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Page 5

Well, nak*d except for the suede turquoise pumps that I’d chosen to match the tie I had loosely tied around my neck. A tie that had SAN DIEGO written above a yellow lightning bolt only a few dozen times.

Lounging back in the chair, I kicked my feet up on the table, crossing my ankles as I twirled the tie between my fingers. It was a very Pretty Woman moment. In fact, that movie, which had been replaying every night on TV, had been my inspiration.

The steps were getting louder, only a few strides from our door. I sucked in a breath, trying to calm myself, as I was now reaching heights of epic overanticipation. Other than the time we’d split back in high school, this was the longest we’d gone without seeing each other. It should have been considered a form of torture to be separated from a guy like Jude Ryder for two weeks.

Bamboo shoots up fingernails was child’s play in comparison to what I’d experienced.

Giving my hair a tease, I watched the door without blinking, waiting for the footsteps to pause at the front door . . . then, as they continued on down the hall, waiting for them to turn around and come back.

I waited a minute, long after the footsteps had disappeared into an apartment. Okay, false alarm. But he’d be here soon. Maybe he’d been held up at the airport, or maybe traffic was nasty tonight. Or maybe . . .

Nope, I wasn’t going to let myself go there. He was coming. He’d be here. Nothing could stop Jude from what he wanted, least of all the NFL.

And that was when my phone chimed, causing me to jump. I still wasn’t used to the ring of my new phone. Fumbling to grab it, I smiled when Jude’s picture popped up.

“Where are you?” I said as soon as I picked up. “I’ve got one hell of a surprise waiting for you.”

He was silent for a couple seconds, and then he sighed.

My heart sank. “You’re not coming. Are you?” I tried to keep from sounding as disappointed as I felt.

Another sigh. “I’m so sorry, Luce. Coach decided to dish out a mandatory extra training session for the rookies late this afternoon, and he’s called an early morning session tomorrow, too.” His voice was labored, like he’d been sprinting, plus there was a ruckus in the background. “I tried texting you in between practices to let you know, but it looks like it didn’t go through.”

Nope. Definitely didn’t.

“Where are you?” I asked, uncrossing my ankles and putting my feet on the floor. No sense in keeping a pose if he wasn’t showing up to enjoy the view.

“In the locker room. I called you the second I got in here after finishing up practice for the day,” he said, trying to talk over the voices of fifty of his teammates. “Can you hear me all right?”

“Yeah, I can hear you,” I said, but he didn’t wait for my answer.

“Hey, guys!” Jude hollered, the words muffled from what I guessed was his hand over the phone’s mouthpiece. “Would you mind turning it down a notch? I’ve got my girl on the phone!”

Hollering requests at his teammates might not have been the best way to forge relationships as the rookie on the team, but after an initial chorus of oohs and loud air kisses echoing around the locker room, the background noises dimmed.

Amazing. Two weeks on the team and he’d already managed to command the respect of his teammates. Not that I needed another affirmation, but Jude had indeed found his calling in life.

“Luce, is that better?”

“Yeah,” I said, frowning at the table and all the food I’d spent half the day preparing, “that’s great.”

“I’m sorry, baby. I’m so, so sorry. You can’t imagine how bad I need to see you right now,” he said with such inflection, I could feel his pain. It was the same pain of separation coursing through me right now. “I need my Luce fix. Bad.”

I bit my cheek; I wasn’t going to cry over this. “I need my Jude fix bad, too,” I said. “So, when’s it looking like we’ll be able to see each other?” If he said another two weeks, I wasn’t sure how I’d hold on to my sanity.

“Can you fly out next Thursday?” He didn’t wait for my response. “I’ve got a light day Friday and only a half day on Saturday. We could spend every minute I’m not on the field together. I promise. Will you come?” Why he was pleading with me, I didn’t know. I needed to see him as much as it sounded like he needed to see me.

“Of course I’ll come. I’ll book my flight tonight.”

“Already done,” he said. “I’ll email you the flight information later.”

Of course he’d done it. “That confident I’d say yes?”

I could feel his smirk coming through the phone. “I was that confident I could persuade you, no matter what your answer was.”

Even though he wasn’t here to see it, I smirked right back at him. “You’re not on the field anymore, Ryder. Don’t forget to leave your ego there.”

He chuckled that low, rumbling laugh of his. “You of all people ought to know this ego goes with me wherever I go, Luce.”

“A girl can dream,” was my reply.

That earned another laugh from him. “So . . .” he said, his voice going soft, “what are you wearing right now?”

If only he knew, he’d be racing to the airport and chartering the first flight out.

I looked down at my body. Not a whole hell of a lot.

“Something.”

“Something?” he said, sounding offended. “How is something supposed to get a man through another long week away from his girl?”

“Use your imagination,” I suggested, twirling the tie as I hatched a plan.

“I’m fresh out of imagination,” he said around a groan. “I need details. Detailed details.” His voice got quiet again, like he was afraid one of his teammates might be eavesdropping. “For starters, how about the color, material, and style of the panties you’re wearing.”

Heat crept up my body. It was a welcome friend. “That might be hard to detail,” I said, lowering my voice, “since I’m not wearing any.”

“What?!” Jude’s voice burst through the phone. I held it away from my ear in case another shout was on its way. When he spoke again, it was in a controlled, breathy voice. “Are you serious, Luce?”

“Don’t you wish you could be here to find out?” I teased, which was promptly followed by another groan.

“I didn’t think I could feel worse about not making it tonight, but I should have known,” he said. “What else are you or are you not wearing?” was the next question.

I grinned. It was nice to know I could drive him mad from across the country after he’d just endured a good ten hours of training. I scanned my body again. Shoes? A tie? And then I realized that a picture was worth a thousand words.

“It’s kind of hard to describe,” I began. “Why don’t I snap a photo and I’ll send it to you.”

“I like that plan.” Sounded like he had a devilish grin on.

So did I. “Okay, I’m going to hang up and then I’ll text you the picture. Sound good?”

“Sounds . . . great,” he said.

As soon as I ended the call, I kicked my heels back up on the table. Adjusting the tie so it wound down the center of my chest, I bent my arm over my head and grabbed the top of the chair. Sampling a few expressions on the camera screen, I settled for the one I figured Jude would like the best: a soft smile topped by expectant eyes. Snapping the picture, I double-checked to make sure he’d get the what-I-was-or-wasn’t-wearing picture. The whole picture.

Yeah, it was hot.

Typing in a quick message that read, WISH YOU WERE HERE, I hit send before I could talk myself out of it. The message delivery button pinged, and I’d barely had a chance to sink my teeth into my lower lip when my phone rang.

Jude’s picture popped up on the screen again. That was fast.

I let it ring a few more times before answering.

“So,” I answered, “what do you think of the tie?”

His breath was racing again. “What tie?”

I laughed; he sounded serious.

“Oh, you mean the tie that’s buried between that beautiful chest of yours?” His voice was nothing more than a whisper. “If I wasn’t so seethingly jealous of it, I might actually like it.”

I ran my fingers down it again. “Well, I got it for you, so I’ll make sure to bring it next week. I know you’ve got a total of one tie to your name, so now you’ll have two.”

“And the first thing I’m going to do is tie you up with it and screw you until we’re both blue in the face.”

Yeah, I felt those words all the way down to my naughty parts.

“Jude,” I warned, “it might not be the best time to be discussing bondage and screwing when you’re surrounded by your teammates. They’re going to think we’ve got some kind of pervy thing going on.”

“Would they be wrong?” There was a degree of teasing in his voice, but only a fraction of one.

“Yes,” I emphasized, “they would be. We don’t do whips, chains, or whatever other things are out there. I’m a sex purist.”

“Did you just use the words sex and purist in the same sentence?” he said, sounding offended.

“That would be an affirmative,” I replied, taking a sip of water to cool myself down.

“Please, Luce, for the love of all my manly pride and ego—please don’t ever use the words sex purist to describe what we have again. I mean, what’s next? Are you going to be comparing us to vanilla ice cream?”

“No,” I said, finding it amusing that he was so insulted. When it came to what Jude and I did between the sheets, or straddling the recliner, or up against the wall, or bent over the hood of his truck, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, there was no room for complaint. But I had to have a little fun with him. “I’d say our sex life was more in line with French vanilla, if I had to assign it a flavor.”

“That’s it,” he said, determination blossoming in his voice. “I’m introducing you to French vanilla’s naughty cousin, rocky road.” The background noise suddenly began to fade as I could hear the echo of his cleats jogging down a hall.

“Ryder, what crazy-ass scheme are you up to now?” Did I even want to know? One of the many things I loved about Jude was his ability to keep me in suspense. He was the definition of spontaneous, and I’d surrendered to it somewhere along the way.

“French vanilla,” he repeated, sounding offended as he continued his jog. “I’m insulted.”

“Jude, come on,” I said, shaking my head. “Have you ever heard me complain? Because a whisper of a complaint has never even crossed my mind when it comes to you and me and—”

“Our French vanilla sex,” he interrupted.

I covered my mouth to contain my laugh. “What are you up to? The suspense is killing me.”

“I already told you,” he answered, as the clopping of his cleats stopped. “I’m introducing you to French vanilla’s badass cousin.” A shrill creak dimmed into a low moan—it was a sound I was familiar with.

***

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