At the half, we were ahead by two touchdowns—an unreal feat given how the analysts had called this to be one of the closest games in college football history—as Jude led the team off the field.
Danny had stayed mostly quiet once the game had kicked off, other than throwing up football, or more specifically Jude, praises. I was about to hop up and grab myself some concessions when Danny twisted in his seat, his eyes falling way up, rows above us.
His eyes couldn’t have widened any further. Then a bunch of other spectators started twisting in their seats, nudging their neighbors and waving their hands or heads up the stands.
“Danny!” his mom warned, shooting him a look. “Language.”
Turning in my seat, I glanced over my shoulder and I almost immediately felt faint. I wouldn’t have believed Jude coming down the stairs was real if everyone around me wasn’t watching him like I was—in awe.
“Hey, Luce,” he said, stopping at the end of the row.
“Hi,” I replied, giving him a sheepish smile. I hadn’t expected him to know I was here—I hadn’t intended him to ever find out.
“Enjoying the game from here?” he asked, dropping his helmet and sliding into the empty seat beside me.
“I am,” I answered, not moving my arm settled on the rest when his pressed against mine. “You’re playing a great game. So much for every one saying this might be the first game you’ve ever lost.”
I could feel Danny’s eyes on us, not missing a single thing. He really did believe Jude was a superhero, and he acted accordingly.
“Well, once I knew you were here, I might have kicked it into another gear,” he said, smiling his tilted one at me.
“Lou told you, didn’t he?” I guessed.
“Lou didn’t need to tell me, Luce,” he said, looking between me and the field. “I don’t need someone to tell me when my girl’s in the stands. I could pick you out even if I was playing in the Superdome and you were tucked into the back row.”
Of course he could. Couldn’t I have done the same with him?
I was a fool to think I could pop into this game and pop out before he knew I was here. He knew I was here before I’d even known I was coming. That was the curse and the blessing of Jude’s and my relationship, among the many others.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in the locker room, getting a pep talk from your coach? Maybe a second half action plan?” I knew Jude did what he wanted to, but I felt the need to remind him since I couldn’t have been squirming in my seat more from everyone around us watching us with unblinking interest, taking sips of soda and tossing popcorn into their mouths.
“The plan is always the same,” he answered, his eyes roaming over my face, likely inspecting the battle wounds a week later. The redness had gone down, but the bruises were still pretty gnarly. “Kick. Ass.”
“I think you’ve got that down,” I said, knowing a few members of the visiting team could personally relate to that.
“What are you doing here, Luce?” he asked, studying me.
“Watching you play,” I answered, knowing it wasn’t one he’d accept.
“Yeah,” he said, making a face. “That’s not going to work for me.”
Of course it wasn’t.
“You know why,” I added with a whisper.
“I need to hear you say it,” he said, swallowing. “I’ve gone too many days without hearing it.”
Sighing, I closed my eyes. “I love you,” I said, knowing it was the truth and that it didn’t change anything. “And I missed you.”
“Yeah,” he said, “me too.”
Just then, the crowd, not just the ones around us, took a collective gasp before unleashing a cheer that exploded through the stands.
“It’s you guys!” Danny hollered, pointing at the huge screen across from us.
“Shit,” Jude and I said in unison.
I was going to have the camera man’s head because, on that screen—as well as the other three around the stadium—was a close up of Jude and me in real time, the red, bubbly “Kiss Me” captions surrounded by floating hearts.
The stadium started chanting, “Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!” while my face went almost as red as those damn hearts floating around our faces on the screen. Jude wasn’t red though; he didn’t even look uncomfortable. He was somewhere between a smile and a smirk.
If I hadn’t known better, I would have believed he’d set the whole thing up.
Looking over at him, I found him staring at me.
His smirk evolved into a full blown cocky, hot as hell smile.
“Get over here,” he said, weaving his fingers through my hair.
I didn’t have to do much “getting over here” because he closed the entire space between us until his lips rested into mine. The crowd went wild—full moon wild—as their hero didn’t just kiss me. He consumed me.
His other hand lifted to my neck, his fingers curling into my skin, his lips urging mine, pressing them to respond.
I wasn’t sure if it was feeling the eyes of thousands of fans upon us, or the length of time that had passed since Jude and I had last kissed like this, or if the feelings that were washing over me—drowning me in their intensity— that was terrifying me. Because those feelings ascertained that Jude was meant to be my one and only, had reality not gotten in the way and screwed that all up.
Finally, he gave up. His lips stopped trying to work mine into submission. His fingers drooped against me, feeling suddenly cold.
The crowd was still buzzing, clueless to the two hearts breaking following that kiss.
“I’ve really lost you,” he whispered, his words even cool against my skin. “You’re gone for good this time, aren’t you, Luce?”
I stared into those silver-gray eyes, not able to imagine anything I could do that was worse than hurting them.
“You can never lose me, Jude,” I said, forgetting about the crowd. Forgetting about everything except every reason we should be together and every reason we couldn’t.
“But I can’t have you the way I want you,” he said, running his thumb down my cheek.
“I don’t know.”
“Then what are you doing here, Luce?” he asked, his voice elevating. “You want time? You want space? Fine. I gave that to you. But then you keep throwing yourself back into my life whenever the hell you choose. No warning. No apology. No permanence. You show up at my front door and sneak out the back without so much as a goodbye,” he continued, never taking his eyes off of me. “You couldn’t take the up and down. The roller coaster was going to kill you. You know what I can’t take? You in and back out of my life before I even knew you were there in the first place. You looking at me the way you are now and then able to turn your back and walk away five minutes later.” His hand clenched over my cheek before he lowered it. “That is what will kill me. I can’t live wondering if you’re still mine to claim.”
It was like he knew the exact words that could choke me up at the same time they’d fire me up. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I just wanted to see you play one more time before I left for winter break. I never even thought you’d know I was here.”
He snorted, curling his lip in disbelief.
That physical response tilted the choked up/fired up emotions to the fiery pendulum. “Fine. Me popping in and out of your life will kill you? Consider me officially done with popping.”
“Will you knock that defensive, insecure girl shit out and have an adult conversation?” he said, the muscles in his neck moving under the skin—a sure sign he was firing up too.
“Happily,” I responded, gritting my teeth. “As soon as you do that can’t-handle-the-pressure thing you boys do and get up and leave.”
He paused, his face falling for one second before it fired back up. “You want me to leave?”
“I can’t imagine anything that would make me merrier this holiday season.”
“Fine,” he said, shooting up. “I’ll leave. But since you can’t seem to stay away from me for more than a few hours, I’ll see you soon, I’m sure.”
“If by soon you mean never, then that sounds good to me,” I replied, wanting to hop in my seat so I could get in his face. “Where do I sign?”
“You know, Luce?” he said, turning to head back up the stairs. “You have a shitty way of showing your love for someone.”
I flinched. That one hurt more than I could remember his words hurting me. Biting my lip, I glared at him.
“Right back at ya.” And that was a bold faced lie. Jude, perhaps more than any one I’d ever known, was able to express his love as love was meant to be expressed.
Shaking his head at me, his face bled of all emotion before he turned his back and jogged up the stairs. Clueless fans held out their hands as he ran by, but it was like he didn’t see anything around him.
“Whoa,” a stunned voice said, whistling a row below me. “You’re the girl Jude Ryder’s going to marry and make baby superheroes with?”
If Danny hadn’t heard Jude’s and my heated exchange, maybe that meant everyone within a ten seat radius of me who were staring like I was a pariah didn’t either.
“I think I just decrowned myself of that title,” I answered, feeling numb. Or, at least, more numb.
“You are like the real life Lois Lane,” he continued, bouncing in his seat. “Only blonder. And younger. And prettier too.”
I couldn’t even make a half-hearted smile feel real.
He gaped at me like I was almost as cool as comic books. “Holy—”
“Danny!” his mom shouted, giving me a sympathetic smile.
So much for no one hearing.
Danny was watching me. Not saying anything, but something was eating this kid from the inside out.
“What is it, Danny?” I asked, biting on my nails. I’d never, up until this moment, been a nail biter.
“Why were you and Jude fighting?” he asked, looking relieved he’d gotten that off his back.
“Because that’s what we do and we’re good at it,” I answered.
“But you love him?”
I glanced over at his mom, wishing she’d choose this time to usher the kiddos out for a bathroom break or something. “Yeah.”
More relief flooding into his face. “So you’re still going to get married? “
“I don’t know,” I said, working my teeth over the next nail. Manicures were so last season. “I don’t think so.”
“Because,” I said, getting why parents were such a fan of this one word answer go-to. “Because sometimes love just isn’t enough.”
His freckled nose curled. “Well, duh,” he said, flapping his hands over the back of the seat. “I just turned six and even I know that.”