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Joe scowled. I supposed the gesture was meant to be fearsome, but the dusting of freckles across his cheeks made it difficult for me to think so.
“What do you mean ‘no’?”
I stood up and brushed off Joe’s gentle grip as he tried to grab my hand. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard! We’re not getting married!” I took a few steps out of reach and started pacing. Every footstep raised a little cloud of dust and I watched as it settled on my new suede boots. Vaguely, I remember once caring about things like that, but I couldn’t find the energy to be bothered anymore.
“Yes, we are.” The definite, stubborn edge in his voice made me pause to look down at him.
“No, we’re not.”
Joe stood and moved to tower over me. He had to be close to six-and-a-half feet tall. There weren’t many men around who dwarfed me me, especially when I wore heels. I raised my chin and tried to ignore how small he made me feel.
“Yes, we are.”
“No, we’re not.
“Yes, we are.”
“Jesus, Joe! No, we’re not.”
He took hold of my arms and just the reminder of how gentle but strong his touch could be, made the prickle of tears spring up behind my lashes. I took a few deep breaths and tried to get control of myself. There was no way I was going to cry in front of Joe-fucking-Tanner.
“Do you not wanna keep the baby?” he asked. He sounded a little apprehensive and I swallowed the lump in my throat before I answered.
“Of course I want to keep it,” I replied and as I said the words I realized that had been my intention all along. The shock of it rocked me and only Joe’s hold kept me upright as my knees trembled.
“Well then, we’re getting married.”
I closed my eyes. I was tired, so fucking tired of worrying. It had only been a few days of knowing for sure, but it already felt like a lifetime. The weight of everything pressed down so heavily on me I didn’t think I could stand much longer. All I wanted was to go home, curl up under my duvet and sleep until it was all over. Maybe I’d wake up and find it was all a bad dream.
Joe must have sensed my tenuous hold on my composure because he wrapped his arms around me, tucking me under his chin. He smelled like dirt and sweat and what I suspected was gasoline and God knows what else, but I didn’t care. I curled my arms around his broad chest and gulped down a few shaky breaths of musty air.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
His chuckle was dry. “There’s nothing to be sorry for. These things happen.”
“No. I’m sorry that I can’t marry you Joe,” I said as I pulled away. I brushed ineffectively at the dirt and dust which had settled like a faint, rust-coloured cloud over my black blouse. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate the offer and what you’re trying to do, but I’m not the marrying sort.”
Joe snorted with derision but I chose to ignore the noise. Instead, I took a few steps towards the doorway where the bright summer afternoon promised warmth and light.
“Rhi, please. Wait.”
I shook my head. “If you want to be involved, that’s your decision and if you don’t, that’s fine too. I didn’t come here for your help and I certainly don’t need your money. I just thought that you deserved to know.”
He followed me as I walked back to the car. I kept expecting him to say something else, to make a move to stop me from going, anything but just walk along silently behind me, his hands in his pockets, his chin down.
Joe stopped just shy of the driveway and pushed his hat back off his forehead. He had his expressionless face on again and it frustrated me to no end. Was he mad? Upset? What?
Joe’s eyes narrowed a little when the car flared to life and I could swear he almost looked thoughtful as I pulled away. Halfway back to the city, I noticed the plate of chocolate chip cookies on the passenger side seat of my car. With a growl of satisfaction, I tore at the plastic wrap keeping them in place. The plate sat empty before I hit the city limits. I felt slightly better. Thank goodness for Mrs. Tanner.
Thursdays were one of the busiest days at the shop. It seemed to be the day most of the elderly female population of the city ran their errands. Sometimes I resented the crowds of cheap, finicky shoppers, but for once they were a welcome distraction. I let myself get caught up in serving customers, for the first time in a while I’d almost been able to forget about Joe and our predicament. Mrs. Nichol had discreetly refrained from asking how breaking the news to Joe had gone, for which I was very grateful. I didn’t feel like I had the energy to talk about it.
The shop filled up with chattering women, gossiping and ‘catching up’ with one another as much as they shopped—maybe more. The elderly Mrs. McCready had engaged me in a somewhat heated debate with about whether she should go for the blue silk blouse or the green one, when the bell above the door tinkled merrily. Every mouth fell eerily and immediately silent.
I turned to the front to see whose entrance had caused kaçak iddaa such shock only to find Joe-fucking-Tanner standing in the doorway, disreputable, dirty hat in hand, towering a good foot taller than anyone else in the room. He looked very out-of-place and extremely uncomfortable. His eyes met mine across the room; I couldn’t help but smile a little at how awkward he appeared in here—like a bull in a china shop, really. He hadn’t even changed out of his work clothes; a trail of fine, red dirt settled behind him as he crossed the too-quiet room.
He obviously had something on his mind; he didn’t so much as acknowledge the feeble greetings my shocked customers sent his way. But I knew it always took a lot for Joe to come to the city anyway, never mind in the middle of the day. My arms crossed reflexively over my torso as my stomach knotted. I’d been waiting for the other shoe to fall. I just didn’t think it would so damn soon.
“Joe,” I murmured as he approached. His bright blue eyes were steady, giving away nothing, but the stubborn set of his chin worried me.
“Rhiannon,” he replied as he came to a stop in front of me.
“What are you doing here?” I asked in a low whisper. Every pair of eyes in the room settled on us and it made me uncomfortable.
“Doin’ the right thing,” Joe murmured just as quietly, and then he dropped to one knee, pulling a ring from his pocket. Every one in the room gasped, even me, and from somewhere in the crowd of women in the shop, I heard Mrs. N. chuckle.
“Marry me, Rhiannon,” Joe said loudly enough for everyone to hear. I froze, pinned beneath his serious blue gaze.
I felt dizzy as he grabbed my hand. Coherent thought vanished; I couldn’t even push him away. The ring slid on my finger perfectly. I could feel the warmth of the slim band, the alien weight of it, but I couldn’t bear to look at it.
“Joe, I—” I fumbled with the refusal, but the gaggle of women around us had already broken into ear-splitting chatter.
Joe came to his feet with surprising grace for a man his size and leaned in towards me so he could speak softly without being overheard. He rested his forehead against my own and his eyes blocked out everything else. He smelled like sunshine, fresh sea air, and earth.
“Let me make this right, Rhiannon. Please. I’ll never be able to live with myself if you don’t.”
I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths; neither action calmed me. He said he’d never be able to live with himself if we didn’t make it right. I wasn’t sure I could live with myself if we did.
I don’t know how I managed to lift my head and smile politely at the customers around me, but I did. I grabbed Joe by the arm and dragged him through the backroom, out into the alley behind the store where no one would hear.
“What the hell was that?” I hissed as soon as the back door to the shop closed behind us.
“What do you mean ‘what the hell was that’?” Joe grumbled. “That was me askin’ you to marry me. Again.”
“You don’t really want to marry me, and I sure as hell don’t want to marry you.” I could feel my temper crest and it made me sound much bitchier than I intended.
Joe shocked me by looking hurt.
“Think about this Joe, please. We barely know each other. We have nothing in common. What do we have to base a marriage on but the baby? I don’t think either of us want to live the rest of our lives like that!”
He looked thoughtful again and I knew he was trying to find an argument to make. His weary sigh, made me feel guilty for putting him through this ordeal. Joe deserved better.
Joe reached again for my hand and for the first time, I looked down at the ring. It was beautiful—small, but beautiful—just a petite, round solitaire diamond on a thin, delicate band and nothing like the ring I would have picked for myself, yet it looked right at home on my finger.
“Just wear it for a few days. Give it some thought,” Joe said softly. “Humour me?”
I surprised us both by nodding. I couldn’t speak past the lump in my throat.
Joe cleared his own throat and we just stood for a moment in the alley way, holding hands. I thought for a moment he would lean down and kiss me. I wondered how I would react. A small part of me wanted him to try it, so I could see if there was anything there, or if the passion between us that night at Lilly’s had just been a terrible fluke. I couldn’t tell if Joe thought the same thing though; he remained stoic as always.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said after a while. I nodded again and watched as he turned and ambled down the alley, back towards the street.
I waited until he’d rounded the corner and then I slumped against the wall, setting the tears I’d been holding in free. I don’t know how long I stayed out there, but the cold of the stone wall holding me up began to leech into my body, it made everything numb and achy at the same time.
A soft hand on my arm caused my head to snap up. Mrs. N. stood in front me, concern painted across her ancient kaçak bahis face, but a gleam of something more humorous reflected in her eyes.
“I know it’s not what you were expecting for a proposal, Rhiannon love. You’ve probably spent your entire life thinking he’d look like a movie star and put a rock on your finger the size of an egg. That he’d sweep you off to Paris or Rome or some beach in the tropics. That he’d whisper beautiful things in your ear by candlelight and promise you the moon.”
Mrs. N’s smile was ageless and knowing.
“I know you Rhiannon, better than you know yourself. Candlelight and promises aren’t worth a damn in this world, take it from me. That man would take care of you better than any of your movie stars or millionaires ever could.”
It was the first girls’ Friday night we’d had since Lilly’s momentous hook-up with Adam. Both she and Adele had been busy at work, plus it had only been in the past couple of weeks that Lilly tentatively began speaking to me again. We’d never discussed what happened between her big brother and me, but the conversation was going to have to be had and soon; just the thought of it made me feel ill.
Adele already sat perched at our usual spot when I arrived at the bar. I eyed the round of drinks on the table with trepidation.
“Don’t worry,” Adele laughed as I sniffed with uncertainty at the bright green concoction she put in front of me. “It’s virgin.”
“Well I’m glad one of us is,” I muttered as I slipped up onto my barstool. Adele laughed and for a moment it almost felt like old times, when everything was normal. I took a sip of the drink and wrinkled my nose in disgust. Without the tequila, a margarita is just lime, ice, and a hell of a lot of sugar. My growl of dissatisfaction made Adele laugh again.
“How are you feeling?” she asked casting a quick look around the room to be sure Lilly wasn’t approaching.
“Okay,” I replied, which was a bit of a lie.
“Any morning sickness?” Adele inquired. There was such concern on her pretty face I couldn’t help but smile, even though the last fucking thing I wanted to talk about was how I felt.
“A little. It’s more just a general feeling of always wanting to throw up,” I confessed. “Mostly, I just feel tired.”
My best friend’s smile was sympathetic, and she nodded in a knowing way. Prior to her divorce, Adele had gotten pregnant twice and lost both babies. She knew more about pregnancy than I ever would. We’d never really talked too much about the babies she’d never had, although I knew how much it had hurt her then, how much it probably still did. It didn’t seem fair that someone like me, in my position, could be having a baby when someone like Adele, who would have been an amazing and willing mother, could not.
“Well tired is not bad, if that’s the worst of it, you’re lucky,” Adele’s smile was encouraging. I knew pregnancy was a wooly topic with her, but she seemed genuinely interested in how things were going for me, and I found myself wanting to talk about it.
“Actually if you want the honest truth, I just feel antsy… not-quite-myself, you know?” I confessed. “I don’t know what I want any more. One minute everything is fine, the next minute nothing seems to be the way it should. One minute I’m happy, the next I’m in tears. It’s insane. I’m insane. And it feels like I’m horny all the time, my skin practically crawls with it – everything feels more sensitive, and I mean everything… brush up against me the wrong fucking way and I’m liable to want to take you home. I don’t know what’s wrong with me!”
“Hormones,” Adele laughed. “It can’t be helped. You’ve just got to get used to it.”
Get used to it. Great. And I was alone; no man around to help take off a little of the edge. Thank goodness for the modern era and my bedside drawer full of toys. I picked up my virgin drink and poked listlessly at it with the straw. I missed booze almost as much as I missed caffeine.
“Omigod!” Adele squeaked. She grabbed my hand and I almost spilled my drink over the both of us. “What is that?”
I held out my left hand on which Joe’s tiny diamond sparkled in the dim light of the bar.
“Oh yeah, Joe proposed.”
“What!?” Adele hissed, shooting another nervous glance around. Lilly had picked a good night to be late. She and Adam were probably snuggled up together in bed, being cute, cuddly and couple-ish. Ugh.
I told her the abbreviated version of the past few days and tried not to laugh at the incredulous expression on her face.
“So you’re actually going to do it?” she gasped when I’d finished.
“No,” I replied quickly. “Definitely not… I mean Joe Tanner! No… I don’t think so, at least… I mean—” I sputtered. I felt a little guilty for discussing him on those terms, callously and dismissively. It didn’t seem right.
“I don’t fucking know!” I wailed in frustration. “I don’t know what to do! What’s wrong with me?”
Adele patted my arm. “I think you like him,” she teased lightly.
“He’s like an illegal bahis itch that won’t go away,” I grumbled. “I think about him all the time, I even dream about him. How much of that is me and how much of that is this?” I asked, passing my hand over my stomach.
Adele’s smile was soft, almost wistful. “I think they’re one and the same now, Rhi.”
“Ah, hell,” I muttered. I took up my plastic straw and stabbed at the crushed ice in my drink.
“Are you going to tell Lilly tonight?” Adele asked.
I shook my head. I felt too weary to handle any more drama, especially with Lil. I’d had my fill of Tanner dramatics for one week. “Not until I make some sort of decision. Why?”
“Well if you’re not going to tell her you better take off that ring, because here she comes.”
I turned my head and watched Lilly approach. Even though she’d taciturnly forgiven me for sleeping with Joe, I still hadn’t seen her much in the past few weeks because she spent every waking moment with Adam. Not that I could blame her. He was hot. If he were my boyfriend, we’d never even leave the house.
I snuck my hands under the table, and with an unexplainable pang of guilt, I slipped Joe’s ring off of my finger and stashed it carefully in the pocket of my jeans.
Lilly’s smile brightly as she sat on the stool next to mine.It made me feel a little better to know she didn’t completely hate me anymore. I wondered how long that would last once she learned the truth. A small, selfish part of me wanted it to be Joe who broke the news to her when the time came. I wasn’t sure I could handle doing it myself.
“Sorry I’m late,” she gasped before she took a long sip from the bottle of beer sitting waiting for her. “You wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had!”
Both Adele and I grinned, caught up in Lilly’s infectious smile. She seemed happier than she’d been in a long time, and I knew it was because of Adam. He seemed to bring out the best in her. She’d certainly changed in the two months since she’d met him; she stood taller now and looked people in the eye. Even her wardrobe had relaxed a little. She was actually showing a little cleavage for once and I thought I detected the faintest hint of lip gloss. She looked great.
“Tell,” Adele laughed, leaning in closer. I nodded, took a sip of my drink, and tried not to grimace at its syrupy sweetness.
“I quit the newspaper!” Lilly broke off into a peal of loud laughter at the shocked expressions on our faces. “Told old Sterling he could take his job and shove it!”
“What are you going to do for work?” Adele asked.
“Actually, I’m going to be teaching writing at the university,” Lilly grinned proudly. “I had the interview last week and they called me this morning with the offer. I didn’t want to tell you until I knew for sure!”
“That’s so great!” Adele gushed and I added my own congratulations. Lilly smiled openly at me with sheepish delight. I had to resist the impulse to lean over and hug her. The gesture was so completely out of character for me that I didn’t know where the urge had come from. I guess it was just so nice to be friends with her again.
“What’s new with the two of you?” Lilly modestly changed the subject. I’m sure Adele could have asked her a million other questions about the new job, but Lilly had never liked being the center of attention.
“Nothing,” I replied automatically.
Adele filled in my awkward silence with a little anecdote about a new client of hers who wanted to sue his parents for emotional abuse because they’d named him Laverne. She soon had the two of us laughing hysterically and for a moment I almost forgot my own problems. I’d never had much of a family; it was so damn good to have friends.
We chatted and gossiped about all manner of things and while Adele and Lilly had a few more drinks, I discreetly switched over to water. If Lilly noticed my abstaining she didn’t mention it. Close to midnight, I made my excuses to leave the two of them to continue their chatter until last call. My back ached from sitting on the straight-backed barstool for so long and I longed for a comfortable pair of pyjamas and my warm, quiet bed.
“Come for dinner Sunday night,” Lilly invited as I slipped on my coat and put down money for my drink and a tip. “Adam’s got the day off and he’s cooking up something fancy.” Her smile was so sweet and earnest that I couldn’t say no.
The streets were still fairly busy despite the late hour and the unusual-for-July cool temperature. Tourist season had started and unlike some of the Island’s citizens, it never bothered me to see them arrive, it meant more money for the shop in particular, and the city in general. In years past, it had also meant a fresh influx of men, but this summer would be different I mused as I made the short, five minute drive to my condo. Rhiannon Barnes on her best behaviour. It was almost laughable.
“Dammit,” I muttered as I pulled around the corner onto the block where I lived. Joe’s rusty, dirty old truck was parked in front of my building. He stood leaning against it, arms crossed, a sour expression on his face. It was the first time all week I’d seen him in clean clothes though, so that was an improvement, even if his demeanor wasn’t.
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