“Jude,” I said, pulling his chin back to me. “Jude, look at me.” I waited for him to turn to me. I caught a glimpse of just how vulnerable Jude Ryder was. How very terrified he was of one day being abandoned by the person he loved most. How the ghosts of his past—his mother leaving and his father being imprisoned—had been resurrected by my indecision. Seeing him this way almost had me running off to the nearest wedding chapel.
I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying the words I knew would have soothed his pain instantly. I carefully thought of new ones I hoped would appease him. “I’m marrying you one day. One day sooner rather than later,” I began, holding his gaze, not even allowing myself a blink that would break the contact. “There’s never been a question that I’m yours. Yeah, we’re not husband and wife yet, but I’m yours. And you’re mine. Does a new title and a piece of paper really matter that much?” I already knew Jude’s answer to this.
“Yes,” he said, his jaw clenching as his eyes flashed. “Shit, yes, it does, Luce.”
I flinched from the intensity of his tone.
“I want you in every way a person can be with another. Every way,” he said, his voice low. “I want you as my wife. My. Wife,” he repeated, as Territorial Jude burst free of his cage.
Territorial Jude had a way of bringing out Temperamental Lucy.
“And then what? I get a new apron and spatula every Christmas and you pee on my leg every day before going to work, to mark your territory?” I snapped back, aware there were others around us within hearing distance, but not caring at this point.
“Dammit, Luce,” Jude seethed, working his tongue into his cheek. “Don’t you do that crazy Luce thing and twist my words all the hell up. If I wanted some submissive, respectful little housewife I sure as shit wouldn’t have fallen in love with you.” He was a few notches below a shout, but I knew that wouldn’t last, since I was planning to respond with a few choice four-letter words, followed by telling him to stick his head where the sun didn’t shine.
And then his cell phone rang.
A silence fell over the room. Our argument was over as quickly as it had started. Sliding his phone from his pocket, Jude glanced at me. His eyes were wide with excitement, sparkling with anticipation. This was the call he’d waited for, for the better part of three years. He’d left his heart and sweat and blood on the field after every game in his college career, and now those sacrifices were about to be paid back in spades.
Or dollar bills.
He flashed me a quick smile and drew me closer with the arm he still had wound around me. His eyes flickered to his phone. They widened further.
“San Diego,” he whispered, examining the screen again. His smile split his face in half. Leaning his head back, he hooted with all his might, filling the silent room with celebration.
I nodded my head in encouragement, mustering up a smile for him. This was what he wanted; this team was his first choice. He deserved this. He needed my support.
Answering the call, he held it to his ear. “Sir, you just drafted yourself the hardest-working son of a bitch you’ll ever come across.”
My mouth dropped, but only a little. I’d learned years ago that when it came to Jude, he never said or did what was expected.
The caller on the other end said something, earning a few laughs from Jude. “I’m going to win you some championships, sir,” he said, beaming into the phone. “Thank you for taking a chance on me.”
Other than Jude’s voice and my heart beating out of my chest, the room was still. Everyone had stopped pacing and turned to watch us. Most of the players looked happy for him, nodding their heads in acknowledgment, although a few were wearing sour expressions, no doubt confused as to why Jude Ryder had gotten the call before they had.
I could give them an answer: It was because Jude was the top-rated college quarterback in the nation and he believed in teamwork, unlike a growing number of showboaters who thought football was a one-man sport.
Ending the call, Jude’s face was blank with shock; then it quickly morphed to the most exhilarated I’d ever seen it. Hanging his head back, Jude opened his mouth and let out a coyote call at rafter-shaking volume.
The room erupted with cheers, but even with dozens of other shouts, Jude’s hollers still owned the room. I couldn’t help it: Seeing him like this, overcome with excitement, I had to join in. Not even all my apprehension and anxiety could dim my joy in this moment.
Leaning my own head back, I screamed right along with him and threw my arms into the air. He’d done it. He hadn’t only done it; he’d been a first-round draft pick. From troubled repeat felon to one of the most sought after and, although he hadn’t told me the number yet, probably one of the highest-paid football players in the country.
This was the stuff American dreams were made of, and I got to experience it at his side.
Lifting me into the air like I was nothing more substantial than a football, Jude spun me around.
“We did it, Luce,” he yelled up at me, his scar pinched deep into his cheek from the smile he wore. “We really did it.”
And this was where Jude and I had different opinions. I thought we’d been doing it, doing great, all along. But I returned his smile and nodded my head. “Yeah, baby,” I said. “We did it.”
We were at the airport having another gut-wrenching good-bye. Cue the déjà vu fairy.