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Page 41

“I meant what I said Saturday, Jude,” I said, trying to erase the worry lines from his face with my fingers. “That has never been one of my concerns. Ever, and you want to know why?” I fed him back his line.

“Why?”

“Because you’re aware of it, because you’re worried about it. That fear of becoming your father will drive you to be the best father you can be,” I said, watching the first batch of wrinkles vanish from his face. “You know what would worry me, though? If you were overwhelmingly confident you could never become him. If you were so positive you could never in a million years be like him, I’d be worried that kind of confidence would make you lazy. Make it that much easier to fall into the traps when the hard times came.” I stopped to take a breath. I was really on a roll, but I had a lot to say. “But that’s not how you are, and that’s why I’m not worried. And, Jude? I wouldn’t pick another man if I had the whole entire world to choose from to be the father of my baby.”

The last remaining wrinkles ironed out. “Dammit, woman,” he said, “you keep saying that kind of stuff and I’m going to shed another tear.” Leaning in, he kissed me again, but this one lasted longer than the last, although it was still too short for my liking.

“So we’re good now? Everything off our chests that needs to be off them?”

Like the twisted guy he was, his eyes drifted to my chest. A wide smile appeared.

I shoved him in reply.

“So maybe I’ve got one more thing to get off my chest.”

“There’s always one more thing with you and me.”

“Yeah, but this will tide me over for a while if you agree to it,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Are you nervous?” I said, shocked. The last time I could remember him visibly nervous had been on the fifty-yard line, when he’d asked me to . . .

“Marry me, Luce,” he started, blowing out a breath. “I need to do what I can to make this whole thing right, and the way I know how is to make us a family.”

“We are a family, baby,” I said, wondering if he was going to rub the skin raw on that neck of his.

“I know we are, but I want to be the kind that can frame their wedding certificate and hang it above the fireplace,” he said. “I want our little girl to have a mom and a dad who are committed to each other, married to each other. I want her to have the stable, nurturing environment I didn’t have. I want you to be my wife and me to be your husband for our little girl, Luce, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I have selfish reasons for wanting to tie the knot with you.”

“You have a right to be selfish,” I said, grabbing his hand and pulling it away from his neck. “You’ve been a patient man with me for three years while I kept up the whole ‘soon’ thing.”

“Yeah, I don’t think your idea of ‘soon’ is going to work, Luce. I don’t want our daughter to be old enough to get hitched before we do.” His nose wrinkled. “Wait. What the hell am I saying? Our daughter is never going to get married. She’s never going to date. In fact, she’s never going to know what a boy even is, because I’d lose it if she brought home a guy like me.”

I was laughing. The good, real kind that rocked your whole body. I hadn’t laughed like that in a while. I smiled up at him. “I’d be thrilled if she brought home a boy like you one day,” I said. “She’d make her mama proud.”

“I don’t think so. The whole piece-of-shit-attraction thing ends with you. Nothing but the best for my daughter.”

“Okay, okay,” I said, holding up my hands in surrender, because this was a topic Jude and I could go ’round and ’round on for days and no one would ever be declared a winner. “So when are we getting married?”

Jude’s eyebrows went sky-high. “Wait . . . are you saying you’re ready? Like to set a date and send the invites?”

“I’m ready,” I said, trying not to laugh at his expression. He’d almost looked as surprised when he’d found out I was pregnant.

“What are you thinking? Weeks? Months?” He was wringing his hands, he was getting so excited.

“We’re at a hospital, aren’t we?” I said, shrugging. “There’s got to be a chaplain or a minister or someone who can make us official.”

That look of shock that had been on Jude’s face a few seconds ago? Yeah, it had nothing to do with the new one he had on right now.

He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Giving his head a rough shake, he tried again. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

I knew I was crazy, and friends and family would hit the ceiling when they found out, but I’d blame it on the hormones and the way Jude’s eyes were looking at me now.

Life was about compromise. It was give and take, and with Jude and me, I’d been more take than give in our relationship. He’d given me everything and would do it all over again. It was my turn to step up to the give plate. Whether I married him today or ten years from now, I was marrying Jude Ryder. It was time for me to let go of my baseless fears and doubts and grab onto what was guaranteed: Jude.

“If it involves you and me saying ‘I do’ this afternoon, then yeah, I’m saying what you think I am.”

I’d never seen him beam the way he was now. “Just when I think I can’t possibly love you more . . .”

“I go and propose a shotgun wedding at a hospital chapel when I’m knocked up and wearing a T-shirt and plaid skirt?”

His smile stretched higher. “Exactly.” Then, before I knew what had happened, Jude had me in his arms and was rushing out the door.

When we hit the hall, he started running. The heads of nurses and doctors and patients were whipping around to take in the pair of us, laughing and sprinting our way to the chapel.

“We’re getting married!” Jude shouted in between his laugher. “Holy shit!”

Jude hadn’t set me down until we’d made it to the hospital’s chapel on the first floor. He dropped me off at the gift shop, giving me a nice long kiss that made my toes curl in my flats, before jogging off to find the minister. Or the pastor. Or the priest. Or whoever had the ability to marry us. We didn’t care.

I walked up to the gift shop counter, hoping they’d have something that would work as a temporary wedding ring until I could find a suitable one. My prayers were answered.

There were several brushed-titanium bands in the display case. Perfect. I asked the woman behind the counter if I could see one, and, after trying three of them on my finger to compare, I was fairly sure I’d found the one that would fit Jude.

It was a whopping thirty dollars, and after assuring the saleslady I didn’t need it gift-wrapped because it would be sliding onto a finger in hopefully less than ten minutes, I rushed to the chapel.

I scanned up and down the hall, but didn’t see Jude, so I shoved through the door and found who I’d been looking for.

Standing in front of an altar. There was a smile on his face that made me think things that could probably get me struck down by lightning for having them in a church. He’d tucked in his white undershirt, but that was as formal as the occasion got. I was no better. I hadn’t even made a stop in the women’s restroom to run a comb through my hair or dot on a bit of lip gloss.

That was part of the beauty of today. Part of the beauty of Jude and me. We came as we were, minus the frills and the fluff, accepting each other as-is.

“Hello, my beautiful, blushing bride,” Jude said, nodding his head behind him. “I wrangled us up a priest.” An elderly man wearing his white collar and a smile stood behind what looked to be more a podium than an altar. “And a witness.” He motioned to a middle-aged man sporting scrubs sitting in the front-row pew. “Did you find a ring?”

I held up my thumb, where the band dangled from it.

“All that’s left is a couple of signatures and ‘I do’s, then,” Jude said, inclining his head, encouraging me to walk up the aisle.

Throwing my shoulders back and putting on a dramatic face, I held an imaginary bouquet of flowers in front of me and started my left-together, right-together march down toward the man I was about to promise forever to.

“Baaa-bum-ba-bum,” Jude sang in a low voice, “Ba-bum-ba-bummm.”

Even at a slow walk, I was in front of him before he’d finished singing.

“Didn’t I tell you, Father Joe?” Jude said, fitting his hand against my cheek. “Isn’t she the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?”

Father Joe’s warm smile grew. “I’d say you’re a very lucky young man.”

“Hell yes, I am . . .” Jude’s voice trailed off as he gave the priest a sheepish smile. “Sorry.”

Father Joe just chuckled and folded his hands in front of him. “Shall we get started?”

“Hel—” Jude caught himself this time. “You bet.”

“Thank you for marrying us,” I said. “I bet you don’t get too many shotgun weddings in a place like this.”

Father Joe leaned in like he was telling me a secret. “You’d be surprised.”

“This is your last chance to run away screaming, Luce,” Jude said, holding his hands out for mine.

I studied the door before turning to him. I grabbed his hands. “How about once we’re done here, we run away together?”

“Deal,” he answered, nodding his head at Father Joe.

“Mr. Ryder said he’d like to keep the vows brief,” Father Joe started.

I chuckled. “Of course he did.”

“If that’s all right with you, Miss Larson.”

“Whoa.” Jude’s eyes widened. “Do you realize that’s the last time you’re going to be Miss Larson?”

“Yeah, that’s kinda the reason I’m standing here,” I said, laughing at the irony that our wedding was just as unconventional as our entire relationship. “And yes, Father Joe, I’m just fine with keeping things brief.”

“Something tells me the two of you have quite the dynamic relationship,” Father Joe said, his eyes sparkling.

Jude and I looked at each other and smiled. “You have no idea,” we said in unison.

Father Joe cleared his throat and angled himself toward Jude. “Son, repeat after me—”

“Oh, I’m good, Father,” Jude said, raising his hand. “I memorized the vows a while back.”

“What?” I shouldn’t have been surprised.

“I never knew when I was going to finally wear you down, and had to be ready for whenever that moment occurred,” he said.

I stood up on my toes and planted a kiss on his lips. “Just when I think I can’t fall any more in love with you.”

He winked and blew a slow rush of air out of his mouth. “I, Jude Ryder Jamieson, take you, Luce Roslyn Larson”—I bit my lip to keep from smiling—“to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish—until death do us part.” He blew out another long breath. “How was that?”

***

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