Figured. I should have known to put India next to the three-year-old if I wanted her to behave.
“I’ve been hearing great things about this new spy movie set in the forties,” Thomas said, clearing the air. I went to the fridge to grab him a fresh beer as thanks.
“Ooh, yeah,” Holly said, pointing her fork at Thomas. “The previews for that movie looked killer.”
“You guys should go next Friday after dinner,” I said, handing the beer off to Thomas. “I could tuck LJ in and you two could go get a drink first and catch the late show.”
Holly was looking at me like I had three heads. Thomas, however, tilted his beer at me. “That sounds great. What do you think, Holly? You up for it?”
Holly’s curious stare shifted to Thomas. “Sure, but do you really want to make the drive again next week?” she said finally. “Are you sure you want to go with me? Isn’t there someone else you’d rather—”
“I’m sure,” Thomas interrupted.
Hello, Mr. Obvious.
“Okay, then,” Holly said. “It’s a date.”
Thomas swallowed. “It’s . . . yeah.”
I smiled into my lap. These two were both so hot for each other, I was dying for one of them to cave and just admit it already. I wasn’t sure who would be the first to do it, but I hoped it would be soon.
After that, dinner was fine. No more awkward moments, followed by even more awkward silences. An hour later, nothing was left of dinner other than a few chip pieces. India and Holly had called mercy and unbuttoned their jeans a half hour earlier, but I—the one in elastic-band boxers—was good to go.
Anton took dish duty while Thomas cleared the table. LJ and the girls piled a stack of blankets and pillows on the living room floor before making the world’s coolest fort with every last sheet I had in the place.
“I’ve got to take a picture of this,” Anton said, rolling his sleeves back down as he wandered from the kitchen.
“No pictures!” LJ said, crawling out from beneath it. “This is top-secret.”
“Good point,” Anton replied, pocketing his phone. “This gets out to the public, every little boy’s going to have one of these.”
Fiddling with the controls, I managed to get the DVD player to cooperate.
“What are we watching?” Thomas asked, crawling inside and throwing himself down close to Holly.
Coincidence? I think not.
“Ice Age!” LJ replied, plopping down right in between Holly and Thomas.
India had already claimed her spot and was two Jell-O shots deep when I crawled in beside her.
When Anton stuck his head inside, I got all self-conscious again. Of course his eyes landed right on me, and a smile crept into position when he saw I was also looking at him.
“Room for one more?”
I was about to say no when LJ hushed him.
“The movie’s starting,” he said. “No talking unless you want to wind up in the time-out corner.”
“India,” I whispered, shaking her. She was almost asleep. “Indie. Trade spots.”
India was sandwiched between me and Thomas, who had LJ and Holly on his other side, which left the space beside me empty.
Although it didn’t stay empty for long.
“This spot taken?” Anton whispered, crawling beside me.
“Would you believe me if I said yes?”
“Okay. Now you’re just hurting my feelings,” he said, punching a couple of pillows into position.
“I didn’t think you had any.”
He chuckled. “Would you let me know once you’re ready to move past this afternoon? You know, just so I’m not holding my breath.”
My mood was lightening up, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. “You start holding your breath now, and I’ll say ‘when’ once I’m ready to forgive you.”
“If I did that, I’m afraid I’d be dead before you’d even considered it,” he whispered.
Apparently, even whispering wasn’t allowed. LJ sat up and shushed us. “Aunt Luce,” he said in that warning voice I’d used with him a half dozen times a day.
I mouthed, “Sorry,” before zipping my mouth closed and throwing away the key. That seemed to satisfy LJ.
“Whose phone is that?” Holly said, looking down the row of bodies.
“Mom,” LJ whined before hopping up and pushing pause on the DVD player. As he scampered toward the bathroom, I checked my pockets for mine. Hold up, I didn’t have pockets. In fact, I hadn’t seen my phone in a couple hours, since I’d changed in the bathroom. It was late, so that meant it was a certain someone making his nightly call.
A Face Time call . . .
I muttered a curse right before LJ rounded the corner, phone in hand.
“Hey, Uncle Jude,” he greeted with a wave.
I cursed again, when what I should have been doing was leaping up and getting as far away from Anton as the apartment would allow.
I didn’t hear what Jude said, but I could guess from LJ’s reply. “Yeah. She’s right here.” Flipping the phone around, LJ came toward me and handed it off.
Jude’s face went from light to dark in the time it took his eyes to move from me to the space next to me.
“Luce,” he said, the muscles of his jaw working. “Who the hell is that?”
“Jude,” I said, feeling my temper fire to life. “Nice to see you, too.”
Holly jumped up and stopped LJ from unpausing the movie. “Let’s get your pajamas on, LJ,” she said, steering him down the hall. One thing Holly had learned about Jude over the years: When he was pissed, he wouldn’t take the time to spell out select words that weren’t meant for little ears. Thomas rushed after them.
“It would be nice to see you, too, if you weren’t horizontal next to another guy.” Jude’s glare didn’t leave Anton once, like he was hoping he’d combust if he stared long enough.
“Let me guess who this chump is . . .” he said. “The man whose gravestone is about to read, ‘Anton Xavier.’”
I knew I should be embarrassed that my fiancé was acting like this. I knew I should be mortified. But I was too angry for that.
“And you must be the very noncontrolling Jude Ryder,” Anton replied, sitting up on his elbows.
If there was a silver lining to this testosterone showdown, it was that the jabs wouldn’t leave bruises.
“Anton,” Jude said, sitting up straighter. “You’re shorter than I pictured you.”
Kill me. Kill me right now. Why wasn’t I hitting that end button? Why hadn’t I hit it the instant LJ handed that sucker over to me?
Because I was an idiot, that’s why.
I hopped up and headed for the kitchen, hoping Anton would stay where he was so I could start with the damage control. Of course Anton shot up and was only two steps behind me when I stopped in the kitchen.
“Jude,” Anton said, moving in front of the screen. “Your head’s smaller than I thought it would be.”
“Cute. Real cute.” The veins in Jude’s neck looked ready to burst. “I hope you’re gutsy enough to say something like that to me in person.”
“I’m gutsy enough.”
Jude grinned a tad manically for my liking. “Something to look forward to.”
I was starting to wonder if their next display of manhood would include whipping their dicks out and comparing size. I elbowed Anton, hoping he’d take a clue. Not happening.
“You planning on being at Friday-night dinner two weeks from now?” Jude asked.
“If I’m invited.”
“You’re not,” I said instantly.
“Yes, he is,” Jude said, that joker smile turning up a notch. “That is, if you’re gutsy enough.”
“I’ll be here.” Anton did what I guessed to be a Face Time stare-down with Jude.
“No, you won’t. You’re not invited,” I said.
“I invited him, Luce.”
I moved the phone closer, until my face took up the entire screen. “And I just uninvited him.”
“Sorry, Luce. But that apartment’s just as much mine as it is yours. And I invited him.”
I was losing my grip. My fiancé and my boss were fighting over me like I was some shiny trophy. This was the last straw.
“Fine. You want to invite Anton? Invite Anton,” I seethed, as my hands began trembling. “You boys have fun, because I sure as shit won’t be here.” Jude’s forehead lined as his eyes finally softened when they took me in. “Now, if you boys are done cockfighting, you’re going to leave right now,” I ordered, pointing Anton in the direction of the door. “And I’m hanging up on you,” I said, narrowing my eyes at Jude.
“Luce,” he began, but I was true to my word. Before Jude could get another word out, I did what I should have done three minutes ago.
I punched end.
“Lucy, I’m sorry,” Anton said.
“Get out,” I said, pointing toward the door. “Just get out. I’ve had enough for one day.”
Anton looked like he wanted to say more, but for once he kept quiet. After letting out a long sigh, he headed for the door and didn’t look back.
Jude’s calls started coming in thirty seconds later. I didn’t answer them. I wasn’t ready.
India had snoozed through the whole Face Time call from hell, and Holly, Thomas, and LJ had stayed hidden in the bedroom until the coast was clear. When it was, Thomas came back into the living room, wrapped me up in his arms, and didn’t let go until I’d almost fallen asleep.
He carried me to my bed and tucked me in before crawling back into the ginormous fort and falling asleep himself.
It was a little past midnight, and I was stuck in that place between sleep and awake, when I finally answered Jude’s call. It wasn’t an exaggeration to guess he’d called at least fifty times.
“Hey, Mr. Persistent,” I said in a sleepy voice.
“Luce.” He sighed. I could feel his relief in that one word.
“You were out of line tonight, Ryder,” I said, reminding myself to stay calm.
“I know,” he replied, his voice all low and rough, like he hadn’t said a word in days. “But so were you, Luce.”
“Huh?” I sat up in bed. “I wasn’t the one verbally threatening to kill a man.”
“No. No, you weren’t. But you were the one cuddled up to him and practically sharing a pillow.”
“Yeah, Anton was next to me. So was India. And Thomas. And Holly. And LJ, too. We were all camped out on the floor watching Ice Age in a kick-ass fort.” With all the Face Time calls Jude and I had been doing, it felt strange just talking to him. I couldn’t read the expressions on his face; I could only guess how he felt from his voice.
“That man is into you, Luce. I know you don’t believe me, and I know you want to believe he’s just a friend, but friendship is the farthest thing from his mind when it comes to you.” His voice was so controlled, so restrained. I was proud of him . . . still irritated, but proud.