“After we elope.” He pulls on a T-shirt and jeans.
“We’re living together. Weddings are expensive. You said all you needed was me. I know all I need is you.”
How did this happen? I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.
He grabs his wallet off the dresser and bends down, kissing me on the cheek. “I love the simplicity of our love. It’s almost dinnertime and you haven’t taken the ring from the kitchen table and slipped it on your finger because that’s not what matters to us.”
No. No fucking way. I slide off the bed and throw on my clothes, yanking and pulling them like they did me wrong.
“Ready?” he asks as I stomp toward the back door, hands balled, jaw clenched.
“I’ll get the rest of my stuff later. I’m going to my mom’s … alone.”
“Whoa … what’s going on?” He grabs my arm as I shove my feet into my sneakers.
“Nothing’s going on.” I attempt to jerk out of his grip.
“Look at me.” He grabs my other arm, forcing me to face him.
I glare at his chest.
Silence settles between us as he refuses to let me go and I refuse to look at him.
“You want a wedding?”
I don’t respond.
Nope. I’m not going to move. Not one blink. How dare he be so presumptuous? Now the truth will make me sound greedy, selfish, and materialistic.
“Would you look at me?”
Biting my tongue and holding my breath, my gaze works its way up to meet his.
“Is that what you want? If so, then that’s what we’ll do. I don’t care.”
“No.” This time he lets me wriggle out of his hold. “You don’t get to say that. You don’t get to completely dismiss my dreams—crush them—and then take it all back with a simple I don’t care. You don’t get to own a truck, a motorcycle, and a house then make me feel like wanting a wedding is impractical and excessive.”
My voice continues to escalate as I cross my arms over my chest. “And the only reason that ring…” I glance over at the table and then back to him “…is still sitting on the table is because you should have the fucking decency to get down on your goddamn knees and put it on my finger like the right guy would do. And the right guy would care. He would want to see me in a stunning white gown walking down a long aisle toward him. He would want to dance with me to a song that meant something special to us. He would want to take off that stunning white gown like unwrapping the best gift he’d ever received.”
Griffin doesn’t move, not even the expression on his face. “Fine.” He nods after a few seconds of silence and grabs the ring from the table.
“Hell no.” I shake my head as he starts to get down on one knee.
He stops halfway to the ground.
“You cannot make this right. Not now. It’s too late. Now I have to decide if this is it … do I marry the man I love in spite of the botched-up proposal or do I hold out for something better so I don’t spend the rest of my life envying epic proposal stories of other couples?”
He stands slowly and bites his lips together.
“I’ll call you or maybe see you later. I don’t know.” I open the back door and head toward my car parked on the street.
A strong arm hooks my waist before I make it to the end of the driveway. Griffin backs me up against the door of his truck.
“Let go of me.”
“No.” He clenches his jaw while grabbing my hand.
I try but fail to pull it away. He shoves the ring onto my finger.
“You said yes. That was the deal. You owe me for wine, chips, chocolate, and tampons.” He holds my arms to my sides, keeping me from going anywhere as he kneels in front of me. “Will you please marry me?”
I glare at him through squinted eyes.
After a few seconds he swears under his breath and stands. “You said yes earlier. There’s no taking it back now.” He interlaces our fingers and presses my hands to the window of his truck next to my head. “There will be a wedding and a white dress. You will take my fucking breath away a million times before we make it to the reception. We’ll dance to the sappiest love song ever composed. You’ll pitch the bouquet to a group of jealous women. Then I will stand in the middle of a ridiculously expensive hotel suite like an idiot in awe of the fact that the kindest, most beautiful woman ever said ‘yes’ to me.”
He loosens his grip on my hands, but I don’t move them.
“Then I’ll unwrap you like the gift you are and always have been to me. I’ll thank the food gods every day for bringing us to checkout lane number three a little past five on a sunny Thursday afternoon in March.”
I blink, releasing a single tear. He kisses it away.
“But this is it … this is the epic proposal that you’ll tell our kids and grandkids. You pinned against my truck, in tears and pissed off at me. And me refusing to let you go. I will never let you go.”
I swallow back as much emotion as I possibly can. The rest stays lodged in my throat. “I can’t believe you remember the time of day and checkout lane number,” I whisper.
“I remember all life-changing moments.”
Like this one … this is a life-changing moment. I will remember it forever. But I hate that I’m sharing it with Nate. Griffin resides in my heart and the forefront of my mind. My desire to spend the rest of my life with him is indisputable.
What I fear is Nate. What if he lives in my soul? Even worse … what if she lives in my soul?
“I’m sorry,” he murmurs, completely releasing my hands.
I wrap my arms around his neck and he hugs me to him.
“Let’s go to my apartment.”
“What’s going on?” I say as Griffin parks his truck up the street from my apartment building. A swarm of emergency vehicles blocks the road, along with crime scene tape.
We worm our way through the small crowd of onlookers.
“Sorry, you’ll have to stay behind the tape,” a police officer says.
“I live here. What’s going on?”
“I’m not at liberty to share any information. I’ll need to see some identification before I can let you in the building.”
Griffin rests his hand on my lower back as I dig my wallet out of my purse.
The officer inspects my driver’s license. “Barnes?” he calls.
A shorter man in uniform turns and walks toward us.
“Swayze Samuels. 2B.” The first officer hands me back my driver’s license.
“I’m Detective Barnes. I’ll escort you to your apartment, and then I need to ask you a few questions.”
“What’s going on?”
He doesn’t answer. He just turns and heads toward the entrance surrounded by police officers and a few other tenants I recognize. One of the ladies wipes her red, tear-stained eyes, giving me a grievous look as I pass her.
Griffin’s hand goes from my back to interlacing his fingers with mine as we make our way up the stairs. When we reach the top by my door, I twist around toward the voices above me.
“No …” The air explodes from my lungs, leaving me gasping for my next breath.
There’s a few more officers outside of Erica’s apartment, which is blocked off with crime scene tape.
I tear my hand out of Griffin’s and run up the stairs.
No. No. NO!
I charge my way past the officers, catching them off guard, past the tape, and into the apartment filled with more police and a few other people in suits, including a guy standing in her hallway taking photos, his lens directed into the bathroom.
“Miss, you can’t be in here.”
I move faster than the officer trying to get my attention. I need to know what’s in Erica’s bathroom.
“Swayz …” Griffin’s voice is nothing but an echo as I see it—her.
I can’t fucking breathe.
“No …” I pant, gasping for air. Desperate to make sense of what I’m seeing.
The photographer says something to me, pointing me away from the bathroom door. It’s all echoes. Every voice.
My vision blurs.
A hand wraps around my arm and another around my waist, ushering me out of the apartment.
The room spins but it doesn’t erase what I saw. Erica’s naked body in a bathtub of water. No blood.
It’s Griffin. He’s guiding me to the stairs. I think he’s saying my name. I’m not sure. The door to Dougly Mann’s apartment is open. He’s sitting on his sofa talking to an officer in the chair next to him, jotting down notes.
Scar-faced, clown-haired, creepy neighbor glances up as I pass his door. He winks.
The. World. Stops.
“Come on, Swayze.” Griffin’s voice sounds like it’s underwater.
I don’t move. I can’t move.
Dougly winked at me. I’ve seen that wink before. His nose twitched when he did it. He’s not that good at it. But the last time I saw him wink, the scar on his face was not pink and pearly-edged. It wasn’t a scar at all. It was a bleeding wound. Blood running down his neck. Blood pooling at the corner of his mouth, and when he grinned there was blood covering his teeth. But he winked and his nose did that weird, unmistakable twitch.