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Page 3

Leaning the back of his head into the wall, he lifted his face toward the ceiling. He couldn’t look at me, or didn’t want to, but his arms never loosened their hold. And I knew, no matter what was said or done, they never would. That was one of the many reasons I loved this man.

“I’m starting to worry,” he said finally, shifting his gaze around the room, pretending he was interested in the handful of players pacing the room like caged lions, and their respective entourages of family and friends attempting, and failing, to calm them.

“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.

Almost.

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.”

FOUR

We were at the airport having another gut-wrenching good-bye. Cue the déjà vu fairy.

At least this one didn’t consist of Jude busting through security wearing a hospital gown, although I was crying right now about as hard as I had then.

“Why are you crying, Luce?” Jude whispered into my ear, clutching me like he was afraid to let me go.

I cinched my arms tighter around him, sniffling into his wet shirt. Not damp, not even tearstained, it was totally drenched on one side. “I’ve got something in my eye.”

“There’s my tough girl,” he said, the smile apparent in his voice.

I felt anything but tough right now, anything but strong, but if it was easier for him to believe I was, then I could play along. “You’re gonna miss your flight,” I said, swallowing around the lump that was lodged midway down my throat.

“There’s another one,” he said. “Training doesn’t start until tomorrow, so it doesn’t matter what time I get in tonight.” He wasn’t being flippant. Jude wouldn’t have any problem missing his flight and snagging a later one if it meant staying like this a little while longer.

But if he got in late tonight, he’d be beat tomorrow morning for his first practice, and he needed to be at his best. San Diego had to know from day one that they’d made the right decision. First impressions were everything and second impressions meant nothing.

“No,” I said, making myself lift my head from his chest, “you can’t miss your flight. So you’d better get going.” I swatted his backside and looked up into his face.

His forehead was lined when he looked back at me.

“Yeah, I know. I’m one ugly crier,” I admitted, pasting on a smile.

“I can’t leave you like this,” he said, swiping a tear with his thumb. “I’ve walked away from you too many times when I shouldn’t have. When you needed me. I won’t do it again.”

These weren’t just words to him. Jude never said or did anything as a mere formality. He was dead serious that he was not leaving, flight or no flight, with me in my current state of blubbering mess. I needed to be strong for him, like he had for me countless times before.

Blinking my eyes, I swiped them with the end of my sweater sleeve. Forcing my mouth into what felt like a convincing smile, I met his stare. The corners of his eyes were creased with concern, the rest of his expression a rung below tortured. This should have been a celebration moment, but I’d bulldozed right through it, thanks to my tears.

Our lives were about to change, to take a one-eighty, and while every other human being who walked the earth would have considered a seven-figure contract playing for one of the top teams in the league to be the best kind of one-eighty a couple could make, I felt the opposite. Money and fame did things to people. Transformed them. And while I had complete faith in Jude, I had no faith in the world he was about to be thrust into.

Football players as a species attracted women. Quarterbacks who made millions playing Sunday-night football were swarmed by any and every brand of fantasy female created. Jude was leaving for California, the mecca for beautiful girls, and the last image he’d have of me was a red-faced Lucy with her bed hair tied back in a ponytail, sporting pajamas, since we’d slept in and nearly missed the flight.

Speaking of flights . . . Jude needed to get his butt through security in about two minutes.

“Go on. I’m fine.” He made a face. “Better than fine,” I clarified, smirking up at him. “Go kick some big-time ass. Show them what a bunch of overpaid, talentless pansies they are.” Lifting up on my toes, I pressed my lips into his. Hunger for more Jude overwhelmed me, as it always did when we kissed.

Four years together, and I still felt every kiss all the way down to my toes. He had a gift, and I wasn’t shy about accepting it.

“Two weeks before I get to see you again,” he said against my mouth, dropping his hands to my hips. “Better make it a good one. A really good one.”

My smile curved against his mouth. Better make it a good one had been our go-to farewell for the past four years whenever we’d had to say good-bye for any amount of time. It was a bittersweet moment, but one I never let pass me by without giving it my all.

This time, especially, was no exception.

Running my fingers down his neck, I pulled him closer. “You’d better make it a good one.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, cupping my backside and lifting me into the air. I wrapped my legs around his waist, and our mouths moved against each other in ways that should have been reserved for the bedroom, not surrounded by the masses making their way through the airport.

What was the big taboo against public displays of affection, anyway? It wasn’t like we were forcing anyone to watch.

Jude shifted so he could hold me up with one arm while the other ran up the back of my neck. Kneading the base of it, he pulled me closer. Our lips crushed harder into each other. Parting his mouth, my tongue slipped in, tasting him. Exploring him. Claiming him.

Jude’s fingers curled deeper into my backside as we continued kissing, his low groan swallowed up by the chorus of cheers that erupted around us. The young male TSA agents hooted the loudest, although a stream of servicemen in fatigues weren’t about to be left out of the catcalling contest.

***

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