Jude’s hand left my neck and extended behind me. From the chuckles that followed the cheering, I could imagine what signal he was giving everyone.
“Horny bastards,” he mumbled against my mouth, putting me back down. As of late, Jude had been less and less of a PDA man, whereas I’d take whatever I could get. Wherever it might be. He said it had something to do with him not being okay with a bunch of guys jerking off to his fiancée’s face later that night.
He glared at the loudest of the hooting offenders, then looked back at me. Just imagining him walking away from me, I could feel the damn tears returning.
“I wish I could go with you,” I whispered, before I knew what I was saying.
His eyebrows touched the sky. “You can, you know,” he said quickly, already setting his sights on the ticket counter.
“I’ve got a couple weeks of school to finish,” I offered just as quickly, turning his head before he started making his way to the counter.
“Then come the day school is over,” he said. “I’ll send you a ticket and you can spend the summer at the beach while I work my ass off on the field.”
“Exactly. You’ll be so busy with training, I’d never see you.”
“But at least I’d be able to crawl into bed with you every night,” he said, setting me back down on the ground. Oddly enough, my feet on firm ground felt less natural than when they were wrapped around Jude.
“And fall into a coma after your daily doubles,” I argued.
One corner of his mouth curled. “I might be bushed every night, but I’d never be too tired for that.” I sighed in exasperation. “You’d just have to be the one on top.”
I shoved him, earning nothing more than a laugh.
“Getting my ass beat on the field by day, enjoying a round of cowgirl-style sex by night.” His eyes darkened. “Sounds like my kind of summer.”
I glowered at him, not impressively, but it was a wonder I could look at his beautiful face with anything but awe, even now.
“Come on,” he said. “Come with me.” I was already opening my mouth to object when he cut me off. “Once you finish classes.”
“I’m taking a summer class, Jude,” I said, looking away. I might have forgotten to mention that.
“What?!” He gasped. “When did you decide to do this?” He looked equally pissed and hurt.
“When I decided I wanted to be the best damn dancer I could be,” I snapped right back.
Jude paused before answering. “Skip it,” he said at last. “You don’t need to go to school. You can just dance.”
I could feel the tips of my ears starting to heat with the blood pumping through me. “Without a degree, I’d be lucky to be dancing across a community theater stage as an understudy,” I said, each word an emotional tidal wave. “I need to do this. I need to blaze my own path just like you have yours.”
“Yeah, but my path’s making us millions, so why don’t you cross over to mine?” he said without a sliver of remorse.
“It’s not about money, Jude,” I said, a notch below a shout. Why was he not getting this? Money was money, nothing else, nothing more.
He shifted, looking like he wanted to rub his temples in frustration. “Then what’s it about?” he asked. “Because you’ve admitted it’s not about the money. It’s not about me. It’s not about marriage.” His voice was rising. “Then what the hell is this whole ‘blaze my own path without you’ shit about, Luce? Because I thought we were a team now. I thought we made decisions that were the best for us as a couple.”
I opened my mouth to reply back with something, but it would have been a lie. When I failed at everything else, when the shit was really hitting the fan, I made it a priority never to lie to Jude. I bit my lip while I stalled for an answer. Jude’s shoulders slumped as the rest of his body loosened. “Come on, baby, What’s it about?”
Shaking my head, I sank a few more teeth into my lip. “I’m not sure,” I admitted, and while I knew it was a suck-ass answer, at least it was the truth. I wasn’t sure why it was so important for me to make my own way in the world, but it was.
I didn’t think Jude could look any more frustrated. Clearing his throat, he cupped my elbow and pulled me close again. “Marry me, Luce,” he whispered, his eyes begging mine to meet them.
Dammit. He wasn’t doing this again. He knew my weakness for him ran deep, and coupled with that pleading tone and those tortured eyes, he did one hell of a demolition job on my resolution.
“I will,” I said, still refusing to look him in the eyes.
He didn’t let the air settle with my words. “Right now?” So much hope it was sacred. And I was going to kill it with a swift slit to the throat.
“Right later,” I whispered, forming a half smile that was more frown than grin.
He was silent for what felt like an hour, like he was waiting for me to take it back, or processing the words and the meaning behind them. Finally, he sighed—long, deep, and one that pricked new tears to life in my eyes.
“Love you, Luce,” he said, pressing a kiss into my forehead. “You change your mind, you know where to find me. I’ll marry you in the middle of the night in some crummy wedding chapel in Vegas if that’s the only option we have. Whatever you want, whenever you want it. I’ll be there.” Burying his face in my hair, he inhaled deeply before turning and walking up to the security gates.
My throat was too tight to let words slip through, and my eyes were so glazed over with tears that I saw nothing but a tall shadow walking away from me. Two seconds had gone by since his last touch, and my body was already quaking with withdrawal.
It was going to be a long two weeks.
Two weeks—fourteen days—hadn’t just gone by slowly. It had been like living a year in hell every passing second. Jude had called every night, sounding as beat as you’d expect a rookie NFL player to sound after a grueling daily double in eighty-degree heat. I lived for those calls, but I kind of dreaded them, too, because I knew we’d be hanging up shortly after and the clock would reset until we got to talk again. Another twenty-three and a half hours on the clock, please.
I tried to keep busy, immersing myself in the last weeks of school, dancing late into the night for no audience, just an empty auditorium. I’d taken my last final yesterday and was feeling confident my junior year of college had been my most successful to date.
I’d spent the first part of the day picking up applications in hopes that I could land a summer job that would work with my summer class. However, plenty of schools had already let out for summer, and it seemed the majority of jobs, or at least the good ones that didn’t pay peanuts, had already been scooped up. I’d be lucky if I could swing a part-time gig waiting tables at a late-night café.
I’d take it. I wasn’t picky, especially these days. I’d take whatever employment I could find, especially with Jude being gone the entire summer. I needed something—in fact, many things—to keep my mind off missing him.
And if that meant pouring coffee and slapping hash browns down on diner tables until I was blue in the face, I’d do just that.
After gathering a couple dozen applications, I’d stopped by a few specialty markets in search of just the right ingredients for tonight’s dinner, because today was day number fourteen. Jude’s much anticipated homecoming. Cue the hallelujah choir, because I’d been jiving and waving my hands at the heavens all day long. Jude’s flight was coming in late, so it wasn’t exactly “dinner,” but I’d never known Jude Ryder to turn down a good meal no matter what time of day—or night—it was.
In the years since starting college, I’d learned to cook. Well, kind of learned to cook. Not out of curiosity, but out of necessity. Cafeteria food was the last resort, especially after dining on my dad’s culinary masterpieces for years. In fact, I was fairly certain the number one ingredient in cafeteria pasta was cardboard.
The other option was eating out every night, which, with an appetite like Jude’s around, was impossible on a college student’s nonwages. So I learned how to cook. Nothing fancy, but good, nutritious home cooking.
Tonight’s menu consisted of roast chicken, garlic mashed potatoes, and roasted green beans—a Jude Ryder favorite. Like the weekends during the school year and the last two summers, I’d moved into Jude’s and my apartment in White Plains. This year, though, I was planning on living in it during senior year and using public transportation to get to the city. I was done living in dorms. Done.
The apartment was a notch or two above being deemed condemnable, but God, I loved it. It was ours. Where we could be together. Where we’d formed more memories than most couples do in a lifetime. It was home, and I was happy to be here for another summer.
I would have been happier if Jude was here, too. But tonight I’d have him for almost twenty-four hours, because he had one rare day off of training and had to be back by Monday morning. So as soon as he walked through that door, I wasn’t going to fixate on the fact that he’d be leaving in less than twenty hours. I was going to live each moment like it was a year. I was going to make time my bitch, pay it back for what it had done to me the past two weeks.
I checked the time on the new iPhone Jude had sent me last week, the first of what he said would be many sweet gifts. After warning him he’d better not start treating me like some expensive mistress he had stuffed across the country, I’d thanked him profusely and given him a few dozen air kisses through my sweet new phone.
“Crap!” I shrieked when my hand accidentally grazed the casserole dish holding the green beans that had just been baking at three hundred and fifty degrees for more than an hour. I was about to run the burn under water when the time registered in my brain.
“Double crap!” Jude was going to be here any minute and I wasn’t ready. Tonight I wanted everything to be perfect. Normally I would have picked him up at the airport, but then I couldn’t have surprised him with what I’d been cooking up the past few days.
He’d sounded hurt when I’d first told him he’d have to catch a cab because I was planning something. But when I repeated I was planning something, with just the right amount of inflection, I could feel his classic smile coming through the phone.
Blanketing my hands with oven mitts, I rushed the beans to our dining table. It was nothing more than a six-foot-long plastic craft table surrounded by a menagerie of mismatched chairs, but when you covered it with a nice tablecloth, it classed it up a rung so we looked less like poor college students and more like fresh graduates with their first paying jobs.
Dropping the dish on the table, I heard footsteps striding up the stairwell. Thundering footsteps. The walls were that thin and Jude’s footsteps were that loud.
Loosening the knot of my bathrobe, I let it slide off my arms and chucked it onto the couch. After double-checking that the candles were lit, the table set, and the music playing at just the right volume in the background, I plopped down into my chair. The chair was chilly, running cool from my spine down to my backside. A metal folding chair probably wasn’t the best seating option for a girl who was nak*d.