The Pretend Girlfriend

By: Lucy Lambert

Gwen did her best to party. With her help, Beatrice did actually give her number out two more times, bringing the total up to four guys. Though the last one seemed disappointed that Gwen wouldn't give him her number.

No one could say she didn't try to have fun. She even went out to the dance floor, and had several more glasses of that champagne. But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't get Aiden quite out of her mind. She kept thinking about him sitting alone in that billiards room, and several times even thought about trying to sneak away to join him for that drink after all. That cool, aloof exterior of his demanded investigation, piquing her curiosity in way she hadn't felt in, well, ever.

But she never managed to get away from Beatrice again that night, and something kept her from introducing the two of them. She didn't want to admit it might be jealousy, that she didn't want Aiden to be Mr. Number Five for Beatrice.

Chapter 4

Some time after midnight, Gwen and Beatrice left the party. Gwen's body still vibrated and throbbed to the beat of the music, and a deep, dull headache worked its unkind fingers behind her eyes. She carried her heels in one hand, the coolness of the floor against her sore, danced-out feet a relief.

Beatrice kept looking at her cell the whole way home in the back of the cab, as though staring at it intensely might make one of the men call or text her right away.

"So'd you have fun?" Beatrice asked distractedly, checking for the umpteenth time that her ringer was, in fact, on and at maximum volume. The glow of her cell was a constant companion.

"Yes, actually," Gwen said, giving it some real thought, "Thanks for letting me tag along."

"No problem, any time..." Beatrice said, not really paying any attention.

They lapsed into silence, and that made Gwen think of Aiden again. Even this quiet here with Beatrice, the only sounds the hum of the engine and the tires on the road, didn't seem quite so nice as it had been with him.

"Hey, B?" Gwen said.

"Uh huh?"

"Do you know anything about an Aiden...?" she didn't get his last name, she remembered. This irritated her.

But clearly the name meant something to Beatrice. She actually locked her phone and shoved it back into her clutch. "Aiden? Aiden Manning?"

"I didn't get his last name, actually..."

As quickly as she'd put it away, Beatrice retrieved her phone. She tapped away at the screen, then showed it to Gwen. There was the bottom of a news headline, something about a passing of a torch, whatever that meant. And below that, a picture of Aiden. He wore a black business suit in this one, but he still had that cold look in his eyes.

"That's him," Gwen said.

"Yeah, you're gonna want to stay away from him," Beatrice said. Her voice took on that same tone it had when she talked celebrity gossip, as though she was intimate friends with every A-list Hollywood celeb and knew their every dark and dirty secret.

"What do you mean?"

Beatrice clicked her tongue. "Oh, Gwen, leave it to you to get into an exclusive party like that and wind up with a guy like that. When did this happen, anyway? Tell me everything."

Feeling somewhat off put but Beatrice's attitude, she related the story of meeting Aiden.

"What a jerk," Beatrice said when Gwen finished.

"I don't know. He was a little standoffish, I guess, but I don't think he was an outright jerk. And he's pretty handsome, too."

"The worst ones always are, my child. The worst ones always are. Anyway, just count yourself lucky that you didn't give him your number or anything... Speaking of numbers, check out this text! This guy actually wants to see me again tomorrow, can you believe it? A bit eager, aren't we?" Beatrice said, waving the phone at Gwen without actually stopping it long enough for Gwen to read the message.

"I thought you said the three day rule was stupid?" Gwen said.

Beatrice shrugged, her eyes glued to the screen and her thumbs tapping out a response. "It is, but there's such a thing as too fast, you know. If he's so quick in messaging me, maybe he's... ah... premature in other ways, too, if you get me?"

"Unfortunately I do. Now can you give your hormones a rest for a moment and tell me just why I'm lucky Aiden didn't get my number?"

In the front seat, the cabbie did his best to ignore the whole exchange.

Beatrice sighed a long-suffering sigh and let her hands drop to her lap, the cell still glowing. "He's just bad news, okay? I've met him a few times at other parties, and as you can see, he's in the headlines sometimes, too. People say things about him. No one ever sees him with a woman, or with anyone really for that matter outside of other business people."

Gwen nodded, considering this new information. Was the guy a perpetual wallflower, then? Handsome, but so aloof and full of himself that he didn't bother to mingle with the mere mortals around him? On the face of it, it seemed to fit. But Gwen still couldn't quite buy into all of it. If Beatrice didn't like a handsome guy like that, there was usually a very specific reason, for one.

"Are you just saying this because you couldn't manage to get him to ask you out?" Gwen said.

From the way Beatrice bristled, Gwen thought she knew the answer.

"No! Well, maybe a little. But even so, Gwen, just take it from me. Aiden is bad news. Just forget about him, okay? Don't you have all that rent stuff to worry about? Or don't you remember how that terrible roommate of yours skipped town and left you holding the bill?"

Gwen took her turn at bristling. "Of course!"

The cab pulled up to the curb outside Gwen's building. She and Beatrice hugged, though Gwen couldn't help feeling a bit annoyed with her friend. Before getting stepping out into the cool evening air, she reiterated her intent to pay Beatrice back at some point.

"Don't worry about it, really. Just try and get some sleep. Hey, meet me at Starbucks again tomorrow. I'll bet you'll have a way out of this figured out by then," Beatrice said.

Gwen accepted, but couldn't help feeling guilty. She knew that Beatrice would insist on buying her another latte, but she just couldn't pass it up. Besides, I will pay her back, Gwen thought. I will.

When she got up to her apartment and collapsed onto the bed, barely able to summon the energy to pull off her dress and kick off her shoes, she wondered how many more nights she'd have in that room.

Because, despite her attempts to stay positive, she knew there was no way she could come up with that kind of money. There was only one hope she had left, and it was a small one.

Chapter 5

Gwen woke up planning to first call her mother and then her father for help right away. Getting it done first thing was best, she decided. Like yanking off a Band-Aid. Better to do it right away, get it over with, instead of agonizing over the pain it might cause.

Instead, she washed, got dressed in her usual jeans, throwing on a comfy shirt. She actually looked at her phone for a solid minute before the anxiety managed to wash away the vestiges of her resolve.

She just kept thinking about what would happen if they both told her no. Which was a very real and frightening possibility. They were, after all, still in the middle of their divorce. And while they would both like to be able to make the crack at the other that they helped their daughter out of a tight spot, they also both had every last cent they owned tied up in the courts.

So, with the professional procrastinator's attitude of "why do now what you can keep putting off until later", Gwen sent Beatrice a text saying she was heading out to Starbucks early, and would see her there.

She knew putting this whole thing off only hurt her, that every minute spent not trying to divine the winning lottery numbers, or searching for that once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity was wasted time. But it just felt so good to keep putting it off, to keep delaying it, to press it back in her mind with the thought of, "I still have time; I'll get to it later." But later always turns out to be sooner than you think. Usually much sooner. Gwen ignored that thought, too.

At Starbucks, she asked for water and then sat down near the corner. Condensation beaded on the plastic cup, forming a wet ring on the table. She wished she'd brought a book, but knew she was far too distracted to give it any measure of attention.

So instead she just watched the people coming in and out. Given that it was a Starbucks, most of the clientele consisted of men and women in business attire toting briefcases, rushing in to get their morning triple-shot non-fat espresso injection. The men usually tried to flirt with the pretty barista, even though they were usually a good ten years older, while the women pretended not to notice how much younger and better looking she was.

For a bit, Gwen got her mind off things by pretending she was one of these women. She thought about having a nice car outside, a BMW or Audi or some other expensive import. She had a nice condo to go back to every day. Lots of money in the bank. Maybe a handsome young groundskeeper to help keep her grounds.

It was a nice escape, a nice fantasy. But it was just a fantasy, and no matter how hard she tried, it kept crumbling around her.

And she tried pretty hard. So hard, actually, that she didn't at first notice the attention she received from the line of people standing and waiting for their drink orders as the milk frother hissed.

How long have I been sitting here? she wondered, digging her phone out and checking. She sighed. Beatrice was supposed to meet her nearly twenty minutes ago. She sent her punctuality-deprived friend a quick text, but got no reply.

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