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
Join me Thursday 1/17 at 7:30 PM EST for a live reading of a sneak peek of Chapter 3 in my Facebook group - The Ivy Smoaksters HERE!
And come back next Tuesday to see Chapter 3*CH. 3 NOW AVAILABLE HERE*
And don’t forget to pre-order your copy today: