. She underwent a mastectomy
and did a round of chemotherapy. Afterward, the doctors told her that she was
cancer free. But then, when she went in for a checkup a year later, they
discovered that it had spread to her other organs. She died less than six
months later.”

It felt good to tell her this. Outside of his padre
and abuelos, he’d largely kept these painful memories of his madre to himself.
But with her, it was different. He felt like he could talk to her about
anything without judgment. He was also firm in his belief that she would keep
his secrets in the strictest of confidence and would never use them against
him.

“I don’t think you ever really get over losing a
parent,” Allie said. “I used to get so jealous of all the other kids at school
when I would see them getting picked up by their mom or dad after school. Don’t
get me wrong, my aunt and uncle have been awesome and did everything they could
to make sure I felt safe and loved, but…”

“You don’t have to explain. I had similar feelings
when it came to my madrasta. I think that the English word for it is
stepmother. Monica was gracious and kind from the first moment my padre
introduced her to me. Even so, part of me resented her presence in our lives
and worried that she might diminish the place my madre held in my padre’s
heart.”

“Did that happen?”

“No,” Nic replied. “She has treated my madre’s place
in our lives with the utmost respect and consideration. My padre was devastated
after she died. Monica gave him a reason to smile and showed him that it was
possible to love again.”

Allie was quiet for a moment, then said, “I miss
Charlie.”

Nic kissed her forehead and pulled her closer. “You’re
going to be okay. Just give it time. We’ve both been through this kind of loss
before. Maybe when you get your new guide dog—”

“That’s the thing,” Allie cut in. “I don’t know if I
want to do that.”

That was news to Nic. Although Allie had shown him in
the last few days that she was perfectly capable of getting around campus on
her own, he’d assumed that she’d get another dog once she’d finished grieving
over Charlie. He asked, “Why not?”

“I’ve been thinking more and more about that retinal
implant surgery my ophthalmologist, Dr. Severin, told me about. He’s said that I’d
be an ideal candidate for the procedure. To be eligible, you need to be over
the age of 21, have little or no light perception in both eyes and have had
previous sight.” She then paused and shook her head, adding, “I just wish that
I could afford to do it.”

“How much money are we talking about?”

Allie sighed and said, “$150,000.00. Even if I start
working full-time right after I graduate, most of my take home pay is going to go
toward food, rent and repaying my student loans. Social workers don’t exactly
get paid the big bucks. It might take me decades before I’d be able to save up
the money for it.”

“How much of your sight would this procedure restore?”

She furrowed her brow in thought, then said, “I don’t
think I’d be able to see as well as you can. The know-how’s just not there yet,
but Dr. Severin did say that the technology involved in the most recently
FDA-approved retinal implant procedure would likely give me the ability to see
full images and read print,” Allie replied, the excitement in her voice palpable.
“I’d be able to see you and get around without having to use a cane or a guide
dog. Imagine that.”

Although the idea of her seeing his mangled face
filled him with anxiety and dread, he kept those thoughts to himself. Instead,
he asked her, “How long would the surgery take?”

“About four hours, I think. And then, a couple of
weeks later, I’d be outfitted with a pair of high-tech glasses that would work
together with the implant to give me my eyesight back.”

A brief lull in the conversation ensued. During this
time, Nic calculated the amount of money he had in liquid and near-liquid assets
in his head and how long it would take to transfer it into his checking
account. All in all, he estimated that he had about $100,000.00 that he could easily
access. He asked, “Would you say to a friend if he gave you the money to pay
for it?”

“No,” Allie replied flatly. “I would never ask someone
I knew to shell out that kind of money for me. I just don’t think that I’d feel
comfortable accepting it.”

Her reply reminded him of her reaction when he’d recently
offered to pay for Charlie’s vet bills. Despite her flat-out refusal to accept
any assistance in this regard, he inquired further. “But what if that person had
the means and the desire to do it and made it clear to you that he or she
didn’t want nor expect anything in return?”

“I’d still say no. It’s my problem, no one else’s, and
I would never ask a friend to shoulder that kind of financial burden on my
account.”

“So, you’re telling me that there’s no way you’d do
the surgery unless you paid for it yourself?”

After a brief pause, she replied, “The only way I
could see myself doing it with someone else’s money would be if it had been
donated to the university’s Eye Institute for patients like me who need this
type of surgery. But I’m not going to hold my breath for that to happen anytime
soon.”

For a little while, they said little as they continued
to swing back and forth, each lost in thought. Nic, for his part, found the
part of himself that wanted to do whatever he could to help her see again to be
increasingly at odds with his fear that she might be repulsed by the way he
looked once her sight was restored.

Allie spoke up first.  “You’re awfully quiet. What’s on your mind?”

“I was just thinking about what you said…about seeing
my face.”

“And?”

“Most people who have have either had a big laugh about
it at my expense or recoiled in disgust.”

“I wouldn’t. You know that, right?”

“If you actually knew what I looked like, you might
think differently.”

Allie frowned. “It’s what a person’s like on the
inside that counts. The man that I’ve gotten to know is funny, intelligent and kind.
You’re someone that I can count on and confide in. Do you have any idea how
much your friendship has meant to me?”

“I’d do it again,” Nic confessed as his chest
tightened with emotion. For you,
anything.

“I know you would,” Allie replied. “And I’d be there
for you too.”

Nic paused, then said, “I sometimes wish you could have
known me before…when I was still whole.”

“Nicole told me that you looked hot in the pictures
she saw of you on the internet,” Allie said with a laugh. Nic smiled. “But I
doubt that that guy would have looked at me twice.”

“That’s not true.”

“Is it?” Allie bit her lip as she twirled strands of
her hair around her fingers. “I bet you had girls falling all over themselves for
your attention. Nicole said that your ex-girlfriend looked like a goddess. I could
never have ever competed with a woman like that.”

“You’re nothing like her, and that’s a good thing. You’re
beautiful inside and out, and…” Even though he longed to say, “I can’t imagine
being with anyone else but you,” he instead opted to say, “I’m glad we’re
friends.”

Allie looked pensive. Nic wondered what she might be
thinking. Finally, she said, “Do you ever think about us being more than that?”

Although the question had been running through his
mind for some time, hearing it come from her mouth still caught him by surprise.
After a moment or two of agonizing indecision, he decided to be forthright and tell
her the truth. “Yes, all the time.”

“And when were you planning on letting me in on your
little secret?”

“I was waiting for the right time,” Nic replied. “I
guess I was afraid it might scare you away if I did and you didn’t feel the
same way about me.”

She teased, “We’ve only been sleeping together for the
past week.”

“Allie, there’s sleeping together, and then there’s
sleeping together,” he said with a smirk. “Cuddling and treating me like a
human security blanket doesn’t count.”

“Ouch,” Allie exclaimed with mock offense. “I’m hurt.
I never once thought of what we’ve been doing in that way. I thought you knew
me better.”

Nic snorted. “You needed me. I was there for you. That’s
what friends do.”

Allie furrowed her brow. “Do you think we should try?”

“I’d like to,” Nic replied slowly.

“So would I,” Allie said without hesitation and gave
his hand a squeeze.

Just then, Aunt Lara popped her head through the
screen door and asked, “Are you kids ready to go yet?”

Allie smile as she nudged Nic in the ribs and said,
“Yeah, let’s go home.”

Later that day, Nic approached the front door of the
apartment with almost giddy anticipation. He’d gone out and picked up a pizza
and bought a dozen red roses at a nearby convenience store for Allie after her
aunt had dropped them off. He fumbled and dropped his keys on the ground before
inserting it in the lock and opening the door. He called out to her and put the
flowers and pizza on the kitchen table. When she didn’t answer, he walked over
to her room and peeked inside. She wasn’t there. He pulled his cell phone out,
which he had set to silent mode while at the Welch’s residence, and checked for
messages. Nothing. Where did she go? he
wondered as he stepped into his room. He dropped his wallet and keys on his
desk and then decided to take a shower.

He undressed, leaving his clothes on the bed, and headed
toward the bathroom. He turned on the faucet and stepped into the shower. As the
water cascaded down his face, he thought of her and became aroused. He immediately
lowered the temperature of the water and lathered up.  After rinsing off, he happened to glance at
the fogged-up mirror as he was getting out. He moved toward it and rubbed away some
of the condensation with his hands. Feelings of anger and resentment quickly
welled up inside him as his eyes traveled from his bald head and mangled ear to
the rough and discolored skin on his right arm and chest. The flinched at the idea
of Allie touching those parts of his body. He hung his head and walked away.

He had just put on a clean pair of jeans and a blood
red polo shirt when he heard the front door open. He slipped a foil packet in his
jeans pocket along with his cell phone and went out to the living room. He
caught Allie smelling the flowers he’d bought for her. He smiled and said, “Do
you like them?”

Allie nodded. “They smell heavenly.”

Nic came up behind Allie and wrapped his arms around her
waist. She leaned against him and sighed contentedly. His body stilled as she
turned to face him. She placed her hands on the sides of his face and gave him
a kiss. Once their lips had parted, he asked, “Where did you go?”

“I went to the park across the street. I was feeling
kind of restless after you left so I decided to go out for a bit and stretch my
legs. I ran into an elderly couple whose dog sometimes played with Charlie. We
had a nice chat. They told me that he’d be missed.”

He rested his forehead against hers. “Are you sure you
want to do this with me?”

“Are you having second thoughts?” she replied.

“No, no. It’s just that—”  

Allie placed a finger on his lips and said, “Don’t
ruin the moment. Just go with it.”

Nic’s eyes widened in amusement. What should he do
next? He wanted her…now. But a voice inside him urged restraint. Take it slow. Don’t rush.

She sniffed the air and said, “I could smell the pizza
the minute I walked in. Are you hungry?”

“It’s only five o’clock, but we can eat if you want
to.”

“It is kind of early. So, is there something else that
you’d like to do instead?”

Nic suddenly felt tongue-tied. “Well uh…we could…umm…”

Allie giggled as she nuzzled his neck and said, “Come
with me.”

Nic willingly followed, besotted as she led him to her
room. When they reached her doorway, he stopped and watched with bated breath as
she moved toward the bed and undressed. She was slender with long, shapely legs
and creamy white skin.  His mind went
blank with desire as she pulled the scrunchy from her hair and beckoned him to
come closer.

Was this really happening? She slid under the covers
ahead of him. He fumbled with his clothes and then threw them aside as he
climbed in after her. But the moment her hand touched his bare and partially
mottled chest, he recoiled as if stung by a bee.

“What’s wrong?” Allie asked, taken aback.

“I’m sorry,” Nic replied. “It’s been almost two years
since I’ve been intimate with someone and…and no one besides that doctors and
nurses that treated me have ever touched the parts of me that burned. My skin is
discolored, uneven and rough there. I’m glad you can’t see it.”

Allie replied, “I love you, Nic. Every part of you. The
good and the bad. Inside and out. You got that?”

Nic felt his heart swell with love as the import of
her words sank in. She loved him, scars and all, without condition or
reservation. What more could he ask for? Nothing. She was everything he could
have ever wished for and wanted in a partner, and more. With trembling hands,
he reached out and stroked her cheek. He told her he loved her too and pulled
her close as he asked, “Do you believe in fate?”

“I guess,” Allie said, looking slightly puzzled by the
question. “Why do you ask?”

“Because there’s a part of me that thinks that my
meeting you might not have been an accident. Maybe God felt sorry for me and
thought that you were the one person that could help me move on with my life and
live again.”

Allie smiled. “Have I done that?”

Nic placed the tips of his fingers on her chin as he
leaned in and kissed her. “Yes, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than
right here with you.”

After weeks of indecision
and uncertainty, they were now on the verge of making the leap from friends to
lovers. He shifted her onto her back before rolling his body atop hers. He was
determined to make love to her slowly, completely. He wanted to make sure that it
would be a night that neither one of them would ever forget.

He explored her body with
his lips and hands for some time before reaching for the foil packet he’d placed
on the nightstand. After making his way into her, he reveled in the pleasured
sounds she made as their bodies quickly found their rhythm.  For him, it was so much more than a physical
act. It was a means to express the depth and breadth of his feelings for her in
a way that mere words could never have adequately conveyed. Each kiss and caress
came with a promise that this was only the beginning and that he would be hers,
body and soul, for as long she would have him. And when she cried out again and
again as her body clinched around him, he quickly added his voice to hers while
reaching his own earth-shattering release.

Afterward, their bodies remained entwined long after
the heat of passion had cooled down to a low simmer. Allie drifted off to sleep.
Nic, however, remained wide awake as he stared at the ceiling and considered
his options. He wanted her in his life for the foreseeable future. Of that much
he was certain. But whether she would be willing to uproot herself for his sake
and live in a country where she knew no one and didn’t speak the language was very
much an open question. The more he thought about it, the more complicated and
fraught with roadblocks the path to achieving his goal of having her in his
life long-term became.

Another issue that
occupied his mind was his desire to help her find a way to pay for the retinal
implant surgery she needed in order to see again. Unfortunately, he quickly
surmised that the biggest obstacle in that regard was going to be Allie herself
and her insistence that she pay for the procedure herself. After mulling things
over, he formulated a plan and then pushed back the covers and swung his legs
over the side of the bed. He picked his pants up off the floor and took his
cell phone out of a back pocket. He tapped on the text message app, typed in
his father’s telephone number and sent him a text asking him for his advice and
assistance in liquidating his assets. He then slid back into bed beside Allie
and wrapped his arms around her once more. She purred like a contented cat as
she curled her body around him and rested her head on his chest. He kissed the
top of her head and brushed her cheek with his finger.

I will find a way to help you see again, whether you want me to or not.
You don’t have to carry this burden alone. It’s my problem too. But don’t
worry, I’ll take care of everything.

It was Friday night and the air was crisp and cool as
Nic and Allie strolled side-by-side with Charlie under the night time sky. They
had just finished eating dinner at a nearby bistro and were headed home. The
sidewalks were teaming with university students jostling one another as they came
in and out of the numerous cafes, restaurants and clubs in the area. Allie, who
was wearing black leggings and a lavender cardigan over a white blouse with
open-toed sandals, took it all in stride while Charlie slowly and carefully
maneuvered around the various obstacles and people in their path.

“Happy anniversary,” Allie said cheerfully as she
tugged on Nic’s arm and waited at an intersection for the walk sign to cross.

Nic smiled. “Has it really been a month since we moved
in together?”

“It doesn’t feel like it, does it? I guess time does
fly when you’re having fun.”

“I think so too,” Nic replied with satisfaction. Although
in recent weeks he’d often thought about the possibility of their relationship
taking a romantic turn, the reality was that he’d done almost nothing to date to
turn that idea into a reality. He kept putting it off, making excuse after
excuse as to why the timing just wasn’t right. He did it even though he knew full
well that there would come a time in the not so distant future when his desire
for her would inexorably drive him to do it.

“Nicole’s instincts were right on target. Having you
as a roommate has been great. I couldn’t have asked for a better replacement
for her than you.”

“Glad to hear it,” Nic replied. “I’m not exactly the
tidiest person in the world but I’ve really tried hard to keep all the places
we share, like the kitchen and bathroom, neat and clean for you.”

“I know you do.” After a brief pause, Allie said, “I’ve
always kind of wondered why you didn’t rent a bigger and nicer place for
yourself when you first moved here. As a professional footballer, I’m guessing
that you probably earned a six-figure salary, so it’s not like you had to live
as a boarder with the Wilsons or needed to have a roommate like I did.”

“I incurred a lot of medical expenses as a result of
the accident. Besides, money isn’t everything, and it almost certainly can’t
buy happiness. My parents taught me that a long time ago.”

Just then, the crosswalk signal turned green and beeped.
He started forward, then noticed that Charlie hadn’t moved.

“Come on, buddy,” Allie gently urged and pulled on his
harness. The dog hesitated, then whimpered softly as he slowly got to his feet
and began to move.

“Is he all right?” Nic asked.

Allie furrowed her brow. “He’s been more sluggish than
usual today and hasn’t had much of an appetite. I was thinking about making an
appointment for him with the vet on Monday. It’s closed now and won’t reopen
until then. What do you think?”

“Maybe you should, just to be safe, especially since
you rely on him so much to get around.” Allie nodded in agreement.

They arrived at their apartment shortly thereafter.
Allie gave Nic a quick peck on the cheek before heading off to her room with
Charlie in tow. Too restless to go to sleep, he decided to plop on the futon in
the living room and surf the internet through his iphone. Before he knew it, he’d
drifted off to sleep.

It was midnight when Nic heard Allie cry out. He sat
bolt upright and hurried over to her room. The door was closed. He knocked and
called out to her.  

“Nic, oh Nic, please come in.”

He turned the doorknob and stepped inside. Her bedroom
was pitch black. He felt for the light switch and flipped it on. The room
filled with light. He caught sight of Allie hovering over Charlie in one corner
of the room. He rushed to her side and knelt down.

“Something’s wrong with Charlie,” Allie stammered,
red-eyed and shaking from head to toe. He looked down at the dog, who looked
like he was having a seizure.

“What do you want me to do?” Nic asked.

“Can you hand me my phone? I need to call my aunt.”

“Sure. Where is it?”

“On my nightstand. Please hurry.”

Nic quickly retrieved Allie’s phone and handed it to
her. She dialed her aunt’s number after activating the voice command function.
Aunt Lara answered on the second ring.

“Charlie’s really sick,” Allie said, her voice unsteady.
“Can you take us to the emergency pet hospital on Grover Street?”

“Of course, honey,” Aunt Lara replied.

“Do you think Uncle Mike would mind if you brought
over his SUV over rather than your car? That way, we could just carry Charlie
to the car in his bed and slide him in through the tailgate. I think that would
be a lot easier than trying to get him into your backseat.”

“I agree. Anything else?”

“No, I think that’s it.”

“Just try to stay calm and hang in there. I’ll be
right over.”

As soon as Allie got off the phone with her aunt, she asked
Nic, “Can you help my aunt bring Charlie to the car when she gets here?”

“Absolutely. Would
you like me to come with you?”

Allie nodded and then leaned her head on Nic’s
shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her. She started to cry. She looked so
fragile and scared. He wanted to do more. But what? He didn’t know the first
thing about providing first aid to an animal in Charlie’s condition. He grimaced
in frustration as he thought of his padre, who always seemed to know what to
say and do in every situation, and wished that he could have been more like him
at this moment.

When the doorbell rang, Nic let Aunt Lara in and then led
the way to Allie’s room. He stayed by the door and watched as she placed her
hand over Allie’s and gently patted the top of Charlie’s head. She looked at Nic
and said, “We better get going. The sooner Charlie gets seen, the better.”

Nic came forward and slowly lifted one end of the dog
bed while Aunt Lara lifted the other. She led the way to Uncle Mike’s SUV while
Allie stayed behind to change out of her pajamas. When they got to the car, Aunt
Lara opened the tailgate and folded one of the second-row seats down before she
and Nic lifted Charlie inside. They positioned him so that Allie could be right
by his side. Allie was already by the front door with her purse and walking
stick in hand by the time Nic went back for her. He locked the door and then walked
with her to the car. He helped her in and then he slid into the front passenger
seat while Aunt Lara started up the engine.

They arrived at an emergency veterinary hospital less
than ten minutes later. Veterinary personnel went out to the car and placed Charlie
on a stretcher. He was whisked away to be evaluated by a triage nurse in the assessment
area while Allie and her aunt checked in with the receptionist at the front
desk.

Nic took a seat in the waiting area. He sat in a
padded chair and looked around the nearly empty rectangular shaped room with
its baby blue walls and tiled floor. It was adorned with large portraits of
dogs and cats. He reached out and picked up a magazine off the end table entitled
“Modern Dog” and flipped through its pages until Allie and Aunt Lara joined
him.

A short while later, they were escorted to a hospital
room and informed that the on-call veterinary doctor would be in to see them within
a few minutes. It had an examination table extending from the wall, wooden
cabinets, a computer on a portable workstation and a medical stool. Nic remained
standing while Allie and Aunt Lara sat down.

A petite woman with short, bobbed hair came in wearing
a lab coat a few minutes later. She pulled the stool over to where Allie was sitting
and said, “Good evening. My name is Lucy Wilks. I’m the on-call veterinary
doctor.”

“How’s Charlie?” Allie asked in a choked voice. “Is he
going to be okay?”

Dr. Wilks paused, then said, “I’m afraid that I have
some difficult news to share with you. Per your authorization, we ran a number
of tests and did an MRI. Based on the results I obtained as well as the
physical examination I conducted, I believe that Charlie’s suffered a massive hemorrhagic
stroke.” Allie gasped and covered her mouth with her hands.

“Will he recover?” Aunt Lara asked as she put her arms
around Allie.

Dr. Wilks replied, “We put him on intravenous fluids
to help his brain maintain oxygen and to flush out any waste products from the
area. It might be a couple of hours, maybe more, maybe less before I’ll be able
to give you a more definitive prognosis.”

Allie nodded. “Can I see him now?”

“We had to sedate him before we did the MRI, but I’ll
have one of the nurses take you to him as soon as he wakes up,” Dr. Wilks
replied.

“Can my aunt and Nic come too?”

“Yes.”

“Dr. Wilks, is there any way you give us an estimate
of how much all this is going to cost?” Aunt Lara asked.

“I can have Cindy at the front desk run the numbers
for you.”

“Don’t worry,” Nic chimed in. “I’ll take care of it.”
He then turned to Dr. Wilks and said, “Please do whatever you think is
necessary to save Charlie.”

Allie shook her head. “I can’t let you do that. It might
cost hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars.“

“This is no time to argue about money,” Nic replied
firmly. “Charlie’s life is at stake. I can’t just stand by and let him die when
we both know that I have the means to pay for the care that he desperately
needs right now.”

Allie’s lip quivered as a fresh round of tears threatened
to spill from her eyes. “I’ll agree to it one condition.”

“What is it?”

“That you agree to let me pay you back.”

“Come on, Allie. You don’t need—”

“My dog, my responsibility,” Allie cut in and proudly
lifted her chin.

Knowing that she would never agree to it otherwise, he
reluctantly acceded to her terms and then followed her and her aunt back to the
waiting room.

Less than an hour later, another nurse informed them
that Charlie was awake but had taken a turn for the worse. She then escorted
them to the animal hospital’s intensive care unit.

Aunt Lara guided Allie to Charlie, who was being
attended to by Dr. Wilks and a nurse. After she had finished giving the nurse
instructions, the doctor turned to Allie and gently touched her arm as she said,
“He hasn’t got much time left. I’ll leave you now to say your goodbyes. I’m so
very sorry.”

Once the doctor had drawn the privacy curtain around
them, Allie kissed Charlie’s snout and said, “Hey, buddy. I just spoke to the
doctor. She tells me that you’re going to be leaving me soon. I guess I probably
should have listened when the rep from Guide Dogs of America told me to retire
you, but I just kept putting it off. I told him ‘Charlie’s doing just fine.
Maybe in another six months.” She paused to wipe a few tears away and then
reached out for her aunt and said, “I don’t think I can do this.”

“It’s now or never sweetheart.” Aunt Lara gave Allie’s
shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Just tell him what’s in your heart.”

Allie nodded and placed her hand on Charlie’s back. “I’m
going to miss you. You came to me when I was at my lowest and showed me that
losing my sight wasn’t the end of the world. You always looked out for me and
made sure I got to where I needed to go. And you asked for so little in
return.” She covered her face with her hands and choked back a sob. Nic’s heart
broke for her as he watched her shatter into a million pieces while the canine
who had faithfully served as her second set of eyes for so many years slowly slipped
away. Once she’d regained her composure, she concluded by saying, “Don’t worry
about me. I’ll be okay. You just rest now…Goodbye Charlie, I love you.”

As Allie said those words, Nic could have sworn that
he saw Charlie’s tail wag just a moment before he took his last breath. At
first, they all just stood there in shocked silence while the reality of his passing
slowly sunk in. Allie bent over Charlie and began to weep aloud while Nic and
Aunt Lara stood on either side of her and patiently waited until she was ready
to go.

Once they left the ICU, Aunt Lara gave Nic her car
keys and asked him to take Allie to the car while she spoke with the animal
hospital’s representatives about the bill and the disposition of Charlie’s
remains. He discretely handed her his credit card before taking Allie outside. Once
they’d reached the car, he asked her where she wanted to sit. She asked him to
sit next to her in the back seat.  He
readily agreed.

The ride home was quiet. When they reached the
apartment, Aunt Lara gave Allie a hug and asked her if she needed anything.
When Allie said no, she turned to Nic and thanked him for coming with them to
the hospital. After wishing them both good night, she got into the SUV and
drove away.

Nic walked with Allie to the front door of their
apartment and asked her if there was anything else he could do for her.

Allie shook her head and said, “Thanks for everything.
You’re the best.”

“We’re friends, aren’t we?” Nic replied as he closed
the door and flicked on the switch to the living room. “It was the least I
could do.”

Allie nodded. “You going to bed? You must be
exhausted.”

“I’m fine, really. Don’t worry about me. You just take
care of yourself.”

“Will do,” Allie replied weakly and headed toward her
bedroom. “I’ll see you in a couple of hours.”

Nic watched her go. He wished that there was something
more he could do to ease her pain and wondered if she was going to be okay
sleeping alone tonight. As he passed by her door on the way to his room, he was
tempted to knock but didn’t. He told himself that she needed to rest and that
he’d see her in the morning. And so he kept moving instead until he reached his
room and closed the door behind him. He took off his jeans and sweatshirt and
dragged himself to bed. The emotional and physical toll that the last few hours
had taken suddenly hit him. He closed his eyes and was on the verge of drifting
off to sleep when he heard a knock on his door. Allie? He said, “Come in.”

He listened with anticipation and concern as he heard the
door handle turned and watched the door creek open. Allie looked anxious as she
stood by the door wearing a gray t-shirt and shorts. She said, “I can’t sleep.
Can I stay with you tonight?”

This unexpected request caught Nic totally off guard,
rendering him temporarily speechless. After quickly considering and dismissing
the idea of the two of them lying together in his twin sized bed, he replied, “Your
bed’s bigger than mine. It might be better if we stayed in your room instead.”

Allie looked relieved. She nodded and said yes. He followed
her to her room and watched with nervous anticipation as she pulled back the bedcovers
and climbed in. She slid over to give him some room to join her. He slipped his
left arm beneath her head and pulled her close. She buried her face in his
chest and started to cry.

“I’m here for you, Allie.” Nic gently brushed her lips
against her forehead. “Go ahead and cry as much as you want.” He wanted to take
her pain away and make it all better. And although he had never considered
himself to be a particularly religious man, he said a prayer asking God to help
him to be the best friend and companion possible in her time of need.

When her tears finally ebbed, she said, “I’m sorry for
the way I initially reacted when you offered to pay Charlie’s bills.”

“There’s no need—”

Allie shook her head. “It was wrong of me to act that
way. It’s just that I’ve never been the kind of person to ask for help…or money.
I was always taught to stand on my own two feet and pay my own way for things.”

“It’s a very admirable trait and, to be honest, it’s one
of the things I like most about you.”

Allie paused, then said, “I hope you didn’t take it
the wrong way when I insisted on paying you back.”

“That’s really not necessary. It’s not like I need the
money.”

“Don’t you see? It’s the principle of the thing. I
hated it when you told me about all those people who acted like they were your
friends or wanted to date you because of what they thought they could get out
of being seen with a rich and famous footballer. That’s not why I wanted to be
your friend or why I asked you to live with me.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Nic asked. “You’re one
of the most selfless and giving people I know.”

“And I want you to keep thinking of me that way. So
please, promise me that you won’t try to do something like that ever again.”

“Allie—”

“Because I’d say no. And don’t even think about trying
to change my mind about this.” Nic looked at Allie with exasperation but said
nothing. He was glad that she couldn’t see the look on his face or read his
mind. After a moment of awkward silence, Allie was the one who tried break the
tension in the air by tentatively placing her hand on his chest and saying,
“Don’t be mad, Nic. It’s for the best. You’ll see.”

He couldn’t have disagreed more, but knew better than
to try to argue with her further. So instead, he simply said, “It’s late. Go to
sleep now.”

“Good night Nic,”
Allie said as she yawned and snuggled up against him. “Sweet dreams.”

“Buenas noches, querida.”

Nic had just finished packing away his clothes,
textbooks as well as a few other miscellaneous items when his friend, Matt, an
outgoing and jovial-natured African-American man in his mid-twenties, arrived
in a full-sized black pickup truck to help him move his stuff over to Allie’s
apartment.

“I took my old bedroom furniture out of storage and put
it in the back of the truck for you,” Matt informed Nic as he picked up a garment
bag and suitcase by the front door. “It’s nothin’ special but it’s still in pretty
good condition.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Nic replied and followed
Matt out the door while carrying his laptop and two Bankers boxes. “I could
have just bought a futon and desk at Walmart.”

“Dat’s what friends are foh.” Matt placed Nic’s
suitcases on the ground and lowered the truck’s tailgate. “Besides, why waste
yo money when yo prolly not even gonna use it all that much.”

Nic arched his brow as he stood by and watched Matt
load his suitcases onto the truck bed. “Are you implying that you think that I’ll
be sleeping—”

Matt interrupted, “You told me yoself that you’d date
her in a heartbeat. And now that you’re movin’ in together, I just assumed—”

“It’s not like that with us,” Nic cut in, shaking his
head.

“At least not yet,” Matt replied with a wink. “Unless…there’s
somethin’ else yo not tellin’ me.” Nic blinked and stared blankly at his
friend. Matt lowered his voice as he leaned in and said, “The fire
didn’t…umm…mess with your boom stick, did it?”

“My what?”

For a second or two, Matt looked like he was puzzling
over what to say next. He then replied, “Your man parts. You know what I’m
sayin’?”

Nic jaw dropped and his eyes widened like saucers. After
a short and awkward silence, he stammered, “I’m fine…there. No worries.”

“You sure ‘bout dat?”

Nic was mortified. He replied, “Can we please talk
about something else?”

“Whatever you say,” Matt said with a laugh. “You know
me. We’re bros, right? Just tryin’ to look out for ya.” He paused, then said, “You
know how that ol’ sayin’ goes, ‘You gotta use it or lose it.’ It’d be a damn
shame to let the best piece of machinery that God gave you go to waste and get
all rusted up.”

“Why don’t you just worry about your pipes and I’ll
worry about mine, okay?”

Just then, Nic’s landlady, Mrs. Wilson, an elderly
woman with slumped-shoulders and snow white hair, walked up to them and said,
“Is there something wrong with the plumbing in your apartment? I know a great
plumber you can call if you need one, and he’s cheap too.”

Matt turned his head to the side and pretended to
cough into his hand while the unburned portions of Nic’s face quickly turned
bright red.  Nic replied, “That’s okay
Mrs. Wilson. We were just…umm…talking about that kind of stuff in general.”

To Nic’s great relief, Mrs. Wilson promptly changed
the subject. “Well, it’s been a real pleasure having you as a boarder. Mr.
Wilson and I were just talking about what a nice and polite young man you are.”

Nic smiled. “I can’t thank you enough for your
kindness and hospitality.”

“Don’t be a stranger now. Be sure and pay us a visit
from time to time.”

“I will,” Nic replied and shook her hand.

Matt asked, “Do you think we got everything in the
truck?”

Nic said yes as he slid into the passenger side seat and
buckled himself in.

Once Matt put the truck in gear, he said to Nic, “I’m gonna
be meetin’ some friends at a sports bar to catch a Raiders game. Wanna come?”

“Thanks, but Allie’s aunt and uncle are having a
backyard barbecue at their house this afternoon. She asked me to go with her.”

“Oh, did she?” Matt replied with a knowing look. “Have
you met ‘em yet?” Nic shook his head. “You know that she prolly asked you just to
give her peeps a chance to check you out.” Nic made a face and shifted uncomfortably
in his seat. Matt wagged his finger and said, “You betta play it safe and be on
yo best behavior ‘cause, believe you me, the last thing you wanna do is git on
her family’s bad side.”

“I know,” Nic replied as he pulled the baseball cap on
his head down further and slumped in his seat.

“And don’t wait too long to make yo move. The soona,
the betta, unless you wanna be friendzoned for the rest a yo life.”

Later that day, Nic and Allie stepped out of the back
seat of Nicole’s Honda Civic with Charlie in tow.  They, along with Nicole and Brandon, headed to
the Welch residence, which was located in a working-class neighborhood lined
with cookie-cutter houses. The gray, one-story house had a white picket fence with
a wooden gate and a well-kept short front yard. The path to the house’s front door
was lined with geraniums, sage and other aromatic plants whose scent filled the
cool September air.

They were greeted by Allie’s aunt, Lara Welch, a soft-spoken
woman with slight features, who was wearing a lavender shirt and white capri
pants and sandals. She escorted them all to the back of the house where her uncle,
Mike Welch, a large bald-headed man with a goatee, was holding court in front
of an outdoor grill.

The large, square-shaped backyard was enclosed by a
wooden fence lined with shrubs and plants. Portable tables and chairs had been
set out in rows on the grass for the guests. Large coolers packed with soda,
beer and water were placed on the concrete patio underneath a table filled with
chips, dip and other snacks while an adjacent table contained paper plates,
plastic utensils napkins and condiments alongside freshly cooked hamburgers, hot
dogs, potato salad and corn on the cob.

Allie’s uncle called out to her as he put the pair of
tongs and spatula he was holding down and wiped his grease-stained hands on a
towel. The handful of men standing around him dutifully stepped aside to make
way for his niece and Charlie. She giggled and squealed as he scooped her up
into his arms and twirled her around. He then hugged Nicole and gave Brandon a
firm handshake before turning his full attention to Nic.

Nic did his best to hide his anxiety as he extended his
hand to Uncle Mike and said, “Hello, my name is Nicolás Martínez. Most people
just call me Nic. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Uncle Mike nodded and clasped Nic’s hand with an
almost crushing grip. “Lara and I have been very anxious to meet you.”

Nic had to fight the urge to openly wince. He replied,
“She’s a wonderful young woman. I am very fortunate to have met her.”

“On that, I think, we are in complete agreement,”
Uncle Mike replied slowly. “But I’m sure you can imagine how surprised and
concerned her aunt and I were when we heard that she’d asked you, a man she
barely knows, to live with her.”

“Uncle Mike,” Allie chimed in.

Her uncle waved his hand with a stern look and said,
“Nic’s a grown man. I’m sure he’s more than able to speak for himself without
your help or interference.”

While this brief exchange between Allie and Uncle Mike
was going on, Nic tried to think of what he could to say to allay her uncle’s
concerns. The moment Uncle Mike’s attention was again focused on him, he said,
“I would be happy to answer any questions you might have.”

“I appreciate that,” Uncle Mike replied. “And, believe
me, I intend to hold you to it. But for now, why don’t you just go on and get something
to eat with the others. There’s plenty of food for everyone. We can talk a
little later once you’ve had the chance to fill your belly and settle in.”

“Yes, of course. Thank you,” Nic replied, grateful to
have been given a momentary reprieve.

After making his way to the buffet with Allie and the
others, he filled his plate and followed his friends to the first open table
that they could find. Nic and Brandon volunteered to get everyone’s drinks
while Allie, Charlie and Nicole remained seated and dug into their meals.

Nic picked up two plastic cups for Allie and himself
and was about to pour some punch into one of them when he felt a tap on his
shoulder. He turned around and saw a sour-faced Conner standing behind him with
his arms folded. He braced himself as he put the ladle down and waited for
Conner to speak.

“You’re the guy I met few weeks ago sitting across
from Allie at Joe’s Diner,” Conner said as he lowered his arms to his sides and
clenched his fists.

Just then, Brandon stepped between them. He slapped
Conner on the back and said, “Hey buddy, what’s up?”

To Nic’s relief, he felt the tension in the air noticeably
lessen as Conner turned to Brandon and said in reply, “Nothing much. How about
you?”

“Nicole and I are heading out to L.A. right after the
barbecue. We rented a U-Haul and packed up all our stuff in it this morning.
Nicole’s going to be driving her car while I drive the truck.”

“What about your car?” Conner asked.

“It’s already in L.A. It’s parked in front of my
brother’s place.”

Conner glanced at Nic, then said to Brandon, “No
offense, but do you honestly think it’s a good idea for Allie to be moving in
with him?”

Brandon smirked. “From what I know, he seems like a
pretty good guy and Allie really likes him. That’s what’s important, isn’t it?”

“I guess,” Conner shrugged. “But—”

“But nothing,” Brandon cut in. “You have no say in the
matter. It’s her call, capisce?”

Conner scowled and rounded on Nic. “You may have found
a way to weasel your way into her life but don’t for a second think that I’m
just going stand by and watch you ruin it. You make one wrong move and I’ll be on
you like a ton of bricks.”

Brandon shook his head. “Seriously dude, you need to chill
out. If you keep this up, don’t be surprised if Allie loses it and decides to whack
you over the head with her walking stick.”

Conner pointed his finger at Nic as he said, “I’ve got
my eye on you,” before turning on his heel and walking away.

Brandon nudged Nic in the arm and said, “I wouldn’t
worry about him much if I were you. He’s all bluff and no action.”

“Does he honestly think he has a chance with her?
Allie shudders every time his name comes up in conversation.”

“He’s wacked, plain and simple. Don’t pay him any
mind. Not worth the effort.”

Nic responded with a wry smile. “I’ll try not to. But,
to be honest, he’s not the one I’m really concerned about. Did you see the look
Allie’s uncle gave me when I introduced myself to him?”

Brandon snorted. “Big Mike loves Allie like she was
his own daughter. Think of it this way, if you were in his shoes, wouldn’t you
be worried too?” As much as Nic loathed to admit it, Brandon had a point. He
was no saint, not by a long shot. “Just treat Allie right and everything will
turn out fine.”

Nic and Brandon then rejoined Allie and Nicole and set
the drinks down on the table.

“What took you so long?” Allie asked. “I was beginning
to think that you and Brandon had fallen into the punch bowl.”

“I probably would have, if Conner had had his way,”
Nic replied. “He made it perfectly clear to me that he doesn’t approve of our
living situation.”

Allie frowned. “Ugh, he can be so annoying sometimes.
What else did he say?”

“Nothing worth repeating,” Nic replied and took a sip
of his drink. “It’s fine really. Don’t worry about me. I can take care of
myself.”

Allie reached out to him. He took her hand and gave it
a squeeze. She said, “I’m sorry about all the fuss Conner and Uncle Mike are making
about you living with me. Just so you know, I’ve already told my uncle point
blank that there’s nothing he can say or do that will change my mind.”

“I bet he loved hearing that.” Nic puffed his cheeks
and then blew the air out slowly. “I can only imagine what he’s going to say to
me once we sit down and have that man-to-man talk.”

“It’ll be fine. He just wants to feel you out and say
his peace. I know he can be blunt and intimidating at first, but don’t let that
gruff exterior fool you. He’s a teddy bear at heart.”  Knowing there was little more to be said about
it at that point, he let the matter rest.

As the afternoon wore on and the number of people
present started to thin out, Nic found himself growing increasingly more
nervous about the prospect of talking with Allie’s uncle. And although she’d
never come out and said it, he knew that that man’s opinion mattered to her a
lot. Because of that, he especially felt the need to make a favorable
impression on him.

When the time finally came for Brandon and Nicole to
go, Allie, Nic and Charlie saw them out.

“Call me as soon as you get to L.A. and let me know that
you guys made it safe and sound,” Allie said in a tearful voice while giving
Nicole a hug.

“Are you sure you don’t want us to give you guys a
ride back to the apartment?” Nicole asked.

Allie shook her head. “My aunt told me that she’d take
us home once all the guests leave and Uncle Mike’s had the chance to talk to
Nic.”

“Good luck with that,” Brandon said to Nic and patted
him on the shoulder. “Better you than me.”

“Thanks, I think.”

Allie twined her arms with his. “Like I said earlier,
my uncle’s all bark and no bite. I think he’s going to like you a lot once he
gets to know you. Just like me.”

“I hope you’re right,” Nic replied. “Or you might find
yourself having to look for someone else to live with you.”

“Don’t say that. Don’t even think it.”

“I agree,” Nicole said and then bent down to pet
Charlie. “I’m gonna miss you buddy. Just keep doing what you’re doing big guy.”

“He will,” Allie replied confidently. “He’s got a few
years left in him yet.”

“It’s hard to imagine you without Charlie and vice
versa. You guys have been together for as long as I’ve known you.”

“And we’ll be here to welcome you back the next time
you and Brandon come and see us.”

Nicole hugged Allie one more time and then turned to
Nic and said, “You’re going to have a blast living with these two. I couldn’t
have asked for better roomies. Take care of them, okay?”

“I will,” Nic replied.

“We better get a move on,” Brandon said as he checked
the time on his cell phone. “It’s getting late and the weather app is
predicting rain.” He gave Allie a hug and shook Nic’s hand before he and Nicole
headed toward their vehicles.

Nic placed his arm around Allie’s waist as they stood
by the front porch and watched their friends drive off.

“I’m going to miss them,” Allie said with a sigh as
she leaned her head on Nic’s shoulder.

“It’ll be okay.” Nic replied. “You’ve still got
Charlie and me. That’s something, isn’t it?”

Allie tilted her head up toward his and smiled. He
longed to kiss her but didn’t dare, especially now in front of her aunt and
uncle’s house. And so instead, he simply rested his cheek against her head and held
her close.

Once Brandon and Nicole’s vehicles disappeared from
view, Allie said, “We better go back inside. Uncle Mike is probably chomping at
the bit. We probably shouldn’t keep him waiting much longer.”

“If you insist,” Nic replied in a resigned tone.

As they turned toward the front door, it opened. Uncle
Mike appeared at the entrance with the last few guests at the party. He shook
their hands and bid them good night. When he motioned for Nic to follow him to
the backyard, Nic dutifully complied.

“Take a seat son. This shouldn’t take long.” Uncle Mike
pulled up a chair and sat down.

Nic sat down directly across from him and folded his
hands on his lap.

“I hope you understand both my wife and I’s concern about
you living with Allie. She’s a very special girl, in more ways than one. And even
though I know that she’s a fully-grown woman with a good head on her shoulders,
there’s a part of me that still sees her as that vulnerable and scared little
girl with pigtails and glasses that my wife and I took in after her mother died.”

Nic nodded sympathetically, then said, “Were I in your
position, I would likely have the very same concerns that you have about me.
I’m a complete stranger to you, and a foreigner to boot.”

“From what Allie’s told my wife, she says that the two
of you are just friends. Is that true?”

He hesitated a moment before answering. “Yes, but I
think that I would be lying to you if I denied that there’s a possibility that
that could change in the future.”

“I see,” Uncle Mike replied and rubbed his hands
together. “I appreciate your honesty. Now I think it’s my turn to be perfectly
frank with you.” Nic held his breath. Uncle Mike continued, “I don’t have a
problem with your living situation per se, but I think that she deserves to
know up front how far you think your relationship with her might go.”

“Please believe me when I say that I have nothing but
the best of intentions as far as Allie is concerned. Meeting and getting to
know her over these past few weeks has been the highlight of my time here so
far. She’s a wonderful person and I like her very much. I’m more grateful than
I can possibly express for her friendship and it is my sincere hope that our
relationship will only continue to grow and develop in the months ahead.”

Uncle Mike looked thoughtful and paused for some time
before speaking again. Finally, he said, “I guess that’s good enough for me for
now.” He sat up. So did Nic. “Although I could say more, I think I’ll just leave
you with this: Treat her right, that’s all I ask. You do that, and you won’t
have a problem with me.”

“I will,” Nic replied, looking him directly in the eye.
Uncle Mike appeared satisfied. He shook Nic’s hand and then walked back into
the house. The meeting was over.

When Nic stepped into the kitchen, Allie was sitting
on a bar stool with Charlie at her feet while her aunt was loading dishes into
the dishwasher. He gently placed his hand on Allie’s shoulder and sat down next
to her. She leaned toward him and quietly asked, “How did things go with Uncle
Mike?”

“Nothing I didn’t expect,” Nic replied. “He cares for
you very much, that’s plain to see, and he only wants what’s best for you.”

“Glad to hear that my uncle didn’t scare you off.”

Nic patted her knee and said, “I don’t scare off easy,
especially where you’re concerned.”

“I’m counting on that,” Allie replied as she reached
out and touched his face. “Are you ready to go?”

He said yes. He was more than ready to go home; their
home. He liked the sound of that. It made him smile and gave him hope that maybe,
just maybe, things would be different, better from here on out.