“Nothing is more difficult than you.” She tried swatting me away, but you could hear the grin in her voice. Her face was glowing. Mission accomplished.
“The word you are looking for is hard,” I quipped. “And thank you.”
“You are a nightmare.” She chuckled.
“But the sexy kind, right? Where you wake up with puckered nipples and ruined panties?” I egged her on. She was getting flushed, her eyes wide and full.
“I’ll leave you to deal with this, Maddie,” Ethan said coldly, hanging up before she could salvage the conversation.
Mad stood up, waving her phone in the air. “Stop clam-jamming me!” She pretended to slap my chest.
I grabbed her hand, biting the tips of her fingers playfully. “If I’m not getting some, no one in this fake engagement is.”
“We have no relationship!” She threw her head back, growling. “I cannot believe I tried so hard to keep you when we were together, only to find out you wouldn’t leave me alone.”
“Give it a few weeks,” I jested.
“Stop saying that. It is disrespectful to your father. He could live for months. Even years.”
“No, he can’t.”
She stopped, scrunching her forehead. “Why do you call me Mad? Why not Mads? Maddie? Madison? Virtually all my other nicknames.”
I knew the answer. I’d known it for some time now. But sharing it with her felt like crossing a line, especially when I suspected I’d let my mouth run freely yesterday before I’d passed out on that hospital bed. I looked down, caught a glimpse of the wedding dress she was sketching, then looked back up. “You’re talented,” I said, changing the subject.
“And that’s surprising?” She took the hint.
“No.” Yes. “Your sketches are clean. Elegant. I wasn’t expecting that.”
“I can be clean and elegant. I choose to dress quirky and all over the place.”
“Because it is my personality in textile form.”
“Are you bipolar?” I deadpanned.
“Offensive.” She pretended to gag. We were good together, and she knew it. I knew it, too, which was why it was exceptionally dumb of me to continue pursuing her. She looked back at the page, frowning. “I don’t think people are going to like it. Sven, specifically.”
“Too many details.” She gestured toward the sketch with her hand, pointing at the sleeves, the collar, and the tulle. “Traditionally, the Dream Wedding Dress is much simpler. Cleaner lines, minimal detail, not much character. The emphasis is on the cut and the superior fit. Plus, all the dresses Croquis ever showed were pure, swan white. This one isn’t.”
“What is it, then?”
“Crème.” She bit her lower lip. My eyes slid up from the sketch to meet her gaze. She waved the sketch off. “It’s fine. Worst-case scenario, I’ll cut some of the detail.”
“No,” I said. “You won’t. It’s perfect, and it’s you. Keep it.”
Her throat worked. My eyes dipped to her delicate neck. I wanted to kiss it.
“Okay,” she whispered. “Thanks.”
“Got any sleep?”
“Wanna hop into the shower? Maybe I could drop you off at yours?”
“Good. Let’s go to work. We can still recoup some of the day.”
I grabbed my keys. I knew she’d follow. She never missed a chance to cease communication with me. But for the first time, I gave a shit.
I mean, of course I gave shits.
I gave a shit about Dad.
About Black & Co.
But never about a woman. Never about a date. The uneven rattle in my chest was a warning sign. My heart tested itself. Tap, tap, tap. Is this shit working?
I gritted my teeth and punched the elevator button, not looking behind me to see if she was there.
Three days later, Dad was conscious and good to leave the hospital. I picked him up while Mom prepared the house, whatever that meant. I drove around in circles, buying time, and he didn’t seem to mind, even though his time was precious. It occurred to me we hadn’t had a meaningful conversation about something that wasn’t work since the C-word had struck. Work was a safe topic. I doubted he could remember anything from when Julian had barged into his hospital room with his contract. Dad had still been unconscious when that had happened. Grant had advised me to go easy on him and not talk about things that might spike his blood pressure. Bothering him with the Julian bullshit wasn’t on my agenda.
We were circling the same side street, passing the same Pret coffee shop and the swell of the same cluster of students huddling together, and waiting on the same traffic light. There was something depressing about other people’s joy while you were miserable. It was all very in your face.
“I wish we could get out of the city,” Dad murmured, looking out the window. “It feels filthy in the summers without the rain or snow to clean it up. Doesn’t it feel filthy to you?”
As he said that, smoke billowed from three different manholes, and some drunken frat boy hurled a beer can across the street at his friend, laughing.
“We can get out of here, if that’s what you want,” I said, tightening my grip on the steering wheel. I didn’t want to leave the business with Julian sniffing around the management floor. I didn’t want to leave Madison to fall in comfort with mediocre Ethan. What kind of name was Madison Goodman, anyway? I couldn’t let her go through with it. But Dad’s wishes had to take the front seat.
“Julian suggested we go to the ranch house in Lake George for the weekend. He even had it prepared for us,” Dad added.
Julian would drown you in the lake if it means inheriting the business, I was tempted to reply. I smiled serenely. “He did that? Great idea.”
“You can bring Madison, of course. I think she’d like it there. Lots to do. Very outdoorsy. Where is she from again?”
“Pennsylvania,” I answered. “Just outside Philadelphia.”
“Does she have any siblings?”
“No. Her mother struggled with . . .” I stopped.
Dad finished for me. “Breast cancer, right?”