Page 25

A six year old had more life wisdom, it appeared, than I did. The concept was more depressing than it should be.

“You know that, huh, smartie-pants?” I said.

“I know a lot.”

“And as a kindergartener who’s probably dated a total of zero girls,” I said, arching a brow at him, “what exactly do you know about love?”

He did that little unamused face my mom had become a master of back in the day. “Mom told me that love is like a seed. You’ve got to plant it to grow. But that’s not all. You need to water it. The sun needs to shine just enough, but not too much. The roots have to take hold,” he continued, narrowing his eyes in concentration. “And from there, if it pops its head above the surface, there are about a million things that could kill it, so it takes a whole lot of luck too.”

I felt my mouth ready to drop open. I was about to mutter a curse when I caught myself. This kid was wise beyond his years.

“You can’t plant a seed and hope it will grow on its own. It takes a lotta work to make anything grow.” He smiled up at me, clearly pleased with himself.

“Wow,” I replied, stunned. “That’s some seriously smart stuff, Danny.”

“I know,” he said. “Do you have any questions?”

I was smirking at a six year old. Not one of my better moments. “I think I’m good, but I’ll let you know.”

He turned around in his seat and I was halfway through a sigh of relief when he looked over his shoulder.

“You shouldn’t have gotten into a fight with Jude,” he said, his eyebrows drawn together. “You could really mess with his game. He might come back to the second half and be a mess. You might be solely responsible for losing the game if we do.”

“Jude will be fine,” I said, looking down on the quiet field. “He’s used to us fighting. It’s never stopped him before.”

His mouth made a duck face as he considered this. “That’s sad,” he responded, with the entire world of replies at his disposal. That’s the one he chose.

“It is sad,” I repeated as the stands started to explode with rising bodies and voices.

As Syracuse took the field after the half, Jude wasn’t leading them. I almost panicked, sure our fight had unraveled him and he took off, to never be heard from again, but then I caught a glimpse of number seventeen in the middle of the pack.

It wasn’t only me that noticed this either. Narrowed eyes of confusion turned my way, narrowing a hair tighter in accusation. They might as just well brand the word pariah over my forehead because it couldn’t have been any more uncomfortable than I felt now.

Kickoff was just getting under way when someone stopped at the end of my row, turned, and was so obviously staring at me I couldn’t even pretend I hadn’t noticed.

“Yes?” I said in irritation, glancing up at the frat boy grinning down at me. His frat, delta-delta-douche something, was scrolled onto his baseball cap. I couldn’t help rolling my eyes.

“This seat taken?” he asked, eyeing the empty seat Jude had occupied earlier. He’d sat in it for all of five minutes, but I was protective of it.

“Yeah,” I said, dropping my purse onto it, “it is.”

The crowd roared, cheering at whatever stellar play our kicking team had just pulled. Not only was he irritating me, smiling at me in a way that was just way too cheesy, asking to occupy Jude’s seat, he’d just made me miss the kick off.

Strike Four. You’re way the hell out.

“You better find another girl to sit next to.” Danny turned in his seat, giving the stink eye to this guy that was three times as big as him. “This one is Jude Ryder’s future wife.”

“Hold up,” the guy said, chuckling at Danny. “You’re the QB’s girl?”

Jude was just taking the field with his line when I saw him look my way. He was so far off it shouldn’t have been possible, but I swore his eyes flashed black when he saw the guy lurking above me.

“Why don’t you ‘hold up’ yourself and go back to the rest of your clan of future middle managers?” I said, scramming him away with my hand.

Snapping his fingers, the guy pulled out his phone and began thumbing through pages. I wasn’t sure exactly what he was looking for, but I had a pretty good idea.

Watching Jude as he lined up, his head tilted back my way again. Damn it‌—‌he needed to focus on the game and not me. I could handle myself.

Frat boy’s smile went Joker wide. “You are Ryder’s girl,” he said, flashing his phone at me. On the screen was a still of me straddling a crazed faced Adriana, my arm high and my hair a tornado of white-blond whispys.

“I don’t care if this seat is taken,” he said, grabbing my purse and throwing it into my lap. “I need to get a picture with the girl who was on the winning side of the most talked about cat fight in all college history.” Wrapping his arm around me, he hung his phone out in front of us, about to take a picture.

When were asshats like this going to figure out they couldn’t do whatever they wanted with a woman? We weren’t beasts they could control. We were women who could rule the world with our eyes closed, but were smart enough to know to stay out of that whole mess. We were women‌—‌hear us roar.

And I did just that as I snatched his phone out of his hand, shot up in my seat, and hurled it onto the field.

Jude had just called the hike as my own projectile spiraled onto the sidelines. Taking another look back when his eyes should have been nowhere but on the field, I saw him freeze when he saw what was taking place between me and super frat.

Time stood still then as Jude watched me and I watched him. Both of our faces lined with worry for the other. However, Jude’s worry was misplaced. Frat boy had selected a perfectly uncreative curse word to holler at me before marching away‌—‌back to his middle management hopefuls. But me, I had the right to an absolute gut dropping worry because, breaking through Jude’s defensive line, one of the visiting team’s lineman barreled right for the frozen in place quarterback.

I was already screaming his name when the line man drilled into Jude. Even after the initial impact, Jude’s eyes didn’t leave mine, but when his body crashed to the ground, bouncing and skidding a good ten yards, his eyes were long past the point of recognition as they fluttered closed.

“JUDE!” The scream was primal, coming out of some part of me I didn’t know existed. Popping out of my seat, I was running down the stairs before I knew I was running. My eyes were locked on him, decorating the astroturf in ways that a body shouldn’t contort.

I wasn’t thinking anything right then‌—‌I was all instinct. I didn’t doubt that if anyone stood in my path, I would have done anything to get by them. But no one did, and when I reached the concrete barrier separating the field from the stands, I swung my legs over it.

Twisting so my stomach curled the wall, I dropped down to the field. The breath popped out of my lungs from the impact. I’d underestimated the drop, but it didn’t slow me down.

Everyone was so focused on Jude and the trainers sprinting out there towards him, no one paid the crazed girl running across the field any attention. Pushing and shoving by the players forming a circle around him, I skidded to my knees beside him.

“Jude?” I said, trying to catch my breath.

The trio of trainers glanced up at me, eyes wide before narrowing. “You need to get the hell out of here, ma’am,” one of them said as another removed Jude’s helmet.

I sobbed one terrible note when I grabbed his hand and, for the first time ever, it fell limp into mine.

“I’m not leaving,” I replied, biting the side of my cheek.

“If you don’t leave of your own accord, we’ll have to have someone escort you,” the third said, holding a light above Jude’s eyes as he pried them open.

Another sob escaped before I caught it. Those gray eyes of his were flat, dead.

“I’m not leaving,” I said, folding Jude’s hand into both of mine, trying to infuse some warmth and life into it. “And I pity the person who tries to take me away from him.” My eyes flashed into each of the trainers’.

“Fine,” the one putting a brace around Jude’s neck replied. “But you get in our way and I’ll happily use the tranquilizer I keep in my case for emergency cases on you. You understand?”

“Okay,” I said, wanting to run my hands over every part of Jude until they uncovered what was the matter with him. Until they identified what needed to be fixed. It was a powerless feeling, not knowing what needed to be taken care of. How to go about fixing the worst kind of situation.

One of the trainer’s plucked his phone from his pocket. “We’ve got to call this one in, guys,” he said. The others nodded their agreement.

Biting the other side of my cheek, I stared at the spot on Jude’s neck where the faintest movement could be detected. I started holding my breath, waiting in torture for his pulse to lift that patch of skin again.

As long as he had a pulse, he was alive.

A couple more trainers ran onto the field, carrying a stretcher. The players moved away, hanging their heads as they wandered back to the sidelines. Nestling the stretcher beside Jude, the five trainers positioned themselves around him, sliding their hands into place.

I didn’t let go of his hand as they hoisted him onto the stretcher and I didn’t let go of his hand as they made their way off the field.

I wasn’t sure if the stadium had gone silent, or I was just incapable of hearing anything in my shock, but I didn’t hear a sound as we moved Jude off the field.

Only when we were through one of the team tunnels did I hear the blare of an ambulance siren. The paramedics were just swinging the back doors open when we emerged outside. One of the trainers told them what had happened and what injuries they thought he may have sustained. When the words concussion, coma, and paralyzed were voiced, I had to tune it out. I had to pretend reality wasn’t so real right now.

Transferring him into the ambulance, I followed behind the paramedic, taking a seat before I could be kicked out.

“Who are you?” he hollered over at me as the trainers stepped away as the doors slammed shut.

“I’m the only family he’s got,” I whispered, trying not to let the crowd watching us drive away, like we were a hearse on its way to a funeral, cripple me.

Rushing through an emergency room, while a person I loved was shuttled to the front of the line due to his injuries, was an episode I never wanted to replay in my life. Hurrying him into a room, I was ordered to stay outside in the waiting room.

Two security guards had to be called when I told a certain sour faced nurse to go, eh-hmm, herself. They took one look at me, crazed and worried out of my mind, and let me off with a warning.

Pacing the waiting room, I had to fight the urge at least a hundred times to shove past the security guard who’d clearly been instructed to keep an eye on me. My phone rang every minute as all of Jude’s acquaintances and friends wanted to know how he was doing.

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