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When a couple starts to feel like they’re married to a stranger, a flirtatious game of pretend becomes the spark they need to reignite their relationship.
Eliza and Graham are anticipating an anything-but-sexy, weeklong getaway to celebrate their five-year anniversary. Nestled on the Northern California coastline, the resort prides itself on being a destination for those in love and those looking to find it. For Eliza and Graham, it might as well be a vacation with a roommate.
When a well-meaning guest mistakes Eliza and Graham for being single and introduces them at the hotel bar, they don’t correct him. Suddenly, they’re pretending to be perfect strangers and it’s unexpectedly…fun? Eliza and Graham find themselves flirting like it’s their first date, and waiting with butterflies in their stomach for the other to text back.
Everyone at the retreat can sense the electric chemistry between Eliza and Graham’s alter egos. But when their scintillating game of roleplaying ends, will they still feel the heat?
|Penguin Publishing Group
|5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)
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I watch my husband out of the corner of my eye, imploring, wishing he would end the silence filling our car. In the window past him, the ocean glitters, unchanging. The California coastline should inspire wonder, with its rippling cliffs and its crystalline expanse, even when you've spent hours watching the water through the windshield. Instead, the thing I notice most is how it just keeps going.
Graham doesn't. He drives, his long fingers clamped on the pebbled leather of the steering wheel, his posture stiff. The quiet, interrupted only by the occasional whoosh of cars passing us, prickles over me like the start of a sunburn.
Is this how this week will be?
I told myself it wouldn't. I've told myself that pretty much every day since Graham's parents handed us an envelope over dinner containing a weeklong, all-expenses-paid romantic getaway at the Treeline Resort to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary. I convinced myself the week would be wonderful instead of awkward or claustrophobic. What couple wouldn't want to celebrate five years of marriage at a five-star hotel famous for its romantic ambience?
The quiet filling our car says it knows. Determined, I fight off my discouragement. I wish Graham would speak up, would offer something up into the silence-even comment on the weather-but he doesn't.
It's not only him not speaking, I remind myself. Screw sitting here waiting. Maybe I need to be less narrator, more main character.
I clear my throat. "We're doing good on-"
"Just three hours to go-" Graham quickly cuts in.
"Time," I finish, then wince, hearing the unintentional overlap of our voices. It's less like cutely finishing each other's sentences, more like two supermarket shoppers coincidentally reaching for the same shelf. Less unison, more collision.
I don't blame him for cutting in, for intuiting exactly what I was going to say. Every exchange my husband and I have managed in the past twenty-four hours has consisted of nothing except this one meaningless subject. When we should leave, how long the drive is, whether we should take the 1 or the 5 freeway. Unable to help myself, I glance over, wondering whether Graham shares my desperation to change our conversational flat tire.
He does. He shifts in his seat like someone's stowed rocks in the soft leather cushion under him.
I remember the way I described Graham Cutler to my friends and my parents fresh off our first dates. He's tall, I'd said. He's got blond hair, a cleft chin, intelligence in his eyes. The kind he could use to eviscerate rhetorical weaknesses, but he doesn't, not with me. We'd met and chatted with each other on a dating app, and when we got together in person, these observations were the first I connected to the personality I'd gotten to know on my phone.
The problem is, they're what I hear now. Observations. I've been married to Graham for five years, and when I look over from the passenger seat, my mind does nothing except reproduce the list of identifying marks I jotted down in my head when me met. He's tall. He has blond hair.
It hasn't been this way forever-in our newlywed years, Graham turned, the way spouses should, into swirling slideshows of happy memories, never-ending excitement to catch up over dinner or share something funny one of us found online.
Gradually, though, it's gotten harder to feel like I know the man seated next to me, despite knowing I love him. It happened not through fights or rifts, but through late work nights, quick conversations instead of real ones. Our starkly different careers don't help-the high-profile San Diego law firm where Graham is planning to make partner, the many audiobooks and voice-acting jobs I've recorded in the past five years. Complacency converted into unspoken questions and discussions never had. Five years into our marriage, I'm left with only my catalog, once eager, now rote. Learned. Repeated.
He's tall. He has blond hair. He is my husband.
Part of me wonders whether Graham's mother gave us this gift knowing we're having difficulty finding the spark. Helen has never been a particularly generous gift-giver despite being a member of a Marina del Rey yacht club. When I got home and googled the hotel, seeing the price per night confirmed her meddlesome motives.
Of course, Helen's response would be to force us into this situation, which is frustrating in principle no matter how much I might be looking forward to cucumber water in the lobby. The Cutler family way is to walk through fire, while mine is to walk in the other direction. It's why I haven't spoken to my sister in months. I don't enjoy retreating-I've just concluded it's the safest thing for me. For everyone.
No, I chasten myself. Eliza, you will enjoy yourself, damnit. You will not surrender to three more hours of traffic-related small talk.
My internal pep talk surges confidence into me, like I felt when I spontaneously shoved my new lingerie into my suitcase under my running shoes and my e-reader. It's red, lacy, and designed for exactly one purpose, which is not day-to-day functionality. My best friend, Nikki, gave it to me to celebrate this anniversary. While packing this morning in the bedroom of the house we rent in San Diego's summer cottage neighborhood of La Jolla, I chose to ignore how out of place the lingerie was in the present context of Graham's and my marriage, how far we've started to feel from spontaneity or surprise. I'm going for it, I decided, stashing the collection of lace and straps in my suitcase.
"Hey," I say, latching on to a conversational handhold. "I wonder if this hotel has milkshakes."
Every sliver of my focus is on Graham's reaction to this subject change. When he smiles, despite the sun shining through the windows since we left our hometown's morning fog behind, I feel warmth for the first time in the hours we've been on the road.
Until he replies. "Milkshakes?" he repeats, cool confusion in his voice. "Why would we want milkshakes?"
My heart plunges. Right off the cliff outside. Right into the endless ocean. I wonder if Graham knows what he's done. His straightforward stare says nothing of my dashed hopes.
"I don't want milkshakes," Graham goes on. "I want banana milkshakes."
I hear myself laugh. The sound is quick, echoing joyously in our car. Now Graham grins fully, half Cheshire cat, half high school boy pleased to have earned his crush's laughter. I'm the crush, I remember delightedly. I'm not just the person he goes to bed with-I'm the person he still plays games with.
On the first night of our honeymoon, we lost track of time exploring the streets of Santorini, returning to our hotel famished with only five minutes until room service ended. The understandably perturbed kitchen staff explained they'd cleaned up for the night except for the ice cream supplies, and the other guests had polished off everything but, inexplicably, the banana ice cream. If we wanted, they offered, they could make us banana milkshakes.
We did. We spent the first night of our honeymoon watching midnight descend over the water, drinking banana milkshakes.
"What will we do if they don't have them?" I reply, pitching my voice breathily, putting on the register I used for the wonderful new historical romance novel I'd just finished recording. Today, I'm a damsel in milkshakeless distress.
When Graham replies, I recognize the gravitas of his client-phone-call voice. "I think we have clear claims for tortious vacation interference or negligence of frozen treats," he informs me. "Wrongful death if my wife perishes from banana milkshake deprivation is harder, but there's precedent. Depends on the inclinations of judges in this circuit."
"Better hit the books then, Mr. Cutler."
"Will do, Mrs. Cutler."
"Is this pro bono work?"
"Out of the goodness of my heart, Mrs. Cutler," he promises.
I smile, relaxing into the passenger seat, the stress releasing from my shoulders. I shouldn't feel so relieved. It's just-so many of my conversations with Graham lately, while pleasant, have felt insubstantial. Missing something. Like the filler dialogue I sometimes record for video game parts instead of the main story. Banana-milkshake banter felt real. It felt like us.
Emboldened, I pivot in my seat, crossing one white sneaker under me. The canopy of trees unexpectedly soaring over this stretch of road filters the sunlight in patterns while we drive, speckling the dashboard in ever-changing leopard spots. "For real," I prompt my husband. "What do you want to do when we get there?"
I watch the moment it happens. Graham's expression doesn't change-the relaxed hint of his smile, the fixture of his eyes on the road-except, something does change. Some secret spark shuts off in him. Photographs of sunlight look like day, but they offer no warmth. Nothing grows in the sort of false light now glinting in Graham's eyes.
"I don't know," he replies with forced casualness. His hesitancy is its own flashback, reminding me of his studious reserve when we first met, when courtroom experience hadn't yet put confidence into him.
I press on, patiently struggling. We were just having fun, weren't we? "Well, I'm just looking forward to having the gorgeous room to ourselves. The ocean view, the trees, the hot tub . . ."
Graham just nods.
"This is going to be good for us," I say, then immediately regret my choice of words. I can't ignore the implication in them. Saying this trip will be good for us is prescriptive. It's vitamins served on a silver platter. I sound desperate, chasing the nameless shadows creeping into the corners of our marriage lately.
"It will," Graham says. It's the end of the conversation.
When the road swerves, my thoughts do the same. I retreat into sudden insecurity, ignoring the spectacular path our car is now winding into the sagebrush mountains. Are our memories the only things we have left? If so, why even go on this trip? Why drive these six hours into the green hills of Northern California if we're only going to cloak ourselves in reminiscence when we get there?
No. I refuse to give up. We haven't even gotten to the hotel. I know retreating would be easier, occupying myself with the sample I need to record-
Right then, I get the perfect idea.
The sample my producer sent me is not video-game dialogue. It's not nonfiction essays. It's not commercial voiceover. It's . . . sexy. Very sexy.
Maybe it could reset the tone for this trip. Loosen Graham up.
It could be, dare I say, fun.
Glancing up, I find my husband still focused on the road. "Hey," I say innocently. "Would you mind if I record something?"
"Would you mind if I record something?"
I'm embarrassed by how quickly the rush of relief comes over me. It's just-the out Eliza's given me is preferable to the grating howl of the question never far from my thoughts when I'm with her. What do I say? How do I be interesting enough, funny enough, fun enough for her?
I don't remember how I ever pulled it off, how I charmed Eliza Cutler, née Kelly, into marrying me. I sometimes feel like a fraud, some con man who managed to scam her into thinking I was worthy of her. Every day, every hour, every conversation, I come closer to her realizing I'm so much less interesting than the man she thought she married. The less I say, the more time I have before she sees through me, and I'm holding on to every precious second I have left.
Even under normal circumstances, it's difficult these days to conjure up conversation interesting enough. It's insurmountable now, when I'm preoccupied with how this very same worry will taunt me for one whole week of hikes, hot tubs, and hotel champagne with Eliza, uninterrupted.
The ocean outside my window was supposed to relax me. I picked PCH-the Pacific Coast Highway-for the sweeping scenery, the glittering sea right past the cliffs on which we're driving. I'd hoped it would remind me of the picturesque surroundings I'm heading toward. Instead, it's only made me more uneasy. It's one thing to feel our distance in the stiflingly familiar house neither of us has had time to clean in months. It's something else entirely to feel it on vacation, nestled in the stunning forested hills of Northern California.
"Of course not," I say. "The road noise won't get in the way?"
She unlocks her iPhone. "It's just a sample for my producer to give me feedback," she says.
Eliza is a voice actor, primarily for audiobooks and video games. When we met, she was voicing the villain for an indie computer game, copies of which I purchased proudly. It stings to remember helping her rehearse, reading opposite her for long nights on her old green couch. She played a powerful sorceress, and I found myself enchanted by other kinds of magic watching her talent come to life.
She shifts in her seat, unfolding her foot out from under her. I know her long legs get stiff on lengthy drives. She's gorgeous, the voice in my head says. No matter what, it's the first thing I think whenever my eyes find her. She's the most gorgeous woman I've ever met. Shoulder-length hair, once chestnut, now streaked with gold courtesy of the San Diego sun. Wide, intense eyes the color of the mist La Jolla is wrapped in every morning. Small, serious mouth. Utterly gorgeous.
Just . . . a gorgeous person who I happen to live with.
It's the second thing I think whenever I see my wife. The difficulty we've had connecting recently. I remember when her dancing eyes, her smile, were invitations into shared laughter and easy conversation.
Now they're like the elegant details of the paintings I studied in the art history class I took in undergrad. It was the only B that I got in college.
I wish I could make casual conversation with her, the way I would with a stranger or acquaintance. In those cases, I could ask about their homes, their jobs, their childhoods. I've been commended on my small talk, in fact. The managing partner at my firm says I make clients comfortable, like they're old friends.
With Eliza, I've already asked those questions. I asked them over dinners and coffees when we started dating in LA. When I still couldn't figure out why the confident, funny woman sitting across from me in the hipster café on La Cienega or in the incredible Thai place on Sunset had swiped right on me, one UCLA law student out of thousands of young professionals in the city. Even now, her responses from back then have the luster of young love when I remember them. Grew up in Evanston. University of Chicago for college. One sister, older. Moved to LA for acting.