“I’m thinking about . . . my car’s fuel consumption.”
“Thank you for sharing these valuable insights into what makes you tick.”
He glances at me, considering. “I’m thinking about kissing you, on my couch. I think about it disturbingly often. I keep thinking about how weird it will be to spend my days not sitting across from you.”
The thing about the truth is, it’s addictive.
“More of your brain contents.”
Josh smiles at my demand. “I’ve never had someone try to do this before.”
“What, break your skull open? I’ll use a hammer if I have to.”
“Get to know me. And I never thought it would be you.”
“Do you want me to stop?”
I almost can’t hear his reply, it’s so quiet. “No.”
I swing my head away, pretending to look at the scenery. We park in front of a truck stop diner and he touches my hand. What he says next makes my heart crackle bright with stupid hope, even though I know he’s kidding.
“Come on. It’s time for a romantic dinner date.”
On my first fake date with Joshua Templeman, the booths are taken so we sit side by side at the counter. My feet dangle like I’m five years old as I perch on the stool, which he helped me up onto. We order and I immediately forget what I’m going to have. He rests his chin on his palm and we play the Staring Game to pass the time.
I could get through this weekend if he didn’t have such beautiful hands. Or such a lovely scent to his skin. My eyes go on a little walking tour. The tube lights turn anybody else sallow, me included, but somehow he glows with vitality. I notice the faintest smattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose. I must have had my hate-goggles on during most of our working relationship, because in all honesty, I’ve never seen a man this good-looking in person.
Everything about him is pleasurable. He drips with quality, luxury, everything so exactly right. Every part of him is engineered and maintained perfectly. I can’t believe I wasted all this time not admiring him.
“You’re like a beautiful racehorse.” I sigh, a little garbled. I should have tried to get some sleep last night.
He blinks. “Thank you. Your blood sugar is bottoming out. You’re all white.”
It’s probably true. My stomach makes a goblin noise. A bunch of laughing college guys walk past too close and Josh puts his hand on the small of my back. Just like a real date would; protective, telling them, Mine. Then he orders me an orange juice and makes me drink it. I hear a trucker repress a belch and then let it out slowly with a groan. The fryers sizzle in the background like radio static.
“Lacks a certain ambience,” Josh says to me. “I’m sorry. Crappy date.”
The waitress looks at him sidelong for the fifth time, her tongue licking idly at the corner of her mouth. I touch his wrist and end up holding it.
Our food arrives and I cram my grilled cheese sandwich into my face, having to remind myself to chew. He’s ordered some sort of grilled chicken breast. The next few minutes are nothing but a blur of taste and salt. He steals a couple of fries from my plate like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
“Where do you go to eat lunch? I’ve always wondered.”
“I go to the gym at lunch. I run four miles, shower, and have a big protein shake on the walk back.”
“Four miles? Are you training for the apocalypse or something? Maybe I should do that too.”
“I’ve got too much restless energy.”
“You might snap and kill me if you didn’t. Your body is insane. You know it, right? I’ve barely seen half an inch of actual skin, but it is insane.”
Josh looks at me like it’s the craziest thing he’s ever heard. He takes a sip of his drink and looks self-conscious.
“I am so much more than my insane body.” There is mock-dignity in his voice, and he sounds so prissy that we both laugh. I smooth my hand down his arm, shoulder to wrist.
“I know. You really are. You’re too much for this little pipsqueak.”
“No, I’m not. I wanted to ask you if you’re still angry about the other day. What I said to Bexley about not needing to beat you.”
“What’s the saying? Don’t get mad, get even.” I push my plate away and lick all my fingers. I ate my meal like a barn animal. “You were wrong, you know. You’re going to need help beating me. I’m going to fight for it.”
I drain my second glass of orange juice, then my water, and then his.
“Duly noted.” He scrunches a napkin around his fingertips. “Wow, you eat like a Viking.”
“For this weekend? I call a cease-fire. This weekend we’re us.”
“Who else would we be?”
“B and G employees. Competitors. Forbidden HR rule-breakers. Mortal enemies. Oh man, I feel so much better.”
I jump off my stool and immediately appreciate how much stronger my legs feel. “I don’t want any surprises, Josh. If I’m walking into some kind of shit-storm, I want to know.”
A shadow crosses his face. He picks up the check folded under the edge of his plate and gives me a faint look of disdain when I dig for my purse.
“We’re just us. I’m just me.” He counts out some bills. “Let’s get going.”
I go to the bathroom. When I wash my hands I glance at the mirror and nearly jump out of my skin. My color is back. In fact, I’m lit up like the Vegas strip. Neon-blue eyes, cheeks glowing pink, hair blue-black. My mouth is cherry red, but my lipstick is long gone.
A solid meal has clearly revived me, but I wouldn’t mind betting I always look like this after a period of Josh’s undivided attention.
“Keep. It. Together,” I tell myself sternly as a woman walks into the bathroom and gives me a weird look. I dry my hands and run out.
The evening is perfumed by the thunderclouds overhead. He’s leaning against the car, looking across the highway. There’s a strange kind of grace in the heavy twist of his body. If I had to label the image, it would be Yearning.
“Hey. Everything okay?”
He looks at me with an expression that makes my heart shake. Like he’s reminding himself I’m actually here. Like I’m not just in his head.
“Are you sad?”
“Not yet.” He closes his eyes.
“I’ll drive for a bit.” I hold out my hand.
He shakes his head. “You’re my guest. I’ll drive. You’re tired.”
“Oh, I’m your guest now?” I put as much menace as I can into my walk and he puts both hands behind his back. I smile at him and he smiles back. I’m surprised the pinprick stars above us don’t explode into silver powder. The sadness I caught in his eyes is burned away by a spark of amusement.
“My hostage. My blackmailed, unwilling captive. Stockholm Shortcake.”
“Keys.” I put my arms around his waist to get them from his closed fist. Then I lean against him and tighten my arms.
“Let go. Come on.” I extract the key, but he hugs my shoulders. We stand there for another long moment. Cars whip past in a steady stream.
“I want you to know I don’t expect anything from you this weekend,” Josh says above my head.
I lean back and look up at him. “Whatever happens, I’m pretty sure we’re going to be alive come Monday morning. Unless your sexuality is as deadly as I suspect, in which case, I’m a goner.”
“But,” he protests helplessly. I hug him harder and press my cheek against his solar plexus.
“It’s going to happen, Josh. We just need to get it out of our systems. I think that’s what it’s all been building toward.”
“You sound a little resigned.”
“I can only apologize in advance for the things I’ll do to you.”
He laughs and shivers and pushes me away.
“Look, it’s just one weekend.” I keep my voice light. I think I convince us both with it.
I have to jiggle the driver’s seat forward about a mile, necessitating quite a lot of jerky pelvic thrusts. He slides the passenger seat back without comment and watches me as I struggle. I snap on my seat belt and angle the rearview mirror down about a mile.
“Want a phone book to sit on? How’d you get so small?”
“I shrank in the wash.” I navigate us back to the highway.
“Over halfway there now.” His knee has started jiggling.
“Try to relax.” I’ve never known Josh to be nervous before. I feel him turn to stare at me. It’s all we ever do.
“Why do we do it? Stare at each other?”
“I know why I do it. But you go first.” He thinks I won’t call his bluff, so I do.
“I’m always trying to work out what you’re thinking.” I toss him a triumphant glance, as if to say, See, I can be honest. Sort of.
“I stare because I like looking at you. You’re interesting to look at.”
“Urg. Interesting. Worst compliment ever. My poor shriveled ego.”
Immediately I give myself a little mental slap. Fishing for compliments is a cardinal sin. “Never mind, I was only joking. Hey, look at that old farmhouse. I want to live there.”
“It’s mainly your eyes.” His voice hangs in the space between my shoulder and his. A fine mist of rain has started to grit on the windshield. I grip the steering wheel tighter.
“Those absolutely insane eyes. Eyes like I’ve never seen before.”
“Gee thanks. Insane.” I feel myself smile anyway. “I guess it’s accurate.”
“You called my body insane. I mean it in the same way. It sort of helps you can’t look at me. I can tell you.”
The rain is falling heavier, and I set the wipers on intermittent, trying to focus on the car in front. He switches off the radio, and I don’t know why but it feels like a threat. Like the click of a door, locking me in.