He hoisted my duffel bag over my spinner suitcase, taking my hand in his free one. The charade was back in full force.
We made it to the landing. Voices seeped from the dining room. Laughing, talking, whispering. Utensils clinked. Wineglasses too. We frowned at each other.
“Julian,” Chase clipped, his jaw tightening. “Must’ve told everyone we were running late and to start eating. Douche.”
“It’s time you put him in his place.”
“You think I don’t know that?” He glowered at me. “I let him off the hook because our parents, sister, and Clementine shouldn’t suffer through what I want to put him through.”
We made our way into the dining room, leaving the suitcases on the landing. The long table was fully hidden under platters and dishes. Fresh rolls, pitchers of sweating homemade iced teas, and bottles of wine were scattered on the pristine white tablecloth. The scent of smoked meat and seasoned vegetables laced the air. Saliva coated my mouth.
“Oh goodness, please tell us that story again. I cannot believe Clemmy said that!” Lori gushed.
“Start from when she walked in.” Amber’s tone was buttery, different. “When she saw the empty fish tank.”
“All right, all right. I’ll tell it again.” I heard Ethan laugh.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Back it up. Ethan?
I didn’t have the privilege to be able to turn around and run for my life. I was already halfway inside the dining room when it registered. Chase was a step ahead of me, shielding me with his broad body, my hand still clasped in his. I felt the floor soften beneath my sandals, threatening to open its jaw and swallow me whole. My eyes connected with Ethan’s from across the table. Snakes danced in the pit of my stomach, sinking their venomous teeth into my insides.
He was there, sandwiched between Clementine and Amber, holding a glass of white wine to his mouth, wearing a Puppy Dog Pals tie.
I browsed through my memories, replaying our latest communication. Where we’d left things off. We spoke on the phone this week but made no plans to meet up. Things had reached the point of fizzling out, and I thought both of us were okay with that. Ethan said he’d been invited somewhere this weekend. I said I had plans too. We’d both been cryptic. Now I knew why.
Ethan was always on the margins of my story. A secondary character I’d gone running to whenever I’d pushed Chase away. In trying to please him, to cater to him, to love him, I’d given him false hope. In trying to spare his feelings, I’d done something cruel to him. Martyr Maddie, I now understood, had a dark side.
The slow, spreading grin on Ethan’s face told me he wasn’t caught off guard as I was. He’d known. It was a setup. My remorse morphed into fury. I straightened my spine, tilting my head up.
I didn’t know when I’d stopped holding Chase’s hand. When my fingers clenched into fists, my nails dug into my skin.
“Well, this is awkward. Didn’t you say you two know each other?” Julian whistled low, taking a sip of his iced tea. His voice was thick with excitement. It clawed at my skin. “Dr. Goodman is Clementine’s pediatrician. We thought it’d be nice to invite him over to enjoy the ranch on a rare weekend off,” he pointed out when Chase threw him a what-the-hell look.
“Not awkward at all. As I mentioned before, I know Ethan and enjoy his company. We’re friends.” I smiled, leaning down to kiss Ronan’s pale cheek. Lori and Katie stood and hugged me. I bypassed a sitting Amber and Julian, settling for a pat on each of their shoulders. I kissed Clemmy’s head, then pressed a kiss to Ethan’s cheek.
“What a nice surprise,” he whispered as my lips brushed his closely shaved skin. His voice was paper dry.
“Ethan . . . ,” I breathed. “Why?”
“Madison, have a seat.” Chase stood across from Ethan, his death stare making Ethan flinch. I walked over to him, feeling my shoulders slump. He pushed my seat back. We began piling food onto our plates. Ethan retold the story of how Clementine had dropped take-out sashimi bits into an empty fish tank in his office on her latest visit, drawing laughs from the table.
I stiffly shoved one forkful of food after another into my mouth. I couldn’t taste anything. I wasn’t sure if I was more worried about Chase’s family finding out we weren’t together or about the conversation I would have with Ethan afterward. Chase snaked a hand between us and squeezed my hand under the table. Nuclear currents ran through my spine.
“Can I just back it up a little?” Julian rubbed at his chin, chuckling good-naturedly. “I’m trying to figure something out. Maddie said you and she are friends, Dr. Goodman. But I thought Clemmy said she saw you two hugging real long and real hard—‘like couples in the movies,’ I believe were her exact words—at your clinic a few weeks ago. Didn’t you, Clemmy?” He turned to his daughter, then back to me. “So which is it? Are you friends, or are you something more?”
Clementine looked down, blushing.
“As I said,” I gritted out, not giving Ethan a chance to answer, “I am with Chase.”
“My bad, Maddie.” Julian lifted his palms in surrender, taking a moment to make sure everybody was thinking about that time Clementine had told them about me kissing Ethan. “I just thought . . . well, this is silly, anyway, but I thought maybe something happened. I saw you at work the other day. You weren’t wearing your engagement ring,” Julian remarked as he cut his roasted chicken into tiny, meticulous pieces. “Yet here you are, with your engagement ring.”
He was becoming more and more blunt, presenting his elaborate case against us. I knew I had to get out of it myself. If Chase intervened, it’d look like another bickering match between him and Julian, and like I was making excuses for him. I shrugged it off. “The ring is very expensive. I don’t want to lose it or have someone cut my finger off in a dark alley for the piece of jewelry.”
“Smart,” Katie pointed out, popping a blueberry into her mouth. “Cutting off fingers with rings is a thing. Heard about it in a true-crime podcast.”
“Are your friends happy about the engagement?” Amber pressed, a fake smile marring her lip-glossed mouth. “I should think they’re planning one hell of a bachelorette party.”
“My close friends are excited, yes. We’re going to celebrate low key. I haven’t told my colleagues yet, though. You know, life is not about flaunting expensive rings and marrying your way up the tax bracket.”