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When I had stepped out of the hospital earlier today it felt like I could finally breathe again. But now? The night was hot and humid. It felt more like the buildings were caving in around me. Like the sidewalk was cracking under my feet. Like my whole world was being destroyed.
Here I was planning a fucking re-proposal and she was what? Sucking Tyler’s cock?
A drop of rain hit the top of my head. I looked up to see the storm clouds above me through the darkened sky. Every time it rained, I thought of her. I always would. But she wouldn’t be thinking about me. I tried to focus on putting one foot in front of the other.
Penny looked the same. She smelled the same. But she wasn’t the same. Was this how people felt when their spouses died? Like their world was caving in around them? That’s how I felt. Like the Penny I knew and loved was gone. Like she had been taken from me far too soon. And I couldn’t get her back. No matter how hard I fucking tried to recreate our lives. Or show her that I cared. None of it mattered. Because one person caring in a relationship wasn’t enough.
It started raining harder. Each drop felt like it seared my skin. I needed to stop before I did something I regretted. I needed to turn around and go back to my apartment. But my feet kept moving forward.
I didn’t want to believe any of this was real. It was like Penny and I were on a broken wheel. Every time something went wrong in our relationship, she went back to Tyler. How many times could she run back to him before it stuck? How many times was she going to try to break me?
It felt like tears were running down my cheeks, but I couldn’t really tell. It was pouring now. I was soaked from head to toe. I wished that I felt numb. I wished I never knew what it was like to feel this way. But if that was true, I never would have felt what it was like to be loved either. To love. I didn’t know how to fucking live without her love.
My feet suddenly stopped. And I knew it wasn’t rain on my cheeks. I broke down in the middle of a busy sidewalk in NYC and started crying. I felt my knees buckle and I fell to the ground and let myself cry. I let the grief of losing her overtake me. I let the feeling of hopeless take over.
I saw a dollar bill fall to the ground in front of me. Someone had mistaken me for a homeless person. A small act of compassion should have been able to improve my mood. But it didn’t. It just made me feel worse. Because someone thinking I was homeless was fitting. The dollar bill blurred in front of me. Penny was home to me. And I had lost her. I had lost the only home I had ever really known.
In the blink of an eye the anger overshadowed the pain again. If Penny could remember Tyler, she could remember me. She was just choosing not to. Or something was blocking her. I needed her to see that I was the right choice. And showing up looking like a scraggly, wet homeless man wasn’t going to help. I knew how she’d look at me. Like I was an addict. Like I was broken. Like she was scared of me.
When had I gotten used to her not recognizing me? When had that become more familiar than seeing her look at me with love in her eyes?
None of that mattered. Penny was the reason my heart kept beating. She was the reason that I could breathe. And I’d spend every second of the rest of my life trying to win her back. I needed to fix what I had broken. By breaking Tyler’s nose. I knew it wasn’t logical, but that’s what motivated me to stand back up.
I didn’t care that I was about to show up looking like a crazy man. And no matter what I was about to walk into, I’d forgive her. I’d forgive her and we’d move on. That was the only option. She’ll leave with me, right? She’ll come back home. For me, for our kids.
I pushed into the front lobby of Tyler’s apartment complex and my anger only grew. I had helped him find this place. I had let him move two blocks away from me and my wife. I had been blind to what he was planning.
“Good evening, Mr. Hunter,” said the woman standing in the reception area. “Are you…I mean do you…need a towel? Or…”
I ignored her and walked past the elevators and into the stairwell. Was that why Penny wanted Tyler? Because he was healthy? I’d be fine. I just needed to get back in shape. I walked up one flight of stairs before I had to stop on one of the landings.
Damn it! I slammed the side of my fist against the brick wall. She probably looked at me and saw weakness. My past. My present. I put my hand on my chest. I wasn’t weak. I was healing. I just needed time.
I took another deep breath and forced myself up more stairs.
I’d prove to her that she wasn’t better with Tyler. How had I not known she preferred guys with blonde hair and blue eyes? What was she, a fucking Nazi?
The thought actually made me laugh. The sound echoed around in the empty stairwell. I’m losing my mind. I buried my hands in my hair. I’ve lost it. I laughed again and then coughed as more tears threatened to escape.
Get a grip. I needed to win her back. But I wasn’t opposed to dragging her back to our apartment caveman style. Penny was mine. She was mine. A piece of my heart was inside of her and she was just having trouble remembering. I’d remind her. I had to.
I almost slipped on the next landing from my wet shoes, but I pressed on. When I finally made it to Tyler’s floor I was completely out of breath. But I knew if I stopped moving, I wouldn’t be able to keep going. I’d stop. My heart would stop. Everything would stop.
I knocked on Tyler’s apartment door. When no one answered after probably what was only a second, I knocked even louder. You’re dead, Tyler. Enjoy your last breaths.
The door opened a moment later. But it wasn’t Tyler standing there waiting for my wrath. It was Hailey. “Shh James, I just got Axel to bed.” She held her index finger up to her lips like she was hushing a child. And then she laughed, like she knew she was talking to me like she did her son. She smiled up at me before concern crossed her face. “Is everything alright?” Her eyes scanned me, taking in my wet clothes, and maybe my red eyes.
Poor, sweet, naïve Hailey. She was in the same boat as me. She wouldn’t be looking at me with pity when she found out her spouse was cheating on her too. I was going to fix this problem for both of us. I looked past her into their living room. “Where is he?”
“Who? Tyler or Axel?”
“Right, I’m here because I'm pissed off that your three-year-old son has a crush on my daughter. Yes Tyler.” There was an edge in my voice. Probably because I was actually annoyed about the first thing I mentioned too. My daughter would never end up with a cheating, lying Stevens. We were done with this family. None of them would ever step foot in my home again.
She laughed. Like this was a time for laughing. “I knew you were upset about Axel and Scarlett having cute little crushes on each other. It’s just a kid thing. I think it’s adorable.”
“Where is he?” I wasn’t even listening to what she was saying. I walked past her and peered into their kitchen.
“I told you, I just put him to bed.”
Jesus, this woman was driving me insane. “Not Axel. Tyler! Where is Tyler?”
“Would you keep your voice down? I had to read Axel three bedtime stories and…”
“Where the fuck is he?!”
She winced at my words. Or maybe it was just at my tone. I wasn’t trying to direct my wrath at her, but she was standing in the way of what I wanted.
“Tyler isn’t here,” she said. “And I think you should go home, James. Whatever this is can wait until the morning. Don’t you think?” That moment of weakness where she had winced was gone. She even seemed to be standing a little taller.
Couldn’t she tell I was here to help her? “I’m not leaving until I speak to him.”
She folded her arms across her chest. “I’m not going to ask you again. You need to go.” Her bottom lip trembled slightly. I would have missed it if I hadn’t been staring right at her.
She was scared of me. What the fuck was I doing? I swallowed down the lump in my throat. She needed to know the truth. She was tough, she could handle it. Probably better than I could. “He’s cheating on you. He’s with Penny.”
“What?” She immediately unfolded her arms. “Why on earth would you think that?” She didn’t believe me.
“Penny disappeared about an hour ago. She said she was going for a walk.”
“Right before that, she was reading the book she wrote. All the pages about Tyler were on top of the coffee table when I got home. She remembers him. She remembers him and she doesn’t remember me.” My voice broke. “She doesn’t remember me, Hailey. She doesn’t want to remember me. But Tyler? Apparently she wants to remember him.”
Hailey’s face softened. “She can’t help how she remembers. Getting amnesia wasn’t something she asked for.”
“I’ve tried everything to jog her memory. Everything I could think of. And she reads a few pages about Tyler and runs to him?”
“You don’t know that for sure.”
“When did he leave to go on a run?”
She shrugged one shoulder. “About an hour ago.”
See. Wasn’t that proof enough? “Does he usually go on runs this late?”
She didn’t look convinced of my theory at all. “No. He usually goes before work. But we were running late this morning. It’s just a coincidence.”
Was she blind? “They’re together right now. We need to go find them. We need to stop them before Penny breaks your family apart too.”
She drew her eyebrows together. “Tyler loved Penny in that way once. But he doesn’t now. He’s not stuck in the past like Penny is right now. Even if she makes a pass at him, he’ll shut her down. He’ll remind her that she loves you and only you. You’re worrying about nothing.”
“How are you so sure?”
“Because I know Tyler. I know him better than anyone in the world and he’s not the kind of guy that cheats on his wife. Or steals someone else’s wife, for that matter.”
“He asked Penny to run away with him the day before our wedding.”
“Oh, you mean the wedding that you called off? If you ask me, that was kind of on you. And he was in a bad place. He’s been through so much. He was in pain and he was just trying to find comfort in the wrong place. Because he hadn’t met me yet.” She gave me a small, sad smile.
It was right after our wedding that Tyler and Hailey fell in love. Right after Penny rejected him. Couldn’t she see that there was a hole in her logic? The only reason Tyler was with Hailey was because Penny had turned him down. She was his second choice. And right now, I wasn’t Penny’s any choice. She didn’t even like me, let alone love me.
“Then call him,” I said. “Prove me wrong.”
“I will.” She walked into the living room and picked her cell phone up off the coffee table. She pressed a few buttons and put her phone up to her ear. After several seconds ticked by, she pressed her lips together and looked down at the ground. Maybe a tiny bit of doubt was getting into her head. “He didn’t pick up. But he listens to music when he runs. He probably just has the call function turned off or whatever.”
“That’s not a thing.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I’m a tech guy. I do know that. A cell phone’s primary function is to you know…be a phone.”
“God, you’re such an old man. If anything, a cell phone’s primary function is for texting. Well, that and watching cat videos on YouTube.”
I glared at her.
She glared back.
“Then text him,” I said.
“He can’t run and text.”
“You’re making excuses for him. I’m telling you that he…”
“James, I’ve been patient with you. But I will not have you stand in my home and insult my husband. And insult me. I’m sorry that you’re hurting. I’m sorry that Penny doesn’t remember you. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through. If you’d like to talk about it, I’m here to listen. But if you say one more thing about Tyler I’m going to…punch you.”
“You’re going to punch me?” Was she serious? I just stared at her. All Stevenses were the worst. Even the ones that were married into the family.
“Yes. And it’s going to hurt. I have a mean left hook.” She held up her hand in perfect form. Most people who had never punched anyone would tuck their thumb underneath their other fingers. But she was doing it right. No thumbs would be broken if she decided to collide her fist into my jaw.
“My dad taught me how to defend myself. And I know to use words first, but you’re testing my patience. So you best be getting ready for a beat down if you say one more thing about Tyler.” She made a fist with her other hand too and started moving them in the air in a gesture that could only be seen as playful.
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. The thought of her attacking me was too humorous.
And she started laughing too.
“I’m sorry, James.” She dropped her hands as she approached me. “Really, I can’t imagine the hell that you’re living. My heart aches for you.” She threw her arms around me. And for the second time tonight, I let myself be hugged by someone who had never hugged me before.
Hailey knew what it was like to lose everything she loved. Her father died a few years ago. He was her only family. Tyler was there to catch her when she fell from that loss. And it was fucked up of me to think that he’d suddenly stop being there for her. Just because Penny thought she was a teenager, it didn’t mean Tyler had suddenly forgotten the past several years. And he loved Hailey. I knew what love looked like. I used to have it. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she said into my chest. “I’m sorry I threatened to punch you.”
I laughed. “It’s okay.”
She dropped her arms from around me. “Wait, James, what if Penny isn’t with Tyler?”
I'd been so focused on her running to Tyler that I hadn’t even thought of that possibility.
“If she’s not with him do you have any idea where she is? Let me try to call Tyler again.”
Where is she? The words echoed around in my head. Jesus, why hadn’t I even thought of that? Where the hell was my wife? “Call everyone we know. I’m gonna call the police.”
She didn’t tell me I was jumping to wild conclusions this time. She was on her phone faster than I was.
“Rob?” she said into her cell. “Is Penny there with you?” The brief pause seemed agonizingly long. She shook her head at me. “We think she’s missing.”
I had spent all this time thinking she was running back to Tyler. I had never even thought that there could be something worse. I never even considered the fact that there was a threat looming. Dr. Nelson was still out there. He had already tried to kill her once. And I wasn’t with her to protect her. There was nothing to stop him from trying again.
END OF CHAPTER 3
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I wanted to be able to propose the same way I had the first time around. But I couldn’t leave New York again. Liam and Scarlett needed me here. I just had to think of something similar to me popping the question in the coffee shop.
Penny didn’t remember our favorite pizza place here in the city. Or where we had our wedding. Or where we danced in Central Park under the stars. She didn’t remember anything here and had only really spent time in our apartment. An apartment proposal didn’t feel romantic enough.
Maybe Liam was right. Maybe this was a bad idea. I almost laughed out loud. Liam hadn’t said anything. The whole conversation we’d shared had just been me talking to myself. But I liked bouncing ideas off of him. The NICU was the one place where it felt like I could be open with everything I was thinking. As long as one of the nurses wasn’t in the room.
I shoved my hands into my pockets and felt the ring. I should have just given it back to her when she woke up. But I saw the way she looked down at the tan lines on her ring finger. She looked appalled. The same way she looked at me.
I was trying to be strong for her. But I wasn’t sure how much more I could take without breaking down. She didn’t realize how important she was. Liam and Scarlett needed her just as much as I did. Scarlett. I needed to talk to her again. If she kept saying stuff like Penny wasn’t her mom, Penny would feel like she truly wasn’t. I needed Scarlett to believe that Penny was coming back as much as I believed it. I just hoped that the idea of Penny remembering didn’t turn out to be a figment of my imagination. Lying to myself was one thing. Lying to my daughter was another. I tried to focus on the ring in my pocket again instead of my dismal reality.
I sighed. It didn’t have to be a grand proposal. I’d just ask Penny if she’d do me the honor of wearing the ring again. Of taking a leap of faith on her family.
The fresh air made it a little easier to breathe. And the image of Penny closing her eyes and waiting for a kiss came back to me. She wanted me. And she was reading the beginning of our love story all night. She’d want me more when I got back than she did when I’d left.
I took a deep breath and stopped in front of the doors of our apartment building. I wanted to walk back into our apartment and see her face light up like it always used to. I wanted her to run over to me and throw her arms around the back of my neck as I pulled her in for a kiss. I wanted my life back.
I closed my eyes and prayed to a God I wasn’t sure if I believed in. Please let everything go back to normal. Please let her remember. I promised to be a better man for her. A better father to my children. I wouldn’t get lost in work. I’d be present and listen to what they wanted instead of assuming what they must want.
Penny asked for space while she remembered. I opened my eyes. It was true, she had asked for space. But she didn’t look at me like she wanted space. She stared at me like she wanted anything but space between us. And even though I wanted to respect her boundaries, I wasn’t sure if she was being true to herself either.
I opened the door and stepped inside. That was the whole problem. I did what I thought was best instead of listening. The unsigned contract that was locked in my desk drawer was a good sign of that. I had gotten her a publishing deal when she had specifically asked me not to. If I had just listened to her, I would have been here when she went into labor. I would have been here when she needed me.
I stepped onto the elevator. I should have taken the stairs. The extra exercise would do me good. My heart was feeling stronger every day despite the fact that it was broken. But Liam was right, I was tired. I almost laughed out loud again at the thought of Liam saying that to me. I desperately needed rest. I needed to sleep on the idea of proposing before I scared Penny further away. That was my biggest fear. That she’d leave again. That this time she’d never come back. I couldn’t let that happen.
Tonight I’d sleep in the guest room. I wouldn’t touch her. I’d do everything she’d asked unless she specifically said she changed her mind. Only then would I invade her space. I stepped off the elevator and put my key into the lock. Please ask me, Penny. Let me back into your life.
I didn’t expect her to come running into my arms like she used to. But the house was eerily quiet. I walked into the kitchen, then the dining room, then the living room. The pages of her manuscript were all over the coffee table, but she was nowhere in sight. “Penny?” I called.
Melissa walked into the living room. “She went for a walk. And keep your voice down, Scarlett’s asleep.”
“You let Penny go for a walk alone?”
“No. Chill for two seconds. She went with one of the security guards. How incompetent do you think I am?”
“I didn’t say that you were…”
“You kinda implied it.” She plopped down on the couch. “I feel like you and I need to have a talk.”
“Melissa, I wasn’t calling you incompetent.”
“Not about that.” She waved her hand through the air, dismissing the altercation. “We need to talk about Penny. And you. And whatever game it is you’re trying to play with her head. I made a few phone calls and read some articles and I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be force feeding her the past.” She nodded to the manuscript. “You’re supposed to let her remember on her own time.”
“She asked to read it.”
“Fair enough, but you could have postponed it. I know you want her to remember. We all do. And I get that she’s not just your wife. She’s your best friend. Your confidant. And right now you can’t confide in her so…confide in me. It might alleviate some of your stress.”
“Melissa, I have people I can confide in.”
“Who? Rob?” She laughed. “Trust me, he’s about as good at pillow talk as a brick wall.”
“Maybe with you.”
She glared at me. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re a terrible host?”
“Has anyone ever told you that you’re a terrible house guest?”
She laughed. “I feel like I’m a normal house guest. There is no such thing as a good house guest. That’s why you usually put everyone up in hotels, right?”
“It's more of a privacy thing.”
“I see. Tell me more about that.”
“I’m not going to talk to you about my issues.”
“Because you’ll tell Penny everything I say.”
“I can keep a secret, James. If you recall, it wasn’t my fault your affair with a student leaked. I feel like I’ve earned your trust. And right now, you need to vent. I mean…you look like hell. Have you even been sleeping?”
“If you’re not going to talk to me, you should talk to someone. I’m pretty sure Penny fell in love with the sweeter side of you. Not whatever this is.” She gestured to me.
It was hard not to be a little offended.
“I mean, you do want her to fall in love with you again, right? New memories of you might kind of outweigh the old ones.” She glanced back at the manuscript pages. “Huh. You might already be scaring her away. She wasn’t even reading about you.” She lifted up one of the pages and started reading out loud:
We slowly swayed back and forth. This was probably the sweetest thing a guy had ever done for me. I moved closer to him so that our bodies were touching.
"So you like it nice and slow?" Tyler said gently.
"If you are referring to dancing? Yes, isn't this nice?"
He leaned down to kiss me. I wanted to forget about Austin and I needed to forget about Professor Hunter. I grabbed the back of his head and pulled him closer as he kissed me deeply. His hands slid down from my waist and grabbed my ass.
“Stop,” I said. “I don’t need to hear about Tyler’s hands on my wife’s ass, I’ve already read it.” Hearing about Tyler right this second wasn’t helping. I was already a little pissed off about Penny’s favorite movie revolving around him.
“See. You’re angry.”
“Because you’re reminding me that she used to have her hands all over someone else.”
“Everyone has exes, James.”
“Not ones that they don’t remember passing on.”
“Aha. The root of the problem. What, are you scared that she’s going to go back to him? He’s married, remember?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time someone cheated on someone else. It happens all the time.”
“Aha! So this goes back to your first wife cheating on you.”
“Would you stop saying ‘aha’ like this is actually a breakthrough?”
“Then just talk to me…”
“And say what? That I’m scared Penny will never remember? That I’m scared I’ll have to go through the rest of my life in this fucking terrible numb state? That I’m worried I’m going to lose my son too? That when I think about everything I can’t breathe?”
She stood up and hugged me.
I hadn’t expected her to do that. For a moment, I stayed still, hoping she’d just let go. But when I finally forced myself to hug her back, I felt a sense of relief. When was the last time someone had tried to comfort me? That wasn’t fair. Tons of people had tried to comfort me when Penny was unconscious. But I had pushed them all away. Because that’s what I did. I couldn’t lie though, it felt really nice to be hugged.
“That’s a good start,” Melissa said and smiled up at me. “Tell her those things. Be real instead of suave.”
“Trust me, I haven’t been suave.”
“You’re always suave. It’s kinda your thing.”
“Oh my God, did I just get you to smile?” She leaned closer. “Yup, you’re officially smiling. See…doesn’t it help to talk?”
I sighed, but it was just for show. “Sure.”
“This is what girls do,” she said and sat back down on the couch. “We talk everything out. So pretend you’re a girl for a few minutes and chat with me.” She patted the couch beside her.
“This is a ridiculous exercise.” But for some reason, I found myself sitting down.
“So you said you were scared she’ll never remember. Let’s say the worst happen and she never does. What then?”
“Then…nothing. There is no me without her.”
“You’re being a little dramatic, James. Good job, you’re really finding your inner woman for this chat.”
I wasn’t being dramatic. I was serious. If Penny never remembered me, my life was over. I couldn’t keep going without her. I thought of Scarlett upstairs sleeping peacefully and of my son attached to all those machines. If I gave up, I’d be letting them down. I knew that and yet…how could I keep going?
“But really,” she said. “What would you do?”
I ran my hand down my face as I leaned back on the couch. “I don’t know, Melissa. Does Penny leave me in this scenario?”
“Yeah, I’m talking worst case. She doesn’t remember and skips town again because she can’t stand you. What’s your plan?”
“This isn’t helping.”
“I just want you to think about the absolute worst thing. And then we figure out how to make that not happen. Trust me, it’s therapeutic.”
I looked down at my lap. “Worst case?” I exhaled slowly. “Penny leaves and I spiral into depression. I start taking drugs again. I ignore my kids because they look like her. I shut everyone in my life out. And I probably overdose and die.”
“Jesus that’s dark.”
I looked up at her. “You said worst case.”
She laughed. “Yeah, I thought you’d say like…try to better yourself and win her back.”
“I assumed in the worst case I couldn’t win her back.”
“Fair enough, drama queen.” She laughed as she pulled her knees into her chest. “Okay, here’s how to prevent doomsday. You know Penny better at 26 years old. But no one knows Penny better at 19 than I do. She desperately wants someone to love her for her. I think you loving her already makes her feel like you didn’t get to know her. You know?”
Melissa laughed. “You need to ask her more questions. Even if you already know the answers. Take interest in what she’s saying. Maybe even pretend you don’t know the answers. Make her feel…seen.”
“Yeah. After you two met, she told me that it felt like you saw her. I know…super cheesy. But it’s what she said.”
“I never knew that.” I could picture Penny telling Melissa all about how we met. She hadn’t gone into specific details in her novel. “What else did she say?”
“Well, she didn’t take off the sweater you loaned her for hours. She kept talking about how good you smelled.”
“Another smile? I’m on a streak,” she said.
I thought about the engagement ring in my pocket. “So getting down on one knee and asking her to be my wife again is a bad idea.”
“Yes. Wait, were you planning on doing that? It’s too soon, James.”
“I only knew her for two months before I proposed the first time.”
“Which was crazy. That was something a crazy person would do.”
I laughed. “If I hadn’t recently gone through a divorce, I probably would have done it sooner. She’s it for me, Melissa. Dramatic or not, she is.”
She gave me the saddest smile. “Then take my advice and go slowly this time around. Okay? You don’t want to spook her. She’s already run away once.”
Yeah. Her and Liam agreed. No grand gestures. At least not quite yet. I glanced at the coffee table. The manuscript almost looked like it had been shuffled around. I picked up one of the sheets, and scanned it.
"Exactly how many girls have you slept with, Tyler?"
He leaned forward. "I'm going to pass."
"You're not allowed to pass."
He stared at me.
"That many, huh?"
"Look, I know why you're asking. You want to know if I've been with anyone since I started talking to you."
"Oh my God, Tyler. You're such a slut," I whispered.
He gave me a mischievous smile. "I'm just messing with you, Penny. No, I haven't slept with anyone this semester. And only three girls total. There, that's not so bad, right?"
"What is wrong with you?" I leaned across the table and lightly shoved his shoulder.
"You're fun to mess with. You're so gullible."
"Very funny." I shook my head at him.
"Besides, now I got a question answered without even having to ask it," he said.
"Oh, yeah? And what is that?"
"You like me."
I kept my mouth shut.
"You got so jealous. You should have seen your face, Penny."
The first page Melissa had lifted up had talked about Tyler’s hand on my wife’s ass. And this one was about Penny pretty much admitting that she had feelings for him too. I grabbed another paper off the coffee table.
He really was a sweet guy. "Tyler, I can't ask you to miss your party for this. Melissa made it seem like it was going to be lots of fun."
"Trust me, there is nothing I'd rather be doing." He handed me the disc. I looked down and saw that it was The Princess Bride.
"This is my favorite movie."
"Yeah. I'd be lying if I didn't confess that Melissa told me. But I already owned it, because I like it too." He smiled at me as he pulled the popcorn out of the microwave, then sat on the end of my bed.
I put the movie in and sat down next to him.
"Popcorn?" he asked and put the bag down between us.
"You're a really good friend, Tyler."
"Yeah I know." He laughed and put his arms behind his head and leaned against the wall.
"No seriously. I've never really had a guy friend that was genuinely nice just because he cared."
"Honestly, I'm just paying my dues." He winked at me. "But I like being friends with you too. And since we're just friends, I can do stuff like this and not get in trouble." He slid over and put his arm around my back.
"Is that right?"
"I'm just here to take care of you." He tapped his shoulder that was closest to me.
"So I guess since we're friends I'm supposed to rest my head on your shoulder?"
"Well, I mean if you want. I just had an itch. But I promise I won't read into it."
I leaned my head on his shoulder. In the movie, Westley was just saying goodbye to Buttercup so he could go off and find a fortune so that they could get married.
"I never understood why she was always so mean to him at first," Tyler said.
"Because she didn't realize that she loved him yet."
"Right," Tyler said. He rested his head on top of mine.
I almost crumpled the paper in my hand. It wasn’t just the key chain he had given her that had made me think I knew about Tyler’s link to The Princess Bride. I had read all about it. I had read about it and forgotten it. All the parts about Tyler in this book I had shoved aside. But a lot of them were about him. It wasn’t just Penny and my love story. It was like a twisted love triangle. I had given her this book hoping she’d remember me. And it looked like all she had been doing was remembering him.
“Why does Penny like The Princess Bride?” I asked.
Melissa shrugged. “Something about true love. I don’t know. I never understood the appeal.”
“Does it have anything to do with Tyler?”
“No. She liked it before she met him. Although, he did dress up like Westley for Halloween for her.”
“When you two were on a break.”
A break. I said I needed time. We weren’t really on a break. But I couldn’t fault Penny for pursuing Tyler during that time. Yet, here I am seething. Why? Because of some stupid film that meant nothing? But that was the problem. It meant something to her. And she never told me. Maybe she liked it before she met Tyler, but it was all intertwined now. They snuggled while they watched it. He dressed up as the main character for her. And he gave her that stupid fucking key chain. I grabbed another paper off the table as my head started to spin.
I listened to his slow, steady heartbeat. I could lay here forever in his embrace. I let my hand wander beneath his shirt and felt his abs. His body seemed to tense from my touch, which made his muscles even more pronounced. He was so sexy.
"Are you feeling any better?" Tyler whispered.
“What the fuck is this?” I stood up. “All the pages on top are about him.”
“Who?” Melissa asked.
She leaned forward. “Oh, yikes.” I watched as she bit into her bottom lip. Her eyes scanned more of the pages. She crossed and uncrossed her legs. “I mean…it kind of looks like they were shuffled around or something? But yeah…most of them are about Tyler. Almost like she picked through the book…but why would she do that?” She made a weird face, a combination of a grimace and confusion.
“Where the hell did you say she was?”
“She went for a walk with one of your security guards.”
“I don’t know. But would you calm down for one second. This is probably just some misunderstanding. I mean…” She shuffled the papers around with her hands. “It seriously looks like she was just…I don’t know…tossing them around.”
“Tossing them around?” Give me a fucking break. She had read about Tyler and wanted to read more. I pulled out my phone and clicked on Porter’s name.
He answered in one ring. “Mr. Hunter.”
“She’s with Ian. She went for a walk and…”
I hung up the phone.
“James,” Melissa said. “You need to take five and calm down. Whatever it is that’s running through your head, it’s probably wrong.”
“Yeah. Probably. I’m not going to lie and tell you I’m 100 percent certain she didn’t want to read about Tyler. I can’t read her freaking mind. Anymore anyway.”
“Do you know something?”
“What?” She awkwardly blew a strand of hair out of her face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Melissa, you can’t ask me to open up to you and then keep shit from me. Did she go see Tyler?”
“No. Oh my God. I didn’t lie to you. She went for a walk. But if I’m being totally upfront, she maybe has kinda sorta mentioned that Tyler is exactly her type.”
It felt like my heart stopped. I felt the familiar pain cross my chest. I’d been having these sharp, fleeting pains ever since my cardiac episode. “Tyler and I look nothing alike.”
“I know that. You’re very different. In like…every way.”
“You think she likes him?”
“Of course not. But in her 19 year old mind, before she met you, apparently she had a thing for guys with blonde hair and blue eyes.”
“And you didn’t think this was important for me to know?”
“I’m telling you now. And I thought I took care of it. I told her that he was married. I told her that you’re her type. I told her everything I was supposed to. You’re acting like I don’t have your back here…but I do. I’m on your side, James.”
I pictured Penny knocking on Tyler’s door. And putting her head on his shoulder as they watched her favorite movie. And him squeezing her ass. And her hand groping his abs. “I’m going to kill him.”
“She’s not at Tyler’s, James. She went for a walk.”
I dialed Ian’s number.
“I’m in the middle of a Jen emergency, James,” Ian said when he finally answered. “If there’s any way that this can wait until tomorrow…”
“Where the hell is Penny?”
The awkward silence stretched for too many seconds.
“Tell me right fucking now, Ian.” Again, the pain seared across my chest. I’d been feeling it ever since my surgery, but I hoping it wasn’t really related. I knew what having a cardiac episode felt like now. This? I was pretty sure my heart was breaking in two. It had been ever since Penny didn’t wake up. Ever since she didn’t recognize my face. Ever since our daughter had become a stranger to her. Ever since she didn’t recognize Liam in her arms.
But this might be worse. It was all my worst fears coming true. Penny was finally waking up…to the fact that I wasn’t the right choice all those years ago. I couldn’t fix our lives if she left me. “Ian.”
“I…” his voice trailed off. “She told me I could go. She said she was heading right back to the apartment.” There was a shuffling of papers. “I’m so sorry, James. I’m heading back now, I…”
“It’s fine. I know where she is.”
“Oh. Geez. You nearly gave me a heart attack. I mean…” his voice trailed off and he awkwardly cleared his throat.
“It’s fine,” I said again, even though I didn’t believe my own words. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“See you tomorrow.”
I hung up the phone and slid it back into my pocket. “I’ll be back in a bit. Could you keep an eye on Scarlett?” I tried to say it as cheerily as possible even though it felt like dark clouds were forming in my mind.
“Where are you going?”
I wasn’t even sure why she asked. She knew exactly where I was going.
“Don’t do anything stupid. She doesn’t remember her life, James. You’re holding her accountable and she doesn’t remember. You need to cut her some slack.”
Why, so that she’ll leave me? I swallowed down the words instead of voicing them. There was no point in lying to Melissa. I was planning on pounding Tyler’s face until he was unrecognizable. If he so much as laid a hand on her, he was dead.
END OF CHAPTER 2
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I had forgotten how much I craved Penny’s touch until I couldn’t have it. That’s what time did. Made perfection feel like normalcy. But it was easy to remember just how lucky I was when the one thing I craved was stripped from me. And I’d never take her for granted again. I’d never lose my temper. I’d never put my own needs first. I’d treat her the way she deserved.
Because Penny was everything to me. The sun rose and set with her. She was the air I breathed. She was the only vice I needed. And relying on a person was so much better than relying on any substance. I was okay with this bleak feeling of existence if I knew she was coming back to me. And I knew I was close.
When I had left the apartment tonight, her eyes were begging me to stay. She had been waiting for a kiss. And as much as I wanted to close the distance, I knew that I needed her to lean the rest of the way in. Me pushing her hadn’t helped. Me trying to manipulate the situation had helped even less. She needed to make the decision to stay. To try and remember us. And she would. She had to.
In the meantime, holding my son was comforting. He was a little piece of her. A piece of her that wanted me, was relying on me, loved me. I watched his chest rise and fall without the machines and breathed a little easier myself. “Your mom’s going to remember.”
He squirmed in my arms.
I smiled down at him. “And we’re going to take you home soon.” I said those words almost every time I saw him. I didn’t know if they were true. But I felt like if I kept saying it, then it would miraculously happen. I couldn’t lose my son. I just couldn’t.
“What do you want to do tonight?” I asked him. Every night, I’d hold him until visiting hours were over. Just the two of us. And I was very aware of the fact that it should have been three. But he was a pretty good distraction. Especially his blue irises. It almost felt like I was looking into Penny’s eyes. Like I was close to her even though actually being this close to her freaked her out right now. A minor setback.
Earlier tonight I was almost positive that she had been waiting for me to kiss her. It was all over her face. I was holding out hope that part of the reason she wanted a kiss was because she was starting to remember. And even if she didn’t remember, it was still a good sign. It meant she wanted me regardless.
After Penny read the book she wrote, she’d definitely be swayed the rest of the way. She was reading right now, trying to remember our love story. She’d look at me differently when I got home later. Hopefully she’d look at me with love in her eyes instead of unfamiliarity and fear.
“How about we look up the movie she apparently loves so much.” I placed Liam down on my lap and pulled my phone out of my pocket. I leaned down and showed him the screen, even though I knew he couldn’t read the Wikipedia article I had brought up about The Princess Bride. “A romantic comedy,” I said. “It figures.” I looked back down at my son. “She loves them. You’ll see when you’re older and she makes us all watch them with her.”
I looked back at the screen. The article mentioned the phrase “as you wish” several times. It was exactly what Penny had talked about. But each time I saw it, the words felt more familiar. “Where have I heard that before? Do you know?”
My son blinked at me.
“Yeah. I don’t remember either. Now we know how your mom feels.”
He blinked again.
“As you wish,” I said. “As you wish.” I slid my phone back into my pocket and lifted Liam back into my arms. “As you wish.”
I could have sworn he sighed, like he was tired of my obsession with the phrase.
“And why wouldn’t she have mentioned it to me if it was her favorite movie?” I began to rock Liam in my arms. “As you wish.” All I could recall was a Disney song about wishing on a star. “Maybe I’ve just seen the movie before. We could watch a little of it right now if you want. How does that sound?” I smiled at him. “I know I’m not technically supposed to use my phone in here, but it can be our little secret.” I pulled my phone back out and adjusted Liam in my arms so we could both see the screen. “This is your mom’s favorite movie,” I whispered right before it began. “We’re going to surprise her by knowing all about it.” I kissed the top of Liam’s head.
But my smile almost immediately faded. “Is it me, or does Westley look a lot like Tyler?”
I frowned and it looked like Liam frowned back at me.
“Don’t make that face, little dude.”
He continued to frown at me, which made me laugh. “Cut it out. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence. Your mom’s having trouble remembering, but she loves me with all her heart and…” my voice trailed off. As you wish. The familiarity of the phrase came back in a rush. “Oh fuck.” I immediately dropped my phone in order to cover Liam’s ears. “Sorry. Sorry.” I pulled my hands away from his ears. “You won’t remember that, right? Let’s just pretend it never happened. It can be our little secret.” I leaned down to lift my phone off the ground as I swallowed down another curse in my throat. Penny had a keychain with those words etched into it beside a metal heart. A keychain that Tyler had given her. That she had kept all these years. I looked back down at the image of Westley on the screen. They really did look similar.
I tried to shake away the thought. They didn’t look that similar. And the keychain was just a gift. But my optimism still felt squashed. I tried to picture her closing her eyes, waiting for my kiss earlier this evening. It was harder when it felt like she was waiting for Tyler’s. Her never mentioning the movie to me confirmed all my suspicions. Why would she tell me it was her favorite if it reminded her of another man?
Liam squirmed in my arms.
“You know, you’re probably right,” I said. “She used to like it and now she doesn’t. Besides, she doesn’t remember Tyler either. And you should have seen her after I mentioned the song we danced to at our wedding. She remembered. I could see it on her face. She’s remembering me.” I ran my hand along the side of his small face. “She’s remembering us. And she’ll remember that Tyler is just a friend.”
But what if her memories didn’t all come back at once? What if she started to remember from the beginning when she liked both Tyler and me? Like in her manuscript I had just given her to read…
“You know what, little dude? I need to cut out a little early tonight. I know, I know.” I leaned down and kissed his forehead. “When our family is put back together again you’ll be thanking me. I need to go pull a grand romantic gesture to keep her attention on us.”
I stared at him squirming in my arms. “I know she doesn’t always like grand gestures, but she’ll like this one.” I had been carrying her engagement ring around in my pocket for days. I wanted to give it back to her, but something had been stopping me. It felt like I needed to ask her again. I was going to get down on one knee and ask her to choose me. I needed to hear her say I was what she wanted. And I wanted her to know how much I loved her too.
I knew it was just a movie. Just a keychain. Maybe it meant something in the past, but it didn’t now. The Penny I knew didn’t seem to like this movie anymore. She definitely didn’t mention it because it was no longer her favorite, not because she was hiding some deep love for Tyler. Now I just needed her to remember.
The doctors had told me to take it slow. To ease her back into her life. But slow was killing me. Nothing Penny and I did had ever been slow. “I’m going to go win your mother back once and for all.”
Liam just stared at me.
“It’s not a bad idea. You’ll see, little dude.”
He had no reaction.
“I promise I’m thinking straight despite the fact that I’m exhausted.” As if on cue, I yawned. “I’m not even that tired,” I said through another yawn. I motioned for the nurse in the hall to come put him back in his incubator. “Next time I see you, I’ll be whole again. And your mom’s going to remember you. And we’ll be one big happy family.” I pulled him close to my chest. Please don’t make me a liar, Penny. Please remember.
I took a deep breath, wishing my lungs could do the work for Liam’s weak ones. “I love you.” I kissed the side of his forehead. “I’ll be back in the morning. Keep breathing for us.” But really I meant keep breathing for me. Because if his little heart stopped, I was afraid mine would too.
END OF CHAPTER 1
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