One couple at a time came into my room and pretended to know me. A me that didn’t exist. A fabrication in their minds. I knew who I was. And I didn’t belong in this hospital bed surrounded by strangers.
They told me story after story, all which sounded made up. And almost all the stories featured the man standing in the corner of the room, staring too intently at me. James. My make-believe husband. Not once did a smile cross his face at hearing any of the funny memories. Not once did his scowl disappear.
I tore my eyes away from him and stared back at the couple in front of me. A blonde with a kind smile and a man with dark eyes and dark hair. They both looked tan like they had just been on the beach. And they definitely looked older than me. Cleary I wasn’t really friends with all these old people. If this was some sort of prank, they should have hired younger actors.
The woman glanced nervously at the man and both their smiles disappeared. I had been tuning them out. Had they said something funny? Something I should have laughed at or remembered?
“First you two ruined my proposal and now my honeymoon too? What am I going to do with you?” The guy named Mason winked at me.
That explained why they were so tan. They had been on their honeymoon. But it didn’t explain anything else he said. Or who he was. Or why I was friends with either of them in this fantasy world.
“You just got married?” I asked. “Congratulations.” How the hell can I get out of here?
The woman started blinking fast, like tears were threatening to spill. “Yeah, Penny. You were my matron of honor.”
Matron of honor. I stared at her. So we weren’t just friends in this made up reality. We were really good friends. Best friends, possibly. I shook my head. I already had a best friend. Where was Melissa anyway?
The woman put her hand on my blanket covered shin. “Don’t you remember?” Her smile wavered when I didn’t immediately respond. She removed her hand like I had burned her and looked up at her husband.
He cleared his throat. “I know Rob is desperate to see you. He’s probably here by now. We’ll go let him know it’s his turn.”
I would have asked who Rob was, but I didn’t want to hear another story. The two of them walked out of the room, leaving James and me alone.
I didn’t know where to look so I settled on my intertwined fingers. I wished he would leave. Then I could find a way to get out of this room. The silence was heavy between us. I could feel his eyes on me. But I didn’t know what he wanted. And even if I had known, I doubted I could give it to him. I wasn’t who he thought I was.
But the silence was driving me insane. “How long have we been married in this scenario?” I asked, while still staring at my hands.
He hesitated, his eyes boring into me. “A little over four years.”
That was a long time. Four years that I couldn’t remember because they had never really happened. I wished he would stop staring. I wished he’d leave me in peace. “Did we date for a while before that?” I asked, trying desperately to vanquish the awkward tension in the air. I had never been good in situations filled with awkwardness. My mouth usually filled the silence with incoherent nonsense. Or I’d just stay mute until the awkwardness felt physically painful.
“We were engaged for two and a half years.”
That was an odd way to answer that question. I looked up from my hands. “But how long did we date before our fake engagement?”
His eyes locked with mine. “I proposed to you two months after I met you.”
I bit the inside of my lip. We’d been married for four years. Engaged for two and a half. And my mom had said I was 26. Yeah, right. I stared at him. That would have meant that he proposed to me when I was 19. The same age I actually was. I racked my brain, trying to remember him. But there was nothing there. Because none of this was real.
Besides, who gets engaged when they’re 19? Not me. Certainly not me. I had never even officially had a boyfriend. Austin and his stupid lack of labels. He was an idiot and surely even he wouldn’t propose to someone when he was 19. But James was older than me. That was obvious. There was no way he had been 19 when he proposed in this twisted fairytale he was spewing.
I stared at him staring at me. “How old are you?”
Thirty four? “You’re fifteen years old than me!”
The corners of his mouth turned up ever so slightly. “Penny, you’re not 19. You’re 26. And you’ll be 27 in a few months. You’ve always been pretty adamant about the fact that I’m only seven years older than you.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that you fake proposed to a 19 year old when you were what...27?”
“Yes, but you were 20, not 19. It was after your birthday. And none of this is made up.”
“That doesn’t make it better.”
The small smile had vanished from his face.
“How did we even meet, huh? I’m 19 right now and I’m seeing someone. How could I be engaged to you after my next birthday? And how would we have even met when you’re so much older than me? I’m busy studying all the time. None of what you’re saying could possibly be true. This whole thing is ridiculous.”
“You’re not 19.”
“Yes I am!” Tears pricked the corners of my eyes. I didn’t want to cry in front of him. “I am.” I looked back down at my knotted hands on my lap. I blinked fast, forcing the tears to stay at bay. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“We got engaged because we were in love. That guy that you think you’re dating right now? Austin? He’s a prick. He never treated you right. You deserved the world and all he gave you were excuses and lies. You’re one in a million, Penny. Not one of a million. Is it so hard to believe that you were strong enough to realize you deserved better?”
Yes. Because I still stayed up late at night waiting for Austin’s calls. Waiting for some validation that I was good enough. One in a million. Not one of a million. That was sweet. James thought I deserved the world. He clearly loved me. The word love seemed to roll my stomach. I felt like I was going to be sick. No, he didn’t love me. He was just a good actor. “I meant the other question,” I said, trying to distract myself. “How did we supposedly meet?”
He didn’t respond, so I looked up at him. There was heat in his gaze. It was like he was willing me to remember. But there was nothing there. No recognition of his features. No feeling when he looked at me. Nothing.
“It’s a long story,” he finally said.
“I’m stuck in a hospital. I probably have time for it.”
He shook his head. “You didn’t like our age difference. You’re not going to like this either.”
“How bad could it be?” Maybe he just didn’t remember what he was supposed to say. Actors forgot their lines all the time.
“I don’t think it’s bad. And neither do you.” He stared at me. “Neither did you, I mean.” But the expression on his face made it seem like it was really bad.
“What, did I steal you from someone else?” I laughed because the idea was absolutely preposterous.
He lowered both his eyebrows. “No.”
But for some reason I didn’t believe him. Maybe it was the pause. Maybe it was the way he looked offended when I’d asked. Oh my God, did I steal him from someone else? I shook my head. Of course I hadn’t. I didn’t even know him. He was probably married to some Hollywood actress and obviously someone like me wouldn’t be able to steal him away even if I tried. Not that I wanted to. But still, I was curious about why he looked so upset. It didn’t look like he was acting.
Before I could ask him any more questions the door flew open.
A man I had never seen in my life ran over to my bed and threw his arms around me. His hair was wet like he had just taken a shower. The t-shirt that clung to his broad shoulders was as wet as his hair. Like he had thrown it on instead of drying off with a towel.
“You scared me half to death, sis.” He kissed my cheek before pulling back. “You look okay. Do you feel okay?” He pulled me into another hug. “I’m so fucking happy you’re okay.”
Sis? I wasn’t missing seven years of my life and there was no chance I had a sibling I didn’t know about. Especially one older than me who looked nothing like me.
“Really, how are you feeling?” He put both his hands on my shoulders and stared at me intently.
Who the hell is this person? The intensity in his eyes suddenly looked familiar. I studied his features and glanced at my pretend husband. They looked similar. Maybe this was James’ brother? Which meant I was this man’s fake sister-in-law? “Umm...I’m good. Trying to get out of here as soon as possible.” I laughed awkwardly.
“Yeah, I know how you hate hospitals. But you’re awake and everything now so you’ll probably get out in a beat. I’m just so fucking glad you’re okay.” He pulled me into another hug. “I never would have been able to forgive myself.”
“Robert Hunter!” A very pregnant woman stumbled into the room completely out of breath. “I was trying to talk to you.”
“It can wait,” he said. He released me from his embrace but kept staring at me instead of the pregnant woman. “Scarlett’s doing okay. She’s in the waiting room and I know she wants to see you. And we’ve been looking in on Liam every day. He’s strong. I know he’s gonna make it. You’re all fighters.” He tapped the bottom of my chin.
“Who are Scarlett and Liam?”
His lips parted like he was about to tell me something. But then he started laughing. “Good one, sis.” The pregnant woman walked up behind him and pulled him away from me with surprising strength.
She started whispering something to him, moving her arms around in agitation.
“No.” He laughed. “You’re shitting me. Penny tell them what’s up. Tell them you know who I am.”
Who is this person? “Someone called you Robert Hunter? I’m guessing you two are related somehow.” I gestured back and forth between him and James.
He laughed again but it sounded forced. “Very funny. If you’re getting me back for all the times I’ve messed with you…”
“This isn’t a joke, Rob,” the woman hissed. “She doesn’t remember us. She doesn’t even remember James.”
Rob looked at James and shook his head. “That can’t be true. She’s just…that’s not true. Tell them, Penny.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just shrugged my shoulders.
“This isn’t funny,” he said. “My jokes are at least funny. Cut it out.”
“We’re just going to take a minute.” The woman pulled Rob toward the door. “We’ll be back.” They disappeared into the hall.
I looked over at James. “Are you related to him?”
“He’s my little brother.”
James smiled. “He is.”
“Are him and I supposed to be close? He seemed pretty upset.”
“The two of you are really good friends.” James left his perch against the wall and walked over to me. “My family and friends became yours.”
My heart started racing. What was he about to do?
He eyed the machine that was monitoring my heart rate and smiled. “Everyone you’ve seen today loves you. But no one on this earth loves you as much as I do.” He slowly reached out his hand and brushed his fingers against my cheek.
I flinched and he immediately pulled away.
The look of hurt on his face was palpable. I hadn’t flinched when his brother had repeatedly hugged me. Why had I flinched from his touch? I needed to change the subject. I needed to wipe away that look of pain.
“Who are Scarlett and Liam?” I asked.
The hurt seemed to grow tenfold. His Adam’s apple rose and fell as he stared at me.
“Two people I should know I guess?” I said.
Tears formed in the corners of his eyes. If I hadn’t been staring at him, I would have missed it, because he immediately blinked them away.
He cleared his throat. “If you’ll excuse me for one second. I just…I need a minute.” He hurried away from me, like he couldn’t stand being next to me for another second.
I was left alone in the hospital room. I breathed a sigh of relief. I rather liked being alone.
END OF CHAPTER 3
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