Three Years Later
“Schieß den Ball empfindlich!”
Benedikt Breslau snapped to attention as his friends burst out laughing, and a slow grin slid up his face as he recognized why. Christian’s words. Kick the ball sensitive!
Benedikt assumed he meant endlich. Kick the ball, already! Though fluent in seven other languages, Christian Rasmussen still had not been able to get a handle on German, despite living there for eighteen months now. He moved to Hamburg to join FC St. Bonifaz Hamburg, the team that they all played for, and, for the most part, he fit right in. But despite his language savvy, German was not Christian’s strong suit, and with the way Benedikt—and nearly every other member of the team—had rescued Christian in interviews from a translation-gone-wrong, he was surprised all of Germany didn’t know it by now.
He watched, with a slow grin, as Florian Schiffer, the newer midfielder that Benedikt had taken under his wing—adopted as a little brother, in a way—half-tackled Christian, while the Dane grumbled something about perfekt dansk sarcastically under his breath.
It was going to be a good day.
The sun had peaked out from the clouds that had dumped torrential downpour on Hamburg—and the majority of Germany, actually—for the past four days, and excitement was in the air. It was the final game of the Bundesliga, Germany’s premier football competition, and St. Bonifaz had done well this year. In forty minutes, they’d take on FC Bayern München, who was arguably the best football team in the country. He could feel the excitement already building in the stadium as it filled. Benedikt was sure it’d fill to capacity today. This was the game that would break the tie between Bayern’s and St. Bonifaz’s rankings, and all of Germany was eager to see how the game would play out. If the sun stayed out, despite the muddy field, today would be a great day for a football match.
He could feel the excitement sizzling in the air, and knew his parents would arrive soon. He wasn’t too old—or too stuck-up—to not appreciate having them around, and he looked forward to sharing the day with them. He looked forward to sharing the day with all of Germany.
“Okay, okay,” he called to Florian and Christian. “Break it up.”
Florian jumped off Christian’s back with a grin, and Christian pretended to nurse his wounded pride.
Benedikt sent the ball flying over Florian’s head, just for the fun of it, and as he went to chase it down, Benedikt took the opportunity to glance up at the stadium seating again.
She wasn’t there.
It was the first time, he noticed, that that she wasn’t. At least, the first time since she’d begun attending their home games, late last September. She would show up, forty-five minutes before the game, book in hand, and she’d sit on the front row, one eye on her book, the other watching him (and whichever friends he could get to brave Karsten Kohler’s wrath) warm up, like they usually did before a home game.
Everything about her intrigued and perplexed him. She sat on the front row, like an avid fan, but she came in sundresses and cardigans, braids and scarves, pea coats and leggings. It wasn’t hard for her to stand out from the crowd. She never came with anyone, nor painted her face, nor wore a St. Bonifaz jersey, like most avid football fans. She would be content to read her book all night long, he surmised, and a football stadium couldn’t have been her natural hide-out, he knew. She was intriguing. So what brought her, so religiously, to St. Bonifaz’s stadium?
He couldn’t help but wonder if she’d show up today. In a way, she’d sort of become his good-luck charm. He usually didn’t put stock in such things, and he definitely wasn’t the superstitious type of person—at least, not as superstitious as most athletes—but even the newspapers had picked up on his “home advantage,” and he had no other way to explain it.
Benedikt doubted he’d ever meet her, and he wasn’t sure he really felt the need to, but he liked having her around.
“Whoa—hey!” Benedikt shouted as he brought his hands up to protect his face, and ducked to avoid getting hit with the football. “Watch where you kick that thing!”
He went to chase the ball, and when he returned, Florian was grinning back at him proudly. “Should have been paying more attention to the ball, dude! What’s so exciting up there, anyway?”
“Nothing!” he shot back a little too quickly to be believable, but he kicked the ball to Caspar with enough power to hopefully get their attention back on their “warm-up”. It really wasn’t enough exercise to proper be defined as a warm-up, but they weren’t playing an actual game. They came out here mostly because Benedikt loved to people-watch as the stadium filled, and kicking around the football was as good an excuse as any. They’d rather made a habit of it, shortly after Benedikt had joined the team, and it had sort of become a St. Bonifaz tradition, watching the boys hang out before the actual game.
They managed to go unnoticed by Karsten Kohler, the head coach for St. Bonifaz, for nearly 20 more minutes, while they joked around and Benedikt greeted the new fans who came to sit down within shouting range. He’d even tried to talk a little six-year-old boy, Jonas, to come kick the ball around with them. The boy’s father would have let him, too, until Caspar and Christian talked Benedikt out of it, spewing caricatures of Karsten’s threats.
It was really a perfect set-up for Benedikt—he got to interact with the fans on a controlled basis, like he loved, but he also took his friends’ minds off the coming game, and the expected jitters. Fans knew to come early for a St. Bonifaz game.
Benedikt was just greeting a set of twin boys and their parents, handing out high-fives, when he heard it. “BENEDIKT!”
The voice came from the opening in the stadium closest to the locker room. Only one person shouted his name that way, and it put the holy fear of God into his friends. He turned around and grinned at Karsten Kohler sheepishly.
There he stood, hands on his hips, clearly unhappy. He’d complained many a time about Benedikt warming up before a game on the football field while the stadium was still filling, but Benedikt did it anyway. Mostly because he knew he could get away with it, and he liked seeing their fans show up. He loved being a part of the German football world, signing autographs when asked, feeling the excitement building in the air before a big game. Hamburg had always been his home, but, more than that, this stadium had become his home, and he loved sharing it with the German football community. He was far and wide considered St. Bonifaz’s golden boy, Karsten Kohler’s prized weapon. The striker who could make any goal. Karsten, who was barely nine years his senior, clearly adored him, and Benedikt knew he could charm his way into getting away with just about anything when it came to the head coach of their team.
Benedikt glanced at Christian and grinned. “Uh-oh. The volcano’s about to explode.”
Christian rolled his eyes as he scooped up the football with his left arm. “You know,” he said with a lazy grin, “one day he’s going to explode and there will be nothing you can do to keep away from his wrath.”
Benedikt grinned. “Maybe. But that day’s not today.”
He glanced up at the overcast sky as he jogged after Christian and the others, and sighed, happy. Mercifully, the torrential downpour that had cursed Hamburg for the past three days had abated. He could feel the sizzling excitement in the air, could already hear the fans chatting about the game to come. If they were lucky, the rain would stay up in the heavens, and they’d have a cool afternoon for a really good football match.
As he reached the edge of the field, he slowed to a walk. Lord, let it be a good day, he breathed.
‡ ‡ ‡
Grace grinned as she jumped on her little brother’s back. “Sammy!”
Sam groaned as he braced himself, adjusting Grace on his back. “Gracie!” he complained.
She grinned as she hugged his neck and rested her chin on top of his head. She could see the whole stadium from where she sat, perched on his back, and she knew this was going to be a good day. She hummed happily. “I’m just glad you’re here.”
She’d moved to Hamburg in September, to accept a first-chair violinist position for the Philharmoniker Internationale, the prestigious philharmonic orchestra based in Hamburg that collected the best and brightest musicians from all over the world and whose music was world-renowned. She hadn’t wanted to come. In fact, originally, she’d ignored it as an option. She had no desire to leave home. She’d always been a home body, with nary an adventurous bone in her body, and was loathe to leave her family and her best friend, Emmy, who meant the world to her. And if Henry ever came back, she wanted to be there for him. But as soon as Sam had found out, she was as good as gone. Her whole family ganged up on her, refused to hear the word no. She hated that they were so nosy sometimes, but she just had to look at the kindness, wisdom, and pain in her mother’s eye to know Helene Saint-Dreyfus was right. She had been driving herself crazy in Boston. Everything reminded her of Henry, and what she’d lost, so, in the end, it was mere survival. A new start. There had been no leads in Henry’s case for over two years, and, as much as it pained her, she needed to start letting him go. So here she was, and at least Hamburg didn’t bring Henry to mind at every street corner. But it had been a long eight months without Sam, Emmy, her parents, and her grandfather.
“Where am I going?”
She gestured down toward the front. “Over there. Do you want me to get down?” she asked, letting her legs fall.
He grabbed them and secured her tighter to his back, turning around to grin at her. “Gracie, relax. You’re lighter than a birdie.”
She grinned and hugged him again. She’d missed him. As cautious and safe as she was, Sam was the total opposite—adventurous and impulsive. If either one of them had decided to move to Europe for a job, she would have pegged it on Sam, but here she was, living in this beautiful, ancient European city, and she’d felt all alone. Having him here made her feel human again.
He was attending college on a full soccer scholarship, and seeing a Bundesliga game was the only item on his list of things he wanted to do while in Germany. She knew that he eventually wanted to play for a German team, if given the opportunity, and she was happy to share this moment with him.
She didn’t know how he’d convinced her to buy a St. Bonifaz jersey, or why she’d let him talk her into painting her face the St. Bonifaz colors—maroon and navy blue. Sam exuded life, and she lived just a little bit more with him around.
He led them to their seats, and she slipped to the ground, and took her seat. She watched, with a smile, as Sam took it all in. He was enthralled with the place. Football—although he still probably called it soccer—was his whole world, and she laughed as he exclaimed over every new discovery.
Being here with Sam just made these frequent football games all the more special. Football was a family affair, and she’d attended countless of Sam’s games with her parents, her grandfather, and even Grandma Daisy, when she’d been alive. When she’d started dating Henry, he’d come, too, and sometimes even brought his little sister, Audrey. Attending the games had made her feel a little less homesick.
Shortly after she’d moved to Hamburg, her cousin, Christian Rasmussen, had gotten ahold of her, and invited her to come to one of his games. She had known he was a footballer for a German team, but she hadn’t known his team was centered in Hamburg. Up until then, she hadn’t known Christian very well, but they made a habit of hanging out, afterward, and Christian had quickly become one of her best friends. She loved that in the middle of this vast and foreign country, at least she had Christian. And someone to cheer for. She’d missed being at Sam’s games, cheering him on, watching him succeed, and she loved that she got to do it for Christian, now.
Sam pointed to the field. “No, way. Is that Christian?”
Grace glanced to where her brother was pointing. Several St. Bonifaz footballers were jogging off the field, one of whom had Rasmussen written across his back. She grinned as she bumped shoulders affectionately with her little brother. “Yeah. Several of the St. Bonifaz footballers always come out and kick a football around before the game. I don’t know why. The coach always comes out to yell at them. Sometimes Christian’s there, but not always.”
She glanced at Sam, and saw the yearning in his eyes. She could just tell that he wanted to get down there, to test his mettle against Christian’s. “Just wait. You’re going to love tonight.”
‡ ‡ ‡
Benedikt couldn’t contain the grin on his face as he emerged onto the football field, absorbing the raucous applause. He loved being a footballer. He loved being a part of something so iconic, so international. When he entered a football stadium full of fans, he couldn’t help the grin that followed. Everything about being a footballer for FC St. Bonifaz Hamburg was a dream come true.
As the announcer began to speak, the crowds quieted a little, and Benedikt took the opportunity to look around. He’d wondered if she made it, after all. As his eyes scanned the arena for the girl with the dress, he almost missed her. He would have, if he hadn’t memorized the shape of her face, that same seat she always sat in.
But he finally spotted her, and a grin lit up his face. He wasn’t sure why it mattered so much that she was here, but he was finally put at ease when he saw her.
Today, however, was different from all the other games. She was dressed in a St. Bonifaz jersey and jeans. And her face was painted! No book, no dress, and surprise of surprises, she wasn’t alone. She was talking animatedly to the guy on her left, touching his arm with her hand and pointing things out to him, and at one point, she wrapped her arms around him in an impulsive hug.
She had a boyfriend.
She must really like him, too, because he effortlessly pulled that grin out of her, caused her to throw back her head in laughter.
Benedikt forced himself to turn away, to grin at the cheering crowds. He was happy for her. She deserved to be happy—with her head in her book, her eyes so somber and serious. She deserved something good in her life, and if that athletic-looking blond could give it to her, then all the better.
He needed to get his head in the game. Girl or not, this was the biggest game of the year, and everyone was depending on him. He didn’t even know her. And he wanted to hear the papers singing his friends’ praises in the morning, not those of Manuel Neuer and Thomas Müller.
‡ ‡ ‡
Benedikt whipped his head around behind him, breaking free just in time to contact with the ball, sailing for his chest. Despite all the joking around they did, he and Christian worked exceptionally well together, and the risks they took in the sport usually paid off in their benefit.
It was 25 minutes into the second half, and the game was going well. Christian had scored a goal early in the first half, and, although Bayern had scored fifteen minutes later there was only twenty minutes remaining in the game, St. Bonifaz was performing above average, and Benedikt was confident that they could win. The rain had picked up again at the beginning of the second half—a slow drizzle at first, but it had picked up in intensity, and the rain dripped into his eyes and would blur his vision if he wasn’t careful. He ran his fingers through his hair, pushing it back, hopefully to redirect it from dripping into his eyes.
The ball bounced off his chest, and when it hit the ground, he stopped it with his foot to gain a bit of control as he assessed his surroundings. Jack Appleby, the other St. Bonifaz striker, an Australian, had broken free, and was waiting, should Benedikt not be able to make the shot. Benedikt could see him running scenarios in his head, preparing for any situation. Bayern’s goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, stood at the ready. He had a free shot to the goal.
He lined up to make the shot, and just as he did, he felt the leg of a Bayern defender snake around his to steal the ball. For one second, he lost his cool, his sense of determination and focus, and he blindly shot the ball out of reach.
At the last second, his range of motion hampered by the defender, he slipped on the mud, and the ball went flying out of his control.
Benedikt fell with a crash, his legs tangled with those of the Bayern defender. His head bounced off the other man’s before he slid to the ground completely, and he groaned as he lifted his head off the ground, trying to see where the ball had gone, as the announcers exploded into conversation. He didn’t see it anywhere, and his eyes lifted, of their own accord, to the girl in the stands. Her hands were covering half of her face, and tears were forming in her pain-filled eyes.
A sick feeling started to build in his gut. It was the only option, the only thing that could have happened. The ball he had kicked had slammed into her face. He’d probably broken her nose.
He felt sick.
Benedikt scrambled to his feet, horrified, only to find himself pulled back down to the ground, hard, from behind. He whipped his head around to find Caspar Gottlieb staring at him hard, daring him to move. When it looked like he was going to climb to his feet again, Caspar gave him the stink-eye. “Benedikt, I swear. Don’t move.”
If anyone understood Benedikt’s need to get up to her, to make sure it was all right, it was Caspar. He was the most compassionate—and wise—man Benedikt knew, and he saw something Benedikt couldn’t, in his feverish attempts to get to the girl. She needed medical attention, rather than an apology, and Benedikt would just be in the way.
Caspar beckoned to the paramedic waiting to look at Benedikt. He wasn’t even sure his friend had realized that he might be injured, after the fall he’d taken.
“Are you hurt, Mr. Breslau?” the paramedic asked, flashing a light in Benedikt’s eyes, checking for a concussion.
He tried to wave the paramedic away. “No. I’m fine. Just… help the girl.”
The paramedic helped him to his feet. “Any pain anywhere? Dizziness?”
Benedikt tried to push him away. “No. I’m fine.”
The paramedic nodded and backed away, and as Bayern threw the ball back into play, Benedikt sighed and cast a lingering glance at the girl as she was led out of the stadium. He felt sick to his stomach. What had he done?
‡ ‡ ‡
Benedikt grinned in spite of his frustration with the game. Even with the fall he’d taken, Matthias Ritter, one of the midfielders, had managed to make the winning goal twelve seconds before the end of the last half, and they’d held their own through the penalty time afterward. But his whole game had been off. That goal should have been his. And he had attacked his muse. Even if he caught up with her at the hospital, she might never forgive him, and he wouldn’t blame her for a second.
But that little voice had the power of one thousand suns to brighten his day.
She was the four-year-old daughter of Pascal Schuster, St. Bonifaz’s prominent goalkeeper, and another of Benedikt’s best friends. Pax was half French, half German, so he was teaching Amélie French before German. Benedikt loved her like a niece or an adopted daughter, and her affection for him was cemented by his ability to speak to her in her own language, a feat most people she knew did not possess.
She was the only one who could make today better. The newspapers would be talking about him tomorrow, but not in the flattering way he had been hoping for.
Amélie was already running to him, and he grabbed her under the arms and threw her into the air, grinning as she giggled the whole way down. She made a face when her little hands landed on his rain-and-sweat-soaked jersey. “Ew!!” she squealed, her laughter pealing across the field as he tickled her sides mercilessly. “You’re sweaty, Uncle Benedikt.”
He laughed in return. “Your daddy’s sweatier than me.”
She glanced over at her father and wrinkled her nose. “At least he doesn’t stink.”
Benedikt feigned a look of horror, although Pax’s was genuine. “Amélie!”
He laughed. “Just wait until I teach you football one day. Then you’ll be just as stinky as me.”
Amélie ran her little fingers through his sweat-and-rain-soaked hair, pushing it away from his forehead. “Uncle Benedikt?”
“Yeah, baby?” he asked.
“Did you really break that lady’s nose?”
Benedikt sobered at the image of her, her hands covering her bloodied nose, pain and tears welling in her eyes, as her boyfriend gently unplastered her hands from her face, and the paramedic took a look. He felt sick with regret.
He gave Amélie a sad smile and nodded. “Yeah, baby, I think I did. But that’s why I gotta go,” he said, kissing her temple affectionately before he handed her back to her father. “But I’m gonna see you Saturday afternoon for lunch, right?”
Her little brow furrowed. “Why, Uncle Benedikt?”
Benedikt was hosting a lunch among his closest friends—almost all of which included friends from the football team and their family, but also his parents, Peter and Annie. Christian, Caspar, and Pascal would all be there, along with Jack, and Florian.
Pascal took Amélie back and planted raspberry kisses all over her face. “Because we’re going to Uncle Benedikt’s house for lunch.”
Amélie’s face lit up, and she reached out and wrapped her arms around Benedikt’s neck in a childish hug, and she kissed his cheek. “Au revoir, Oncle Benoît!”
He grinned and waved to her as he walked away, only to walk straight into Sascha Schwarzkopf, one of the most well-known sports reporters in Hamburg. “Sascha, call me later, and I’ll tell you whatever you want to know about the game.”
He didn’t bother turning to see if the reporter had heard him, and was relieved to find Caspar already at his side. Caspar nodded toward the exit and guided his friend with a hand on his back, compassion evident on his face. If anyone understood his heart, it was Caspar Gottlieb. “C’mon, Ben. I’ll take you to the hospital.”
‡ ‡ ‡
Benedikt jogged up to the counter of the emergency room nurses’ station, breathless, and, with relief, his eyes landed on the nurse sitting behind the desk. Caspar had dropped him off at the emergency room entrance, and had left to park, promising to follow him in as soon as he could.
He gave the nurse his best grin, and, after another deep breath, he said, “Hello. I’m looking for the girl that was brought in from the St. Bonifaz-Bayern football game? She would have been brought in about forty minutes ago. Petite, long dark hair, St. Bonifaz jersey on, painted face? She had a broken nose?”
The nurse looked up from her computer. “Do you have a name?”
“No,” he answered sheepishly. “I’m sorry. I was playing football on the field. If the announcers said her name, I missed it.”
She looked at her computer again, and she looked like she might have found something. “Please,” he interjected. “I have to see her.”
The nurse at the desk hesitated like she was going to tell him she couldn’t help him, and despair set in. He wasn’t going to see her, after all. And then, he’d never see her again, because, after what he’d done, what reason did she have to come back? She was his muse, his inspiration, and he’d shot a football at her face. He’d broken her cute, pert nose.
The football season was over, so even if she did come back, it wouldn’t be for months.
“Bitte,” Caspar called out behind him, and Benedikt turned, relieved that his friend was here in the middle of it all. Please. “Can’t you see how miserable he is?” Caspar stood at Benedikt’s side, arm wrapped around Bendikt’s shoulders. “This is Benedikt Breslau,” he said, giving him a little shake. “Famous footballer? The Bundesliga’s golden boy? He slipped in the mud and nailed that girl in the face. He feels terrible. He just wants to apologize to her, make sure she’s okay. Can’t you help us?”
The nurse sighed. “I’m sorry, I can’t. She’s already gone, you see.”
Benedikt studied her incredulously. “Gone?”
The nurse smiled gently back at him. “Yes. Gone. She’s fine. There was no corrective surgery required, and she left not five minutes ago.”
Benedikt didn’t know whether to be despondent or relieved at that. She was okay. She’d be okay. But he’d been looking forward to meeting the girl behind the pretty face, if only for five minutes. To find somehow to thank her, even if he didn’t say it outright, for inspiring him to play better. But mostly, to say sorry. Because, of all the people Benedikt Breslau loved—and there were many—he’d never wanted to hurt a soul.
He sighed. “Thank you.”
He turned, dejected, toward the doors, and he heard Caspar whispering his echoed gratitude to the nurse before he caught up to Benedikt. “C’mon,” he said, leading Benedikt back to where he’d parked his car.
“Where are we going?”
He dialed a number by memory and held his phone up to his ear, even as he turned to look at Benedikt. “You need to blow off some steam after that, to let it go. It’s just a broken nose, and I’m sure she knows you didn’t mean to, but you’re going to keep beating yourself up about it, because I know you. And you need to get all that frustration off your chest. There’s only one way I know to do that.”
As the person on the other end of the phone picked up, Caspar spoke into his phone. “Hey, Pascal. Do me a favor and round up the guys. No, no, no… just Florian, Jack, Christian, maybe Matthieu and Sebastian? Meet us at that park with the new football field by that French café Florian likes so much.” There was a pause. “No, bring Amélie, too. She can watch if she likes.”
Caspar finished up the call and unlocked his car, nodded for Benedikt to get in. “They’re coming,” he said with a grin as he pulled his door shut behind him.
Benedikt wasn’t sure he agreed with the logic of playing more football after just winning a game—they should be celebrating, and most of the team probably was—but it was unspoken, among them, the fact that they weren’t just friends or coworkers. They were family, and if Benedikt needed their help, they’d be there.
And if anyone could break him out of his sour mood, it was Amélie Schuster and his friends.