Life without you is a broken pencil. Pointless.
I didn’t have a plan.
Word had spread fast through the Two Harts’ grapevine that Mae Sampson was flying to Atlanta to profess her undying love to Chris Sterns. And once that got out, the whole town ascended on the library like Target shoppers on Black Friday.
“What is going on?” I asked no one in particular.
“They’re here for you, idiot,” Ali said.
Mrs. Katz glared at me over the top of her glasses. “You think we’re going to let you do this on your own?”
It quickly became apparent that next-day plane tickets cost the earth. Even worse, the only flight with an available seat got to Atlanta by way of Newark and took over seven hours.
“Should I be doing this?” I asked, again to no one in particular. “It’s so expensive.”
At least five different people yelled, “Yes!” including my own mother.
“Folks,” Horace said, “we’re taking up donations. We need eleven hundred dollars to get Mae to Atlanta.”
In less than an hour, the money had been donated, and the ticket bought.
The next morning, after very little sleep, Sue, Mama, and Iris dropped me off at the airport.
Mama hugged me tightly. “Remember halfway to brave is scared.”
That was good news, since I was terrified. Never mind seeing Chris. I had to get through the plane ride on my own.
For the first leg of the trip, I sat next to a mother traveling alone with her two-year-old and six-month-old children. She’d purchased two seats for the three of them and it became apparent this poor woman was in way over her head. Which was how I ended up bottle-feeding a baby.
Then I learned something very important: the amount of spit-up one small eighteen-pound human can produce is truly astounding.
Especially when said small human does it all over my shoulder, down my back, and a into a large chunk of my hair.
Damage done, the kid fell dead asleep in my arms. Which was kind of adorable and almost made up for the puke. At least it took my mind off the whole “flying in a tin can” fear.
Once at our layover, I had just enough time to switch out my shirt for a clean one (thankfully, I’d only packed a carry-on) and try to wash my hair. Except that in my haste to pack, my one change of clothing—my return ticket was tomorrow—I’d forgotten to pack a clean shirt. Who does that? Me. The only thing I had was a sleep shirt Sue had gotten me for Christmas. It read I’m Great in Bed. I Can Sleep for Hours.
Given the choice between the vomit shirt and my nightshirt, the answer was clear.
Next, I tackled my hair. Which resulted in me washing off half a face of makeup and crouching under a hand-dryer. It should be noted that it did not work. But it was fine. Surely, I’d have a bit of time to put myself together once I made it to Atlanta.
But then after we’d boarded the next flight, it departed over an hour late due to mechanical issues.
So Bill, the middle-aged guy in the seat next to me, held my hand when we took off. He told me I reminded him of his daughter and she was a nervous flyer too. He started talking about all the best places to eat at while I was in town. The last thing I wanted to hear about was food when I’m pretty sure my stomach was trying to remove itself from my body.
I was never flying again without Chris. So, he was going to have to say yes.
When we landed, I wanted to kiss the ground but I didn’t. Because gross. I did text Mama to let her know I’d arrived safely. Piper and her rental car were already waiting for me in the pickup area.
“Are we late?” I asked by way of greeting as I slid into the car.
Grinning, she shook her head and shot out into traffic. “They were in the fourth quarter when I left. As long as we don’t run into any traffic, we should be great.”
So, of course, we ran into traffic. The kind of standstill traffic that brought out the road rage in better people than me. I took a deep breath and reminded myself this was for Chris.
“You’re looking a little rough,” Piper said once she took a close look at me.
She was not kidding. But it was what I had to work with. I tried to smooth down my hair and attempted to replace the makeup I’d accidentally washed off, but finally gave up. It was hopeless.
Piper swung into a parking spot at the stadium and called a friend to check the status of the press conference. I texted Mama with an update and imagined everyone in Two Harts huddled around my mother’s phone waiting to see what I said. It made me smile.
“It started ten minutes ago. We need to hustle.”
Piper got us through all the security checks and to the room in which the conference was being held. She paused outside the door to calm herself and straighten the jacket of her deep-purple power suit. Then she looked at me and winced.
She tried to fluff my hair and wiped her hands off on my nightshirt. “He probably won’t even notice. He’ll just be excited to see you.”
“I know.” She surprised me and gave me a hug. “Are you ready? Do you know what you’re going to say?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know.” My stomach dipped. “I think I might throw up. What do I do?”
“That’s easy. Don’t throw up.” With that, she grabbed my wrist and opened the door.
We came in through the back of the room. In front of us, a sea of video cameras and photographers stood and in front of them, several rows of chairs occupied by reporters. In front of them all, a long table where six men sat. I caught a glimpse of Sherrod next to an older man who I knew was the Stars’ coach, and I thought I recognized a shoulder that belonged to Chris.
My whole body was strung taut with tension. I forced myself to take slow, deep breaths. Shook my arms out and tried to figure out the best way to weave around all these people.
Should I yell his name? Throw something to get his attention? Like, myself at his feet? What if he ignored me? What if he wanted nothing to do with me?
Before I could do anything, a commotion broke out at the side of the room. It only took a second to realize Piper and Doug were arguing. Or Piper was arguing. Doug stood with his arms crossed and his nose in the air. At first, it was hard to understand them but when the room cottoned on to what was unfolding, they went silent.
“…can’t believe you,” Piper bit out. “You are scum. To go on television in a disguise and imply the things you implied about your own client.”
“I did nothing wrong. I only wanted to give him more opportunities for endorsement deals. Just needed to dirty his reputation a little bit.”
“You are an idiot!”
I scampered toward them just in time to see Piper ball up her fist. She pulled it back but must have thought better of it, seeing as how she was surrounded by cameras. With a growl, she dropped her hand.
“What’s going on?” Chris asked, cutting in between Doug and Piper. I stared at him, taking in every little detail. For the first time since April, it felt like I could take a deep breath.
“It was him.” Piper pointed at Doug. “He’s the anonymous source. He’s the one giving out all the gossip.”
“You don’t know that,” Doug snapped, cowering behind Chris.
Chris whipped around to face Doug. I couldn’t see his face, but his voice sent chills down my spine. “Is this true?”
Piper leaned to the side to glare at Doug. “Oh, I can prove it, you rat. How could you even think about bringing the woman in the video into all this? I cannot believe you went after her. You are despicable.”
Doug’s eyes skittered around the room wildly, probably looking for a way to escape. “What? No, I didn’t. I wanted no part in that. I told him not to.”
“Chris, can you tell us what’s going on?” a reporter yelled out. Everyone ignored him.
“But you didn’t stop him, did you? You are a monster.” Piper balled up her fist again.
“Don’t listen to anything she says,” Doug said. “It’s all lies.”
“You son of a b—”
“Whoa, there”—Chris gently put his hands on Piper’s shoulders—“let’s take this to another room.”
“You’re right.” Piper straightened, yanked down the sleeves of her suit jacket. She glared at Doug.
Chris pointed to a door at the side of the room. Piper marched toward it, leaving the door open. Doug, looking more than a little panicked, followed behind, his shoulders stooped.
“I’ll be in soon,” Chris said.
Piper popped her head out. “Mae, I’m sorry to ruin your moment.”
“Mae?” Chris spun around and his eyes found me immediately. He froze.
“Oh,” I squeaked, coming from behind a video camera and into the light. “It’s okay.”
Piper winked at me, muttered something to Chris, and closed the door. A few seconds later, I was certain I heard Doug yell, “You punched me!” But maybe that was only wishful thinking on my part.
Slowly, I walked toward Chris. He was so still, watching me closely.
When I was ten or so feet from him, I waved. “Hi.”
“This is my grand romantic gesture,” I said, fully aware my hair smelled like airport hand soap, and I was wearing only half a face of makeup.
He closed the gap between us. His hair was wet from a quick shower after the game, and his face looked thinner.
I frowned. “Have you lost weight?”
“A little.” A few inches separated us now, and I itched to reach out and touch him. His eyes traveled from my head to my toes and back. “Nice shirt.”
“It’s a nightgown.”
He grinned. “Thanks for dressing up for the occasion.”
I swallowed. The only thing I wanted to do was throw myself in his arms. But I hadn’t come all this way for nothing. “Are we being recorded?”
“Yep,” one of the camera people replied.
“Come on.” Chris glanced around the room before he grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the front of the room.
“Chris, Chris,” the reporters shouted. “Do you want to make a statement?”
He stopped so fast, I ran into him. Still smiling, he wrapped an arm around my shoulders and grabbed one of the microphones on the table. “Here is my statement: It was a great game. But now, ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to go enjoy this grand romantic gesture in private.”
The room erupted in laughter. But he was on a mission. He tossed the mic to Sherrod and we were moving again toward a door in the front corner of the room. It opened on to a long, wide hallway where people were milling around. He pulled me along, opening and closing doors as we went until he found an empty room. The door shut behind us and he flipped on the light to reveal we were in a small supply closet.
I put some distance between us—the whole two feet the room allowed—and held up a hand. “Don’t distract me with your smiles and twinkly eyes. I have things I need to say.”
He tried (and failed) to rein in his smile. “I’m listening.”
I pulled the check out of my bra where I’d stuffed it to keep it safe. “I don’t want your money. I’ve returned it every time and it keeps coming back. Our contract became invalid.”
He frowned. “How?”
“Because it was a business arrangement. No feelings allowed, remember?” I ripped up the check into tiny little pieces and tossed them in the air.
“I screwed up. I had feelings. I have feelings. So many feelings, and I was scared of the feelings, like you said. I’m still scared of the feelings. I know I kept saying that happily ever after isn’t real. The thing I kept getting stuck on was the ‘happy’ part. But it’s the ‘ever after’ part that’s important. Because we won’t always have happy times. Sometimes we’ll be angry or sad or hurt. Sometimes life will be hard. But the ‘ever after’ part means it’s us together. Forever.”
Chris studied my face, his eyes warm.
I took a deep breath. “I love you. You’re the only person I want to do ‘ever after’ with.”
Smiling softly, he took a step toward me, tucked a piece of my hair behind my ear.
“I need you to say something,” I whispered. “I’m kind of dying here.”
“Do you believe in love at first sight?” he said. “Or should I walk by again?”
I closed my eyes. “You’re going to torture me right now?”
He crept a few inches closer, his eyes twinkling. “If you were a chicken, you’d be impeccable.”
I laughed. “This is my punishment.”
“Are you a time traveler?” He picked up my hand and tugged until I half fell into him. He smelled so good—soap and cinnamon gum and Chris. “Because I can see you in my future.”
I grinned and curled a hand into his shirt. “I think you have to kiss me.”
One of his eyebrows arched. “Is that so?”
“Yes.” I nodded solemnly. “That’s what comes after the grand romantic gesture and a declaration of love. You don’t want to disappoint people when we retell this story, do you?”
One of his hands settled on my lower back, the other slid through my hair to the back of my head. His eyes dropped to my mouth and my heartbeat sped up. “Sprinkles, the only person I’m worried about disappointing is you.”
“Don’t call me Sprinkles.”
“You suit me just fine,” he whispered against my mouth.
Then, finally, he kissed me.