My Darling Bride: Chapter 9

EMMY

“Um, book lady on the floor, hello, are you listening?” a voice says behind me, and I start as I look up and see two teen girls, one brown haired, the other a strawberry blonde. I’m literally on the floor as I reshelve books left in the reading area downstairs. I assume the girls tried to get my attention before, but my mind has been distracted since meeting with Graham a few days ago.

“Yes, how can I help?” I brush the dust off my red dress. It’s a little retro number with a black velvet collar and buttons down the front. Sadly, there’s a splash of coffee where my breast is and a hole in my fishnet hose, right on the knee. The coffee happened this morning while serving a customer, and the hole occurred minutes ago. I don’t usually reshelve books, but we’re down three employees.

Magic perks his head out from the top shelf above me. His stubby tail swishes.

The strawberry blonde, maybe fifteen and dressed in a preppy school skirt and blazer, knee socks, and saddleback shoes, steps forward. “Hi, we’re looking for an autographed copy of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.”

I do a little clap. “Oh, wow. Please tell me if you find one.”

She scowls. “Don’t you have those? Any good bookstore would.”

I exhale, not in frustration, but in glee. I live for these bookstore moments. Girls, it’s time for a trip down memory lane . . .

“Well,” I say with a smile. “You’re not the first student to come in and ask for this, but I’ve got some bad news for you.”

“Are you out of them?” asks the other girl as she does a little hair flip. “Do we need to go to Lottie’s Bookstore? They do have better coffee.”

How dare she?

“I assure you, we are the best bookstore in Manhattan, but back to your book . . . Shakespeare doesn’t have any autographed copies in any bookstore, and if he did, they’d be worth about, hmm, six to seven million dollars.” My hand rests on my chest dramatically. “What I’d give to come across one.”

They glance at each other, still confused, then almost in unison say, “But our teacher said to get one.”

“Right. Follow me.” They fall in line behind me as I lead them to the other side of the third floor to the fiction section, my thigh-high heeled boots clicking against the tile. “FYI: there are no original copies of his manuscripts, signed or not. There’s not even a couplet written with his name under it. In fact, there are only about six items in the world with Shakespeare’s signature, and none of them relate to his plays. They’re on things like wills and deeds. What’s really crazy is when we stop and think about the absence of this signature, we have to ask ourselves: What if he wasn’t the author of those plays? Shocking, right?”

“Seriously? We didn’t come for a lecture,” the strawberry blonde says with a long, aggrieved sigh.

I nod and keep going. “I love a good lecture. What we do know about William Shakespeare is he only went to primary school, his parents were illiterate, and so were his children. I mean, why wouldn’t a man who’d written such moving pieces of literature educate his own children? And, when he died, there was no public mourning, even when people had flocked to see his plays. It’s just baffling.”

“I’m not baffled. Are we there yet?” one of them says.

I trudge on. “Almost. If you’re into conspiracies—I am—some believe that Christopher Marlowe, a writer of the same time period, was really Shakespeare. Did you ask how? No? Let me explain. Marlowe was despised because of his antireligious works, and nearly everyone in the late sixteenth century was religious. So, the theory is that Marlowe faked his sudden death—supposedly stabbed in a bar—because he was also a spy for the Tudor court, plus there was a warrant out for his arrest. Marlowe was in deep shit. Then, two weeks after his supposed death, voilà, the first work of William Shakespeare goes on sale. How’s that for intriguing?”

“You need to take a break from Shakespeare,” one of them mutters.

“Right. To each their own. ‘To thine own self be true,’” I say.

“What are you even saying?” one of them says.

I wave her off. It’s over now. The moment has passed. They didn’t get it.

“Anyway, your teacher meant for you to buy one of these. Just a regular copy.” I indicate the correct shelf and grab two paperbacks of Romeo and Juliet off the shelf and put them in their hands. “I hope you learned something today. Enjoy the play. Mercutio is my fav. Oh, and it’s a real tearjerker.”

They smirk. “We know how it ends, book lady. They die.”

“‘Parting is such sweet sorrow.’” And with those words, I mosey away, and Magic meets me at the end of the row. What fresh hell were you spouting? his eyes convey. I give him a pet and head to the staircase as he follows. He’s fit in well in our apartment, and the expression on Londyn’s face when she first saw him was priceless. Pure amazement.

The PA system clicks on, and Babs’s voice blares: “Emmy, we have a cream situation. Emmy to the main floor for the cream.”

Cream? Then it dawns, and I groan. Last month our coffee station got knocked over, and a large plastic container of french vanilla shattered when it hit the marble tile. Sticky, sugary white stuff oozed everywhere, and the floor squeaked for days. It took multiple moppings.

I’ll need the big yellow bucket from the maintenance closet. Magic follows me as I hop on the elevator and take the ride to the basement and grab it. Ugh. The water is murky and hasn’t been changed, so I refill it, wrestle the mop back in, get back on the elevator, and push the button for the first floor.

“Attention, Emmy, please hurry! We need you to see the cream,” Babs says over the loudspeakers.

“I heard you the first time,” I mutter as I shove the mop and bucket out of the elevator and onto our main floor.

A man catches me before I get too far. He’s older, maybe fifty. “Do you have any books on . . . erotica?” he asks as he blushes. “It’s for . . . a friend.”

If Babs were here, she’d clasp his hand in hers, gush over her favs, and skip with him to the sexy books. I smile. “Sure. Second floor, on the right. You can’t miss it.”

I turn back to the bucket, and instead of bending over to push it, I shove it with one of my heels. The motion causes the wooden handle of the mop to whip back and bang my nose. Tears burst from my eyes at the pain. The inconvenience of not having a cleaning person ratchets up, and I curse vividly.

Babs dashes over. “You move like a tortoise. Why are you trying to break your face? You splashed water out on the floor.”

“You try rolling this thing. It’s heavy, and one of the wheels is wonky.” I wring out the mop and rub it over the spilled water. “There.”

“You shouldn’t be doing this.”

“Our maintenance person didn’t show. Guess who’s going to be here all night, cleaning? Me and you.” I push the pail forward, this time by the mop handle. She keeps pace with me as we reach the condiment area. “Where’s the creamer? You didn’t mean the cream soda, did you?”

“There’s no spilled creamer,” she hisses. “Is that why you’re dragging around this mop bucket like a bedraggled waif?”

Only booklovers use words like “bedraggled” and “waif.”

“Babs. What’s going on? Why are your eyes darting to the left?”

“Mr. Hottie in the cream suit is here. Remember? I told you all about him when you got back from your vacay. He’s near the window. Don’t you dare look, or he’ll know we’re talking about him, and it’s bad enough that you’re pushing a mop.” She gives me an exasperated look. “What am I going to do with you?”

“The PA system isn’t your personal alert system for good-looking guys.”

“It is.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Whatever. Pretty soon it won’t even matter because we’re closing for good. It’s him. The one who asked for you.”

“Jeez, stop hissing,” I say. “I understood you the first time. He’s the man who came by, and boy was he hot, blah, blah, blah. Where is he?”

Her eyes roll so hard I think for a moment her fake lashes might flop off. “I already told you. He’s near the display. He asked for you to serve his tea.”

A snort comes from me. I enjoy reading Jane Austen, but I don’t pour your tea, my lord. “The nerve. I’m not a waitress. At least not here.”

“Okay, well, he didn’t really say, ‘Tell her to serve my tea,’ maybe I sort of added that part because it sounded exciting, but Emmy! He’s interested in you. I’m telling you: there’s a gleam in his gorgeous gray eyes, and—”

“Wait. Gray? Like storm clouds?”

“More like the polished silver of a spoon. The man is dripping in sex pheromones and money. Not that you’re a gold digger, but, well, you are in a precarious sitch right now,” she says, then winces. “I may have mentioned some things about you to him, so forgive me in advance, but you’re my bestie and I knew your gran, and the truth is she’d want what I want, which is something wonderful in your life and someone—”

“Stop. What did you tell him?”

Her eyes flare, and her nose twitches like a rabbit’s. She takes a bite of the scone in her hands. “I just told him how sweet you are, which isn’t true today. I also told him you’re looking for love.”

“Babs! I am not! I have other things to worry about.”

Her shoulders slump. “I know. Everything is falling apart. The store is closing. Anyway. He’s waiting for you. Fix yourself and leave the mop bucket in the corner.”

Magic twines between my legs and gives me an Are you okay? look. Yes, sweet cat, something is indeed brewing in the air, and it’s not tea but an arrogant jerk who thinks I’d marry him because I took his car to the airport, and then it got stolen. And yes, I feel enormous guilt and remorse for taking his Lambo, but marriage? Never.

Holding the pastry in one hand, Babs scoops Magic up with the other and snuggles him. He seems to adore her and Terry and the rest of the staff.

“I’ll feed the Prince of Darkness. You go see him—oh, and there’s a woman with him, which I can’t quite figure out, so there’s that.”

I’m muttering as I straighten my dress and head to the front area of the bookstore. I glance in a mirror on the wall, and sure enough, my nose looks like Rudolph. Merry Christmas.

There he is, looking like he just stepped out of a magazine, wearing a fitted long-sleeved pale-blue shirt and slim navy slacks. Dark hair is swept off his face, and his inviting lips are currently smiling at his companion. Combined with his broad shoulders and a chest that tapers to a trim waist, he’s gorgeous.

He sits at a table with a petite brunette in a yellow dress with her hair swept up on each side with gold barrettes.

Pretty snazzy for a weekday.

Babs slides in next to me, vibrating with excitement. She must have fed Magic in record time. “Act nonchalant,” she tells me. “Don’t run him off with your ‘romance only works in books’ spiel.”

I inhale a deep breath, steeling myself. “Guess that’s his other possible fake wife . . .”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“So you know him? He isn’t a stranger?”

“Graham Harlan, football star, mega wealthy, possible mafia or international art thief on the side.”

“What?”

“Kidding. That’s just my imagination.”

Graham must feel the heat of my stare. He glances over at me and quirks one of his eyebrows. Well, it seems to say. Fancy seeing you here. Come meet your competition.

I feel a blush rising up my cheeks. At least I put on makeup today: total skin coverage, plus winged eyeliner and crimson lips. And my dress is hot. A little too short. A little too tight. Just perfect.

Maybe a tiny part of me hoped he’d stop by the bookstore. Pfft. I don’t need a love interest, not that that even matters, since he’s only proposing a marriage of convenience.

I approach the table, intent on keeping a smile plastered on my face.

He watches me with lowered lids, as if trying to make sense of my movements, my expressions, my feelings. His eyes brush over my hair, taking in the messy bun, the wisps that linger around my cheeks, and when he ends on my lips, my smile falters.

His gaze is so heavy and intimate that I almost forget to breathe.

His stare needs to be outlawed.

When he sees the coffee stain on my chest, everything inside me itches to grab a napkin off a table and wipe at it, but I hold back the urge, my heart thumping a little too fast for my taste.

Why is the air more alive around him? Crisper?

“This isn’t Marcelle’s,” I say lightly when I reach them. “I don’t wait tables here; in fact, no one does. Hello, Graham.”

He merely nods, but the woman lights up with a beautiful smile, eagerness on her face. Her eyes are midnight blue, her teeth like little pearls. Dang, she’s pretty.

“Of course not,” she says, then sticks out her hand. “Hi, I’m Mina. Babs mentioned how hard you work on the displays. It’s so . . . cute.”

“Cute” is a word for kittens. Our windows are freaking divine. “Thank you,” I murmur as I release her hand. “We’ll have a new one up for the summer. The Times comes by for the reveal.” I stop, a heaviness sinking in as I realize I forgot for a moment that we’re closing permanently. I shake my head. “Sorry. That’s incorrect. The store is closing soon. Sometimes I forget.”

“Oh, that’s disappointing,” she says. “It’s my first time here, and G mentioned we should stop by.”

You don’t say. How interesting.

He shrugs. “It’s near my apartment at Wickham.”

Ah, Wickham, an exclusive apartment complex that overlooks Central Park. Of course he would live there. How nice for him.

She gives him a secret smile. “We just came from his place. It’s horrendous and totally needs to be renovated. He actually has a statue of a giant penis.” She laughs, a dulcet sound. “Have you been, Emmy?”

Well, no, but I have stolen his car. It drives like a dream.

“No,” I say sweetly, then turn to him and raise an eyebrow. She’s perfect, my gaze says.

“Thanks,” he replies dryly; then I get flustered because, hello, do we have some kind of mind connection?

“And for the record, the statue was in my apartment when I moved in,” Graham says. “As was the shag carpet and weird sunken living room. I’m hoping someone can help me redecorate.” He raises an eyebrow at me, which I ignore.

Mina laughs. “It’s lime green and bolted to the ground—the penis, that is. You really must go see it.”

“How fun,” I murmur. I’ll never see his apartment, Mina. Because you’re going to marry him, not me.

I put on my customer smile. “So nice to meet you, Mina. The girl at the counter will be glad to take your order. Please try one of our pastries on the house. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to work—”

Before I can leave, Graham takes my hand. “Wait a moment, Emmy. Please,” he murmurs.

Oh. Shivers dance over me.

It’s hard to resist a “please” from him.

Mina rises from her seat with the grace of a swan. “I’ll let you two chat while I take you up on a muffin. I’m going to try the pomegranate tea. Same for you, G?”

“Sure,” he replies absently, eyes on me. “Thanks, Mina.”

She glides away to go to the counter, and he says, “Will you sit for a moment?”

“Okay.” I loosen my hand from his grasp and take a seat.

“Have you considered my offer?” His gaze lingers on my face.

It’s all I’ve thought about. Instead of replying, I lean in and cup my chin, giving him my full attention. “What are you holding over Mina to get her to marry you?”

“Nothing. She adores me. Isn’t it obvious?”

“So you’re going for the romantic angle? Love and devotion?”

He leans back in his chair, a relaxed smirk on his face. “You remind me of Brody, as if all women hate me. It really isn’t true. You stole my dream car, and now you’re breaking my heart, Emmy.”

“You’re different today,” I say. He’s softer. Sexier. More relaxed. It must be Mina. “What’s going on? Got an ace up your sleeve? Are the cops waiting outside for me?”

His lips twitch. “Your imagination is adorable. I’m enjoying watching you work. Nice dress.”

My breath quickens as I realize I’m playing with one of the buttons, and his eyes are following me.

He leans in on the table to match my pose. “And who says Mina’s my fiancée? Jealous?”

My teeth click together as Mina arrives with a pomegranate tea for Graham. She places it and a croissant in front of him, then says she’s going to wander around the store for a bit.

Pain twinges in the center of my skull, one I can no longer ignore, and I rub my temple.

His brows pull down. “Headache?”

“Hmm. I thought it would disappear by now, but it seems to be getting worse. Sorry if I’m not the best conversationalist right now.”

He takes a napkin from the dispenser and hands it to me. “It’s fine, but your mascara is running, and the bridge of your nose is turning purple. What’s going on?”

I dab at my eyes. “I banged my nose on a mop. You might have enjoyed it.” A rueful smile crosses my lips. “I’m shocked it isn’t bleeding.”

“Come with me.” He stands and holds out his hand, and I hesitantly put mine in his.

“You want to look at it? Why?”

“I’m a football player. I know my injuries. The first thing we need to do is put some ice on it and make sure it isn’t fractured. I also want to make sure you don’t have a concussion.”

“From a mop handle?”

“Trust me, anything is possible, plus nose hits sting like a bitch. I’ve taken a few of them just messing around with the guys. Where’s the kitchen?”

“Um, behind the counter, through the swinging doors.”

He doesn’t release my hand as we pass a wide-eyed Babs at the counter, checking out the teen girls from earlier. Eyeballing Graham, they squeal in excitement, then take their purchases and rush over to us. One of them grabs his sleeve, and he disentangles himself and tells her that he’s on his private time.

“Does that happen a lot?” I ask as we leave them behind.

“Hmm, you may not know this, but I’m famous.”

“Did the player that pulled your face mask get fined or what?”

“Technically, the defense would have gotten a fifteen-yard penalty, but since I crossed the goal line anyway, it didn’t matter,” he says. “We won. It was a high-pressure game, and people react on instinct. Sometimes the caveman takes over on the field.”

I stop, surprise flickering over me. “Wait. You actually have empathy for him? Even after all the problems it must have given you?”

“I believe he didn’t mean for what happened to happen. It’s a risk we all take when we put on the uniform. I’m angry it’s fucked with me for months, but I’ve been cleared to play. I’ll start this fall.”

I frown. After discovering who he was, I watched the video of his tackle several times. He’d fallen into a tangle of arms and legs, then lay on the field while everyone else got to their feet. He didn’t move. Not an inch. The crowd hushed. The other team prayed. His team formed a wall around him for privacy as the paramedics used a defibrillator to bring him back. I’ve had a similar thing done, to shock my heart back into normal rhythm.

We walk into the kitchen, and our hands drift apart. Tilting my chin up, he searches my face. With surprisingly gentle fingers he touches the top of my nose. Concern etches his features. “I don’t feel a break, and it doesn’t look misshapen. Your eyes look fine but might bruise later. Do you feel nauseous or dizzy?”

“No.”

But my heart is suddenly thumping like a snare drum.

Dammit, I like this vulnerable side of him, his care. True, he’s a towering man with muscles, seemingly invincible, but there’s a gentleness about him that makes my heart tighten.

He smells intoxicating, and with our faces this close, I notice the feathery lines at the corners of his mercurial eyes. I see a small scar on his temple. I take in the strong muscles in his throat, the light dusting of dark hair I see below his neck. I wonder if there’s a lot of hair on his chest. My mind wanders, and I imagine his abdomen, if he has a six- or an eight-pack; then I’m tangled up in thoughts about his penis—is there a curve, which direction does it point, is he circumcised, if his height and broad shoulders suggest a girthy cock, and what color the spring of hair would be—

And nope. I have a cat.

“Yeah, I don’t think I have a concussion,” I say as I ease away, grab a ziplock bag, and fill it with ice from the machine.

Leaning against the stainless steel counter, I press the bag to my face, focusing on the bridge of my nose and not the man next to me.

“So, tell me about this fight with the mop. You lost?”

“I banged it while pushing the bucket we use to mop up spills. Some of our employees didn’t show, so I’m doing odd jobs.”

“Ah.”

I exhale. The mop incident is just another reminder that the store is going away. My stomach churns all over again. “I guess you saw the sign on the door. We’re closing for good. Our people are skipping work to look for other jobs. My gran worked here for years. My siblings and I ran around, had meals in the kitchen, played hide-and-seek . . .” My voice trails off. I even got to first base with my crush on the velvet settee upstairs.

Just memories from the past, written on my heart.

I lower the ice pack, thinking. He and I don’t know each other, but we’ve been through something together. I can’t unload on Babs because she’ll try to fix things, like find me a job in Alaska. I can’t with my siblings, because Jane is going through her own issues, and Andrew is already on the verge of quitting school. “It’s like, losing the store is just another piece of her gone. Pretty soon I won’t have anything left.”

My chest rises. “Then, there’s the apartment where I live. My gran took out a second mortgage to help my mom. I know selling is the right thing to do, to get out of debt, and start fresh in a cheaper place, but it’s hard to let go after all the sacrifices Gran made for us, you know? She is, was, my mother.”

“I’m sorry,” he says softly.

I give him a wan smile. “Sorry for venting. Bet you wished you hadn’t shown up to taunt me with Mina.”

He takes the ice from my numb hands and places it on the counter. His words are whisper soft. “She’s not my fiancée. That position is only for you.”

My breath catches.

A myriad of expressions flit over his face, ones I can’t decipher. “It must be you.”

I take in the diamond cheekbones, the beautiful lines of his jaw, and the way his eyes peer into mine with that deep, intense look.

“My answer is no. I don’t want to get married. And about the car . . . I think you’re the kind of person who would forgive me.” He has empathy for the guy who tackled him. Maybe he can spare some understanding for me.

Seconds tick by as he stares at me, emotions flitting over his face. Then he turns and walks out of the kitchen, leaving me there.

Shit. I groan. Maybe I’ve misjudged him, and he’s calling the police.

I start when the kitchen door flies open, and he stalks back inside, his chest heaving out an exhale as he stops in front of me. “You’re infuriating, you know that?”

I dip my face and hide a smile. “Welcome back. So you aren’t going to put me behind bars?”

“I never would have, and you know it.”

I touch his arm, and the act sends a buzzing hot zap down my spine. His muscles are taut and hard. I let my hand fall away. “So let me help you out with Mina. What can I do? She clearly likes you. And she is sweet, even if she did say my windows are ‘cute.’”

He rubs his face with both hands, his tone exasperated. “Of course she likes me. She’s my cousin. She thinks I’m interested in you—romantically. She came along to be my wingwoman.”

I can’t hide the smile anymore and giggle. “You dragged her in here to push me into making a decision?”

“Yes.” His eyes narrow. “But with you, I need to be a bit more . . . persuasive.”

I rub my hands together. “Let’s hear it, then.”

“I have a confession.”

My stomach pitches in hope. “What? Your car is perfectly fine? That photo you sent is a fake? Please say it’s so.”

“No, it’s wrecked, completely totaled.” He spears me with his steely gaze, the one that makes my hackles rise. “I bought the bookstore.”

I take a step back and gasp. “You found out where I worked, then decided to pull the rug out from under me . . . in what . . . revenge? All because of a stupid car?”

“A four-hundred-thousand-dollar car,” he growls as he crosses his arms. “Think about it, Emmy. Of course I was going to find out who you are, especially when I discovered Brody knew you. I came into the store to talk to you, and when you weren’t here, I thought I’d check in with the owner to see what kind of person you were—seeing as I had so little to base my knowledge on.”

“Terry knows I stole a car?”

“No.”

Thank God. He’s like the uncle I never had. And I never want Jane and Andrew to know I made such a dumb mistake. I’m supposed to be a role model for them.

“But when I saw his fishing boat, we had a conversation about retirement, and I said I might be interested in buying the store. We exchanged numbers, and I called him the next day.” He stuffs his hands in his pockets. “I do invest in property, Emmy. It happened organically.”

I shake my head. “You wanted leverage. You knew you wouldn’t press charges about the car, so you bought the store. You’re a diabolical devil.”

“I only found this place because of you. You’re the common denominator in this.”

“Thanks for reminding me this is all my fault.” I turn my back to him and stomp to the door.

“Dammit,” he mutters as he catches my arm. “Wait, don’t walk away. Just listen to me.”

I flip around. “What?”

He struggles with what to say, brows lowered, then lifts his hands. “Christ! Fine. I wanted leverage, and if it didn’t work, I could have resold it.”

“But how did you know that I loved it so much?”

He sighs. “Terry mentioned that you’d wanted to buy it someday, so . . .”

It’s too absurd. “Why go to such lengths? For me?”

“Because my mind is set on you,” he murmurs.

“Why?” I search his face, looking for clues as to what he’s thinking.

He debates internally, then says, “I’m in a rush to get married, and there aren’t any other options I like. Brody adores you. You’re . . . beautiful.” His words soften as he averts his glance and drags a hand through his dark hair. “I’m not terrible to live with. I have training camp soon, and I won’t even be around. I’ll keep the bookstore for you. Brody doesn’t want me to buy him anything anyway.”

I inhale sharply as hope flares, burning like a beacon.

Keeping the store would solve so many issues. I’d still have the memories of Gran here, and I could continue to take care of my family.

But at what cost?

I can feel a tiny thread of something between us. Chemistry, most definitely. Heat, oh yeah. From the moment he got out of his car at the motel, something about him caught my attention.

But . . .

I don’t want to get entangled with him. Haven’t I been through enough with Kian? I don’t want to jump right back into something else, especially something that feels . . . exciting.

Gray eyes search mine, trying to gauge my reaction.

What I want to do is run and break this spell he has on me, but instead, I stay rooted. My mind tumbles his words around, running different scenarios and outcomes.

“We’ll be professional,” he says. “Roommates in my apartment. Perhaps friends.”

“For how long?”

“A few months, maybe three; I’m not sure. Until the lawyer approves the inheritance. Then we’ll make up a story about why we’re getting divorced.”

I swallow, remembering how my heart jumps whenever he’s nearby. Obviously he doesn’t have that issue.

And buying the store? I don’t get it. Sure, he could use it as leverage, but that would be entirely overboard. Why not just find someone else? What is it about me that he wants?

“What happens to the store after we divorce?”

He studies my face. “I swear I’ll sell to someone who’ll keep it open.”

My throat tightens. It’s everything I could want.

Unease rises.

I shake my head. “What if . . . I mean, it would be easy to . . .” Get attached to him.

Which is the last thing I need.

A moment passes, then: “I see.”

“What?” I put my hands on my hips.

“You’re worried about falling for me.”

I scoff. “Jesus. Please. That was the last thing I was thinking. Save me from the egomaniacal asshole.”

“You won’t, I promise.”

“Why not? Just curious why you’d say that.”

He shrugs as he leans in, until our faces are close. The scent of ripe cherries and leather wafts in the air. If I moved a few inches, I could kiss him. His lips are perfect for kissing, like pillows.

“There’s armor wrapped around you so tight it might never come off, and I get it. You still have feelings for Kian. Am I right?”

Of course I have feelings for Kian, but I’m not clarifying exactly what they are to Graham. I shrug nonchalantly. Let him believe what he wants.

“What about you? Is there an ex-girlfriend I should be worried about?”

His jawline tightens as he glances away from me with a faraway look, one that makes me want to ask what’s wrong. The strong column of muscles in his throat moves. “We’re alike in that. I love someone I can’t be with.”

I inhale, an inexplicable pang of jealousy hitting me. “What? Who?”

“Doesn’t matter.” He eases away from me, as if he needs distance. “Both of us have our guard up. We’ve both been hurt. Neither of us hold any illusions about love or each other. We’re perfect. So . . . deal?” He glances at me.

“I’m in charge of the store?”

He nods. “Make it profitable.”

“It is already, but I can make it better. I’ll need a raise. After all, you don’t want your wife bartending at Marcelle’s part time, do you?”

Amusement glints in his eyes. “Did you ever consider law school?”

“No.”

“You might have missed your calling. So. Yes or no?”

The sounds of the bookstore fade, muffled by my heart racing and my shallow breaths.

“Hello. You had me at ‘bookstore’ five minutes ago.” It means I can stay here for a little longer at least.

We gaze at each other, the seconds ticking by as heaviness lingers in the air around us, a tautness buzzing around the space.

Maybe we’re both feeling the weight of the decision we’ve made.

I’m thinking back to that moment when I ran from Kian by stealing Graham’s car.

We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that. I am the common denominator.

“Hmm, yeah . . . just . . . guess I should . . .” He reaches inside his pocket and pulls out a velvet box. He opens it and reveals a ring. “This was my mother’s favorite ring. It’s an antique, and if it’s not to your taste, then we can get something else.”

I gasp at the square-shaped solitaire surrounded on the sides by smaller diamonds. “It’s . . .” Beautiful. Everything a girl could want.

He takes my left hand and glides it on my finger.

“It fits your finger.”

My stomach flutters at the sight of the ring on my hand. I trace my fingers over it. “You have to say the words.” Mostly I’m kidding, to lighten the mood, but another side of me yearns for it. Weird.

“What words . . . oh, I see. Really? You’re serious. Why?”

“We’ll need a good story. The truer it is, the more real we’ll sound.”

“I didn’t think you were a romantic,” he says.

“Can’t a girl just want something, and there’s not a label on it?”

“Is that any way to talk to your future husband? Also, your hand is shaking.”

“So is yours, Mr. Cream.”

He pops that eyebrow. “Mr. Cream?”

I wave my hand at him. “You wore a cream suit. Babs noticed. That’s why she was on the PA system earlier, telling me about the ‘cream situation.’”

His lips quirk.

“Come on, do it. Take the ring off and start all over.”

He takes the ring off as he growls under his breath, “Hardest proposal of my fucking life . . .”

“How many have you done?”

“Jealous?”

“No.”

He rolls his neck and shoulders. “I’m kinda sore from my workout. It’s hard to get on the floor. Let’s skip that part.”

“Ah, I see, the usual. You’ve never been on your knees in front of a woman.”

“Oh, I have, my darling.”

Sexual tension swirls in the air as I imagine him going down on me. My breath hitches as my body quivers—

Nope. One, I have a cat. Two, this is fake. Three, catch the fuck up, Emmy.

“Your face is flushed, Emmy,” he says, lids lowered.

I check my wrist for a watch I’m not wearing. “Look at the time. Guess I’ll see you later—”

He grumbles. “All right, all right, I’ll stop teasing, and if you really insist, I’ll get down on my knee . . .”

“I do.”

“You’ll be saying those words very soon.”

“I need to close up the store in ten minutes, Mr. Cream.”

He shakes his head. “‘Mr. Cream’ makes me sound like I sit around and masturbate all day.”

I have to bite my lip to keep from laughing.

With a deep exhale, right there in the kitchen of the bookstore, surrounded by a bag of ice and dirty dishes in the sink, he gets down on one knee, looks up at me with a gaze I can’t decipher, and says, “Emmy, will you marry me?”

I cock my head. “You sound like a robot. I’m a woman. We’re in love. You can’t wait for us to be together forever. Put some soul into it, some excitement. I want to feel tingles over every inch of my skin. Give me some va-va-voom.” I shimmy my shoulders to make the point.

“My God. You’re the diabolical one. You’re being mean.”

I stifle down a laugh. “I admit, I’m enjoying messing with you. It’s not my problem you have thin skin. You’re the one who wants to get married, Creamy.”

“All I see is a giant pile of cum—or mayo—when you say that.”

I giggle.

“Stop giggling.”

“I’m nervous! This is a big deal, okay? You need to stop getting flustered over getting on one knee.”

“Jesus. I’m nervous too.” His top teeth keep chewing on his bottom lip, and he keeps his eyes downcast as if searching for what to say. “Emmy, from the moment I saw you on the balcony of the motel, I knew you were an extraordinary woman. I want to spend the next few months with you. Will. You. Marry. Me.”

The words, which ring with truth, hang in the air, and the moments stretch like a rubber band. The faux tenderness of his expression, the pretend glint of hope in his eyes, the way his fake smile gives me the shivers, I commit it all to memory.

“All right,” I say, and that’s when the kitchen door flies open, and Babs rushes in.

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