I hang up the phone. My head aches worse than my leg and my stomach churns with a sickness I can’t explain. I’d always dreamed of one day being engaged to Claire, but this is definitely not how I wanted that to go.7ClaireIt’s been three days since my nearly nude picture ended up on every tabloid magazine sold in stores. Going to the drug store or gas station or even the salon, is impossible without being recognized. Somehow I’ve become just as big of a celebrity as AJ. I tried to buy up all the magazines in front of the coffee shop I like to go to every morning so I don’t have to change up my routine, but each time I think I’ve gotten rid of them, ten more will replace them by the next morning. This whole debacle has upended my perfectly anonymous life. Before this, I barely existed outside of my own little world. Like most doctors, I’m a creature of habit, and those habits have been demolished. It was bad enough when I moved from across the country to Chicago. I’d just finally slipped into somewhat of a comfortable stride, and again, poof, all of that is gone.
I try a different coffee shop today on my way to meet AJ. He said it was urgent so I rushed out of my apartment. He promised me my job was safe, but these days I’m not certain of anything. So when he says something is urgent, I run.
It’s bad enough that the dynamic has changed with me and my co-workers. Some have become overly nice to me, trying to form those tricky friendships in order to get gossip from the source; I imagine that could be a big payday if sold to the highest bidder. While others, who had once respected me and believed in me, are now treating me like the gum on the bottom of their shoe. Despite my experience and credentials, they assume I’ve slept my way to the top.
I order my usual latte, and I’m surprised how much better it is at this new coffee shop than the old one. I hope that means this is a sign of a halfway decent day, though I’m not going to hold my breath for that one.
After jumping on the train and chugging my coffee, I meet AJ at the address he specified in his text. I’d typed it into the GPS on my phone without bothering to look up the location. I’d assumed it was somewhere private, like a diner where we could talk.
I stop short when I see him standing in front of a high-end jewelry shop. I look at my phone to check the address; perhaps there is something else in the vicinity that would make more sense. But there’s not. The address is for the jewelry store.
His smile is so goddamn beautiful I want to slap it right off of his face. No one has the right to turn my life upside down and look that good doing it. I start to regret my choice of holey jeans and baggy sweater. This messy bun on top of my head and tennis shoes aren’t helping the look. I’m dressed for an outing at Walmart, not whatever this is.
“I got here as soon as I could,” I say. “What’s going on?”
“We have an appointment,” he says cheerfully. But there’s something mischievous about that cheerfulness.
“What kind of appointment?” I can’t help the skepticism coating my words.
He leads me inside the jewelry store, and trust me, this is no Kay’s Jeweler in a downtown mall. This place has a small army of buff security guards, glitz and glamor in every corner. The ceiling drips with gold and crystal dangling chandeliers. Everything shines. Everything except for me. I’m about as dull as oxidized paint.
There are several long counters. A smartly dressed woman stands in front of us with her hands behind her back, smiling at us as though she’s been waiting. I guess she has since AJ said we had an appointment.
“I hear congratulations are in order,” she says to me with a mouthful of gleaming white veneers. Her gaze darts to my disheveled appearance, but her smile never betrays her thoughts.
“Thank you,” I say and turn a subtle glare at AJ. I get he wants to make people think we’re engaged, and a ring is important for that, but we could have gotten something cheap off Amazon and called it a day. This seems a little excessive.
“Would you like to see some options?” she asks.
I’d love to say “no” and shock the smile off her face—more to embarrass AJ than anyone—but the caffeine has finally kicked in and I’m not feeling as ornery as I had been when I first woke up this morning.
She disappears into the back of the store. AJ and I take a seat on one of the comfortable-looking couches arranged near the cases.