She looked at the box, pulling out her own phone and searching for something on the Internet. “Ha!” she spat out the word like she’d found the cure for cancer.
“What?” Tammy took the bait, reaching for the box, which Jena held out of reach.
“The Iridium 9555 can be easily tracked, making it a favorite among survivalists and emergency personnel,” Jena read from her phone with loud authority, the entire right side of Ruby Tuesday hearing every syllable.
“Would you be quieter,” I hissed. “Between the two of you, Roy will kick us out.”
“Shut up, he will not.” Jena waved her hand in the general direction of the manager, her voice managing to drop to a more reasonable level as she set down her cell. “Did you hear me, Riley? His romantic gift is allowing him to track you.”
“I think half the restaurant heard you,” Tammy supplied the words before I could.
“Did you even listen to yourself?” I cut in. “The tracking isn’t for crazy boyfriends. It’s for emergency situations. Which is probably why most people have a satellite phone in the first place. I’m not using the thing walking around Quincy. I’m using it when I’m out of town. With him. To talk to you guys.”
“She’s right,” Tammy chimed in. “You’re being crazy, Jena.”
“I’m being cautious,” Jena growled. “Forgive me if I’m not jumping on the I-Love-Brett bandwagon that you all are intent on decorating.”
“Hey, you’re the one who told me to go to Aruba, remember?” I reached out, taking the last onion ring out of pure spite. “You stood in my living room and all but pushed me out the door.”
“For one trip! I didn’t think it would lead anywhere!” Jena glared at me, and I tried to figure out what she was really saying. Why she was against this … relationship, or whatever you wanted to call what Brett and I were doing. I stared back at her and her eyes softened. Then she slumped back in her booth. “I just don’t want you to get hurt, Ril. He does seem great. Too great. There’s got to be something wrong.”
It was sad that that was how we thought. I knew what she was saying. I felt the same way. This couldn’t be happening. He couldn’t be attracted to me. Still interested in me. Setting dates six weeks out. I felt like I was in a glass house and waiting for a giant to step on it. Crush my blissful happiness in a horrific moment that would feel, in small part, like a blessing. Because it would have finally arrived, and the waiting, the horrible anticipation would be over, finally I wouldn’t have to wonder, I would know, unequivocally, that this fairytale had ended, and my normal life could resume its plod through normalcy.
“You can’t protect me,” I said quietly. “I can’t even do that.”
“I know,” she said. “But I hate it.”
I leaned forward and gripped her hand. “And I love you for it.”
“And me?” Tammy piped in, worry lacing her words. Jena and I laughed, and she threw her arm around Tammy.
“And you,” I reassured her. “I love you guys.”
4 months, 2 weeks before
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
We laid back to front, his leg wrapped around me, every inch of us touching, the dark room illuminated in waves from the images on the screen. Before us, the final scene of Romeo & Juliet.
“Have you ever loved someone like that? Where you’d have given your life for her?” I whispered the words through the dark, his arms around my waist, hands cupping my breasts from behind. I felt the rock of his body as he moved slightly, a gap in the mold of our bodies.
“Yeah. A long time ago.”
I hadn’t expected an affirmative response, the words catching me off guard, the raw pain in his voice making a long time ago seem not that long ago at all. I wanted to roll over, wanted to see his face, but his hands tightened, nailed me back to his chest, like he could see my thoughts and wanted to block them.
Jealousy prickled through me, foreign and ugly in my veins. I knew that there had to be others, relationships before me, lives lived before we met at that casino. He wasn’t a man afraid of commitment, seemed custom fit for a relationship, but he’d spoken so little about his past. I’d asked; he’d evaded. It really seemed like, prior to meeting me, he had worked and traveled, little else. But now, a break in his tone, a weakness revealed. He had loved someone enough to die for them. Had I ever loved someone that greatly? Would I one day love him that much? I could feel it coming, the possibilities behind the jump that my heart was taking, each trip, each phone conversation, each gift another chip in the wall of my heart. Soon, he’d break through, and I’d have fallen. I only had to hope, at that point, that he’d have fallen for me too. “What happened?” I whispered, struggling to keep my voice light.
“She died.” He retightened his arms, gripped me closer, the dead tone of the words more scary to me than the raw shake of the prior ones. We laid there in silence, past the roll of the credits, past the intro to the next film. We laid there in silence until, at some point in the night, I fell asleep.
4 months before
The words were in perfect calligraphy, the letters glimmering off the cream envelope at me. Of course Chelsea redid the envelopes. Of course she sent me a duplicate invite, one to replace the ‘Riley Johnson & Guest’ that she’d sent four months earlier. Pushy had always been a quick word used to describe her. She wanted Brett there, the invite one more hint just in case I didn’t get the first five. It was her wedding, her big day, and, for some reason, her walking down the aisle was an act incomplete if not paired with supreme discomfort on my end.
“I’m not bringing him,” I’d said, just three days earlier, our toes spread and perched upon pedicure benches, mine half-way on their way to becoming ‘Barefoot in Barcelona’ nude, while Chelsea went with a more appropriate ‘Señorita Rose-alita’ pink. “It’d be a disaster, trying to introduce him to all of Quincy at once. Plus, the focus and gossip should be on you and Jarad, not me and my weekend fling.”
“Seriously, shut up. It’s way past a weekend fling at this point. Stop assuming it’s gonna end and start looking at this like a serious relationship. It’d be an insult to that relationship to not bring him.”
She’d been right. I knew that. I was playing goalie with my heart, running around after it with a stick and whacking it into place whenever it got happy or hopeful, whacking extra hard when words like I love you threatened to spill out. Could a relationship survive in that environment? Could it thrive? When had I gotten so afraid of love and hope that I strangled it to death with my insecurity? Maybe it was easier to date an ugly man, one with obvious flaws, one who belched and couldn’t dress, and wasn’t so damn perfectly tempting. At least then I’d feel confident.