“I have no idea what any of the things the waitress said mean,” she whispered under her breath, her blush making another guest appearance. “Some of these things are unrecognizable to me. I’m sorry, Chase, but bacon cake sounds like something that should be outlawed in all fifty states.”
I pressed my lips together, resisting a chuckle. Taking her plate, I started filling it with food, knowing it earned me brownie points in the fake-fiancé department. Mom quietly glowed as I slid the plate back to Madison, smiling at her with what I hoped looked like warmth (inspiration: Jesse Metcalfe in A Country Wedding).
“You’ll like these . . .” Don’t say sweetheart. Don’t be that cliché. “Baby.”
Baby? Could I sound like any more of a douchebag?
“How are you so sure . . .” She hesitated, too, aware of how all eyes were on her. “Darling?”
Amber nearly spat out her wine, laughing.
“I know your taste.”
“Trust me,” I gritted out through my fake smile.
“Never,” she whispered.
Still, she took her fork and stabbed at a sautéed brussels sprout coated with bread crumbs, herbs, and cream. Her eyes rolled inside their sockets after the third chew. The sound that followed, coming from the back of her throat, made my dick jerk in appreciation.
“Now I see the light.” She sighed. I wanted to show her other things. To drag her into my dark side for a little while, then spit her back out to her sunshine existence.
“So. Madison,” Amber purred from across the table, running her long, pointy fingernail along her champagne glass in a comically wicked manner. I braced myself. Amber was, without doubt, the most dangerous person at the table. “How did our Chase propose?”
Our Chase. Like I was a fucking vase. She wished.
Amber had witchlike acrylic pointy nails, enough hair extensions to make three wigs, fake eyelashes, and cleavage that left nothing to the imagination. Smugness hung around her like a cloud of perfume. She was my age—thirty-two—and her hobbies were limited to plastic surgery, finding the new workout/diet craze celebrities were fawning over, and having public arguments with her husband. Julian put his arm around his wife’s shoulder, wiggling his brows, as if to say it was showtime.
Brace yourself for an Oscar-worthy performance, coz.
“How did he propose?” Mad repeated, her smile more frozen than Amber’s forehead. All eyes were on her. I supposed Madison wanted something a bit more romantic than the story of how we’d met. One morning, we’d walked into the same elevator, the one Black & Co. and Croquis shared, and instead of continuing my way up to the last floor in our high-rise building—a.k.a. management floor—I’d slipped into Croquis’s studio with her, leaned against her drawing table, and asked her what it’d take to get into her pants, though in not so many words. Madison chugged her second flute of champagne before putting it down and lifting her eyes to meet Amber’s.
“The proposal was actually really romantic,” she said breathlessly.
Is she drunk? I needed her sober. She was swimming with the sharks, bleeding in the fucking water. No, she was just being New Maddie again, meaning she was about to rip me a new one.
“It was?” Julian’s eyes hooded skeptically. I didn’t like his eyes on her. Let me rephrase—I didn’t like him these days, period. But I especially didn’t like the way he looked at Madison. There was something sinister about the obsidian quality his eyes took on. I wasn’t the possessive type, but punching a hole through his face seemed inevitable if he continued staring at Madison like this. Like he wasn’t entirely sure if he wanted to have sex with her, mock her for how socially unpolished she was, or both.
“Yes.” Mad munched on the side of her lip, stealing glances at me. God dammit. “We were at the Brooklyn Heights promenade, enjoying the romantic view—”
“Chase went to Brooklyn?” Amber cut into her words, raising a microbladed eyebrow. Rookie mistake. Everybody knew anything south of the East Village and north of Washington Heights was dead to me in the city. Hell, I considered Inwood fucking abroad.
Madison made a mm-hmmm sound, taking another sip of champagne. She looked like a trapped animal, cornered and frightened. But helping her out would look suspicious. I felt like a turtle mother watching her wonky-ass hatchling wobbling offshore to the ocean, knowing it had a 5 percent chance to survive.
Then, lo and behold, a Christmas-in-July miracle happened. Madison cleared her throat, straightened her back, and found her voice.
“I was leaning on the banisters, taking in the sights. Before I knew what was happening, he was on one knee before me, a sweaty, blabbering mess. I thought he was going through a mental breakdown. He was so nervous. But then he said the sweetest thing. Remember what you told me, honey?” She turned to me, blinking angelically. I gave her a curt smile. She wanted something along the lines of You’re the love of my life, my moon and my stars or I can’t live without you and frankly don’t see the point in trying to or even [insert any other Hallmark cliché I’d listened to during my research, which had triggered my gag reflex].
“Of course.” I took her hand, brought her knuckles to my lips, and brushed them along her flesh. Goose bumps rose on her arms, and I grinned into the back of her hand, knowing we still shared enough sexual tension to make the mansion explode. “I told you you had a mustard mustache, then wiped your pretty face clean.”
Mad’s smile dropped. Amber let out a metallic chuckle. My parents and Katie smiled. Julian narrowed his eyes, his gaze ping-ponging between us.
“Carry on.” He rested his chin on his knuckles. Julian was a decade older than yours truly. A Saturn-looking man. Tall, surrounded by rings of fat, with a shiny, bald head that made you want to rub it and see if a genie would come out of his ear.
Mad looked between us, picking up on the murderous vibes. “He helped me clean my, uh, mustard stain, then told me he originally wanted to wait a bit longer—a year is nothing in the grand scheme of things—but his love for me was just too much. That I was his entire world. I think the word he used was obsessed. He began to gush. It was kind of embarrassing, actually.” She pressed her foot over mine under the table, daring me to defy her story. “Like, really going at it. To the point he started crying—”