My Darling Bride: Chapter 22

GRAHAM

Two and a half weeks later, I wake from a groggy dream, trying to figure out where I am. I rub my eyes. Right. Back in Manhattan. I arrived last night on a late flight during the middle of a huge thunderstorm. By the time I got to the apartment, it was midnight, and Emmy was already asleep with her door closed.

Once I’m dressed in gym clothes and out of my bedroom, the apartment is silent. Emmy’s already left for work. As I drink a protein shake, I stalk around the apartment, seeing hints that my wife lives here: a cup of half-drunk tea left on a side table, several fortune cookies left over from takeout, and a blanket over the giant penis.

We’ve communicated briefly through texts, but I’ve done my best to keep my distance.

Is it wrong that I itch to see her?

Like it always does, a warning bell dings in my head, telling me that I don’t need her in my life. I should be focusing on my game, on my dreams.

I shove it aside and call Jasper.

He answers with a groggy “Somebody better be dead, Graham. It’s seven in the morning, and it’s not a practice day.”

“Does Precious have a hangover? Suck it up. I need a run through the park. Wanna join?”

There’s a long silence, and I picture him in his mammoth bed he special ordered when he renovated his apartment. It looks like something a vampire would sleep in, all dark mahogany and fancy scrolls and tall elaborate posts at the ends. His bedding—as he so lovingly showed us—is black silk damask. The top of the bed has a canopy that matches.

“If we wait until later, it’ll just be crowded and hot.”

He lets out a string of curses. “You got married and I wasn’t even invited, and now you’re waking me up? I’m pissed at you. Tuck shared with me. He confided. It built a bridge between us. We can’t truly connect on the field if you don’t let me into your personal life. Whatever. I haven’t even met this girl. You get me?”

He complained about this in Atlanta during camp. I sat through an offensive strategies class, with him ignoring me. When I said hello at practice, he’d just grunt. His hotel room was next to mine, and usually we’d go to dinner together, but he spent most of his time in the gym where we had our training.

“Ah, stop giving me the cold shoulder, Precious. Would it help if I said, ‘Please go running with me? With a cherry on top?’”

“Fucker. You’d need a million cherries.”

“And maybe we could get some Mexican later? Healthy? I’m thinking fajitas and no tortillas. No chips or cheese dip either.”

“But I love the chips. They crunch so good,” he says on a groan.

“Chips it is. Was that a yes?”

“No.”

“What if I said we’ll go meet Emmy afterwards. She can’t wait to meet you. You know, I gave her your phone number in case she needed a friend to help out with Kian.”

“Of course I’d help her. I’m awesome. Fine! Fifteen minutes. I’ll meet you in the lobby.” He hangs up on me.

After our five-mile run and lunch, we head to the bookstore. My heart beats harder with each step that gets us closer. I want to see her face. Those plump, delicious lips.

“Tell me about Emmy. Was it love at first sight, like you told the team, or was it more lust?”

I frown, my train of thought interrupted and fear crowding in when I see a fire truck parked on the curb and firemen milling around outside the bookstore.

I’m about to burst inside and see what’s going on when Jasper grabs my arm in front of the bookstore. “Dude. Check out the window. Your wife is into some kinky shit.”

The mannequins that were there before, a man and woman, have fallen. She’s tipped backward and leans against the wall, her updo hair in disarray, while the male mannequin’s head is shoved under her dress. To add to the scene, one of his arms is on her waist. The book and ring he was holding litter the floor.

Magic lounges on top of the male mannequin’s chest, tail flicking as devious eyes narrow in on me.

“I like this store already,” he calls on a laugh as we enter the store.

I glance around and don’t see fire or smell smoke. I blow out an exhale. Everything looks normal, except that the floors are scuffed up in the rotunda, probably from the firemen.

I stop at the table with the manual typewriter and type a quick message, then move along.

Jane works at the counter as she checks out customers, her blonde hair piled up on her head. The line of people stretch all the way to one of the sitting areas. One woman huffs as she steps from foot to foot. A man grumbles under his breath.

I notice Andrew as he dashes back and forth behind the pastry counter, making coffees and slipping croissants into bags.

Jane gives me a smirk. “Welcome to A Likely Story. It’s a wreck.”

“Still can’t find enough employees?” I ask.

She smiles at a customer as she finishes checking her out. “We’ve lost six total. She’s hired us and two more, and they’re still learning the ropes.”

“What happened to the window out front?”

Jane sighs. “Magic got his claws stuck in the lady mannequin’s dress. No one’s had time to fix it. This entire day has been off-the-charts insane.”

“What else is going on?” I ask.

“Our second cash register went on the fritz, there’s a leak in the basement, a kid got locked in one of the restrooms upstairs this morning, and we had to call the fire department, and Andrew keeps burning pastries. If he burns another batch of cookies, I’m going to stick my foot in his ass.”

Andrew snorts. “Touch me and see what happens.”

“Oh, shut it. Get back to work,” she snips.

He flips her off as he sings the chorus to “You’re So Vain,” by Carly Simon.

She pokes her tongue out at him.

The next woman in line clears her throat. “Excuse me, miss, but I’d like to check out now.”

“So would I,” someone else grouses.

Magic chooses that moment to dash out of the window display and dart between someone’s legs. A small child squeals and chases the cat.

“Holy shit. This place is cool,” Jasper says. “Wahoo!”

I inhale a deep breath. Okay, so things are a bit messy at the store.

“How can I help?” I ask Jane.

She gives me a look. Assessing.

“I don’t think she likes you,” Jasper murmurs.

“She’s coming around,” I say back.

Jane cocks her head toward the kitchen. “Go bake some more cookies. We’re running low, since Emmy gave the firemen several dozen. They’re in the freezer, and directions are on the package. Set the timer, then come back out and work the back of the line. If you don’t know what that means, it means being nice to them and asking if they’ve found everything they wanted.”

Andrew huffs as he turns to the kitchen doors. “Jesus! You’re asking Graham? He’s a football player! Hey, Jasper, nice to meet you. I’m a big fan. You’re fucking awesome.” Andrew glares at his sister. “I’ll do the cookies. You two help Jane by working the crowd. I’m not sure she knows how to be nice to people.”

“Neanderthal,” she says under her breath as he goes into the kitchen.

Jasper leans in on the counter. “Your hero has arrived. What can I do for you, beautiful?”

“Jane, this is Jasper, my quarterback.”

Jasper gives her his killer smile and bats his lashes. “Hey.”

She pushes a two-foot stack of books toward him. “Do you know how to read?”

His charming demeanor vanishes. “Don’t throw shade because I’m a football god. I was cum laude at the University of Southern California”—he reads her name tag as if he’s forgotten her name—“Jane.”

“Congrats,” she says dryly. “Shelve these.”

He picks a few of them up. “Did people change their minds and just leave them here?”

She nods. “Sometimes.”

“I kinda feel sorry for the books that get left behind. Oh, look, here’s one about Romanian folklore. Maybe there’s a section on vampire tales. That’s my kryptonite. I’ll buy that one.” He moves it to the side.

“You’re into that?” I ask. It might explain the Gothic bed.

“You never asked. Tuck did. He asked me all kinds of things. That’s why he got the bracelet.” He gives me a pointed look. “My major was world history, with a minor in poetry.”

“No one cares. Can you shelve them now?” Jane asks, interrupting us.

“In a hurry to get rid of me?” Jasper says as he sets the books on the rolling cart.

“No, I just want you to clean the toilets when you’re done.” She smiles slyly.

Jasper sputters and throws me a look. “No way. Uh-uh. I came to meet your wife, not clean.”

I smirk, laughing. “That’s what friends do. We help each other out when things go south.”

“I draw the line at toilets,” he mutters as he picks up a book.

I step closer to Jane, behind the counter. “Hey, any Kian sightings?”

She nods. “I’ve seen him walk past the store five times since you’ve been gone. I’m keeping tabs, don’t worry. I hate that asshole.”

My fists tighten. “Five?”

“He left another bouquet of lilies, which Andrew found when he came in early one morning. She never saw them. Truthfully, he probably walks by here once a day, and I just don’t see him. FYI, I’ve been going to this axe-throwing place for fun. If he comes in, I’m ready.” She points to an axe she has under the counter. “I can be a badass too.”

I wince. “I can’t decide if you’re kidding or not.”

She blinks at me innocently. “Not.”

I exhale. “Don’t worry about him. I’ve got it covered.”

She rakes me up and down. “You have a plan?”

“Yes,” I say grimly. “I’ll let you know when it’s time. I’m going to need you.”

“I like you about twenty percent more than I did.” She taps the PA system. “Emmy, we have a cream situation in the lobby. Please come see him.”

Jasper cocks his head. “‘Cream’? What’s she talking about?”

“Long story that I don’t—” My words come to a halt as Emmy approaches us in a white silk blouse and a black pencil skirt with heels. She’s talking with one of the firemen as they come from upstairs. My iguana bangle encircles her arm. Her hair falls in loose waves and hangs around her face. Her makeup is dramatic, with arched brows and pouty lips. And she is . . .

“Fucking hot,” Jasper murmurs from next to me, and a buzz of irritation hits.

“That’s my wife you’re drooling over. Stop.”

He holds his hands up. “Just saying. If things don’t work out between you two—”

Jane’s voice cuts like a knife. “Of course it will work out. It’s Emmy. She wouldn’t commit unless she means it with her whole heart.”

Magic struts behind her like a king, then detours and jumps behind the counter with Jane and surveys the customers with beady eyes.

I stick my hands in my shorts pockets and walk to meet Emmy as she shakes the fireman’s hand. He flirts with her, an older guy with scruff and a bit of a belly. She laughs with him, but I see shadows under her eyes, as if she hasn’t slept much. The fireman walks away, and she turns to the people at the end of the checkout line, explaining how they’re short staffed and missing one of their registers. She offers them a free coffee with their purchases.

She turns around, and I’m there.

A long exhale comes from my lips. It’s been too long. I should have come back earlier.

“Hi,” I say, my tone soft as I study her features. “It’s good to see you.”

A blush rises up her cheeks. “Hi.”

“You look short staffed. What can I do?”

She blows out a long breath. “Everything that could go wrong, went wrong this morning. The firemen just cleared out. A little girl locked herself in the bathroom. Her mom said she was epileptic, so I called the fire department to rush things along. They broke the lock, and the little girl is fine.”

“Good.”

“Plus, there’s a leak in the basement.” Worry flits over her features. “My shark was in the basement, and it’s ruined.”

“Show me.”

We get on the elevator, and when it opens to the basement, I see the problem. A leak from a pipe has spilled onto a large worktable in the corner of the room. Water is under and on top of the table. Art supplies are soaked.

“We had a beautiful giant papier-mâché shark for the window. One of the sinks in the kitchen leaked, and this is the issue.” She explains how she’s already shut the water off for that sink.

“I have nothing to display to the Times when they come tomorrow. My brain is done with this day, and I . . .” She sways on her feet as she puts a hand to her chest.

I catch her and hold her into my arms. “Emmy! Are you okay?”

Her throat moves as she inhales deep breaths. “Fine. Just super-early mornings and late nights.”

I search her green eyes, not letting her out of my grasp, but then she isn’t pulling away either. “So you need a new display? You can’t just set the mannequins back up?”

“It needs to be new. We were going to make an ocean and hang the shark about midway up. Our books were Jaws and nonfiction titles about great whites. The art girl I use and I planned it for weeks.” She rubs her temple. “Guess you saw the mannequins getting freaky?”

“Horny mannequins. Trying to have sex in front of customers.”

A small smile crosses her lips. “I’m glad you’re back.” She leans her head on my chest, her curves against my muscles, and I squeeze her a little tighter, resting my chin on her head. “How was camp?” she asks, anxiousness evident in her tone.

“We did some scrimmages with the Falcons, took a few classes, worked with our coaches.”

She quiets for a few moments; then: “Did you get hurt? Any headaches or dizziness?”

“Training is gentle. We don’t roughhouse. We’re just getting ready, and no one wants to injure another player.”

“Oh.”

“Were you worried?”

“Of course not,” she mumbles.

“Hmm.”

“What’s next on your calendar?” she asks.

“Training camp here, then preseason games. The first one is August eleventh, then the regular season starts September seventh.”

“How many games do you play during the regular season?”

“Seventeen.”

She exhales. “Dammit, Graham. That’s a lot of chances to be hurt.”

“You won’t need to be concerned.”

“Why not?” She tips her head and gazes up at me with big eyes.

Emotion makes my throat prickle. “By then, the inheritance should be here.”

She inhales a breath and holds my gaze for several long moments. A vein near her temple throbs. “Right. Of course. We won’t even be together. We never have to speak again—”

“Wait. Come on, Emmy. We can be friends after this is—”

She cuts me off and steps out of my arms. “While you were gone, I had your dad over for dinner, and he met Jane and Andrew and Londyn. Hopefully, I’ve convinced him we’re real, so even if Holden tries to pull his tricks, then we’ll have his support.”

I nod, regret knifing into me at her cool words. Brody filled me in on the dinner. Apparently, she and Jane made a lasagna. According to Brody, Dad adored the Darling family, especially little Londyn. Emmy also confided in Dad about her upbringing and also told him that Holden had a PI following her and was planning on releasing a story.

“Thanks for doing that,” I reply, studying the way she’s holding herself, her shoulders curled in. “Dad called me last week. He had words with Holden. There isn’t going to be any story about us.”

She pushes out a nonchalant shrug. “Honestly, I always thought I’d be upset to see my name and my parents’ past dragged in the papers, but that seems like a trivial thing compared to me nearly losing the bookstore—or your concussion. I like your dad. He reminds me of you.”

She pauses, seeming to consider her words. “Speaking of faithful, you left me at the beach. Why did you go to Seattle after camp?”

I needed some space from her, but I also had business. “I still had a condo there. It sold, and I was there to handle it.”

“Brody keeps saying I should know why you left. I don’t. Not really. Nothing definitive. I mean, you could have stayed. We could have hung out.”

I don’t reply.

She sighs. “Have you heard of Occam’s razor?”

“Yeah. It means that a simpler explanation is more likely to be true than a complex one. One famous example is if you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.”

She fidgets, the color rising in her cheeks. “So, the simplest explanation is you couldn’t wait to get away from me.”

I heave out an exhale. “Emmy—”

“No, it’s fine.” She gives me a tight smile. “I’m going upstairs to get back to work.”

She turns to go, and I don’t stop her. Part of me wants to comfort her, but the other side is wary of getting too close.

She didn’t want to marry me.

She wants us to end.

And I’m afraid she’s going to rip out my heart when she leaves.

I shove that thought away. This was the plan. Just stick to it.

Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Options

not work with dark mode
Reset