So why did I feel my heart in my throat? Why did my stomach feel like it was about to explode? Why did I hate the name Holly on principle alone?
The dance team was making a circle around me, everyone kneeling around me, asking if I needed some water. I shook my head, looking up at where Jude was leading the team off the field. I could trust that man. I was falling in love with that man.
Like he could read my thoughts, he looked over just then, his eyes falling on me, a smile already in position until he took a good look at my face. He stopped abruptly as a wave of players passed him. The smile faded from his face as he jogged across the field towards me.
Not now, not now, I told myself. Halftime when he had twenty of the best coaches in the country here watching him was not the time to bring up Holly. Later, after the game, so I could put the Holly ghost that haunted me to rest.
“Luce,” he said, sliding his helmet off. “Are you all right?” Lifting his hands, he ran them over my face.
No was the honest answer, but yes was the answer I needed to give. Perhaps I needed to review the finer points of trust too.
“I’m fine,” I said, resting my cheek into his hand. “Just a little light headed. I forgot to eat dinner again,” I said, rolling my eyes like I was hopeless.
“Somebody get me some water!” Jude shouted. “And a granola bar or something!” Turning back at me, he kissed me softly. “Dammit, woman, you mean too much to me. Eat, okay?”
I nodded, taking the Styrofoam cup from someone’s hands.
“I’ve got a defensive line that needs a tongue thrashing, so I better get going.” He kissed my cheek and stood up.
“And a couple dozen scouts to impress,” I added, taking another sip.
“That’s already been taken care of,” he said, snapping his helmet back on.
I smiled. “All right, cocky, run along. I’ll wait for you after the game. I’ve got something planned,” I said, lifting my brows.
He stopped, glancing back, his face unreadable. “Hey, Luce, rain check on tonight, okay? I’m sore as all hell already and I’m going to be lucky if I can make it home upright. Tomorrow night?”
That stomach exploding feeling peaked. “Don’t you need a ride?”
“Meyers offered to drive me home,” he said, looking down the field. “That way you won’t have to wait for me and listen to a big baby crying for ice and painkillers.”
I couldn’t talk.
“I gotta go, Luce,” he said, jogging backwards. “I’ll call you tomorrow.” Turning around, he headed for Southpointe’s team tunnel. “Your turn to kick some dance ass on that field, Luce,” he hollered over his shoulder. “Don’t let me down.”
I bent my head over my knees. “You neither.”
I was staging a stake out on my own boyfriend. So much for the trust I was so confident I had in him a couple hours ago.
Southpointe, as anticipated, obliterated the top seeded team in the conference, making Southpointe, for the first time in its history, number one. Jude came back from halftime like a twenty-four point lead was inexcusable, widening that gap by another twenty-one. It was like watching a team of Gods play a team of mortals, Jude playing the part of Zeus.
I’d managed to suck it up and dance my ass off during halftime before running to the girls’ locker room and changing so I could blend into the herd of raving fans in the bleachers. I knew he was looking for me, even hurt I wasn’t down on the sidelines cheering him on, but I was in no mood to cheer. Not even in a mood to pretend to cheer and I couldn’t give him any reason to suspect something wasn’t right.
I couldn’t have him checking over his shoulder for his girlfriend, identifying her crouched down and hoodie up behind the wheel of her car. Because then, like the good, trusting girlfriend I wasn’t, I couldn’t tail him to see where he was really headed tonight.
It was nearing the hour mark following the end of the game, when almost all the players’ cars were long gone, when he emerged from the locker room. Scottie Meyers wasn’t with him, no other player was; he was alone.
People preach to you about pivotal moments like this one. Moments where you have two options, and one choice. One path to head down with no turning back. Choice numero uno: I could jump out of my car, run and throw myself in his arms, and keep playing the fool. That was appealing on just about every level.
And choice numero deus: I could stay put and follow him to wherever he led me, hopefully getting to the bottom of this whole Holly situation or discovering Sawyer was a lying sack of shit. This choice didn’t appeal to me at all, but it was the one I had to make.
Because I wasn’t one of those girls who could turn a blind eye while their boyfriend skirted around town. Because I wasn’t one of those girls that thought trust was a conditional, open to interpretation thing. Because I was one of those girls that needed to know if my boyfriend was screwing some ex flame behind my back so I could wind up miserable, heartbroken, but, at least, informed. I guess.
Jude skipped the parking lot, weaving through the weeds. Heading south.
As in SouthView Park.
Wherever he was going, he was traveling on foot, so that meant tailing him in the Mazda would be impossible. He’d probably get a little suspicious if a vehicle in my make and model followed a few car lengths behind him at a five mile per hour pace.
So I peeled out of the parking lot, heading for the place that he was most likely headed and the place I most wanted him not to show up.
I didn’t know the exact way to get to the trailer park, it wasn’t a place I’d frequented during my summers spent at the lake, but a few wrong turns followed by a few more right turns and the help of one gas station employee, and I was pulling into SouthView Trailer Park, where The View’s Better Down Here, according to the sign.
It wasn’t a big park, only two rows of trailers running down a quarter mile or so of road. There was no view I could see, unless you counted the rusting walls of your neighbor’s trailer, and there wasn’t a single pot of flowers or one hanging basket to be seen. I noticed because this was the first year we hadn’t had flowers on our front steps. People who were worried about paying their electric bills and putting ramen noodles on the table didn’t buy flowers.
It was an odd thought to have given everything running through my mind, but it stuck with me.
I parked at the end of the park in a spot where the street lamps wouldn’t illuminate my car, hoping he hadn’t beat me here. Hoping he wasn’t going to show up at all because if he did, if I had to watch him shimmy into some other girl’s trailer late on a Thursday night, I’d know the truth. I’d know everything I’d believed we had was false. I’d question any and all love I’d experience in the future.
Despite knowing better, I held onto one last balloon of hope that I was wrong and Jude wasn’t going to come knocking on Holly’s door after eleven o’clock at night.
I let that balloon float away not even one minute later as I watched a familiar form cut through a couple of trails and lumber down the weed lined driveway in my direction. He passed beneath the street lights, flashing light, then dark, a couple of clear plastic bags hanging from his wrist.
He was almost at the end of the road, the Mazda was only a couple trailer lengths away in the dark, when I realized he wasn’t here to make a trailer visit, he was here for me. He’d caught a glimpse of me weaving around town like a woman on a mission and somehow followed me here and was going to talk some sense into me. I didn’t care about the questions he’d ask or the explanations I’d have to give, because he was here for me. Sawyer could shove his trust nugget up his ass.
I was remembering how to smile as Jude passed the last trailer. I was about to open the door, tackle him to the ground, and kiss the sense out of him when he turned a sharp corner around the last trailer. Leaping up the stairs of the rust can in front of me, he tapped on the door.
My heart broke. It actually broke. An x-ray would have confirmed it.
I couldn’t breathe as I waited in the car for who was behind that door, although by now I already knew.
The door screeched open, illuminating Jude in soft yellow light. I told myself that wasn’t the man I was falling for. And then a girl, right about my age, appeared in the doorway wearing a pretty summer dress and a prettier smile. She kind of looked like me, but her hair hadn’t been burnt off to her shoulders.
She threw her arms around Jude and he did the same, lifting her off her toes.
This was not happening; it was a dream, a nightmare. I’d, somewhere along the stake out, fallen asleep and this was the result of a night spent agonizing that my boyfriend was seeing someone behind my back.
The air in the car started to suffocate me, so I whirred down the window, sucking in mouthfuls of cool air.
“You’re late,” the girl, who I knew in my heart was Holly, said after Jude lowered her down.
“Walking a few miles on foot after playing the late game can make a man late,” he said, leaning back into the stair railing. “I made it though, didn’t I?”
Holly rubbed Jude’s arm, looking up at him like he was the sun, moon, and the stars. I knew that look and, after tonight, I never would have it again.
“You always do,” Holly replied, flashing a coy grin. “How was the game?”
“Good,” Jude answered. “We kicked Valley’s ass.”
“Valley needs to get their ass kicked,” she said, sliding out of her sweater. Both arms were covered in intricate tattoos, from her wrist to her shoulder. It would have made me feel better if she was tipping the ugly scale, but she wasn’t. She was pretty, prettier than me. “I wish I could have come, but that’s a whole lotta drama I’m not ready to deal with yet.”
“Yeah, it’s probably for the best.”
Then a cry cut through the door, disrupting the quiet night. A cry that made the pit in my stomach expand.
“Un momento,” she said, lifting a finger and disappearing into the trailer.
Jude stayed where he was, staring up into the night sky, when suddenly, he tensed. Shoving off the railing, he looked to the side, then the other side. He was just about to turn around and I was about to peel the hell out of this place when Holly reappeared in the doorway with something in her arms.
This was the part where I knew I should jump out of the car, march up those dilapidated stairs, and give Jude Ryder a piece of my mind and the back of my hand. But I didn’t because I realized Holly and the baby had come long before me. They’d had the claim to Jude before I’d even known I wanted one.
“Isn’t this guy supposed to be asleep by now?” Jude said, making a funny face at the baby. The baby squealed in delight, flapping his little hands.
“Teething,” Holly said, sighing.
“Trade me,” Jude said, dropping the bags at Holly’s feet and holding out his arms. She handed the baby over and he stopped crying immediately as Jude started bouncing and patting his back.
“Thanks for picking up diapers and formula, Jude,” she said, picking up the bags. “I was getting dangerously close to tearing my sheets into makeshift diapers.”