From behind, I heard Rambo start lapping up some water from his bowl. “All jokes and banter aside,” I said, “thank you. This is quite possibly the nicest thing anyone’s done for me.”
Shoving his hands in his pockets, he stared at me. “It was no big deal.”
“Yeah, it is,” I said, not about to let him wave this off as no big thing. “Although I’m curious as to how you got this thing built without anyone hearing or noticing.”
“It helps that I’m a fence making ninja,” he said, giving me a twisted smile, “and it also helps that I live next door.” Pointing his chin at the next cabin over, he arched a brow at me and waited.
“It was your family that bought the place from the Chadwicks last fall?” I asked, gazing at the A-frame cabin next door. I’d been under the impression it was still vacant.
“You’re my neighbor?” It was every teenage girl’s American dream to have a neighbor like Jude, so why did my stomach feel like I’d just swallowed a brick?
“No,” he said, rubbing his hand over his mouth, trying to mask his smile. “You’re my neighbor.”
“Well,” I sighed. “There goes the neighborhood.”
He nodded once, those gray eyes of his so light today they were the color of nickels. “There it goes.”
Three words. Three words accompanied by that look, performed by those eyes, emitted from that man.
I was lucky my knees weren’t buckling beneath the weight of that swoon.
“So,” Jude scanned me, “neighbor, how does Friday night sound?”
“It sounds like Friday night,” I smarted back, thankful the strong, very unswoony pieces of me were coming back together. No man, a level short of divinity or not, would render me into a sighing, batting eyelashes, love sick maniac.
“Weak, Luce,” he said, clucking his tongue. “We’re going to have to work on the speed and sharpness of your comebacks if you’re going to spend much time with me. I’m hard to keep up with.”
“Easy solution to that then,” I said, crossing my arms and leaning back into the kennel. “I won’t spend much time around you.”
“So you’ve decided to wise up and keep your distance?” he said, his voice quieter.
“Lucy wise up?” A voice that could line that much ice around words in this kind of heat took a particular level of skill and discipline. “That’s as likely as me getting to take a three day vacation any time in the next decade.”
I swear if I was a dog, my hackles would have been on end or my tail would have been between my legs. With my mom, I didn’t know whether to fight back or cower and expose my jugular.
“I don’t know about that, ma’am,” Jude said, stepping around me to where I assumed my mom lingered over me. “Luce seems like one of the smart ones. One of the ones who has her head on straight.”
Mom clucked her tongue three times. “Flattery is not considered a virtue, young man. Especially when, at this stage of life’s game, it is utilized by young men hoping to work their way into a young woman’s pants.”
“Mom,” I hissed, spinning around.
“Who’s your new friend, Lucy?” she asked, looking him head to toe like he was as every day and far less useful than polyester.
“Jude.” When she was acting like this, I kept my answers to one word.
“And I’d assume Jude,” she said, just like she was sinking her teeth into a lemon wedge, “has a last name.”
“Ryder,” he offered, extending his hand, which she glared at like it was a misplaced load bearing beam on one of her projects.
“Ryder,” she repeated, although she annunciated it so it sounded more like ride her. “Of course it is.”
Unbelievable. My mom had to be the first woman who had looked into Jude’s face and not felt something thump-thump somewhere inside. Even a guy, a straight guy, would have been more impressed by Jude than mom was.
“Another dog,” mom sighed, turning and appraising the kennel and everything in and around it as if it should be shipped away on the next train out of town. “So much for wising up. When are you going to learn that you can’t save the world one lost soul at a time?” she said, the hardness draining from her voice, leaving behind nothing but the sadness that really was my mom.
She didn’t expect a response to that question but, although she was halfway to the cabin door and out of hearing range, I still offered one. “Until there are no more lost souls left to save.”
“Seems like a great lady,” Jude said from behind. I could feel the smile on his face it was that strong.
“You have no idea.” I turned towards him, wishing every time I looked at him it didn’t feel like I was falling down an abyss. “So you think I’m smart, huh?”
“Only because you decided to keep your distance from me.”
Glancing at the kennel, imagining the time, money, and stealthy planning it must have taken to build it without being noticed, I didn’t need to know the finer details that made up Jude Ryder. “Who says I decided to keep my distance?”
“You did,” he said, shoving his hands in the pockets of his worn pewter jeans.
“No, I didn’t,” I said. “And if I did, I reserve the right to change my mind at any given time.”
“If that’s the case, then I reserve the right to retract my previous comment.”
“You make so many of them, exactly which comment are you talking about?” I asked.
Reaching out, he ran his fingers down the laces of my pointe shoes strung over my shoulder, like he was capable of breaking them if he wasn’t careful. “The one about you being smart.”
He could have been about to say something else, he could have been about to do something else, but it would have to remain a mystery because at that moment, the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week” blared through the windows. Dinner was in thirty.
“Are you hungry?”
Stroking the pink ribbons one last time, more carefully than hands like his seemed capable of, he glanced back at the cabin. “Maybe.”
“Maybe?” I repeated, shooting him a look. “You’re a teenage boy, a super human sized one at that. You should always be hungry.”
He paused, the inner conflict so strong it was lining his face.
“Come on,” I insisted, grabbing his hand and giving it a tug. “My dad’s the best cook ever and you just met my mom. Don’t make me go in there alone.”
Exhaling, his eyes shifted to mine. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely, positively, impossibly, certainly,”—I peaked a brow at him— “Dare me to continue?”
“Make it stop,” he said, clamping his hands over his ears.
“Come on, Drama-saurus Rex,” I said, waving goodbye to Rambo, who was happy as a clam gnawing his bone, and lead Jude up the stone walkway.
“Another weak weak attempt at humor, Luce,” he said, winding his fingers through mine. “So weak.”
“Forgive me, oh hallowed god of comedy.”
Nudging me as we walked up the steps, he grinned that impish grin that made me feel my heartbeat in my mouth. “Good to see you’re ready to admit I am a god.”
“Oh, god,” I sighed, shaking my head.
“Exactly,” he said, all matter-of-fact. “Just the way you should refer to me.”
Shooting him the most unamused look I could manage, I shoved the screen open. The inevitable would only wait so long.
Sitting down to a family dinner was low on my list of priorities, especially considering dinners as of late had been punctuated by silence and even more silence. Unless you count the looks mom fired like a ping-pong ball between dad and me. But sitting down to a family dinner with Jude, a guy I knew very little about other than I was dangerously captivated by him and that, at least on the surface, he was a guy no right-minded parent would want their teenage daughter spending their time with, this dinner, I was quite certain, had the potential to be epic.
An epic disaster.
“Something smells damn good,” Jude said to me, sniffing the air that was thick with the scents of lemon and butter.
His words weren’t only heard by me, as attested by both my parents’ heads snapping back to stare at him.
Throwing a double punch, my mom’s brows peaked at the same time her lips pursed. My dad smiled. You see, where mom saw the bad in everything, the damn in life, dad saw the good. Or at least used to and still did from seven to nine p.m.
Jude chose to address mom first. “Sorry for the language, ma’am.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “I was brought up in a house where cursing was like a second language. It comes so naturally I don’t even realize it. But I promise to attempt to filter myself when I’m in your house.”
Leaning back in her chair, she crossed her arms. “I’ve always found profanity to be a substitute for intelligence.”
My mouth fell open. Even this, for my mom, was crossing into a new level of cruel.
Jude’s expression didn’t change. “In my case, I’d have to agree with you. My report cards have been the things of parents’ nightmares.”
“And from the smirk on your face, I deduce you’re proud of that?”
And now, to join my mouth falling to the ground, I wanted to crawl into a hole and hide. Whatever was hidden between the layers that made up a person like Jude, no secret, crime, or offense deserved this degree of nastiness.
Glancing over at Jude, I found his face just as calm as if he was om’ing his way through yoga.
“No, ma’am,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders.
“No as in you are proud or are not proud?”
Sliding his hand from mine, Jude looked her straight on and answered, “No as in I’m proud of very little in my life.”
Mom didn’t have an immediate response for this. Even in her paint it black world, honesty of this sort gave her pause. “Sounds like precisely the kind of over achiever I want spending time with my daughter.”
“Mom,” I hissed in my warning voice. Not that it affected her in any way.
“That’s what I told her,” Jude said, “but the thing I’ve learned about Lucy in the few hours we’ve spent together is that she’s the kind of person who doesn’t let anyone make up her mind for her.”
The cell phone mom kept within an arm’s length at all times buzzed to attention. For the first time in who knows how long, she clicked ignore. “And what else have you learned about Lucy? Since you’re the expert.”
Taking my hand back in his, he slid me a smile. “She’s smart, except when she isn’t.”
Buzzing again, mom lifted the phone to her ear. “What a revelation,” she said to Jude before rising and marching out of the kitchen, offering the party on the other end a clipped greeting followed by a three second long sigh.
“Sorry,” I mouthed to him.
“For what?” he said in a low voice. “You can’t control your mom’s actions any more than she can yours.”