The Hating Game Page 74

I’m so disappointed in not catching them the freak-out is triggered in full.

I politely laugh and manage to walk slowly from the other end of the dance floor, weaving through the spectators. Now I’m running. I need to get out of this room. I know he’ll be coming after me, so instead of choosing the most obvious sanctuary—the ladies room—I go down the waitstaff passageway and find myself in the garden beside the hotel.

A few boys in white shirts and ties are smoking and fiddling with their cell phones. They look at me with bored expressions. I pick up my pace until I’m trotting, running, the spikes of my heels barely touching the ground. I want to run until I reach the water. I want to leap into a rowboat and sail to a deserted island.

Only then will I be able to face up to it.

I have feelings for Joshua Templeman. Irreversible, stupid, and ill-advised feelings. Why else would this hurt so much? Why did everything in me ache to wrap my arms around the wedding bouquet and see him smile? I dither along the water’s edge.

The footsteps approaching come too fast. I bite back a swell of impatience and open my mouth to give him a piece of my mind.

Then I see it’s Joshua’s mother.

Chapter 24

Oh, hi,” I manage to say. “Just . . . getting some air.”

Elaine looks at me, and opens her purse and finds her pack of Kleenex. I’m confused by it until I press it to my eye and it comes away wet.

We stand, looking at the water glittering darkly under the fading sunset sky. I’m too upset to comprehend I’m about to unload to his mother. Any sympathetic ear at this point will do me. It’s not like I’ll ever see her again.

“He never told me about Mindy.”

She is aggrieved, and frowns back across the lawns. “He should have. You shouldn’t have found out this way.”

“It all makes so much sense. I can’t believe I’ve been so stupid. The way he’s been acting has been pretty unbelievable.”

“Like he’s in love with you.”

“Yes.” My voice breaks a little. “He told me once he’s a good actor. I can’t believe this.”

She says nothing and puts her hand on my shoulder. Every single glimmer of foolish hope feels extinguished in this moment.

“I don’t think he has been playing a game.” Elaine’s mouth twists.

The word game only crystallizes further the hurt in my gut.

“Oh, I’m sorry, but you have no idea how good at games he is. Every day of our working relationship, Monday to Friday. This has got to be the first time he’s played me on the weekend, though.”

Elaine looks past me, and I can see Josh’s silhouette pacing along the side of the building in agitation. She shakes her head and he stops.

“Why did you come today?” She is genuinely curious.

“I owed him a favor. He told me I was coming along for moral support. I didn’t know why, but I came anyway. I thought it was something to do with him dropping out of medicine. And now I find out his ex-girlfriend is marrying his brother? I’m in a soap opera right now.”

Elaine steadies me with a hand on my elbow. When she speaks, she’s got a fond smile teasing at the edge of her lips.

“I speak to him on Sundays, and I’ve known you for as long as he’s known you. A beautiful girl, bluest eyes, reddest lips, blackest hair. He describes you like a fairy-tale character. He’s never quite decided on princess or villain.”

I put my hands into my hair and make two fists. “Villain. I feel like the world’s biggest idiot to even believe for one day he could be so . . .” I can’t finish.

“You’re the girl he calls Shortcake. When I first heard your nickname, I knew. I will tell you now, he’s never looked at anyone the way he looks at you.”

I am starting to feel irritated with this lovely woman. It’s pretty clear she’s so biased I can no longer use her as a sounding board. She cannot believe her son would do anything so hurtful. I open my mouth but she silences me firmly.

“He dated Mindy. I’m so glad to have her for a daughter-in-law. Sweet as pie. Cinderella hasn’t got anything on Mindy.”

“She’s lovely. She’s not my issue.”

“But she never challenged Josh. You have since the first day you met him. You make him angry. You’ve never been scared of him. You’ve taken the time to try to understand him, just to get the upper hand in your little office skirmishes. You notice him.”

“I’ve tried not to.”

“Neither Josh nor his father are easy men. Some men are a delight. Patrick, for example. Reasonable, calm, ready with a smile. Josh has a nickname for him, too. Mr. Nice Guy. It’s true. He is. It takes a strong woman to love someone like Josh, and I think it’s you. Patrick’s an open book. Josh is a safety-deposit box. But he’s worth it. You won’t believe me, and I can’t blame you tonight, but so is his father.”

Elaine waves Josh over and he begins striding toward us.

“Please go easy on him. You could have caught the bouquet,” she admonishes me. “If you’d put your arms out a little.”

“I couldn’t.”

She kisses my cheek and hugs me with such kind familiarity I close my eyes.

“You will one day. If you decide to stay, we’re having a family breakfast at ten A.M. in the restaurant. I’d really love to see you both.” She walks back down the path, where she intercepts Josh.

They begin urgently conferring. Great. She’s giving the enemy a warning of what he’s in for. I am so tired of being in this place, by this water, under this sky. I go and sit on a low concrete bench and try to cram my heart back into my chest. Even his mother thought Josh was in love.

“You found out about the Mindy thing.” In the twenty yards it took for him to get to me, he’s no doubt framed his argument.

“Yep. Well done. You sure fooled me.”

“Fooled you?” He sits beside me and reaches for my hand but I pull away.

“Cut the shit. I know you’ve been parading me around in front of Mindy and her family. Maybe you should have hired someone better looking than me.”

“Do you seriously believe that’s why you’re here?” He has the audacity to look shaken.

“Imagine being in my position. I take you to my ex-boyfriend’s wedding and I’m all over you like a rash. I make you feel special. Important. I make you feel beautiful.”

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