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Page 22

testpreptraining

Jude’s low chuckle came through the phone. “You better believe it, Luce,” he said. “How’s your first day?”

“It’s going about ten times better now, thanks to this guy who sent me about a million roses.”

“A million red roses,” he said.

“Thank you. You really are pretty amazing, both in and out of the”—I substituted a throat clearing for the word I was going for—“room.”

“I’m so damn proud of you, Luce,” he said, over some yelling and grunting in the background. He must be taking a phone break during practice. “That’s one badass job you got yourself.”

“Wait. You’re proud now?” I said, thanking Angel with a nod when she dropped my salad in front of me. Anton thanked her with a wink, which sent her over the flustered edge. “When did this happen?”

“When I decided to stop being a selfish jackass,” Jude answered. “Would I prefer you to be here with me so I can crawl into bed with you every night? Hell, yeah. But if this is what you need to do, I don’t need to understand it to support you along the way.”

I went a little soft in the knees right then. Good thing I was sitting.

“Aren’t we turning into the mature one?” I replied, glancing over at Anton. He hadn’t taken a bite of his soup and was obviously waiting for me before digging in.

I encouraged him with a wave. Very gentlemanly of him, but there was no sense in his soup getting cold while I wrapped up my call with Jude.

“So what are you up to now?” Jude said. “You’re not going to get in trouble if the boss catches you on your phone, are you?”

“The boss already did catch me on the phone,” I answered, smiling at Anton. “But I think he’s all right with it, since he’s sitting across the table from me at lunch.”

Jude was silent on the other end—for so long, I had to check to make sure I hadn’t lost the call. “Jude?”

“You’re at lunch with him?” His voice was low, controlled.

Not good. “Yeah?”

“Alone?” His voice was still low, but quavered a little.

Not good at all. “Yeah?”

Jude exhaled sharply. “Does he know you’re engaged?”

His voice was making me squirm in my seat. Like I’d done something wrong.

“Yeah.”

He took a few long breaths before replying. “Let me talk to him.”

“Why?” I asked, knowing that was a bad idea from a mile off.

“Because maybe he needs a reminder that you are engaged to me,” he said. “And therefore off-limits to him.”

I glanced at Anton. He was still waiting patiently, oblivious to the guy on the other end of the phone who would gladly reach through the speaker and strangle him if it was possible. I scooted my chair back and lowered my voice, hoping Anton would take a clue and excuse himself for a bathroom break or something. “Jude,” I whispered, “even if he does or doesn’t know, accept, or care that I’m engaged. I. Know,” I said firmly. “I know I’m engaged, and that’s all you need to concern yourself with.” I shot Anton another look. It was obvious he was pretending to not be intrigued by my conversation.

“You know you’re engaged?” Jude said, snorting. “Then what are you doing agreeing to go on private lunch dates with your boss?”

He was getting fired up. So was I. The difference was that I chose to keep my fire to a smolder.

I never thought I’d be classified as one of the cool, calm, and collected people out there, but I was starting to surprise myself.

I unclenched my fists before replying. “Because I was hungry. Because he asked. Because it’s a company tradition to take new employees out to lunch. Because there’s nothing remotely intimate between us. Because I was sure you trusted and supported me enough to make my own wise choices. And”—surely there were about a hundred more reasons—“and because I was hungry.”

Anton cleared his throat. “Lucy,” he said, sliding out of his seat, “should I go?”

I shook my head.

“Yes,” Jude snapped, overhearing him. “Yes, he damn well should.”

“Jude,” I warned.

“Put him on the phone, Luce,” he said. “I need to talk to him.”

Anton stood up to go and I shook my head again, and pointed at his seat. I wasn’t going to let this argument between Jude and me be resolved by default. He needed to trust my discretion, my choices, and my decisions. He needed to trust me.

Anton sat back down hesitantly, looking as uncomfortable as a person could be.

“No.”

“Luce,” he replied.

“Jude,” I threw back. “No.”

He kind of sighed, kind of groaned, and was quiet again. I was familiar enough with his frustration to know he was rubbing the back of his neck now, while every inch of his face was creased. “I’m across the country, Luce. Completely helpless while you’re at lunch with your boss who’s probably some pretty guy in a suit who thinks that because all the girls before you have caved to his charms, you will, too.” I was glad he wasn’t here to see me, because a small smile parted my mouth. Jude had nailed it; Anton was a pretty guy in a suit. “What do you expect me to do, Luce?”

This was an easy answer. And next to impossible to deliver. “Trust me.”

Something short and quiet came from Jude’s end, but I didn’t catch it. Another few moments of nothing. I swear, half of this call had been in silence while one of us processed what the other was thinking. I suppose you could say we’d finally graduated from the Think Before You Speak Academy.

“Damn,” he said under his breath.

I totally got that response. “See why it was so hard for me?”

“Yeah. I’m starting to get why you turned into a crazy person back in the day,” he said, understating just what I’d become “back in the day.” Psychotic, rabid, shot-flames-from-my-nose lunatic would have been a more accurate description. “Okay, I’ll trust you. I will not trust him, or any other man who thinks it’s okay to take out an engaged woman alone on a lunch date. Not cool in my book.”

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—”

“Date.”

“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.

“Anything.”

“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.”

“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.”

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