“Snuck right up on us. Like an ambush!” He grunts when my heel digs farther into the top of his foot. “And what about you two? I hear congratulations are in order? Thirty years is just amazing.”
Molly beams up at her husband. “Thirty wonderful years, but even so there are moments I can’t believe we haven’t killed each other yet.”
Ethan laughs quietly, giving me an adoring look. “Aw, hon, can you imagine thirty years of this?”
“Sure can’t!” I say, and everyone laughs, thinking of course I’m joking. I reach up to brush my hair away from my forehead before remembering I’m not supposed to fidget. Then I fold my arms across my chest and recall the internet saying not to do that either.
God damn it.
“When Charlie told me that he ran into you,” Molly says, “well, I just couldn’t believe it. And on your honeymoon!”
I clap lamely. “Yay! It’s so—fun.”
The waitress appears, and Ethan pretends to lean in and kiss my neck. His breath is hot behind my ear. “Holy shit,” he whispers. “Relax.”
Straightening again, he smiles up to the waitress as she reads off the specials. After a few questions, we order a bottle of pinot noir for the table, and our dinners.
Any hope I had of navigating the conversation away from us is shot down as soon as the waitress leaves. “So how did you two meet?” Molly asks.
A pause. Keep it simple, Olive. “A friend introduced us.” I’m met with polite smiles as Molly and Charles wait for the actual story part of the story. I shift in my seat, recross my legs. “And, um, he asked me out . . .”
“We had mutual friends who had just started dating,” Ethan interjects, and their attention—thankfully—drifts over to him. “They planned a little party hoping everyone would get to know each other. I noticed her right away.”
Molly’s hands flutter around her collarbones. “Love at first sight.”
“Something like that.” The corner of his mouth twitches upward. “She was wearing a T-shirt that said Particle Collisions Give Me a Hadron, and I thought any woman who understands a physics pun is someone I need to know.”
Mr. Hamilton barks out a laugh and hits the table. Frankly, I can barely keep my jaw from hitting the floor. The story Ethan is telling isn’t the real first time we met, but maybe the third or fourth—in fact, it was the night I decided I was not going to put in a single bit of effort with him because every time I tried to be friendly, he’d weasel away and go into another room. And here he is, rattling off what I was wearing. I can barely recall what I wore yesterday, never mind what someone else wore two and a half years ago.
“And I guess the rest is history?” Mr. Hamilton says.
“Sort of. We didn’t really get along at first.” Ethan’s eyes make an adoring circuit of my face. “But here we are.” He blinks back to the Hamiltons. “What about you two?”
Charles and Molly tell us about how they met at a singles dance through neighboring churches, and when Charles didn’t ask her to dance, she walked right up to him and did it herself. I do my best to pay attention, I really do, but it’s nearly impossible with Ethan so close. His arm is still draped across my chair and if I lean back just enough, his fingers brush the curve of my shoulder, the back of my neck. It feels like tiny licks of fire each time he makes contact.
I definitely do not lean back more than twice.
Once our entrées arrive, we dig in. With the wine flowing and Ethan charming the pants off of everyone, it turns into not just a tolerable meal but a delightful one. I can’t decide if I want to thank him or strangle him.
“Did you know when Olive was a kid, she got stuck in one of those claw arcade machines?” Ethan says, retelling my least favorite—but, I’ll admit, funniest—story. “You can look it up on YouTube and watch the extraction. It’s comedy gold.”
Molly and Charlie look horrified for Little Olive, but I can guarantee they are going to watch the shit out of it later.
“How did you find out about that?” I ask him, genuinely curious. I certainly never told him, but I also can’t imagine him engaging in a conversation about me with anyone else, or—even more unbelievable—Googling me. The idea actually makes me have to push a laugh back down my throat.
Ethan reaches for my hand, twisting his fingers with mine. They’re warm, strong, and hold me tight. I hate how great it feels. “Your sister told me,” he says. “I believe her exact words were, ‘Worst prize ever.’ ”
The entire table bursts into hysterics. Mr. Hamilton is laughing so hard his face is a shocking shade of red, made worse by the silvery contrast of his giant mustache.
“Remind me to thank her when we get home,” I say, pulling my hand away and draining the last of my wine.
Still laughing, Molly carefully dabs at her eyes with a napkin. “How many brothers and sisters do you have, Olive?”
I take Ethan’s earlier advice and keep it simple. “Just the one.”
“She’s a twin, actually,” Ethan volunteers.
Molly is intrigued. “Are you identical?”
“They look exactly alike,” Ethan tells her, “but their personalities are polar opposites. Like night and day. One has it all together, and the other is my wife.”
Charlie and Molly lose it again, and I reach for Ethan’s hand, giving him a sweet Aw, I love you, ya goof smile while I attempt to break his fingers in my fist. He coughs, eyes watering.
Molly misinterprets his glassed-over expression and looks at us fondly. “Oh, this has been the most fun. Such a lovely way to end this trip.”
Quite clearly, she could not be more taken with my fake husband and leans forward, dimple in full force. “Ethan, did Olive mention that we have a spouses group at Hamilton?”
Spouses group? Continued contact?
“She sure didn’t,” he says.
She’s already rubbing her hands together. “We get together once a month. It’s mostly wives who manage to make it, but Ethan, you are just darling. I can already tell everyone is going to love you.”
“We’re a very close-knit group,” Mr. Hamilton says. “And more than coworkers, we like to think of everyone as family. You two are going to fit right in. Olive, Ethan, I’m just so thrilled to welcome you both to Hamilton.”
• • •
“I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU TOLD the claw story,” I say as we walk along the outdoor path, headed back to the room. “You know they’re going to Google it, which means Mr. Hamilton will see me in my underwear.”
Thankfully, the personal space bubble is back. Being around an Ethan I don’t want to punch is disorienting enough. Being around an affectionate, charming Ethan is like suddenly being able to walk on the ceiling.
That said, dinner was an undeniable success, and as happy as I am that I didn’t blow it and still have a job, I’m irritated that Ethan is consistently so great at everything. I have no idea how he does it; he’s charm-free 99 percent of the time, but then, boom, he turns into Mr. Congeniality.
“It’s a funny story, Olive,” he says, walking faster and getting a few paces ahead of me. “Should I have told them about the time you gifted me that Last Will and Testament software at the family Christmas party? I mean, honestly—”
“I was only looking out for your loved ones.”
“—I was making conversation—” Ethan stops so suddenly that I collide with the brick wall of his back.
I catch my balance, horrified that I’ve just smashed my entire face into the splendor of his trapezius. “Are you having a stroke?”
He presses his hand to his forehead, head turning so he can frantically scope out the path behind us, back the way we came. “This can’t be happening.”
I move to follow his gaze, but he jerks me behind an enormous potted palm, where we huddle close.
“Ethan?” a voice calls, followed by the click of high heels on the stone path. She follows up with a breathy “I swear I just saw Ethan!”
He turns his face to me. “Big favor: I need you to go along with me.” We’re pressed so close I can feel his breath on my lips. I smell the chocolate he had for dessert, and a piney hint of his deodorant.
I try to hate it.
“You need my help?” I ask, and if it sounds a little breathy I’m sure it’s because I ate too much at dinner and am a little winded from the walk.
My smile literally unfurls. Suddenly, I am the Grinch wearing a Santa hat. “It’s gonna cost you.”
He looks pissed for about two seconds before panic wipes it away. “The room is yours.”
The footsteps get closer, and then a blond head is invading my space. “Oh my God. It is you!” she says, bypassing me completely to wrap Ethan in a hug.
“Sophie?” he says, feigning surprise. “I . . . what are you doing here?”
Detangling from the embrace, Ethan glances over at me, eyes wide.
She turns to beckon to the man standing just off to the side, and I take the opportunity to mouth—because oh my God—This is Simba?!
He nods, clearly miserable.
Holy awkward! This is way worse than running into your new boss while naked under a robe!
“Billy,” Sophie says proudly, pulling the guy forward, and I gape because he looks exactly like Norman Reedus, but somehow greasier. “This is Ethan. The guy I told you about. Ethan, this is Billy. My fiancé.”
Even in the dark I see the way Ethan pales. “Fiancé,’ ” he repeats. The word lands with a heavy thud, and it’s infinitely more awkward with Ethan described only as the guy I told you about. Weren’t Ethan and Sophie together for a couple of years?
It doesn’t take a genius to put the pieces together: Ethan’s reaction at seeing her across the path, the way he shut down when I asked about a girlfriend on the plane. A fresh breakup, and she’s already engaged? Ouch.