I wasn’t sure I had ever felt so awkward in my life. Looking at our wedding spot in the distance, standing by a man I didn’t know, and feeling so lost. I didn’t know how to clear the tension in the air. And as soon as I thought about the awkwardness, I realized I was missing a whole element of it. On top of everything else, I was alone with a man I didn’t know. All alone. In this huge apartment. What did he want me to do?
“So where do I sleep?” I asked. Really? You’re jumping right to the sleeping arrangements? What is wrong with you? I could feel my face turning red.
He smiled down at me.
God, his smile made me nervous. “Forget that last question. Is it okay if I go for a run? I think I just need some fresh air.” The park across the street was calling to me. Maybe if I got in the very middle of it, I’d forget I was in the city. Unlikely.
“You don’t like to run,” he said.
I shrugged. “Usually I don’t. But I feel like it today.”
“No, I mean you really don’t like to run. You hate running. Trust me.”
I think I know myself better than you do. I bit the inside of my lip. I think. “So you know that but you don’t know my favorite movie? Interesting.” I tried to give him what I hoped was a playful smile and not a horrified one.
“Have you ever considered that when we met, that was no longer your favorite movie?”
No. Why would it change? “So what do you think it is?”
“You don’t have one. You’ve always claimed that you don’t. You’re adamant about it really.”
“And yet, I know my favorite movie. You’re the one that doesn’t.”
He laughed, but it sounded exasperated. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“I want you to tell me anything that makes sense. It doesn’t seem like you know me at all.”
“You’ve changed a lot in seven years.”
“So much so that I’ve lost myself?” I didn’t mean for the words to spill out, but they did. And now it was too late. I hated that he looked hurt because of me.
“Some stupid movie doesn’t define you, Penny.”
“I’m not saying it does.” My breathing was growing uneven. I should have been backtracking, going back to make-believe, but I couldn’t stop myself. “And I’m not even talking about the movie. I mean all of this.” I gestured to the enormous living room. “This isn’t me. I like simple things. Homey things.”
“I know. It’s one of the many reasons why I love you.”
“Then why do we live here? What happened to me to make me say all of this was okay?”
He ran his fingers through his hair, and I had the oddest sensation that if he hadn’t, his fist would have gone through one of the walls.
“You fell in love with me,” he said. “We fell in love. And we made all these decisions together. You love it here. All our family and friends are here.”
“Oh, my parents live in New York?” I couldn’t imagine them leaving their jobs in Wilmington. They loved them. How strange.
“I meant everyone besides your parents.”
“I see.” This conversation was pointless. I never should have started it. “I think what you meant was that your family and friends are here. Not mine.”
“They're yours too.”
I wanted to yell at him. I wanted to throw all the stupid decorative pillows off the couch. But I heard my doctor’s voice in the back of my head. I was supposed to play along. Would me agreeing with James take away the worry line on his forehead? Would it really make everything smoother? Because it didn’t feel like it would for me. I took a deep breath. Pretending made it easier for everyone but me.
“Penny.” He stepped closer to me. Too close. His cologne was polluting my air supply.
“It’s fine,” I said. “I’m sorry I freaked out. I don’t have any of my own friends. Got it. What about Melissa, though? Did we lose touch?” The thought made me want to cry. I had been holding out hope to talk to her. It felt like she was the only one that could help me.
“Baby, my friends are your friends. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Honestly, they probably like you more than they like me.”
Did he expect me to laugh at that? “Awesome.” I tried to keep my voice light and upbeat.
It just made him sigh. “And you and Melissa are still friends. She was planning on coming to town when the…” his voice trailed off. “I mean, she’ll be here tomorrow. It was the earliest she could get off work.”
“Melissa’s coming?” I didn’t even have to pretend to be excited at that news. “That’s wonderful. She’ll stay with us, right?”
“We usually offer to put guests up in that the hotel down the street while they visit.”
“Why? This place seems big enough. Don’t we have any guest rooms?”
“Two actually. But we prefer our privacy.”
“Privacy for what? I’ll text her and let her know she can stay here.” I looked down at my shoulder and realized I didn’t have a backpack. Or a purse. Or any of my things. I turned in a circle. “Where’s my phone?”
“I want to be able to focus on just us for a little bit. I want to try to get you used to our lives. Together.”
Was he keeping me hostage here? I thought about how he said I couldn’t go for a run earlier. How he wouldn’t let anyone stay here with us. How he had taken away my phone. I stared at him. There were a lot of red flags. But what could it hurt to let this weird fantasy play out? Maybe if I let it, I’d be able to wake up. I’d be able to go back to a time where I didn’t know this man. “Okay.”
He lowered both his eyebrows as he stared at me.
The action made me swallow hard. I wasn’t sure I had ever seen anything so sexy in my entire life.
“Okay?” he asked. “That’s it? I’m used to you putting up a little more of a fight.”
I laughed. Finally something that sounded like me. “Sure. So what exactly did you want to do in this huge apartment all alone?”
This time he was the one that swallowed hard. I could tell because I had the pleasure of watching his Adam’s apple rise and fall. Maybe I was wrong before, because this was the new sexiest thing I had ever seen.
“How about we start with a tour?” he asked as he stepped closer to me.
“Mhm.” My voice came out weird and high-pitched. Had he seen me staring at him? I backed up and my butt collided with the couch behind me. “Okay, so…the living room.”
“You’ve always been very intelligent,” he said.
I laughed and folded my arms across my chest as I looked around the room. My eyes landed on a framed piece of artwork above the fireplace. It looked like it was taken from the boardwalk of Rehoboth Beach. I used to love going there with my parents. I smiled, picturing myself walking along the boardwalk. I had always wished that I had someone to hold hands with. It always felt like I was the only single person in existence on those lazy summer nights. But I wasn’t alone right now. I wondered if I had told him that story.
“That painting is nice,” I said. “It reminds me of summer trips with my parents to the beach.”
“One of our first dates was a day trip to Rehoboth. We picked out this painting because it reminded us of that.”
I smiled. “You know, I always wished I had a boyfriend to walk along the boardwalk with.”
He knew? I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. He was staring at the painting like it was a distant memory. I had a million questions. Had we only ever been once? Did he like to play in the water or was he scared of sharks? And speaking of sharks, did he even like Shark Tank? Did we have the same hobbies? Did he truly love me?
“And now you have a husband to accompany you on the boardwalk.”
I laughed. “Accompany? That’s such a serious way to put it. It’s more of a skipping, dancing, twirling in the ocean breeze kind of boardwalk experience in my mind. I’m starting to think you don’t know how to have any fun.”
“Trust me, I know how to have a good time. Especially at the beach.”
“Why especially at the beach?”
“The first time we went together, we went skinny-dipping and some stupid kids stole your bikini.”
I laughed. “I strongly doubt I did something so reckless.” No favorite movie and skinny-dipping? Who the hell was this Penny Hunter person?
“Well, then maybe you’re the one that doesn’t know how to have any fun.” He raised his left eyebrow like he was challenging me.
I rolled my eyes. “You can have fun without public indecency.”
“But the best kind of fun is public indecency.”
“If you want to wind up behind bars. Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t want to end up in jail. My parents would kill me.”
“Your parents can’t exactly ground you anymore, Penny. You’re 26 years old.”
“Right.” Right! God, I’m 26 in this alternate reality! I could legally drink alcohol. Now that was something that would make this fantasy easier to digest. “Speaking of being old, we should like…make a toast or something. To…being married.”
James smiled. “Penny, you just stopped taking morphine yesterday. We should probably give it more time to flush out of your system.”
“But I feel fine.”
“That’s probably the morphine talking.”
“Oh come on. I’m a skinny-dipping jailbird. I’m sure I can handle my alcohol.” I wandered into the kitchen and was happy that he didn’t stop me. I opened up the stainless steel refrigerator and stared at the contents inside. Fresh fruits and vegetables jumped out from everywhere. I had never seen such a well-stocked fridge. And nothing was pre-made, it was all fresh ingredients. In the back corner I saw a bottle of white wine that was half empty. I grabbed it and opened up one of the cupboards. Only plates. Tons and tons of plates. Who had so many plates and what on earth were they all for?
“Next one over,” James said.
I opened up the next cabinet and pulled out two wine glasses.
“None for me,” he said from behind me.
Party for one then. I poured myself a glass and lifted it into the air as I turned to face him. “Here’s to being in love.” That was everything I’d ever wanted. And I had it. I could tell I did by the way he stared at me as I took my first sip. By the way his eyes lingered on my lips. By the way he so desperately wanted me to remember him.
I had never been in love before. I didn’t know what I was supposed to feel. Or what I should suspect. All I knew was that his gaze made me nervous. And when he touched me I felt like I had been zapped by a bug zapper. I took a huge gulp of my wine. “This is great.”
“I’m pretty sure that bottle has been open for weeks.”
“I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. This is actually my first glass of wine.” I swirled it in my glass as I looked down at the amber liquid. “So, we opened it before my accident? I mean…is that what it was? An accident? No one’s told me what happened.”
“It’s a conversation for another day. When you’re able to remember.”
“But what if I never remember?”
He shook his head. “You will.” But his tone screamed, “you have to.”
I took another sip of my wine. “It must have been something serious. I have scars on my stomach. And I’m…fat.”
“Baby, you are not fat.”
The way he said “baby” made goosebumps rise on my skin. Did he often call me that? I liked the way it sounded. “Baby.” I smiled. “No one’s ever called me that.” I awkwardly cleared my throat. “Besides you, I mean. You call me that.”
I smiled at him. “I like it.” And I really did. It made me feel special. Safe. Warm. I tucked a loose strand of hair behind my ear. “So how about that tour?” I grabbed the bottle of wine to bring with me. I told myself that it was because I’d need to refill my glass again soon. But maybe a small piece of me was worried that I wouldn’t keep my hands to myself. And I needed to keep my hands to myself. Fantasy or not, I didn’t know this man. My reaction to him didn’t make any sense. Technically I was kind of sort of still dating Austin. And I wasn’t a cheater. That was Austin’s job. I really should break up with that prick.
Maybe this was all a dream to motivate me to move on. A dream to show me that there was someone out there for me that was better than Austin. I followed James out of the kitchen and tried not to sigh at the sight of him. Hopefully that someone that was out there for me would be as sexy as my fake husband.
END OF CHAPTER 8
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