Page 46 of The Perfect Couple

At five o’clock, when they drive off the beach, Celeste’s skin is tight from the sun, and her blond hair is stiff with salt. She figures she must look a fright, but when she catches a glimpse of herself in the side-view mirror, what she sees is a young woman who is happy. She has never, in her life, been this happy.

“Hey, Sunshine?” Shooter says.

“Please don’t,” she says. She doesn’t want him to say anything that’s going to ruin it. She doesn’t want him to make any declarations. She doesn’t want him to try to name what is happening. They both know what’s happening.

Shooter laughs. “I was just going to ask if you wanted to stop at Millie’s on the way home? Get a margarita?”

“Yes,” she says.

As soon as Shooter pulls into the parking lot at Millie’s, his phone starts to ping, and so does Celeste’s. Shooter cocks an eyebrow at her. “Check our phones?” he asks. “Or ignore them?”

Ignore them, Celeste thinks. But out of habit, she glances at her display. There are three texts from Benji.

I’m back.

Where are you guys?

Hello?

Celeste feels like she’s suspended in midair. What should she do? She wants to go into Millie’s with Shooter, order a margarita, maybe knock legs with him under the bar.

But that kind of misbehavior is beyond her.

“We need to go,” she says.

Back at Summerland, Benji is on the deck, wearing a coat and tie. He has a bottle of vintage Veuve Clicquot chilling in an ice bucket. He stares pointedly at Shooter.

“You’re late,” he says.

“Late?” Celeste says. “Were you expecting us earlier? I thought you were golfing.”

Shooter says, “Sorry, man, I lost track of time.”

Something passes between Benji and Shooter. Celeste is afraid to ask what’s going on.

“Should I shower?” Celeste says.

“Yes,” Benji says. He kisses her. “Wear the new pink dress. We’re going out.”

Celeste goes upstairs to shower and change. She puts on a green dress instead of the pink, a small but important defiance. She hates when Benji tries to control her; she knows he thinks he’s the Professor Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle. But he’s not. She’s an intelligent adult; she can pick her own dress.

She is suddenly in an incredibly foul humor. She doesn’t even want to go to dinner.

She peers down at the deck from her bedroom window. The champagne remains in the ice bucket—but Benji and Shooter are gone.

There is a whisper of a noise and Celeste turns to see a slip of paper slide under the bedroom door. She freezes. She hears footsteps retreating. After a few moments pass, she tiptoes over to pick up the paper. It says: In case you have any doubts, I’m in love with you. The handwriting is unfamiliar. It’s not Benji’s.

Celeste clutches the note to her chest and sits on the bed. This is either the most wonderful or the most horrible thing ever to happen to her.

“Celeste!”

Benji is calling up the stairs for her. Celeste crumples the note. What should she do with it? She reads it one more time, then she flushes it down the toilet.

“Coming!” she says.

Shooter has changed into Nantucket Reds, a white shirt, a double-breasted blue blazer, and a captain’s hat that Celeste had noticed hanging on a hook in the Winburys’ mudroom but that she assumed was just a prop of sorts.

“Nice hat!” Celeste says. Shooter doesn’t crack a smile.

Benji leads Celeste out to the end of the Winburys’ dock, where a boat is waiting. It’s Ella, the Winburys’ Hinckley picnic boat. It’s so sleek and beautiful with its gleaming wood and pristine navy-and-white cushioned benches that Celeste is afraid to climb aboard. Shooter gets on first and offers his hand to Celeste. She wants to squeeze his hand to let him know she got his note and she feels the same way—but she is afraid of Benji noticing.

She and Benji settle in the back while Shooter takes the wheel. Benji opens the champagne, fills two waiting flutes, and hands one to Celeste.

“Cheers,” he says.

“Cheers,” Celeste says. She clinks glasses with Benji and forces herself to make eye contact with him. Every second is a struggle to keep her gaze off Shooter in the captain’s chair. “Is Shooter not having any?”

“Shooter is not having any,” Benji says. “He’s our skipper tonight.”

“Where are we going?” Celeste asks.

“You’ll see,” Benji says.

Celeste leans back in her seat but she can’t relax. Shooter is at the wheel in that ridiculous hat; it’s almost as if Benji has set out to humiliate him. But maybe she’s overreacting. Maybe Shooter offered to drive the boat; maybe he likes it. It is a stunner of an evening, the air clear and mild, the water of the harbor a mirror that reflects the rich golden light of the sun behind them. Other boaters wave as they pass. One gentleman calls out, “Beautiful,” and Benji calls back, “Isn’t she?” and kisses Celeste.

Celeste says, “I’m sure he was talking about the boat.”

“The boat, you, me, this incredible night,” Benji says.

Right, Celeste thinks. From a distance, they must seem like the most fortunate, privileged couple in the world. No one would ever guess Celeste’s private torment.

She sips her champagne. Benji wraps his arm around her and pulls her in close. “I missed you,” he says.

“How was golf?” she asks. He doesn’t answer, which is just as well.

They dock at the Wauwinet Inn. Shooter is surprisingly skilled with the ropes and knots, making Celeste wonder at his other hidden talents. Playing the harmonica? Shooting a bow and arrow? Skiing moguls? He secures the boat and then helps Celeste up onto the dock. Benji climbs up behind Celeste and checks his watch. “We’ll be back at nine o’clock,” he tells Shooter.

“Wait a minute,” Celeste says. Her heart feels like it’s being squeezed. She turns to Shooter. “Aren’t you coming to dinner?”

Shooter smiles but his blue eyes are as flat as eyes in a painting. “I’ll be here when you’re finished,” he says.

Celeste wobbles in her wedge heels. She’s unsteady in heels on a good day, never mind on a dock under the present circumstances. Benji takes her arm and leads her down the dock to the hotel.

When they are out of earshot, Celeste says, “I don’t get it. Why isn’t Shooter coming to dinner?”

“Because I want to have a romantic dinner with my girlfriend,” Benji says. For the first time since she has known him, he sounds petulant, like one of the cranky children who are at the zoo past their nap time. This show of unexpected attitude provokes Celeste.

“So, what, you just hired him to drive the boat? He’s our friend, Benji. He’s not your servant.”

Benji says, “I should have realized you would find this scenario unjust. But when I told Shooter my plans to bring you up here, he offered. He’s going to grab dinner in the bar.”

“By himself?” Celeste says.

“It’s Shooter,” Benji says. “I’m sure he’ll make some friends.”

Dinner at Topper’s is an extraordinary experience, with attention given to every detail. Drinks are brought on a tiered cocktail tray; Benji’s gin and tonic is mixed at the table with a glass swizzle stick. The bread basket features warm, fragrant rosemary focaccia, homemade bacon-and-sage rolls, and twisted cheddar-garlic bread sticks that look like the branches of a tree in an enchanted forest. Under other circumstances, Celeste would be committing all this to memory so she could describe it for her parents later, but she is preoccupied with the one sentence written on the note that was slipped under her door. In case you have any doubts, I’m in love with you.

Their appetizers arrive under silver domes. The server lifts both domes at once with a theatrical flourish. The food is artwork—vegetables are cut to resemble jewels; sauces are painted across plates. Benji ordered a wine that is apparently so rare and amazing, it made the sommelier stammer.

Celeste doesn’t care. Shooter’s absence is more powerful than Benji’s presence. She does a desultory job on her appetizer—summer vegetables with stracciatella cheese—then excuses herself for the ladies’ room.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com