James hadn’t taken his eyes off of me since I laughed at our apparent meet cute. A coffee shop? Too cliché to have really happened, but a dream was supposed to be cliché, right? But him being my professor on top of that? Ludicrous. Hilarious. Absurd. So why wasn’t he laughing?
It wasn’t worth dwelling on. This man sitting next to me wasn’t real. And he certainly wasn’t a professor. No chance. I knew professors. They were usually in their fifties, had comb-overs, and carried their weight all wrong. James was the complete opposite. He was older than me, but he was still young. And fit. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had abs of steel under his dress shirt. And why wouldn’t he? It was my dream. I had plenty of dreams of hot men falling head over heels for me. Didn’t everyone?
He closed his eyes and pressed his lips together like he was holding back a sigh. I stared at the dark circles under his eyes again. Or maybe he was holding back a grimace. He truly did look like he was in pain. Before I could ask, he opened his eyes again and ran his fingers through his hair.
More proof that he wasn’t a professor – he had a head full of dark hair that just begged for me to run my fingers through it. Now I was the one pressing my lips together. Where on earth had that thought come from? I was being sucked into this fantasy. It happened to me a lot. Whenever I read, I always pretended I was the main character. I had traveled the world through books. Fought monsters. Fallen in love. I had done more make-believe than actual living. And this felt like some weird combination of the two. I tried to shake the thought away. This. Isn’t. Real.
I’d wake up soon enough and Melissa and I could laugh about this dream together. I could already hear her analyzing my dream in her head. She’d probably say something like, “Clearly you need to move on from Austin and you’re dying to go to this party with me tonight!” Or something equally unhelpful. Just the thought made me smile.
I glanced at James again. Even though I desperately wanted to wake up, it didn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy this dream. I had told the doctor I’d play along. And that’s what I was going to do.
The car slowed down to a stop in front of a towering building.
“Here we are,” Ian said from the front seat.
“What’s here?” I asked. Was he taking me to work or something? Was it take your imaginary wife to work day? This certainly didn’t look like a college. I knew he wasn’t a professor!
James unbuckled his seatbelt. “We’re home.”
“Home?” I looked out the car window at the building. “It looks so…un-homey.”
James laughed. “When we first moved to New York, you said every apartment looked cold. But trust me, you love it here.” He reached over and unbuckled my seatbelt.
How could I possibly love living in this building? I loved grass and trees and fresh air. You probably couldn’t even open a window in that building. What kind of life was that? I looked over at him, and he was staring at me so intently. And I found myself wanting to trust him. What was the harm in that for now?
“Okay, husband, show me the way.”
He smiled. “As you wish, wife.”
I laughed. “Oh, I love that movie.”
“The Princess Bride. Westley always says, ‘As you wish,’ to Buttercup but really he means ‘I love you, I love you, I love you!’ And it took her so long to realize it.”
He just stared at me. “I’ve never seen it.”
“What do you mean you’ve never seen it? It’s my favorite movie. You’re my husband, of course you’ve seen it.”
“You never told me.”
I never told him? What kind of sham of a marriage was this? Did we rarely ever talk? Was it a marriage of convenience somehow? It didn’t matter. It wasn’t real anyway. “Well, come on then. Let’s go watch it right now.” I opened up the door and stepped out onto the city street.
A wave of hot air hit me. And the stench of trash. I scrunched up my nose. Welcome home to me.
Ian was standing there like he had been about to open the door for me. He said he was a security guard, not a driver. Did he usually open the door? He looked upset. Had I done something to offend him?
He gave me an odd look, his hand still awkwardly outstretched.
“Thank you so much for the ride.” I thrust my hand into his and shook it.
“Penny, get back into the car,” he said, his voice much more serious than it had been when we first met.
“Um…isn’t this my home? I’d like to go see it.” This should be fun.
Ian put his hand on my shoulder and tried to push me back into the car with too much force.
“Don’t touch me,” I hissed and tried to shove his hand away. When he tried to push me again, I yelled, “Don’t touch me!”
“Jesus.” James climbed out of the car and grabbed my hand with a harsh tug. “Come on.”
I pulled my hand out of his. I wasn’t going anywhere with him. Not when he looked like he was about to kill someone. I was wrong before, I didn’t want to trust him. He didn’t seem like someone I could ever rely on. He seemed angry and irrational and unkind.
He grabbed my forearm, this time his fingers dug into my skin. “Penny, we need to get back in the car.”
“Stop.” I tried to pull away, but he gripped my arm even tighter.
A swarm of people surrounded us, microphones were thrust into my face, cameras flashed.
“Mrs. Hunter, are you alright?”
“Is the baby okay?”
“Penny, where is the baby?”
Baby? What baby? I thought about the little redheaded girl from my dream. A figment of my imagination of myself as a child. The one that had run toward me instead of toward my mother. That had been a dream, right? God, it was too hard to keep everything straight. My head started to swirl.
“Back away before I called the cops,” Ian said, trying to keep the microphones out of my face.
I felt my body start shaking. My heart raced. Why did all these reporters care about me? I tried to back away from them and ran into James’ hard chest.
“Jesus, you’re shaking.”
How did I find comfort in his voice when I barely knew him?
He wrapped his arms around me, sending warmth I didn’t know I needed through my body.
A microphone was held out a few inches from my lips.
“Penny, have you and James fully recovered?”
James’ strong arms tensed around me.
Had he been hurt too? What had happened to him? He was the one thing in this crazy fantasy that was able to calm me down. I didn’t want to lose him. Although he did freak me out at the same time. But facing all of this newness on my own didn’t sound very appealing. Why wasn’t I just allowed to go home with my parents?
“I need to get out of here,” I whispered.
The man with the microphone gave me an odd look.
“Get me out of here. I want to go home. Please take me home.” I tried to swallow down the lump in my throat, but it wouldn’t go away.
“Back up!” Ian yelled, but more people were swarming us. Flashes. Voices. He knocked the mic out of my face.
I closed my eyes. I felt like I was going to faint. “Please.”
And then I was being lifted up and over James’ shoulder. My eyes flew open and I was staring down at his ass. His very perfect looking ass. But its perfection didn’t distract me from wondering what he was doing. I hadn’t been asked to be lifted like a child. I was about to protest, but he pushed through the front doors of the building and the blast of air-conditioning and silence of the lobby made my breath come back. I felt myself sink into him.
“It’s okay,” he said gently. “You’re safe.”
I had asked to go home. But in my dream, this was my home. Try to embrace it.
James’ breathing sounded labored.
“You can put me down,” I said. I thought about my strange beer belly. It was probably hard to lift me. “I know I’m a little heavy.”
He laughed, but slowly set me down on my feet. “You’re not heavy, Penny.” But his face looked ghostly pale. And his breathing still didn’t sound normal.
I stayed pressed against him, staring up into his eyes. “You were hurt too.”
“Penny, I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine. Whatever hurt me also got you too, didn’t it?”
He touched the side of my cheek ever so slightly.
I tried not to wince or step back. I continued to stare at him. What was he hiding from me?
“Truly, I’m fine.” He ran the pad of his thumb along my cheek. “Let’s get you home, okay?”
Whatever had happened to him, he didn’t want to talk about it with me. I wondered if he usually would. Maybe he didn’t recognize me as much as I didn’t recognize him. I stepped back, not able to keep staring into his eyes so intently. “So that’s what being badgered by paparazzi feels like? No wonder so many celebrities punch them in the face and wind up in rehab.”
I smiled at him. I liked when he laughed. “Heck, I’d probably start drinking too if they followed me around all the time. I’d be one of those crazy people in rehab.” I laughed at my own joke. “How do we usually deal with them?”
He lowered both his eyebrows and the smile on his face vanished.
What had I done wrong now? James’ smiles seemed so rare. I wanted them to be permanently affixed to his face. He was too serious. Way too serious for me.
“I’m sorry if I did something to offend you,” I said. “I’m new to all this. I mean…” I awkwardly cleared my throat. Just keep pretending. “Let’s just go home, okay?” I instinctively walked back toward the exit.
“Our place is upstairs,” James said.
I turned around. Of course. “Right. We’re on floor…”
“Let me just show you,” he said and lightly touched my lower back to guide me toward the elevators.
It seemed like he wanted some kind of expression from me as we walked through the luxurious lobby of the apartment building. But it all made sense to me. In my fantasy, this is what I had. And I was having an easy time pretending it was real now. How wonderful would it be if it was reality? I mean, it was enough to make anyone swoon. But I knew it wasn’t real.
We were rich in my make-believe world. Even the elevators were decadent. The music that was playing through the speakers was straight from a 1950’s movie. It was all elaborately overdone. I had an overactive imagination.
And to think in my dream world I’d had a scandalous affair with my super hot professor. Who just so happened to be rich? Yeah, right. Never could have happened. First of all, I never would have dated my professor. Second of all, professors weren’t rich. Tenure didn’t make you wealthy and he was too young for it anyway. I laughed out loud.
“Something amusing?” James asked as the elevators dinged open on our floor.
“Nope. This all seems...normal enough for a fantasy. But seriously, James, how did we meet? We both know you couldn’t afford any of this as a professor.”
“I was serious when I said I sold my first company for a large sum.”
He didn’t respond. He just guided me down the hall to a door. Our door. He unlocked it and turned the knob. I didn’t even care that he hadn’t answered my question. Because I wouldn’t have been able to listen anyway. It felt like all the air had been knocked out of my lungs. I took a step into the immaculate foyer. This was an apartment, right?
I looked through the kitchen to the right at the ornate, winding staircase. Did apartments have two floors? I had never seen anything like it in movies.
I turned my attention back to the foyer and saw that there was natural light streaming in. I walked through the foyer into a huge living room that was open to a dining area as well. But my eyes weren’t on the room itself or the furniture. I walked toward the far wall. Although, it wasn’t really a wall at all. The whole side of the apartment was glass.
I could see Central Park from the window. Cars still swerved and honked below, but it was easy to focus on all the greenery. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
“Do you like the view?” James asked.
I jumped at the sound of his voice. I had almost forgotten he was there. I laughed and folded my arms across my chest so I wouldn’t be tempted to put my hands on the glass. “The city’s actually kind of pretty from up here.” I nodded toward the window.
“Being close to Central Park was one of the reasons why you agreed to move here.”
“Yeah?” That made sense.
“And you can even see where we got married from here.” He pointed to a large tree in the distance. It looked like a restaurant was beside it. There were tables beneath the tree and happy couples dining.
“It’s pretty.” I didn’t know what else to say. I couldn’t remember our wedding. Had it really happened? Was I even standing here right now? I glanced over at James.
He was staring at me in that way again. Like he could read my soul. Like he knew every secret I possessed. Like he knew me better than I knew myself.
END OF CHAPTER 7
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***Ch. 8 now available HERE***
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