“Tomorrow’s the big day,” he said around another bite of apple. The air smelled like the tangy sweetness of the fruit in his mouth. Not able to resist, I leaned down to kiss him, wanting to taste the aroma. It was even better combined with the taste of his mouth.
He was oozing that notorious Jude Ryder ego when I leaned back. He knew what he did to me. And he loved it.
I loved it too, although I didn’t love how well he knew it.
“Tomorrow I could be a first-round draft pick, Luce,” he continued, circling my ankle with his fingers. “We could be millionaires in twenty-four hours.”
I had to force myself not to visibly wince. This talk—the draft, the money, the lifestyle—had been an area of contention this past year with the likelihood of Jude’s being drafted into pro ball. I wasn’t so sure how I felt about it, but Jude was sure enough for both of us.
Trouble was, his confidence wasn’t rubbing off on me. If anything, the more confident he became, the less I felt. Money had the potential to change things. It had the potential to change people. I was worried about how all that money might change us. I loved him, and me, and us, just the way we were now.
Jude’s being drafted his junior year of college was a one-in-a-million kind of an opportunity, the kind of thing college players would sell their souls to achieve. But it also meant he’d be dropping out of school. He’d made it this far; a part of me wanted to see him finish his degree—astound all those people back home who’d always pegged him as a high school dropout. Playing in the NFL had been a dream of Jude’s forever. I couldn’t postpone his dream any more than he could mine.
“From dining on peanut-butter sandwiches tonight to twenty-ounce, grade-A prime filet tomorrow night,” he continued, his face almost glowing as his eyes drifted off to money-land. “We could get a new place, a new fancy-ass car. We could take a vacation to Hawaii. Fly first-class and shit. Think about it, Luce. Anything we want, we can have. Anytime we want it. No more scrambling around getting grease under our fingernails or waiting tables late at night to pay the electric bill.” He paused, a contented smile settling deeper into his face. “We could have it all, baby.”
I swallowed. “I thought we already did.” My voice sounded sadder than I meant it to.
The skin between Jude’s eyebrows puckered. “What do you mean?” he asked, his gaze zeroing in on me.
“I thought we already had it all,” I repeated. “I’ve been on both sides of the money line, and the only thing it changes is your zip code. It can’t make you happy if you weren’t without it.”
“Well, I’ve been on the losing side of the money game my whole life, and I know for a fact that money can make your life better if you can’t even find enough quarters in the couch cushions to do a load of laundry at the local Suds N’ Wash.” Dropping his apple to the side, he sat up and turned until he was facing me. The candlelight flickered around him, shadowing the crevasses of his muscles, highlighting the peaks of them, and made the sharp lines of his jaw even more defined. A man like Jude shouldn’t be classified as beautiful, but in moments like this, he kind of was.
Jude Ryder. My beautiful fiancé.
He was waiting for me to respond.
“Okay, so money can make your life better if you’re destitute,” I said, prying my eyes from where they traced the grooves of his ab muscles. “But we’re not destitute, Jude. We’re college students with a roof over our heads, gasoline in our tanks, ramen noodles in our cupboards, and shirts on our backs. I couldn’t imagine being any happier than I am right now, and if it was possible, money would certainly be the last thing on that list that could make me more so.” I grabbed the plastic wineglass Jude had filled from a cheap bottle of sparkling wine and took a sip. It was delicious. I was as happy with a five-dollar bottle of sparkling wine from the drugstore as I would have been with the finest bottle of champagne money could buy.
“No, we’re not destitute, but we’re not thriving in the money department either, Luce,” he said, grabbing my hand and pulling it into his lap. “And you’re right that money couldn’t make me happier than I am right now.” He smiled so big it made the scar on his cheek pucker. “But it does mean I can finally be rid of my piece-of-shit truck and get a jacked-up, three-hundred-and-fifty-horsepower jet-black monster truck.”
I rolled my eyes and shoved at him.
“And we can trade in that little go-kart of yours for a zippy convertible,” he continued.
“I like my Mazda,” I muttered, plucking a grape free from the vine and popping it into my mouth.
“And we can afford a house with a room for each day of the year, with so many maids and butlers you wouldn’t have to lift a finger again. Unless it was to call for a fresh-squeezed orange juice.” He was really on a roll, the words spilling out of his mouth as his eyes sparkled with the visions. My own eyes were narrowing as my stomach twisted.
“Money changes people, Jude,” I whispered, staring into my cup.
We were silent as we let that settle between us.
“That’s what you’re worried about?” he said, his voice soft. “That the money will change you?”
I shook my head, focusing on the bubbles that crept up the sides of the cup. “No,” I said, before looking into his eyes. “That it will change you.”
His eyes narrowed for the shortest second before they widened with understanding. Winding an arm around my neck, he pulled me to him. “Come here,” he whispered outside my ear, wrapping his other arm around my back. “The only thing that could change me is you, Luce,” he said. “You, not anything else. Mountains of money included.” I heard the grin in his voice. “No matter what happens tomorrow or how many millions they throw at me, I’m the same guy I am right now.” He rubbed my back, pressing slow circles into my spine. “I’ll just be picking you up in a truck you won’t be embarrassed to be seen in.”