“See – I knew it. I knew you were jealous of him.”
“I’ll admit to nothing,” he says.
I see a fireman’s boot being passed around. It’s customary at firehouse events to donate to whatever cause they are supporting. But I realize I don’t have any cash on me.
“Do you think you could spot me a twenty?” I ask Sawyer, nodding to the boot being circulated.
“Sure,” he says, digging into his pocket. His hand comes out with a wad of cash, but then something shiny drops onto the tile pavers with a ping.
“Shit,” he says, getting down on a knee to retrieve whatever fell. “I forgot I had this.” He shows me the beautiful ring that I recognize from Murphy’s finger. “Caden was in a hurry today and he left this sitting on the bench by his locker.”
“Oh, my God!” someone shrieks. “He’s proposing!”
Suddenly, people gather around us, circling us with bodies five-deep.
I look down in panic at Sawyer, who’s still on one knee. How are we going to get out of this? Cameras are already out and recording.
“What do we do?” I ask Sawyer through the loud murmurs of the crowd.
A devious smile curves his lips. “Just go with it,” he says, so only I can hear.
“Quiet!” someone yells in the background.
The crowd falls silent. You could hear a pin drop. My heart is pounding through my chest wall.
“What do you say, Aspen Andrews?” he says, holding Murphy’s engagement ring out to me. “Want to get hitched?”
My jaw drops. I have to keep myself from rolling my eyes at him. I know we’re being filmed. I know this will be all over the internet and television in ten minutes flat.
I see him begging me with his eyes. He’s begging me to play along. To save his career.
And I’m sure the photogs will go crazy over the shots people are getting of the tears rolling down my face. Tears they think are from happiness. But all I can think about when I nod my head yes, is how ironic that the only proposal I’ve ever dreamed of, I’m getting from the man who doesn’t mean it.
Cheers erupt around us as he slips the ill-fitting ring onto my finger and then pulls me into his arms.
“You’re out of your mind!” I shout into his ear.
“Congratulations!” Brooke screams as she drags a stunned Bass over to my side.
Bass looks from Sawyer to me and I can’t tell if he’s going to hug him or hit him. But what he does next is more surprising than anything. Bass gets down on one knee and holds out his hand to Brooke. “In the words of this tool standing next to me, what do you say, Brooke Carlisle? Want to get hitched?”
Brooke’s eyes go wide. “You’re drunk,” she says, motioning for him to stand up.
“Yeah, Bass, you’re drunk,” I reiterate.
“Shhh,” he hushes me. “This is our moment. You already had yours.” Then he turns back to Brooke. “I may be a little drunk, but I still know what I’m doing. Come on. We’re perfect for each other, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I do,” Brooke says. “I just wasn’t sure you thought so too.”
“We are.” He turns to me. “Right, Penny? Isn’t she perfect for me?”
Brooke puts her hand on Bass’s face, forcing him to look back at her. “Is this for real?” she asks. “Because if you’re just messing with me—”
“It’s for real,” he says. “Marry me, Brooke.”
A glorious smile creeps up her face and he stands up right before she jumps into his arms.
“What the hell is happening here?” I ask no one in particular.
Sawyer pulls me aside, letting them have their moment. Phones are still videoing. People are still cheering. A waitress comes out offering fresh glasses of champagne so everyone can toast the happy couples.
When the frenzy dies down and Brooke heads for the bathroom, I excuse myself from Sawyer and drag Bass into a hallway. “Have you gone completely bat-shit crazy tonight?”
“No more than you have, Mrs. Mills,” he spits out.
“You’re delusional, Sebastian. My engagement is fake. Sawyer and I both know that. Brooke thinks yours is real.”
“So you love her? Because I’ve never heard you say it. And I’m willing to bet she’s never heard you say it either. You can’t hurt her like that.”
“I do love her,” he says without looking me in the eye.
“Are you sure? Because there’s a difference between loving someone and being in love with them.”
“Why can’t you just be happy for me, Aspen? I’ve supported you through this whole charade. I’d think you could show a little fucking excitement for me. That is unless you have feelings for me.”
I stretch my neck around the corner and look at Sawyer talking with some of Bass’s friends. Bass’s eyes follow mine. He watches me watch Sawyer. Then he slumps against the wall and runs a hand through his hair. “You really love him, don’t you?”
“I do. And he loves me. But I don’t think he’ll ever admit it.”
Bass laughs at the irony. “We’re two messed up people, aren’t we?”
I pull him into my arms. “We are. But we’ll always have each other. I promise you that.”
“I love you,” he says to me like he should be saying to Brooke.
“I love you too,” I tell him.
“But you’re not in love with me like you are him.”
I shake my head. “I’m sorry.”
“I know,” he says. “It’s okay.” He wipes a tear from under my eye. “Now let’s go find our fiancées.”
“Good idea. But don’t be surprised if Sawyer and I duck out of here. I’ve got some major ass-whipping to do.”
He laughs. “Go easy on the guy, Penny. You are pretty irresistible. And a damn fine catch.”
I motion to Sawyer as we make our approach. “Maybe you could tell him that.”
“I have,” he says, giving my arm a squeeze. “Time and time again.”
“Congratulations!” the cab driver says after we get situated in the back.
Aspen gets a disturbed look on her face when the cabbie displays a picture of us on his phone. A picture with me down on one knee.
I grab her left hand and kiss it. “Thanks,” I say.
She gives me a biting stare. I shake it off and play with her. “So, where shall we take our honeymoon? Hawaii, like Brooke mentioned? Or maybe someplace more exotic, like Bali.”
Aspen shakes her head at me in frustration. I know she’s upset with me. But it’s more than that. I saw her face when Bass proposed to Brooke. She wasn’t happy about it.
We ride in silence back to my townhouse. But once we’re safely inside the door, she turns around and punches me in the chest.
“I told you, you can’t do things like that, Sawyer!” she shouts, throwing her purse on the table.
“It’s not as if I had a choice,” I say. “I was down on a knee with an engagement ring in my hand.”
“You did have a choice. You could have told the truth. That the ring belongs to Caden’s wife.”
“They wouldn’t have believed me.”
“Who cares what they believe? But I think they would have,” she says. “Lots of people know he carries the ring in his back pocket when he plays. You should have just said that he left it in the clubhouse and you were going to return it to him but it fell out of your pocket. It’s the truth. You didn’t have to do what you did.”
“Come on, it’s no big deal. You’re blowing this way out of proportion.”
Her eyes narrow and I swear I can see smoke come out of her ears. She digs her phone out of her purse and taps around on it. Then she shoves it in my face. “Look! It’s all over the internet. We’re supposedly engaged. People will ask us about it. I’ll be bombarded with questions. ‘When’s the big day?’ ‘Who will design your dress?’ ‘How soon will you have kids?’ Are you prepared to answer those questions? Because I sure as hell am not.”
She looks down at her left hand, removing Murphy’s ring. “And what do you think will happen when people notice I’m not wearing a ring? I imagine Murphy will want this one back.”
“Okay, you’ve proven your point. I didn’t think this through.”
“Do you ever, Sawyer? Do you ever think things through? I mean, what are we even doing here? You’re saving your reputation for now, but what about next season – are you going to hire another girl? And the season after that? When does the charade end? Your whole life is going to be a lie. How can you live that way?”
She has no idea that I already do.
I walk over and take the ring from her. “We’ll think of something. We can put people off, saying we want a long engagement and won’t make any plans until after the season. That way we won’t have to deal with questions. See? Easy.”
She shakes her head. “Nothing about this is easy. Don’t you realize how your actions affect others? And I’m not just talking about me. Bass proposed to Brooke tonight. That never would have happened if you hadn’t done what you did.”
I loosen my tie and then pull it off, hanging it over the back of a chair before I remove my suit jacket. “That’s really what this is all about, isn’t it? You’re mad that Bass got engaged.”
“Of course I’m mad. He doesn’t love her.”
“Maybe that’s not for you to say.”
She looks at me in disgust. “Well, somebody has to. He’s making a huge mistake. He was drunk and upset about us. He had no right to ask her. She’ll be devastated tomorrow when he takes it back.”
“How do you know he’ll take it back?”