“Tomorrow’s the big day,” he said around another bite of apple. The air smelled like the tangy sweetness of the fruit in his mouth. Not able to resist, I leaned down to kiss him, wanting to taste the aroma. It was even better combined with the taste of his mouth.
He was oozing that notorious Jude Ryder ego when I leaned back. He knew what he did to me. And he loved it.
I loved it too, although I didn’t love how well he knew it.
“Tomorrow I could be a first-round draft pick, Luce,” he continued, circling my ankle with his fingers. “We could be millionaires in twenty-four hours.”
I had to force myself not to visibly wince. This talk—the draft, the money, the lifestyle—had been an area of contention this past year with the likelihood of Jude’s being drafted into pro ball. I wasn’t so sure how I felt about it, but Jude was sure enough for both of us.
Trouble was, his confidence wasn’t rubbing off on me. If anything, the more confident he became, the less I felt. Money had the potential to change things. It had the potential to change people. I was worried about how all that money might change us. I loved him, and me, and us, just the way we were now.
Jude’s being drafted his junior year of college was a one-in-a-million kind of an opportunity, the kind of thing college players would sell their souls to achieve. But it also meant he’d be dropping out of school. He’d made it this far; a part of me wanted to see him finish his degree—astound all those people back home who’d always pegged him as a high school dropout. Playing in the NFL had been a dream of Jude’s forever. I couldn’t postpone his dream any more than he could mine.
“From dining on peanut-butter sandwiches tonight to twenty-ounce, grade-A prime filet tomorrow night,” he continued, his face almost glowing as his eyes drifted off to money-land. “We could get a new place, a new fancy-ass car. We could take a vacation to Hawaii. Fly first-class and shit. Think about it, Luce. Anything we want, we can have. Anytime we want it. No more scrambling around getting grease under our fingernails or waiting tables late at night to pay the electric bill.” He paused, a contented smile settling deeper into his face. “We could have it all, baby.”
I swallowed. “I thought we already did.” My voice sounded sadder than I meant it to.
The skin between Jude’s eyebrows puckered. “What do you mean?” he asked, his gaze zeroing in on me.
“I thought we already had it all,” I repeated. “I’ve been on both sides of the money line, and the only thing it changes is your zip code. It can’t make you happy if you weren’t without it.”
“Well, I’ve been on the losing side of the money game my whole life, and I know for a fact that money can make your life better if you can’t even find enough quarters in the couch cushions to do a load of laundry at the local Suds N’ Wash.” Dropping his apple to the side, he sat up and turned until he was facing me. The candlelight flickered around him, shadowing the crevasses of his muscles, highlighting the peaks of them, and made the sharp lines of his jaw even more defined. A man like Jude shouldn’t be classified as beautiful, but in moments like this, he kind of was.
Jude Ryder. My beautiful fiancé.
He was waiting for me to respond.
“Okay, so money can make your life better if you’re destitute,” I said, prying my eyes from where they traced the grooves of his ab muscles. “But we’re not destitute, Jude. We’re college students with a roof over our heads, gasoline in our tanks, ramen noodles in our cupboards, and shirts on our backs. I couldn’t imagine being any happier than I am right now, and if it was possible, money would certainly be the last thing on that list that could make me more so.” I grabbed the plastic wineglass Jude had filled from a cheap bottle of sparkling wine and took a sip. It was delicious. I was as happy with a five-dollar bottle of sparkling wine from the drugstore as I would have been with the finest bottle of champagne money could buy.
“No, we’re not destitute, but we’re not thriving in the money department either, Luce,” he said, grabbing my hand and pulling it into his lap. “And you’re right that money couldn’t make me happier than I am right now.” He smiled so big it made the scar on his cheek pucker. “But it does mean I can finally be rid of my piece-of-shit truck and get a jacked-up, three-hundred-and-fifty-horsepower jet-black monster truck.”
I rolled my eyes and shoved at him.
“And we can trade in that little go-kart of yours for a zippy convertible,” he continued.
“I like my Mazda,” I muttered, plucking a grape free from the vine and popping it into my mouth.
“And we can afford a house with a room for each day of the year, with so many maids and butlers you wouldn’t have to lift a finger again. Unless it was to call for a fresh-squeezed orange juice.” He was really on a roll, the words spilling out of his mouth as his eyes sparkled with the visions. My own eyes were narrowing as my stomach twisted.
“Money changes people, Jude,” I whispered, staring into my cup.
We were silent as we let that settle between us.
“That’s what you’re worried about?” he said, his voice soft. “That the money will change you?”
I shook my head, focusing on the bubbles that crept up the sides of the cup. “No,” I said, before looking into his eyes. “That it will change you.”
His eyes narrowed for the shortest second before they widened with understanding. Winding an arm around my neck, he pulled me to him. “Come here,” he whispered outside my ear, wrapping his other arm around my back. “The only thing that could change me is you, Luce,” he said. “You, not anything else. Mountains of money included.” I heard the grin in his voice. “No matter what happens tomorrow or how many millions they throw at me, I’m the same guy I am right now.” He rubbed my back, pressing slow circles into my spine. “I’ll just be picking you up in a truck you won’t be embarrassed to be seen in.”
“I’ve never been embarrassed to be seen with you,” I said, letting him tuck my head under his chin. “Not even in that sorry excuse for scrap metal of a truck.”
He barked out a laugh. “Good to know, Luce. Good to know.”
“How are you not nervous?” I hissed over at Jude, where he stood casually leaning against a wall. We were in the infamous green room on the first night of the draft.
Reaching his hand out for mine, he lifted a shoulder. “The coaches already know who they’re picking. There’s nothing I can do now to change that.” Once I grabbed his hand, he tugged me close and folded me tight against him. “However, I’m starting to get nervous you’re about to pass out any second.”
That wasn’t so far off. I reminded myself to breathe. “As long as you keep holding on to me like this, at least I won’t crack my head open if I do.”
His arms fastened tighter around me before he started to sway in time to an imaginary beat. “You can dance in front of hundreds of people and not break a sweat,” he said. The movement was relaxing me. “But your fiancé is waiting for the phone call to see which city he’ll be moving to so he can kick some big-time football ass, and you’re a thin line away from losing it.” Pressing a kiss to my temple, he leaned his forehead into mine with a small shake of his head. “Just when I think I’ve got you all figured out, Lucy Larson.”
My laugh sounded manic. Probably because that was how I felt. “I have to keep you on your toes somehow.”
Jude’s eyebrows moved against my forehead. “You excel at that, Luce.”
That tone again. The undercurrent that revealed he was trying to say something else. There’d been an increasing amount of “undercurrent” the past few months.
“Meaning?” I asked, peaking my own brows so they were as high as his. I reminded myself we weren’t alone, that we were surrounded by the best players in college football, along with their closest family and friends. This was neither the place nor the time to get into one of our spats.
“Meaning if you didn’t keep me on my toes every second of every day, I’d have figured out a way to get you down the aisle by now,” he said, and it all clicked into place. He was sulking because he didn’t have me barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen yet.
Okay, so “barefoot and pregnant” might have been an exaggeration, but there was no denying that Jude wanted me to be his wife the second after I’d agreed to marry him. He’d only been asking, begging, whining, and, as of late, sulking when I replied, “Not yet.”
It didn’t have anything to do with my not wanting to marry him. Jude was going to be my husband. I was going to be Mrs. Jude Ryder one day.
I just wasn’t ready for that day to be today. Or yesterday. Or tomorrow, for that matter. I wanted to finish school and have a few years of actual on-the-job dance experience before I became a Mrs. I didn’t want to be known as the one girl in the history of the twenty-first century to have gone to school to get an MRS degree.
So my answer was, “Not yet.”
But one day.
However, this wasn’t what Jude liked to hear. So instead of arguing back with my list of valid reasons for postponing marriage, I redirected the conversation. I’d become a diversion ninja.
“And if I hadn’t kept you on your toes the past three years, you wouldn’t be about to be a first-round pick and to sign your life away for mountains of money,” I replied, throwing his words back at him.
“Come on, Luce. I’m growing tired of the whole, stop, drop, and divert routine,” he said, looking down at me, but still keeping me close. “Marriage isn’t the end of the world.”
“Then why do you keep acting like my not wanting to tie the knot tomorrow is?”
“Because your saying ‘not now’ is the end of the world,” he said, fighting a smile. “Come on, baby. Marry me,” he said, not like a question but like a command. I didn’t reply, letting the seconds tick off in silence around us. “Marry me?” he repeated, this time as a plea. It crushed me a little bit every time, Jude pleading with me to marry him.
“I’m going to marry you,” I answered.
He smirked at me. “When?”
I smirked back. “Soon.”
“Can I get that in writing?” he asked. “Maybe a date, a time, and a location? You know, just so I can make sure to be there when the marrying mood strikes you?” He looked away, the lightness in his eyes shadowing.
Dammit. We’d officially crossed from his being marginally upset to full-on hurt. I hated that Jude felt this way, but I couldn’t cave. I couldn’t get married because I felt guilty. That would be a marriage doomed to failure, and when I said, “I do,” it was going to be a onetime deal.
“Jude Ryder,” I said, tilting his chin until he was looking at me. “Are you having an insecure moment? I thought you were immune to those.” I tried on a smile, but it felt superficial. “Are you worried I’m not going to marry you?” Even my light tone sounded artificial, too saccharine to be believable.