I flashed him a thumbs up because my nerves were clenching at my throat.
Peering into the stands, another wave of nausea rolled over me. The teams hadn’t taken the field yet, but were about to. Lou had assured me whether Jude was in the locker room, or in the tunnel, or on the field, there would be no way in hell he couldn’t hear my voice coming through the speakers.
Along with fifty thousand others.
Vulnerability was hard enough without a crap load of impartial strangers witnessing it. But this was what I had to do. Jude had put himself out there so many times before, not caring what others thought about him and the way he felt about me; it was my turn. I was the one who had much to atone for.
And atonement was one short walk to the fifty yard line.
Closing my eyes, I visualized Jude’s face. His many faces. The one that burst into laughter when I tried to be tough, the one that had smoothed into a smile when I’d told him I loved him, the one that had broken when I’d walked away too many damn times. And finally, the one of acceptance I hoped I’d find waiting for me when I said what needed to be said.
With renewed resolve, I opened my eyes and took my first step onto the field. I held my breath, hoping no one would tackle me or Taser me when they noticed I didn’t have a badge swinging from my neck, but no one seemed to pay much attention to the girl wandering to the fifty with a mic in her hand.
My hands were shaking by the twenty, and the rest of me by the thirty, but as I took my final steps to the fifty, everything calmed. I’d jumped—that was the hard part—now all I had to do was enjoy the free fall.
Holding the mic up, I scanned the crowd. People were starting to shift their attention my way. I pretended they were checking out the water boys on the sidelines. Glancing towards the dark tunnel, I gave a nod of my head.
The mic buzzed to life. I flinched in surprise. It was the first time I’d held one of these things and hadn’t anticipated that. Dancing didn’t require microphones.
“Hello?” I said, cementing my spot for the idiot of the year award. Was I expecting someone to greet me back? My voice blazed around the stadium.
Now I’d gotten every one’s attention. Including the tall, broad guys with black tees that read “SECURITY” across their backs.
Lou was right. I’d have to be fast.
“My name’s Lucy,” I began, my voice breaking. I cleared it.
Just pretend you’re talking to no one else but Jude.
“And once upon a time I fell in love with this guy.” The stadium went silent as everyone took their seats to the Lucy Larson Gut Spilling Show. “He wasn’t exactly a fairy tale prince. But I’m no fairy tale princess.” I paused, reminding myself to breathe. This would all be for nothing if I passed out from oxygen deprivation. “He didn’t ride in on a white horse or say all the right things at just the right time. But he was my prince. He would have been the kind I wrote about if I’d written all those fairy tales.”
I noticed a couple of security guards reach for their walkie talkies, mumbling something into them with stern faces. Hurry, Lucy.
“That man made me feel things I never imagined could be felt. He made me want things I wasn’t sure I could have. He made me need things I didn’t know existed.”
My voice was getting stronger as the words started spilling from me. Everything I’d needed to say for so long was finally having its day.
“He made me happy. He made me crazy. He made me thank the heavens for the day I’d met him. He made me curse the same heavens for the day I’d met him.” I smiled, a slew of memories flashing through my mind.
“I screwed up. He screwed up. I was sure I couldn’t live without him. I was just as sure he’d be the death of me. I was confused.” Straddling the fifty, I completed one revolution, waiting for number seventeen to be running across the field at me. No smiling faces were coming for me yet.
I had more to make up for. I only hoped it would be enough.
“We rode this roller coaster. Up, down, and around and around, and just as soon as I was sure it was coming to a stop and we could get off of it once and for all, we repeated the same ride all over again. I didn’t think I wanted to be a passenger on that ride anymore, so I got off, leaving him to ride it alone.”
A couple of guards nodded into their walkies before pocketing them and coming onto the field for me. I did another survey of the field.
Where was he?
“Then we shared one amazing night in a hospital room and I knew everything would be all right. And then doubt crept back into my mind and I knew nothing would be all right. So I left him. I hurt him.” A single phantom tear I hadn’t known was there skied down my cheek.
Ignoring the guards making their way towards me, I looked into the stands. Beyond what I’d expected, more faces were formed into sympathy than judgment.
It turns out, I wasn’t the only one who screwed love up.
“But then this morning, over a sleepless night and a pot of coffee, someone knocked some sense into me. Thanks, mom,” I said, waving at the camera that was tracking me. “I realized I’d never really gotten off that roller coaster, we were just riding in different cars. My life is a roller coaster whether or not I am sitting next to this boy, and I’d rather share this crazy journey through life with him at my side.”
Sucking in a deep breath, I busted into the finale because I had maybe ten seconds before I would be escorted off the field. Hopefully not in cuffs.
“I’m done leaving. I’m done questioning if we can do this thing, Jude.”
Cheering rose up in the stands as fans began to realize their star quarterback was who this screw-loose girl was talking about.
“I’m done pretending I’ll ever love someone else as much as I do you. I know it took me a while, but I know it now. I was made to love you. I was made to share my life with you. I’m rewriting the fairy tale so you and I get to ride off together.” I paused again to get a breath, scanning the field.
He wasn’t coming. Even if he’d been tucked away into the very back of the stadium, he could have made it to me by now if he wanted to. Nothing stopped Jude from what he wanted. The possibility that I wasn’t what he wanted any more broke me.
I fought through the fear. I was done living in a state of it.
“I love you, Jude Ryder. I’m done letting that scare me. I’m not going anywhere.”
One of the security guards stopped in front of me, clearing his throat. “Yes, ma’am. I’m afraid you are.”
This was so not how I’d envisioned this all going. I gave life—smirking its all-knowing face at me—the finger.
“I’ll take that,” he said, grabbing the mic out of my hands. “After you,” he said, which was every shade of a demand, motioning me off the field.
The other guard shouldered up next to me, waiting for me as well. At least neither one was swinging a pair of cuffs in front of me. Taking one more look around the field, I felt my already battered heart break one final time.
It was done—it couldn’t break any more than it just had. If Jude didn’t want it, I didn’t need it any ways.
Making myself hold my head high, I followed behind one of the guards, the other one keeping stride beside me as I left the field. The stadium was silent again as I felt the eyes of every person watching me being escorted from the field where I’d just bared my soul.
Where I’d left it there to die.
My future was flashing through my mind as we crossed into the dark tunnel, looking bleak and empty. My future, Judeless, wasn’t one I looked forward to waking up to every day.
I was midway through the tunnel, at the point where it is darkest, when something buzzed to life in the stadium. It startled me just as much as it had the first time. The two guards froze right along with me, but their mouths didn’t curve into smiles like mine did.
“Lucy Larson?” That voice I couldn’t possibly love any more without being declared mentally unstable rose through the stadium. “Could you come back out here? I need to ask you something.”
The guards groaned. I almost squeed I was so giddy, and Lucy Larson didn’t normally do giddy.
“Ready to make this a round trip, boys?” I said, already heading back down that tunnel whether they felt the need to escort me or not.
Their footsteps indicated they were following behind me. I wasn’t slowing to wait for them. Hurrying out of the tunnel, the light of the stadium blinded me for a moment, but then a flash of orange and white decorating the fifty yard line cleared my vision. Jude straddled that line, his helmet at his feet, and his eyes nowhere else but on me.
His face gave nothing away, but I didn’t care if he was out there to chastise me in front of everyone or if he was planning on making sweet love to me right there on the field. I wasn’t turning my back on him again.
I told myself to walk, to put one foot in front of the other, but I couldn’t. All I was capable of was running. And fifty yards had never felt so far away and never had I wanted anything as much as what I wanted at the end of those fifty yards.
The crowd wasn’t silent any more. People were starting to cheer; the wave even started to ripple through the stands. But the only thing I really noticed was the man watching me, keeping some emotion that was so intense I could feel it coming off of him in waves contained beneath the surface.
Slowing to a jog, I stopped before throwing myself into his arms. This had to be one of the few times I’d approached Jude and his arms hadn’t been open.
“That was one hell of a speech, Luce,” he said, his face finally breaking into a smirk. Almost identical to the one he’d given me that day on the beach when he’d crashed into me.
“I was wondering how far you’d let me get,” I said, feeding him back his line that day on the beach.
When I’d fallen for a broken boy that had managed to fix me somewhere along the way.
“How far do you think you had until you hit the edge of the world?” he replied, his smirk deepening.
“I’d say I fell over it a ways ago,” I answered, knowing I’d fallen so long ago I couldn’t remember when my feet had been planted on solid ground.
Jude stepped closer to me, resting one hand on my hip. “Then it’s a damn good thing you grabbed on to that rope I told you we’d need when the ground fell out.”
I smiled as his expression softened.
“Damn good thing, indeed,” I said, feeling the warmth from his hand melt away whatever confusion or uncertainty or doubt was left. “Didn’t you say you had something to ask me?” I arched a brow, scanning the crowd and the cameras aimed at us. “Because I’d say we’ve got five more seconds before they send for the SWAT team.”
Jude blew out a breath, that foreign flash in his eyes looking… nervous?
“I wasn’t planning on doing it this way,” he said, one side of his mouth curling up, “but I suppose that’s par for our course, Luce.”
“Did that concussion knock something loose?” I teased, amused at this bout of discomfort rolling off of him.
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