My smile wasn’t small any longer. I had Jude’s trust, even in a situation where he really didn’t want to extend it. “Is that some man rule I missed?”
“Man rule number two,” he said solemnly. “You don’t mess with another man’s woman. Ever.”
“And what’s rule number one?”
“Don’t mess with me.” From his tone alone, I knew that cocky half smile of his was in full bloom.
“Words to live by,” I said. “Although I think I’ve messed with you plenty.” In more ways than one.
“You, and only you, are the one exception to that rule, Luce.”
“Well, there’s an exception to every rule,” I said, realizing I was long past being rude, having been on the phone so long. “It’s been nice chatting, but I’ve got to get back to my—”
“Lunch,” I clarified. “I love you. Thank you for the call, the flowers, and the trust. I’ll give you a ring later tonight once Holly and little Jude are settled in.”
“Give Hol a hug for me. You’ve got the football for little Jude, right?”
“I will, and yes,” I answered.
“One more thing,” he said.
“Put him on the phone,” he said, only partly teasing.
I groaned. “You can talk with him in person when you fly out, so I can monitor what you’re saying.”
“Ballbuster,” he muttered.
“Love you, Luce.”
Ending the call, I gave Anton an embarrassed smile. “I’m sorry about that.”
He lifted his hand, waving like it was no big deal.
“No, really. I’m sorry.” My first day at work, and I’d just sparred with my fiancé on the phone for almost ten minutes at lunch. Not something that would guarantee me an employee-of-the-month plaque anytime in the near future.
“It was entertaining,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve seen that much drama since India forced me to watch the season finale of The Real World back when I was in middle school.”
I wasn’t sure if he’d intended this as a jab or as a joke, but it stung. It was none of Anton’s business, but I had to set the record straight. “Jude’s dramatic. I’m dramatic. Together we make a pretty big production.” Cutting into my Caprese salad, I took a bite. Food at last.
Anton finally dropped his spoon into his soup. A gentleman. Not exactly what I’d expected from a brother of India’s. “That sounds unhealthy.”
My brows came together. I wasn’t going to let a guy who thought ordering tomato bisque was living on the wild side tell me what was and wasn’t unhealthy.
“Maybe for you, but not for me.”
There. That was a way to roll up about an afternoon’s worth of explanations into one sentence.
“Forgive me for speaking my mind, but I am a Xavier,” he said. “How is controlling healthy for anyone?”
“Jude isn’t controlling,” I said, taking a breath. “He’s protective.”
“There’s a difference?” he asked, having a spoonful of soup. It was probably cold by now.
“Yeah, there’s a huge difference. Controlling is completely different from protective.” I was tempted to whip out my phone and go all Webster’s on his ass. “Jude’s protective of me because he knows exactly what kind of nasty crap is out there in the world and he doesn’t want me to ever experience it. And if I did, he’s both willing and capable of protecting me.” I tried to keep from sounding defensive. I liked Anton, but his questions were starting to bug me. “However, even though I know he wishes I’d let him do it, he lets me make my own decisions. The only person who controls me is me.”
Anton pursed his lips. “Controlling, protective, possessive. I’d lump all those into the same category,” he said, watching me. “Unhealthy.”
This guy didn’t know when to back off. Neither did I.
“What did you major in, in college?” I asked, hoping that if I tried a different path of explanation I could win the conversational battle.
“I doubled in political science and economics,” he said, seeming unfazed by my abrupt turn in conversation.
“Okay, so in political science terms . . .” I mused, rolling my fingers over the table. Lightbulb alert.
“Jude isn’t a tyrant. He doesn’t rule over me or expect that I obey his every word. He’s more like an adviser,” I explained. “An adviser who not only offers good advice but who knows how to kick ass if required to.”
Anton took a couple more sips of soup, stalling. “So you’ve got drama, he’s”—he purposely cleared his throat—“protective, and you can’t tell me exactly why you love him, just that you couldn’t not love him. Lucy, don’t slap me too hard, but that sounds like you’re smitten. Or infatuated. Not in love.”
Boy, I wasn’t catching a break this afternoon. From Jude to Anton, these guys were going to make me lose it. I inhaled and counted to five. It didn’t matter what Anton thought, nor did it matter what anyone else thought. I wasn’t going to let doubt back into my mind. I loved Jude. He loved me. He’d proven himself again and again, over the course of four years. I was through with doubt.
“We’ll have to agree to disagree,” I said, setting my fork down, because I was finished with lunch and this conversation. “We should probably get back.”