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He jams a hand into his hair. “Like father, like son.”

“No, you’re not like this. He’s being bitchy and your mom is upset. His speech was so weird.” Every single time I feel protective of Josh, the realization pings me right in the solar plexus. I take his hand, which is folded into a fist, and smooth my hand over the knuckles.

He watches my fingers. “Dinner’s over. We’ve gotten through it. That’s all I care about.”

“But why does it feel like all eyes are on you? It seems like everyone in this room is looking at you, wondering if you’re coping okay. It’s like, Hang in there, sport.”

“I think they’ll assume I’m not suffering too badly.” He loops a hand around my waist, and the glow of his flattery hits my bloodstream, along with probably two thousand premium cake calories.

“They’re wrong. No one makes you suffer like I do.” I receive a smile for my cleverness. “Are you okay? Please tell me about this Big Scandal that they’re all whispering about. I cannot fathom that you deciding to not be a doctor could cause such a fuss.”

It’s rare to see Josh procrastinate, but he does now. “It’s a long story. Bathroom first.”

“If you climb out the window, I’m going to be really mad.”

“I’ll be back, I promise. I’ll tell you the whole sorry tale. Will you be okay for a minute?”

“I’ve had to make friends with half the people in this room, remember? I’m sure I’ll find someone to hang out with.” I watch him go and strike the most casual pose I can manage.

I haven’t actually spoken to Mindy yet. Outside, she was always being moved around by the photographers, but she’d smiled at me and I have the impression that she is nice. She’s nearby speaking animatedly to an older couple. When they move away, I smile and wave tentatively. I feel bad she has to have strangers at her wedding.

“Hello, Mindy, I’m Lucy. I’m Joshua’s, ah, plus-one. Thank you so much for having me here. The ceremony was lovely. And I love your dress.”

“Nice to meet you. I’ve been dying to.” She smiles broadly, her dark eyes lit with undisguised interest as she looks me over.

“You’re the girl who’s melted the ice man.”

“Oh! Um. I don’t know about melted . . . Ice man?” I’m at my articulate best.

“You know Josh and I dated for a year?” She waves her hand quickly as if it were nothing.

“What? No.” My stomach folds in half. And in half again. She puts one hand to her hair and smoothes the already perfect style. It’s blond. She’s tall, tan, and brown eyed. She’s Tall Blondie.

My mouth is probably a perfect circle. I am speechless. It is all dropping into place. How humiliating would it be to go alone to your ex-girlfriend’s wedding? Especially when she’s marrying your brother?

“How long ago did you meet Patrick?” I am trying to keep my voice modulated. I sound like my car’s GPS.

“I’d known him while dating Josh, of course. When all that business with Josh’s work going through the merger, I started talking to Patrick to try to understand why Josh was being so distant. He isn’t much of a talker, as you know.”

I look at all the strangers who have been staring at Josh all night. They’ve been wondering how he’s coping with seeing this beautiful woman marry his brother. A year. They would have definitely slept together. This willowy, immaculate blonde has lain in his bed. Kissed his mouth. I swallow acid.

“Patrick and I just clicked. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind; we only got engaged six months ago. I still feel bad about it, but Josh and I were not a good fit. I found his moods to be scary sometimes. I still hardly know what to talk to him about. I’m sorry, I’m being rude. Please don’t tell him I said that.”

I feel like I’m about to burst into tears and Mindy watches me with growing alarm.

“I’m sorry, Lucy, I thought he would have told you. He’s so happy with you. I never would have imagined he’d be so completely smitten. He never was with me. I suppose it does make sense. Intense men like him usually fall pretty hard, when they eventually do.”

I force myself to smile, but it’s not convincing. I can’t be responsible for ruining Mindy’s happy wedding buzz, but inside I’m breaking. How could I have been so stupid to think he was walking me around, showing me off, for nothing? I’m moral support while he attends his ex-girlfriend’s wedding. If that isn’t the definition of a rent-a-date I don’t know what is.

“Oh, Lucy. Sorry to upset you, especially if you two are early days. But Josh is yours.”

I manage a weak laugh. He’s really not.

“Patrick is especially surprised. What did he say? Something like, I’ve never seen Josh look like he has a heart.”

“He has a heart.” A self-serving heart, but a heart nonetheless.

A wedding-planner-type person indicates to Mindy and she waves.

“His heart is all yours,” Mindy says and pats my arm. “I’ll be tossing the bouquet now. I’ll aim right for you.”

She weaves through her guests, as poised and gorgeous as I’ll never be.

Arms slide around me from behind. A kiss on the back of my neck, diluted by my hair. The effect is still so potent I have to gulp. The DJ has begun calling the single ladies onto the dance floor. The freak-out is building in my gut. My palms sweat. I need to get out.

“Hi. Where’s all your new friends?” He begins to push me into the growing group of contenders.

“No, Josh. I can’t.”

People are watching us. I’m on the knife-edge of needing to make a scene but knowing I can’t. The tears and panic are welling up inside me. Usually perceptive, he doesn’t see them this time.

“Where’s your competitive spirit?” Josh gives me one last firm push and I’m propelled into a ragtag bunch of females, ranging from a lisping flower girl to a woman in her early fifties who seems to be doing hamstring stretches. Everyone looks at the bouquet. It’s lovely. We all want it.

I see Josh’s mom on the sidelines. She smiles at me, and then it fades, concern filling her eyes. Who knows what my face looks like. Mindy catches my eye and I can see her genuine regret that she has upset me. Josh repositions for a better view and he and his mother swap glances. She gestures to him, he bends his head and she tells him something. He looks at me sharply.

It’s all too much.

“Here we go!” Mindy turns her back on us and mimes doing some practice swings. The bouquet is a pink-lily confection.

I hardly register the slap of the flowers against my chest. They drop down into the waiting arms of the flower girl, who screams in delight. The entire audience is shaking their heads and laughing at my lack of coordination. Everyone turns to the person next to them and says, She could have caught that.

I’m so disappointed in not catching them the freak-out is triggered in full.

I politely laugh and manage to walk slowly from the other end of the dance floor, weaving through the spectators. Now I’m running. I need to get out of this room. I know he’ll be coming after me, so instead of choosing the most obvious sanctuary—the ladies room—I go down the waitstaff passageway and find myself in the garden beside the hotel.

A few boys in white shirts and ties are smoking and fiddling with their cell phones. They look at me with bored expressions. I pick up my pace until I’m trotting, running, the spikes of my heels barely touching the ground. I want to run until I reach the water. I want to leap into a rowboat and sail to a deserted island.

Only then will I be able to face up to it.

I have feelings for Joshua Templeman. Irreversible, stupid, and ill-advised feelings. Why else would this hurt so much? Why did everything in me ache to wrap my arms around the wedding bouquet and see him smile? I dither along the water’s edge.

The footsteps approaching come too fast. I bite back a swell of impatience and open my mouth to give him a piece of my mind.

Then I see it’s Joshua’s mother.

Chapter 24

Oh, hi,” I manage to say. “Just . . . getting some air.”

Elaine looks at me, and opens her purse and finds her pack of Kleenex. I’m confused by it until I press it to my eye and it comes away wet.

We stand, looking at the water glittering darkly under the fading sunset sky. I’m too upset to comprehend I’m about to unload to his mother. Any sympathetic ear at this point will do me. It’s not like I’ll ever see her again.

“He never told me about Mindy.”

She is aggrieved, and frowns back across the lawns. “He should have. You shouldn’t have found out this way.”

“It all makes so much sense. I can’t believe I’ve been so stupid. The way he’s been acting has been pretty unbelievable.”

“Like he’s in love with you.”

“Yes.” My voice breaks a little. “He told me once he’s a good actor. I can’t believe this.”

She says nothing and puts her hand on my shoulder. Every single glimmer of foolish hope feels extinguished in this moment.

“I don’t think he has been playing a game.” Elaine’s mouth twists.

The word game only crystallizes further the hurt in my gut.

“Oh, I’m sorry, but you have no idea how good at games he is. Every day of our working relationship, Monday to Friday. This has got to be the first time he’s played me on the weekend, though.”

Elaine looks past me, and I can see Josh’s silhouette pacing along the side of the building in agitation. She shakes her head and he stops.

“Why did you come today?” She is genuinely curious.

“I owed him a favor. He told me I was coming along for moral support. I didn’t know why, but I came anyway. I thought it was something to do with him dropping out of medicine. And now I find out his ex-girlfriend is marrying his brother? I’m in a soap opera right now.”