That was, up until today. I wasn’t a popular and, given my whole opinion on the matter, having that ridiculous crown on my head and wand thingy stuffed in my back pocket just felt wrong.
“I know you had something to do with this, Jude Ryder.” I turned my most powerful glare on him. “And don’t expect this to be something I forgive and forget.”
He was fighting a losing battle to keep his smile contained. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I can’t help it if Southpointe High has elected you their newest ‘it’ girl.”
I was tempted to tear the crown off and break it in two in front of him when Taylor waved back at me, her own crown proudly sparkling on top of her wet poodle hairdo.
“Hey, Pinocchio,” I said, inspecting his face. “Your nose just grew like five inches.”
Turning an impressive glower on him, the crowd showered another string of curses and garbage down on the field. Then, whether someone with poor aim—or dead on accuracy—behind us threw a half empty bottle of orange soda, it cartwheeled right into my temple.
It surprised me more than anything, but Jude’s face did the Mr. Hyde thing. Veins were already bulging when he spun around on the bleacher, glaring up and down the bleachers before his eyes latched onto someone.
“Hey, a**hole!” he hollered, shoving through the row behind us. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Shaking my head, I turned my attention back down at the game, trying to drown out Jude’s curses and threats as he shouldered through the crowd. Right then, the quarterback was sacked, sacked hard, and the ball went flying into the opposing team’s hands.
Another touchdown and our quarterback wasn’t getting up. The crowd went quiet as a couple of khaki slack wearing guys ran out onto the field. They crouched down beside him, moving and rotating a few things until they sat him up. The injured player pulled his helmet off before slinging an arm over each of their shoulders.
It was Sawyer. More like, of course it was Sawyer.
He was such the stereotypical quarterback. I almost wanted to cheer for the other team until he started limping across the field, using the guys beside him as crutches. I told myself to be nice, he couldn’t help it if he was a jackass. That degree of it was born into a man.
“OMG, Lucy,” Taylor squealed, appearing from out of nowhere beside me. Her red and gold cheerleading outfit, shimmery pom-poms, topped off with a tiara and wand thingamajig, was an embodiment of everything that was wrong with high school popularity contests.
“Please, Taylor, for the love of functional acronyms everywhere,” I smiled angelically over at her, “don’t ever say OMG again.”
Steamrolling right past my request, she repeated, “OMG, Sawyer is out. Like, possibly out for the season from what Coach Arcadia just said to Jason, who told Jackson, who told me.”
“Wait,” I said, grabbing her arms. “Coach Arcadia? As in Bill Arcadia?” From the back, I couldn’t tell if that was Coach A down there on the sidelines, but I didn’t think it was likely there would be another Arcadia who coached football in the area.
“Yeah, I think that’s his first name,” Taylor replied, looking at me like she was hoping some scandalous news was to follow. “He transferred a few years back from some yuppy private school. Apparently there’s some juicy reason why, but I haven’t gotten the intel on that one yet. You know him?”
I sighed again. That seemed to be the appropriate response whenever Taylor was around. “He was the coach at my old school. Everyone knew Coach A,” I explained, but that’s all the explaining I’d be doing. Taylor and I were casual friends, but I’d never trust her with a piece of information I wasn’t cool with the whole school finding out about.
“You went to that school?” She appraised me like it was positively impossible.
“And you transferred to Southpointe why?”
Keeping a straight face, I answered, “For the academics.”
Not getting the irony in this, or maybe Jude was right and I was impossible when it came to the dry humor department, she grabbed hold of my arm again, frowning down at the sidelines. “With Sawyer out of the game and Lucas on academic probation, we are screwed.”
I stared at the scoreboard.
“We’re screwed even more,” Taylor replied, grimacing at the scoreboard.
Looking over my shoulder, I really wished Jude would get his manhunt done with and come rescue me from Taylor and her nonstop drama-thon. I found him marching up the concrete stairs, aiming an empty water bottle at a boy who was scrambling as fast as he could go up the stairs. Jude arched his arm back and spiraled that bottle straight into the back of the guy’s head. From a good thirty yards away.
I had an answer to everyone’s problems.
“Excuse me, Taylor,” I said, walking around her. “I’ve got to do something.”
“Don’t be gone long!” she shouted after me. “Homecoming royalty makes their debut during halftime.”
I shot her a thumbs up and jogged down the stairs. The game was still in time out while Southpointe’s coaching staff scrambled to figure out which bench warmer they’d make a quarterback when I leapt over the fence. Shoving my way through nut and head scratching football players, I came up behind Coach A and tapped on his shoulder.
He didn’t turn around at first; he was caught up in intense decision making with the rest of his coaching staff. So I tapped him again.
“Coach A!” I yelled over the noise.
“What?!” he hollered, spinning around. The look of irritation on his face melted as soon as he saw me. “Lucy?”
“Hey, Coach A,” I greeted, feeling like I should give him a hug, except that would only start a new rumor about me being some sort of teacher seducer or some crazy ass shit like that. Coach A had been my brother’s football coach since the seventh grade—he’d been like unofficial family.
“Lucy?” he said again, looking at me like I couldn’t possibly be here. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m a student,” I said, feeling the scar I liked to keep sutured closed rip open again. “I transferred this year.”
“That’s great,” he said, waving off one of his assistant coaches. “But I meant, what are you doing here?” He motioned to the football field I was toeing.
“Oh,” I said, looking over at Sawyer, who had his foot elevated. He was watching me, smiling his Sawyer smile, and waved. I didn’t reciprocate, injured player or not. “I come bearing a solution to your lack of quarterback situation.”
Coach A grinned a smile of amusement. “Of course you have, Lucy. Still trying to save the world?”
“Always,” I said, “and in case you haven’t noticed, it’s working. The world is still here.”
He shook his head, still smiling. “So what’s your solution to my quarterback problem?”
“You know Jude Ryder?” I looked up into the stands, where Jude was back in our spot and looking around for me.
“Everyone does,” he replied, surveying me like I’d gone bonkers. “How does Jude Ryder solve my problems?”
I didn’t even pause. “Let him play QB,” I said. I didn’t let Coach A’s choking on his own breath stop me. “He’s stronger than your two best guys put together, he’s got an arm the Mannings would envy, and he’s accurate as a sniper.”
Coach A’s expression didn’t change.
“I’ve seen him, Coach. He’s the real deal.”
He stayed quiet for a while, appraising me. He knew from experience I wasn’t a putz when it came to football. I’d been to at least twenty games a year since I was a toddler—that wasn’t what he was struggling with. It was the Jude part he was all bent out of shape about.
“Give him a shot,” I said, not above begging. “It’s not like you can lose any more than we already are.”
Coach A muttered something under his breath.
“I’m going to lose my license over this, but what the hell?” he said, sliding his hat off. Looking over at me, he raised a brow. “So, where is Southpointe High’s newest quarterback?”
I shot him a grin which he mirrored. “Right,” I began, spinning to survey the stands. However, a broad chest was blocking my line of sight. “Here,” I finished, that warm, melty feeling picking up right where it left off.
“I turn my back on you for two seconds and you disappear on me,” Jude said, his brow furled. “How can I look after you if I don’t know where you are?”
“Look after me? Jude, we’re at a high school football game.” This whole protective thing had just taken on a whole new level.
“Exactly. There are at least three dozen ways a girl like you could get hurt at one of these things. If you want to go somewhere else, next time just wait for me and I’ll go with you.” His face was lined with worry, which worried me. This kind of territorial was a bit much. I was all for protecting your woman and all that credo, but I wasn’t for you can’t go anywhere, do anything, or think your own thoughts without my approval.
“Jude,” I grabbed the side of his arm, “chill. I was just catching up with Coach A.”
“Now probably isn’t the time to be shooting the breeze with Coach Arcadia, Luce,” Jude said, glancing down at Sawyer, who was still watching us. Jude smiled like the devil where Sawyer was propped up on the bench. “It looks like the man’s got to take care of some problems.”
“His problems are taken care of now,” I said, crossing my blanketed arms one over the other.
Coach A glanced up from his clipboard, appraising Jude and likely second guessing his decision. “Suit up, son,” he commanded, nodding towards the locker rooms. “I think I can stall the refs a few more minutes, but not much longer than that. They want to go home and get dry just as badly as the rest of us.”
“Hold up, Coach.” Jude raised his hand. “Why are you ordering me to go suit up? I’m not one of your ass slapping players.”
Coach A looked at me. “You are now.”
Jude was quick. “Luce?”
One word and he might have well have asked a dozen questions. The man had mastered the art of inflection.
Arching a brow, I waved an imaginary pom-pom. “Go, Southpointe.”
There was nothing but an inch and a half of free space on the first bleacher. It would work. There was no way I was missing out on Jude jogging out of that locker room.
If he did.
I wasn’t sure just how pissed he was with me for my latest bout of solve the world’s problems-itis, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was somewhere between ragin’ cajun and a rabid badger.
Squeezing in between two guys with bare chests and Go Spartans painted in blood red across their stomachs, I sucked in everything that could be sucked and hoped I could hold my breath for two and half more quarters.