“Lucy, are you going to put that earring in or caress it all night long?” India, my roommate, hollered over at me, giving herself one final once over in the mirror.
“You’re dragging me where again?” I asked, sliding the silver hoop into place.
Rolling her eyes, she tossed my purse at me. “To a party at Syracuse. There’s guys and booze and music. It’s meant to be fun.” India was the queen of fun, for real. Her family had patented something like twenty board games, driving the family fun night trend. As a perk, she had an innate sense of adventure, could turn an early morning pop-quiz into a good time, and was invited to any and every party in the state.
“And you need me to go because?”
Another bonus to being a wealthy ambassador of fun? You never had to worry about rolling solo to anything unless you wanted to.
“Because you work too hard and play too little and that kind of a Lutheran work ethic is seriously messing with our room’s zen.”
Grabbing my jacket hung over the chair, I followed her out the door. “Forgive me for mistaking college for something as taboo as hard work,” I said, bumping my shoulder into her as we walked down the hall. “How can I set our room’s sacred zen right?”
She grinned over at me. “You can get tipsy. You can get up on a table and shake your ass. And you can get laid by the finest, sweetest man God had the audacity to make.”
“Oh,” I said, waving my hand in the air, “if that’s all.”
“Sometimes I swear,” she said as we left the dorm, “the creator forgot to install a fun button in you.” India clicked her keychain, and the lights of her car flashed. Another benefit to growing up in a family of entrepreneur millionaires? You got to drive whatever the hell you wanted.
“And someone forgot to install a filter in you,” I said, opening the passenger door and crawling in.
India groaned, pulling out of the parking lot. “Good thing it’s a short drive because you, my friend, are in serious need of some tipsy, table dancing, sweet love making tonight.”
“Well,” I said, leaning my head against the headrest, “drive fast.”
It was like stating the obvious because India did everything fast, most of all driving and, on this trip, she didn’t disappoint. At the rate we went, we could have been to Canada in under an hour.
“So,” I said, looking over at her, “who’s the guy?” I’d only known India for a few weeks, but it hadn’t taken long for me to figure out if we were going somewhere, a guy was always involved. India held a firm belief that men were the spice of life. Based on the men I’d seen her with, she liked her life spicy.
She shrugged a shoulder, staring out the window like she had something she was dying to say.
“You’ll see,” she replied.
Her mysterious act was all kinds of annoying. “Well, if you’re driving to see him, he’s gotta to be hot. Possibly the hottest guy to ever be ogled by women.”
She flattened her lips out, making a maybe face.
“But because you are who you are, you don’t just roll out the India carpet for a pretty face. So he’s got to be smart, witty, and wealthy as a sheik.”
She lifted a finger. “Wealth isn’t a requirement,” she said, like it was offensive I’d even imply it. “Wealth can be created. Wit and intelligence can’t.”
“All right, Freud,” I said as we rolled into Syracuse. “And here I thought you were majoring in music.”
Braking to a stop, India killed the ignition outside what looked to be a dorm hall. “Just get out of the car, will ya?” she said, opening her door. “Before you screw with my baby’s zen too.”
I stepped out and waited for India to come around the car. “What is this?” I asked, watching students trickle inside the building, where neon lights blinked in the first level windows.
“It’s some sort of beginning of the year student mixer,” she explained, grabbing my arm and pulling me behind her.
“You brought me to some lame mixer?” I said, ready to turn and run for the hills. “I thought the reason we graduated from high school was so we didn’t have to suffer through any more of these things.”
“They’re a little different in college,” she said, walking up to the entrance.
“Really?” I said. “So there won’t be any horn-dog guys trying to grind up on anything that moves?”
She shot me a sheepish smile.
“And there won’t be any lame brain music that doesn’t carry even a hint of a beat to dance to?”
A more pronounced sheepish smile.
“Eh, India,” I groaned. “If I wanted to go to hell, I’d just go up to the front door and ask Satan.”
“Why is my roommate so damn difficult?” she said as we started weaving our way through the packed building. “You’ll like this mixer,” she yelled back at me over the, yep, lame music with no beat to dance to. “Trust me on this.”
Breaking through the hallway where, yep, some horn-dog guy slid up to me and starting humping my leg before I could shove him aside, I yelled, “I can’t give you trust until you earn it, Indie!”
“God, I need a drink,” she said, pulling me along behind her as she beelined for what I guessed was the beverage table.
“Just pour me something!” India hollered over the music at the guy manning the drink table. He made a shotgun motion with his hand before mixing something that came out looking too pink and too strong.
“What for you, pretty lady?” he asked me after handing off India’s drink.
“Got anything that won’t make me shit-faced in two sips back there?” From the looks of the crowd, it was doubtful.
Another shotgun motion and he popped open a cooler and twisted the lid off a beer. The fist pumping song came to an abrupt halt right in the middle of the obnoxious chorus and then, a slow, very familiar song wove its way through the room.
“Hey, my man!” he yelled at someone over my shoulder. “What can I get you?”
“I’m not sure if I can have what I want anymore,” a familiar voice answered as Paul McCartney’s voice echoed off the walls.
The breath caught in my lungs. Setting the beer down, I turned slowly.
It was him. Really him. Smiling at me with those liquid silver eyes.
“Jude?” I said. “What are you doing here?”
Not my best moment. With all the questions that played out in my mind over the summer, this was not one of them.
Taking a step closer, his smile grew. “I kind of go to school here.” Over his shoulder, India snuck away, shooting me a thumbs up and a knowing smile.
“So you totally snubbed the NFL?” I said, stepping closer, wanting to reach out and touch him to confirm he was really here.
“The NFL isn’t going anywhere,” he said, sticking his hands in his jeans. In his blue jeans. In fact, nothing was grey on him. He’d even lost the old beanie. He looked completely different, but completely the same too. “But some things are.”
Yeah, I knew he was implying something, but was clueless as to what.
“And you didn’t skip the border to keep from getting locked up for life?”
He chuckled, shifting his weight. “Nope. I’ve been crime free for a while now.”
“So why are you here?” I asked. “Aren’t there about a dozen schools with better football teams you could’ve gotten into?”
“Maybe,” he answered with a lift of his shoulders.
“Then why here?” I knew I was asking idiot questions, but I couldn’t stop them.
Rubbing the back of his neck, he looked at the ceiling. “I was hoping that would be kind of obvious.”
Nothing about now, or any of Jude and me, had been obvious.
“I’m here for you, Luce,” he confessed. “Shit, if Juilliard had a football team and actually wanted me, I would be there.”
I opened my mouth. Nope, words failed me.
“Hold that thought,” he said, lifting his finger. For once, he looked almost nervous. “I’ve been practicing this for a while and I need to get it out before you slap me and walk out on me. Ready?” Squaring his shoulders, he inhaled. “Hi, I’m Jude Ryder Jamieson,” he began, extending his hand. I took it, shaking it. He held onto it when I tried to pull it back. “My mom left when I was thirteen. My dad’s serving a life sentence for killing a young kid. I spent the last five years in a boys’ home being bullied, beat, and abused by the kids, the staff, and even the goddamn dog. I sold drugs. I did drugs. I got arrested. A lot. I screwed a lot of faceless women.” He paused, sucking in a breath. “And then I met one whose face I couldn’t forget. I fell in love with her. I hurt her because I fell in love with her and was afraid she was going to leave me the way everyone else had.” He lifted his other hand, cradling mine between his. “I still love her.”
I wasn’t able to draw in a breath at this point in the conversation, so I was lucky I was able to make any kind of reply. “Jude,” I whispered, not sure what to say next. We had so much history, history that made for the worst kind of foundation to build a relationship on.
“I love you, Luce,” he continued. Clearly he wasn’t going to stop until he said what he needed to. “And I’m sorry I ruined everything we had before I could admit it to you. Before I could admit it to myself. You didn’t make me a better person, because no one can do that. You made me want to be a better person. You believed in me and stuck up for me. You cared for me when no one else would. You made me better, Luce. You’re right—one person can make a difference. One person can change another person’s whole world for the better,” he said, his whole face on fire with his words. “One person ruined my world, and that was my dad, and one person saved mine, and that was you.” Raising his hands, he fitted them on my face. “The same tragedy upended our worlds. The same tragedy brought us here today. Don’t let it tear us apart.”
Cue the tears, because these were the words that obliterated my defenses. “Jude,” I began, determined to get more than one word out, “how can we even begin to move forward when the past will always be there to remind us of what we lost because of each other’s families?”
His thumb ran down my cheek. “Because I know I will never love anyone like I love you. That’s what will overcome the past every time it tries to rear its ugly head.” He stepped closer. “So it’s either you and me or me and me, Luce. And I don’t really like myself, so I hope you’ll pick the you and me option.”
I took another step towards him, our bodies coming together. “I don’t really like you either,” I said, wrapping my arms around his neck. “I love you.”
The long scar running down his cheek disappeared into his smile. “It’s about time,” he said, tilting his head down. “Because I’m not letting you go anymore. I want you forever, Luce.”