Main Marriage For One
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Had fun reading it. Didn't put it down till I was done
23 August 2021 (14:16)
This book is worth the waiting. I'm glad that I didn't pull it down until I finished
01 September 2021 (16:02)
slow burn but definitely worth it
10 September 2021 (22:51)
I'm OBSESSED WITH THIS BOOK! It was so so good! So worth it.
13 September 2021 (04:54)
Its the most beautiful book i have ever read
16 September 2021 (13:16)
Obsessed with this! Please read it y'all
24 September 2021 (15:09)
This book is AMAZING! It’s a slow burn! And Jack is such a sweet heart!! 10/10
26 September 2021 (21:07)
This book is so good
01 October 2021 (01:45)
Read it months ago but came back to review. I love this book so much and it's worth every freaking minute it takes you to read it!!!
04 October 2021 (21:05)
This book was worth it. I loved it so so much. I need more books like this
30 October 2021 (21:24)
Jack is BAE?I keep falling for the brooding type
02 November 2021 (21:38)
I loved the book.... It´s worth it!!!
13 December 2021 (18:02)
16 December 2021 (22:42)
Loved every minute of it, I have no regrets
20 December 2021 (00:41)
It's a beautiful beautiful book Jack and rose are just aaaaaaaaaargh I love them ....I wish there was more definitely worth it guys read it !!!!
08 January 2022 (21:02)
Such a great book ? highly recommended .
12 January 2022 (02:29)
EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS BOOK FELT RIGHT.
OMG I LOVE JACK & ROSE ✨❤️?
OMG I LOVE JACK & ROSE ✨❤️?
19 January 2022 (06:06)
I'm obsessed with this book. Highly recommended
08 February 2022 (17:15)
totally reccomend this book such a good book enjoyed reading it throughout !!!!!!
11 February 2022 (14:05)
What really sets this book appart is how the author narrates the story from both jack and rose’s point of view giving the book two perspectives of things ??????????
12 February 2022 (00:38)
Loved the whole book?
19 February 2022 (02:33)
Loved the whole book
19 February 2022 (02:34)
Loveeee it def recommend 10/10
23 February 2022 (04:34)
Too good!! An all time favorite?
07 March 2022 (08:50)
Love the book! Read it in one go. Couldn't put it down.
11 March 2022 (03:25)
Totally worth the time ,recommend it 10/10
31 March 2022 (02:19)
el mejor slow burn que he leido. me encantó.
11 April 2022 (01:49)
Such a boring book. I was really struggling to finish it. I really don't understand the positive feedback in the comments below...
01 May 2022 (21:05)
I had high hopes, well I guess different strokes for different folks. But the writer would have gained higher audience for me if she had made it more suspenseful and less vulgar with the kiss and sex. For instance, Joshua her ex and Jodi and James make a good trio that would have sparked a climax not necessarily paying them compensation to back out.
01 May 2022 (21:58)
I struggle to finish this book and I got high hopes for this but naah. I get irritated with Rose, I feel like *SPOILER WARNING!!!!!!!* she just don't want to get divorce with Jack just because she want to create and have a family were she never experience.
05 May 2022 (14:10)
Copyright © 2019 by Ella Maise All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Cover Photography: Rafa Gallar Editor: Editing by C. Marie Proofreader: Ellie McLove Cover Model: Jason Morgan Contents Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Keep in Touch With Me Also by Ella Maise About the Author Acknowledgments For anyone who has ever felt like they didn’t belong. Chapter One Rose Note to my past self: Do NOT, I repeat, do not say yes to marrying the handsome stranger you happen to know absolutely nothing about. “Do you, Rose Coleson, solemnly declare to take…” No. Nope. “Jack Hawthorne to be your lawfully wedded husband?” Hmmm. Let me think about that. I don’t. Nope. “Do you promise to love, honor, cherish, and keep him for as long as you both shall live?” Keep him? Wide-eyed and a little shaky, I stared straight ahead as the officiant said the words I was dreading. Was I really doing this? When the silence in the mostly empty and sort of depressing room stretched on and it was my turn to speak up, I was on the verge of hyperventilating. I tried my best to swallow the lump in my throat so I could speak, but I was afraid the words that desperately; wanted to break free weren’t Yes, I do. I wasn’t getting married in a lush green garden while the few friends I had cheered us on as I had always imagined I would. I wasn’t laughing or crying from extreme happiness as every bride did at one point during the ceremony. I had no beautiful wedding bouquet, only one single pink rose which Jack Hawthorne had thrust into my hands without a word right after we met in front of city hall. I wasn’t even wearing a white dress, let alone my dream wedding gown. Jack Hawthorne was wearing a tailored black suit that was quite possibly worth a year of my rent, if not more. It wasn’t a tux, but it was just as good. Next to him, I looked pretty cheap. Instead of a beautiful wedding dress, I had on a simple blue dress—it was the only thing I owned that was expensive and appropriate enough for the occasion, yet somehow it was still…cheap—and I was standing next to the wrong man, one who did nothing but frown and glower. Also, there was the handholding, his grip surprisingly tight around mine, especially compared to my loose hold. Such a simple act, but holding a stranger’s hand while you’re getting married? Not fun. Hell, forget about handholding—I was about to be the wife of a man I knew nothing more about than what a quick Google search had provided. Yet I had willingly and knowingly agreed to this, hadn’t I? “Miss Coleson?” As my breaths started to come faster and panic began to take hold of me, I tried to pull my hand out of Jack Hawthorne’s grip only to feel his fingers tighten around mine even more. I didn’t know what I was thinking or what he thought I was going to do, but I couldn’t lie and say running away hadn’t crossed my mind. His tight hold was a small warning, and then it was gone. My gaze jumped to his face, but he was staring straight ahead, eyes on the officiant, his sharp features set in stone. Cold. So cold. I thought I saw a muscle in his jaw ticking, but then I blinked, and it was gone. The man showed his emotions about as much as a cement block did, so I tried to do what he was doing: focus on the present. “Miss Coleson?” Clearing my throat, I did my best to put steel into my voice so I wouldn’t cry. Not here. Not now. Not every marriage is about love. What had love offered me anyway other than heartbreak and late-night emotional eating? My heart was beating loud and fast in my chest. “I do,” I finally replied with a smile I was sure made me look deranged. I don’t. I think I really, really don’t. As the smiling man repeated the same words for my non-smiling almost husband, I tuned everything and everyone out up until it was time for the rings. God, to think I had been planning my wedding to a different guy only a few months earlier, and more than that, to think I’d thought weddings were always romantic… This wedding felt more like I was about to skydive from 13,000 feet, something I would much rather die than try, and yet there I was. Not only was I not in a garden surrounded by greenery and flowers, the only piece of furniture in the room was a couch that was a rather ugly shade of orange, and for some reason, that single piece of furniture and the color of it annoyed and offended me the most. Go figure. “Please face each other,” the officiant said, and I followed his instructions like a robot. Feeling numb, I let Jack reach for my other hand, and when his fingers gave mine a tiny squeeze, this time I met his questioning eyes. I swallowed, tried to ignore the little jump my heart gave and offered him a small smile. He was truly striking in a cold, calculating sort of way. I’d be lying if I said my heart hadn’t given a small jump the first time I’d laid eyes on him. Completely involuntarily. He had the strong-and-silent thing down pat. His equally striking blue eyes dipped to my lips and then came back to my eyes. When I felt him slowly push a ring onto my finger, I looked down and saw a beautiful wedding band with a half-circle of round diamonds staring back at me. Surprised, I looked up to meet his eyes, but his attention was on my finger as he gently rolled the ring back and forth with his thumb and index finger. The sensation was as alien as it could get. “It’s okay,” I whispered when he didn’t stop playing with it. “It’s a little big, but it’s okay.” He let go of my hand and the ring then looked at me. “I’ll take care of it.” “There is no need to do that. This is fine.” I didn’t know if Jack Hawthorne ever smiled. So far—the three whole times I’d seen him—I hadn’t been a witness to it, at least not a genuine smile, but I would have assumed if he was marrying someone he was in love with instead of me, there would at least be a small playful grin on his lips. He didn’t look like the grinning type, but surely there would be a hint of it. Unfortunately, neither one of us was the picture of a happy newlywed couple. I reached for his hand to put on his wedding band, but call it nerves, clumsiness, or a sign, if you will—before I could even touch his hand, the cheap, thin ring slipped from my shaky fingers and I watched it fly away from me in slow motion. After the surprisingly loud clinking sound it made when it hit the floor, I ran after it, apologizing to no one in particular, and had to drop to my knees so I could save it before it rolled under the ugly orange couch. Although the light blue dress I had chosen to wear was by no means short, I still had to put one of my hands on my butt to cover myself so I wouldn’t flash everyone as I caught the damn thing before I had to crawl on my knees. “I got it! I got it!” I yelled a little too enthusiastically over my shoulder, holding the ring up as if I had won a trophy. When I saw the unimpressed expressions around me, I felt my cheeks turn a bright shade of red. I dropped my arm, closed my eyes, and released a very long sigh. When I turned around on my knees, I noticed that my ringless, almost husband had made it to my side, already offering his hand to pull me up. After I got back on my feet with his help, I dusted off my dress. Looking up to his face, I belatedly noticed how stiffly he was holding himself—jaw clenched, the muscle tick definitely back. Had I done something wrong? “I’m sorry,” I whispered, thoroughly embarrassed, and got a curt nod in response. The officiant cleared his throat and gave us a small smile. “Shall we continue?” Before he could drag me back, I discreetly leaned toward my soon-to-be-maybe husband and whispered, “Look, I’m not sure about…you look…” I paused and released another long breath before gathering enough courage to look straight into his eyes. “We don’t have to do this if you’ve changed your mind. Are you sure? And I mean really, really sure you want to go through with this?” His eyes searched mine as we ignored the other people in the room, and my heart rate picked up as I waited for his answer. As much as I was reluctant to do this, if he’d changed his mind, I’d be screwed six ways to Sunday and we both knew that. “Let’s get this over with,” he said eventually. That was all I got. Lovely. What an encouraging start to a new marriage—a fake one, yes, but still. We walked back to stand in front of the officiant and I quickly and successfully managed to push the ring onto his finger on my second try. It fit him perfectly. Next to the beauty he had gotten me, the flat wedding band I had picked up for him just the day before looked just as cheap as my dress did, but it was the only thing I could afford. It didn’t look like he cared anyway. I watched with curious eyes as he stared down at the ring and then made a fist of the hand I’d just put the ring on, his knuckles whitening with the force of it before he took my hand again. My attention shifted as I caught the end of the officiant’s words: “…I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss your bride.” That was it? I was married? Just like that? I looked at my now official husband and didn’t know how to react for a second. His eyes caught mine. What was a simple kiss after saying I do to a stranger, right? Thinking he was waiting to see what my move would be and wanting to get it over with so we could get the hell out of there, I was the one who took the first step. Our hands still clasped together, I avoided his eyes, rose up on my toes, and brushed a small kiss on his cheek. Just as I let go of him and was about to back up, his now free hand grabbed my wrist in a gentle hold and our eyes met. For the sake of the few people around us, I forced another smile on my face and watched him slowly lean down to press a kiss to the edge of my mouth. My heartbeat quickened because I thought he had lingered for a second too long, and that was a little too close and too long for comfort, but considering we were playing a part, I supposed an innocent kiss didn’t mean too much. It didn’t for me, and I was sure it definitely didn’t for him. “Congratulations. I wish you two a happy life together.” The officiant’s voice broke us apart, and I reached for the man’s waiting hand. As our only witness, who I knew for a fact was Jack Hawthorne’s driver, shuffled around to congratulate the man who was now my husband, I closed my eyes and willed my heart to take it easy and look on the bright side of things. This whole charade benefitted me more than it did Jack Hawthorne. It didn’t matter that I had been engaged to another man, Joshua, just weeks ago. This particular marriage to this particular man had nothing to do with love. “Are you ready to leave?” my very real and official yet still fake husband asked, and I opened my eyes. I wasn’t. Suddenly I was feeling all hot and cold, which wasn’t a good sign, but I met his gaze and nodded. “Yes.” Up until we exited the building, the driver following us from a safe distance, we didn’t utter a single word to each other. Then the driver disappeared to get the car and we just stood there, watching the people around us in an awkward silence as if neither one of us knew how we’d ended up out on the street exactly. After a few moments, we both started to speak at the same time. “We should—” “I think—” “We should get back,” he said firmly. “I need to be at the airport in an hour if I’m gonna make my flight.” “Okay. I don’t want to hold you up. I’m gonna need to change first before I get back to the coffee shop, and I can easily take the subway back to my apartment. I don’t want you to get stuck in traffic just because I—” “It’s fine,” he answered distractedly. His eyes were not on me but on the black car that had just pulled up to the curb. “Please,” he murmured, and I felt his palm briefly touch the small of my back before it was gone then he moved to open the door to the car. Shoot! I didn’t know him enough to argue about how I’d get home, not to mention arguing was the last thing I had in me to do. In the time it had taken us to walk outside, I had started to feel sick to my stomach with each step. As he stared at me expectantly, I tried not to drag my feet too much as I took his unspoken offer and got in the car. When he got in after me and closed the door, I shut my eyes with the finality of everything. Fuck me, I’m married. Didn’t matter how many times I repeated it to myself, I still couldn’t believe I’d agreed to this. “Everything okay?” The hard, rough tone of his voice broke me out of my jumbled thoughts, and I turned my head to look at him with a small smile. “Of course. I should really say thank yo—” “You don’t need to.” He gave me a curt nod before I could even finish then focused on his driver. “Raymond, change of plans. We need to drop by the apartment first, and then we will head to the airport.” “Yes, sir.” I swallowed and fisted my hands on my lap. Now what? I thought. Now do we talk? Do we not talk at all? How does this work? Surprisingly, he was the first one to break the bleak silence. “I might be out of reach for a few hours each day, depending on my meetings, but I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” Was he talking to his driver or me? I couldn’t tell. “If something comes up with Bryan or even Jodi, if they give you any trouble about our marriage, leave me a message. Don’t talk to either one of them until you hear back from me.” Me then. He was staring straight ahead, but he was talking to me because Jodi and Bryan were my cousins. “If everything goes as planned, I’ll be back in a week at most.” He paused. “If you wish…you can accompany me.” Nope. “Oh, thank you, but I can’t. I need to work on the coffee shop, and as much—” “You’re right,” he interrupted before I could finish. “I’d rather go myself as well.” Well, then… I nodded and looked out the window. I wasn’t sure if I’d managed to hide my relief well enough. Him being away for a week meant seven more days I could take to come to terms with my decision. I’d take every extra minute I could get. “Where are you going again?” I asked, realizing I had no idea. “London.” “Oh, I’ve always wanted to visit London—anywhere in Europe, really. You’re lucky that you get to travel. I don’t know if lawyers do a lot of traveling, of course, but…” I paused and waited for him to say something, if nothing else just to help me make pointless conversation, but I had a feeling it wasn’t happening. I wasn’t wrong. “Do you have a client in London?” I tried again, but I knew it was hopeless. Jack lifted his arm and checked his watch while shaking his head as an answer to my question. “Raymond, take the next turn. Get us out of here.” When there was nothing but silence in the back of the car, I closed my eyes and pressed my temple against the cold glass of the window. Ever since I’d said okay to this crazy plan, I had done my best not to think about it too hard. Now it was too late to do any kind of thinking. We hadn’t even had time to discuss where I would live. With him? Without him? Would we even get along if we lived together? Joshua… Would he hear that I had gotten married? And so soon after our breakup, too. Suddenly, every single question I had and ones I hadn’t even known I had all rushed into my mind all at once. Ten minutes had passed where no one in the car had uttered a single word. For some reason, that was causing me to panic more than anything. What had I gotten myself into, really? If I couldn’t even manage to have a simple conversation with the guy, what the hell were we gonna do for the next twelve or twenty-four months? Stare at each other? Feeling sick, I pressed my palm against my stomach as if I could hold it all in—all the emotions, disappointments, forgotten dreams—but it was too late for that. I felt the first tear slide down my cheek, and even though I quickly tried to brush it away with the back of my hand because there was no reason for me to cry, I couldn’t stop all the others that followed. In just a few minutes, I was full-on silently crying, the tears a quiet stream I didn’t know how to stop. Very aware that my mascara had probably made a mess of my face, I cried without making even a peep until the car came to a stop. When I opened my eyes and realized we were heading toward the wrong side of Central Park, I forgot about my tears and looked at Jack. “I think…” I started, but the words died in my throat when I saw the expression on his face. Oh shit! If I thought he had been angry when I dropped the ring, I was sorely mistaken. His brows snapped together as his eyes roamed my face and the tension in the car tripled. I tried my best to wipe the evidence of my tears away without looking into a mirror. “This is the wrong side—” “Take her to the apartment, please. I’ll get to the airport on my own,” Jack said to the driver. Then his expression closed up, his face blanking as he addressed me. “This was a mistake. We shouldn’t have done this.” I was still staring at him in shock when he got out of the car, leaving his bride—AKA me—behind. This was a mistake. Words any girl who had gotten married only thirty minutes earlier would want to hear, right? No? Yeah, I didn’t think so either. After all, I was Rose, and he was Jack. We were doomed from the very beginning with those names. You know… the Titanic and all that. The number of times Jack Hawthorne smiled: zero. Chapter Two Jack After spending days trying to ignore what I had done, I was finally back in New York and still nowhere near ready to face the clusterfuck I had created. Exiting the car the moment Raymond pulled up in front of my building, I walked past the doorman and stepped into the elevator. As I was checking my voicemails, I tried not to think about who and exactly what kind of situation would be waiting for me in my apartment. Would I have to carry on a conversation with her? Answer more questions? I certainly hoped not because talking to her was the last thing I wanted to do. Not if I was planning on sticking with my plan of keeping her at arm’s length. The moment I stepped through the threshold, I knew she wasn’t there. Feeling both relieved and annoyed at the same time—relieved because I was alone just as I liked, annoyed because she wasn’t where she was supposed to be—I dumped my luggage in my bedroom and slowly walked through the apartment, just to make sure. Turning lights on and off, I checked every room, inspecting everything, looking for anything that was out of place, looking to see if someone had even been there after I left. When I reached the last room—the room she was supposed to be staying in—and found it just as it had been when I’d left for London, I rubbed my neck, hoping it would help with the headache I could feel coming on. Walking through the room, I stepped out onto the terrace to stare down at the busy city, wondering what I was supposed to do next. What have I done? A few weeks earlier… As soon as I got the call from the lobby, I walked out of my office to wait for her in front of the elevators. My main goal was to intercept her before she could get to the meeting room where her remaining family members would join her in another thirty minutes. A few minutes later, the elevator doors slid open with a ping and Rose Coleson stepped out. Her brown hair was down in waves, her bangs long enough to almost cover her eyes. She had minimal makeup on, and she was wearing simple black jeans and an even a simpler white blouse. I waited as she walked over to the reception desk. “Hello. How can I help you?” Deb, our receptionist, asked with a practiced smile on her face. I heard Rose clear her throat and saw her fingers grip the edge of the front desk. “Hi. I’m here for the Coleson mee—” Before she could finish her sentence, Deb noticed me waiting and, ignoring Rose completely, turned her gaze to me. “Mr. Hawthorne? Is there anything I can do for you? Your two-thirty appoint—” “No, there isn’t.” Ignoring Deb’s surprised look, I focused on Rose Coleson. “Miss Coleson.” When she heard her name, she glanced at me over her shoulder and let go of the desk to face me. “Your meeting is with me,” I continued. “If you could follow me.” Deb cut in as Rose took a step to follow me. “Mr. Hawthorne, I think you are mistaken. The Colesons’ meeti—” “Thank you, Deb,” I interjected, not caring whether she took offense at my tone or not. “Miss Coleson,” I repeated, maybe a bit harsher than I’d intended. I needed to get this meeting done and move on with my day. “This way, please.” After a quick glance at Deb, Rose moved closer. “Mr. Hawthorne? I think there might be a mistake here. I’m supposed to meet with Mr. Reeves—” “I can assure you there are no mistakes. If you wouldn’t mind stepping into my office for some privacy, there are some things I’d like to go over with you.” I watched, impatiently, as she thought it over. “I was told I was needed to sign something and then I could leave. I have another appointment in Brooklyn, so I can’t stay for too long.” I gave her a curt nod. After a brief hesitation and another look at our receptionist, she followed me toward my office in silence. After a long walk, I opened the glass door for her to step in. I reminded Cynthia, my assistant, not to forward any calls, and then I waited until Rose was settled in her seat. Holding her bulky brown handbag on her lap, she gave me an expectant look as I took my own seat behind my desk. “I thought the Colesons’ lawyer was Tim Reeves, at least the estate lawyer. Has there been a change?” she asked before I could utter a word. “No, Miss Coleson. Tim is the one who drafted the will, and he is the one handling everything at the moment.” “Then I’m still not sure—” “I’m not an estate lawyer, but I did help the team who was handling your late father’s corporate cases on a few occasions last year. Can I get you anything to drink? Coffee, maybe? Or tea?” “No, thank you. Like I said, I have another app—” “Appointment you need to get to,” I finished for her. “I understand. That’s—” “He was my uncle, by the way.” “Excuse me?” “You said father. Gary Coleson was my uncle, not father.” I raised an eyebrow. This was something I already knew about, but apparently I was too distracted to remember every detail. “That’s right. I apologize.” “That’s okay… I just wanted to mention it in case you weren’t already aware. I’m afraid it’s also the reason why I wasn’t mentioned in the will, which brings us back full circle, Mr. Hawthorne. I’m not sure what you could possibly want to talk to me about.” This wasn’t going like I had planned. Granted, I hadn’t given how I wanted to do this much thought, but it was still not going smoothly enough. “I read the will,” I admitted after taking in the stiff way she was holding herself: sitting on the very edge of her seat, impatient and ready to bolt. Maybe she’d appreciate a more straightforward approach, which was something I excelled at. “Okay,” she prompted, raising an eyebrow. “I’d like to talk to you about the property on Madison Avenue that was owned by your uncle.” Her shoulders stiffened. “What about it?” “I’d like to know what your plan is going forward regarding the property. I believe you and Gary had signed a contract a little while before his death indicating that you would have use of the property for a short time period, something like two years, and would only pay him a small amount of rent instead of the actual worth of the place. At the end of the two years, you would relocate. Correct?” She frowned at me but nodded. Satisfied that she was following me, I continued, “The contract was entered into the will, but Gary chose to add a stipulation I believe you only recently learned about. In the case of something happening to him during those two years, he wanted ownership of the property to transfer to your husband—” “If I were married,” Rose finished, her chin held high. “Yes.” I pointedly looked at her left hand and she followed my gaze. “If you were married, that is.” Her eyes lifted back to mine in the next second and I watched a frown form between her brows. “I already know about all of this,” she explained slowly. “Gary was excited about me marrying Joshua, my fiancé. They got along well, and he liked him—we both had a business degree, but evidently it looked like he trusted Joshua more—” “Your ex-fiancé, you mean,” I reminded her. She paused at my words, but her fingers finally let go of the death grip she had on her handbag as she tried to follow my meaning. “Yes. Right. Of course, ex-fiancé. It’s still a habit. We only broke up a few weeks ago. I’m sorry, but how do you know he’s my ex-fiancé?” I paused, trying to be careful with my words. “I do my due diligence, Miss Coleson. Please continue.” She studied me for a long moment as I waited patiently. “I wasn’t even aware that he would enter our contract into his will. I was also never supposed to have ownership of the property, that wasn’t in the contract. He was letting me have use of the property for two years only, after the time limit, I was to leave. Then my uncle and his wife, Angela, died in the car crash and I learned that in the will he was planning on leaving the property to my husband.” “Maybe that was his way of giving you something. A surprise maybe. A wedding gift of some kind.” “Yes. Maybe. Maybe that was his way of leaving us the place, but I’m not married to Joshua at the moment, am I? So I get nothing.” She shrugged. “I only knew that Gary thought Joshua’s presence would be necessary if I was serious about opening my own coffee shop. I disagreed with him. It didn’t matter that we’d started discussing the possibility of me using the space a year prior to Joshua even coming into my life. He didn’t think I could handle the work on my own, and Joshua was in between jobs so he thought it made sense. I didn’t. I believe he trusted Joshua more than he trusted me because he went to a better school. Also, can’t forget about the fact that I’m a woman and Joshua is a man. He was old-fashioned and didn’t believe women could handle themselves in the business world. However, when we talked about it again and I told him about my plans for the place, he agreed to let me use his property. Joshua wasn’t a part of the conversation then—or the contract, for that matter. He never made stipulations other than the fact that I’d only be able to use the space for two years and then I’d have to find myself a different location. That was all the help he was willing to give me. Nothing more, nothing less. I was thankful either way. I have no idea why he felt it was necessary to add Joshua in his will regarding something concerning me. And why am I telling you all this?” I leaned back in my seat, getting comfortable. Now we were getting somewhere. “He still isn’t part of the conversation.” “I… Excuse me?” “Gary never used your ex-fiancé’s name. He never specified who would be the owner of the property in case he passed away. There is only the mention of a ‘husband.’” “I don’t see how that matters. I was supposed to get married to Joshua sometime this year and he knew that, but in the end, I didn’t. Joshua broke up with me two days after their death. So, because I’m not married, Mr. Hawthorne, and I’m not planning on marrying anyone any time soon, I don’t get to use the space let alone own it. I talked to my cousins, Bryan and Jodi, but they aren’t interested in honoring the contract I’d signed with their dad, which means I’m not going to be able to open my coffee shop. At this point, I’m just trying to accept the fact that I threw away fifty thousand dollars—fifty thousand dollars that I managed to save by working for I don’t even know how many years at this point—on a space that was never going to be mine anyway. All that aside, I lost two people who were important to me in the same car crash that day. Even though I was Gary’s niece, they never saw me as their own flesh and blood, but they were all I had after my dad passed away when I was nine. Whatever the case may be, instead of letting me get lost in the system Gary agreed to take me in and that’s all that matters. So, to answer your previous question, I have no plans regarding the property because I’m not allowed to use it anymore.” A little out of breath and, from what I could tell, a lot pissed off, she stood up and hooked her bag over her shoulder. “Okay, I really don’t want to be rude, but I believe this was a waste of both our time. I was a little curious when I was following you here, I’ll admit that much, but I don’t have time to go over things I already know for no reason at all. I have a job interview I need to get to, and I can’t afford to be late. I think we’re done here, right? It was nice meeting you, Mr. Hawthorne.” Thinking our conversation was done, she extended her hand over my desk, and I stared at it for a second. Before she could decide to walk away, I let out a breath, rose from my seat, and looked into her eyes as I took her hand. This was it. This was the part where I should’ve said It was nice meeting you and gone on with my day. I didn’t. In a calm and collected voice, I said what I’d been waiting to say. “You’re not being rude, Miss Coleson, but before you go, I’d like you to marry me.” Breaking our connection, I pushed my hands into my pockets, watching for her reaction. After a short moment of hesitation, she replied, “Sure, how about we do that after my job interview, but before dinner. Because, you know, I already made plans with Tom Hardy and I don’t think I can postpone—” “Are you mocking me?” I stood absolutely still. Her narrowed eyes moved across my face, searching for an answer, I presumed. When she couldn’t find what she was looking for, the fight went out of her, and right in front of my eyes, her entire demeanor—which had hardened the second I’d started asking questions about her ex-fiancé—softened and she puffed out a breath. “You weren’t making a bad joke?” “Do I look like someone who jokes?” Making a noncommittal sound, she shifted in place. “At first glance…I can’t say that you do, but I don’t know you enough to be sure.” “I’ll save you the trouble—I don’t make jokes.” She gave me a baffled look like I had said something astonishing. “O-kay. I think I’m still going to leave now.” Just like that, she surprised me and turned away to leave. Before she could open the door, I spoke up. “You’re not interested in hearing more about my offer then?” Her hand was already on the glass knob when she stopped. With stiff shoulders, she let go of the door and turned to face me. After opening and closing her mouth, she looked straight into my eyes from across the room. “Your offer? Just so we’re on the same page and I can make sure I didn’t hear you wrong, could you repeat said offer?” “I’m offering to marry you.” Hiking her bag higher on her shoulder, she cleared her throat. “Mr. Hawthorne, I think…I think I’m flattered that you’d—” “Miss Coleson,” I cut her off bluntly before she could finish her sentence. “I assure you, my marriage offer is strictly a business deal. I’m sure you’re not thinking I’m expressing an interest in you. I was under the impression that you could use my help—was I wrong?” “Your help? I don’t even know you, and I definitely don’t remember asking for any—” “If you accept my offer, you’ll have enough time to get to know me.” “If I accept your offer…which is a business deal disguised as a marriage. I don’t think I’m following you here.” “Maybe if you explained what you’re having trouble understanding, I could help you.” “How about everything? From where I’m standing, that sounds like a good place to start.” “Right, of course. If you’ll take your seat, I’d be thrilled to go into more details. For example, I can make sure your life savings, which you already spent on a coffee shop that’s not happening, won’t go to waste.” I was guessing she could see from my expression that I wasn’t thrilled about any part of our conversation. “How do you know that was my life s—” “Like I said before, I do my—” “Due diligence, right. I heard you the first time.” She looked out, her eyes scanning the busy hallway outside my office. It took her a few seconds to make a choice between walking out and staying. Then, reluctantly, she moved back toward my desk and me, and equally as reluctantly sat down on the edge of the seat again. Her untrusting eyes had all my attention. “Good.” When I was sure she wasn’t going to jump up and run away, I took my seat as well. “Now that you’re staying, I’d like you to consider my offer.” Briefly closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and let it all out. “See, that’s not really explaining anything to me. You keep asking the same thing, and I keep experiencing the same urge to get up and leave.” “I’d like us to get married for a number of reasons, but the one that would interest you most is the fact that you’d get to open your coffee shop on Madison Avenue.” When she didn’t make any comments, we remained silent. “Is that it?” she finally asked, her tone impatient. “You want to marry me—sorry, make a business deal with me by marrying me so I can open my coffee shop?” “Sounds like you understood me well enough.” After another baffled look, she leaned back in her seat then got up, dumped her handbag on the chair, and walked over to the floor-to-ceiling windows to gaze at the skyline. A whole minute passed in silence, and my patience started to wear thin. “You’re insane then,” she said. “Are you insane, Mr. Hawthorne?” “I’m not going to answer that question,” I replied tersely. “That’s nothing new. You’re not answering my questions, you’re not explaining things.” “I want to help you. It’s that simple.” She glanced at me with her big brown eyes, staring as if I had lost my mind, and when I didn’t go on, she raised her arms and dropped them. “That simple? Could you be helpful right now and explain further, please? You want to help me, for some insane reason—me, someone who incidentally doesn’t even know your first name.” “My first name is Jack.” She studied me for a long moment, our gazes holding. “You’re serious, aren’t you? Is this a service you offer to all your clients, Jack Hawthorne? Offering to help them by marrying them?” “You’re the first, Miss Coleson.” “So, I’m the special snowflake.” “In a way, yes.” Turning back to the view, she dropped her head and rubbed her temples. “Why?” “Are you asking me why you’re a special snowflake?” Snorting, she glanced at me over her shoulder. “No, I’m not asking you… Can you give me more information, please? Like actual sentences that explain things and actually makes sense? I’m pretty sure you’re not asking me to marry you just to help me out. What’s in it for you? What are all those reasons you mentioned?” She looked around my office, taking everything in, me included—all the expensive furniture, my clothes, the view, the clients and lawyers walking by. “I’m gonna go out on a limb and say it isn’t about money, because I don’t think I have anything to offer you on that front.” “You’re right, I don’t need money. Like I said before, this is strictly a business deal. It means nothing else to me. When we go ahead with the marriage—” “You’re awfully sure of yourself while I’m still trying to figure out if you’re the one who is mocking me.” I ignored her assessment and continued. “It’ll be nothing more than a business transaction between two people.” I got up and walked toward her. “I made partner this year, Miss Coleson. I’m thirty-one years old, the youngest partner in the firm, and to properly deal with some of my current and future clients, I need to make a good impression. There are formal and informal dinners, events I need to attend. Although it’s not a requirement to be in a serious relationship or to be a ‘family man’, as they put it, I believe I can use the illusion a marriage will provide to my advantage. I don’t want to lose any of my clients or any potential clients to other partners.” Crossing her arms against her chest, she faced me, and we looked at each other. I couldn’t even begin to guess what was going through her mind. My own damn mind, however, was at war with my conscience. “Why not marry someone you love? Someone you’re dating? Someone you actually know? Why would you even consider asking me? You know nothing about me. We’re nothing but two strangers.” Seemingly trying to hold back her emotions, she took a deep breath. “Call me old-fashioned, Mr. Hawthorne, but I’m a romantic. I believe in marrying someone for love and only for love. Marriage is… Marriage means something completely different to me than what I think it means to you. I don’t want to be insulting, I don’t know you, but you don’t strike me as someone who necessarily puts much meaning…” “You can finish your sentence, Miss Coleson.” I jammed my hands back into the pockets of my pants. “I think you get where I’m coming from.” I nodded because I did get it. “I don’t have time for personal relationships at the moment, and I’m not going to marry someone who’ll end up expecting more than what I’m offering. I’m not offering you something I’m not ready to give, and you can’t be that naïve, can you? You can’t think I only want to marry you to have someone hang on my arm on appropriate occasions and pay me a small amount of rent.” Her spine straightened, her eyes shooting daggers at me. “Naïve? Trust me, Mr. Hawthorne, I’m not that naïve. If I was married my husband would own the property, that’s what the will says. So if you’re my husband…” She paused and then shrugged. “I get that you’re after the property as well, but I’m still waiting to hear about the part where you’d help me. So far all I’ve heard is you getting everything you want out of this. I’m failing to see how marrying you will help me save the—to you, very meager, I’m sure—life savings I’ve already spent to buy everything for the coffee shop. Where does me opening the coffee shop fit? In this scenario, you get the fake wife and the property, a property I’m assuming you can buy from my cousins if they’re considering selling it, if that’s what you want.” “I don’t think they’re interested in selling. Even if they were, why would I spend so much money on something I can get for free? And to give you more context on the subject, I wasn’t actively searching for someone to marry, but when I was asked to read the will to advise on a few subjects, I found out about your situation and thought we could help each other out. To expand on another thing you mentioned, we’re not complete strangers. We did meet before—once, a year ago. It was just a brief encounter at one of your uncle’s parties, but it still helped me put a face to your name. As vague as it was, I had an idea of who you are, and as for the rest…I had enough time to learn what I needed to learn about you, and I’m sure you’ll have the same opportunity regarding me.” “We met? Where? I don’t remember.” Uncomfortable, I shifted in place and, not wanting to go into too much detail, waved her question off. “If you don’t remember, there is no point in repeating it. Like I said, it was nothing more than a brief introduction anyway. Anything else you’d like to know?” “You’re genuinely being serious about this? Really?” I glanced at the clock on the wall. Time was wasting. “I’m not going to keep repeating myself, Miss Coleson. If you accept, we’ll get married and the property will be transferred to me. After that, I’ll honor the initial contract terms and you can go ahead with your plans.” She sighed and seemed to mull my words over. “That’s it? That’s all? The property, attending events, and acting like we’re married in front of other people? Nothing more?” “That’s exactly it, and only for two years. Nothing more, nothing less.” Glancing away from me, she worried her lips between her teeth. “Two years—right, because that’s nothing. Isn’t this illegal? Wouldn’t it be illegal?” “Why would it be?” She gave me an exasperated look. “Fine. What about Jodi and Bryan? There is no way they’ll believe it was a real marriage. Can’t he dispute, challenge, or whatever it is people would do in this situation to stop me from opening the coffee shop and you having ownership?” With a frown on her face, she shook her head. “I’m not saying I’d do this, but if for some insane reason I accepted your offer… I can’t even believe I’m thinking this, let alone saying it out loud.” It wasn’t hard to see the hopeful look on her face. Knowing it was the right time, I gave her another small push. “It’s not a hard decision, Miss Coleson. If I suspected there would be blowback, for me or for you, I wouldn’t make this offer. I’m the best at what I do, and no one will be disputing anything. If you accept, I’ll handle your cousins. They won’t be an issue, I can assure you of that.” I lifted my shoulder in a careless shrug. “It’s no one’s business but ours, and you don’t owe anyone any explanations.” Her eyes focused on the ground, she kept shaking her head. I already knew what her answer would be—she was asking questions, which meant she was considering it. It was already a done deal. If I hadn’t already been sure of the outcome, I wouldn’t have come to her with the offer. She had spent all her savings on her dream, and I didn’t see her passing on my offer, which would benefit us both. I also knew it didn’t mean I’d get her answer with no resistance. Startled, we both looked at my assistant, Cynthia, when she knocked on the glass door and stepped inside. “Your next appointment is here, Mr. Hawthorne, and you wanted me to inform you when the other meeting had started.” “Thank you, Cynthia. I’m going to need a few more minutes here.” As Cynthia nodded and closed the door, Rose Coleson headed back to her chair and picked up her bag. “I’m going to leave…and I’ll think about—” “I’m afraid you’ll have to give me your answer now.” I didn’t move from my spot. She stopped messing with her bag and met my gaze. “What? Why?” “Because as Cynthia just let us know, your cousins are in the meeting room at the moment, discussing how to handle the properties. If you accept my offer, we’ll go join them and announce our situation. If you don’t, you’ll lose your last chance.” “You can’t really expect me to decide right now. Do you think they’re just going to believe we fell in love at first sight? And then decided to get married in a week?” “And how would they know that? How would they know when or how we met?” I took my hands out of my pockets and shrugged, moving back toward my desk. “It’s not our problem if they assume we met weeks or months ago.” “My fiancé just left me a few weeks ago, Mr. Hawthorne. Out of the blue. For no reason whatsoever. They know me enough to know I wouldn’t marry someone else that quickly.” “Your point being?” “My point being?” Frustrated, she shook her head. “I can’t believe this is happening right now.” Overwhelmed and looking confused, she dropped down on the chair. I felt like a bastard for forcing an answer from her, but I had a million things to do and not enough time to do them. If we were going to go forward with this, I needed to know immediately because I wouldn’t put myself in this situation again. “I’m going to need that answer from you, Miss Coleson.” “And I need to know more details, Mr. Hawthorne. Also, could you please stop calling me Miss Coleson?” “The details aren’t important at the moment. It’s either a yes or a no.” “You’re pressuring me. I don’t like it. I don’t like this.” “I’m doing nothing of the sort. You can walk out of my office at any time—after you give me a definitive answer, that is. You don’t have to say yes, but when you do answer, don’t forget that this is completely your own decision. I have nothing to lose in this. If I don’t end up with that property, I’ll find something else on Madison Avenue. Can you say the same?” Her hands resting on her lap, palms down on her jeans, she lifted her head and looked up at me. “This is insane. If I do this, I’m insane. You’re insane.” “I think I’m quite clear on what you think of me.” Half sitting on my desk, I crossed my arms. “This will benefit us both, Miss Coleson. If we sign that simple piece of paper that states we’re married, you’ll get to open up your coffee shop, and nothing else will change for two years. If we don’t, you’ll lose all your money on furniture and equipment you’ve bought that you can’t use at the moment. From where I’m standing, there is no decision to make. I’m offering you a lifeline. If you’re okay with losing all that, we have nothing more to discuss.” “We’re not a good fit, Mr. Hawthorne. Surely you can see that.” “No, I guess we’re not. I completely agree with you, but then again, I believe it’s good enough for what we have in mind. If your answer is no, please let me know so I can get on with my next meeting.” Seconds ticked by as I waited for her answer, and I could see the exact moment her dream of opening her own coffee shop swayed her decision, just as I’d suspected it would. “I can’t believe I’m saying this. I can’t even believe this is happening right now, but if we’re going to make them believe we’re getting married, I think you should start calling me Rose.” “Good. We’ll discuss the details at another date. In the meantime, I’ll draw up a marriage contract that covers everything.” Straightening from the desk, I crossed to the door and opened it for her. “Six months,” she blurted out. I arched an eyebrow as she got up and turned around to meet my gaze. “Six months?” “Yes. I want you to give me six months before I start paying you the amount of rent that was discussed in the original contract.” She nodded with a frown, as if she wasn’t so sure what she was asking. “I know that was not in the initial contract I made with my uncle, but since you’re going to end up with the property anyway, I want those first six months to be rent free so I can at least try to make some profit.” She paused, thinking. “I think you can afford it. And truth be told, I can’t. Sure, the rent I’ll be paying you is nothing for a place on Madison Avenue, but with everything going on, I won’t be able to afford it. But those rent-free six months will help me get a good start.” I studied her more closely. “You’re right, I can afford not getting rent from you. Deal. Is that all?” “I… Yes, that’s it.” “You could ask me for the half of the property. If you had gotten married to Joshua, you’d get the half.” “Would you give it to me?” “I’m afraid the answer would be no.” “I thought so. Not paying rent for six months will help me.” “Good. Then we have no problem. Let’s join the meeting.” “Just like that?” “Do you have any more questions?” “Only about a hundred.” She stopped next to me and met my eyes. I arched an eyebrow. “I’m afraid we can’t go through them all at the moment. Maybe next time. You’ll have plenty of time to ask me anything you want after we’re married. Let me do the talking in the meeting and we’ll be fine.” Paler than she’d been when she had first entered my office and maybe a little shell-shocked, she nodded and followed behind me as we headed toward the meeting room. I cursed myself for the bastard I was with every step I took. When we were only a few steps away from the meeting room and I could see Bryan and Jodi Coleson sitting next to each other, their backs to us, I glanced at Rose and saw her breathing was a little out of control, her eyes huge and unsure. “Ready?” I asked, already guessing what her answer would be. “Can’t really say that I am.” I nodded. That was good enough. “When was the last time you talked to your cousins?” She rubbed her temples before looking up at me. “Last week, maybe? Maybe more? Why?” “Leave it to me.” We stepped in the room. Standing side by side. She had that particular death grip on her handbag that was hanging on her shoulder again. “Tim,” I interrupted and everyone in the room, including Jodi Coleson and Bryan Coleson, turned to look at us. “I’m sorry for being late to the meeting.” Tim shuffled the pages he held in his hand, stood up and took off his glasses, his eyes on Rose. “Hello Jack. Miss Rose, I’m glad you could join us. I won’t hold you for too long, we just need you to—” “Tim,” I said again and waited until his gaze met mine. “I thought you’d like to be informed so you can make the necessary changes. Rose Coleson is my fiancée and we’re getting married in a few days.” “You’re…you’re getting married to Miss Rose? What?” While Tim stood there staring at me and Rose with a stupefied expression, Bryan slowly pushed himself up and faced Rose. “What’s going on here?” he asked, his already hard gaze jumping from Rose to me. “Explain.” “Bryan, Jack and I are getting married.” She forced out a laugh and shifted on her feet. “I know that sounds a little—” “It sounds like you’re fucking with me, cuz.” I took a step forward and left, putting myself in front of Bryan and forcing Rose to take a step back. “I know this is a surprise to your family, Mr. Coleson, so I’ll let that one go, but I’d suggest you watch your words when you’re speaking to my fiancé.” I looked away from him and addressed the room. “I proposed to Rose last week, and we thought this would be a good time to share the news with you. We couldn’t do it before because we wanted some privacy to celebrate. Tim, I believe this will change the situation regarding the property on Madison Avenue.” “This is complete bullshit,” Bryan burst out as his sister, Jodi, sat there and watched it all unfold with a bored expression. “This situation, whatever the hell this act is, changes nothing. She still isn’t getting the property. How stupid do you think I am?” “Oh, I couldn’t say, Mr. Coleson. We’ll be family shortly and I wouldn’t want to insult you.” I watched as the color on his face darkened. “Also, in the will, Gary Coleson clearly states that, in the event that he passes away, the ownership of the property on Madison Avenue will transfer to Rose’s husband. The time limit was until 2020, I believe, but we can always check. I’m only explaining this for your sake, Mr. Coleson, because I’m not marrying your cousin for a property. My feelings for her has nothing to do with what’s going on here.” “Jack, maybe we should—” Tim started. “If it has nothing to do with what’s going on here, you’ll lay no claim on the property,” Bryan forced out through clenched teeth, his eyes sliding to Rose. “The property, I believe is Gary Coleson’s last gift to his niece. I’m sure you’re not trying to ignore your father’s wishes.” Bryan’s hands slowly balled into fists and he took one more step forward. Tim cleared his throat and rubbed his eyes with his thumb and index finger. “Jack maybe this wasn’t the best time to…uh, share the good news. Maybe we can schedule another meeting for—” “Yes, I think that would be better. Rose and I will expect to hear from you soon.” “I will contest the will,” Bryan said, his eyes glittering with anger before I could get us out of there. He was talking to Rose, his eyes on her. “I won’t let you have this. You’re doing this because I wouldn’t let you use the place and told you I had other plans.” “If you contest, you’ll have to wait a long time to get your own share. I fight back Mr. Coleson,” I warned. “Bryan,” Rose said from behind me. “I’m not marrying Jack for the property. I know the timing is…awkward, but it isn’t what you think. We met when…” She stepped up next to me and pushed her arm through mine. I forced myself to relax. “You don’t have to explain anything to him,” I said, glancing at her. Her mouth pressed into a thin line when her eyes met mine. “Yes, I do, Jack. Of course, I do.” “I’m not listening to one more word from you,” Bryan cut in. “This is not happening. If you force my hand, I will fight this.” With that, he strode out, making sure to bump his shoulder against mine. Finally, Jodi got on her feet. “Well. Well. Our pretty little Rose finally does something interesting.” Her eyes took me in from head to toe as Rose let go of my arm. “Not bad, little cousin,” she said. “Not an upgrade from Joshua, but since you’ve lost him, I guess this one will do.” When I arched my brow, she smiled as if she had a secret and shrugged. “Not my type. Too serious, too stiff, but oh, well who am I to talk about your fiancé?” Stopping in front of Rose, she leaned in to kiss her cheek and I felt Rose stiffen next to me, pulling a little back. “You know I don’t care about the property stuff, I got my millions and the home from the will, but you knew Bryan had his eyes set on this. I don’t think this little marriage scheme will change anything.” She lifted her hand and studied her pink fingernails. “May the best one win, I guess. It’ll be fun for me either way.” Chapter Three Rose Present I was trying to paint the wall behind the counter and doing my best not to fall asleep midsentence as I was talking to Sally, my very own employee. It’d been a long day, just like it had been a long day every day for the last week and a half, but I wasn’t complaining—how could I when it had been my dream to open my own coffee shop for so long? Not even attempting to stifle my yawn, I dipped the paint roller in more dark-ish green paint and ignored the humming ache in my shoulder as I kept painting. “You sure you don’t want me to stay longer?” Sally asked, going through her backpack as she looked for her phone. “You’ve already been here longer than you were supposed to, and I’m almost done for the day anyway. I only need another fifteen minutes or so just to add a last coat. Somehow I can still see a hint of red underneath it.” I sighed and it turned into a groan. “As soon as this is done, I’ll head home too.” Glancing over my shoulder, I gave her my most stern You better listen to me look and watched her burst out laughing. “What?” I asked when she looked at me with a wobbly smile. “You have green dots all over your face, and I’m not even gonna point out the state your t-shirt is in—or your hair, for that matter. I’ll only say this: you’re officially a work of art now.” I could imagine the mess I’d made on my t-shirt, but my face was news to me. “Oddly, I’m gonna take that as a compliment, and…well, paint splatters,” I mumbled with a sigh as I wiped my forehead with my arm. “Even my face muscles are tired—how the hell did that happen?” “Beats me. My face is fine, but my ass is pretty sore.” “Well,” I started, making a face. “I’m not sure what you’ve been doing when my back is turned, but…” Before I could finish, I saw Sally’s expression and couldn’t hold back my laughter. “God, that came out wrong!” she groaned, looking at the ceiling. “We sat on the floor for almost two straight hours, it was inevitable—” “I know, I know. My ass is hurting, too, and it’s not just my ass—every inch of my body hurts. I’m just heading toward delirious, so I’m gonna laugh like a lunatic regardless of whether what you’re saying is funny or not. Get out of here so I can finish and get to my beloved shower and bed.” Sally was a dark-haired, dark-eyed, always smiling twenty-one-year-old and had been the fifteenth applicant for the barista/everything-else-I’ll-need-you-to-do job. It had been a love-at-first-sight kind of thing. To save myself from the headache, I’d opted not to post about the job online, or anywhere, really. I’d only mentioned it to a few friends so they could ask around to see if someone they knew needed a job, and I’d also asked a few other people I’d worked with at my last job as the manager at Black Dots Coffee House before I had quit when I thought Gary was going to let me use the place. Word had gotten out, and I’d ended up talking to a lot more people than I’d anticipated I would. None of them had felt like the right person, though. Sally, however, was a complete stranger who had just been walking to her apartment after a dreadful blind date and had seen me struggling to carry boxes from the curb into the shop. She had offered to help, and in return, at the end of the day I’d offered her the job. It didn’t hurt that we had bonded over our mutual love of and obsession with coffee mugs, puppies, and New York in winter. If those things didn’t prove we were a perfect fit, I didn’t know what else would. If there was one thing I wanted the most for Around the Corner—my coffee shop!—it was for it to be inviting, warm, and happy. Popular wouldn’t hurt anyone either. Even though I was well aware I was going to be the boss, I didn’t want to work with people I couldn’t get along with just because their resumés were impressive. If we were happy and friendly, I believed it’d have a different kind of pull for the customers, and Sally’s personality and cheerfulness checked all the boxes for me. “You got it, boss.” She wiggled her newly found phone at me in goodbye and backed away toward the door. “Oh, when do you want me to come in again?” I put the paint roller down and groaned as I straightened back up with my hand on my waist and gazed at my almost finished work. “I think I’ll be fine on my own this week, but I’ll text you for next week if I have a lot of stuff going on. Would that work for you?” “Are you sure you don’t need help with the painting this week?” “Yeah, I can handle it.” I just waved her off without turning because I didn’t think my body was capable of doing anything that complex at the moment. “I’ll call you if anything changes.” “Got it. You be sure to go home before you drop dead.” With her lovely parting words, she unlocked the door and opened it. Before I heard it click shut, she called my name and I glanced at her over my shoulder, which took some serious effort on my part. “Only two weeks or so now,” Sally said, grinning. “I’m so excited,” she squeaked, bouncing up and down. I gave her a tired but genuinely happy smile and managed to pump my hand halfway into the air. We only had five years of age difference between us, but I was feeling every single one of the years I had on her. “Yes, definitely yay! You probably can’t tell from my face right now because I can’t move it much, but I’m excited too. Can’t wait. Woohoo.” Her body disappeared behind the door, and all I could see was her head. “It’s gonna be great!” “I’m crossing my fingers in my mind because I don’t think I can do it in real life.” After she gave me an even bigger grin, her head disappeared too and the door slid shut. Since we’d boarded the windows up, I couldn’t see outside, but I knew it was already dark. Reaching for my phone in my back pocket proved to be harder than I’d expected, but I was able to check the time. I was pretty much moving in slow motion, but who needed speed on a Monday night? Eight o’clock. I knew I shouldn’t take a break, but my legs, feet, back, neck, arms, and everything in between were killing me. Left with no other choice, I slid down behind the counter, right where the cash register would be in just a few days, groaning and whimpering the entire time it took my ass to reach the ground. Then I dropped my head back with a loud thud and closed my eyes with a heavy sigh. Now, if I could only manage to get up, finish the last coat on the wall, and make sure I couldn’t see any damn red anymore, I could lock up then move my feet enough times to get to the subway so I could get home and step straight into the shower. If I didn’t drown myself in the shower, getting into my bed would be nice, too—and food. At some point, I’d need food. Then it hit me again. If you ignored that I was dying a slow death from all kinds of aches, Sally was right—I was getting really close to the opening day. Ever since I had taken a job at a local coffee shop when I was eighteen, I knew I wanted to open my own place. Something that belonged just to me. Not only that, but it would also be where I belonged. And that would be a first as well. As cheesy as it sounded, there was something about the idea of my own place that had always lifted my heart when I daydreamed about it. Just as I felt myself drifting off, the front door opening and closing with a soft click jolted me awake. I had completely forgotten that I hadn’t locked it after Sally left. Thinking she had left something behind, I tried to get up. When my legs didn’t want to cooperate, I had to get on my hands and knees with much effort and then held on to the counter to pull myself up. “What did you forget?” I asked, and it came out half as a groan and half as a whimper. Finding my cousin, Bryan, just on the other side of the counter was not the best surprise I could’ve wished for. At his unexpected appearance, I tried to come up with something to say, but I was completely tongue-tied. He tapped the counter with his knuckles and took a good look around. So far, I had ignored every single one of his calls and had even turned off my phone when his threatening texts had started to get a little out of hand. “Bryan.” His eyes only moved to me when he was done with his perusal and you could easily see that he wasn’t happy. “I see you already got comfortable,” he said, the anger obvious in his voice. “Bryan, I don’t think—” “Yes,” he interrupted, taking a step forward. “Yes, you don’t think. You didn’t think. I’m not going to let this go, Rose. Surely, that’s obvious. You don’t deserve this place. You’re not family, not really, you know that. You’ve always known that. And having that lawyer behind you will change nothing.” His gaze fell to my hands. “I see you’re not even wearing a wedding ring. Who do you think you’re fooling?” I gritted my teeth and balled my fists behind the counter. If I could just hit him once. Just once. Oh, the pleasure it would give me. “I’m working. I’m not gonna wear something so precious to me while I’m painting. This is pointless, I think you should leave, Bryan.” “I will when I’m ready.” “I don’t want to argue with you. You don’t see me as family so that makes us strangers. I don’t have to explain myself to a stranger.” He shrugged. “Who is arguing? I only wanted to drop by to let you know that you shouldn’t get comfortable here. We’ll be seeing each other more. Your lawyer might have managed to stop me from taking this place from you, for now, but I don’t give up that easily. Since I already know that your marriage is nothing but a lie, all I have to do is wait and prove it.” “I know you think—” “Good luck with that,” someone said and with a jolt, I turned my head and locked eyes with Jack. The one that was my husband. Oh, jeez. It was not my night, that was for sure. If Jodi had walked in with bouquets of roses in her hands to congratulate me on the coffee shop, I didn’t think I’d have been as surprised as I was. I had successfully continued to ignore the memory of the day I’d gotten married to this specific stranger, and since he hadn’t been in the city for eight or nine days, it’d worked well—up until now. To be fair, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. We were, in fact, married so I knew I’d eventually have to see him again, but his timing was the absolute worst. If I’d had the option to choose, I’d have much preferred a phone call where I could make my case much more easily before we had to face each other. Before I could say anything, he focused on Bryan. “Since I don’t think you’re here to congratulate us, I’m asking you to leave my wife alone.” Bryan had to take a step away from the counter when Jack almost got in his face. “So you do know you have a wife then. From what I heard you weren’t even in the country.” “Excuse me, Mr. Coleson, my apologies. I didn’t know by marrying your cousin I’d have to share my schedule with you as well. I’ll remedy that as soon as possible.” I really wanted to snort, but managed to hold it in. Jack continued. “Since you’re already here I like to take this opportunity to repeat what I told you before. I noticed that every time you’re around my wife you’re making her uncomfortable and unhappy. I really don’t think I like it, Bryan. I’m not sure how many times you need me to repeat myself. But I’ll say it again: I don’t want to see you around her.” Since I couldn’t see Jack’s expression with his back to me, I watched the muscle in Bryan’s jaw twitch and then he forced a smile onto his face. “I was just on my way out anyway. I said what I came here to say, right, Rose?” I said nothing. Jack said nothing. Bryan let out an insincere chuckle. “I’ll leave you two love birds alone. And later you and I will have a chat, Jack.” Jack followed Bryan all the way up to the door and made sure to lock it after him. Groaning, I closed my eyes. “This was a good lesson on why I should never forget to lock the door.” I opened my eyes and he was standing right there. Right in front of me where Bryan had stood only a few minutes ago. I wasn’t sure if he was the better option. “Rose,” Jack said as a greeting. Just Rose. For a brief moment, I didn’t know what to say. I was fairly sure it was the first time he had called me by just my name and not Miss Coleson when we were alone. When we had attended that meeting with Jodi and Bryan, I was just Rose, but the second he’d walked me to the elevators after we were done there, I was back to being Miss Coleson. I supposed since I wasn’t technically a Coleson anymore, using my first name was the appropriate choice. Also, dammit, what a sight he was for my sore eyes. Despite the late hour, he was wearing a suit: dark grey slacks and jacket, white button-down, and a black tie. It was simple, but it still packed an expensive punch. Considering what I looked like in that moment, it was a pretty hard punch, too. In that first glance, he was nowhere near being my type. I wasn’t into the broody and aloof who didn’t like using their words all that much, as if you weren’t worthy of a conversation in their eyes. Definitely wasn’t a fan of the fancy, rich types who came from money and grew up assuming they owned everything and everyone in their vicinity; I’d met my fair share of them living with the Colesons, and we just didn’t mesh well. Other than that, I had nothing personal against them. So, yes, Jack Hawthorne wasn’t my type. However, that didn’t mean I couldn’t appreciate how good he looked with stubble, that sharp jawline, his unique and captivating blue eyes, or the fact that he had a body that wore suits extremely well. No, my issue with my new husband wasn’t his looks—it was his personality. That’s how the universe works: it gives you the one thing you said you’d never want. “Jack…you came back.” Given my half-dead state, that was the best answer I could come up with, pointing out the obvious. Considering I hadn’t seen or talked to him since the day he left me in that car, I felt like I had every right to be surprised. With the look he gave me, like I was so beneath him, a knot of dread formed in my stomach. I had plenty of self-confidence, but guys like him always excelled at making me feel less than. Dealing with Bryan hadn’t made things easier either. “Did you think I would disappear? Was this the first time he showed up here? Your cousin.” I nodded. “Good. He won’t come back.” That didn’t sound ominous at all. “We need to talk,” he continued, completely unaware of my nerves. Hands gripping the counter for support, I nodded again and tried my best to stand straight. The guy didn’t beat around the bush, that was for sure. He wasn’t exactly a conversationalist, either, from what I’d learned so far. Thankfully, that would work in my favor this time around, because even though I had not been looking forward to seeing him, I’d been getting myself ready for this conversation ever since his parting words to me after the ceremony. A lot of mirror practice sessions had taken place. I was sure, he was there to tell me he wanted a divorce, and I was dead set on changing his mind. “Yes, we do need to talk,” I agreed once I was sure my knees wouldn’t give out on me. I didn’t know if it was because he wasn’t expecting me to agree so quickly or because of something else, but he looked taken aback. I ignored it and started my speech. “I know why you’re here. I know what you came to say, and I’m gonna ask you not to say it, at least not before I finish what I need to say. Okay, here goes nothing. You’re the one who came to me with this offer. Well, I came to your office, but technically you were the one who lured me to your office.” His eyebrows slowly rose. “Lured?” “Let me say this. You started this thing. I was making peace with the situation, was even looking for a new job, but you changed things. Your offer changed things. I’ve come here every day since we made our deal. I’ve been working nonstop and now it’s too real to let go. So, I can’t do it. I’m sorry, but I can’t sign the papers. Instead, I have a different offer for you, and I really want you to consider it.” With every word out of my mouth, his brows furrowed deeper, his expression turning murderous. I still pushed through before he could get a word in, call me on my bullshit, and mess up my thought process. “I’ll go to as many events as you want me to go to, no limits—as long as it’s after I close the coffee shop, of course. I’ll also cook for you. I don’t know if you cook or not, but I can cook for you and save you the trouble. Free coffee,” I added excitedly when the thought randomly crossed my mind. How had I not thought of that? “Free coffee for two years. Whenever you come in, whatever you want, however many times a day. Pastries would be free, too. And, I know this is going to sound a little silly, but hear me out. It doesn’t seem like you’re the most…sociable person—” “Excuse me?” he said in a low voice, cutting me off. “I don’t know, maybe that’s the wrong word to use, but I can help with that, too. I can be a good friend, if that’s something you need or want. I can do—” “Stop talking.” The harsh tone he used was unexpected and shut me up pretty quickly. “What the hell are you talking about?” he asked, putting his hands on the counter and leaning in. I leaned back. “I’m not divorcing you, Jack.” I dropped my head and let out a long breath. “I’m sorry, I can’t. I hate myself for saying this, but I’ll make trouble for you.” God, as threats went, it sounded pretty weak even to my own ears. He blinked at me a few times, and I thought maybe my threat was working. “You’ll make trouble for me,” he repeated in a detached tone, and I closed my eyes in defeat. He wasn’t buying it. If one of us was going to make trouble for the other, it would be him making my life miserable. He had all the power. “Just out of curiosity, what kind of trouble would you make for me, Rose? What did you have in mind?” I looked up to see if he was making fun of me, but it was impossible to tell anything from his stony face. When I couldn’t give him an answer, he straightened up and pushed his hands into his pockets. “If I was planning on divorcing you why would I say the things I said to Bryan? I came here to ask why your things aren’t at my place, why you haven’t moved in.” Oh. “I…what?” “You were supposed to move in when I was gone. You didn’t. Even though this isn’t going to be a real marriage, we’re the only ones who know that, and I’d like to keep it that way. From everything you’ve said, it sounds like you don’t want a divorce. If that’s true, we need to live together. Surely you could’ve guessed that, especially with your cousin coming around.” That was not what I had been expecting to hear from him at all. Had I spent almost two weeks worrying about nothing? “You said, before you got out of the car…you said we shouldn’t have done this and didn’t call or contact me in any way for the entire time you were gone.” “And?” I found the strength to get a little pissed. “And what was I supposed to think after that remark? Surely you knew I would think you regretted your decision.” “And you wanted to get married that day?” he retorted. “No, but—” “It doesn’t matter. Didn’t Cynthia call you about moving into my place?” Momentarily rendered speechless by his audacity, I closed my eyes and barely managed to lift my hand high enough to rub the bridge of my nose. “I didn’t get any phone calls.” “It doesn’t matter anymore. I have work to do, so we need to leave now.” Meeting his eyes, I frowned at him. “What do you mean we need to leave now?” “I’ll help you pack a few things from your apartment and then we’re going back to my place. You can get everything else later.” My frown deepened and I shook my head. “You can leave if you want to, but I also have work to do, as you can see, and I’m not going anywhere before it’s done.” If he thought he could order me around just because we were married, he had another thing coming. Before he could come up with something else and piss me off further, I turned my back to him and gently bent down to pick up the paint roller, quietly wincing as I tried not to whimper or make any other sound though my back was actually killing me. Just as I started on the first wet roll, I heard some rustling behind me. Not thinking anything of it—because, in my humble opinion, if he wanted to leave, he was more than welcome to do so—I kept painting. It was at a much slower pace than before, but I was getting the work done, and more importantly, I wasn’t backing down. Only a few seconds later, his palm circled my wrist and stopped my movements. I only felt the heat of his skin for a quick second, and then it was gone. Taking the roller from me, he put it back down and then started to roll up his stark white—and extremely expensive—sleeves. I’d always thought there was something irresistible about watching a man roll up his sleeves, and Jack Hawthorne was just so meticulous and thorough about it that it was impossible for me to take my eyes away. “What do you think you’re doing?” I asked when he was finally done and in the process of picking up the paint roller. He gave me a brief glance and started painting. “Obviously I’m helping you finish what you were doing so we can get out of here faster.” “Maybe I have other things I need to get done here.” “Then I’ll help with them too.” I thought that was uncharacteristically sweet of him—annoying, but in a sweet sort of way. “I don’t need—” Another quick glance from him had the words dying on my lips. “You look awful.” He gave me his back while I was still staring at him in shock. “Didn’t you like how the professionals painted it?” he asked. Maybe he wasn’t so sweet after all, just plain old rude. To be honest, that comment hurt a little. “Thank you. I tried my best to look awful today—glad to hear it worked. Although, if I had known you were coming, I would’ve tried harder. Also, what professionals are you talking about? I’m painting the place myself.” That confession earned me another indecipherable look, this one longer. “Why?” “Because I have a budget and I can’t blow it on things I can easily do myself. Does it look bad or something?” I narrowed my eyes and looked at the wall more carefully. “Do you still see that damn red underneath?” The roller stopped moving for two seconds, but then he continued painting. “No. Considering you painted it on your own, it looks fine. Is this the only wall you’ll be painting?” he asked, his voice tighter. “No. Tomorrow I’m starting on the rest of the place. I was only going to do one more coat for the green then call it a day.” I moved forward, grabbed the small paintbrush, and dipped it in the paint bucket that was sitting at the end of the counter. “I’ll do the edges—it’ll go quicker.” “No,” he replied in a clipped tone, blocking me. “You look like you’re about to keel over. I said I’ll get it done.” Without touching me, he pried the brush out of my hand. “You don’t know how I want it done,” I protested, trying to take the brush back. “I think it’s a pretty straightforward process, wouldn’t you agree? Sit down before you—” “Keel over. I got it.” It was tempting to stand upright the whole time as he painted my wall, but he was right—if I didn’t sit my ass down, I was about ready to pass out. Since the chairs hadn’t arrived yet, the only thing I could sit on was an old stool I had found in the back room and had cleaned just that morning. After a few minutes of quiet where the only sounds you could hear were the traffic outside and the wet sounds of the paint roller, I couldn’t take it. “Thank you for helping, but Mr. Hawth—” He stopped and turned around. Even with a paint roller in his hand, he looked attractive, not that it was any of my business. An attractive jerk didn’t hold much appeal. “Jack,” he said quietly. “You need to call me Jack.” I sighed. “You’re right. I’m sorry. It…it still feels weird. I just wanted to say that I can’t stay in your apartment, not tonight,” I added quickly. “I’m really tired and I need to go home, shower, and…it really isn’t the best time for me to pack and move my clothes. Give me a week and I’ll—” “Do you want to stay married?” Nonchalantly, he leaned down and dipped the roller into more paint. I didn’t reply; it wasn’t necessary—he knew the answer. He got back to painting and spoke toward the wall. “Good. We’ll go to your apartment and I’ll wait for you to grab a bag. If you don’t want your cousin to create problems down the road, you need to get rid of the apartment as soon as you can.” I gritted my teeth. I knew he was right, but that didn’t mean I liked what he was saying. I still thought letting him know my thought on the matter was a good idea. “I don’t like this.” That got him to look at me. “Really? I’m so surprised to hear that. And here I was having the time of my life.” My lips twitched, but his face was unreadable—as always. I shook my head. “I’m glad I was able to provide that for you, and I know you’re right. It’s just that…I have a million things to do here in the upcoming days, and packing my stuff on top of all those things…I’m not sure I’ll have the energy. So, since I’d be more comfortable in my own space, how about I’ll keep paying my rent at least for another month or so and go back and forth while I’m working on the coffee shop and move slowly—” “That’s not gonna work. You can pack whatever you’ll need for a few days, and I’ll send some people back to your apartment to pack your furniture.” Send some people? What the hell was he talking about? “I… The furniture isn’t mine. It’s a one-room studio apartment, a very small one. All it has is a Murphy bed, a small couch, and a coffee table, basically, and none of it is mine. Also, I don’t need someone else to pack my stuff. I’ll do it myself.” “Good. Then after we drop by your place, we’ll head back to my apartment. In the next few days, you’ll bring the rest of your stuff.” Just like that, I was out of excuses, so I closed my mouth and gave myself permission to sulk in silence for a few minutes. It lasted until he picked up the small paintbrush and started on the edges. “I don’t know how to do this,” Jack stated quietly with a slight touch of anger tinging his voice. My elbow was on the counter and I was resting my head on my palm when he spoke up. I opened my eyes to check his progress. “It looks good from here. Again, you don’t have to do it, but thank you.” His movements with the brush faltered for a second, but he didn’t stop. “I’m not talking about the painting. I’m saying I don’t know how to do this with you. I don’t know how to be married.” I stared at the back of his head, blinking and trying to make sure I’d heard him right. I took my time trying to figure out how to answer. “I’ve never married a stranger before either, so I think we’re on the same level here. I’m hoping we can figure it out together along the way. Can I suggest one thing, though? I think it would make our lives easier.” “Can I stop you?” he asked, glancing at me over his shoulder. Did he mean I talked too much? “You’d have to try and see for yourself, but I’m pretty sure you can’t, so I’ll just go right ahead and share. You’re not very talkative, and that’s okay. If I tried, I could talk enough for both of us, but even though we won’t be in each other’s faces all the time, we’re gonna have to figure out a way to…communicate, I think. I don’t think I’d be too off the mark if I said you seem like a guy of very few words.” He turned to look at me with an arched eyebrow, and I gave him a small smile and a shrug before continuing. “It’s gonna be difficult to get used to each other. This whole situation is awkward and new. Plus, living with you is going to be…to be honest, a little weird for me, not to mention the fact that you’re gonna have to live with a stranger in your apartment, too. I’ll try to stay out of your way as much as I can. I’ll be spending most of my time here, anyway, so I think you’ll barely notice my presence. And we’re helping each other out, right? You get the property and the every-now-and-then fake wife, and I get two years in this amazing location. I promise, I’ll do my part.” His eyes holding mine, he gave me a small nod. “Despite what you saw tonight, I’m pretty easy to get along with,” I continued as he focused on dipping the brush into more paint. “You won’t even know I’m in your home. I’ll be wherever you need me to be when you need me, but other than that, I’ll stay out of your hair.” “That’s not what I’m worried about.” I was having a really hard time keeping my eyes open. “What are you worried about then?” Instead of explaining further, he shook his head and turned back to the almost finished wall. “This is almost done. If there is nothing else to do, we should leave.” “There are a million things to do, but I don’t think I have the strength to lift my finger, let alone do anything. I’ll get my things from the back then we can go.” “Your ring,” he said as I pushed myself up, his back to me. “You’re not wearing it.” “I…” I touched my finger where the ring was supposed to be. “I left it at home because I’m working here. I didn’t want to lose it or damage it with all the work I need to do.” “I’d prefer you to wear it from now on.” He didn’t turn back and look at me, but I did notice the band I’d bought him was on his finger. “Of course,” I mumbled quietly before going to the kitchen to get my things. The number of times Jack Hawthorne smiled: none. Chapter Four Jack The car ride to her apartment was silent. After she said a quiet hello to Raymond after entering the car, neither of us said a word to each other. I didn’t have anything else to say, and she didn’t look like she had any strength left in her to string two words together. That saved us from trying to make small talk, which was something I didn’t do willingly anyway. Sooner than I expected, we came to a stop in front of her old apartment building in the East Village. I offered my help, but she politely declined. After promising she wouldn’t take long, she quickly—as quickly as she could drag herself away, that is—exited the car. Thinking she’d take her time to pack no matter what she said, as every single female I’d known to that day would have done, I focused on answering some emails while I waited in the car with Raymond. Twenty minutes later, just as I was about to send out my sixth email, I looked up from my phone and saw Rose coming out with just one small duffel bag. She’d also changed out of her paint-splattered clothes into blue jeans and a white t-shirt, and she looked freshly showered with her damp hair framing her face. If I wasn’t mistaken, she was favoring her right leg. Before I could do anything, Raymond opened his door and rushed to help her. Following a brief push and pull between them, which I watched in confusion and unexpected amusement, Rose gave up and let Raymond carry her bag. “Thank you,” she said quietly when he opened the door for her after putting it in the trunk. “You’re welcome, Mrs. Hawthorne.” I froze. With her hand on top of the open door, Rose froze as well. “Uh, that’s really not necessary. Please call me Rose.” As she finally got in and Raymond closed the door, I locked my phone and put it back into my pocket. “Will that be enough?” I asked. She glanced at me with a small frown. “Excuse me?” I gestured to the back with my head. She followed my gaze. “Oh, yes. I can’t do much tonight. I’ll pack everything tomorrow. I’m sorry if I took too long, but I had to jump in the shower because of all the paint.” “It’s fine. I took care of some emails.” She nodded and we fell silent for a few minutes until she spoke up again. “That was a little weird for you too, right? It wasn’t just me.” I quirked an eyebrow and waited for her to explain. “Mrs. Hawthorne,” she whispered after a quick glance at Raymond. She put her right hand on the leather seat between us, leaning her upper body toward me as if she was sharing a secret. “That’s the first time I’ve been called that. It’s gonna take some getting used to. I’m Mrs. Hawthorne now.” “Yes, you are,” I agreed curtly then looked out my window as she leaned away. In the reflection on the glass, I saw her lose the small smile that was playing on her lips and straighten up in her seat. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. This whole fake marriage thing was going to be harder than I’d initially thought, especially since I seemed to be doing a bad job of it already. I only looked at her again when Raymond stopped the car in front of my place on Central Park West. She glanced out the window and I watched her release a long breath. “This is it?” she asked, peering back at me. “Yes.” I got out of the car. Rubbing my temple, I made it to Raymond’s side just as he opened her door and then walked to the back to get her bag. It seemed like the little fight she’d had in her back at the coffee shop had deflated during our car ride, and she just stared up at the building. After smiling at my driver softly and thanking him when he held out her bag, she walked a few steps away from us. “The usual time tomorrow, Mr. Hawthorne?” Raymond asked quietly, both our eyes on the woman standing just a few feet away from us. Sighing, I pushed my hands into my pockets and shook my head. “I’ll call you in the morning.” Giving me a quick nod, he got back in the car and drove away, leaving me alone on the sidewalk. Taking the few steps to close the gap that separated me from my newly acquired wife, I stood beside her. “This is it then,” she repeated, but this time it wasn’t posed as a question. “This is it,” I agreed, and we stood side by side like that for a few agonizingly slow seconds. “It’s really close to the coffee shop. I was afraid you lived around Bryant Park, closer to your office.” She gave me a quick look then faced forward again. “I take the subway from my apartment so I could’ve still done that, but this is better, of course.” “I did live close to the firm at one point. I moved here two years ago. Shall we go up?” She nodded. I opened the door for her, and we finally entered the building we’d been staring at. I ignored the doorman’s greeting and walked straight toward the elevators. With each second it took us to reach the top floor, I could almost feel her drawing away from me more even though we were physically only inches apart. So far every interaction I’d had with her was turning out to be a disaster—not that I was expecting anything different. This was the bed I’d made for us, and now the time had come to lie in it. Eventually, the elevator doors opened, and I stepped out ahead of her. After unlocking the apartment door, I pushed it open and turned back to look at Rose, really look at her. The quick shower she’d taken had helped with the paint splatters on her face—most of them—but not the fatigue. Her pale skin only accentuated her big and dark eyes and her long lashes. Despite looking like she had been done with the day some hours ago, somehow she still looked strong. She was a determined one and I respected that. Quite. She was clutching the handle of her bag with one hand and gripping her own elbow with the other. She met my eyes and offered me a small and unsure, but pretty smile. Pretty. Christ, Jack. “Please,” I murmured, gesturing to the inside of the apartment with my hand and taking a step aside so she could enter. Just as she was passing me, I reached for her bag, and I supposed I managed to surprise her because she let it go without a struggle. “Thank you,” she muttered quietly, looking around the space. I closed the door after her, locked it, and took a deep breath before I faced her again. I was starting to feel like, somehow, the quiet had gotten louder behind the locked doors now that we were there and alone. “Would you like to look around or would you prefer to see your room first?” I wasn’t sure if she was feeling up to a tour—I was actually confident she’d want to pass on anything I would offer that would force her to spend more time with me—but I wanted her to feel comfortable since we had two years of this, of us in our future. “Thank you, but you don’t have to do that. If you could show me where I’ll be staying, that’ll be enough.” “I wouldn’t offer if I didn’t want to, Rose. For the foreseeable future, this will be your home too. You should feel comfortable.” “I appreciate you saying that, I really do, but still, can I take a rain check on the tour for tonight? I have to be back at the coffee shop tomorrow morning and I’m really tired, so…” “Of course.” Walking through the foyer, I gestured toward the staircase to our right and followed her silently as she took the lead. Her hand held on to the black steel railing as she slowly and very carefully climbed up to the second floor. As soon as she was up on the landing, she stepped to the side and waited for me. “This way,” I offered, taking her to the left. The penthouse I had bought only two years earlier had four bedrooms, three of them being on the second floor. One of the rooms was set up as a home gym. The second, which was my bedroom, was on the other end of the hallway, and the third would now be Rose’s. Just hours earlier it had been way too much space for only one person, but with Rose in the apartment, it seemed to shrink in size. At the end of the short hall, I opened the door to the spacious room that would be hers and placed her overnight bag just inside before backing out again. Giving me a quick look, she stepped inside and took everything in. I had asked the interior decorator to keep it simple and functional, so there were only a few pieces of furniture in the room: a king bed, a neutral-colored headboard, nightstands, a small sitting area with one soft nude velvet chair, and another chocolate brown one next to a simple white and gold floor lamp. “You have your own en suite through the right door,” I explained when she didn’t say anything. “The left door is the walk-in closet. If there is anything you don’t like, let me know and I’ll take care of it.” After looking around for a few seconds, she finally faced me and tucked her damp hair behind one ear. “This is… I think it’s bigger than my entire apartment.” When my expression didn’t change, she cleared her throat and continued. “Everything looks great, Jack. I hope you didn’t go to too much trouble for this.” “I believe every guest room has a bed and a chair. I didn’t do anything special.” “Of course they do, but considering your guest room is so massive…” She trailed off. I waited for her to keep going, but she just shook her head. “Thank you. That’s what I’m trying to say. This is beautiful, so thank you.” “You’re welcome. Is there anything else I can do for you, or would you like to be alone?” “I think I’ll just try to get some sleep. I…” Pausing, she lifted her wrist to check the time. “I need to get up really early.” “Everything going okay so far? I don’t want to keep you for long, but did you hear anything from your other cousin?” Shaking her head, she moved closer to me, holding on to the door between us as if she didn’t have enough strength to keep herself upright. “A few days ago, she called, but I think she was just curious if I had gone through with it or not.” I frowned, not following. “Gone through with what? The coffee shop?” She offered me a tired smile. “No, she doesn’t really care about that. She was trying to learn more about…us, I guess—you and me and the marriage. She isn’t like Bryan, she rarely cares about things that doesn’t concern her. And so far, so good with the coffee shop. There is a lot of work to be done as I’m sure you saw yourself, but I’m not complaining.” Satisfied with her answer, I reached for my tie and loosened it, noticing the way her eyes followed my movements. “Good. And you don’t have to worry about Bryan either, there is nothing he can do at this point and if he does, I’ll take care of it. Good night, Rose. If you need anything, my room is at the end of the hall, across from you.” Straightening, she nodded. “Thank you, and good night…Jack.” It took me a second to move. I wasn’t sure why I was reluctant to leave, it couldn’t possibly be because I wanted to talk to her more, but there I was just standing there like an idiot. I took a deep breath, trying to think of a parting word so I could leave, but all I managed to do was notice her smell and drown in it. Coconut and some other mysterious fruit I couldn’t quite figure out. It must’ve been her shampoo since I’d noticed it in the car first. I gave up on trying to think of something else to say, gave her a quick nod and walked away from her before I did something stupid. Midway down the stairs, I heard Rose’s door gently click shut. For the hundredth time, I checked the clock on my nightstand, and finally when I saw it was four AM and I still hadn’t managed to fall asleep, I sat up. Rubbing my face, I sighed and got up. Not wanting to get dressed and go down yet, I stayed in my pajama pants and put on the grey t-shirt that was already hanging on the back of the chair in the corner of the room then headed toward the black steel doors that opened up to the terrace. I breathed in the cold air as soon as I stepped outside and took in the city. It didn’t take a genius to understand why I couldn’t sleep, yet I’d still tried my best to ignore the fact that I wasn’t alone in my apartment, that everything was just as it should be. The only issue was that my mind was determined not to let me forget about it, to forget about my wife’s presence in my home. Ever since I’d left her crying in the car, it had been all I could see when I closed my eyes at night—she was all I could see, the look in her eyes. So lost and confused. The fact that I’d practically pushed her—us—into this wasn’t helping at all. Hell, I didn’t even know what to feel anymore, other than guilt that is. I was drowning in guilt. And living under the same roof with Rose…it was helping nothing at all. Looking down at Central Park as I leaned on the railing, I tried to clear my mind so I could get back to bed and get at least a few hours of sleep in order to actually face and survive the next day and the upcoming days. But, after standing out there for God knows how long, I decided it was a futile endeavor. Just as I was turning around, I saw Rose turn the corner at the end of the terrace and let out a loud gasp when she spotted me. One hand against her heart, the other on her knee, she bent down. Letting the blanket she was bundled in hang from her shoulders, she started to cough as if she was choking on something. Without comment, I moved toward her, and before I could decide whether I should try to help her or not, she straightened up. Her face was completely flushed, her chest falling and rising rapidly. A second later the cause of her reaction became more clear when she opened her fist and showed me a half-eaten Snickers bar. “You almost killed me,” she wheezed out, her words barely making any sense. “Excuse me?” “I was dying,” she mumbled after attempting to clear her throat again. Finally regaining her composure, she released a long breath and pulled the blanket around herself. “I saw that.” Thinking it’d make her feel more comfortable, I turned away from her and faced the city in front of us. After another deep breath and a cough, she took the last few steps to stand next to me. “It’s getting chilly,” she commented quietly, and I automatically glanced down at her feet. She was wearing socks, but she was resting one of her feet on top of the other. “You might want to wear thicker socks,” I commented, and her gaze followed mine down to her feet and she shifted in place. “But, yes, the weather is changing. You couldn’t sleep?” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her look up at me and shake her head. I kept my eyes on the city. “Nope. You couldn’t either?” she asked, filling the silence between us. “I tend to wake up early.” That was what I was telling myself, and I certainly didn’t want her to think I was struggling with having her in my space. She hugged the blanket tighter. “I hope your bed was comfortable.” Another quick glance at me. “It was. It’s really comfortable and big. It’s my first night here and it’s a strange place, you know. I thought I heard something when I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep.” “I understand.” I didn’t prod for more details, but she kept going. “I’ll get used to it. I did manage to pass out for two hours—I was too tired not to—but then I woke up and my stomach decided it was a good time to remind me that I hadn’t eaten anything in twelve hours, so…” Lifting her hand from under the blanket, she showed me the remaining few bites of her candy bar. “Here I am with the Snickers I found in my bag. I’d give you a piece, but…” “I think I’ll live. You should’ve told me you were hungry when we first came in. We do have a kitchen downstairs.” I glanced at her then and she looked up at me with a smile. “A kitchen? What a novelty. As tempting as that sounds, if I eat anything more than this, I’ll stay up all night and I won’t be able to do anything tomorrow. I need to start getting ready in a few hours anyway, so this will hold me over. Plus, nothing beats chocolate.” “You should go back to bed then.” “I will,” she murmured, agreeing easily. “I’ll go back inside in a few minutes.” I nodded, but I knew she couldn’t see me; she was watching the night sky. We fell into another long stretch of silence and, not sure what I should do, I crossed my arms against my chest and leaned back against the wall at the same time she moved forward and propped her forearms on the railing. “The lake looks beautiful from up here,” she whispered. Glancing at me over her shoulder, she waited for an answer. “You must love the view.” I nodded in agreement, and a small sigh fell from her lips as she faced forward again. “The leaves will start changing color in a few weeks. I love Central Park in fall, and the lake is one of my favorite spots. It’s so cool that you can see it from here. Do you have a favorite spot, Jack?” “In Central Park?” “Yes.” As the loud sound of sirens filled the night, I took a few seconds to answer so I wouldn’t have to raise my voice. All bundled up in her blanket, she faced me, ready to hear my answer. She was definitely an insistent one, my wife. “I never thought about it. I guess the lake is all right.” She arched an eyebrow and just stared at me. I returned her stare. “Is there anything I can help you with at the coffee shop?” She cocked her head and studied me as if she could figure me out if she only looked hard enough. I had no idea what she was thinking. Not only that, I had no idea what I was doing out there, pulling her into more conversation when I’d decided the moment after we’d said I do that I didn’t want to get too close to her. The only thing I had to do was keep reminding myself that this was going to be a business deal and nothing more. “You already helped. If it wasn’t for you, it would’ve never happened. When I got Gary’s permission to use the space and we signed that contract, I started ordering the furniture, the machines, and all the other bits and pieces I’ll need. I knew it would take time for everything to get here, so I thought I was being smart. When…Gary and Angela passed away, I completely forgot about the whole thing. Then things started to arrive, but I no longer had a coffee shop to put them in, so I had to rent a storage place for the items from the companies that couldn’t hold my orders for the foreseeable future, like the chairs. Some things I bought were from sales and other deals, so they wouldn’t cancel my orders, either. When I came to your office that day, I had no hope of things going my way. I was on my way to another job interview.” Uncomfortable with her admission, I shifted in place and cleared my throat. Before I could stop her, she kept going. Not only was she insistent, she was turning out to be quite the talker. “So, as weird and awkward as this marriage is and probably will be for quite some time as we get used to having each other around, I’m really thankful for it. I know we made a deal and obviously it’s not gonna be a one-sided thing, but I’m still very thankful that you decided not to get a divorce.” “You don’t have to keep thanking me. It’s a business deal. I’m getting a free property out of this. We’re both benefiting.” Her eyes steady on me, she nodded