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“So you’re the Lucy Jude can’t stop talking about,” she said, and instead of shaking my hand, she pulled me into a hug. Like her smile, her hug was a real one.

“It’s nice to meet the girl a guy can’t shut up about. Reminds me of the way my husband used to be about me before we had four kids and became the laziest romantics ever.” She motioned over to the group of guys Jude had been escorted to. A guy about Jude’s height and weight tilted his beer our way.

“I’m Sybill, and that’s my husband, Deon, over there.”

“Hey, Lucy!” Deon tilted his beer at us again. “I’m the one who earns his paycheck. These other posers just like to cash ’em.”

Deon received a round of shoves from the guys around him.

“That’s right, baby!” Sybill said, before turning her attention back on me. “So. How are you hanging in there?”

As a policy, I didn’t normally spill my guts to total strangers, but Sybill’s warm smile cut right through my gut-spilling rules and restrictions. “It’s a lot to take in,” I began. “Weeks ago Jude was a college student, and now he’s going to be playing on millions of televisions in a couple months.”

“It most certainly is a lot to take in,” she said. “When Deon was drafted, we were seniors in college. I packed up and moved across the country and, I kid you not, found out I was pregnant a week before his first game.” She laughed, staring at her husband in a way I was familiar with. It was the way I looked at Jude. “I was so scared it would throw him off that I didn’t tell him until after the game was over. We were married a month later and decided one was so much fun, we might as well have three more.”

“That sounds like a hell of a lot to absorb all at once,” I said, snagging a bottle of water from a table. “But look at you two now.” I motioned between them, because words were useless when it came to describing their obvious connection.

“A couple who has to schedule nooky to make sure we still make time for it.” She winked over at me. “But it’s a good life. And I’ve got a good man who gave me four kids who I love so much I feel a little nutty sometimes.”

Okay. I was glomming onto Sybill at these events and not letting go. Ever. We could rock our jeans and tees together while the rest of the girls flounced around in satin and sequins.

“Speaking of my four munchkins . . .” Rummaging through her purse, Sybill pulled out a phone and answered it. “What’s up, Jess?”

Frowning, she motioned at her husband. “Okay, give Riley a bit of Sprite and a saltine. We’ll be home in a half hour.”

“Sick munchkin?” I guessed.

“Vomiting-spaghetti-and-meatballs munchkin,” she said. “Hey, Deon! Riley’s sick. You wanna grab the car and I’ll meet you out front?”

Deon flicked her a salute and jogged inside.

“Sorry your little man’s sick,” I said. “I hope he feels better soon.”

“Knowing Riley, he’ll be up and playing Wii by the time we get home.” She waved at a few of the guests before patting my forearm. “Don’t let the other girls intimidate you, Lucy,” she said quietly. “There’s not a whole lot going on up here”—she tapped her head—“or here”—her hand moved to her heart—“but they’re easily controlled. They’re so shallow, all you have to do is tell them you like their new purse, or dress, or boob job, and you’ll be one of the gang. Shower them in schmooze and you’re in.”

I looked back at where the rest of the party was, then at Sybill, who was heading inside the house. “I don’t think I want in.”

She threw me a smile. “Yeah, me neither. Obviously I never have been or will be an ‘it’ girl,” she said with a shrug. “I like you, Lucy Larson. Let’s be friends.”

It was such a kindergarten way of putting it, but so honest. One good thing had come of this day—I had a new friend. “I like you, too. Friend.”

She waved before glancing back at Jude. “Sweet pad, QB! Sorry to eat and run, but life calls.”

Jude glanced between Sybill and me, not doing as good a job as I was of pretending we hadn’t just had a screaming match minutes ago. “Thanks, Sybill,” he replied. “I’m glad you got to finally meet Luce.”

With Sybill gone, and Jude starting to make his way toward me, that group of girls to my right were a welcome distraction. I ignored the fact that their dresses were so shiny that together they created a collective disco ball. I also ignored that I would be the smallest-boobed girl in the bunch. Smallest by a landslide.

All I knew was that I wasn’t ready to talk to Jude just yet, I wasn’t ready to move past the nasty things we’d said to each other, and I certainly didn’t want a repeat of that blowup. I’d get past it—I always did—but not yet.

As Jude drew closer, I popped over to the girls. I should have reminded myself that “popping” wasn’t exactly a casual way to work your way into the group. Every flatironed, platinum-blond head spun toward me. How many times did I need to be on the spot in my twenty-one years of life? Really?

However, my not-so-stealthy move had worked. Jude wasn’t marching my way anymore. Smart man.

Out of the pan, into the fire.

Say something, Lucy, I commanded myself as everyone waited, staring at me like I didn’t belong. Then I remembered Sybill’s words of wisdom. I latched on to the first thing that caught my attention.

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