“Right. Well, I think I’m there … until I don’t have to be.” I don’t want to talk about what I really mean and I know she gets it.
“But isn’t it suspicious that I suddenly just leave and I’m never seen again?”
I shrug. “Yeah. But we’ll just say you’re going to America for work for a month or two.”
“Right after we got engaged? That doesn’t seem right. I mean, I was just engaged and never would have done that.”
I glance at her sharply, heat in my chest. “You were just engaged?”
She gives me a wincing smile. “Yeah. He broke it off a week or two ago.”
“A week or two ago?” I repeat, dumbfounded. I’m not sure how this is going to make things more complicated but I have a feeling it will.
“I probably should have told you. I just thought, you know, a one-night stand doesn’t need to be anything more than that, we don’t need to lay it all out. Although this was my first one-night stand, so maybe it’s common to run away with that person to their hometown a few days later.”
“What happened?” I ask. “Is that why you’re here? I thought it was the job.”
“It was both. His name was Cole. Or is. Cuz he’s still alive. I didn’t, like, murder him, don’t worry.” She gives me an endearingly goofy smile. “Anyway, we were together for a year and engaged for six months, and I lived with him and everything. A week before Christmas he said he didn’t want to marry me anymore but he still wanted to be in a relationship. So I grew a pair and told him that if he didn’t want to marry me, I didn’t want to be with him.” She grows quiet at that, as if she’s wrestling with something inside that she’s not sure she wants to share.
I wonder if she regrets it.
“And the job?”
“And then I got laid off a week later, as you know. So I went from living in this wicked apartment in Brooklyn with my fiancé and rocking this dream job, to having no apartment, no fiancé, and no job.”
I mull that over. She’s had a much tougher hand dealt to her recently than I thought. I’m starting to feel bad that I’m roping her into this.
“Look,” I say, “I had no idea it was like that. This makes things a little more … trivial now, doesn’t it? We’re still in the city, I can drop you off—”
“No!” she cries out. “No, no. Please. That’s my past.”
“But the past often rears its ugly head.”
“So let it. I’m tired of running from it, running from everything. I want to move forward. And yeah, this is a crazy idea, but I think there’s a reason that this is happening for the both of us and so I think we should just see how it plays out.”
With an empathetic look on her face, she reaches over and puts her hand on my shoulder, giving it a light squeeze. Then she smiles and giggles bashfully, her hair falling over her face. “I’m sorry. I forgot how amazing your shoulders feel. You’re a fucking tank, you know that?”
My lips quirk into a quick smile, constantly flattered by her even though she’s saying things many others have said before.
She clears her throat and takes her hand away, as if she’s been caught doing something she shouldn’t. “Anyway, as I was about to say before I touched you and got all distracted, I hope this is all okay.”
“You having an ex-fiancé? Of course it is. It was presumptuous of me to assume that you wouldn’t be attached.”
She gives me a steady look. “Listen, I would not have hooked up with you and I probably wouldn’t have even flirted with you if I was with someone else. I am a one-man woman.”
And for now, in this world, I’m her man.
I inwardly wince. This is the second time today I needed a kick in the bollocks over my fanciful thoughts.
“So, while we’re on the subject of disclosing stuff, why don’t you tell me about your past relationships?” she asks. “I should probably know as much about you as I can if we’re going to pull this off.”
“You make it sound like a heist.”
“It kind of is.” She pauses, studying me for a moment. “Have you thought long and hard about this? I’m not questioning your motives or anything, but you are essentially lying to your dad, your grandmother, the town, et cetera. What happens…” She trails off, licking her lips. “You know, down the road, when we go our separate ways? Even if I leave after two days, eventually they’ll catch on that I’m not coming back.”
She’s talking in such finite terms that it bothers me.
I shrug. “It’ll be my problem. I’ll tell everyone we parted amicably and it didn’t work out.”
“So this truly is just for your father?”
I nod, looking her in the eyes. “It’s all for him. He’s dying and … I need to do this.”
“Okay,” she says after a beat. “Okay.” She’s smiling now. “I’m going to help you in whatever way I can. Now, let’s get started on the nitty gritty stuff first. We have, what, two hours in this car? Let’s see if we can create a believable relationship in that time.”
I’ve never had two hours fly by like this before.
Then again, I’ve never been in a car with such an enigmatic and striking human being before. Usually in these situations I tend to blather on like an idiot in an attempt to fill the awkward silences, but with Padraig, there are none. We’ve been talking the entire time, hammering down the details of our faux relationship.
But as much as he both puts me at ease and fills my belly with butterflies, I’m still a nervous wreck around him. Because, what we’re doing? It really is insane. In some ways I’m surprised my sisters were okay with me walking out of the hotel room this morning and into the unknown (though it may have had something to do with them being both hung over again). I thought maybe Angie would have pulled me aside last night, having changed her mind or come to her senses.
That didn’t happen, and now I’m here, in his lux car and heading down Ireland’s east coast, toward his tiny hometown of Shambles.
So yes, I’m nervous and time is flying by way too fast. I don’t think I’ve quite gotten down what I need to.
“So, give me the gist of it again,” Padraig asks, as if he can read my mind.
“Because you already forgot?”
“Because I’m testing you.”
I purse my lips together as I try to suss him out. “Fine. Here it goes. We met at the same bar we actually met at, but this was almost a year ago.”
Man, he really is testing me. “March of last year.”
“And when did we get engaged?”
“And how did I propose?”
“You took me for a walk along the river after our favorite meal at our favorite Chinese restaurant, and you got down on one knee and asked.”
“Simple, yet effective.”
“Speaking of,” I say as I wave my hand at him. “Where’s my ring?”
He looks sheepish at that, which is to say, he looks positively adorable. Who knew that term could apply to a big burly tank of a man?
“I don’t have one,” he admits. “Everything was closed yesterday and it’s not like I keep spare engagement rings at home.”
“Well, I hate to break it to you but it’s a very important part of the engagement.”
“Right. Well, actually, I was thinking, I could ask my father if I could use my mother’s.”
My heart lurches to a stop. “What?” I ask, wide-eyed. “No. No, that’s not right. You can’t do that.”
“It would mean something to my family,” he says.
“But this isn’t real … my god, don’t you think that’s almost insulting your mother, to your parents’ love, to use their ring for a fake engagement?”
He grows silent at that, dark arched brows knitting together as he drives. Okay, so I’ve made him mad. Maybe I was a bit harsh. I’m often blunt, but the harshness isn’t like me.
“Padraig,” I say, loving how his name sounds. I need to say it more often. “What I mean is, I just feel like that might do more harm than good. At least it could invite bad juju.”
He raises his brow. “You mean curse me for any marriage in the future? Don’t worry, I won’t be getting married.”
I don’t know why that surprises me. Earlier we had talked a bit about relationships and I told him all about Cole and some losers before then, and I learned he was an eternal bachelor, though he wouldn’t quite pinpoint why. Still, I didn’t think he had an aversion to it.
Way to pick guys who are only about the engagement, faux or not, I think to myself.
Then I stop myself. I’m not picking him. We aren’t dating. This isn’t an extended fling. This is just me helping out a stranger because…
I’m saying yes to new adventures.
That’s the only reason why.
Or because I do like him and I want to pick him, and I have this terrible, harmful idea that’s been growing in my stomach like a seed threatening to bloom, a seed watered with naivety and hope, that wants to turn all these possibilities of “us” into something real.
That scenario isn’t good. If that seed blooms, it’s only going to lead to future heartache, and I’ve already been through enough.
I clear my throat to break the silence and to defuse my inner awkwardness.
“So, what’s our sleeping situation when we get there? I mean, where do I go?”
He gives me a curious look. “You’re assuming that we sleep in separate beds?”
I nod. “I have an Irish grandmother too, you know, and I know she doesn’t look too kindly on couples sleeping together before marriage. Though she wasn’t a fan of using wooden spoons.”