Joel was still fuming when Winnie showed him the way to a downstairs bathroom where he could get cleaned up.
Marshall had crossed a line by tackling Joel to the ground with that much force. Joel was going to be sore for days. Usually on the football field he was covered in pads and protective gear. That tackle was uncalled for.
With just over a week before Big 10 championships in preparation for The Rose bowl, Joel needed to stay in top shape, or he would have difficulty at his game. He never would have played football with Winnie’s brothers if he'd known that they would get rough.
“I’m so sorry,” Winnie said, leaning against the vanity near the sink. “I don’t know what got into my brother.”
“He’s just protective of you. If I had a little sister, I would probably be the same way.” Joel was especially glad that he and Winnie hadn’t slept together because the argument with her brother would have been that much worse.
Joel washed his hands thoroughly, trying to get the scrapes cleaned. He’d brushed himself off as best he could while they were still outside to get the grass and mud off his clothes. But he still felt too dirty to sit on any of the LaFleur’s expensive furniture.
“Hey man, I’m sorry.” Marshall came into the bathroom holding a stack of clothes; a pair of sweats, a T-shirt, a sweatshirt and some clean socks. He handed them to Joel. “Thought you could use something warm and dry to wear. I’ll put your slacks and dress shirt in the washer and they should be ready before it's time for you to leave. Again, I’m really sorry.”
“I forgive you, I guess,” Joel grumbled, taking the stack of clothing. “That was totally uncalled for. If we lose to Ohio State next week, I’m blaming you.”
“Fair enough. I’ll take the blame.” Marshall took a step back and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Anyway, get changed because dinner is almost ready and mom will be even more angry at me if we're late for dinner.”
Winnie remained standing in the bathroom, leaning against the vanity with her arms folded across her chest.
“You’re coming with me, young lady,” Marshall said, pulling at her sleeve.
“Why?” Winnie didn’t budge. “I’m allowed to see my boyfriend without his clothes on.”
Just for fun, Joel stepped closer to Winnie and wrapped his arm around her waist, smirking at her older brother, daring Marshall to come after him again.
His didn’t. Marshall grumbled something unintelligible and left the room.
Joel stepped away as soon as her brother was out of sight. “As tempting as that sounds, I don’t want to make any more enemies in your family than I already have.”
Winnie lifted onto her toes and whispered in Joel’s ear. “Later.”
“Definitely,” he whispered back. “Now get out of here before your dad comes in with his shotgun.”
She giggled as she slipped out the door, pulling it shut behind her.
The clothes were just a little too tight in the thighs and shoulders, lessoning the indignity of the afternoon’s beating he’d endured. As an athlete, Joel was a force to be reckoned with and his sculpted body was proof. How Marshall had managed to throw him to the ground like that was a testament to how low Joel had his guard down. He’d been having a fun afternoon and never expected an attack.
He was determined to make the rest of the afternoon better.
Coming out of the bathroom in sweatpants and a hoodie, Joel realized he would be the only guy not in a dress shirt and slacks. Until he met Marshall in the hallway and handed him the stack of muddy clothes. Marshall had changed out of his muddy dress clothes and matched Joel’s attire. Joel appreciated that.
Before handing over the clothes, Joel looked Marshall in the eye and said with conviction, “I haven’t slept with your sister.”
“But you want to.”
“Heck yeah, I want to.” Joel wanted to add you idiot to the end of his statement, but he was trying to smooth things over. “Have you slept with your girlfriend?”
“That’s none of your business,” Marshall said.
“Does she have an older brother?” Joel raised his eyebrows and Marshall looked away. “How do you think her older brother feels about you sleeping with his little sister?”
“Probably about the way I feel right now,” Marshall mumbled.
“How about if we just remember that we’re all college kids and we make our own choices about who we sleep with, ’kay?”
“Whatever, man. Just give me those clothes so I can clean up the mess I made.”
“I’m not going for round two if that’s what you’re asking,” Marshall said. “The only thing more stupid than tackling a college linebacker is angering my mother.”
“Good thing I’m a cornerback, then.” They both chuckled and turned away from each other, Marshall in the direction of the laundry room, and Joel down the hall toward the dining room.
Winnie was waiting for him when he entered the formal dining room and she showed him to where they would sit together.
Joel noticed Gage and Leon had also changed into sweats, and Warren had slipped a Lions hoodie over his white shirt and tie. Nice show of solidarity on the part of the guys in the family. Likely his weren’t the only muddy dress clothes Marshall was throwing into the laundry machine. Maybe they’d save the football until after dinner next year.
To her credit, Teri didn’t make a single snide comment to her sons about instigating the backyard rumble. She just laid a platter on the table with a giant bird resting on top.
Winnie turned away from the dead animal in front of her and batted her eyelashes up at Joel. “My aunt made squash and my grandma brought her world-famous pistachio salad, which isn’t a salad at all. It’s an incredible pudding and cool whip green fluff of yumminess.”
“That sounds delicious.” Joel wrapped his arm around the back of Winnie’s chair and glanced across the table to notice Marshall had his arm around the back of his girlfriend’s chair also. They smirked at each other and came to a nonverbal truce. Joel turned his attention back to Winnie. “I can’t wait to try that.”
Bowls and platters of food were passed around the table and casual banter resumed. The turkey was moist, the gravy was flavorful, and Joel declined the giblet stuffing in favor of the stuffing his girlfriend had made.
Glancing over at Winnie’s plate, Joel realized she only had four items: a roll, stuffing, squash, and the coveted green fluff. Some Thanksgiving. He realized in that moment that Thanksgiving was not about the food. It was about getting the family together. He decided they should call his parents later and let them meet Winnie by video chat.
Teri’s annoyed comment interrupted Joel’s ruminating. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, are you still insisting you don’t eat meat?”
“I haven’t eaten meat in years, mom,” Winnie said with a calm voice. “You know that.”
“I just figured you’d get over your health food kick one of these days.” Teri waved her hand dismissively.
“I’m a college athlete, Mom. We don’t just get over our health food kicks.”
“I’ll second that,” Joel said.
“Me too,” Marshall agreed, followed by an ascent from their younger brother.
“Although, I refuse to give up meat.” Gage held up a drumstick and took a large bite.
Winnie physically gagged and turned away from her brother, meeting Joel’s eyes with a panicked expression.
“Hey, are you okay?” Joel whispered.
“I think I’m going to go get some fresh air,” Winnie whispered back.
“I’ll come with you.” Joel pushed back his chair and helped Winnie up, ignoring the rest of the family and their concerned faces.
To the back of the home there was a great room with a wall of windows on one side, and a complete home entertainment system on the other. Winnie sank into the corner of one of the sectionals and Joel snuggled up next to her.
“Do you want me to take you home?” He asked gently. “We can spend the rest of the day together, just me and you. I’ll make you a protein shake or something.”
“Nah, I don’t want to miss watching the Lions with my dad and brothers. It’s tradition.”
“Well, since we got into the living room first, we get the best seats in the house,” Joel joked. “And this sofa is very comfortable.”
Winnie laughed lightly then climbed up on Joel’s lap and tucked herself into his arms. He held her lithe dancer’s body close and had to force his mind away from the things he’d like to do with her when they got the chance. She had an incredible body but at that moment she needed his emotional comfort more than physical comfort. They just held each other for a long time.
Eventually other family members started trickling in, staking claims to corners of the sofas and easy chairs. No one mentioned the incident at the dinner table, and no one raised an eyebrow at Joel snuggled into the couch with Winnie draped over him.
When Marshall came into the room, he was carrying a small bowl with a spoon and handed it to Winnie. “Here, Sis, I saved you some green fluff. I know it’s your favorite.”
“Thank you.” She smiled up at her brother and then dug in with gusto.
That little olive branch, along with the Lions’ kickoff, changed the tone for the rest of the afternoon, which included light and fun banter, combined with competition, and a room full of armchair quarterbacks.