We’d named our little girl Annalise Marie Ryder. It wasn’t a family name; nor had we agonized over selecting just the right meaning. Jude had fallen in love with the name one night when we’d been scanning baby-name books, like, really fallen in love with it. I knew he would have backed down if I said I didn’t like it or wanted a different name, but Jude had a grand total of zero blood relatives in his life anymore. He’d earned the right to name the little girl who was half his DNA and would be forever in his life.
So Annalise Marie it was. She looked like me, but had her daddy’s gray eyes, and could form expressions at six months that were eerily identical to Jude’s.
Speaking of a certain Mr. Ryder . . . Jude got into position, ready for the hike. I was about to pop up and jump and cheer with a fifteen-pound Annalise bundle when someone tapped me from the side.
“Can I hold her, Aunt Luce?”
LJ had grown into a not-so-little man in a year’s time. He and Holly still lived in the old apartment back in White Plains, but now Thomas lived there, too. He’d proposed last month and they were tying the knot this winter. We didn’t get to see them as often as I’d have liked, but they made it out a few times a year to come to one of Jude’s games or to play at the beach, and we did our best to make it back east.
“Sure, LJ,” I said, setting Annalise on his lap, but keeping my hands close by. “She’s a little mover and shaker, so hang on tight.”
“I will,” he said, winding both arms tight around her middle. Of course, she calmed down almost right away now that cousin LJ had her.
The stadium was loud from the start to the end of the game. To help muffle some of that noise on baby ears, Annalise had her own special knit beanie she wore to every game. Unlike Jude’s, hers was pink, and she had a handful of Chargers outfits she rocked along with the jersey I wore.
I stayed seated next to LJ just in case Annalise decided to take a flying leap from his arms, and waved down the row at Sybill, who was wrestling her own four kiddos.
“I gotta tell you, Lucy,” Holly said, elbowing me from the other side, “that little beach house Jude got you for a wedding present is pretty fantastic. Just so you know, LJ, Thomas, and I are considering making the second floor our winter home. You guys wouldn’t mind, right?”
Since we were playing the elbowing game, I gave her one of mine. “No, we wouldn’t mind. As long as LJ doesn’t pee on all of my plants and Thomas picks up his dirty underwear.”
“Yeah, I don’t see that ever happening,” she said. “Darn, I guess it will just be me!”
I laughed, knowing she was partly serious—not about leaving LJ and Thomas, but about moving. They always stayed with us whenever they flew out, since we had the room, and the beach for our backyard, and when it came to Holly, Thomas, and LJ, it was truly the more, the merrier. Dad and Mom made it down to see us a bunch, too. Something about having a baby in the family was especially motivating. As a wedding present, Jude had surprised me with the keys to that beach house I’d wanted to rent for the holidays. Except instead of renting, we owned.
So we got to stay in it for the holidays last year, and we’ll get to stay in it every holiday after that. Jude had even sold his souped-up truck and had his old piecer totally rebuilt. I couldn’t call it a POS anymore, because it was gorgeous.
“How’s the dance studio coming along?” Holly asked as she watched the field.
Jude had called a last-minute time-out and was deep in a huddle with his teammates.
“Great. The dance floor goes in this week and then it’s pretty much done,” I said, rummaging through the diaper bag for Annalise’s teething giraffe she liked to gnaw on. “I’ve already got a list of dancers enrolled.”
“Those poor kids are going to go home crying after spending an hour in class with you as their teacher,” she said, smirking over at me.
“Why don’t you enroll in my adult class and I’ll make sure I send you home crying,” I replied, mirroring her smirk.
“Nah,” she said, nudging Thomas beside her. “Tights and ballet shoes are for men.”
“Damn straight, baby,” he said, pulling her close and kissing her full on the lips.
I laughed, and checked the field. They were out of the huddle and getting back into position. As yet another wedding present, Jude had purchased an old, run-down building in an artsy part of the city. He put me in charge of the design and renovation for its transformation. While I was finishing up fall semester, the dance studio came together. I’d made some solid progress with my money-issues thing. Jude had promised me that the money and the fame wouldn’t change him, and he’d been right. He still swaggered around in his Cons and Levi’s and drank cheap beer, but, most important, he still looked at me like I was his whole world. His eyes still went soft when he said, “I love you,” and he didn’t hesitate to help change a tire for some stranger stranded on the side of the road. So Jude was still Jude, I was still me, and we were still us. About the only thing that had changed was our bank account, just like he’d promised.
In between rooting for my favorite football team and changing diapers, I was still hell-bent on working in some sort of capacity, but I’d come to realize I wanted to work not so much because I needed to make my own money, but because I wanted to make a difference. Pairing that desire with my obsession for dance . . . well, the dance studio was the result. The knowledge that one day I could possibly influence a young girl the way Madame Fontaine had influenced me felt like it was the cherry on top of a very fulfilling sundae.
“Go, Uncle Jude,” LJ said, careful not to shout with Annalise in his arms.
“Here, buddy,” I said, reaching for her. “Let me take her so you can get up and bounce and scream for Uncle Jude. You know he can hear you out there, right?”
“I know,” LJ said importantly, letting me take Annalise.
“Come here, sweet girl. Let’s cheer for your daddy.” Kissing Annalise’s head, I stood up just as the center hiked the ball.
Jude didn’t even fake a pass; he just cradled that ball against himself and sprinted for the end zone.
I held my breath as everyone around the arena exploded. When he’d hit the ten I let myself exhale. He was going to do it.
When his foot landed in the end zone, the roof felt like it was going to blow off the place from the noise. I just stood there and grinned down at him. He was still a show-off.
Dropping the ball, he turned and jogged down the sidelines.
He high-fived a few of his teammates in passing, but he couldn’t be stopped. Coming to a pause in front of us, he grinned up.
“That one was for my girls,” he said, sliding his helmet off.
“And consider your girls sufficiently impressed,” I shouted, leaning forward. Annalise was really wriggling now that she’d caught sight of her daddy. She was smiling and making spit bubbles from her excitement.
“Come here, baby girl,” he said, lifting his arms. I surrendered her to his strong hands. “You want to see the best seat in the house?”
Annalise jolted, shaking her baby arms. She was such a daddy’s girl.
“Okay, okay.” He laughed, tucking her close to him. “But first I got to get a little something-something from your mama.”
Smiling that smile of his that made my stomach drop, he tilted his head up at me.
Leaning down, I kissed him and, no different from the first time we’d done this, the rest of the world faded away. It was just Jude and me and our little girl.
It was what you’d call something of a full-circle moment.
“Love you, Luce,” he said, after Annalise’s little hand had poked up between our mouths. She’d grabbed onto Jude’s lower lip and wasn’t letting go.
“Love you, Jude.”
Turning around, Jude carried Annalise out onto the field. He didn’t stop until he came to the middle of the fifty-yard line. Cradling her in his arms, he did a slow spin. Cameras were flashing, fans were screaming, and it was controlled anarchy, but I knew there was no one else but Jude and his little girl out there right now to him.
As I watched them, I felt the same thing. We were in our own bubble, and it was a good one. My life wasn’t how I planned it would be. It wasn’t even close.
It was a thousand times better.
Sybill had been right: The few things I’d sacrificed, or put on hold, to be with my husband and baby were worth it. That broken boy on the beach seemed like a lifetime ago. Years had passed, college and the NFL, marriage and a baby, but every once in a while, when Jude looked over at me and gave me that slow, knowing smile of his, I was that girl in a black string bikini all over again, longing for a boy I never thought could be mine.