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Page 36

“Did you have to drop out of school?” I asked, realizing Sybill was the best possible person I could turn to for advice.

“I dropped out of school because I wanted to be with Deon and spend time with the baby. But I was able to take online courses and managed to get my degree along the way.”

“Do you ever regret it?” I whispered. “Getting pregnant? Dropping out? Giving up on your dreams?”

“Not one single day,” she said. “I’ve never regretted any of it. I don’t live with regret, Lucy. It’s poison. Did I mourn for certain things I felt I missed out on? Hell yes, I did. But if I stacked up everything I feel I missed out on and compared it to everything I gained along the way, there’s a teeny-tiny pile of what-could-have-been standing in the shadow of a never-ending tower of what-has-beens.”

I was no longer crying an occasional tear. I was a sobbing, hot mess.

“Yes, I’ve missed out on things. But that’s life, Lucy. It’s what I haven’t missed out on that counts in my book. When I look at my family’s faces, I know I wouldn’t change a damn thing if I had the choice.”

“So you’re saying I should keep the baby, tell Jude, and we should raise it together?” I asked in between sobs. I wasn’t sure if anyone had noticed the bawling girl in the corner, and I wouldn’t have cared at this point.

“No, I’m not saying that. You’re the only one who can make those decisions,” she said, “but I know when you’re ready to make them, you’ll make the right decisions for you.”

I didn’t know who or which divine entity had brought Sybill up to the skybox tonight, but I was thanking whatever it was. I felt about a million times better and a thousand pounds lighter. I didn’t have the answers yet, but I wasn’t terrified of them anymore.

“Thank you, Sybill,” I said, wiping my eyes with the back of my arm. “I mentioned I loved you earlier, right?”

“You’re welcome, baby girl,” she said, giving my shoulders one more squeeze before rising. “And I’m sending a whole lot of love right back at you. Now I really got to get to my mama before she has a nervous breakdown, but if you ever want to talk, just give me a ring, okay?”

I nodded. “Okay.”

“You good?” she said, looking around the room. The game had started, and still no one was watching. The mercy was that no one was watching me either.

“Yeah, I’m good.” For the first time this week, it was the only time I’d answered this question without lying.

“I expect to see you down with us at the next game. You got it?” she said, grabbing another cola as she headed for the door. “I need all the help I can get.”

“I’ll be there,” I said, “and I’m pretty darn good with kiddos.”

Sybill gave me a knowing smile. “I can picture that, Lucy Larson. I can picture that.” She flashed a wave before heading out.

Everyone was still busy talking about whatever was so important that they couldn’t interrupt themselves to watch the football game, and, while they were all clustered around the food table, no one was eating anything.

My stomach rumbled. Crackers and soda were not an especially filling diet. For the first time this week, I had a craving when my eyes landed on the fruit bowl. I knew I might regret it, but I wanted an apple. Popping up, I weaved through a few bodies to get to my coveted apple. I made my way back to my seat just as Jude was taking the field.

I forgot about the apple. I forgot about everything but him crouching into position. It didn’t seem possible that four years ago he’d been a reluctant walk-on high school player, and here he was, about to make his first play in the big league.

I reminded myself to breathe.

The center hiked; Jude caught it effortlessly and stalled for a couple seconds, giving his receivers time to get into position. His arm snapped back and when he released that ball, I started shouting. Cheering my head off. It had a good few seconds of hang time, but I knew it would land right where Jude intended it to land. I’d watched enough games of his to know he rarely, if ever, missed his mark.

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.

EIGHTEEN

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?”

His body relaxed against me. “I can’t wait for the day we have kids, Luce, because you’re going to make me the most beautiful little babies ever, but we’re still so young.” The smile that was forming on my face faltered. “We’re barely twenty-one. We’ve got a whole decade ahead of us before we need to start worrying about popping a couple kiddos out. We’ve got time, so let’s use it,” he said, trying to turn his face so he could see mine. “Okay?”

I answered him with a nod, because I didn’t trust myself to talk.

“Luce?” he said with concern when he caught a glimpse of my face. “Are you all right?” He twisted in his seat and held my face so I couldn’t turn it away.

“Yeah,” I said, sounding as upset as I thought I would. “I’m just tired.”

“Then why does it look like you’re crying?” he asked, sliding his thumb over my cheek.

“Because I get all teary when I’m tired.”

He made a face. “Since when?”

“Since now,” I said, needing out of this truck, and not just because I had to get to my flight. I knew that if Jude didn’t back down and kept up with the grand inquisition, I was going to cave and tell him the big news. The big news he’d just admitted to not being ready for and not wanting for another ten years. How could I tell a man who thought he’d have a solid decade to get used to the idea of fathering a child that we were about to have one in a little less than six months?

***

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