“A crossroads?” he repeated, coming toward me. “After everything we’ve been through, you’re telling me we’re at a crossroads when I’ve got a ring on your finger and all our dreams are finally coming true?”
I took a deep breath before replying. “No. All your dreams are coming true. I’m still working on mine, so yes, we’re at a crossroads.”
The veins in his neck were coming to the surface. He was pissed, and I was only making it worse. “We are not at a crossroads,” he hissed through his teeth.
“Oh, yes, we damn well are at a crossroads!” I yelled back.
His face went a little red. “No. We’re. Not.”
“Yes. We. Are!” God, were we really doing this? Fighting by repeating each other’s words, like a couple of middle school kids?
“Goddammit, Lucy Larson!” he shouted. “No, we’re not! And that’s that, so stop talking about crossroads. In fact, just stop talking, because everything that’s coming out of your mouth is plain crazy!”
I felt tears pricking to the surface and I wasn’t going to let them fall here. “You’re a real ass sometimes, you know that?” I said, before running across the enormous foyer, heading toward the back of the house. I needed to get away from Jude, get some fresh air, and get my mind-set straight again. I was a mess and was only going to get messier if I stayed in the same room with him for another minute.
I heard Jude curse at the top of his lungs before his footsteps sounded behind me. “Wait, Luce,” he said, but I couldn’t. Not this time.
Racing down a hall, I came around a corner into another giant room. Rushing through it, I headed for the double doors that I assumed led outside.
Fresh air. A minute to think.
Shoving through the door, I found myself, presumably, in the backyard. But this was a backyard like no other. Like the house, it was spacious and elaborate. The “lagoon” I’d heard soooo much about was in front of me. There was a natural rock feature coming out of the center of it, featuring slides going into the pool. It reminded me of the pool at the hotel we’d stayed at in the Bahamas when I was ten. My brother and I couldn’t be pulled away from that thing the whole week.
Behind the pool there was another building, this one more the size of a regular house. I guessed it was the pool house. I heard Jude’s footsteps approaching, but I wasn’t ready for him. He liked to talk things out first, think them out later. I was exactly the opposite, and I knew, given the heated topic, if we picked up where we left off before I had a couple hours to cool down, another screaming match would ensue.
I might not have matured enough to keep from yelling, but I was wise enough to try to avoid it when I could.
Striding across the back patio, I hoped whatever part of the backyard was behind the next turn would provide some temporary shelter or hiding place. The instant I turned, I knew peace and quiet wouldn’t be on the agenda tonight.
Milling about a sprawling patio were a few dozen bodies. Drinks in hand, chatting with one another, they didn’t notice me at first.
And then Jude came racing around the corner, still yelling my name.
Then they noticed me.
“F—” What I started, Jude finished.
“Wow. We suck at throwing a surprise party.” A guy who looked like he could bench a semi truck came forward with a couple champagne glasses in hand.
I was still trying to determine whether I’d landed in Oz when the giant, whose shoulders and strut gave him away as a starting linebacker, handed me a glass. I took it automatically, trying to ignore everyone looking at me like I was an experiment gone wrong.
“We might have screwed up the surprise part, but we certainly won’t screw up the ‘party’ part.” The giant handed the other glass to Jude, then slid a flask out of his jacket pocket. Unscrewing the cap, he lifted it. “To the new master and mistress of this California castle. May the parties be wild and the sex even wilder.” Winking back at us, he shouted, “Cheers!”
A chorus of, “Cheers!” exploded, but I was beyond words. Even one-syllable ones. I wasn’t sure what twilight zone I’d found myself in, but I wanted out.
“Terrell,” Jude said, coming up behind me. I could feel the heat from his body, he was that close, and I wanted to have those arms hold me right now so badly . . . so I took a couple steps away. I both was and wasn’t ready for his arms around me. “What the hell is this?” Jude didn’t sound angry, but he wasn’t happy either.
“An attempt at a surprise party,” Terrell replied. “The team wanted to christen your new crib accordingly. And what says christening better than thirty of your rowdy teammates, their hot wives, girlfriends, mistresses, dates, and everything else in between”—his eyebrows waggled in suggestion—“and booze.”
Behind me, Jude sighed. He sounded as tired as I felt.
“Plus, we wanted to meet the infamous Lucy,” Terrell continued, smiling at me. “I’m the guy who keeps your man from getting his ass sacked, Lucy,” he said, extending his hand. It was so big, it swallowed mine whole. “Our QB here assumes it’s his fancy moves, and not mine, that will keep him from going down, but I’ll let you in on a little secret.” Terrell leaned in. “He’s wrong.”
A round of laughter went through the crowd.
“Jude makes a lot of assumptions,” I said, giving him a pointed look.
Terrell stared between me and Jude before grabbing the glass from Jude’s hand and steering him toward a table with more bottles of alcohol than there were people in attendance. “You need something stronger than this, I’m guessing.” Jude looked back at me but stayed with Terrell. The Jude I knew wouldn’t have let anyone pull him away from me. Especially when I was upset and uncomfortable.
“Ladies!” Terrell hollered. “Make Lucy one of the gang.”
I stood there for a few more moments, feeling like I was the last person to be picked for kickball, when one of the girls stepped away from the player she was with and approached. She wasn’t dressed like the others, who adhered to the shorter-is-better policy when it came to dress selection. She was sporting an airy wrap dress and gold sandals, and, unlike the rest of the female faces staring at me like I was gum on the bottom of a shoe, she had a smile on her face. A genuine smile.
“So you’re the Lucy Jude can’t stop talking about,” she said, and instead of shaking my hand, she pulled me into a hug. Like her smile, her hug was a real one.
“It’s nice to meet the girl a guy can’t shut up about. Reminds me of the way my husband used to be about me before we had four kids and became the laziest romantics ever.” She motioned over to the group of guys Jude had been escorted to. A guy about Jude’s height and weight tilted his beer our way.
“I’m Sybill, and that’s my husband, Deon, over there.”
“Hey, Lucy!” Deon tilted his beer at us again. “I’m the one who earns his paycheck. These other posers just like to cash ’em.”
Deon received a round of shoves from the guys around him.
“That’s right, baby!” Sybill said, before turning her attention back on me. “So. How are you hanging in there?”
As a policy, I didn’t normally spill my guts to total strangers, but Sybill’s warm smile cut right through my gut-spilling rules and restrictions. “It’s a lot to take in,” I began. “Weeks ago Jude was a college student, and now he’s going to be playing on millions of televisions in a couple months.”
“It most certainly is a lot to take in,” she said. “When Deon was drafted, we were seniors in college. I packed up and moved across the country and, I kid you not, found out I was pregnant a week before his first game.” She laughed, staring at her husband in a way I was familiar with. It was the way I looked at Jude. “I was so scared it would throw him off that I didn’t tell him until after the game was over. We were married a month later and decided one was so much fun, we might as well have three more.”
“That sounds like a hell of a lot to absorb all at once,” I said, snagging a bottle of water from a table. “But look at you two now.” I motioned between them, because words were useless when it came to describing their obvious connection.
“A couple who has to schedule nooky to make sure we still make time for it.” She winked over at me. “But it’s a good life. And I’ve got a good man who gave me four kids who I love so much I feel a little nutty sometimes.”
Okay. I was glomming onto Sybill at these events and not letting go. Ever. We could rock our jeans and tees together while the rest of the girls flounced around in satin and sequins.
“Speaking of my four munchkins . . .” Rummaging through her purse, Sybill pulled out a phone and answered it. “What’s up, Jess?”
Frowning, she motioned at her husband. “Okay, give Riley a bit of Sprite and a saltine. We’ll be home in a half hour.”
“Sick munchkin?” I guessed.
“Vomiting-spaghetti-and-meatballs munchkin,” she said. “Hey, Deon! Riley’s sick. You wanna grab the car and I’ll meet you out front?”
Deon flicked her a salute and jogged inside.
“Sorry your little man’s sick,” I said. “I hope he feels better soon.”
“Knowing Riley, he’ll be up and playing Wii by the time we get home.” She waved at a few of the guests before patting my forearm. “Don’t let the other girls intimidate you, Lucy,” she said quietly. “There’s not a whole lot going on up here”—she tapped her head—“or here”—her hand moved to her heart—“but they’re easily controlled. They’re so shallow, all you have to do is tell them you like their new purse, or dress, or boob job, and you’ll be one of the gang. Shower them in schmooze and you’re in.”
I looked back at where the rest of the party was, then at Sybill, who was heading inside the house. “I don’t think I want in.”
She threw me a smile. “Yeah, me neither. Obviously I never have been or will be an ‘it’ girl,” she said with a shrug. “I like you, Lucy Larson. Let’s be friends.”
It was such a kindergarten way of putting it, but so honest. One good thing had come of this day—I had a new friend. “I like you, too. Friend.”
She waved before glancing back at Jude. “Sweet pad, QB! Sorry to eat and run, but life calls.”
Jude glanced between Sybill and me, not doing as good a job as I was of pretending we hadn’t just had a screaming match minutes ago. “Thanks, Sybill,” he replied. “I’m glad you got to finally meet Luce.”
With Sybill gone, and Jude starting to make his way toward me, that group of girls to my right were a welcome distraction. I ignored the fact that their dresses were so shiny that together they created a collective disco ball. I also ignored that I would be the smallest-boobed girl in the bunch. Smallest by a landslide.