“A na**d picture of you plastered on the front page,” he said, keeping his voice controlled, even though the sinews of his neck were surfacing. “Your boobs on display for the entire world. I mean, shit, those are my boobs. Not the entire world’s to enjoy.”
The anger had morphed into hurt, and, in Jude’s case, that meant nothing around us was in danger of being destroyed. I let myself exhale. It felt like I’d been holding that breath for ten minutes straight.
Speaking of time . . . if we didn’t wrap this up soon I was going to miss my flight.
“No, baby,” I said, glancing down at them, “these are my boobs. I just give you an all-access pass to them.” He half scowled, half smirked at me as I continued. “And the only reason I’m able to stay cool is because I know there’s going to be no end to this kind of stuff, Jude. You’re in the public eye in a big way now. There’s going to be no shortage of scandals, or photos, or rumors, or whatever else comes with being a hotshot quarterback.” Dropping my hand to his, I weaved my fingers with his. “Even before the NFL, there was no shortage of this kind of shit in our lives.”
I paused and let him work those words out. Our path had never been smooth, and though I often found myself wishing for it, our future probably wouldn’t be, either. I’d figured this out freshman year, chosen to accept it, and gotten on with my life . . . with Jude.
There were worse things than bumps in the road.
Plus, I had a man like Jude, who loved me like there was no tomorrow. Bumps in the road were a small sacrifice to make for that kind of love.
“Okay. Two things,” Jude said, rubbing the back of his neck as he liked to do when he was working things out. “One—I do believe when you agreed to be my wife, that whole ‘what’s mine is yours’ clause applies, so your boobs are, in fact, mine.” I crossed my arms while he continued walking on thin ice. “Just the way my body belongs to you, Luce,” he added with a wink. “And two—are you saying you want to—that you’re okay with—living in our own little gibbon bubble?”
The words gibbon and bubble coming from Jude Ryder’s mouth were all kinds of funny. But he meant what he said. Seriously.
“If I get to live in that bubble with a certain guy I love”—I ran my thumb down the scar on his cheek—“then yeah, I want to live in a bubble.” It was the only option, really. Unless I wanted to be downing some hard-core over-the-counter narcotics before I turned twenty-two, Jude and I would have to figure out a way to separate ourselves from the public eye and the scrutiny that was sure to follow. “How about you? How does bubble living sound from your size twelves?”
“With you, Luce,” he said, grabbing my hand as it left his face. Holding it to his mouth, he kissed my palm softly. That kiss, pressed to that patch of skin on my palm, had a direct line to every nerve ending in my body. “I’ll take any kind of living, so long as I get to do it with you at my side.”
“At your side. On your side. Side by side . . .”
He lifted his hand. “Are you saying you’re with me, Luce, no matter what comes?”
“I’m saying I’ve always been with you, Ryder”—I kissed one corner of his mouth, and then the other—“and I always will be.”
His grin was so wide, his scar disappeared into his cheek. This was my favorite smile of his. Not because it made his scar disappear, but because it eased it for a few moments.
His cocky smile-smirk was a close second favorite.
“You.” He pointed at me before turning his finger on himself. “Me. Bubble.” His finger now circled around us before making a flicking motion. “The world.”
“Sounds perfect,” I replied, my eyes shifting toward the security checkpoint. I was going to miss my flight if I didn’t leave now. When I looked back at him and saw that familiar glimmering of longing and want in those gray eyes of his, my stomach bottomed out.
Okay, thirty seconds.
“Three weeks,” he said, followed by a groan.
I groaned my reply.
Grabbing me close, he dropped his mouth to my ear. “Better make it a good one then.”
I made it the best damn one yet.
That next Monday, I found myself in a predicament.
Not only because the past day and a half since I’d last seen Jude had gone by so agonizingly slowly that it didn’t seem fair, and I still had nineteen days to go, but because I was unprepared for the dress code at my new job.
I had a half hour before eight, and I knew the only thing worse than showing up for the first day under- or overdressed was being late. I shot a quick text off to India, praying she’d have some idea whether my position at Xavier Industries warranted a skirt and a blouse or was more of a pants-and-shirt kind of place.
As I waited for her reply, I hoped it would be more the cotton-and-wrinkle-free kind of workplace.
As I was hooking my bra into place, my phone chimed.
I frowned when I read her reply. ANTON’S AN OLD-SCHOOL, MAD MEN STYLE CHUMP. AS YOUR FRIEND, I HAVE TO ADVISE YOU TO DRESS UP. BUT AS HIS SISTER, I REALLY WANT YOU TO SHOW UP IN CUTOFFS AND SANDALS JUST TO PISS HIM OFF.
I sighed and pulled my black pencil skirt from the hanger. As I was stepping into it, my phone chimed with another message from India. GOOD LUCK. GIVE ’EM HELL.
I typed DITTO and hit send before pulling my white button-down blouse out of the closet, along with my black heels. Once I was changed, I hurried out of the apartment. Although, thanks to the tightness of the skirt, “hurrying” anywhere was a joke. The fastest I could go was a shuffle.