The Pretend Girlfriend

By: Lucy Lambert

The room had to be about the size of her old high school's gymnasium, at least. Three honest-to-God crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, illuminating the entire space. It's a ballroom, Gwen realized.

Again, Gwen experienced some culture shock. Many of the men, all in tuxes or other expensive suits, crowded around a bar, while the women on the dance floor wore the latest fashions while shifting their bodies to the beats the DJ off in the corner spun out.

Definitely underdressed, she knew. Her little black dress would have served her well if Beatrice just took her out to a normal club where normal twenty-somethings went, but this place was anything but normal.

Meanwhile, Beatrice eyed the bar hungrily. Gwen didn't know if her interest lay in the alcohol, the men, or both. But suddenly she realized just how bad an idea this all was. There were probably bottles of champagne in that bar worth more than her debt to Patterson Holdings.

Gwen bit down on her lip, unable to keep her eyes from fixing on that thread on her shoulder. I should have looked more closely! she thought. An overwhelming urge to find the bathroom where she could pluck it out in private took over.

"What do you think of Mr. Handsome over at the corner?" Beatrice said, nodding towards a penguin-suited man sitting at the corner stool sipping from a martini, doing his best Bond impression, "Think he's Mr. My First Number of the Night? Come on."

They're all so pretty, Gwen thought, her eyes glued to the women swaying on the dance floor. Perfect skin, perfect bodies, $100 (or more) hairdos. They probably all had personal trainers and dietitians and all that. The feeling of smallness, of insignificance, welling up inside her reminded her the way she felt sometimes if she looked up at the stars on clear nights, at their incomprehensible vastness and age. Her throat started closing up.

"Gwen? Let's go! Time's a-wasten'!" Beatrice said, trying to tow her along by the arm.

"I'm sorry, I just... I have to find the bathroom," Gwen said, pulling away from Beatrice's grip. She moved so hastily that she stumbled her first step, but managed to keep it from turning into a full-on fall.

Picking one of the doorways exiting the ballroom at random, she found herself in a library, the bookcases towering up towards the ceiling. Continuing on, her pulse and breathing coming more under control the farther away she got, she ended up in what she could only guess was a billiards room, judging by the green-carpeted tables occupying the space. There was another bar in the corner.

She wouldn't have noticed the man sitting at the bar if he hadn't turned around. He looked just as startled to see her as she did to see him.

"Oh, um, I'm sorry. I was just looking for the restroom," Gwen said.

This guy seemed different, somehow. Sure, he wore a tux just like the rest of them, and his well-defined and handsome face with its high cheekbones and strong jaw spoke to good breeding, but Gwen couldn't quite figure it out. He looked around her age, early to mid twenties, but who could be sure?

"See that door there beside the bar?" he gestured.

She did. "Thanks."

Gwen pushed the door open, then locked it behind her. She closed her eyes, leaning back against the paneling. She went up to the sink, meaning to splash her face with some cold water, but stopped. It would definitely ruin her makeup. If she could hardly show her face now, how could she if she washed everything off?

So she settled for just resting for a few moments, looking herself in the eyes in the mirror, trying to find some semblance of self-confidence.

Back out in the billiards room, the handsome man watched her from his seat at the bar. Gwen couldn't quite bring herself to go back out to the party yet, so she stood nervously beside the billiards table closest to the door into that huge library.

"Not the partying type?" he asked.

"Not really. You aren't either, I guess?"

He left his drink at the bar when he came over and leaned against the billiards table, his hands in his pockets. This close, she saw her earlier assessment was right: he was a handsome man. And here, too, she saw the difference she'd noted earlier. A reserve rested behind his eyes, something other people might even call a cold aloofness.

"Not really my scene," he replied.

"So then why are you here?" Gwen said, sounding meaner than she intended.

"I could ask the same question of you."

Not really wanting to get into her problems with a stranger, she left it at, "I came with a friend. I've been dealing with some stuff, and she thought coming might cheer me up a bit."

He nodded as though he understood perfectly what she meant. Though Gwen doubted this man even knew what money troubles meant, aside from his portfolio dipping a few points or something. She couldn't quite figure him out. Was this emotional distance she felt coming from him some sort of deep confidence or self-assurance?

"So she invited you, and you came. Social pressure, it gets to the best of us," he said.

"If you say so," Gwen replied.

They lapsed into quiet. Except it wasn't what Gwen expected. Usually, lulls in conversation between strangers made for awkward moments. But this wasn't awkward; it felt more like one of those comfortable silences shared between people who already knew each other well, who didn't need to fill the air with pointless asides about the weather just to say something.

Much like any other point during this day, Gwen felt out of her depth. How could she feel this way about him? She didn't even know his name.

"I'm Gwen," she said. Not knowing what else to do, she offered her hand.

He regarded it for a moment, a small smile playing across his lips. Was it a mocking expression, genuine amusement, or something else? Gwen just couldn't read him. But finally, he took it. His palm felt warm and dry against hers, and Gwen realized that hers was probably clammy and wet, owing to her nerves. Her skin prickled.

"Aiden," he said, releasing his grip on her.

It was a nice name, she admitted. And fitting, somehow, like it really belonged to him.

Aiden let his eyes scan over the billiards room. Leaned up against the table like that, he looked perfectly comfortable and at home, and yet, at the same time, somehow disconnected.

The whole image intrigued Gwen to no end. For the first time that day, she actually went a solid ten seconds without thinking about how to come up with the cash to avoid her impending eviction.

"Would you like a drink?" Aiden said, ending the silence again. Gwen couldn't tell from his tone of voice or body language whether he was just being polite, or genuinely wanted to sit down at that bar.

Gwen was used to being able to tell if a guy actually was interested in her or not, so this whole unable to tell thing didn't sit well.

But then her cell started buzzing in her clutch. "Excuse me," she said, turning away from Aiden and digging out her phone. It was a text from Beatrice, telling her to get her butt back to the party to fulfill her wingman obligations.

"Sorry, but duty calls," Gwen said. She felt a strange mixture of relief and disappointment at making the decision to not accept Aiden's invitation. "Nice to meet you, though."

"Wait," Aiden said.

She stopped at the door into the library, looking back over her shoulder at him.

Aiden walked up to her and, without any warning, plucked the thread from her dress's strap.

"Hey!" Gwen started, knowing that just tugging the thread out would just ruin the whole thing.

But somehow, it worked. Looking down, she couldn't even tell there'd been a problem in the first place. Aiden brushed the strand from his fingers.

"How did you do that?" Gwen said, her astonishment getting in the way of her retreat.

"Old trick," Aiden replied, "Listen, if you get bored in there with your friend, you know where to find me."

"I'll keep it in mind," Gwen said, but Aiden had already turned around and headed back towards the bar. The tux fit him quite well, and she caught herself admiring him.

No, she definitely did not need the distraction of a man right now.

On her way back to the party, she kept glancing down at her shoulder, still trying to figure out how he fixed that thread without unraveling the whole thing.

Then another thought occurred to her: maybe he had been trying to unravel it all. Guys did weird things at parties to try and pick up girls. Maybe he'd been hoping that one tug would have left her standing in a pile of thread at her feet with nothing but her underwear on.

It was something she might have truly suspected, if one of the guys Beatrice was trying to pick up tried it on her. She couldn't bring herself to believe Aiden would do such a thing.

Listen to yourself! she thought, glancing at the tall bookcases, at one of those neat ladder-on-wheels things resting against one wall as she walked through the library, her heels clicking off the polished floor. You're talking like you've known the guy forever, that you know what he would and wouldn't do. She arrived back at the ballroom. The DJ had a different song playing, and now both men and women gyrated about on the dance floor.

Rather than let the whole thing confuse her further, Gwen decided to put Aiden out of her thoughts. The last thing to leave were those cold, if gentle, eyes of his.

"Hey! Where'd you go?" Beatrice said, spying her from across the room and coming over.

"Bathroom," Gwen answered, "This place is enormous! I almost got lost."

"Well," Beatrice said, looping her arm through Gwen's and leading her deeper into the party, "It's a good thing you didn't! I gave my number out twice so far. Come on, Browning, time to get to work. Shake that booty, yeah!"

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