#41 Who needs enemies with friends like these?
I check my appearance in the mirror one last time, making sure my make-up is on point and my hair is falling in perfect waves around my face, my freshly touched up highlights bright purple in the harsh bathroom lighting.
“You look beautiful, baby,” James assures me, appearing behind me and pressing a kiss to the back of my head. His hands move up my sides until they reach my boobs, squeezing them. “Your breasts look amazing in this black dress. I could always tell my friends not to come and just have my way with you…”
I laugh and turn around in his arms, kissing him softly. “No way. If we’re just going to have sex all night, I don’t need to look this good.”
“Nice to know your priorities are in the right order,” James jokes. “Sex with boyfriend? Yoga pants are fine. Friends coming over? Tight black dress and a push-up bra.”
“You like me in yoga pants.”
“I like you in anything.” He kisses me again and smacks my ass lightly. “Come on, they’ll be here any minute. And I swear, Fran, they are going to love you.”
Elijah Reed is the first one to arrive, which takes away some of my anxiety. I already met him. We only exchanged like three whole sentences last time, but it’s still nice to see a familiar face. Next is William, then Flint and his girlfriend Lesley. James has prepped me to ease my nerves, so I already know that William is on the force with James and Elijah, Flint is a dentist and Lesley a high school history teacher.
“Drinks, everyone?” James is already walking to the kitchen, knowing everyone’s preferred poison. I get up to help him, and he hands me a beer for myself and one for Elijah, telling me to go sit down while he takes care of the rest.
They’re all very nice, asking me questions about my job and telling stories about James. Flint and James met in the gym ten years ago, so he’s got some stories about when James wasn’t quite this buff and dropped a halter on his toe. I laugh along, my nerves almost completely gone when after about thirty minutes. They’re good people, and they’re making a huge effort to include me in the conversation, laugh at my jokes, the whole shebang.
The doorbell rings again, and James gets up to buzz the last two of the group in: Dean and his wife Elizabeth. I repeat to myself what I know about them: she has her own online business selling purses, and he became a PI after deciding he wasn’t cut out for the force. They’re the only ones of James’ friends who are married with kids. I move into the kitchen to grab some more mini pizzas – homemade by James Tyson, of course – out of the oven and to grab myself another beer. I put the plate with food in the middle of the table and the guys attack like they haven’t been fed in years, even though this is already the fourth plate of snacks I’ve put out. Lesleyrolls her eyes at me with a smile.
“Men,” she mumbles to me.
I put my beer down so I can join James in the hallway to greet the newest two arrivals, remembering to put a coaster under my beer bottle. I still feel a little ridiculous using a coaster for a beer, but if it’s important to James, it’s important to me.
“Oh my God!” a loud shrill female voice sounds from the hallway. “Francesca Berger, is that you?”
My eyes almost op out of their sockets when I see who is yelling at me. I know the girl that just arrived. Elizabeth is Lizzy. My old friend Lizzy, who I haven’t seen in years. She’s got long brown hair, catlike green eyes and a huge belly that suggests the must be close to her due date.
“Lizzy!” I shriek, throwing my arms around my childhood friend. I never thought I’d meet someone tonight who I know from back at home, miles away from here.
“Oh my God, girl, last time I saw you, you still had braces on!” Lizzy says, beaming at me. “Those teeth sure got straight, huh? Wow, you look amazing. I love the hair. And the nose ring. When did you get that? Oh. My. God. What are you even doing here? I lost touch with everyone from back in the day! Do you still speak to the gang? I can’t believe you’re here! What are you doing here?”
I laugh at her firing questions at me so fast that I can’t even answer them. She’s exactly the same as she was back when we were thirteen, crushing on that cute English teacher with the posh accent. She’s a little annoying, very loud, and a hoot to be around. There is never a dull moment when Lizzy is around, because the girl sure knows how to stir up drama. I haven’t thought about Lizzy in ages. We lost touch when we went to different high schools, only meeting up for the occasional burger with fries with the old gang until we eventually all moved on to make new friends and forgot all about each other.
“I’m James’ girlfriend,” I explain, leading her into the living room.
“Ohhhh,” Lizzy says, suddenly freezing. “Oh wow. You’re the new girlfriend?” Why does she look like that’s a bad thing?
“You know each other?” the guy I’ve never seen before asks, putting an arm around Lizzy. He’s at least ten years older than Lizzy, and he’s got a bit of a dad bod, with a flabby belly and a receding hairline. He looks kind, though, and Lizzy all but melts into him when he rubs her belly with his free hand.
“We used to be friends back in the day,” Elizabeth explains. “Franny, this is Dean, my husband. Got married to him when I was 20, and he somehow convinced me to move all the way out here for him and to become a goddamn breeding machine for all those kids he always wanted.”
“This isn’t the first one?” I ask, gesturing at her belly. Then I remember that James already told me that his friends have two kids. It’s just weird to connect what James told me about his friend’s wife to Lizzy, who is still a teenager in my mind, stealing lip gloss and bragging about it when she didn’t get caught. “Congrats, by the way.”
“Number three,” she says, patting the left side of her huge baby bump. “And…” She touches the right side with her other hand. “Number four.”
“Twins?” Wow, that is intense. It’s so weird so see someone my age already married with two kids at home and two more on the way. I am nowhere near ready for that kind of life yet. Not even close.
“You’re friends?” James’ voice sounds behind me. “You know each other?” There’s a weird edge to his voice, and when I turn around I see something in his eyes that I didn’t expect to see tonight.
Pure and utter panic.
What could he possibly have to worry about? These are his friends, after all.
Lizzy and Dean greet the others, and everyone comments on how big she has gotten. I though she must be close to popping but turns out she’s not even in the third trimester yet. Damn, she’s going to be a goddamn whale by the time the twins are ready to come out.
“Drinks?” James asks them, clutching a bottle of wine so tightly that I’m scared he might shatter it. The panic in his eyes hasn’t subdued yet. In fact, he’s looking at Lizzy like he’d like her to drop dead right about now. What the hell is going on?
“Tea, please,” Lizzy says. “And a glass of red wine for Dean, of course.”
Her husband is already chatting to his friends, telling a story about his kids, showing them pictures on his phone. Elijah meets my gaze and winks at me, rolling his eyes and pretending to hang himself. I grin at that, quickly hiding it when Lizzy gives Elijah the stink-eye. When he goes on to pretend he’s shooting himself through the head, she shakes her head and turns back to me, a small smile playing around her lips.
“Dean’s friends are such dipshits.” She cocks her head to the side while she gets comfortable on the couch. “I guess we’re doomed to hang out with these bunch of morons now, aren’t we? I didn’t think I’d ever see you with a guy like James.”
Before I can ask her what she means by a guy like James, said guy shows up with Lizzy’s cup of tea and Dean’s glass of wine. He sits down on the chair next to mine, draping his arm around me. I press a kiss to his cheek, wanting to make him feel better, even though I have no idea why he’s freaking out.
“So,” Lizzy says with a wicked grin. “Have you bought out the ring yet, Jamie boy?”
The whole room goes silent and I see Elijah freeze in the middle of whatever he was miming to William, his finger guns pointing up into the air.
“Come on,” Lesley says, giving Lizzy a hard look. “We promised James we wouldn’t do this.”
“Do what?” I ask, starting feel uncomfortable.
“Look, I get that we all want the best for James, but this is my childhood friend right here,” Lizzy says, pointing at me. “I think it’s only fair she knows what she’s gotten herself into.”
“Don’t,” James grunts, his arm tightening around me. “Please don’t.”
“You’re freaking me out,” I tell him, shifting so I can look at him. The panic has only gotten worse, I can tell. And I’m starting to realize that he’s scared of what Lizzy is going to tell me. He thinks it will make me run for the hills. What could possibly be that bad?
“We promised not to tease James too much,” Elijah says, coming to his friends’ recue. “That’s all. I think you must have realized by now that he’s a little intense, and we like to give him shit about that. We kind of scared off the last girl he introduced us to by kidding around about him proposing to her. James made us promise to be on our best behavior so you wouldn’t get spooked.”
“Oh,” I breathe. Is that everything? That’s no bad, is it?
“Kidding around?” Lizzy repeats. “A little intense? Come on, guys, I know we all love James, but the guy has proposed to ten girls in the past five years. That’s not a little intense, that’s fucking insane.”
“What?” I exclaim, jerking away from James without consciously deciding to do so. “I thought you said you only planned on proposing, and ended up getting dumped before you could even pop the question?”
“He told you the Teddy story?” Lizzy is laughing now. “Oh God, I didn’t think he’d fess up to that, honestly. She really screwed him over, that’s true. I bet he didn’t tell you about the others, huh? Deborah, Tadée, Fiona, Hailey, Josephine, Shanice…” She shakes her head. “Should I go on, James? Or would you rather tell her yourself?”
“Honey,” Dean cuts in before anyone can react. “Stop it. You promised you wouldn’t do this.”
“That was before I knew it was Francesca he was going to try to give his grandmother’s wedding ring to next,” she replies snippily before turning back to me. “How long did he wait to say I love you this time around?” she asks, giving me a knowing look. “Four weeks? Five? I always put my money on five weeks.”
“Seven,” I breathe, unable to get my mind to stop reeling. What the fuck is going on? Is she telling the truth? Did James really propose to ten different girls in the span of five years?
And did they all say no?
“Out,” James says in a hard voice, getting up from his chair. “Now. All of you. OUT!”
“Look man, I’m sorry, you know how Liz gets when she’s pregnant,” Dean says, putting a hand on James’ shoulder.
James shakes him off and points at the door. “Get. The. Fuck. Out.”
“Fine,” Dean says with a heavy sigh. “Sorry, James. Come on, Liz, we’re leaving.”
“Call me,” Lizzy tells me while her husband helps her up from the couch. “’My number is on my Insta page. I can tell you stories about your new boyfriend that would make your ears bleed.”
“Get the fuck out!” James roars, clenching his fists at his sides. “I’m not going to say it again. I will fucking throw you out myself if you don’t walk out right now, Elizabeth. I don’t care that you’re pregnant. You’re a fucking monster!”
Lizzy just rolls her eyes and leaves with her husband by her side, giving me one last glance over her shoulder. The door slams shut and silence engulfs the room.
“Well…” Elijah says, getting up from his seat as well. “That was… intense. Okay, I think it’s time for the rest of us to head out too.” His eyes find mine and he smiles wryly. “I don’t know how well you know Lizzy, but she’s got a flair for drama. Take what she says with a pinch of salt, okay? James is a good guy. He really is.” He pats James on the back in support. “Good luck, man.”
James just stands there, trying to control his breathing. Elijah ushers William, Flint and Lesley out, leaving me alone with my boyfriend.
My boyfriend, who apparently is a serial monogamist who drops to his knees with a ring within a few months. Ten times in a row.
My boyfriend, who is staring at the wall like he’s not even sure where he is.
My boyfriend, who I love, but who I’m starting to think I don’t really know at all.