I’ve felt weird for the past couple days. I know for a fact that the weird fluttering in my stomach and the electricity running through my veins has a direct correlation to a certain former roommate of my fake fiancé. Bodhi has crossed my mind at least once an hour since the afternoon we’d spent together two days ago, but I’ve managed to avoid actually speaking to him in person.
But that’s going to change today, because Brenton’s gotten into the habit of inviting Bodhi along whenever we go to lunch. I understand, because it’s not as though Bodhi knows a lot of people in this city, plus Brenton wants to spend time with the guy he spent four years living with, and it’s not as though I can object just because Bodhi being there will be inconvenient for me.
I’m a bit lost in my thoughts, trying to figure out how I’m going to keep my cool for the next two hours, as I step off the elevator to the executive floor. And maybe that’s why it takes me thirty seconds longer than it should to recognize her.
She’s petite with the most beautiful coffee colored skin and the most adorable freckles sprinkled across her nose. Her tight black ringlets are worn twisted into a bun at the crown of her head and she’s playing nervously with the owl shaped pendant hanging from her neck.
“Marley?” I blink in surprise when I finally realize why I know her.
She turns to face me fully, her expression lighting with happiness as she steps forward to pull me into a hug. “Raina! How lovely to see you.”
“Likewise,” I respond, a bit breathless when we pull apart as my initial joy at seeing her after so long fades into anxiety as I realize the implications of her being here. “This is a pleasant surprise.”
“Just my yearly trip to ask Brenton to speak to my classes,” she explains.
“Of course,” I reply. I suppose that makes sense, but I can’t recall ever seeing her at his office before. And if she has come on more than one occasion, I’m surprised Brenton’s never mentioned it before. It’s very unusual for him to be keeping any kind of secret from me.
Before I can find a reasonable way to ask how often she comes to visit Brenton at work, she says, “When’s the wedding?”
“What?” I startle, wondering how the hell she knows, as the official statement to the press won’t be released until tomorrow morning.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to pry,” she says hurriedly, glancing down at my left hand. “I just noticed your beautiful ring.”
Right. To be honest, I kind of forget that I’m wearing it. Using my thumb to nervously rotate the ring around my finger, I try to think of the best way to explain the situation to her, but before I can, a deep voice calls out from behind.
“It’s a family heirloom.”
Bodhi really does have incredible timing. I curse mentally.
Marley’s gaze shifts from me to Bodhi and then back to me. “Is this your fiancé?”
“He wishes,” I say automatically. If were literally anywhere besides Brenton’s office, I might have lied and said yes to reduce the discomfort of the situation. But Tana’s within earshot, so I have to stick to her perception of the truth. “This is Bodhi. He’s a friend of Brenton’s from college. Bodhi, this is Marley.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Bodhi smiles warmly, shaking her hand. “She’s engaged to…”
He’s saved from receiving my elbow to his ribs telling him to shut up when Brenton emerges from the conference room to the right, finishing sending a message on his phone.
“Brenton!” I call out to cut Bodhi off before he unwillingly breaks Marley’s heart. “So kind of you to grace us with your presence.”
“Sorry, baby,” Brenton responds, not bothering to look up from his phone as he speaks. If he had he’d see me wince at the term of endearment and glance at Marley to see her reaction, only to sigh in relief when I notice she hasn’t registered his words. “The meeting ran long and…,” It’s only after he’s already called me an endearing nickname because he’s trying to get in the habit of making our relationship seem more natural that he finally looks up and his eyes land on Marley. His expression immediately floods with every emotion, starting with joy and adoration before moving to panic and fear and discomfort. “Marley. I didn’t…did we have a meeting today?”
“No, I’m sorry,” she replies, all smiles because she still hasn’t processed the situation. “I probably should have called first. I was in the neighborhood and I thought I’d stop by and,” It finally clicks, and I hold my breath as her eyes flash with confusion, “…you just called Raina ‘baby’.”
I wonder if there’s any way to get out of this situation gracefully, but Bodhi shoots that option to shit when he grins and says, “Way to be super inappropriate with your fiancé at work.”
“Fiancé?” her eyes widen in shock as she looks at me again. “Brenton’s the one you’re engaged to?”
I’m at a loss for words, and it seems that so is Brenton, because after an entire minute of extremely uncomfortable silence, he lets out a defeated, “Yeah.”
I can tell Bodhi is confused beyond belief, but now isn’t the time or place to explain why Brenton and I are both on edge, so break the tension by saying, “We’re about to go to lunch. You should join us.”
I know having Marley tag along to lunch would probably be one of the most uncomfortable situations any of us have ever been in, but I have to be polite for both Tana and Bodhi’s sake.
“I actually have to get back to campus,” she says, clearing her throat and clearly looking for any way out, “but thanks for the offer.”
“Next time, then,” I say, trying to be as friendly as possible. “It was good to see you, Marley.”
“You too,” she nods, though she avoids making eye contact with me. Turning to Bodhi, she flashes him a brief smile. “Nice to meet you, Bodhi.” She doesn’t even look at Brenton, her tone soft yet cold as she heads towards the elevator, whispering, “Goodbye Brenton.”
Brenton stares after her, looking completely heartbroken as he watches her use all her willpower to both avoid looking at him and hold back tears, his eyes staying glued to her until the elevator doors shut. There’s a few seconds of awkward silence as Brenton and I let out weary sighs and Bodhi looks at both of us though we’ve gone insane.
“I, um, I have a couple quick things I need to take care of,” Brenton says quietly, reaching up to tug his fingers through his hair in frustration. “Why don’t I meet you guys in the lobby in ten?”
“Alright,” I reply, unable to get my voice above a whisper.
Grabbing Bodhi’s arm, I tug him towards the elevator and he manages to wait until the elevator doors slide shut to confront me. “What the hell is going on?”
“What do you mean?” I say, automatically acting innocent as I push the button for the lobby.
He rolls his eyes, crossing his arms over his chest and looking at me pointedly. “I’m not blind, Raina.”
“Good, so you’re aware that I saw what happened in there,” he shoots back. “Who was that woman?”
I decide to continue being as vague as possible in hopes that he’ll stop asking me questions. “Marley? She’s a professor.”
“I mean, who is she to Brenton?” he clarifies.
I guess I should have figured that he’d catch on that something was off about the entire interaction. Still, I’m hoping he’ll drop the subject. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“He’s one of my best friends,” Bodhi sighs. “Do you really think I can’t tell that he’s not in love with you?”
The bluntness of his statement catches me off guard. “Ouch.”
I mean, he’s right, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be somewhat hurt by the implication. I wonder if Brenton’s lack of romantic affection for me is really that obvious or if the only reason Bodhi figured it out is because he got see the way that Brenton looks at the woman who actually holds his heart.
“Why are you offended?” he says, lifting his eyebrows in surprise. “You’re not in love with him either.”
“I love him,” I insist, though I know that’s not what Bodhi meant.
“I know you do,” he replies softly as the elevator stops at the lobby and we step out of the sliding doors. “But loving someone and being in love with someone are two entirely different things.”
He says those words with a heaviness that has me intrigued. “Sounds like you’re speaking from experience.”
“You’re changing the subject,” he rightly points out.
I can’t let him win that easily, so I shoot back with, “You’re being vague.”
“Raina…,” he sighs in frustration, stopping to sit down in a couch near the building’s front entrance. He uses his fingers to pulls his hair back from his forehead, and looks up at me with a look I can’t quite place. There’s a hint of sadness in his voice and I wonder if that’s why his voice is so soft when he asks, “Is Brenton cheating on you?”
“No!” I gasp in horror. No matter how much I end up having to reveal to him over the course of this conversation, I never want him to believe anything so horrible about either Brenton or Marley. “Nothing’s going on between them.”
He nods once to indicate that he believes me, though the sorrow in his eyes is still present. “But he’s in love with her.”
By this time, I figure there’s no point in lying. Bodhi could tell just by observing the looks between Brenton and Marley that there’s something there, so he probably won’t believe me if I say they’re just friends. Letting out a reluctant sigh, I say, “Yes.”
I know I’m being frustratingly undetailed, so I’m not surprised when glares at me and says, “I’m gonna need a better explanation than that.”
Inhaling deeply, I decide that the best way to go about this is just to start at the beginning. “They met about three years ago. At the time, she was a teaching assistant to a professor who taught a class on entrepreneurship and he asked her to reach out to local businessmen to see if they’d be willing to come speak to his class. So, she reached out to Knox Industries and Harrison Knox sent Brenton to do the guest talk. She was the one who introduced him to the class and, what’s that thing they say, the rest was history?”
I’d met Marley the second time Brenton went to talk to her class. I’d just finished a client meeting near the university campus, so Brenton asked if I wanted to come see him speak and then we could go to dinner together. It was Marley’s first year as a full-blown professor and she was so adorably nervous and the moment he introduced me to her I knew. I knew that Brenton Knox was one hundred percent, totally, completely, hopelessly in love. At the time, I’d found it surprising that he’d never mentioned her before, but when I asked about her at dinner, the way his eyes lit up was enough to confirm my suspicions about his heart. From that point on, I knew that every time I saw him with an extra little spring in his step, it was because he had just heard Marley’s voice.
“But you said nothing’s actually happened,” Bodhi clarifies, a bit confused.
I understand, because it is pretty surprising that after three years, they still haven’t kissed. “They talk on the phone and they text pretty regularly, but I don’t think they’ve ever actually been on a date.”
He lifts an eyebrow in surprise. “Why not?”
Another understandable question. The truth is that Brenton’s probably thought about asking Marley on a date about a million times. But he knows that being associated with him romantically means she would lose her privacy and anonymity and he’s not willing to put someone who didn’t grow up in his lifestyle through that kind of stress. Plus, he doesn’t want to make her promises he can’t keep. And he’s not sure that he’ll ever be able to give her anything, well, more. “Because his parents would think it improper for him to date someone who’s….”
I’m struggling to find the right words to express how Harrison and Colleen would most likely view Brenton dating a school teacher when Bodhi offers up a suggestion of his own, “Common?”
“That’s not exactly the word I would have chosen,” I sigh, though I guess, technically, he’s not wrong. Brenton’s parents have always had certain expectations about the person he’ll one day marry. Being born into a certain lifestyle is definitely a huge plus.
“Right,” Bodhi says slowly. “But from what Brenton’s said about you, you weren’t born into this life either.”
“I wasn’t,” I shake my head. My father’s wealth wasn’t inherited the way that Harrison’s was, and although my mother is a lawyer, she mostly deals with cases related to families; not the kind of million dollar mergers and acquisitions which might catch Harrison’s eye. But my parents made something of themselves. They built themselves their own little empire through hard work, and the Knoxs have always appreciated that kind of determination. And I suppose it didn’t hurt that my father and Harrison have known each since they were teenagers. “But we grew up together and his parents have known me my entire life. So, I guess they figure if he’s not going to marry a socialite, the next best thing is someone they know they can trust.”
In other words, they assume that because they’ve known me for so long, I’ll gladly do whatever they ask. And to be honest, not having to deal with that kind of pressure is one of the many reasons I’m glad I’m not actually marrying Brenton.
Bodhi seems to be coming to terms with my explanation, but he pauses as he phrases his next question. “There’s still one thing I don’t understand. If neither one of you is in love with the other, then why are you getting married?”
“Brenton’s parents made it pretty clear that him being in a stable relationship would make him the frontrunner to be Knox Industries’ CEO once Harrison retires,” I say quickly, knowing that if I didn’t just get it out there, I’d never tell him the truth. I knew I shouldn’t be telling him such a huge secret without Brenton’s permission, but it was eating me up inside, and I figured that if Brenton considered him such a good friend, then Bodhi had to be trustworthy.
“So it’s strictly business,” he states, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d think he looked a little relieved.
“Pretty much,” I nod, taking a seat beside him on the couch, because for some reason, being able to tell someone the truth has me feeling a little physically exhausted. “Brenton’s convinced we won’t even have to actually get married. He figures that the engagement will be enough to sway his father to name him CEO and once all the contracts are signed, we’ll call off the engagement.”
He nods again. “Gotcha.”
“You can’t tell him I told you,” I plead. Brenton’s so stressed out as it is, the last thing he needs it to know that there’s someone who knows our secret, even if it is someone he considers a close friend.
“I won’t,” he assures me quietly, averting his gaze to his wrist, where he’s playing with the ties of his leather bracelet, causing me to wonder why he’s so fidgety. “But it does make me feel better.”
I tilt my head to the side, a bit mesmerized by the movements of his fingers. “About what?”
He lifts his gaze from his fingers and I follow suit and when our eyes meet I know he’s about to say something that’s going to haunt me for weeks to come.
“About having feelings for my best friend’s girl.”
I knew that, of course. I’d known it from the moment we met, when he was helping me plan a couch heist in the middle of the day. I knew because I felt it too; that heat, that sizzling tension, that fluttering of excitement and hope and just a tiny bit of fear. I felt it then and I feel it now, but I also know better than to let this conversation go any further. Because the more we start to admit, the harder it’ll be to turn back.
“First of all, I’m no one’s girl,” I remind him, doing my best to make sure my voice was strong and clear and didn’t waver. “And second of all…you can’t say things like that.”
“Why?” he asks, sitting up a little straighter, his eyes lighting with a beautiful fire. “Because you’re too scared to admit that it’s true for you too?”
“It’s not,” I say, forcing myself to keep my gaze direct.
He doesn’t buy my bullshit. “That’s a lie.”
He’s right. It is a lie. I have feelings for him too. But right this moment, I don’t feel like being emotionally vulnerable. Shaking my head, I whisper, “We’re not having this conversation.”
“Come on, Raina,” he pleads with me, his fingers stilling as he gazes at me, silently begging me to just say the words I’ve buried deep. “I know you feel it too.”
“What I feel is irrelevant,” I manage to breathe out, knowing it’s taking all of my willpower not to crack and confess. I inhale deeply, wanting to be calm as I notice Brenton step off the elevator into the lobby. “All that matters is Brenton. So this isn’t happening.”
My best friend needs me and for once, I need to let my head win, rather than my heart. I avert my gaze from his, smiling widely and regaining my composure as Brenton approaches. Bodhi continues to study my profile, but finally concedes, whispering, “Fine,” before he turns to greet Brenton as well.
We push ourselves off the couch and when Brenton reaches out to take my hand and lace our fingers together, I smile at him adoringly and do what I do best: pretend that everything is okay.