By M. Pierce
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2015 M. Pierce
All rights reserved.
This is my favorite part. The beginning.
The crowd continues to clap and Gail Weider beams at us.
I pull Matt several feet onto the stage and he stops. He stands there woodenly, his expression blank, and then darts a look backstage. "I was contemplating running," he told me later.
Gail's smile falters.
My boyfriend and I are live on Denver Buzz, the biggest morning talk show in the city, and this is our chance to spin his fake death in our favor. A reclusive artist driven into hiding. A sensitive personality reacting to harmful circumstances. Stuff like that.
"Welcome," says Gail. She gestures to the couch. I know where we are supposed to sit, and I have been coached on good posture, eye contact, and affirmative answers. So has Matt.
But Matt is gone. The camera focuses on his stunned face. The applause dwindles.
"Come on," I whisper, coaxing him forward.
Abruptly, Gail crosses the stage and we flank Matt. The scene becomes comical. She grips his shoulder, I hold his hand, and we maneuver him toward the couch.
"Don't be shy, Mr. Sky. We're so excited to have you." Gail plows off-script like a pro, her confidence undiminished. She exudes authority, and Matt and I look like children on her stage. At last, we get Matt seated. His hand is glued to mine.
This awkwardness is all my fault.
"Marry me," I'd whispered to Matt just moments before we stepped onstage. Had I sabotaged our TV appearance? The possibility never crossed my mind. In fact, the proposal didn't cross my mind until it rolled off my tongue. Oops ...
"Matthew, Hannah." Gail nods at us.
"We're so happy to be here," I say. I pat Matt's knee. He remains comatose, and Gail launches into a spiel about how glad she is to see Matt safe, and yet how stunned she and the nation felt after the news of his death in December. She recounts the story. Her eyes sweep from the teleprompters to the crowd and back to us.
A silence follows, during which Matt is supposed to speak.
Even I know his lines.
I'm glad you brought this up, Gail. I've been looking forward to this opportunity to explain what happened, and why. First, I need to say that ...
Matt glowers at the camera.
"We're getting married," he announces.
Dear God, he looks adorable. His bewilderment turns to anger. He glares a challenge at everyone, as if we are already at the altar and someone might object to our union.
The audience gives a collective gasp.
"Wow!" says Gail. A blissful smile breaks out on my face and Matt and I hug. Everyone claps. People get on their feet.
It's soap opera season finale meets touchdown in the studio. And the crowd goes wild ...
* * *
I paused the video—Denver Buzz, May 14, 2014—and closed my laptop. The bedroom was dark. I padded to the window and watched a thick white cord of lightning reach down from the sky. Thunder followed in a long bass rumble.
I opened the window and tropically warm wind rushed over me. Our curtains streamed through the room. Finally—a storm to break the dry heat of June.
As I waited for the rain, my mind traveled back to that day, almost a month ago, when Matt and I appeared on TV and he announced to the nation that we were getting married.
The remainder of the show had focused on our whirlwind romance, our tumultuous relationship, and Night Owl, Matt's tell-all novel about us. Somehow, the news of our engagement eclipsed even Matt's phony death. We excused everything with love. Women in the audience dabbed their eyes—and the cameras ate it up—as Matt described his loneliness at the cabin. He was animated, gorgeous, and powerfully persuasive. "I realized that no amount of freedom was worth a life without Hannah," he told Gail, and a sigh rippled through the studio.
As Matt wove a tale for our rapt spectators, even I envisioned him storming off the mountain and back into my arms—all for love! We laughed and shared longing glances. I lowered my head when the story darkened. My hand played on his thigh.
After the last segment, Matt had dragged me off the set. My heart kicked into doubletime as we navigated the corridors backstage, stepping over wires and around video equipment. He hauled me into a dressing room. My phone began to ring.
I remembered thinking it was probably my boss and Matt's agent, Pamela Wing, and she was probably having an aneurysm. Or maybe she was cracking open a bottle of champagne. Impossible to say. Pam had arranged the talk show appearance and prepped Matt and me exhaustively, and we had proceeded to stray from every line in the script.
Matt's phone had started ringing, too. He ignored it. He slammed the dressing room door shut and pressed me against it. In the dark, I couldn't make out his expression.
"Hannah, what the hell was that?" His chest touched mine and I felt his wild pulse. "God, you're going to drive me to an early grave."
"I'm sorry. Are you angry? I—"
"Angry?" His breath fanned through my hair. His hands roamed down my body.
The scene is engraved on my memory: the way our cell phones rang relentlessly, the ringtone for my sister and then my mom sounding loudly, the way Matt kissed me and started to laugh, and the high fluttering happiness I felt because we had just announced our spontaneous engagement to the entire nation.
And then the way Matt had said, "You're a genius, Hannah. You're brilliant."
In the days following our TV appearance, Matt managed to put off everyone who asked about the engagement. He said it wasn't "a sure thing." He said that we planned to "continue living together" and were "keeping our options open." To Pam, he passed off the stunt as "Hannah's last-minute stroke of genius."
And with one another ... we maintained a stilted silence on the matter.
I moved back into the condo with Matt. We returned to our routines. Three weeks passed, and I began to wonder if I had even asked. Marry me. Did I say those words? We're getting married. Did he believe those words?
The sweet smell of rain brought me back to the present moment. I perched on the windowsill and listened as Denver's dry pavement sighed beneath the downpour. The wind carried a spray of moisture that misted my face and legs.
You're a genius, Hannah.
I shut the window and walked to the office.
The door stood open, which meant Matt wasn't writing. I leaned against the frame and watched him. Something on the computer screen captivated him. He sat hunched forward, frowning and rubbing his jaw.
I giggled and his eyes shot up.
God ... I loved to watch that smile dawning on his face.
"Little bird," he said. He pushed away from the keyboard and patted his thigh.
"I'm invited into the inner sanctum?" I moved around the desk and sat on his lap, and his arms tightened about me. He grinned at me. His hair was growing in blond, light roots clashing with black dye on the fringes. I ran my fingers through it and he nuzzled my chest. "Baby, we gotta do something about your hair."
"Mm." With his face between my boobs, Matt might agree to anything.
I rubbed his shoulders and he planted idle kisses along the neckline of my nightie. I stole a glance at the computer.
"Are you ... on Twitter?"
"Mm." He got a handful of my rump and squeezed. "Interacting."
"Interacting?" I smiled. "That's kind of cute."
"With my readers. I'm on Facebook, too." His mouth drifted across my chest. "It was my editor's idea."
My eyes flickered to the Firefox browser. I rarely got a look at Matt's computer. The browser tabs read Gmail, Twitter, and ... Colo Real Estate?
"Hey ... Matt." Something in my voice stopped his wandering hands and lips. "Are you looking at houses?"
"What?" His head came up. "No."
"Uh, yes." I reached for the mouse and clicked on the Colo Real Estate tab. A page of Colorado homes loaded.
He glared at the screen.
"Whatever. Just looking."
At least he didn't lie and call it research.
A smile quirked my mouth—until I started to study the houses.
"You can't be serious," I said.
Matt eased out from under me and plopped me onto the office chair. He stalked to the wall, where he pretended a frame needed straightening.
"I am serious." He spoke to the painting. "Why can't I be serious? This place is tiny. You have no real room of your own. It's like a—"
"'Six built-in fireplaces,'" I read from the Web page. "'Experience the grandeur of two-story ceilings, the wine room, wet bar, and—'"
"What's wrong with—"
"Eight baths!" I shouted over him.
"Better than one."
"Oh my God. Six bedrooms? Oh here, look at this. There's a fountain in the driveway. That's perfectly normal."
"Looks nice." His voice tightened.
"Marble floors, gourmet kitchen—ha! A Romeo and Juliet balcony? Is that a thing?"
"What's wrong with a balcony?"
"These homes are in the millions."
"The rock and stucco—"
"Right, that one is just a million and a half." I swiveled to face him. "Look at me."
He continued adjusting the painting, right a little, left a little. Ignoring me. Like a child. At last, he turned and folded his arms, and he stared at a spot in my vicinity.
"You like Nate's house," he said.
"You are still jealous of the way I looked at Nate's home?"
"His home is nice. These homes are nice." He jabbed a finger toward the computer. "I don't see why we can't even consider living somewhere nice and spacious."
Weeks' worth of frustration and confusion boiled over. I hurtled out of the chair and headed for the door. "And I'm not even sure I want to buy a home with someone who practically proposed to me on national television and hasn't breathed a word about it since!" I stormed to the bedroom and threw myself on the quilt. Like a child.
I lay in the dark, listening for Matt.
Rain spattered against the window. I heard the low thump-thump of his feet pacing the floor. Lightning shimmered on the wall and thunder reverberated over the Denver skyline.
At last, I heard him coming down the hall.
The mattress shifted.
"Are you awake?" he whispered.
"I didn't propose," he said. "You did."
I rolled over. Matt sat on the edge of the bed, hands on knees, elbows locked. I crawled to him and slipped my arms around his shoulders. He relaxed in my hold.
"I guess ... I did, yeah." I laid my ear against his back. Relief relaxed me, too. It felt good, and right, finally to be talking about this. "But you went along with it."
"Of course I did." He chuckled. "Why would I pass up such a perfect play?"
"Love, I knew you weren't serious. Not completely." He twisted around and cupped my face. His eyes glimmered with amusement. "I knew it was for the show. I mean, we've known each other for a year. Not even. And think about that year ..."
Matt trailed off and I thought about that year.
It was a year next month, in fact, if we counted our meeting online. Less than a year if we didn't count the Internet. Much less than a year if we didn't count Matt's meltdown in New York and our separation after his faked death.
So ... we'd known one another for much less than a year.
A tight, painful feeling expanded in my chest.
"So w-why were you"—I cleared my throat—"looking at houses?"
"Because we need a bigger place."
I shook my head out of his grasp. "Do we? I don't see why we need a house if we're not—" My voice cracked. If we're not getting married. No, I wouldn't be the idiot who said that. The idiot who'd spent the past month hoping and dreaming.
"What is this?" A flash of lightning whitened Matt's eyes, which were somber now. "Hey, look at me." Again, he took my face between his hands. "Little bird, you barely know me. We barely know one another, if you think about it."
His words put a hairline crack in my heart. We did know one another. We'd been through so much. What was he saying?
"And marriage is about more than me," he continued. "More than us. It's about family. There's a lot to consider, starting all that."
I pinched my tongue between my teeth. Holy shit. Matt wanted kids? We'd never had this discussion, and my desire to carry a child could be described as less than zero.
His voice gained confidence as he spoke.
"Of course we'll talk about marriage ... someday. When we're ready, you know? When we're sure this is what we want. Marriage is very finalizing, or it ought to be." He released my face and stripped off his T-shirt, and for a second his gorgeous body distracted me. Those toned arms, that golden trail below his navel ...
"I know," I snapped. "I know marriage is finalizing. I'm not an idiot."
"Come here. Don't be upset; we're talking." He tried to kiss my neck. I ducked.
"It was real for me," I said. "I was ready."
"What? Hannah ..."
Matt wanted closeness—probably to confirm that we weren't having a serious fight. I knew how he worked. He drew comfort from intimacy. See, Matt? I do know you. He pulled on my shoulder. I stiffened and fought my instinct to melt against him.
"Stop." I pressed both hands to his chest. This wasn't play and he knew it. He frowned and stilled.
"What's the matter?" His voice grated with frustration.
"I was ready," I repeated. Tears rimmed my eyelids. "I was fucking ready, Matt. I was serious when I said, "marry me." The perfect play? Is everything a game for you?" I scrambled back on the sheets. "I can't believe you just said, 'when we're sure this is what we want.'" I sniffled and a tear fell. My cheeks burned. "I am ... was sure. I'd been sure."
Matt watched me impassively. Oh, he could go so cold, even in the face of my emotion.
"What are you talking about?" he said. "Of course it was a game. It was a story, a simple narrative for simple people. Something they'd understand. Do you think I would seriously parade my engagement out for the public like that? God, it's like I said. You don't know me at all."
"No, I do know you." My fingers dug into the sheets. Nothing makes me indignant like humiliation. "You're manipulative, just like Seth said. Your own fucking brother said you're a master manipulator, and that's what you are, letting me and all those people think we were seriously getting married. I feel like such an idiot."
"Don't." Matt leaned in swiftly. He didn't touch me, but his breath touched my face and I froze. "Don't bring him into this. Do you think I'm lying when I say I love you?" He sneered. "Do you think I'm lying when I say you don't really know me? Hannah, I want things that ..." He lowered his head so that he could look directly at me. I shrank beneath his frigid stare.
He wanted things that ... what?
As suddenly as he'd leaned in, he withdrew. He stalked out of the room and left me shivering on our bed.
Mike kept a framed picture of his family on his desk. Blonde, wife, two cherubic-looking children, and a goddamn golden retriever.
I pointed at the picture with my unlit cigarette.
No smoking allowed in my psychiatrist's office, of course.
"The dog," I said. "The dog is what makes this too much."
I sat in an overstuffed armchair and Mike sat on a couch beside me, his body angled toward mine. Everything about his posture said: I am attentive to you.
Mike's golden retriever grinned at me.
"It's like you're mocking me," I said. "Mocking the poor messed-up people who must sit in this chair. With your dog. With your golden family. Do you get that?"
"You're avoiding," Mike said.
"Right." I chewed my cigarette's filter. "God, I gotta quit smoking again."
"I could prescribe something to help with that."
"Thanks, but no thanks. I'm down to one or two a day anyway." I rose and walked to the broad window of Mike's high-rise office and I looked out at a sunny Denver morning. It was Monday. Hannah was at work and I was meeting with my psychiatrist for the first time in months because Hannah demanded it.
If I didn't get regular therapy, she wouldn't live with me.
That stipulation seemed fair enough, considering the last year. (Continues...)
Excerpted from After Dark by M. Pierce. Copyright © 2015 M. Pierce. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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