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“No, I still see everything as clearly as I did before,” he answered, tugging on a chain around his neck. “And it’s about time you saw it too.”

Throwing the microphone to the side, he stepped back. The crowd exploded into an equal chorus of cheers and boos.

Then, taking a deep breath, Jude lowered down to the field. On one knee.

Damn. My knees were about to join his.

Sliding the chain over his head, a ring dangled from the end of it.

“I know I’m one royal screw up, and god knows there’s nothing I could ever do to deserve you,” he began, taking my hand in his after sliding the ring free from the chain. I couldn’t fill my lungs, I couldn’t feel my legs below me, but I could feel his hand around mine. And he kept me grounded.

“But I want you, Lucy Larson. Bad. I want you forever. The kind of bad I have for you isn’t the kind that goes away.” His forehead lined, his eyes washing silver. “Ease my suffering. Make me the happiest, most tortured man in the world. Marry me?”

If this was hanging from a rope after the ground had fallen from beneath you, I’d become the best damn rope climber in the history of ropes.

Jude Ryder. The man I loved. The man I couldn’t live without. My husband.

Yeah, that worked.

“Why the hell not,” I answered, never feeling more sure about anything.

His face smoothed with relief. And pure, unbridled, joy.

“Was that a yes?” he asked, already sliding the ring onto my finger. I hadn’t looked at the ring once. I could feel it there, the metal band cool on my skin, but I didn’t need to see it to feel its promise. It could have been a hundred carets; it could have come from a quarter machine. I didn’t care. Because I had Jude. Forever.

“No,” I answered him, tugging on his hand, prying him up. “That was a what took you so long, Ryder. Now get up here and kiss me.” I winked down at him, grinning at me like a fool.

Popping up, his arms grabbed me, folding me tightly against him. “Yes, ma’am.”

Wrapping my legs around him, he lifted me higher, weaving his fingers through my hair. “The name’s Jude Ryder since you’re going to be my wife someday soon. And I didn’t used to do girlfriends, flowers, or dates. And then I met you, and that didn’t work for you. So I changed for you. And you changed for me too,” he said, taking me back in time and keeping me right here in the present, and, looking into his eyes and feeling my lips on his, I felt the future too. It was surreal. The real kind that few people rarely experienced. And here I was, living it. Lifting his lips from mine, he ran his knuckles down my face. “And we worked out something special.”

EPILOGUE

“Does this look straight?”

Looking up from the floor where I was folding clothes fresh from the dryer, I studied the picture Jude was balancing on a step stool trying to hang above the fireplace. Above our fireplace.

Sure, it was rented and sat inside a studio sized apartment that was as nice as one would expect an eight hundred dollar a month apartment in New York to be. But it was ours, the place we got to be together in. So it was pretty great.

We’d gotten the keys a couple of days ago and were trying to settle in between classes and football and work, but I knew no matter how long the boxes went unpacked, I’d feel settled as long as Jude was with me.

“No,” I said, shifting onto my knees. “It’s crooked.”

“Damn it,” he muttered, pulling the picture off the hook. “I can’t get this thing right. I’m starting to think the walls are crooked.”

“I’m sure that’s it, babe,” I said, folding another pair of his boxers. “I’m sure it has nothing to do with your lack of experience hanging pictures.”

“If it wasn’t a physical impossibility, I’d come over there and show you what your punishment is for teasing me,” he said, propping the picture against the fireplace, flashing me a wicked grin.

Grabbing a pair of my own underwear from the pile, I sling-shot them at him.

“I wouldn’t exactly call four times in a twenty-four hour period a ‘physical impossibility.’”

He snatched my underwear out of the air before they bulls-eyed his face. “Was that a challenge, Luce?”

“That was whatever you wanted to it be,” I said as he started my way.

“After you get that picture hung properly, that is,” I added, stopping him in his tracks.

“Why can’t I just prop the thing up on the mantle?” he asked, his face doing that tortured thing when he was either pouting, lonely, or hav**g s*x delayed. Lifting the picture of the two of us we’d had taken as an engagement picture, right on the beach where we first met, he rested it on the mantle, propping it against the wall behind it. “See? Problem solved.”

“Problem not solved,” I said, standing up and crossing the room towards him. The studio was small enough it only took me about five steps to cross it. “Look at this thing.” I plucked at the crumbling brick mantle. An avalanche of mortar and dust cascaded to the floor. “It could fall apart any day, and our picture along with it.”

The skin between his brows creased. “Man, this sucks. The ground even wants to fall out beneath our picture. That’s just not fair.”

I shoved him and he laughed in amusement. “Since you’re having so much fun with this, then do it right. Our picture needs to hang from its rope too just in case the ground falls out beneath it.”

“I believe, Luce,” he replied, twisting the picture around, “that this is referred to as a wire. Not a rope.”

I groaned as he handed me the picture and climbed the step stool again, hammer in hand. “Could you be any more infuriating?”

I knew from experience he could.

“For you, Luce,” he said, looking down at me as he repositioned the hook and nail. “I could be whatever you wanted me to be.”

“How about quiet and focused until you get that thing right?”

He winked down at me, sealing his lips as he pounded the nail into its new location.

“You know, this whole apartment idea was the most brilliant, foolish thing you’ve done to date,” I said, investigating the room that, to pay for it every month, meant Jude would have to pick up extra hours at the garage. All so we could spend weekends together. No more sharing a room with India or his housemates. This was a place all our own.

He made a face down at me, moving his mouth in silence.

“What?”

“I’m supposed to be quiet and focused right now,” he whispered down at me.

I blew out a sigh of exasperation. “How about just focused then?” I said. “Since asking you to be quiet is like some rare form of torture for you.”

“Focused,” he said, bouncing his brows at me. “I can do focused, Luce.”

“Does your mind ever drift from sex?” I swatted his backside.

“Rarely.”

“More like never,” I muttered.

He grinned his agreement. “So why is the apartment my most brilliant idea ever?”

“Well, Mr. Selective Hearing, it’s your most brilliant because we’ve got our own place, some place where we don’t have to tiptoe around other people. Some place we can grow into.”

Motioning that he was ready, I handed him the picture.

“It’s your most foolish idea because you’re paying eight hundred dollars a month for two days a week; it’s a two hour drive from my school and a three hour drive from your place. And let’s not forget we’re a couple of eighteen-year-old college freshman that have moved in together and are engaged.”

He looked at me like he always did when I was talking all crazy. “I’m not sure how to respond to that, so how about I just offer a ‘you’re welcome’?” Hanging the picture on the hook again, he adjusted it, craning his neck from side to side inspecting it.

The damn thing was still crooked.

“Thank you,” I said, as he adjusted it again, only making it worse.

“Thank you for what?” he said, his fists balling like he wanted to drive them through the wall in frustration. “Thank you as in a prelude to my ‘you’re welcome,’ or thank you for the most brilliant, foolish thing I’ve ever done?” He adjusted it to the other side and, in the midst of straightening it, the hook fell right out of the wall in a cloud of drywall dust.

“Damn it!” he hollered, punching the wall.

I checked the picture where it’d fallen on the mantle. The glass hadn’t broken. It had survived the fall and its impact.

“Thank you for everything,” I said, grabbing his hand.

His fist released instantly, relaxing in my hold. His fingers wove through mine, playing with the gold band circling my ring finger. We hadn’t set a date yet, we were only eighteen after all, but we were crazy in love. So maybe we’d wait until we were done with school and do the whole shebang wedding, and maybe we’d wake up tomorrow and couldn’t wait to be tied together one final way and run to the closest courthouse to demand a shot gun wedding.

It didn’t matter to me either way. I didn’t have any doubts any more. Confusion didn’t muddy my mind from the truth. But I was glad I’d gone through it all. I had to walk through the fire to see what was on the other side. I had to get burned to know if it was worth it. I had to not only ask myself, but live my life without Jude in it to realize just how much he belonged in it.

“You’re welcome,” he said, the lines on his face fading away. “Again.”

“Third time’s a charm?” I said, retrieving the hook where it had fallen on the floor.

He glared at the hardware, snatching it out of my hands and repositioning it on the wall.

“Let’s get this thing hung,” I said, as he pounded the nail and hook into a new patch of drywall. “We’ve both got an early morning and a long drive, so we need to get to bed.”

In this space of mostly taped up boxes and a few opened ones, the bed had been the priority. The sheets hadn’t even made it on after Jude dragged the mattress up a few flights of stairs before we’d christened the studio.

“So help me god,” Jude muttered at the wall. “If you don’t cooperate, I’m tearing you down.”

I smiled, handing him the picture. Nothing like a little “incentive” to get a man focused.

Holding his breath, he settled the wire into the hook and let it hang. Stepping down from the step stool, he grabbed my hand and led me across the room.

Five steps later, he spun us around so we could take in the full effect of the picture. It was still crooked. But less so than the first and second attempts. Maybe he was right‌—‌maybe the walls surrounding it were the things that were all askew.

Wrapping his arm around me, he pulled me close. “Perfect,” he said, kissing my head.

I glanced up at him, then back at the picture. “Close enough,” I said, tucking closer to him. “Close enough for me.”

THE END

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