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Page 23

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.”

“Lucy,” he said, “I didn’t mean to offend you. I speak my mind, when most of the time I shouldn’t.”

“Because you’re India’s brother, my boss, and a pretty cool guy, I think we should make a pact to not speak about my relationship again.” I stared at him straight on. “Because I will not, for another second, let you try to put down what Jude and I have. You don’t understand us. That’s fine. You wouldn’t be the first and you sure as hell won’t be the last. But I can’t be your friend if you keep saying these things.”

“You can’t hear anything you don’t want to hear?”

“No, that’s not it. With Jude and me, we’ve been through more in four years than most couples would go through in four lifetimes together. I get that the odds are not in our favor. I also don’t care.” Wow, I was on a roll. Time to get off my soapbox before I slipped off and broke my neck. “I’m sick of hearing people tell us how not right we are for each other. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean we’re not true.”

Anton lifted his hands in surrender. Good call. “Fair enough. I think I can manage that.”

“We’ll see,” I said. I had my doubts about how Anton was going to “manage.”

THIRTEEN

My apartment sounded like a herd of rhinos had been set loose on it.

The little man was doing his namesake proud, hollering and grunting like a caveman. I’d had a long day at work, my feet were killing me, and I was exhausted, but I couldn’t get to my apartment fast enough.

It felt like forever since I’d had someone to look forward to seeing when I got home. So long since voices other than mine or the ones coming from the TV had filled my apartment.

Stopping in front of the door, I knocked. It felt a little strange knocking on my own front door, until I heard the clop, clop, clopping of little caveman feet thundering toward the door.

“Aunt Luce is here! Aunt Luce is here!” Although Luce sounded more like Woose.

The door opened so hard it bounced against the wall. “Aunt Luce!”

I propped a hand on my hip. “Have you seen a little boy, sir? His name’s Jude, and he’s about this tall.” I held my hand out at his shoulder level. “His uncle Jude and I got him a present.”

“Aunt Luce, it’s me!”

“What? No way. You are way too big to be little Jude.”

He rolled his eyes. Not even four years old and the kid could manage a solid eye roll. No doubt he’d perfected that move from his mama. However, he was the spitting image of Sawyer, his father. So much so that when his face lit up with his smile, I forgot where I was and who was standing in front of me. “Mom says I’m growing like a weed, and I’m not little Jude anymore. I’m LJ,” he declared, standing a little taller.

“LJ, eh?” I said. “Says who?”

“Says Thomas,” he said, pointing back into the apartment.

A loud crash, followed by Holly firing off a string of, “Fudge, fudge, fudgity, fudge.” Sounded like I was needed.

“Is LJ too big to give those really good hugs of his?”

LJ gave this a moment’s thought before shaking that mop of golden brown hair. “Nah.”

I opened my arms and he dived right in. “Good. Because I’ve been dying for a good hug.” Planting a kiss on his cheek, I headed inside. “Are you already demolition-derbying my apartment?” I shouted over at Holly, who was furiously picking up Jude’s old football trophies that had toppled off their shelf.

“I’ve got a little boy who believes he’s a T. rex half of the time,” she replied, setting the last trophy back into place. “The question isn’t if this place will be demolished; it’s when.” Holly crossed the room, looking more frazzled than I’d ever seen her. I suppose traveling across the country with a little one would do that to a girl. “Are you sure you don’t want to rethink this, Lucy? It’s not too late, you know. I haven’t finished unpacking all our junk.”

“If you even think about leaving, I will literally tie you up and hold you prisoner,” I said, hugging LJ tighter.

Giving me a hug from the side, Holly mussed LJ’s hair. “Well, it’s your security deposit and sanity.”

Apparently two momlike girls fussing over him was his limit. Making a face, LJ squirmed out of my arms. “How was the flight?”

“It was a whole heck of a lot better than it could have been, thanks to my friend children’s Benadryl,” Holly said, watching LJ beeline for the kitchen. “Hey, give Thomas two minutes to himself.”

“Hey, Thomas! Didn’t have anything better to do tonight?” I called into the kitchen. I hadn’t noticed he’d stuck around after picking Holly and Jude up from the airport when I walked in, but Holly and LJ had a way of taking up a person’s attention.

Waving a spoon in the air, Thomas grinned. “I told Holly I’d hang around for a while and chill with LJ while she got settled in,” he said, right before LJ tackled his legs.

“Jude Michael Reed!” Holly shouted. Damn, she had the mom tone down so well I flinched. “If you don’t calm down and start acting like the sweet, good little boy I know you can be, poor Thomas will never come back to see us.”

Thomas’s eyes shifted to Holly, and even though they were dark brown, I would have sworn they went a little soft. Holly had already left an impression on him. He waved his spoon again. “I’ve got three little brothers, so I guarantee you there’s nothing he can do to me that hasn’t already been done.”

Turning off a burner, Thomas grabbed LJ and tossed him over his shoulder before galloping around the room in circles. The poor neighbors below us.

“So that’s your dance partner?” Holly said, watching the two of them charging and squealing around the room.

“That’s him.”

“I can see why Jude went ape shit when he found him undressing you,” she said, heading back toward her suitcase.

“That’s not exactly a revelation, Holly. Jude does, would, and will go ape shit on anything that remotely resembles a man who tries to help me undress.” I followed her and plopped down on the sofa.

“Yeah, but Thomas is cute,” she said, stealing a glance at him.

My brows came together. Thomas was good-looking in a beautiful kind of way. Dark, long hair, eyes almost as dark, and flawless alabaster skin. He was easy on the eyes and had caught the attention of more than the majority of female dancers at school, but their cute and Holly’s cute didn’t seem like they would have aligned. Holly was more on the same page as me: she liked the rough, rugged, raw, handsome, all-male type.

“You think Thomas is cute?” I asked.

“Don’t you?”

I shrugged, watching Thomas and LJ where they now wrestled on the ground. “Yeah. But—”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Holly interrupted. “He plays for the other team. That’s obvious. Look how thoughtful he is, how well he dresses, and how his eyes never wander below my neck.”

I was about to clarify Thomas’s sexual orientation when LJ went off like a fire alarm. I made a mental note to pick up some Excedrin next time I was at the store.

“Aunt Luce, is this for me?” he asked. Well, he yelled.

“LJ. Were you going through Aunt Lucy’s things?” Holly said as he sprinted toward us with a present in hand. Jude had even had it wrapped in yellow-and-blue paper.

“It was in her bedroom,” he said, turning the present over in his hands.

“What were you doing in her bedroom? I told you Lucy’s bedroom is off-limits.”

“I forgot to tell you,” I said, grabbing LJ and tossing him into my lap. “You guys are going to take my room and I’m going to be out here.”

“What?” Holly said, like she’d heard me wrong. “No. No way, Lucy Larson. We came on the understanding we’d inconvenience you, not straight-up displace you.”

Thomas crashed down beside me. His hair looked like it had been whirled around in a blender a few times.

“Will you listen to me for once, you stubborn brat? You and LJ are taking my room. He needs a quiet spot where he can sleep, and there are two of you. I already ordered a twin mattress and a couple room dividers to set up out here for me, so it’s done.” I arched a brow and waited. Holly liked to argue with me almost as much as Jude did.

What she did next, though, I wasn’t expecting. I’d been braced and ready for another five rounds of back-and-forth. Instead she threw herself down beside me and pulled me into a hug that was so tight it almost cut my airway off.

“I don’t know what I’d do without you and Jude.” She sniffed into my hair. I’d never seen her cry. In fact, I’d come to the conclusion she couldn’t cry.

“You’d be fine, Holly,” I assured her, just like either Jude or I did when she tried to give us more credit than we were due. Holly had crossed the proverbial Nile all on her own. Jude and I had just been there to provide a little help along the way. Patting her back a few times, I winked at LJ. “Well. Are you going to keep staring at that thing all night or are you going to tear into it?”

His face lit up right before a hurricane of wrapping paper flew into the air.

“A football!” he said, jumping up and down. “A real football. Not a baby one.” Arching his arm back, he launched it straight into Thomas’s stomach.

Thomas grunted, fumbling with the ball like he didn’t know whether to throw it or pirouette with it.

“Holy snickies,” Holly said, examining the ball in Thomas’s hands. “Are those signatures on that thing?”

“Snickies, yeah,” I replied, realizing I’d have to really watch my mouth now that an innocent set of ears was around. That, more than anything else, seemed like it would be the hardest part of this situation.

“As in the signatures of a certain Jude Ryder and the rest of his teammates?” Holly was gaping at the ball now.

I shot her a smirk. “No. Jude Ryder and the rest of the members of the Bad Boys Club.”

“In that case,” she said with a slow smile, “where are the phone numbers?”

Thomas handed the ball back to LJ before popping up from the couch. Zeroing in on the door, he shifted. “I’d better get back,” he said. “I’ve got an hour’s drive ahead of me.”

Holly and I exchanged a look. Thomas had seemed ready to spend the night on the couch, and now he couldn’t get out of here fast enough.

***

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