“I had to think on my feet. So I made an announcement of my own.”
He grabbed the can between us, taking another sip, his eyes on me. Quiet. My heart spun like a hamster on a wheel. The tips of my fingers tingled. Panic clogged my throat.
“I told them we were engaged.”
I didn’t answer.
Not at first, anyway.
I picked up the can of Diet Coke and threw it against the wall, watching it splash into an avant-garde painting of brown fizz. Who did something like that? Told his family he was engaged to his ex-girlfriend, whom he’d cheated on? And now he was here, not even half-apologetic and still a full-blown jerk, delivering the news offhandedly.
“You son of a . . .”
“It gets worse.” He raised a palm, his eyes cutting to my window seat, which was crowded with potted flowers in various colors and Daisy’s bed. “As it turned out, the engagement announcement was just what the doctor ordered. Family is a divine principle for the Blacks. It gave Mom something to be excited about and took away Dad’s thoughts from the big C. And so it appears that you and I are having an engagement party in the Hamptons this weekend.”
“An engagement party?” I echoed, blinking. I felt seasick. Like the ground beneath me swayed in the same rhythm as my pulse. Chase nodded curtly.
“Naturally, we both must be in attendance.”
“The only thing natural,” I said slowly, my head a jumbled mess, “is the fact that you’re still delusional. The answer to your unspoken request is no.”
“No?” he repeated. Another word he wasn’t used to.
“No,” I confirmed. “I will not accompany you to our fake engagement party.”
“Why?” he asked. He looked genuinely baffled. I realized Chase, despite his thirty-two years of existence, had very little experience with rejection. He was handsome, smart, so filthy rich he couldn’t spend all his money even if he dedicated his entire life to the cause, and of enviable Manhattan pedigree. On paper, he was too good to be true. In reality, he was so bad it hurt to breathe next to him.
“Because I’m not going to celebrate our fauxmance and deceive dozens of people. And because doing you favors is very low on my to-do list, somewhere under plucking my eyelashes individually with a pair of tweezers and picking a fight with a drunken Santa on the subway.” I was still holding the door open, but I was shaking. I couldn’t stop thinking about Ronan Black. About how it must’ve hit Katie and Lori. About Mom’s letter telling me to stay compassionate. Surely she hadn’t meant this.
“I’ll fire you,” he said simply, not missing a beat.
“I’ll sue you,” I retorted with the same nonchalance, feeling much more hysterical about his threat than I let on. I loved my job. Plus, he knew damn well I lived paycheck to paycheck and wouldn’t survive even the briefest unemployment.
No wonder his last name was Black. His heart certainly was.
“Is money tight, Miss Goldbloom?” He arched an eyebrow, his voice deadly.
“You know the answer.” I bared my teeth. A Manhattan apartment, no matter how small, cost a fortune.
“Perfect. Do me this solid, and I’ll reimburse you for your time and effort.” He turned from bad cop to good cop in a second.
“Blood money,” I said.
He shrugged, looking bored with my antics. “Blood? No. A few scratches, probably.”
“Are you offering to pay me for companionship?” I ignored the pulse flicking in my eyelid. “Because there’s a word for that. Prostitution.”
“I’m not paying you to sleep with me.”
“You don’t have to. I foolishly did that for free.”
“Didn’t hear any complaints at the time. Look, Mad—”
“Chase.” I mimicked his warning tone, hating that he used his nickname for me—not Maddie, not Mads, just Mad—and that it still made the pit of my belly swarm with butterflies.
“We both know you’ll do it,” he explained, with the thinly veiled exasperation of an adult explaining to a toddler why they should take their medicine. “Spare us this little tango. It’s late, I have a board meeting tomorrow, and I’m sure you’re dying to tell your friends all about your little date with Scooby-Dull.”
“We do?” I parroted, my eyes dangerously close to setting him on fire purely through the power of revulsion. I didn’t even touch his last dig. That was just Chase being Chase, beating his own Guinness World Record at being an asshole.
“Yes. Because you’re Martyr Maddie, and it’s the right thing to do. You’re selfless, considerate, and compassionate.” He listed those traits matter-of-factly, like they didn’t chart positively in his book. His eyes drifted from my face to the wall behind me, on which I’d pinned dozens of squares of delicate fabrics. Chiffon and silk and organza. Materials in white and crème from all over the world, along with penciled sketches of wedding gowns. I shook my head, knowing what he was thinking.
“Reel it in, Cowboy Crabs-anova. I’d never marry you.”
“That’s good news all around.”
“Is it? Because I think you just asked me to be your fiancée.”
“Fake fiancée. It is not your hand in marriage I am asking for.”
“What are you asking for?”
“The courtesy of not breaking my father’s heart.”
“Chase . . .”
“Because not coming? Mad, it will shatter him.” He dragged a shaky hand through his tresses.
“This’ll snowball.” I shook my head. My fingers were dancing, they quivered so badly.
“Not under my watch.” He held my gaze, not a muscle twitching on his face. “I don’t want you back, Madison,” he said, and for some reason, the words cut me open and bled me dry. I’d always suspected Chase had never truly wanted me, even when we were together. I was like a stress ball. Something he played with absentmindedly while his thoughts drifted elsewhere. I remembered feeling acutely unseen whenever he looked at me. The way he huffed when he took in my quirky dresses. The side-eyes he awarded me with, which made me feel just a tad less attractive than a circus monkey. “I don’t want my father leaving this world when it’s in chaos. Mom. Katie. Me. It’s too much. You can relate, can you not?”