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Marriage For One: Chapter 13

ROSE

The rest of the few days leading up to the event was just as weird as that morning. We were both very busy and didn’t catch each other alone that much, but in the evenings when he came to pick me up, if there were people around, he made a show of touching me. It was nothing big, nothing that made me jump out of his arms in panic, but even a simple kiss on my cheek as a hello or a hand at the small of my back got to me. He would casually pull my hair out of my coat and would offer me his hand when there was a puddle in my way while we were walking to the car, as if I would slip and drown in that little puddle of water if he wasn’t holding on to me. I very well could have, but that wasn’t the issue. He was opening my doors, giving a gentle push at my back when I just stared at him with a small frown, and the way he said my name while looking into my eyes, the way it fell from his lips…the way he listened to me so intently whenever I managed to say something…had he always listened to me like that or had I started imagining things?

I couldn’t be sure.

Almost every night he asked if I was free for dinner, and almost every night we ate takeout in the dining room where he actually made a big effort to talk to me, and I enjoyed every minute of it, but if I said I wasn’t confused, it’d be a lie. That didn’t change anything; even when he received one-line answers, he kept going. I usually went up to bed as soon as dinner was done, not entirely because I was running away from him, but because I was getting these vicious headaches almost every other day.

I bought the dress the day before the actual event. I’d put it off as long as I could, but leaving it to the very last day was pushing it even for me. I chose the cheapest dress they showed me, though that wasn’t saying much of anything because it was equal to two months of my rent.

As much as I’d hated the experience, the dress was beautiful and worth it—so beautiful, in fact, that you’d want to randomly take it out of your closet and wear it in your home while binge-watching The Office. To say I was nervous to go out in public wearing it was an understatement.

It was an embellished tulle dress with a short tan lining beneath it that ended a little over my knees. The bell sleeves and low back were a statement on their own, but my favorite part of the dress was the fitted bodice that gave way to a full skirt and the thin gold metal belt. The skirt made you want to sway from side to side like a five-year-old with a new princess outfit. It almost reminded me of a dreamy wedding gown.

I loved it, but I was mostly worried about what Jack would think. Would it be too much? Would it be too simple? When Raymond picked me up on Saturday, it had just started raining, and because of the impossible traffic, it took us longer than usual to reach the apartment. When I asked where Jack was—because I’d gotten so used to Jack always coming inside to pick me up—Raymond said he had work to do but would be at the apartment on time.

We were supposed to leave at seven-thirty. It was now seven-forty, and not only had Jack already arrived, he had also knocked on my door twice. I’d tried my best to pull my hair up into an effortless ponytail that would look elegant and messy, but my hair wasn’t having it. In the end, I had to put a few waves in my hair with the curling iron and just leave it down. My makeup was as simple as it got. I only added a bit of concealer to what I already had on. I pressed brown eyeshadow onto my eyelids with my fingers then added more blush, and finally I swiped on a burgundy-colored lipstick, again with my finger. Standing in front of the elegant full-length mirror, I put the dress on and found myself staring at the reflection.

To be fair, I didn’t look so bad, but I felt uncomfortable, like I was in way too far over my head. A deal was a deal, though, so, trying not to overthink it too much, I bundled myself in my dark grey knee-length coat and flew out of my room. High heels weren’t my best friend, so I ran barefoot down the stairs and put on the only pair of heels I owned in the foyer.

I found Jack right in the middle of the living room, staring down at his phone. I didn’t make a sound as I took him in. His stubble was in great shape as always and demanded your attention when you first set eyes on him, but add a tux to the mix and Jack Hawthorne had become deadly. I swallowed down my groan and cleared my throat. My husband glanced up and met my gaze.

I didn’t give him a chance to comment. “Yes, I know we’re late and I’m sorry, but I’m ready now, we can leave.”

He gave me a sharp nod, eyes moving up and down as he put his phone up to his ear. “Raymond, we’ll be there in a minute.”

My coat was all buttoned up and I had my hands in my pockets, so the only thing he could see was a few inches of the hem of my embellished skirt. He made no comments as he joined me. Trying to avoid his gaze, I walked ahead of him, and we took the elevator down.

“Good evening, Steve,” I said as we passed the doorman and my now friend.

He winked at me and, as nervous as I was, I couldn’t hold back my smile. “Have a fun night out, Mrs. Hawthorne.” He always called me Mrs. Hawthorne whenever Jack was around, but in the mornings when it was just me and him chatting for a minute or two as I waited for Ray to pull up, I was always Rose. Jack’s hand found my back and I straightened.

“Have a good night, Steve,” Jack added, and my surprised gaze flew up to him. Since when had he started talking to Steve? Evidently it was a fairly new thing because for a moment there, Steve didn’t know what to say.

“Ah…you too, sir.”

Then we were out in the cold evening air, the rain now only a drizzle. I was very conscious of Jack’s hand on my back up until I got in the car and scooted all the way to the other end. Nothing changed once he got in after me. I was still very aware of his presence, his scent, his eyes whether he was touching me or not.

“Hello again, Raymond.”

He looked over his shoulder to offer me a smile. “You look beautiful, Mrs. Hawthorne.”

I blushed and, out of the corner of my eye, noticed Jack tense.

“We’re already late as it is. Let’s go,” he ordered in a harsh tone, cutting me off before I could respond to Raymond.

I would’ve apologized again for making us late, but he was being a jerk to Raymond so I chose not to say anything during the entire car ride to where the event was being held downtown. It took us an hour to get there, and being quiet in a car for an entire hour required some serious patience on my part.

Exiting the car, we stood side by side at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the brightly lit building.

“Why do you sound weird?” Jack asked into the silence.

“You and your compliments. Always sweeping me off my feet.” I said, distracted, my eyes still on the building.

“I’m being serious, Rose.”

Surprised at the tight tone of his voice, I peered up at him. “What?”

“Your voice sounds different. Is the cold getting worse?”

“Oh.” I touched the side of my nose and looked forward again, a little embarrassed that he’d noticed. “The cold, yes. It’s not that much worse, actually, but I do have a small cotton ball in my nose. I thought it would be a better idea than sniffling the entire time.”

“You need to see a doctor.”

“I will.”

“Ready?” Jack asked, holding his hand out in between us.

I stared at it for a few seconds and then, left with no other choice, had to put my hand in his very big one. I took a deep breath and took a step forward only to be tugged back gently. When he shifted our hands and linked our fingers together, causing my wedding ring to shift slightly, I had to close my eyes for a second and ignore the heavy thump in my chest. Every single time he touched my wedding ring, my heart did a happy little jump.

We were ready to go, but neither of us was taking the first step. Our hands gripping each other, we stood motionless.

“What is it, Rose?” he asked softly, and I closed my eyes tighter this time. He was standing too close, smelling too good, and being nice again.

I couldn’t think of a legitimate lie, so instead of just straight-up admitting that simply his presence was affecting me, I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind. At least I was telling the truth.

“I don’t like it when you act like a jerk.”

When I said the words out loud, I wasn’t looking at him. As a couple passed us, climbing the stairs and, from the looks of it, arguing with each other, I had to wait for Jack’s answer since I had no intentions of meeting his gaze to see what he was thinking.

He only spoke up when the couple’s voices had trailed off and we couldn’t be heard either.

“When was I being a jerk?”

That had me looking back at him. “You can’t be that unaware of it. You were a complete jerk to Raymond, Jack.”

“Is that why you didn’t say a single word to me during the ride?”

Perplexed, I just peered at him. “You snapped at him for no reason.”

“He complimented my wife,” he argued. “We didn’t have time to sit around and chitchat for an hour.”

“Your fake wife, and he knows that.”

Fascinated, I stared as the muscle started ticking in his jaw.

“Is that supposed to help your case? I do—”

“He just said one sentence as he was starting the car.” I lifted one finger up to make my point. “He was being nice, and he is my friend. You’re the one who acted like a jerk. I think it’s expected that I wouldn’t want to talk to you.”

“Great,” he bit out.

“Great,” I shot back, terser.

He stared down into my eyes and I stared right back, not backing down. I must’ve imagined the lip twitch, because a second later he barked out another order for us to head inside and we were trotting up the stairs.

Still hand in hand.

It was a big problem that I didn’t mind holding his hand.

The second we stepped through the doors, the soft classical music hit my ears, replacing all the horns and sirens.

Here we go.

We stopped in front of the coat check as the couple who had just passed us was still lingering in the corner, arguing in hushed tones.

“I’m sorry,” Jack grumbled, stopping right next to me, eyes focused on the couple. “It wasn’t my intention to be a jerk. Forgive me?”

Shocked at his words and the softness I heard in his voice, my head snapped to him and I took in his profile. God, he was so good looking. I really had no chance, not from the very first day.

“That’s okay,” I mumbled back still a little surprised at what I felt when I looked at him, and his hand gave mine a quick squeeze. Just when I was pretty sure it was going to be easier not to like him, he did something like that and left me at a loss for words.

“You don’t have a purse?” he asked, leaning into my ear. I had to lean away just a little so I wouldn’t burrow myself against his chest. For that little piece of idiocy, I blamed his breath, which I’d felt on my neck, causing a shiver to move up my spine.

He let go of my hand and stood at my back, ready to help me take off my coat. “I don’t have anything that matches,” I answered softly, angling my head to the left so he could hear me as I slowly started to unbutton my coat with cold fingers and then gently shrugged it off.

“Why didn’t you buy something?”

“You said to get a dress, and I don’t need a purse. Don’t worry, the dress alone cost a fortune already.”

He handed off my coat to the girl and when he forgot to say thank you, I spoke for both of us and offered a small smile. A second later I heard Jack grumble a thank you too as he was taking off his own coat.

It made me smile and I walked ahead.

Thankfully, inside the ballroom where the event was being held, it was much warmer, so I didn’t think I’d have much problem with freezing in my dress. Discreetly, I touched my nose to make sure the little cotton ball I’d pushed in back at the apartment was still there. How fun was it that my runny nose had decided to stick around? Tugging the bell sleeves of my dress and trying to make them look good, I stood still and waited for Jack to stand next to me again.

When he reappeared at my side, I caught him staring at me. I looked down at myself.

“What? Is it too much?”

“Rose.”

I met his piercing gaze with an arched brow and waited for him to go on, but he just stared. Starting to feel worried, I tried to pull down the tan lining underneath my dress.

“No. No, it isn’t,” he whispered. “You look incredible,” he said, and my eyes snapped up to his.

This time when he offered his hand, it was a welcome distraction.

“I…you look incredible too, Jack. You always do,” I murmured feeling myself blush a little.

He opened his mouth to say something, but right at that moment, an older man put a hand on his shoulder and drew his attention away from me.

Jack introduced us, but after the initial shock of hearing Jack had gotten married, the guy wasn’t really interested in me. They started talking about a company I believed Jack was representing. Keeping the fixed smile on my face, I tuned them out, taking the opportunity to look around the room.

When I spotted two tables full of kids toward the back of the room, I couldn’t hide my curiosity. Some of them were talking to each other, while some of them just stared around in wonder. Their clothes didn’t fit in with this snazzy crowd, so I doubted they belonged to anyone who was in this room. It looked like each table had one adult sitting with them.

As Jack finished his conversation with the guy, Ken something, I leaned closer to him so nobody could hear us. He leaned down at the same time to make it easier for me, and my nose got a pretty good whiff of his cologne when my nose bumped his neck. It was the one I hated because it made me go all wonky around him—not a good look. “What charity is this event for?” I asked, managing to focus after the initial shock of the smell.

“An organization that supports foster kids.”

I pulled back and looked up at him in surprise. “You didn’t tell me that.”

“I didn’t?”

Slowly, I shook my head.

“I thought I did. Is that a problem?”

My entire childhood spent with the Colesons was rough. I was unwanted. For a kid that age, that knowledge was a hard pill to swallow. I knew what these kids were going through, how alone they felt, how abandoned and sometimes worthless. I’d always have a soft spot for kids and probably would have for the rest of my life.

Steeling my voice, I whispered, “I’d like to donate too. Where can I—”

Jack cleared his throat and looked away from me, his eyes moving across the crowd. “I’m already donating.”

“I understand that, but I’d like to donate as well.”

“I’m donating, so you don’t have to.”

He started walking, but this time holding hands worked in my favor and I was the one who tugged him back. He gave me an incredulous look as I raised my brows and waited for him to give me the answer I was looking for.

I didn’t know why he chose to lean down and whisper it in my ear, but I couldn’t exactly push him away. Before I could stop myself, I was tilting my head to the side and closing my eyes. Savoring the moment.

“We’re married, Rose. My donation is in both of our names. Let me do this.”

I heard his unspoken words as if he had spoken out loud.

For you.

Let me do this for you.

As he was pulling back, I reached up with my free hand and held on to his neck so he would stay put and listen. “Married or not, that’s your money, Jack. I love that you’re doing it in both our names, that means the world, but I want to help, too. We can both donate.”

For a long moment there was no answer, but he stayed bent like that, looking into my eyes. After a few more seconds passed in silence, feeling awkward I started to drop my hand from his neck, but he captured my wrist with his left one before I could and kept it on his shoulder.

I swallowed as I realized we were basically standing in an embrace in front of everyone, though it didn’t matter much to me whether anyone was watching or not. When I felt Jack’s nose brush my neck, my fingers tightened on his shoulder and a small shiver went through my body. I smiled.

“Does everything have to be a battle between us? Do you despise me that much? I’m taking care of it, Rose. Trust me. I’ll be donating one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in both our names.”

He finally pulled back and peered into my eyes. Like a fish, I opened and closed my eyes. Despise him? What gave him that idea?

“I could never despise you, Jack,” I whispered, feeling out of my depth.

Satisfied, he nodded once. “Let’s find our table.”

I closed my eyes for a quick second, trusting him to steer me away from any obstacles, and let out a deep breath. For the time being, playing the role of husband and wife was going to play some real tricks with my mind, and I wasn’t sure if I was gonna handle it all that well come the end of the night.

I opened my eyes and noticed we were passing the kids’ table. One of the little girls—she couldn’t have been over eight—was looking up at us with wide eyes, so I winked at her and watched her quickly drop her gaze back to her lap as she played with the edge of the white tablecloth.

When I faced forward again and Jack came to a halt, I still had a smile on my face. Maybe tonight won’t be so bad after all, I thought, but then when I saw who was standing in front of us, I wasn’t so sure about that anymore.

Bryan smiled at us, not a happy smile like you’d expect from someone you’d considered family for long years, but a mocking one.

“What a great coincidence to run into you two here!” Bryan exclaimed, looking from me to Jack. “Oh, this is a good night indeed.”

“Bryan,” Jack returned tightly.

I couldn’t say anything because I could see the couple standing right behind him, talking to an older woman. I was paralyzed.

As Bryan leaned forward to press a kiss on my cheek, Jack pulled me slightly against him so my shoulder was leaning against his side. I didn’t react. I was shocked into silence.

“Congratulations on your marriage again. I know we started on the wrong foot, but we can’t let little things like that get in the way of family, right Jack?” he asked. Bryan’s fake smile slid off his face when neither Jack nor I responded, and he followed my gaze and looked over his shoulder. “Jodi, look who I found here.”

Jodi turned to face her brother and her…companion turned with her.

I felt the remaining blood drain from my face, and as they strolled toward us, Jack’s hand tightened around mine. I was thankful that I was leaning against him because otherwise I didn’t think I could’ve stayed upright for too long.

Jodi and my ex-fiancé, Joshua, who had his hand around her waist, stopped in our little circle and greeted us as if nothing was wrong. It was the first time I was seeing him after he had broken up with me via text. It felt like it’d been ages, and now he was at a charity event with Jodi.

Even though I had no feelings left for my ex-fiancé anymore, I felt my heart break into little pieces all the same. Jodi smiled at me as if this was all normal and congratulated me on my marriage and apologized on missing the opening of my coffee shop, just like Bryan had. It seemed just as fake and forced. I couldn’t even nod in return because I couldn’t take my eyes off of Joshua. He spared me one glance and then looked anywhere but me.

I think Jack and Bryan exchanged a few more words, I could hear Jack’s clipped and anything-but-happy tone, but the pounding in my ears prevented me from making out specific words. Starting to feel a little dizzy, I took my shocked eyes off of Joshua when Jodi leaned up and whispered something in his ear, earning a low chuckle from him. I’d been on the receiving end of that chuckle before, and I had loved the warm sound. Now it made my stomach turn.

I leaned harder on Jack, thankful that he was so big and strong next to me. He moved our joined hands from between our bodies and rounded his arm around my waist, my hand still very much attached to his, my arm bent.

I didn’t exactly know what to do with myself, so when I felt Jack’s warm lips against my temple, I looked up at him with a dazed look.

“You want to go find our table?”

I studied his face, his beautiful but angry eyes. He looked so good in a tux, so unattainable, yet there he was, not mine but still holding me up.

“Yes,” I whispered. “Please.”

Jack bid good evening to my cousins and Joshua, and I managed to force a faint smile on my lips. Jodi and Joshua were already walking away.

“Looking forward to hearing back from you, Jack,” Bryan said and touched my arm which made me instinctively jerk and then he walked away too. I couldn’t even make sense of his words.

“What’s he talking about, Jack.”

“Don’t worry about it. Would you like to leave?” Jack asked, and I turned my unfocused eyes back to him.

“Yes.”

My husband, the strong man who was still holding me up, started to gently turn me toward the door we had just come in through. Two steps later, I put my hand on his arm and stopped him.

“No. No, wait. We made a deal. I’m sorry. I’m not going to leave.”

I was talking to his chest, but he nudged my chin up and looked deep into my soul.

“There is no deal, Rose.”

“Yes, there is. This is a business deal. There is no reason for us to leave.”

“Rose—” he started, but I cut him off.

“That was Joshua, my ex-fiancé, with my cousin.”

His lips tightened. “I know who he is.”

“I was surprised, that’s all. I’m okay now.”

“I didn’t know,” he ground out after a few seconds of searching for something in my eyes. God, his eyes were beautiful. “If I had known they’d be here, your cousins and… I didn’t know, Rose.”

I smiled, just a little. “I know that.”

“What was wrong with Bryan? He called me just a few days ago, still threatening. Why would he talk like he just did?”

“You didn’t tell me he called.”

“It wasn’t important.”

“It is. If he bothers you again, tell me.”

I nodded.

“Rose… I thought you’d enjoy this one, the cause—that’s why I chose it.”

My smile widened and resembled something more genuine. “You’re right. I will enjoy this one because of the cause.”

He shook his head, his expression hard. “I’m messing this up every step of the way, aren’t I?”

I wasn’t sure what came over me, but something in his tone didn’t sit well. So, as if it was the most natural thing for me to do, still looking into his eyes, I rose up on my tippy toes, placed my hand on his stubbled cheek, and kissed the edge of his lips. That was as far as I’d allow myself to go. His hand tightened on my waist, pulling me at least a few inches closer to him. It didn’t close the gap between us, but I was aware of his hand and where it was the entire time.

“Thank you,” I whispered as I dropped down to my heels, busying myself with fixing his bow tie.

He let go of my waist. “For what?”

I didn’t have a straight answer for that. “Just thank you.”

He ground his perfectly square jaw and sighed. “You sure you want to stay?”

I wasn’t sure, but I wasn’t going to leave. I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction, no matter how much I wanted to tuck my tail between my legs and flee. “Yes. Completely.”

As we broke out of our little private bubble, I started to hear everything else around us: a man’s robust laughter, plates clinking, someone coughing, a woman’s giggle, and the low classical music. Jack guided us as he always did, with a gentle hand on my back, and I made sure not to look anywhere but forward. It was very hard not to flinch at every loud noise as we walked around tables and finally came to a stop in front of one that was tucked at the very edge.

Jack pulled out a chair and I sat down. Obviously, I didn’t know anyone at the table, but I didn’t think Jack did either. For a long while, we were quiet. Then I made the mistake of looking to my right, just to see if I could see the kids from where I was sitting, but my eyes met with Joshua’s instead. They were two tables to our right and a little behind. It didn’t look like Jodi was with him at that moment, but Bryan was there, sitting to his right, talking to someone else who was seated at their table. Joshua didn’t break eye contact with me, his brown eyes watching, calculating. Then, so subtly I almost missed it, he raised his champagne as if toasting me.

I turned back around, feeling sick to my stomach and promising myself I wouldn’t look over my shoulder again during the entire event.

“How do you feel?” Jack asked, and my eyes slid to him. He was staring ahead, his jaw ticking again.

In a way, I knew he wasn’t asking how I felt about the situation. I believed he was asking what I was feeling toward my ex-fiancé.

I answered honestly in a steady voice. “Sick to my stomach.” That was exactly how I felt, though somehow I also felt relieved that I hadn’t made the mistake of marrying someone like Joshua—someone who told me how much he loved me so easily and so often and yet, in the end, apparently didn’t mean it at all. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend how he could be with Jodi. They knew each other through me. We’d had dinner together a handful of times with the family when Gary had invited him over and they’d chatted every now and then when we bumped into each other, but I could’ve never, ever imagined…this—not even from Jodi, and definitely not from Joshua. He’d always told me he thought Jodi was like an ice princess and he didn’t care for that type.

My hands were in my lap, almost frozen, so when Jack’s hand covered mine, I dropped my eyes, watching him slowly link our fingers together again, just as he had done so many times in the last hour. I was fascinated by it enough that I let go of every single thought about Jodi and Joshua evidently being together and focused on the only thing that was warming me from the inside out.

“Your hands are cold,” Jack muttered under his breath, and I realized how close we were sitting to each other.

Had he moved? He kept our hands on my thigh, mine tightly grasped in his, and I decided I liked the feel of it, the heaviness, the warmth. So I held on just as tight. “I know.”

His thumb started rolling my wedding ring around my finger.

Back and forth.

Back and forth.

It was such a weird sensation, feeling his skin on mine. Did he feel the same? The tingles?

He nodded once and I peered at him under my lashes, trying not to be too obvious. So what if he was just pretending? I could do the same. I could take this comfort from him and let myself feel loved. I could just stop thinking and enjoy my seconds and minutes with him. I didn’t have to analyze my every move. I could just be whatever I wanted to be with Jack while we were out in public like this. I could fool myself, happily, before we had to step back into the real, harsh world.

Lifting my head, I looked at him. Two spots were open at our table to Jack’s left, the other four seats taken by two women and two men who were talking among themselves.

“Jack, talk to me,” I urged as the emcee of the night took the stage and the lights dimmed just slightly. A hush fell over the crowd in the room, but there was still quiet chatter here and there, which was why I didn’t feel guilty about my lack of attention.

Jack’s eyes were on the stage, but they turned to me and I repeated my words.

“Just talk to me.”

He sighed. “What do you want to talk about?”

I shrugged, glad he didn’t put up much of a fight. “Anything. Everything. Whatever you want.”

A line etched between his brows as he studied me for a quick moment. “How many cups of coffee did you sell today? You didn’t text.”

I smiled, my heart settling down a bit more. As much as he insisted he wasn’t good at small talk, I always enjoyed his company. He had his own way of doing things. He rarely lost the frown, for one thing, but in my eyes, it only made him look more attractive. He could frown at me an entire night and I still wouldn’t mind it. I relaxed in my seat, finally starting to thaw out.

“One hundred eighty-six.”

“That’s a few more than yesterday, isn’t it?”

I nodded.

“Are you happy then?” he asked.

I gave him a bigger smile. “I am. It’s going to be cinnamon week next week and I’m very excited about that. Do you have a special request? I might be able to make it happen.”

His gaze moved away from mine for a brief moment when the entire room erupted in laughter and then applause. I noticed an army of waiters swarming around the tables, two of them rounding ours with plates in their hands. Jack let go of my hand and leaned back so the waiter could do his job. The loss of his touch settled over me, and I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel about that. They took our drink orders: white wine for me and whiskey on the rocks for Jack.

As soon as they left us alone with our weirdly colored risottos and went to get the drink orders, I leaned back in.

“Any specific cinnamon orders?”

I would’ve preferred him grabbing my hand again, but instead he casually slung his arm across the back of my chair and turned his body toward me.

“Anything you make yourself, save some for me.”

“I make this braided cinnamon thing. It’s a Swedish recipe and I love it. I can do that if you want.”

“I’d like that,” he said simply, and we had to pull away a little when our drinks arrived. I wasn’t a fan of alcohol and rarely drank, but it felt like it would be a necessity on this night.

I took a sip of my wine, and he took a sip of his whiskey.

“Do you know a lot of people here?” I asked, pushing my glass away.

He looked over his shoulder and his features hardened. Curious, I followed his gaze and saw Joshua staring again, even though Jodi was sitting right next to him. His arm was around her chair, almost exactly like Jack’s had been on mine. I tore my eyes away and put my palm on Jack’s stubbled cheek again. Applying a little pressure, I turned his head back to me.

“Jack, do you know a lot of people here?” I repeated as he drained the rest of his whiskey in one go. “It’s just gonna be the two of us tonight, okay? We’re not gonna focus on anyone else. We need to look like a happily married couple so it’s just gonna be the two of us.” It felt as if I repeated enough times maybe I’d believe it myself as well.

“A few. I know a few people,” he responded finally, his voice rough from the alcohol.

When the waiter was close enough, he ordered another one. I took a small sip of my own wine and tried a small bite of the risotto. It wasn’t the worst thing I could’ve been eating. I glanced at the people sitting across from us and noticed none of them were interested in what was happening on the stage either.

When I noticed something drip from my nose onto the tablecloth, my whole face heated, and I quickly reached for the napkin, cursing myself for not having a small handbag I could’ve stashed a few things in. Mortified, I hoped Jack—or anyone else, for that matter—hadn’t seen my runny nose. Trying to be discreet about it, I dabbed the napkin on my upper lip and slightly on my nose. I could already feel my cheeks flushing as I started to panic. I looked down at the napkin and just saw clean liquid saturating the cloth. Pushing my chair back, I got up, and Jack rose with me.

I sniffled quietly, my hand going to my nose. Our height difference worked in my favor since I could keep my head tilted back as I looked up at him. “Just going to the bathroom. You don’t have to come, Jack.”

He didn’t listen and followed me all the way to the back of the ballroom. I rushed inside and, thankful that no one else was in there, stood in front of the mirror. Reaching up, I pulled the cotton out of my nose and just stared at it. It was saturated to the point that I could squeeze it and watch it drip. I had no idea what was going on exactly, but I was pretty sure this wasn’t just a runny nose anymore. I must’ve been allergic to something. I already had an appointment with the doctor on Monday so he could give me some nose spray to stop this from happening, but until then I was going to have to be careful about not dripping around other people.

When a knock sounded on the door, I opened it halfway and just pushed my head out.

“Everything okay in there?” Jack asked, trying to look over my head.

“Yes, of course. I’ll be out in a minute.”

I didn’t give him a chance to say anything else and let the door close in his face. After tearing up some toilet paper and rolling it into a shape that I could tampon my nose with, I quickly looked myself over in the mirror and noticed how pale I looked. The burgundy lipstick I was wearing stood out too much in contrast to my skin. Grabbing some more toilet paper, I dabbed some of it off, turning it into just a tint of color. Finally exiting the bathroom, I rejoined Jack.

“We can go back,” I muttered as I tried to walk past him, but he stopped me.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. We can go.”

“Were you crying?”

I frowned up at him in confusion. “Why would I cry?”

“Your ex-fiancé is here.”

“I noticed.”

“With your cousin,” he added helpfully.

“Really? Where?” I asked in mock outrage.

He sighed and ran his hand through his casually styled hair. “We should leave.”

“You keep saying that, but we don’t need to.”

“Why not? And if you say we made a deal one more time, I’ll carry you out of here over my shoulder.”

His unexpected words pulled a laugh out of me. “You could try and see how that goes for you this time around,” I offered with a little grin.

He didn’t grin back. “You sure about this?”

“Why should I be the one who leaves? I didn’t do anything wrong, so I’m not going to give them the satisfaction. Stop asking me. I’d like to try to enjoy this night.”

“I don’t want you to get hurt, Rose.”

I stared up at him. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that he was randomly saying things like that when I was feeling so off-kilter around him. “You won’t let me,” I said, choking a little and having trouble finding the right words. “You won’t let anyone hurt me.” I knew—somehow I knew he wouldn’t let anything hurt me.

He released a breath. “As you wish. Ready to go back?”

I nodded then hesitated after a few steps.

“I feel like everyone is looking at us, in there.”

“That’s because they are.” Jack’s eyes moved on my face, then my body. I felt my cheeks heat up. “Look at you. How could they not.”

Oh, geez.

While I was trying to come up with something to say he covered my hand with his. A little surprised, I looked down and then up to him, but he was looking straight ahead. As another round of applause broke out in the room, we stepped back in again. Because of all the waiters rushing around, we were walking really slowly, and that’s how I felt a small hand on my leg as I was passing a table.

“Jack, what a surprise to see you here!” someone said from our left, blocking our way back. As Jack was shaking hands with the man, I glanced back to see a little girl quickly turn her head away when our eyes met.

When I tried to pry my hand away from Jack’s, he stopped talking and looked down at me questioningly. “I’ll be right back,” I whispered, smiling at his friend before retracing my steps back to the little girl. She was stealing little glances at me, and the closer I got, the more she couldn’t look away. When I was standing next to her, she looked up at me with these big beautiful blue eyes. It wasn’t as deep as Jack’s blue, but a lighter shade, a sweeter one.

I gently dropped down to my knees, holding on to her chair with my hand.

“Hi,” I whispered, leaning toward her.

She bit her lip and looked at someone I assumed was either a social worker to keep the kids in line or just a chaperone, but the woman was busy listening to whoever was on stage and didn’t notice me and the little girl talking.

Both hands on the seat of her chair, the girl leaned closer and whispered, “Hi.”

I grinned at her and she gave me a crooked smile.

“I love your dress. Is it new?” I asked. She looked down at herself. She wore a simple long-sleeved pink dress. It wasn’t anything special, but its owner was, and that was all that mattered.

“They gave it to me today,” she explained. “It’s pink. It’s mine now, I think.”

“It looks gorgeous on you. I wish I had a pretty pink dress like that, too.”

“You do?”

I nodded enthusiastically. “I don’t have such beautiful blonde hair like yours, though, so I’m not sure I would look that good in pink, but I’m jealous just the same.”

She gently touched my arm with one single finger and quickly pulled it back.

“My name is Rose. What’s yours?”

“Madison, but my friends call me Maddy.”

“Nice to meet you, Maddy.” I held out my arm so she would feel free to touch me again. “Do you think my dress looks okay on me? I’m not sure.”

“It’s so pretty,” she whispered longingly, and this time she felt okay enough to run her hand up and down the embellishments on my sleeves. She looked at me and then to the chaperone, and when she saw the woman still hadn’t noticed us, she crooked her finger at me. I had to take two steps on my knees to get there and then she leaned in even closer, speaking into my ear. “I’m sorry I touched you. I’m not supposed to touch anyone tonight.”

I tried to force a brighter smile on my face. “That’s okay. I won’t tell anyone.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

The girl sitting on her right, who could only have been a few years older than Maddy, turned to us too.

“Hey, what are you doing on the ground?”

“Hey yourself,” I said, smiling. “Just chatting with your friend.”

“I like your hair.”

“Oh, really? Thank you.”

“I love yours. I wish I had curls like that.”

She swung her head from side to side, her tiny, frazzled curls flying everywhere. “I don’t have to do anything to mine.”

“You’re so lucky.”

“Sometimes other kids make fun of it though.”

My heart ached. I’d also had kids make fun of me when I was her age. Kids could be brutal. “Don’t listen to them. Trust me, they’re just jealous.”

“What’s your name?” she asked, leaning over the back of her chair.

“Rose.”

“It’s a pretty name. You’re pretty, too.”

My heart melted. “Thank you. You’re so sweet. What’s your name?”

“Sierra.”

“Really? I had a friend named Sierra in college. It’s a beautiful name, just like you.”

The pretty blue-eyed Madison touched my arm, and I turned to her. “I really like your dress. Was it a lot of money?”

“It was a gift to me. Maybe when you’re a little older, you can buy something like this, something shiny.”

“Who bought it?”

Thinking I would point Jack out, I looked over my shoulder. I was assuming he would have his back to me since that was how I’d left him, but he had switched places with his friend and was talking to him while facing me. He glanced my way over his friend’s shoulder and our eyes met.

I bit my lower lip and turned to Madison. “You see that guy over there talking to the man wearing a navy blue suit?”

Both girls craned their necks to see who I was talking about.

“Which one? The old one?” Sierra whispered.

I looked back again and got caught in Jack’s gaze. Since he was already looking our way, even though I could see his mouth moving as he talked to his friend, I pointed at him with my finger so the girls could see him. “Not the old one, the one in front of him. He has blue eyes and he is looking at us.” Turning back to them, I asked, “Did you see?”

The girls giggled loudly.

My head whipped back to Jack, but he was focused on his friend. I also noticed a few other people from the tables around us sending me disapproving looks. I couldn’t understand why, so I ignored them. “What? What is it?”

“He winked at us,” Maddy said, still grinning. “He is so big.”

“Is he your boyfriend?” Sierra asked, now sitting sideways on her chair.

“He is my…husband.” I touched her nose with my finger.

Her grin got bigger.

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Maddy chimed in. “I’m too young.”

“Believe me, you’re not missing out on anything.”

“Boys can be stupid sometimes,” Sierra added, nodding.

“Yeah, so stupid, and jerks, too,” I admitted. It was something they’d learn soon enough.

When they started to giggle again, I started laughing with them, not caring that more heads had turned our way this time.

“You tell your husband he is stupid, too?” Maddy whisper-yelled.

“I told him he was a jerk tonight, right before we walked in here.”

Both their eyes got huge. “You didn’t!”

“I did.” I shrugged. “He was being a jerk so I told him to stop it.”

“But he is so much bigger than you.”

“He is pretty big, isn’t he? Well, it doesn’t matter. Just because he is big doesn’t mean he gets to be a jerk.”

Sierra nodded enthusiastically. “He is kinda cute, though.”

“Yeah, cute,” Maddy mumbled.

As I was about to say something, I felt a hand clasp my wrist and pull me up not so gently. Surprised, I gasped and almost lost my balance.

“You’re embarrassing us,” Bryan hissed, leaning in close and pulling me toward him at the same time.

I tried to jerk my hand away, but his hold on me was tight and was starting to become painful. My brows drew together as I met his eyes. “What are you doing?” I whispered in confusion when I could find my voice again. Before I got an answer, I felt a broad chest pressing against my back, and just like that, Jack’s hand was on Bryan’s wrist. I didn’t know how much pressure he was applying, but Bryan let go of me immediately.

Acting like nothing was wrong, my cousin looked around and smiled. “Try to control your wife, Hawthorne.” Then, pushing one hand into the pocket of his pants, he strolled away from us.

Confused, hurt and more than a little surprised, I just massaged my wrist.

That broad, warm chest that was plastered behind me moved slightly so he could lean down and whisper into my ear. “What did he say?” he growled, and that gravelly voice did things to me—lots of things.

I let go of my wrist and involuntarily pressed myself back, absorbing more of his heat so I could whisper back. “Nothing.”

“Rose—” he started in a low voice, his palm pressing against my stomach, keeping me in place.

Keeping me with him.

“It’s okay,” I interrupted, looking over my shoulder and into his eyes. His jaw clenched, but he didn’t say anything else.

I remembered where we were—or more importantly, who I had been talking to just a few seconds earlier—so I turned back to the girls, who were staring up at us in confusion.

“I’m sorry about that,” I apologized, shifting in place and facing them again. Jack stayed glued to my back, moving his body with me. It probably should’ve bothered me, his closeness, but I would’ve been lying to myself if I’d said it did. His hand curled around my waist and gave it a squeeze.

“Uh…” It was so hard not to fidget under his touch. “Girls, I’d like you to meet my husband, Jack. Jack, these are my new friends, Maddy and Sierra.”

They both waved up at him, and I peered back to see him nodding at them with a serious expression on his face.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you girls,” he said, so smoothly my heart went crazy in my chest. Those pesky little butterflies were back in my stomach, too.

The girls were grinning again, so all was well.

“Did Rose really call you a jerk tonight?” Sierra enquired boldly, staring up at him.

I put my hand over Jack’s, which was still on my waist, and looked back at him, too. He sighed and managed to change his expression to a really guilty one. I couldn’t hold back my smile.

“I’m afraid she did.”

“You didn’t get angry?” Maddy quipped with big eyes.

“She was telling the truth. I was being a jerk, so I couldn’t get angry at her.”

“Rose said boys are stupid and jerks,” Sierra put in.

I feigned a shocked expression. “You’re telling on me to my husband, Sierra? I told you that in secret.”

The giggles started again and I couldn’t keep a straight face. My smile got bigger when Jack played his role perfectly by leaning down and pressing a soft kiss on my cheek.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to agree with my wife. Boys are stupid. And sometimes jerks, I’m afraid.”

God, who was this man exactly?

Both of them had heart eyes as they stared up at Jack. I was afraid I had them as well.

“Would it be okay if I stole my wife for a little while?” Jack asked the girls. I didn’t want to leave, but they needed to eat their dinner, and I didn’t want to attract any attention to myself and embarrass Jack in any way.

“Will you come back?” Maddy asked, and I nodded.

“I will. Promise.”

“Okay. Bye!”

We got some more waves then, with his arm still around my waist and my hand on his, Jack guided me back to our table. I realized the emcee wasn’t on the stage anymore and there were no other speakers. I felt and, more than that, noticed curious eyes on us, some of them likely disapproving, but I kept a small smile on my face and made sure not to glance at the table where Joshua and the rest of them sat.

When we reached our table, instead of sitting down like I’d assumed we would, Jack pulled me over, a little to the left, out of the way of the waiters changing out plates and delivering more drink orders. We were still out in the open, and we could still be seen clearly by everyone.

“What did he say to you?” he asked as soon as he was standing in front of me. None of our body parts were touching anymore. I didn’t know about him, but I certainly felt the loss.

“He didn’t say anything important, Jack,” I assured him, putting my hand on his arm then pulling it back. “There is nothing to get angry about.”

“Then you can say what he said.”

“But it doesn’t matter.”

“I can be the judge of that.”

I tilted my head and sighed. “Jack.” He just waited with that same cool expression on his face, and I released a long sigh. Knowing him, he could keep that expression for a long time. “If you promise you won’t go over or say something to him, I’ll tell you.”

I got a sharp nod and nothing else.

I sighed, more heavily this time. “He just said I was embarrassing them. The girls were laughing, and I think some of the tables that were close by got annoyed. I don’t think I did anything to embarrass you, but if I did I’m—”

His eyes bored into mine as his jaw tightened. “Don’t even finish that sentence, Rose. You didn’t embarrass anyone. You made two little girls’ night.” He looked away for a moment and I watched his features soften. Then he lifted his hand in a wave and, curious, I followed his gaze to see the girls waving at us enthusiastically with big smiles on their faces. I smiled back and turned to Jack, the smile still strong. “They think you’re big, and cute—and Sierra thinks I’m pretty.”

“You are pretty.” His eyes were still on the girls, and he didn’t even realize he was making my heart do a little somersault. “But cute?” he asked as his eyes came back to me with my favorite frown on his face. “I’m offended.”

“Aww, don’t be. You are cute, in a grumpy sort of way.”

I laughed, and his eyes dropped to my mouth, causing me to bite on my lower lip as I quickly lost the big smile. His eyes flicked up to mine, the blue somehow looking even deeper in the low lighting of the room, then his stare went right back to my lips. Completely mesmerized, I watched a smile tug at the corners of his mouth.

I swore I didn’t breathe for a few seconds and just stood there gawking up at him, entranced.

Finally, finally his mouth curved into a smile. It had only taken us a bit more than a month. It was probably my own fault, but my God! It’d been a long wait, a pretty long wait that had been worth it because when he smiled…when the skin around his eyes gently crinkled, turning his expression into something completely different than what it was when he was frowning…I simply couldn’t stop staring. My heart soared as if I had just accomplished something big, and for me, it was big—so big that I couldn’t stop myself from beaming up at him.

“Is that a smile I just saw, Mr. Hawthorne?” I asked, still a little stupefied. “This is the first time you’ve smiled at me. I’ve been trying to count them since week one, and this is number one. A smile…I can’t believe it. I wish I had my phone with me so I could capture this moment. We need to have cake to celebrate.”

I looked to my right and left to confirm that I wasn’t the only one witnessing this, but even though I was glancing around, I didn’t see anyone. The entire room could’ve been staring at us, including Joshua, but I didn’t see a single person other than Jack Hawthorne. This was actually not good news for me, the fake wife, but I didn’t care one bit about that. I’d consider that later, much later, when I was over that smile.

His smile softened, but it was still there. “You’ve been counting my smiles?”

“Trying’ being the operative word here since you like to hoard them like a squirrel hoarding his nuts.”

“I’ve smiled at you, Rose.” He lifted his hand and tucked my hair behind my ear. I didn’t think much about it because I was busy shaking my head at him.

“You haven’t.”

“Maybe you weren’t looking.”

“Are you kidding me? I’ve been looking nonstop.” I lifted a finger between us and his gaze dropped to it. “One time—there was one time I thought I saw your lips twitch, but it was a false alarm, and that’s it.”

I was still grinning, but when I looked at his lips, he had lost the smile and the expression on his face was much more intense. He took a step forward into me and my pulse quickened. When his big, warm hand cupped my face, covering almost the entire left half, I noticed the shift in the air and stood still.

Oh, this is not good.

Eyes locked on mine, he lowered his head just a few inches away from my lips and whispered, “I’m going to kiss you now, Rose.” His eyes were still open and on mine.

I swallowed.

“What?” I croaked, and then I cleared my throat, stuck in place, staring into the depths of his eyes. His gaze moved from my eyes to my lips. “I knew this was a possibility tonight, of course,” I whispered. “But is someone looking?” We needed to put on a show and I supposed the time had come, but why was I suddenly freaking out on the inside? It wasn’t like we were gonna suck each other’s faces in the middle of a charity event.

“Do you care if someone is looking?” he asked.

I mean…that was the whole reason for the kiss, wasn’t it? But did I care? Not really, I supposed. A peck on the lips was nothing. I took a deep breath and nodded, letting it out in a whoosh. “Okay. Right. Lay it on me. Let’s do this.” As his eyes swept over my face, I steeled my voice. “A little faster than that,” I whispered, keeping my voice as low as possible. “Not like a turtle, remember?”

A smile danced on his lips again as if he found what I said extremely funny, but he managed to drop his forehead against mine and our noses touched.

My heart started beating in my throat when his arm rounded my waist and he pulled me just a little closer. Made sense too, I supposed, because I couldn’t just keep my face close but my body away. Closing my eyes, I swallowed hard. My hands were instinctively resting on his chest. This was going to be one epic peck, and I hoped the people around who were watching—whoever they were—appreciated our acting.

His hand was still covering my cheek. “Are you ready for me, Rose?” Jack whispered in a low, insistent voice, and I smelled the whiskey and mint on his breath.

“You’re still taking it too slow—you need to—”

I didn’t get the chance to utter another word because Jack’s lips were on mine, and we were not sharing a nice little romantic peck. No, his tongue was already sweeping in and teasing mine. For a moment, I wasn’t sure what I should do. We hadn’t done this even on the day we’d said I do. My eyes were still open, and I felt a little desperate to end whatever he had started. I even tried to, twice, both times thinking Okay, this is it, he is stopping now so you need to stop too, but the more he teased me with the way he slowly coaxed me into the kiss, pulling me deeper, the more I felt myself slipping. Finally, my eyes started to close on their own. It wasn’t that I wasn’t responding—I was, had been from the moment his lips touched mine—but up until that point, I’d been doing it reluctantly, thinking the entire time it would end in the next second, thinking he’d stop after just one more beat. I was doing my very best to hold myself back, trying my very, very best not to enjoy our kiss.

Then when he suddenly stopped, I could’ve cried. I wasn’t sure if it was from relief or sorrow. Thankfully, he didn’t pull back completely, and I only swayed toward him a little. I forced myself to open my eyes.

“Am I doing okay?” he asked against my already swollen lips, his eyes staring straight into mine. The hairs on my arms stood up and his eyes became my entire focus. They looked darker, deeper, and deep ocean blue became my absolute favorite new color.

I cleared my throat and tried to move my head up and down in a nod. “I mean, it depends on what you’re going for, but much better, er, than a turtle…I think.”

“You think so?” His gravelly voice caused my eyelids to droop, and the way he used his left hand to swipe some of my bangs out of my face, the backs of his fingers gently grazing my temple…

Biting on my lip so I wouldn’t do something stupid, I took a deep breath, nodded, and forced my eyes to open. In the same second, he was on my lips again. As slow and sweet as it had started with his first kiss, with this one, the more his tongue swirled in my mouth, the more he tilted his head and tried to get in deeper, the further I slipped into a dark hole I never wanted to come out of. His hand at my back pulled me forward, a barely noticeable inch or two, but it made it impossible for me not to arch my back and help him along. I wasn’t into public displays of affection at all, but I forgot about every single person that was in that huge ballroom with us. I could’ve been standing in the middle of a stadium in Jack’s arms going at it full force and probably still wouldn’t have cared in that moment.

It was a little rough, our kiss, and somehow I think I knew it’d be like that with him. Rough and demanding and consuming. Knew it even before this madness had started.

When my tongue got its own idea and started to get more into it, I rose up on my toes, basically climbing him with my arms to get more of him, this prickly and rough-around-the-edges man who was apparently mine in public for the better part of the next two years. Leaning in harder to get more, his hand slipped from my cheek to cradle my neck. I felt his other arm go around my waist, bringing me flush with his chest. Maybe he wasn’t that good at communicating with me, but he sure was good at this.

Something I couldn’t exactly identify was rising up to the surface inside of me, and to be honest, more than happy to be that close, I wrapped my own arms around his neck and a groan slipped from my lips. That was when he suddenly stopped and pulled back. He wasn’t as out of breath as I was, but he was definitely breathing hard. Flushed, I just stared up at him in wonder. What the hell had just happened? Was he trying for an Oscar or something? Had he felt whatever I had felt there for a second? A minute? Or had it been an hour?

I quietly cleared my throat and dropped my arms, fixing my dress under his stare. Turning my head slightly to the right, I wiped my mouth with my fingers because I didn’t think it was a good idea to keep licking my lips trying to taste him again.

Facing him, I started, “Jack, I—”

“Your ex-fiancé is staring,” he said in a calm voice. His breathing didn’t appear to be labored anymore, so opposite of what I was feeling.

I stiffened but didn’t look back to where I knew Jack had just glanced or had probably kept glancing while he was kissing me. So, this was just a show. My stomach dropped and I let go of what I had been about to say. His kiss had been just a show. I mean…of course it was a show. I already knew that—he had given me a warning, for Christ’s sake. It wasn’t like he had smiled at me and then lost control and kissed me because he just couldn’t stop himself. Nope. He had given me plenty of warning, but…but for a second there, I had lost myself in the kiss and had forgotten. For a second there, I had thought he was actually, maybe… It had probably just been a fluke. I shook my head, trying to get rid of the haze clouding my brain and return to reality. Jack was a good kisser—so what? Maybe I could simply wait for the next public event when he thought we should lock lips again, just enjoy it for what it was, and not think too much about it.

When Jack pulled my chair out for me to sit down, I studied him a bit more carefully out of the corner of my eye as I took my seat. His face was as it always was: set and aloof, his expression cool and unreadable. If his lips hadn’t been a little more reddish because of my lipstick transferring onto them, I wouldn’t have even guessed he had just kissed someone—kissed me. There was absolutely no evidence left of what we had just shared.

Feeling confused, I picked up my fork and didn’t even realize my plate had been switched out for some sort of chicken dish as I dug in without another word. Jack and I were quiet for a long time, letting other voices fill the heavy silence between us.

“You think that was better than a turtle?” he asked after the better part of fifteen minutes had passed in silence. The event was plenty loud, and he had to lean toward me so I could hear him. The other two couples sitting across from us weren’t exactly silent as they laughed out loud in a way that made me cringe every time it started up again. I had to lean toward Jack as I had him repeat his words. My stomach still wasn’t sitting right after the whole thing.

“Oh yeah, that was very professional.” I winced and tried to salvage the moment. “As in I think we did a very good job of making people believe this is a real thing between us.” It had almost fooled me, too—almost. “Hopefully I wasn’t too bad either?” I asked lightly, trying to look like I didn’t care much about it either way but at the same time regretting the words as soon as they left my mouth because I was curious, dammit.

I broke a piece of bread in half and stuffed the whole thing in my mouth.

“No, you were fine.”

My chewing slowed down as I processed his words then I forced myself to swallow the bread that tasted so much like cardboard.

“Great,” I mumbled, low enough that he didn’t hear me. I was fine.

He leaned in again, his arm carelessly slung on the back of my chair. “What did you say?”

I leaned away, nothing obvious, just a little, as I reached out for my second glass of white wine. A hell of a headache would be waiting for me when I woke up the next morning. I just knew it.

“Nothing,” I mumbled into my wine, and Jack leaned in closer, his shoulder on my back. I couldn’t lean away because the damn wine glass was already in my hand.

“You need to stop talking into your beverage. Is everything okay?”

I put the wine glass down, took a breath as I did so, and then set my eyes on his jaw. “Everything is fine, just a little tired after all the excitement—not the kissing part, obviously. That wasn’t much of a workout. Easy peasy.” Stop moving your lips, Rose.

“Why are you not looking at me?”

“I’m looking at you.” I looked down at his pants and then at the table where his left hand was resting, turning the whiskey glass around and around—anywhere but his eyes. Then I got pissed at myself and looked straight into his eyes with a raise of my eyebrow.

He stared at me in silence for a good twenty seconds, and I stared right back. Nothing was going on between us. This was Jack. This was temporary. I was the one who was making things awkward by trying to put some meaning behind something that didn’t…well, it didn’t mean anything. He had told me he was about to kiss me and then he’d kissed me. It wasn’t anything new. Everyone kissed with their mouths and tongues; we hadn’t done anything special.

His jaw tightened and he stood up.

“I need to check on a few clients then we can leave.”

I opened my mouth to say something, but he had already walked away. When the waiter presented the dessert, I gave him a forced smile. It looked like some sort of eclair with three dots of something green on the side. A jam? Sauce? I had no idea. Making sure certain people weren’t looking at me, I looked over my right shoulder and found Maddy and Sierra; they were six, seven tables behind us. When I caught Maddy’s eyes, I smiled warmly and waved at her. She enthusiastically waved back.

My gaze searched for Jack next, and I found him talking to an elderly man a few tables away from the girls. I faced forward and accidentally met the eyes of one of the guys sitting at our table. The ladies were absent, and the other man was busy talking on his phone quite loudly. The one whose eyes I’d met gave me a sly smile and lifted his red wine glass in a salute. I looked away.

“Are you enjoying your night?” he asked. He was the one sitting closest to me on my right, and since the other guy was still on his phone, he couldn’t have been talking to anyone but me.

I forced a small smile and nodded at him.

“I’m Anthony.”

Because I was the most intelligent person alive, I acted as if I couldn’t hear him, pushed my chair back, grabbed my plate with two hands, and found myself heading back to the table where the girls were sitting. Obviously, you never leave your dessert behind. When they noticed me coming, both Maddy’s and Sierra’s subdued faces broke out into a smile.

This time, because I didn’t want to embarrass Jack, I asked a waiter if they could bring me a chair, and while standing between the girls with a dessert plate in my hand, I asked the chaperone if she’d mind if I joined the girls. When I got the okay and the chair, I sat between them and started chatting.

When they asked me if my husband had left me behind, I found Jack in the busy ballroom in a second and pointed him out. He was standing with his hands in his pockets again. He actually looked really good in a tux. His eyes found mine and, having been caught, I quickly looked away.

When I found the girls contemplating how to eat the eclairs on their plate, I reached for mine with my fingers. It was easier, and also, I’d left everything else at my table and had nothing else to use. The girls relaxed when they saw me and attacked their own eclairs with such joy that I smiled at them. As we talked about random things and ate our desserts, I snuck glances at Jack, acutely aware of where he was the entire time.

When he finally got back to my side, it was hard to say goodbye to the girls. I kissed them both on their cheeks and waved goodbye as they giggled behind our backs. I was sure the giggles were all for Jack, who had actually kissed their little hands and bid them a good night, stealing more pieces of my heart in the process.

As we were waiting for our coats to be brought out, Jack pointed at my lips with his fingers. He was smiling softly. “There is chocolate around your lips.”

I closed my eyes as I felt a rush of heat hit my cheeks.

Way to go, Rose. Way to go.

“I’ll be right back!”

“Rose, no, we need to—”

“Just a minute!” Yelling at him over my shoulder, I rushed to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. Sure enough, on the left edge of my mouth were the tell-tale signs of chocolate, and even worse than that, my runny nose was starting to make an appearance again. At least he hadn’t noticed that in the dark.

Pulling the completely soaked—yet again—tissue paper out of my nose, I tilted my head back when I felt a rush of liquid trailing down. Groaning, I made another ball of paper and pushed it up my nose, hoping it’d hold until we could reach the apartment. The last thing I wanted was for Jack to see me with a runny nose.

When I was done I rushed back to him. “Sorry, sorry.”

“You don’t have to apologize to me. It’s fine,” he murmured.

A lot of things were fine this evening.

He held up my jacket and when I hesitated for a second, he raised an eyebrow and just waited. I pushed my arms in and let him settle the heavy weight of it on my shoulders. I turned to face him so we could leave and bundled myself tighter in my coat, knowing I was about to freeze my ass off the second I stepped outside.

Jack was right beside me as he opened the door, and I took my first step into the cold and busy night. With my right hand, I held the collar of my jacket closed and breathed out, watching it puff out in a cloud in front of me. On my third step, a warm hand gently slipped around my left one without a word, and I climbed down the stairs hand in hand with my husband as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

The number of times Jack Hawthorne smiled: three. (VICTORY IS MINE.)


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