The Hating Game Page 71

“I can’t think of anything to say.” He notices a paintball bruise on my upper arm and begins silently fussing over it.

“Ask people about themselves, it usually works.” I am acutely aware of how many people keep taking little peeks at us. “You need to tell me why everyone’s looking at me like I’m the Bride of Frankenstein. No offense, you big freak.”

“I hate being asked about myself.”

“I noticed. Nobody knows a flippin’ thing about you. And you didn’t answer my question.”

“They’re looking at me. Most of them haven’t seen me since the Big Scandal.”

“Is that why you want me to play girlfriend? So everyone forgets you’re not a doctor? You’d do far better to hand out your business card. Quit touching me. I can’t think straight.” I tug my arm.

“I can’t seem to stop now I’ve started.” He gathers me closer and dips his mouth down to my ear. “Are you this soft all over?”

“What do you think?”

“I want to know.” His lips brush my earlobe and I can’t remember what we’re talking about.

“Why are you acting so kissy and boyfriend-y?” I watch his eyes closely, and when he answers, I know with deep certainty that he is not telling me something.

“I’ve told you. You’re my moral support.”

“For what? What am I missing?” My voice gets a little sharp and some heads close to us turn. “Josh, I feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

He strokes his hand down the side of my neck. I shiver so hard he sees it. When he bends to press a kiss against my lips, my eyelids drop shut, and there’s nothing in the world but him. I want to exist only here; in the dark, the feel of his forearm in the small of my back. His lips telling me, Lucy, stop fretting. It’s an unfair move.

I open my eyes and a couple who I think are Mindy’s parents are clearly talking about us. Both have busybody speculative eyes as they inspect me.

“Quit trying to distract me. We need to get through dinner. And you’re going to come up with some topics of conversation and talk to your family. Why are you being so shy?” As soon as I say it, I understand. “Oh. Because you are shy.”

My new revelation gives me a slightly different angle to view him from. “All this time I thought you were just an arrogant asshole. I mean, you are. But there’s more to it. You’re actually incredibly shy.” He blinks and I know I’m right on the money.

A strange sensation stirs in my chest. It unfolds, grows twice as large, then again. It doesn’t stop; it gets faster, bigger, feathers and fluff stuffing my chest like a cushion. I don’t know what’s happening, but it’s filling up my throat and I can’t find any breath. He seems to know something is happening with me, but he doesn’t press me on it; instead, his arm rises to hug my shoulders, his other hand cradling my head. Again, I try to speak but I can’t. He just holds me and I squeeze my hands uselessly on his lapels and the red foyer in the far distance sparkles like a jewel.

“Josh,” Elaine says. “Oh, here you are.” Her voice warms. Josh pivots without releasing me, sliding my shoes along the marble floor.

Her eyes are a little too bright when she looks at us both. “When you’re ready, would you like to join us inside? You’re at our table.”

“I’ll bring him right in.”

The unfolding in my chest crumples a little when I realize his mother is happy to see him with someone. I straighten up and his hands slide to my lower back. People shuffle in to take their seats and I see heads crane as they walk past to look at us.

“Who am I?” I try one last time. “Your housekeeper? Your piano teacher?”

“You’re Shortcake,” he says simply. “You don’t need to make up anything. Come on. Let’s get this over with.”

I feel some trepidation as I approach our table and Josh stiffens up. We ease into our chairs and spend a few minutes studying the table decorations and our name cards. The others are typed, but mine is handwritten, I’m guessing due to the late RSVP.

The table seats eight. Me, Josh, his mom and dad, Mindy’s parents, and Mindy’s brother and sister. I’m at the head family table. If I had known this would happen when I brashly offered my services as Josh’s chauffeur, I would have punched myself in the face.

I chat a little to Mindy’s brother, seated to my left. Glasses are clinked. I’m praying Josh will say something, anything. I’m about to aim a little jab at the side of his thigh when the silence is broken by Elaine. The dreaded question.

“Lucy, tell everyone how you met Josh.”

Inwardly I shriek. I’ve answered this same question at least eight times today, and it never gets any easier. “Well. Well, uh . . .”

Oh crap, I’m sounding like a priced-by-the-hour escort who hasn’t thought of a good enough lie. What did we agree again? I’m Shortcake? I can’t tell them that. If I ever was going to humiliate Josh, now would be the time. I can almost imagine saying it. He forced me to come.

“We work together,” Josh says calmly, ripping his dinner roll in half. “We met at work.”

“An office romance,” Elaine says, winking at Anthony. “The best kind. What did you think of him when you first laid eyes on him?”

I know a born romantic when I see one. She’s a mother who will take any compliment of her offspring as a compliment to herself. She’s looking at him now with her heart in her eyes, and I cannot help falling a bit in love with her myself.

“I thought, good grief, he’s tall.” Everyone except Anthony laughs. He’s studying his fork, checking for cleanliness.

“How tall are you, Lucy?” Mindy’s mother, Diane, asks. Yet another dreaded question.

“Five whole feet.” My standard answer that always gets a laugh.

Waitstaff are beginning to pass out the starters and my stomach makes a hungry gurgle.

“And what did you think when you saw Lucy?” Elaine prompts. We may as well be sitting in the middle of the table like decorative centerpieces. This is getting ridiculous.

“I thought she had the best smile I’d ever seen,” Josh replies, matter-of-fact. Diane and Elaine both look at each other and bite their lips, eyes widening, eyebrows rising. I know that look. It’s the Hopeful Mom look.

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