Elaine steadies me with a hand on my elbow. When she speaks, she’s got a fond smile teasing at the edge of her lips.
“I speak to him on Sundays, and I’ve known you for as long as he’s known you. A beautiful girl, bluest eyes, reddest lips, blackest hair. He describes you like a fairy-tale character. He’s never quite decided on princess or villain.”
I put my hands into my hair and make two fists. “Villain. I feel like the world’s biggest idiot to even believe for one day he could be so . . .” I can’t finish.
“You’re the girl he calls Shortcake. When I first heard your nickname, I knew. I will tell you now, he’s never looked at anyone the way he looks at you.”
I am starting to feel irritated with this lovely woman. It’s pretty clear she’s so biased I can no longer use her as a sounding board. She cannot believe her son would do anything so hurtful. I open my mouth but she silences me firmly.
“He dated Mindy. I’m so glad to have her for a daughter-in-law. Sweet as pie. Cinderella hasn’t got anything on Mindy.”
“She’s lovely. She’s not my issue.”
“But she never challenged Josh. You have since the first day you met him. You make him angry. You’ve never been scared of him. You’ve taken the time to try to understand him, just to get the upper hand in your little office skirmishes. You notice him.”
“I’ve tried not to.”
“Neither Josh nor his father are easy men. Some men are a delight. Patrick, for example. Reasonable, calm, ready with a smile. Josh has a nickname for him, too. Mr. Nice Guy. It’s true. He is. It takes a strong woman to love someone like Josh, and I think it’s you. Patrick’s an open book. Josh is a safety-deposit box. But he’s worth it. You won’t believe me, and I can’t blame you tonight, but so is his father.”
Elaine waves Josh over and he begins striding toward us.
“Please go easy on him. You could have caught the bouquet,” she admonishes me. “If you’d put your arms out a little.”
She kisses my cheek and hugs me with such kind familiarity I close my eyes.
“You will one day. If you decide to stay, we’re having a family breakfast at ten A.M. in the restaurant. I’d really love to see you both.” She walks back down the path, where she intercepts Josh.
They begin urgently conferring. Great. She’s giving the enemy a warning of what he’s in for. I am so tired of being in this place, by this water, under this sky. I go and sit on a low concrete bench and try to cram my heart back into my chest. Even his mother thought Josh was in love.
“You found out about the Mindy thing.” In the twenty yards it took for him to get to me, he’s no doubt framed his argument.
“Yep. Well done. You sure fooled me.”
“Fooled you?” He sits beside me and reaches for my hand but I pull away.
“Cut the shit. I know you’ve been parading me around in front of Mindy and her family. Maybe you should have hired someone better looking than me.”
“Do you seriously believe that’s why you’re here?” He has the audacity to look shaken.
“Imagine being in my position. I take you to my ex-boyfriend’s wedding and I’m all over you like a rash. I make you feel special. Important. I make you feel beautiful.”
There’s a tremor in my voice. “And then you find out, and suddenly you’re left wondering if it was real.”
“You being here has nothing to do with Mindy. At all.”
“But she’s the Tall Blondie you broke up with after the merger, right? She’s the one we talked about in bed this morning. Your big old heartbreak. Why didn’t you just tell me this morning?” I put my hands over my face and lean my elbows on my knees.
Josh turns sideways in his seat. “We were in bed, and you were just starting to look at me like you didn’t hate me. And she’s not my heartbreak.”
I cut him off. “I could handle being a rent-a-date, but you really should have been clear with me up front. That was a dick move, and frankly, I’m mad at myself for not expecting you’d do something like this.”
Josh’s urgency is growing. He puts his hand on my shoulder and turns me gently toward him. We stare into each other’s eyes.
“I wanted you here because I always want you with me. I don’t care that she’s just married Patrick. It’s ancient history to me. How could I tell you this morning, and ruin the moment? I knew how you’d react. Just like this.”
“You’re damn right I’m reacting like this.” Like a teary fire-breathing dragon. “Didn’t I specifically ask you if there was any touchy subject I needed to know about, so I’d be forewarned? You could have told me back in the office. Days ago. Not now.”
“You would never have agreed to come under those circumstances, had you known. You would have refused to believe this weekend could be anything more than an act. Whatever your reaction, it wouldn’t have been good.”
I grudgingly admit to myself that he’s probably right. Even if he had managed to get me to come, I probably would have invented a character and I definitely would have worn false eyelashes.
He touches a fingertip to my wrist. “I’ve had my focus on other things, believe it or not. Mom’s flower arrangements. Dad’s mood. Your blood sugar. Telling you about this just faded away to the edges.” He looks across the water and pulls his tie loose. “Mindy is a nice person. But I didn’t bring you here to show her how well I’ve moved on. I don’t care what she thinks.”
“I don’t believe you can be so cool about this situation.” I can’t detect any emotion in his eyes at all as he casts his eyes back across the water, contemplating.
“She was never going to be my wife, put it that way. We were wrong for each other.”
Hearing his voice say my wife makes me go too still. Eyes frozen and unblinking. Pupils dilated to black coins. Terror and panic and possession torches my throat dry. I don’t want to examine why I feel this way. I’d rather jump in the water and start swimming.
He looks at me sideways, his face tense. “Now that I’ve promised that you’re not here as some part of an elaborate revenge scenario, can you tell me the real reason this bothers you so much? Other than my lie by omission, and people staring at us? People that you never have to see again?”
This is skating way too close to my tangled-up new feelings. I try for several long moments to come up with an answer that sounds even halfway credible, but when I can’t I get to my feet and walk so fast back to the hotel he has to lengthen his stride to keep up.
“I’m getting a bus home.” I try to close the elevator door on him but he shoulders in easily. I press the button for our floor and dig for my phone to look up a bus schedule. I have no idea what time it is. I have several missed calls. Josh tries to speak but I put my hand up until he crosses his arms, exasperated.
I click through them distractedly; Danny has been trying to get ahold of me a couple of times throughout the afternoon. I have a few texts along the lines of, Do you have a font preference? . . . I’ll choose then . . . Could you call me back when you can?
The elevator bings.
Josh looks like he’s one second away from going stark-raving insane. I know the feeling.
“Leave me alone,” I tell him with as much dignity as I can and walk to the far end of the corridor, where a pair of armchairs are arranged beside a bay window. During the day, this would be a nice spot to sit with a book. In the evening, as the last peach glows of sun leave the sky, it’s the perfect place to fume.
I sit down and dial a local bus company. A late-night express is leaving at seven fifteen, and they are already stopping by the hotel to pick up someone else. The gods are smiling upon me.
Going back to the room will mean having to finish things with Josh, and I am burned-out. A husk. I have nothing left. I need to procrastinate.
Danny answers on the second ring.
“Hi,” he says, tone a little stiff. Nothing more annoying than an uncontactable client, I imagine. Especially one you’re doing a favor for.
“Hi, sorry I’ve been out of touch. I’ve been at a wedding and my phone is on silent.”
“It’s okay. I just finished.”
“Thank you so much. Did it all go okay?”
“Yep, for the most part. I’m at home now checking it on my iPad, flipping through the pages. The formatting looks good. Whose wedding is it?”
“The brother of a complete asshole.”
“You’re with Joshua.”
“How’d you guess?”
“I had a feeling.” He laughs. “Don’t worry. Your secrets are all safe with me.”
“I hope so.” I couldn’t care less at this point. It would serve me right to be humiliated in the halls of B&G.
“When are you back? I’d like to show you the final product.”
“Tomorrow at some point. I’ll call you when I’m back in town and I can meet you.”
“If you come over on Monday evening it would work for me. I’ve kept the spreadsheet that you wanted. It breaks down the time it took, along with what I think costs would be by a designer in a usual commercial setting, but also a salaried staff member.”
“I’m impressed. Maybe I should bring you a thank-you pizza.”
“Yes, please.” Danny’s voice drops a cheeky half octave. “So, what did you wear to this wedding?”
“A blue dress?” I see Josh’s reflection over me in the window and jump in fright. He takes the phone out of my hand and looks at the caller ID.
“It’s Joshua. Don’t call her again. Yes, I’m serious.” He hangs it up and slides it into his pocket.
“Hey. Give it back.”
“No fucking chance. He’s who you had to sneak off and call?” The look in his eyes is getting sharper, blacker.