The Pretend Girlfriend

By: Lucy Lambert

"Do you understand?" Gwen said when Tabby went out of earshot. She kept her voice lower just in case. Tabby kept shooting sidelong glances over at their table.

"I think so. Basically, pretend we're a stereotypical married couple from the '50s."

Gwen bristled. "Married? No one said anything about being married! I thought this was girlfriend only. Dating, that sort of thing."

Aiden held his hands up. The smile of amusement never slid from his face. "No, no. You're right. I was just trying to make a joke. But yes, I agree to your terms. Are there any more?"

"I'm sure there will be," Gwen said, crossing her arms beneath her breasts. She knew how combative she was being about all this, but she still couldn't stop feeling angry, and a bit hurt, at what he'd done at Starbucks. She'd be his girlfriend, all right, but he was going to make it worth her while.

"Sounds good. I'll have my lawyer courier the paperwork over to your place tonight. Which reminds me, I'm going to need your contact information. Address, phone, email, you know. It'd look a little strange if we were in a serious relationship and I didn't know where you lived."

Gwen tore a napkin from the aluminum dispenser and began rooting through her purse for the pen she knew she kept in there somewhere. After a few polite moments, Aiden reached into his jacket and produced one, sliding it across the table, around their coffee. She scrawled all the things he'd asked for down, trying not to tear the material.

She hadn't realized he'd bring actual lawyers and real paperwork into this. It made sense, after a fashion. After all, this was a business arrangement. Being a business man, of course he wanted it all laid out in black and white on paper with dates and signatures and all that.

Still, it stung a little, and she thought of how she really would have said yes had he genuinely asked her out on a date. Gwen folded the napkin and shoved it back across the table.

Her knuckle tapped his coffee mug, sending some of the dark liquid sloshing over the brim. Aiden pulled out another napkin and dabbed at the spill, even as he took the folded one from her and tucked it back into his pocket along with his pen.

Tabby came over with their sandwiches. In spite of her initial apprehension, Gwen couldn't help admitting it smelled good and looked appetizing, with the bit of white egg poking out of the edges along with some leafy green lettuce. The sandwich was served with fries. Her mouth watered.

She gave the return of her appetite a warm welcome, eating that sandwich. The egg went surprisingly well with the rest of the contents. She was about half way through when she caught Aiden watching her. He'd taken a couple bites out of his, but didn't seem nearly so interested in it as he was in her. Suddenly self conscious, Gwen dabbed at her lips with a napkin.

"So why are you doing this, anyway?" Gwen said, anxious to get the attention off herself.

The question apparently spoiled Aiden's appetite. He glanced down at his sandwich and pushed it away. "There are pressures in my life. Expectations. I've chosen to devote myself to my company, though not in the way some people want. Certain people think I'm not living my life the way they intended it, and they have made... threats to my continued involvement if I don't start following through on those expectations."

"And one of those 'expectations' is that you need to be in a relationship?"

"Yes. A particular kind of relationship. Speaking of which, you, too, will have guidelines you'll need to follow. Don't worry, they'll be outlined in the contract you'll be getting later today."

Gwen pushed her sandwich out of the way so that she could lean in closer. This whole thing was just getting stranger and stranger. "Okay, I get it. Your daddy, who is also your boss, Henry, wants you to be a different kind of son. What I can't get over is that I really would have gone out with you if you'd have asked. And I just have to know why you didn't before I go about signing up for this." One foot tapped nervously under the table. The question really did burn inside her. Why would he want a fake relationship when he could have had a real one?

Though that ship, as they say, had set sail the instant he made this ludicrous offer.

"You seem nice, Gwen, really. But you're just not my type. And even if you were, I'm not interested in a real relationship. And have you been stalking me or something? How do you know all this?"

She leaned back, arms crossed again. Not his type? Not interested in a relationship? Just who did this guy think he was? Gwen seriously considered dropping the whole thing then and there. At least living with one of her parents was honest.

And, though she didn't want to admit it yet, his answer also hurt. She'd genuinely liked him at first, and discovering that your feelings aren't reciprocated just plain sucks.

"Google. Wikipedia. You have an entry in the Carbide Solutions article," she answered. A pressure started building behind her eyes, and she blinked furiously to hold it back. "Haven't you ever heard of the internet? Besides, isn't this stuff I would have to know anyway, you know, to make this act look convincing? How long did you think you could keep it a secret?" She fired off the questions like bullets from a gun.

And they had a pretty similar impact. Aiden started to pale a little, and that smug smile finally fell from his lips.

Rather than the satisfaction she expected, Gwen experienced guilt. At least that pressure behind her eyes began lessening. She started to apologize for her tone, but Aiden held up a hand to silence her.

"Not long... I don't know. I need to get back to some work. We can talk more later. How much money do you need to get those landlords off your back?" He took out his checkbook and pen.

Gwen knew when she touched a nerve, and she realized she was being a little hard on him. Projecting her own anger. Clearly, he had a vastly different perspective, and different expectations, about this whole thing than she did.

She reached out to touch his hand. It was an automatic response, trying to make a connection with him. "Hey, I think maybe I..." she started.

Aiden drew back, his jaw clenching. "How much?"

Gwen let her hand rest against the cool surface of the table. "I owe them about $5000."

Nodding, Aiden put pen to check. His signature was graceful and looping. Somewhat to her surprise, he made it out for the full amount. This being a business deal, she figured it might be one of those half now, half later situations and she had been fully prepared to fight over it.

A quick jerk, with more force than necessary, ripped the check from the book. He folded it neatly and held it out.

Gwen realized that, though she had yet to sign anything, this was the point where she truly either accepted or rejected this whole thing. Take the check, and she was Aiden Manning's girlfriend. Refuse to take it, and she would still be indebted to Patterson Holdings, but wouldn't be a part of this scheme.

Likely sensing her thoughts, Aiden made no move to sway her either way other than continuing to hold out the little slip of paper that was the key to her financial freedom. Part of her wished he would say something, try to nudge her in one direction. If he did, she knew, she would choose the opposite.

But Aiden was shrewd, and kept his silence.

Gwen accepted the check, tucking it away in her purse. The action broke the tension building in the air, and they both relaxed.

"Would you like me to pack those up for you?" Tabby said.

Gwen jerked, not having heard the waitress approach. The girl lived up to her name; quiet as a cat.

"That's okay, I think we're both finished," Aiden said, pulling out a billfold and thumbing through the paper. He put down more than double what Gwen figured the food cost and told Tabby to keep the change. The girl beamed at him. Gwen just looked out the window, trying to fight down the urge to tell the waitress off.

He's not actually my man, she thought.

Then something else occurred to her. She'd been so busy thinking about those all important restrictions that she hadn't thought to ask another important question. Turning back, she started to ask how long this whole thing was supposed to last, but Aiden had already left.

The bells above the door jingled, and she watched him from her seat. He rounded the corner. Shortly thereafter, he pulled out onto the street behind the wheel of Jaguar sedan painted a blue so dark it might as well have been black.

Gwen sighed, thinking that she should have asked for a ride.

And, despite the answer to her current problems sitting in her purse in the form of a check for $5000, Gwen didn't think her troubles were over.

Chapter 8

Another chance to put an end to the charade presented itself at the bank. She stood in the long line of people trying to get their bills paid after work for a good fifteen minutes, shuffling forward a few steps occasionally.

As usual, the tellers did their best to take as long as possible with each customer. What made it truly ironic was the Number 1 in Customer Service and Satisfaction in the Tri-State Area signs hanging about the lobby.

When she reached the front of the line, the people behind her grumbled when a teller at the far end leaned out and shouted "Next!" and she didn't go right away.

But Gwen ended up depositing the check, feeling once more like she'd just passed a Point of No Return sign. At this point, all she could really hope was that she didn't encounter one that read Dead End. She wished she could transfer the money to Patterson Holdings right away and get herself out of one mess at least, but the teller said the check would take a few days to clear.

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