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       Arranged, p.27

           Catherine McKenzie
 
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  “That’s not the point. She wanted a guy.”

  “You want me to tell you you’re going to get the guy?”

  “Yeah, maybe.”

  He touches the pink enamel heart I’m wearing around my neck. “You can have the guy if you want, Anne.”

  Chapter 26

  Let’s Try This Again

  William drops me at my apartment at one in the morning. I flop down on the couch in exhaustion. I take off my high heels, which have been killing me for hours, and throw them across the room. They hit the wood floor with a satisfying thud.

  With no more distractions, I start thinking about Jack’s book. It’s sitting where I left it in the bedroom, waiting for me there like Jack waited for me one night when I had to work late to meet a deadline. He was reading in bed when I got home, but I knew he was waiting for me. I sat down next to him and kissed him hello, and he brought his hands up to my face in that way he has and kissed me in that way he has. His kisses traveled down my face, my neck, and down and down and everywhere, and we made love without saying another word. The experience was so intense that thinking about it now, months later, brings a blush to my cheeks.

  Afterward, we lay in bed talking for hours. Talking about my article, about a weird conversation he’d heard in the park when he took a break from writing, about my favorite park as a child, about other things I don’t remember now. Our talking was nearly as intense as the sex. It felt so great to lie in his arms and talk about whatever came to mind. And I knew with the certainty you sometimes have about other people that it was what we both wanted to be doing most of all—talking to each other. We fought off sleep, and even the lingering arousal that might have led to a second round, so that we could talk and talk and talk.

  The book in the bedroom calls to me. I want to hear Jack’s voice again. I want to hear him talking to me through the night. Jack telling me things I didn’t know, or giving me a new perspective on things I know. I want his perspective on things. The book in the bedroom calls to me.

  In the end, I give in. I go to the bedroom and pick it up, running my hands over the picture of our wedding bouquet. I snuggle under the covers, open it, and start to read.

  Married Like Me

  Prologue

  All my life I’ve had this idea of what the woman I’d eventually marry would look like, would be like. It sounds silly, it sounds girlish, but it’s true.

  I don’t know where this idea came from. Maybe it was the girl whose pigtails I pulled once instead of telling her I liked her. Maybe it was a dream I had. Maybe I invented her. But I knew she was out there, somewhere.

  I grew up. I met other women. I even fell in love. But I never stopped waiting for her to show up.

  And then one day she did.

  I was standing outside her door. I was supposed to knock on it. I was supposed to make this woman my wife. We’d met the day before. I was nervous as hell. We’d met the day before, yet I felt like I’d been waiting for her forever.

  I met her in a miniature bullfighting ring at an all-inclusive resort in Cancún, Mexico. I’d gone there on purpose to meet her and marry her. To meet her, marry her, live with her for a while, and then leave her and write a book about it.

  She was there because she believed the company that brought us to Mexico had matched us based on our compatibility, and that I was her perfect match. She came there to marry me without knowing me, or anything about me, without even seeing a picture of me.

  When we came face-to-face for the first time, we shook hands like the other couples, all there for the same reason.

  I led her outside to a bar I’d scoped out the night before as the most romantic spot in the place. We sat at a table facing each other awkwardly, both of us wondering what to say.

  I studied her face. She looked like I’d expected she would. White skin with a scattering of freckles across her nose. Green eyes that looked gray in some lighting. Long red, red hair. An intelligent face.

  I knew this face. I knew it from years of dreaming, and I knew it from the research I did before I came to Mexico. I wasn’t supposed to know it, or her, or anything about her. If I’d been there for the right reasons, this would’ve been the first time I’d seen her.

  As it was, because of the book I was there to write, I already knew too many things about her. I had all kinds of advantages.

  We ordered drinks from the waiter and sat and stared at each other, trying to look like we weren’t staring, until I broke the silence.

  “This is awkward,” I said.

  “It really is,” she agreed.

  “I don’t even know your last name,” I said, extending my hand, though I did know. “I’m Jack Harmer.”

  She told me her full name. I lied again and asked why her name seemed familiar to me, and she told me she wrote for a magazine. I pretended to recall one of her articles and made some joke about the topic.

  She knew I was a writer too. It was one of the few small details they’d told her about me, one of the few small details she was allowed to know, and so we talked about my writing.

  Because I often write about outdoor things, I asked if she was an outdoor girl. She said sometimes. She might be.

  Then she asked me the question I was waiting for.

  “Can I ask you something?” she asked, fluttery and nervous.

  “What am I doing here?” I replied.

  She blushed, a light pink trail that rose from her neck to the tips of her ears. “Yeah.”

  “Well . . . the same reason as most people, I expect. I’ve been in some long-term relationships that didn’t work out. I work alone most of the time, and it’s hard to meet people. I’m thirty-four, and I always thought I’d be married with kids by now. I heard about this service from someone I know who used it, and he’s still married, happy, has kids, so I thought why the hell not?”

  This was the answer I’d worked out in advance. It sounded plausible to me, as plausible as I could make it.

  She smiled at me. She had a good smile. “So you’re totally normal?”

  I laughed and raised my hand to my heart. “I swear, I’m totally normal. What about you?”

  She told me why she was there: a bunch of failed relationships, the desire to have a family. All the things you might expect.

  “So you’re totally normal too?” I asked her.

  She made an X with a finger over her heart. “Cross my heart and hope to die.”

  We stared at each other, and I felt something. A connection, a conspiracy between us. A feeling I hadn’t felt in a long time. Maybe never.

  We went to dinner and told each other our life stories, and the hours flew by. After dinner, she had a moment of doubt, and I convinced her to go through with the wedding. I kissed her for the first time on the beach under a nearly full moon and gave her a silver ring with a turquoise stone set across its flat top. Later, I saw her flirting with another man, and I felt jealous. She told me I had nothing to worry about, and I kissed her again, holding her close.

  So there I was the next morning, trying to decide whether to knock. Could I really marry the woman I’d been waiting for all these years? Like this?

  And then I did it.

  My knuckles raked across her door. She looked very pretty that morning in her cream-colored dress. Her hair was pulled back from her face and trailed down her back. A touch of sunburn emphasized the green in her eyes.

  I took a deep breath and said, “Ready, Emma?”

  She gave me a nervous smile. “Ready, Jack.”

  “You look great.”

  Her smile widened. “You look nice too.”

  I pulled my hand from behind my back and handed her a bunch of summer flowers. She brought them up to her freshly washed face and drank in their smell.

  “I thought you might like to carry these,” I said.

  “Thank you, Jack, they’re beautiful.”

  She hooked her arm around mine, and we walked through the resort to the room where the marriages were being pe
rformed.

  We were married by a funny little man with a thick accent. Emma looked like she wanted to laugh throughout the ceremony. I asked her in a whisper what she was laughing about, and she told me shush, she’d tell me later.

  “Do you, Emma Ellen Gardner, take this man, John Graham Harmer, to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, and forsaking all others as long as you both shall live?”

  She smiled and said, “I do.” She sounded nervous, but she said, “I do.” And when the minister repeated the words, I said, “I do” too. We exchanged rings, and he pronounced us man and wife. I kissed her soft lips, and we were married.

  But all this is getting ahead of myself. I should start at the beginning. I should tell you why I did this. What it did to her. How I lost her.

  I should tell you how I ended up married like me.

  Chapter 27

  A Book of Revelations

  A week after Sarah’s wedding, I’m sitting in a coffee shop, waiting for William to show up, when I see Stuart come through the door.

  I haven’t laid eyes on him since the day I walked out of our apartment a year ago, and my first reaction is to duck under the table.

  Come on, Anne. This is completely ridiculous. It’s just Stuart.

  I pick up the newspaper I was reading, nervously wondering if he’s going to notice me. Do I even want him to notice me?

  I reach for my coffee and end up spilling it all over the table. Perfect.

  “Anne?”

  I drop the napkin I’m using to contain the mess. “Hi, Stuart.”

  He’s wearing the blue corduroy jacket I gave him for his birthday two years ago and a pair of dark jeans that fit him perfectly. He looks like he’s been on holiday somewhere warm. He looks great, as always.

  “Wow. Long time no see,” he says.

  “Right.”

  “Do you mind if I sit down?”

  “I guess not.”

  Stuart turns an empty chair around and sits on it, his arms resting across the back. “Well, well, well. Anne Blythe. Looking good, Anne.”

  I’m wearing a light blue cashmere pullover my mother gave me for Christmas, and my hair is pulled back in a ponytail. I can’t remember if this is how Stuart liked me to look. Hair up or down?

  Who the fuck cares, Anne? This is Stuart.

  “Thanks.”

  “How the hell are you?”

  “Same old, same old. You?”

  “Yeah, you know. Same old, same old.”

  He glances around, already looking for something else to focus on. He always used to do this. He always needed to be stimulated by something more than me. Hence the cheating, I guess.

  His eyes trail back to me. “I hear you published a book.”

  “True.”

  “Is it any good?”

  Typical. Stuart never read anything I wrote when we were together. Of course not. It wasn’t about him, so he wasn’t interested.

  “Some people seemed to think so, I guess.”

  He laughs. “Always so serious. I read it.”

  “You did?”

  “Of course. I liked it. And I could totally tell you’d written it.”

  “Really? How do you mean?”

  “It had that destined-to-be feeling to it. I remember you always thought that you’d just know if two people were meant to be together.”

  Holy shit. Stuart Johnson is showing some kind of insight about me. Hell must be about to freeze over.

  “Yeah, I did think that.”

  “You ever think that about us?”

  Sadly, yes.

  “Maybe. Sometimes,” I tell him.

  “Such a sweet kid.”

  God, he really is an enormous asshole. I was kind of hoping my memory was exaggerating. No such luck.

  I give him a tight smile. “So you always said.”

  “You with someone?”

  “I was with someone, yes.”

  His eyes mock me. “And were you meant to be?”

  I thought so. To be honest, I’ve been thinking so again, ever since I stayed up all night reading Jack’s book.

  “Oh, I don’t really believe in that anymore,” I say.

  Stuart looks at me intently. “You’re still in love with him.”

  Yup. Hell has just frozen over.

  “Why do you say that?”

  “C’mon, Anne. I’ve known you for a long time. I can tell you’re still into this guy.”

  “Well . . . we broke up.”

  “That’s too bad,” he says gently. Surprisingly so.

  “Thanks, Stuart.”

  “Whether you believe it or not, I only want the best for you.”

  I look at him, and it’s as if I’m seeing him for the first time. And he’s not a monster. He’s not a god. He’s just a man I once knew.

  He glances at his watch. “Hey, sorry about this, but I kind of have to go. Do you mind?”

  “No problem. William will be here any minute.”

  “You know, I always thought he was in love with you.”

  I laugh. “How much simpler life would be if that were true.”

  “See you around?”

  “Sure.”

  He stands up and turns to walk away.

  “Stuart.”

  “Yeah?”

  “Thank you.”

  “What for?”

  For reminding me what I don’t want. For being enough of an asshole that I was forced to change my life. For everything. For nothing.

  “It’s complicated.”

  He grins. “You know I hate complicated.”

  “I know.”

  A few days later, I’m on my way to meet Sarah at the bar. She’s just gotten back from her honeymoon in Greece. It’s a cold night, a reminder that winter’s almost here and I really should be wearing a warmer coat. The stores are lit up, waiting for the after-work crowd to get in some early Christmas shopping.

  I still love the feel of this neighborhood: the people on the street, the laughter and smells spilling out of the restaurants, the quieter streets behind the strip. No matter what my mood, walking these streets always makes me feel lighter, happier.

  I get to a street corner a block away from the bar and hit a red light. The light changes, and something fluttering across the road catches my eye. I think for a moment that it might be the flyer for Jack’s book launch, but when I pick it up, it’s just a flyer for an exhibit at the art museum.

  Jack’s book launch is taking place tonight a few blocks away. He sent me an invitation, and I left it lying around my apartment, unable to throw it out, half wanting to go, half not sure I was ready to see him yet. Jack’s book cover was on it, and a picture of Jack, a picture I took one day on the beach in Mexico. If you look closely enough (and I did), you can see me holding the camera in the reflection in Jack’s eyes.

  A horn blares. I’m in the street. I cross to the other side and start walking faster, not paying attention to where I’m going.

  I slam into someone. “I’m sorry,” I mutter, trying to get past her.

  “Anne? Is that you?”

  I look more carefully at the person I almost plowed down. It’s Margaret. She’s wearing an oversize black puffy coat and a knit hat with a pom-pom on top. Her nose is red from the cold.

  “Yes, it’s me. Hi, Margaret.” I try to smile. “How are you?”

  She gives me a big grin. “I’m great!”

  I realize after a moment that she’s rubbing her belly; she must be six months along.

  “That’s great, Margaret. I’m so happy for you.”

  “Thanks. What about you guys? Any kids yet?”

  “No.”

  She smiles sympathetically. “I guess you’ve been too busy.”

  She looks so happy, I can’t bear to tell her what I know. About Jack. That Brian was probably just randomly chosen and isn’t her perfect match.

  “Something like that. Listen, I’ve got to go . . .”<
br />
  She nods. “Sure. You’re going this way, right? I’ll walk with you.”

  Before I can ask how she knows which way I’m going, we’re walking in the same direction, and Margaret has hooked her arm into mine.

  “I read your book, Anne. It’s great. I’ve recommended it to all my friends, and my book club’s going to read it next month.”

  “Thanks.”

  “No problem. I tell everyone I know about it, and that I know you. Not where I know you from . . . don’t worry.” She giggles conspiratorially. “I mean, just because all my friends know where I met my hubby doesn’t mean they have to know about you. Right?”

  I wonder when I’ll be able to escape her. Where’s she leading me, anyway?

  “And I can’t wait to read Jack’s book. Have you read it? Of course you have. It’s so funny I ran into you, because I saw a poster for his book signing today. Coming here was really a spur-of-the-moment decision, you know me, and then I run into you and everything—”

  “Listen, Margaret, I’m meeting my friend, and I think I walked past the bar a block or so ago.”

  “What are you talking about, Anne? The bookstore’s right here. You’re going to Jack’s book launch, right?” She blinks slowly, her eyes all wide and innocent.

  “Um—”

  She grabs my arm again. “Come on, silly. What’s wrong with you today?”

  She pulls open the door and nearly drags me into the bookstore. I let her take me through the lobby and up to the second-floor mezzanine, where there’s a short line of people waiting for Jack to sign copies of his book. I can half see his head bent over an open book and his hand scribbling away. I tuck myself behind the person in front of me, hiding.

 
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