Normally I wouldn’t have looked twice at him because guys like that don’t go for girls like me. But he was looking back at me. Staring, actually. He had the same dark, penetrating eyes as Mace, but they were softer somehow. Kinder.
And it was like the universe was giving me a gift. All that was missing was a flashing neon sign above his head that said ANSWER TO ALL YOUR PROBLEMS.
I was people watching, filling in imaginary lives to keep my mind off my own life when she looked at me.
I’d been watching her with her boyfriend for the last few minutes, puzzling them out. They both exuded confidence and looked effortlessly cool. The guy was all dark—dark hair, dark eyes, dark tattoos. All his ink that I could see was depressing or violent—skulls and guns and brass knuckles. She on the other hand was bright—from her vividly red hair to her painted lips that naturally turned upward to her tattoos. She had a few small birds flying up her neck, and what looked like the top of a tree poking out from the heart-shaped neck of her 1950s-style dress.
As often as he touched and kissed her, I saw no real connection between them. She didn’t glance over at him once as she talked on the phone. And when she wasn’t paying attention to him, he didn’t bother even looking at her. Like they were part of two different solar systems, neither revolving with or around the other, and both were just with each other for the passing moment.
He hadn’t even bothered to pick up the cup of coffee when she’d dropped it. He just moved her out of the way, and a barista came around and took care of it.
Now, he was gone and she was looking at me like I had something she wanted. It made my mouth go dry and stirred something in my chest. Stirred up other things, too.
She walked up to my table, her hips swinging her wide skirt, and I got my first really good look at her face. She was beautiful—full lips, high cheekbones, and a straight nose. A white flower was tucked into her riotous red curls. She looked like the edgy version of a 1950s pinup girl. She was the complete opposite of any girl I had ever dated or thought about dating. She was the complete opposite of Bliss. Maybe that was part of the reason I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
I could see now that the tattoo on her chest was definitely a tree. Bare branches stretched up toward her collarbone, and when she leaned over and rested her hands on my table I got a good look at the trunk of the tree disappearing down between the valley of her breasts.
I swallowed, and it took me longer than it should have to avert my gaze to her face. She said, “I’m going to ask you something, and it’s going to seem crazy.”
It would match with the rest of my thoughts then.
“Okay,” I said.
She slid into the seat beside me, and I could smell her . . . something feminine and sweet and completely at odds with her inked skin. I was still thinking about that damn tree, imagining what the rest of the tattoo looked like, wondering how soft her skin was.
“My parents showed up in town uninvited, and they want to meet my boyfriend.”
She slid a little closer and tapped red-painted nails against the table.
“And how can I help?”
“Well, I’m supposed to introduce them to a nice, sweet boyfriend who I met at the library, which is not actually the boyfriend I have.” Her hand curled around my forearm that rested on the table, and I cursed all my winter layers because I wanted to feel her skin.
“And you think I’m nice and sweet?”
She shrugged. “You look it. I know this is crazy, but I would really appreciate it if you’d pretend to be my boyfriend until I manage to get rid of them.” I looked back at her cherry red lips. They brought to mind several things that were neither nice nor sweet.
What she wanted was crazy, but I’d be acting, the very thing I’d been missing for the last few weeks. And part of me was all for duct taping Nice-Guy-Cade and throwing him in the trunk. That part of me thought spending time with this girl was a very good idea.
She said, “Please? I’ll do all the talking, and I’ll end it as fast as I can. I can pay you!” I raised an eyebrow, and she continued, “Okay, I can’t pay you, but I’ll make it up to you. Anything you want.”
Somehow I had a feeling that she wouldn’t have said that last part to someone who didn’t look “nice and sweet.” Since that part of my brain was currently indisposed, I had a good idea of what I wanted.
“I’ll do it.” Her whole body relaxed. She smiled, and it was gorgeous. Then I added, “In exchange for a date.”
She pulled back, and those full red lips puckered in confusion.
“You want to go on a date with me?”
“Yes. Do we have a deal?”
She looked at the clock on the wall, cursed under her breath, and said, “Fine. Deal. Now give me your scarf.” She didn’t even give me a chance to move before she started tugging it off my neck.
I grinned. “Taking off my clothes already?”
One side of her mouth quirked upward, and she looked at me in surprise. Then she shook her head and wrapped my scarf around her own neck. It covered up her delicate birds and the smooth, porcelain skin of her chest, broken only by the thin black lines of her tattooed tree. She grabbed a napkin off the table and wiped off some of her bright red lipstick.
“All my parents know is we met in the library. You’re nice and sweet and wholesome. My parents are crazy conservative, so no jokes about me taking your clothes off. We’ve been dating for a few weeks. Nothing complicated. I haven’t told them anything else, so it should be pretty easy to sell.”
With practiced hands, she started smudging off some of the dark that lined her eyes. She pulled her hair forward so that it covered the array of piercings in her ears.
“What about you? What do you do?”
“I’m an actor.”
She rolled her eyes. “They’ll hate that as much as they hate me being a musician, but it will have to do.”
She kept fussing with her makeup and smoothing down her hair, looking around like she wished she had a hat or something to cover it.
I placed a hand on her shoulder and said, “You look beautiful. Don’t worry.”
Her expression froze, and she looked up at me like I was speaking Swahili. Then her lips pressed together in something that was almost a smile. I was still touching her shoulder when a woman at the front of the store called out, “Mackenzie! Oh, Mackenzie, honey!”
She didn’t look like a Mackenzie.
She took a shuddering breath, and then stood to face the woman I supposed was her mother. I rose with her, and let my arm stretch across her shoulder. She seemed frazzled, which was funny, because up until now confidence was practically running out of her pores like honey.
I mean, she’d asked a complete stranger to pretend to be her boyfriend. She had seemed fearless. Parents were apparently her Kryptonite.
I looked at the middle-aged couple approaching us. The man was balding with wire-rimmed glasses, and the woman’s hair was graying at her temples. The hands between them were intertwined, and their outer arms were reaching forward like they expected their daughter to run up for a group hug. She looked like she’d rather run off a cliff.
This . . . I could do.
I gave her shoulder a squeeze, and said, “Everything is going to be okay.”
“Boo boo bear! Oh, honey, what atrocious thing have you done to your hair? I told you to stop using those dyes out of the box.”
Mackenzie was biting down on her lip so hard as her mother pulled her forward into a hug that I was surprised she didn’t draw blood. Her father took over, and she had to let go of my hand. I stepped to the side, and reached a hand out to her mother.
“It’s so nice to meet you, Mrs.—”
The words were already out of my mouth before I realized I had no idea what Mackenzie’s last name was. Hell, I hadn’t even known her name was Mackenzie.
Her mother took my hand and was looking at me with her head cocked sideways, waiting for me to finish my sentence. I saw Mackenzie wiggle out of her father’s hug next to me, her face full of slowly dawning horror.
I put on my best smile and said, “You know, I’ve heard so much about you from Mackenzie that I feel I should just call you Mom.” Then I moved in for a hug.
HE WAS HUGGING MY MOTHER.
A total stranger. I could only handle a few hugs a year from her without feeling smothered, and he was wrapped up in her boa constrictor arms for three, four, five seconds.
It was still going.
And it was a full-on hug, not one of those awkward side ones that I gave my dad.
Jesus Christ, her head was tucked under his chin. His chin!
The seconds seemed to expand into lifetimes, and his wide eyes caught mine over my mother’s head. From the way my mother was latched on, he was never going to get free. It was like one of those sad stories where a little kid smothers a cat because he hugs it too hard.
He laughed and patted her on the back. Unlike my laughs around my parents, he managed to pull it off without sounding like he was being held at gunpoint.
Finally after a nearly TEN-second hug, she released him.
At ten seconds I would have been hyperventilating. Then again, she probably wouldn’t have let go of me after ten seconds. I’m convinced she thinks if she could just hug me long enough, she’d squeeze all the devil’s influence out of me.
He stayed there, still in hugging-range, and said, “It’s so wonderful of you both to make this impromptu trip. Mackenzie won’t say it, but she misses you both terribly.”
I cringed when he called me Mackenzie, and my mother beamed. I didn’t know if her aversion to Max was just because she thought it was a boy’s name or if calling me by a nickname reminded her of Alexandria . . . of Alex.
She looked at me over his shoulder, and there were tears in her eyes. Fifteen seconds and he had her crying fucking tears of joy. Were my ex-boyfriends really all that bad in comparison to him?
Okay, so I had made the mistake of introducing them to Jake. He’d insisted on them calling him by his nickname . . . Scissors.
But that was a low point! And it had mostly been to piss them off. Not all of them had been that bad. My pretend boyfriend turned to my father and said, “Sir, I’m Cade Winston. You’ve raised an amazing daughter.”
My father shook his hand and said, “Really?”
REALLY. He said really.
No, “Thank you” or “I know.” It took him a full five seconds before he smiled . . . like me being amazing was his doing. He said, “It’s nice to meet you, son.”
They’d already married me off.
I needed to sit down.
I didn’t even say anything as I moved toward the table, but my pretend boyfriend, Cade, must have some kind of weird sixth sense. He was at my side in seconds, pulling out my chair for me. My parents stayed standing a few feet away, staring, like they wanted to preserve this picture of us in their memories forever.
Cade grabbed my hand and laced our fingers together. His skin on mine caused a jolt of electricity to run up my arm. It shocked all of the exasperated thoughts out of my head, and I sat staring at him as my parents stood staring at us. Mom pulled out a handkerchief. Maybe someday I’d be able to look back and laugh at the ridiculousness of this moment. Maybe someday I’d also get on a subway car that didn’t smell like urine. The future had much to look forward to.
Finally Dad turned to Mom and said, “Let’s get some coffee, Betty. Cade, Mackenzie, we’ll join you in a moment.”
I waited until my parents were in line, and then I turned on him, barely containing the urge to do physical harm.
“What the hell was that?”
His brows furrowed, his head turned to the side, and our hands were still laced together. Why hadn’t I pulled my hand away yet?
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