“Potty word!” Timothy perked again.
“I said ‘beach.’ Surely you like building sandcastles.”
“Uh, duh, I do.”
I loved my best friend, but she was a role model to children like I was a can of soup. She didn’t even want to have any (children, not soup. Layla loved soup). Nevertheless, Layla had a point. I was going to attend my fake engagement party with the man of my nightmares, but I was going to do it in style. Chase and I had spent Christmas at his Hamptons estate before we’d broken up. It was the kind of place you only got to see on HGTV or celebrity Instagram stories. Problem was, Layla was a notorious commitment-phobe. Spending time with the man who’d broken her heart would never pose a problem, because her heart would never get broken.
“You know what? You’re right. I’ll do just that. High five, Timothy.” I offered the kid my open palm with a smile. He stared at me vacantly, unmoving.
“Mommy says not to let strangers touch me. I could get kidnapped.”
Not if the kidnapper knows what your lungs are capable of.
“Well, then it’s settled. You’re going to have fun, not overanalyze every moment, and allow yourself the luxury of an oopsie hate flock without getting attached.”
“Hey! You said—” Timothy started.
“Flock. I said ‘flock.’ Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.” Layla slammed the door in my face before I had the chance to moan about my upcoming weekend.
That was when I noticed Layla’s word of the day.
Birthday: the anniversary of the day on which a person was born, typically treated as an occasion for celebration and the giving of gifts.
It was his birthday when Chase had cheated on me.
And just like that, my mood turned sour again.
Chase was five minutes late. Deliberately, no doubt. Punctuality had always been his forte. But if riling me up were an Olympic sport, he’d have an array of gold medals, a book deal, and a steroids scandal by now.
He double-parked in front of my building, blocking traffic with the nonchalance of a psychopath who truly didn’t care what people thought of him. He got out, rounded the car, and wordlessly pried my suitcase from my fingers before throwing it into his trunk. People honked and shook their fists out their windows behind us, yelling their opinion about his poor driving skills while wishing him acute injuries in various creative ways, their heads poking out of their cars. He slipped back into his vehicle and buckled up, in no hurry. I was still glued to the sizzling curb, trying to come to terms with the idea of spending time with him. He rolled the passenger window down, giving me that barely patient smile he awarded his employees that made you feel so stupid you needed to wear a helmet indoors.
“Stage fright, love?” He said the word love like it was profanity.
I had to remind myself his mind games didn’t matter. Ronan Black mattered. His sister and his mother mattered. Their hearts. My conscience.
“Sure,” I bit out sarcastically. “Wouldn’t want my fake in-laws to think their fake future daughter-in-law is not as charming as they initially thought.”
“Ever heard about the term fake it till you make it?”
“I’m sure the women in your life are familiar with it,” I quipped.
He smirked wryly. “Our relationship might’ve been fake, but the orgasms were anything but.”
The cars behind him honked loudly, not pausing for a breather. The sound began to echo in my head. I wanted Chase to know I was not going to be some yes-woman who’d cater to every whim and idea he had, even if I’d agreed to help him.
“Get in, Mad. Unless you want me to get in a fight with half the street.”
“Tempting,” I bit out. I mean, it was.
He smirked, completely oblivious to the chaos teeming behind him as more and more cars began to honk. It wasn’t like me to keep people waiting, but making my point trumped being polite. He needed to know I was serious.
“If you get nervous, just picture everybody naked.”
“All right, then,” I said, my eyes traveling as south as they could down his body at this angle. “Are you cold, Mr. Black?”
He laughed, enjoying our exchange. “I don’t remember you being so feisty.”
“I don’t remember you being this intolerable,” I shot back. I realized it was true. When we’d dated, he’d seemed way more polite and closed off, and I was . . . well, less myself.
I hopped into his car, opting to stare out the window throughout the drive, watching Manhattan’s high-rises sliding by in slow motion. Like flicking through a magazine quickly, the scenery changed frequently, glossy through the filter of the squeaky-clean window. All the hysteria I’d somehow managed to shove under piles of to-do lists and work throughout the week simmered back up as we left the city. How was I supposed to mask the sheer loathing I had for this man? I couldn’t kiss him or hold his hand. Jesus, I’d just realized I was supposed to share a room with him. No way, José.
It had been hard enough to explain the situation to Ethan a couple of days after agreeing to this fiasco, when I’d met him after Chase dropped in for a visit. I relayed the entire situation to him, including Chase’s cheating, his dying father, and my own experience of losing a parent. Then I told him about the nickname Sven and Layla had slapped on me. Martyr Maddie.
“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” I asked Ethan for the millionth time over xiao long bao and Chinese beers. I was treading carefully. I understood how crazy it all sounded. Ethan and I had never discussed exclusivity. We dated casually but hadn’t slept together, let alone put a label on what we were. We had shared a few sloppy kisses, nothing more. I wanted him to put his foot down and tell me he wasn’t comfortable with the idea. It’d have been the perfect excuse. But Ethan, who saw the good in everything—serial killers included, I suspected—simply nodded, grabbing another dumpling with a chopstick and tossing it into his mouth.
“Sure? I am more than sure. I’m honored to be dating someone like you. The only thing this weekend in the Hamptons is going to prove is that you”—he pointed at me with his chopsticks—“are an amazing person. Chase Black was a fool to cheat on you, and you’re still helping him out. You’re fantastic.”
I watched him, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“Besides, we aren’t really exclusive, are we?” He rubbed the back of his neck, blushing. “We haven’t even . . . you know.”