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“Do I look like a mummy yet?” I asked a while later, when he leaned back and investigated my face after slipping another bandage into place.

“Nah,” he said, capping the tube of first aid ointment. “You look like the most beautiful badass I’ve ever seen.”

“High praise coming from the king of badass,” I said, smiling through the pain it caused to move my mouth.

Collecting up the empty wrappers and blood stained cotton pads, he dumped them into the garbage can. “Mind telling me what that was all about?”

“I told you,” I said. “Giving Adriana Vix a piece of Adriana Vix.”

“Yeah,” he said, dragging out the word. “But you’ve wanted to stick it to Adriana since the night dumbass Tony mentioned her. Why did you choose to do it tonight?” Shaking a bottle of pain relievers into his palm, he handed me three. I swallowed them down without any fluid.

“Because ‘dumbass Tony’ paid me a little visit earlier today that triggered the need-to-throw-down-Adriana trap.”

Jude studied my hands folded on my lap. “He told you what Payton told him?”

“Yeah.”

“So was it me or Tony who convinced you I was telling the truth?” The wrinkles around his eyes deepened.

“You, Jude,” I answered. “I promised you I’d trust you. I didn’t want to believe it, but I trusted you. Tony was just the one that shined a light on the truth.”

His jaw tightened. “So when you got in your car and drove here, were you coming to see Adriana? Or me?”

I couldn’t lie to him, but I couldn’t verbalize the truth. My lack of response answered his question.

His eyes closed as his head fell into his hands.

“Jude,” I began, “no matter whom I came here to see, I didn’t come here to hurt you.” Sliding down the bed, I wished the pain relievers would kick in faster. “The last thing I want to do is hurt you. And that’s all I seem to be capable of lately.”

The only solution to keep from hurting him anymore was to leave.

“Thanks for the patching up,” I said, scooting off the end of the bed. “You really do know what you’re doing when it comes to fight wounds. Lucky me.” I flashed him a smile over my shoulder as I stood up. I staggered in place as every muscle screamed at me for the prostrated position. Gritting my teeth, I headed towards the door.

“Do you really hate being around me so much now that you’d high tail it away from me when you can barely stand?”

His words stopped me, but it was his voice that broke me. That deep, warm voice a girl could lose herself in had just been drained of all its soul.

“I don’t hate you, Jude,” I said, staring at the door. “I love you. That’s the problem. I love you so damn much it’s unhealthy.” I caught a sob that was about to burst from my chest. “That’s why I needed time and space. That’s why I can’t stay here with you a minute longer.”

“You’ve had time, Luce. I’ve given you your space,” he said, the bed moaning as he stood. “I’ve aged fifty years in three weeks’ time because I did my part and stayed away from you. But now you’re here. And maybe you’re not here because of me, but either way, you couldn’t stay away.”

He paused, and while I didn’t see what was playing out on his face because I couldn’t turn around and face him, I could imagine.

“You need more time? Fine. I can do that. I could do anything for you, Luce. But, please, for god’s sake, just give me some hope.”

A tear skied down my cheek, bleeding into one of my bandages.

“Give me the smallest sliver of hope there’s still going to be a place for you and me on the other side of this.”

I couldn’t lie to him. I couldn’t hurt him. Why these two desires couldn’t fit hand-in-hand was one of the reasons I’d concluded life wasn’t fair.

“I won’t lie to you, Jude,” I whispered, choosing not to lie to him which, by admission, made me hurt him.

Now I really couldn’t stay in this room any longer. Rushing towards the door, my legs feeling like they were going to cave under me with each step, I bit back the tears.

“Don’t go,” he whispered.

His request worked on me like it’d been a demand.

I heard the floor groan as he walked over it, slowly coming up behind me.

“Stay,” he asked, stopping behind me. I could feel the warmth rolling from his chest he was so close.

“I can’t,” I said, focusing on the shiny brass of the doorknob. It was both the gateway to my escape as well the path to my personal hell.

“I know,” he said, the floorboards whining as he took one more step towards me. His chest ran against my back, but he didn’t touch me anywhere else. “Don’t stay because you want to. Stay because I want you to.”

Damn it. My heart couldn’t break one more time before it became impossible to fit back together.

“Come on,” he pleaded, his heart bursting into my back, “think of it as an early Christmas present.”

I closed my eyes.

“I know I’m not entitled to one, but I want one. I need one.” Jude had just enough pride not to beg, but it was the closest I’d heard him to it. “Stay.”

And that was my undoing. The boy who made mothers cross the streets with their children when they saw him walking down the sidewalk; the boy who didn’t have any one else; the boy I loved, begging me as he only knew how to stay with him.

“Okay,” I said, reaching my hand behind for his.

His fingers laced through mine, kneading them like they were capable of giving him strength. Turning me around, he lifted his hand to my face and didn’t do anything but look into my eyes.

Letting out the breath he’d been holding captive, he folded me into his arms and Jude Ryder hugged me. He hugged me like I was everything he wanted and everything he could never have. He hugged me without the expectation of one embrace leading to something else.

It was the most intimate moment we’d shared. Fully clothed, vertically aligned, mouths separated, and I was drowning in intimacy.

As his arms started to unwind from me, I grabbed one of his hands and led him to the bed. Laying down, I patted the space next to me. He crawled into it, the mattress rolling me around as he settled beside me. Winding my arms around him, I tucked my chin over his head, knowing in the morning, I’d have to let him go. But not now. Not tonight.

It made me wish that tomorrow would never come.

“I love you, Luce,” he whispered, sounding like sleep was going to find him in the next breath.

I swallowed, pushing down the pain rising in my throat. “I love you, Jude.”

I hadn’t slept this well in weeks. Three weeks to be exact. Of course I knew what, or who, was responsible for the solid eight hours of sleep. Jude was still asleep in the exact same position as he had fallen asleep in last night, except the lines had smoothed out of his face.

I almost kissed those parted lips before I caught myself.

Sliding my arm from beneath him, I rolled to the side of the bed. My body was stiff, like I needed to lubricate my joints to get them to move properly. Glancing over at Jude to make sure he hadn’t startled awake, I slipped my boots on and stood up.

This feat hurt worse than it had last night, making me hope I still had that trial sized bottle of pain relievers in the glove box. Giving myself to the count of three, I let myself look down at him. This was how I would choose to remember him when my heart ached with every beat after I left him. At peace, content as I slipped out of his life.

Turning away, I moved across the room as quietly as a stiff jointed person could. The door whined open and my adrenaline spiked as I looked back at Jude, sure he’d be bursting awake.

But he was asleep, enjoying a few more minutes or hours of peace before he woke up and found I’d slipped out on him without a goodbye, but maybe that’s what last night had been. A goodbye.

Our goodbye.

Once I was down the hall, the stairs presented a challenge as each one made me feel like the muscles in my legs were going to burst through the skin. A few party stragglers were decorating the couches and carpet, but once I made it past them, I was home free.

The Mazda hadn’t been towed, beyond every miracle of traffic cops everywhere, so sliding inside the driver’s seat, I turned the key over and hit the gas the next instant. Now that I’d succumbed to the inevitable, I couldn’t get out of here fast enough.

It was a couple miles down the road, when I hit the first red stop light, that a folded piece of paper resting on my dash caught my attention. I kept my car clean, almost anally clean, so I knew it couldn’t have been some random outline or class notes. Grabbing it, I unfolded it, immediately recognizing the handwriting.

I just wanted you to know I’d be chasing after you right now, nak*d if need required it. But because I’m respecting your need for time and space, I’ll force myself to lie here in bed and pretend I’m asleep.

It wasn’t signed, but it didn’t need one. Knowing Jude had some time in the night woken up, knowing I’d leave him without a formal goodbye, to scribble down a note and tuck it inside my car, made me curse the day I’d let doubt enter my life. The moment, somewhere along the way, I’d let doubt wedge its way between me and Jude until it had built a wall so high there was no way I could see to scale it.

I clutched the note in my hand the entire drive home.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

School was officially out for winter break. India had left yesterday for a sunny and sandy Christmas in Barbados, along with the rest of the dorm residents, and since my flight wasn’t until Sunday morning, I was going to have a quiet weekend all to myself. The prospect wasn’t appealing on any level of the pleasure scale.

Other than the note, I hadn’t had any contact with Jude since fleeing in my car last Saturday morning. And even though I’d cried in my bed every night since, feeling his phantom arms around me, it had been worth eight hours Saturday night. The pleasure then was worth the pain now.

Sitting in the swivel chair, watching the coffee pot percolate, I knew I couldn’t hang out in this empty room for another twenty-four hours like this. Rushing to my closet before I could change my mind, I slid into a pair of leggings, my boots, and debated what top to wear. The debate was over when my hand clutched the ginormous orange sweatshirt folded on the top shelf. I pulled it on and, after rearranging my hair and dabbing on a few smears of makeup, I was out of the door, my keys and purse in hand.

I headed north out of the parking lot, checking the fuel indicator to make sure I had a full tank. It was going to be a long drive.

Today was a big playoff game for Syracuse. A day before Christmas Eve game that was expected to be the game of the season. I couldn’t miss it. I’d missed Jude’s last couple home games and I couldn’t miss another.

We might have been taking a break, but I could still fade into the crowd of tens of thousands and enjoy him playing the game that seemed created for him. It was a selfish thing what I was doing, but given I was alone a day before Christmas, selfish seemed more acceptable today.

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