When the ball landed in the receiver’s arms at the twenty, I cheered louder still. I was the only one cheering—I was the only one making loud noise—but I wasn’t worried about it. Jude had just thrown his first pass in the NFL—a guy who had goals only of staying out of prison back in high school, and here he was now, living the dream, being watched and celebrated by millions around the country.
Another tear dripped from my eye. While he’d turned into a football god, I’d turned into an emotional sap.
When I stopped cheering long enough to catch my breath, I felt all the eyes in the room on me. “Did you see that?” I asked the collective bunch, waving at the field.
I didn’t wait for an answer. I had a game to watch.
I didn’t stop cheering, because I knew I’d never conform to whatever this Emerald City standard was, and what mattered more to me was that I never wanted to.
I was sitting next to the most talked-about man in the country tonight. After completing four touchdown passes, not throwing a single interception during the entire game, and leading his team to a win that the analysts said would take a miracle of the raising-the-dead quality, Jude Ryder had proven himself ten times over in his first NFL game. He’d become a national hero today, yet he still draped his arm over me as we headed to the airport in his POS truck like he was the same old bad boy of Southpointe High.
I was exhausted, but it had been so worth it to make the grueling one-day journey, and I knew it meant a lot to Jude. Mainly because he hadn’t stopped telling me it had.
“Did I tell you yet how proud I am of you?” I said, wishing all those lights in the near distance weren’t the airport.
“Only five minutes ago.” His arm tightened around me. “Thanks for coming. It’s just not the same when you’re not there to watch me play, Luce.”
“It means a lot to me, too.”
“Are you still on for two weeks from now? We’ve got a bye-week next weekend, but we’ve got another home game the following.”
“I’ll be there,” I said, thinking this would be the opportunity I’d use to tell Jude about being pregnant. I didn’t want to do it over the phone, and I wasn’t quite ready to tell him today. Even if I was ready, there was literally no time. When we pulled into the airport, I’d be lucky to have a whole ten minutes before I had to start making my way to my gate. This was news I didn’t want to rush. I didn’t want to feel like I was racing the clock to get it out. I wanted a whole day if we needed it, to talk things out, or to say nothing at all and just be with each other while we processed the detour our lives were taking.
“And you’ll be able to be here for the whole weekend, right?”
“The whole weekend,” I said, as Jude pulled into the parking garage.
“I’m so sick of saying good-bye to you, Luce,” he said, thumping his palm on the steering wheel. “I’m sick of crawling into a cold bed, and I’m sick of texting you more than talking with you. I miss you.”
I was exhausted, and pregnant. And emotional.
His words made me weepy instantly.
“I’m sick of it, too,” I said, keeping my head tucked against his shoulder so he wouldn’t see my tears.
“I’ve got a solution to that, you know. To both of us being sick of being apart,” he said, sounding hesitant.
“What? Me pick up and move out here with you and get hitched?” I said, not really having to guess this was where his mind was at.
He nodded against my head. “I’d do it for you if I could.” And now his voice sounded sad.
“But I’d never ask you to,” I replied. “You’ve got commitments and I’ve got commitments. It just sucks that our commitments have to be on opposite sides of the country.”
His face nudged mine. He wanted me to look at him, but I couldn’t. I had to put a stopper on these damn tears before he saw them. “My number-one commitment is you, Luce.”
“I know,” I said, wiping my eyes with my arm. “What are you asking me to do, Jude? I get that I’m your number- one priority, but I also get that you signed a contract with a little franchise called the San Diego Chargers.”
“That’s right, I do have a contract. For three years. If at the end of that, you want me to quit so we can spend the next thirty moving from one dance mecca to the next, that’s what I’ll do.”
I blew out a slow breath. “You’d do that? Give up your dream so I could have mine?”
“Baby, football isn’t my dream,” he said, kissing my forehead. “You are.”
Uh-oh. Choking sobs on the horizon.
“Don’t get me wrong; I love football. A lot. But I can’t even compare it to you, because there’s nothing to compare. I signed the contract because I’m good at it, and I’ll make so much damn money in three years we’ll be set for life, and you can dance across any and every stage you want and not have to ever worry about money.”
I knew I should get going, but I couldn’t leave. I was tired of leaving him. “Three years of football. Then three years of dance. So on and so forth. Is that what you’re proposing?”
“I’m proposing three years of football and you can have the rest of our years together dancing if that’s what you want,” he said.
“What if we want to start a family sometime along the way?” I asked, seeing my segue and taking it for a spin. “How does a baby factor into our three-years-on, three-years-off schedule?”