Authors: Minka Kent
Getting the mail has always been his thing. Our box was crammed full, mostly junk and catalogs, but it was apparent he hadn’t grabbed it in days.
“Oh, jeez. I bet it was pretty full. Sorry about that.” Niall’s long fingers wrap around his wineglass. “What is it with me lately? I’m never this forgetful.”
My thoughts take a left turn.
If he forgot to get the mail, is it possible he forgot to lock up the other night, too?
There I go. Jumping to conclusions again.
I reach for my glass, burying my anxieties in the last few drops.
We settle into the sofa, zoning out in front of a
rerun like an old married couple. He’s seated next to me, so close I can feel his body heat against my arm, and it gives me goose bumps . . .
Until I think about Kate.
The faceless other woman.
It’s funny—I don’t have romantic feelings toward Niall, and yet I can’t deny the hot streak of jealousy that sears through me every time I imagine the two of them together.
He’s my friend.
But he’s still her husband.
And in the end, it isn’t even a competition.
“Niall?” I ask, muting the TV.
He turns toward me. “Yes?”
“Did you . . . did you like being married?”
He stiffens, and the flicker of TV light paints his face in the strangest colors. “Of course.”
A pregnant pause settles between us.
“Do you think you’d ever . . . want to reconcile?” I ask, blown away by my sudden audacity.
It’s got to be the wine. It’s denigrated all sense of self-control, every last verbal filter I had.
“More than anything,” he adds, his voice low and broken. “Why would you ask me that?”
I’ve offended him. I’ve stuck my nose where it doesn’t belong. I’ve crossed the line between landlord and tenant and pushed the boundaries of our budding friendship . . . again.
“I’ve just been thinking a lot about marriage lately. In general, I mean,” I say, hoping I can retroactively make sense of my prying. “You know me . . . random.”
I take the remote and hit the volume, the sound of the
host filling the room. Niall uncrosses and recrosses his legs, making himself comfortable again, like he has no plans to go anywhere.
I breathe a sigh of relief at the fact that my nosy line of questioning didn’t send him into the next room or, worse, send him packing.
Instead, here we are, playing house again, and I realize now that if he were reconciling with Kate, he probably wouldn’t be here, sitting next to me.
He could be with her, but he’s not.
He’s spending time with me—his friend.
His closest friend for all I know.
No one else.
But I have to be careful. He made it perfectly clear that he still has feelings for Kate, that he loved being married, that he’s open to the possibility of reconciling.
I had my head smashed in once.
I don’t need my heart shattered, too.
I’ve already lost all my friends . . . I can’t lose him, too.
I spent most of Tuesday morning talking myself out of this, but by the afternoon, that inner voice of reason had become nagging and redundant and ultimately powerless. With each creaky step upstairs, silently scolding myself, I wallow in how wrong this is, reminding myself how mortifying it was to be caught red-handed last weekend.
But now here I am anyway, perched against the edge of Niall’s desk, paging through his estranged wife’s diary like I have every right.
I finally asked Niall about marriage counseling tonight and he embraced the idea with open arms. He said he felt it too, that we’d been disconnecting and veering off track. This morning he sent me flowers—two dozen long stem roses in my favorite shade of pastel peach, and the sweetest note informing me he’d made dinner reservations tonight at our favorite place.
I’m three more entries deep when the closing of the back door rattles through the house.
I close the journal and place it back where it was, leaning against the lamp on his desk. The passages I read today weren’t as juicy as I’d hoped. Kate tends to document her days as a bored housewife whose hobbies include various philanthropic efforts. From what I gather, they met in Massachusetts when he was doing his oncology rotation several years ago. She knows no one here, and if I read between the lines, I’m finding Kate to be lonely and a bit unsettled but head over heels in love with her husband.
Their love story is contained in these entries—and for reasons that are all my own, I’m dying to know how it all will end.
With light, nimble feet, I scramble to get out of his study, only in the process, I brush against his dresser and knock a stack of papers to the floor. Falling to my knees, I scoop them up and place them back where I think they were, but it only takes a moment for me to realize what they are.
Divorce papers for Niall and Kate Emberlin.
Oh, my God.
His line is signed.
I get the hell out of there and hide in the spare bathroom across the hall, listening for his footsteps to indicate he’s made it to his room. The sound of his door closing comes next, which tells me it’s safe for me to come out.
The stairs creak with each step, and my sweaty palm glides down the banister with minimal effort. When I get to the bottom of the stairs, I turn to ensure he isn’t standing there, that I haven’t been caught.
Making my way to the kitchen, I begin my nightly fridge and pantry rummaging to figure out what to make for dinner.
I have everything for chicken carbonara.
And it’s one of Niall’s favorites. Or at least, he wouldn’t stop raving about it last time I made it. Of course, he could have been being polite, but it seemed genuine enough.
I grab a carton of free-range eggs from the fridge and a slab of meat-counter bacon wrapped in brown paper, only when I close the door, I nearly drop them all because Niall’s standing right there, filling the space with his quiet, lanky presence.
“Hey,” he says. There’s something lighter about him today, though I can’t put my finger on it. “I was thinking maybe we could go out for dinner tonight.”
Is this a celebration of sorts?
I mean, he did sign the divorce papers.
“Yeah.” Returning the bacon and eggs to their rightful places, I add, “I’d love to.”
Baru 46 is the newest restaurant to grace Quinnesec Bluff’s trendy Merchant District—it’s where all the hottest shops and eateries are born (and sometimes die). This place has it all: candlelight, a sommelier, dinner-for-two specials, and a man in the corner playing the Spanish guitar, which tells me this isn’t just dinner.
Also, we’re surrounded by couples, though I try not to read into that. The ink on his divorce papers has hardly dried, and he’s never so much as tried to kiss me. I can’t imagine sensible, rational Niall rushing headfirst into a romantic relationship with a woman who clearly isn’t 100 percent yet.
“I can order for us,” he offers. He must sense that I’m overwhelmed by the menu. Or that my nerves have caught my tongue. Or he’s trying to be a gentleman. Regardless, it’s typical thoughtful Niall.
“That would be amazing,” I say, placing my menu flat in front of me and exhaling.
Our server approaches a moment later, and while the two of them are discussing specials and recommendations, I scan the room. It’s dark.
Mostly faces illuminated by flickering centerpieces, but my eyes adjust and I discover there’s a familiar face in the corner.
Amber—one of my former close friends.
She’s with a man, one I’ve never seen before. Is she cheating on Jude? Did they divorce?
Niall and the server are discussing the tapas menu in great detail, and I find it hard to sit still. My feet fidget beneath the table, my fingers dancing along the tops of my thighs. I adjust my sleeves and change up my posture and tuck my hair behind one ear, unable to get settled.
The last time I saw Amber, we’d gone straight from pedicures to margaritas, just a typical girls’ afternoon. We were discussing her maid-of-honor role in her sister’s upcoming wedding in Puerto Vallarta, and then we said our goodbyes, with promises to text later.
A woman appears with a breadbasket, placing it between us. I’m starving, and I reach for a piece, all the while keeping my eyes on Amber.
I nibble and chew and watch, tasting nothing.
It only takes another minute before I’m spotted. Our gazes catch, and her posture shifts, more rigid it seems, and then it appears like she’s muttering something, her chin tucked against her chest.
A second later, her male friend digs into his back pocket, retrieving his wallet and throwing some bills on the table.
When they leave, they detour all the way around the restaurant, I’m guessing to avoid me.
“What do you think so far?” Niall asks.
I focus on the handsome man across from me and his gentle blue eyes that instantly put me at ease. I refuse to sully this moment because of Amber’s juvenile behavior. This isn’t junior high school. Two adults can end a friendship without one of them behaving like a child about it.
Then again, for the life of me, I can’t remember why that friendship ended in the first place. Judging by the way Amber acts in my presence, I can only assume that whatever went down wasn’t pretty.
“If this bread is any indication of what’s to come . . .” I take another bite and give him a wink. “Love the candles. It’s so cozy here.”
“I thought you’d like it.” Niall reaches for his wineglass, and I just now realize that we both have glasses of red wine.
When did he order it? When was it poured? How did I miss that?
A tall man in scrubs is seated in the booth to our right a second later, a beautiful olive-toned woman taking the spot across from him. The doctor visually canvasses the restaurant, stopping when he sees Niall, and then he squints, as if he’s trying to place him.
“You know him?” I ask Niall, nodding in the other doctor’s direction.
Niall peers in that direction, but the other doctor is too focused on his date to notice now.
“Oh, yeah. That’s Pontius,” he says. “He’s an OB.”
“Don’t you want to say hi?” I ask, though I imagine their paths don’t likely cross all that often.
Niall brings his wineglass to his lips, pausing before placing it back down. “It’s fine. I’m here with you, not to network.”
My stomach somersaults, and I hide my expression with a glass of wine.
I’m here with you . . .
Our dinner arrives in courses—five altogether.
I haven’t eaten like this in I can’t remember how long, and when dessert arrives—two spoons—I wonder how on earth I’m going to finish it.
When we’re done with dinner, Niall handles the check, and I run off to the ladies’ room to ensure there are no specks of parsley in my teeth.
We agree to meet in the front when we’re done, near the hostess stand. I get there first and linger by the fish tank while I wait.
“Reservations for Dougray.”
I turn when I hear someone say my last name, only to find a woman—or rather, the back of a woman—checking in a mere five feet away.
She’s dressed in a chic linen jacket, cornflower blue with a satin bow on the back of the collar. A familiar brown and black Goyard bag hangs from her shoulder—a sharp and obvious contrast against her feminine getup—and she tucks her dark hair behind one ear.
“Right this way, Ms. Dougray.” The hostess grabs four menus, and the other me follows her into the dining room.
They pass Niall, who only has eyes for me in this moment.
“All good?” he asks.
He places his hand on the small of my back as we head toward the exit, though I can’t help but turn around and try to steal one more quick observation. But it’s all for nothing. She’s already out of sight.
“You okay?” he asks a few seconds later when we reach his car. He gets the door for me.
“Of course,” I lie.
He studies me, unmoving. “You look like you’ve just seen a ghost or something.”
Niall shuts the door and strides around the front of the car before climbing in beside me.
“You sure you’re all right?” He starts the engine and pulls out onto the main road. The whir of lights fades into sporadic streetlamps the closer we get to our part of town.
“Yeah. Thought I saw someone I knew,” I say. “But it wasn’t them.”
“I do that sometimes,” he says, turning to me as he drives. “I see so many faces during the day, they all start blending together after a while.”
I appreciate that he’s trying to make me feel better, but it doesn’t keep my thoughts from racing or my pulse from quickening when I replay what I saw in my mind over and over again.
We arrive back at the Queen a few minutes later, and I get out of the car before he has a chance to do the gentleman thing and get my door.
I just want to go inside. Be alone with my thoughts. Figure out who the hell this woman is.
Fumbling with my keys outside the back door, I end up dropping them. When I stand, Niall’s behind me. He places his hand on mine, and I realize I’m trembling.