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“Love is what brings you together, Lucy. But it’s the blood, sweat, and tears of hard work that keeps you together,” she began, choosing her words carefully. “Love isn’t only love, sweetheart. It’s hard work, and trust, and tears, with even a few glimpses of devastation. But at the end of each day, if you can still look at the person at your side and can’t imagine anyone else you’d rather have there, the pain and heartache and the ups and downs of love are worth it.”

And the clouds of confusion started to part.

“Love is just as much suffering as it is sweetness. If it was perfect, that’s what they’d call it. They wouldn’t call it bittersweet.”

“Are you saying every relationship experiences the same kinds of highs and lows Jude and I do?” I asked, taking another sip of coffee. “Because I think more people would choose to be alone if that was the case.”

“Lucy, you’re a passionate, emotional person. Jude isn’t so much different. What do you expect to be the result when you two come together? You two don’t multiply the peaks and the valleys together; you exponentially affect them,” she said, getting up and grabbing the coffee pot from the holder.

“And there’s no doubt for some people, life would be far easier if they never fell in love. To never have to ache for a man like he was more essential than the air that kept you alive.” She filled my cup, then hers, before settling the pot between us. Gauging my mom’s loveathon lecture here, we’d drain it soon. “Life would be smoother and you’d know more what to expect from day to day if you kept love out of your life,” she paused, looking at the window as the first rays of dawn started shining through. “But you’d be alone.”

“So you’re saying I should choose Jude over the life of hermit-like solitude?” I asked, lifting my brows at her.

“I’m saying you should choose Jude if, at the end of the day, when the world is against you, you can say with absolute certainty that you want Jude at your side. Can you say the good times are worth the bad times?”

My body and mind were becoming more alert as the caffeine pulsed through my veins and my mind started making itself up after weeks of worry and uncertainty.

It was about time.

“When did you become Jude’s number one fan?” I asked, smiling over at her. Mom had gone from loathing Jude when we first met, to disliking him through the entirety of my senior year, to tolerating him since we’d been together in college. I hadn’t realized she’d crossed into the land of Jude approval.

“When he proved again and again that he’s yours,” she answered simply. “I can forgive a man’s past faults, his present shortcomings, and his future failures if every minute of every day he loves me like it’s his religion,” she said, taking a breath. “Jude loves you like that. It just took me a while to see that, so he’s got the mom stamp of approval now.”

I didn’t reply, my mind was so hard at work. Not so much rethinking things, but realigning expectations and assumptions and even a bit of my worldview. I’d been so focused on the reasons Jude and I shouldn’t be together, I’d been blinded to the reasons we should. And now that I’d “seen the light,” those reasons were worth every bit of hardship that came our way.

“Working things out over there, sweetheart?” Mom said, startling me. I’d gone so far and long down the paths of my thoughts, everything had faded away.

I took a slow breath, feeling confidence bleed into my veins, drowning out all the doubt. “All worked out, I think,” I said, feeling the weight vest I’d been wearing for too long lifted. “Thanks, Mom. For the coffee, for listening, and for the ‘come to Jude’ talk.”

“You’re welcome, Lucy,” she said, arching a brow as she studied me. “But what in the hell are you still doing in that chair?”

My eyes squinted‌—‌was she advocating for what I guessed she was?

Waving her hand at the back door, she said, “Go get your man. Go be happy and miserable together.”

Yeah, she was.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Flying on New Year’s Day had its advantages. Next to no one else was, so I had no problem getting my return ticket changed to the very next flight that left in an hour. When I started blabbering out my whole story to the poor lady behind the ticket counter, she gave me a knowing smile and upgraded me to first class.

The security checkpoint went a hundred times smoother this time, and a coffee stand was positioned right next to my gate, so by the time they called my flight, I was really buzzing like a live wire.

First class was everything people talked about it being. The seats were twice as big and at least ten times as comfortable. The flight attendants were eager to meet your every request, as opposed to almost snarling when you asked for a sip of water if you were choking on something back in coach. Choking on one of those nasty stale pretzels they liked to peddle.

Here, we got little nut and cheese trays, along with our drinks served in crystal glassware. It was high rolling at thirty thousand feet, but even at that, with my every basic and not so basic need met, I couldn’t wait until we touched down. I don’t think my foot stopped tapping once the entire flight.

I was the first person off the plane when those doors opened, and I was in a full run by the time I hit the terminal. I didn’t slow as eyes started tracking after me. I was getting used to these kinds of moments of mass public scruntinization and embarrassment. And I could consider this a prelude for what was about to come.

However, the moment was going to miss me if I didn’t haul ass to the airport curb and the taxi driver didn’t haul cab to Syracuse, because kickoff was in less than an hour. I didn’t have any bags to retrieve from the baggage carousel, so I stormed by them and almost slammed into a cab before I could slow myself. Climbing inside, I caught my breath.

“The Carrier Dome, please,” I said, breathing like I was trying to take off. “And if it wasn’t a matter of love and life, I wouldn’t be begging you right now to break every traffic rule to get there as fast as we can in one piece. Preferably in one piece,” I added.

The cab driver glanced back at me over his shoulder. His face was a familiar one. “Why are you in such a hurry to get everywhere you go?” he asked, slipping his sunglasses over his eyes. “Haven’t you ever been told to enjoy the journey?”

“I’ll enjoy the journey once I get there,” I answered, thanking my lucky stars I’d crashed into this cab. This guy had driven me here on my first trip in record time; it was fitting he drove me again now.

He smirked back at me, pulling away from the curb. “What’s the damn rush?”

I smirked right back. “I’ve got to apologize to, plead with, and make sweet love to the man I love,” I answered, buckling in. “Now make this yellow hunk of junk move!”

He rested his head back and laughed. “Lucky for you I like bossy women,” he said, unleashing that yellow hunk of junk loose on the road.

This time, as the cars and scenery blurred by me, I feared for my life. I guess finally deciding on the life you wanted to live made it more valuable.

But as we broke to a stop at the curb outside the ticket windows, we weren’t only still in one piece, we’d just broken every cab speed world record. I was tempted to ask the driver if he was an ex-Nascar driver, but I had somewhere to be and only minutes to spare.

Shoving some money into his hand, I slid out of the door. “You are a god among cabbies, my friend,” I said.

He chuckled like it was cute of me to acknowledge what he’d already known.

“Good luck,” he said before I slammed the door shut.

I knew this would be the last chance for one good deep breath, so I took it, holding it inside, sucking all the courage and kismet I could from it before letting it go. Turning around, I rushed towards the gates where my favorite ticket master waited behind the window.

“Miss Lucy!” he said, his face lighting up. “I wasn’t sure you’d make it. Cutting it a little close aren’t you, kiddo?” he said, checking the clock over his shoulder.

“How you feeling today, Lou?” I asked, knowing my plan was going to fall flat on its face without his help.

“Old, arthritic,” he began, eyeing me, “and spry and ornery as the day I was born.”

I exhaled my relief. “Good,” I said. “I need a favor.”

Lou’s face flattened in surprise before, looking from side to side at the other employees around him, he leaned across the counter, his eyes gleaming. “I hope it’s a good one.”

My hands were sweating. Not clammy, not damp. Sweaty.

They weren’t the only things. Every part of my body seemed to have grown excessive sweat glands that were dripping liquid like I was going through some purification ritual in a steam hut.

Not to be excluded, my heart was about to burst out of my chest and my knees were strongly considering checking themselves out of the game. If my mind wasn’t so made up, so firm in its endeavor, my body would give out beneath me.

“You won’t have long, Miss Lucy,” Lou whispered over to me, handing me a cordless microphone.

“I won’t need long,” I answered, my foot tapping making its reappearance when I peered into the stands. Where the airports were next to empty on New Year’s Day, the bleachers at college football stadiums were packed to capacity. And I was about to go out in front of all that.

Shit, was the only response my mind had for me. Hopefully it would be more articulate when I wandered out onto that field and put that mike up to my mouth.

“Do you know how to work one of these things?” he asked, eyeing the mike in my hands. It was slippery from my sweaty hands, so now, in addition to not tripping, not passing out, and not saying anything stupid, I had to add “don’t let the mic slide out my hands” to the punch card.

“Slide to on,” I recited, my voice shaking too. “Hold to mouth. Try not to sound like a blubbering idiot.”

Lou smiled that warm one of his that settled deep into the lines of his face.

“I happen to be partial to blubbering idiots,” he said, resting his hand on my shoulder. “My wife was one, and I swear, that’s what won me over. She had to say everything that was on her mind without putting it through a filter.” Those brown eyes of his took on a faint sheen. “Five years later, after she passed, that’s what I lie in bed missing the most.”

Wrapping my arms around him, I gave Lou a shaky, sweaty hug which he seemed to melt into. When I pulled away, he wiped at his eyes.

“Mr. Jude’s a very lucky man,” he said, backing away.

I smiled after him. “I didn’t exactly draw the short stick.”

“No, hun, you sure didn’t,” he said, nodding his head towards the field. “Go get him.”

“Okay,” I said, feeling like I was about to vomit.

“When you’re ready, just give your head a nod and I’ll make sure that mic streams all the way to the parking lot.”

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