Jason’s heart pounded as he held Emma’s hand and stepped onto The Lawn, which was lorded over by UVA’s famous rotunda. They’d just driven down from northern Virginia, where he and Todd had talked business with Kurt Steele the day before and introduced Emma to all of their friends at a dinner party.
Now, he and Emma were back at the school where it had all started for them. Tomorrow, she was giving a guest lecture to students in the journalism department, but today Jason had his own plans.
“It feels weird to be back on Grounds after so many years,” she said. She squeezed his hand as they walked past the white columns of the coveted dorms located in original buildings designed by Thomas Jefferson.
They strolled around for nearly an hour, reminiscing over the familiar locations that triggered memories of their time together. Like their favorite place to sit out and study when the weather was nice, the building where he always met her after class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and McCue Center, where he’d seen her for the first time as she entered a conference room to interview him.
A good part of the athletic complex was under construction, and he squinted at a new-to-him dome under the bright, midday sun. “They have an indoor practice field now. I’m a little jealous.” Charlottesville didn’t get much snow, but it got plenty cold in the winter, and the spring rains could turn it into a mud pit. Honestly, though, he didn’t care about the new facilities.
Turning, he took Emma into his arms and kissed her. “This is where it all started.”
She smiled. “I remember.”
“Love at first sight,” he said, brushing an errant strand of hair off her face.
“It was not,” she said, laughing.
He didn’t crack a smile, just looked into her beautiful eyes. “For me it was.”
Fifteen years ago, he’d asked her to dinner at the end of the interview, jittery because she was beautiful and smart and quietly confident, and too good for a player like him.
She’d actually looked disappointed by the request, as if he’d let her down somehow. “You think I’ll write a more flattering story if you feed me?” she asked.
Is that what she thought he was doing? “I wouldn’t impugn your journalistic integrity like that.”
She raised a skeptical brow.
“Seriously, I’m hungry, and I think you’re good company.” His stomach roiled like it did before a big game. Is this what everyone went through to get a date? He gave her a mock frown, trying to lighten the mood. “Wait, were you going to write an unflattering article?
With a coy look, she said, “Well, I have heard a lot about you. Not all of it positive.”
This time his frown wasn’t fake. “That seems unfair, because I know very little about you.” He ran a hand over his hair. “Let me change that by taking you out.”
Her laugh was incredulous.
“Besides,” he said, perking up at her response, “you should know better than anyone not to believe everything you read in the papers.”
She made a face he couldn’t decipher and started packing her things.
He started to panic. “Is that a no?” Had he misread the look in her pretty blue eyes?
“I appreciate the offer,” she said, pushing away from the table to stand, “but going out with you would be a conflict of interest.”
“Forever?” he asked, following her lead and standing.
She laughed again lightly, and he soaked it up.
Desperate to prolong their time together, he walked her through the hushed halls of the football offices on McCue Center’s second floor and down to the exit. Outside, the sun shone, but January was hitting Virginia hard, with icy temperatures and frigid winds.
Emma donned her wool peacoat, scarf, and hat, and pulled a pair of gloves from her jacket pocket. “Thanks for your time. The story should be in next Thursday’s paper.” She held out a hand.
The football office had set up the whole thing, always working to get good press for the team. “Thank you.” Jason gave her a firm but gentle handshake, the contact lighting sparks across his skin and sending his stomach tumbling. “So, can I get your number?”
She locked gazes with him for a few seconds, maybe gauging his sincerity. “Sure.” After digging in her bag for a pen and notebook, she jotted down a number—but no name, as if daring him to forget whose it was—on a piece of paper before tearing it off and handing it to him. “If you still want to go out after the story’s published, give me a call.”
That sounded ominous. He covered his concern with a grin that usually drew women like a magnet. “Count on it.”
Her own smile was polite but not very encouraging as she pulled on her gloves and pushed open the glass door into the cold without a backward glance.
Two weeks later, the article hit the school paper. It was meant to be a puff piece about a student-athlete who’d made a splash by modeling underwear and was planning to join the Air Force, but Emma had skillfully humanized him. She’d seen beneath the facade of the pretty-faced jock and painted him as thoughtful, intelligent, charming, and disciplined. Someone not easily pigeonholed.
He was already infatuated with her, unable to think of anyone else from the moment they met, but her story sealed the deal, and he asked her out the next day.
She agreed to dinner, sounding surprised that he’d actually called, and he’d vowed to make sure she knew he wanted more than a hookup. For her, he would be the man she saw in him, the one he wanted to be.
Things had gone very wrong, but he and Emma had found their way back to each other, and this time he wasn’t going to fuck it up. He was all in.
Maybe right now, standing next to the building where they’d first met, wasn’t the perfect moment or the perfect place, but maybe it also didn’t matter. He didn’t want perfect with Emma, he wanted real.
Heart lodged in his throat, he released her and dropped to his good knee, moisture from the damp soil beneath the grass soaking through his pants.
Emma’s lips parted and her cheeks turned bright red. “What are you doing?”
He gave her the smile that he reserved just for her. “I love you, Em. From the day we met, you’ve been the one for me.” Out of the corner of his eye, he could see a couple of students stop walking to watch the scene, one girl taking out her phone. He ignored them, his focus on the woman in front of him, but made a mental note to see if they’d share their photos. “I’m grateful every day that we found each other again, that you’re willing to take a chance on me again. You’re so smart and beautiful and compassionate, and you can fucking kick ass—”
Her laugh was watery, and tears streaked down her face, but she was smiling behind the fingers pressed to her mouth.
Buoyed, he slid the ring he’d bought months ago from his front pocket and held it out to her. “Emma, will you marry me?”
She nodded, the tears coming in earnest now. “Yes.”
The growing audience of students clapped and cheered as he stood and slipped the vintage emerald-and-diamond ring on her finger. Maybe he should’ve done this somewhere more private. But then Emma rose onto her tiptoes and pulled him close for a blistering kiss, and he forgot all about their audience.
When they finally parted, a bit breathless, she wiped her cheeks and then held out her left hand, watching the gems sparkle in the sunlight. “You were just carrying this around in your front pocket all day?”
“Yep.” More like all week, trying to figure out where to pop the question. “Probably not the best idea, given your fondness for going through my pockets.” He winked.
“Hey,” she adopted an exaggerated pout.
He grinned and caressed her soft cheek. “It led us to where we are right now, so no complaints.”
She kissed him again. “I love you.”
Her smile, the joy in her eyes, made him feel like he’d just caught a game-winning pass. How had he gotten so lucky? “It’s getting a little crowded around here. Wanna go back to our hotel and celebrate in private?” He waggled his eyebrows.
Emma took his hand and turned in the direction of their rental car. “I’m all in.”
THANKS FOR READING! If you enjoyed Lie With Me, would you be kind enough to leave a review? Just click on any link below for quick access. XOXO, Gwen