I glanced over at my Mazda, parked in its spot, its windows already covered by a thin layer of snow. Snow tires were a foreign concept to me, and I was unequipped for the winter that was already here, it appeared.
“Don’t worry, Luce,” Jude said, hopping in next to me. “I’ll get you taken care of. I’ll drive your car up to the shop sometime this weekend and get a pair of snow tires put on.”
I didn’t like that solution for a couple of reasons. “You’re not going anywhere this weekend unless you count moving from the head of my bed to the foot of it,” I began, peering over at him as he pulled out of the parking lot. He was smiling. “And I’m more than capable of taking care of my own snow tires. I don’t need you to do everything for me.”
His face twisted. “Why not?”
“Because,” I answered.
Because for a bunch of reasons, but I didn’t feel like listing them off the entire drive. So instead I scooted next to him and rested my head on his shoulder. “Just because.”
The drive to SoHo lasted all of twenty minutes, but my head tucked into Jude’s neck with his arm hanging over me made the drive go by even faster.
“This the place?” Jude asked, inspecting the restaurant that seemed to be built with windows as we rolled by.
“This is it,” I answered, looking for my parents. They’d flown in earlier this morning and said they’d be getting situated into their hotel before meeting us for lunch. Jude was visibly uncomfortable, continuing to stare at the place like he didn’t belong.
“Hey,” I said, resting my hand on his leg, “you all right with this?”
Of course I wanted him to share Thanksgiving with my family, but not if it meant he was uncomfortable the whole time.
Maneuvering his truck into a tight spot on the street, he glanced over at me. “Yeah, I’m fine.” He grabbed my hand and kissed it before turning off the car. “You’re my family. I go where you go, Luce.”
That warm feeling that seemed ever present when Jude was around melted through me. His words were as skilled as his hands. I knew then the plight of riding the roller coaster was worth being able to call the man beside me mine.
Coming around my side, Jude swung the door open for me and, instead of lending me a hand, he scooped me back up into his arms. Pressing a warm kiss into my forehead, he carried me across the snow white street and didn’t set me down until we were standing in the foyer of the restaurant.
We were both laughing, consumed by each other, so the patrons and restaurant staff staring at us like the circus had just come to town didn’t register with either of us right away. A line of guests waiting for their tables were appraising us with sour faces, and the hostesses standing behind their podium were bouncing from Jude with wide eyes to me with narrowed.
“Sorry,” I said, clearing my throat.
Jude’s hand weaved between my arm, gripping into my waist—his other one repeated on the other side.
“I’m not,” he said loudly, the words echoing through the high ceilinged foyer.
And then he was dipping me low to the ground, his eyes smiling down on me before his lips made slow work of unfreezing mine. As soon as they melted into submission, he leaned back. Smiling down on me, he whispered, “I’m not,” before lifting me back into a vertical alignment.
The room was spinning and now onlookers’ narrowed eyes had been exchanged for small smiles. A few of the men even tipped their martini glasses at the two of us.
“Name under your reservation,” the petite, red-haired hostess said, still looking at me with narrowed eyes. That was fine. I’d be giving her the stink eye if a man like Jude had just dipped her to the floor, not giving a care if the whole world saw how crazy he was for her. Being Jude’s girlfriend was worthy of stink eyes near and far.
“Larson,” I answered, giving her a sweet smile while I wrapped both hands around Jude’s arm.
Checking her book, her eyes darted back to where my hands were affixed to Jude. “Table twenty-two,” she barked to the hostess beside her.
“Right this way,” the other one said, leading us into the dining room.
“Thank you,” I said with another smile as we walked past the red head whose eyes I could feel watching every rolling step Jude’s ass made. Stare all you want, honey, because the man is mine.
My parents stood up from the table as soon as they saw us crossing the expansive dining room. They were both smiling, both getting closer to resembling the parents of my youth. The parents they’d been before tragedy had changed us all into people we didn’t recognize.
Jude held my hand tight in his, kneading it like it was a worry rock. I understood why. Even for me, pre financial family crisis, this place would have been a bit out of the Larson family league, reserved for once a year special dinners maybe. But for Jude, someone who’d come from not exactly a destitute family, but a poor one, before spending five of his teen years in a boys’ home where hot dogs and canned vegetables were an every night occurrence, this place probably seemed like a foreign land.
A foreign land where the citizens were staring at him, his one size too small dress shirt stuffed inside a dark pair of jeans with cuffs fraying over old Converse, like he was an unwelcome tourist.
I stiffened, gripping his hand tighter and glaring at a few of the worst offenders as we passed.
“My Lucy in the sky,” Dad said, opening his arms as we approached.
“Hey, Dad,” I replied, letting go of Jude’s hand to give him a hug.
“Happy turkey day,” he said, squeezing me tight.
“Gobble, gobble,” I said, smiling over at Mom.
“Hi, sweetheart,” she said, her face looking younger than the last time I’d seen her. Some of the deep wrinkles had ironed out, and instead of looking perpetually pissed off, she tended more towards the peaceful side of facial expressions.
Moving from dad to mom, I gave her a hug.
“Hey, Jude,” I heard dad say, the smile of pure enjoyment in his face. “Sorry, that just never gets old.”
“Hi, Mr. Larson,” Jude said formally, shaking hands with him. “Happy Thanksgiving.”
Looking over at my mom, Jude cleared his throat. “Thank you for inviting me,” he said, shifting his weight, his face looking uneasy. Coming around the table to him, I grabbed his hand up again and he visibly relaxed. This was going to be harder for Jude to get through than I’d anticipated. I’d hold his hand all afternoon if that’s what he needed.
My mom came around the table and, stopping in front of Jude, she rested her hands on his shoulders. “We were glad you could make it,” she said, her voice soft and her smile just sad enough to guess at what was going through her mind. Wrapping her arms around him, she pulled Jude into a hug. He looked as awkward as she did.
Greetings out of the way, we took our seats. I scooted my chair closer to Jude’s and found his hand under the table cloth.
“This is a fancy place,” Jude said, gazing up at the painted ceilings and chandeliers hanging above us.
Dad’s gaze followed Jude’s and, even though it was only a little after noon and he was sitting in a high backed chair that wasn’t anything like his old recliner, Dad seemed alert—present in the moment. It was a nice change. “It’s a little over the top, but the food’s supposed to be amazing,” Dad responded.
Jude nodded, glancing down at the restaurant’s Thanksgiving day menu. “Really fancy,” he added, his eyes widening as he checked out the prices. “You’ll have to let me pay for Luce and myself, Mr. Larson.”
Both of my parents’ faces looked offended.
Jude somehow managed to work part time at a garage close to the campus to bring in a little extra cash. I didn’t know how he managed to work twenty hours a week on top of his classes and football schedule and still make time for us, but he did it. He said he was only able to do it because he didn’t sleep. I didn’t think that was much of an exaggeration.
“We couldn’t let you do that,” my mom said. “We invited you two here and we insist.”
Jude opened his mouth, which was as good as a wasted effort when it came to arguing with my mom, when dad waved his hand.
“We’ve got it, Jude,” he said. “It’s the least we could do.”
Jude’s face went flat—a little color even drained from it—before his hand clenched around mine. “The least you could do because you ruined my family?”
My head whipped to the side, my mouth opening. I’d known Jude was uneasy, but I never would have guessed he was this upset. I was wrong. I’d pushed this on him. Too much, too fast.
My dad’s shoulders sagged as he leaned back into his chair. “I meant the least we could do since you’ve taken such good care of our daughter.”
Neither Jude nor anyone else had a chance to reply because our waitress arrived, her eyes automatically targeting on Jude. “What can I get you all to drink this afternoon?” she asked. Well, she asked Jude.
No one replied; we were all still in a shocked silence from Jude’s mini explosion. So I broke the ice. “I’ll have a pomegranate tea.” I suppose I could have tacked on “please” for good measure, but the broad wouldn’t take her moon eyes off of Jude.
“I’ll have a water,” Jude said, staring at his menu.
“Oh, get something fun,” Mom said, trying to lighten the mood. “They’ve got a special hot cider for today or—”
Jude glanced up, his eyes landing on Mom. “I’ll have water,” he repeated, his jaw tightening.
Shooting Mom a leave it be look, I glanced back at the waitress. She was still fixated on Jude. “You know what? I’ll have a water too.”
Jude looked over at me, the muscles of his neck straining, and I grinned at him. He looked as distressed and ready to go crazy as a caged gorilla. I never would have guessed one Thanksgiving brunch with my parents would be as potentially dangerous as it was becoming.
I should have known better.
“Make that four waters,” Dad said, dropping his menu.
“Do you all know what you’re going to order?” the waitress asked.
“We’ll have four of the five course Thanksgiving day meals,” dad said, collecting up our menus.
“I’m good,” Jude said, shaking his head. “Thanks, though.”
“Jude,” I started, before he leveled me with a look that cut off my sentence.
“I’m not hungry, Luce,” he said. “I’m good.”
We’d gone from bad to worse in ten seconds. Things were not looking good for the rest of the afternoon if we continued at this rate.
“Son—” Dad started, nothing but concern in his voice, before Jude’s head whipped around to glare at him.
“I’m not your son,” Jude said, his jaw clenching. “The man whose son I am is in jail for killing your son. So don’t pretend we have some sort of relationship that entitles you to refer to me as ‘son.’” Bursting up in his seat, Jude shoved his chair back and marched away from the table.
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