Haley trailed the rim of the wineglass with her finger, staring expectantly into its golden contents. Then she looked up at her date across the table, Dale. He was dashingly handsome in the way only a liar could be, and he was smitten with her. Tall, wealthy, intelligent . . . he was everything she ever wanted. The guilt she felt in her trembling heart was a ruse.
“How long have you been in town?” he asked.
She drank the rest of the wine like a shot. “Since earlier today,” she announced after she put down the glass. “I’m just visiting for a few days.”
“So why did you want to meet up?”
“I wanted to see how you were doing.” She smiled sweetly, batting the eyelashes she had meticulously covered in mascara earlier that afternoon. “I miss you.”
“I miss you, too.” Dale paused for effect. Then he went for broke. “Didn’t I hear you’re seeing someone?”
Haley blushed and looked away. Through the glass of the window to her right was the city skyline – a glittering composite of yellow lights and flashing signs through which she could barely make out the silhouette of the buildings she had seen a thousand times during the day from her old job a few blocks away. The familiar-turned-enchanted was a welcomed site and served to calm her nerves.
“Yes,” she said, surprised her voice wasn’t breaking. She gazed warmly at Dale. “Thomas and I have been dating for a few months now.”
“Thomas!” he cried, grinning. “How did that happen?”
The words came out in a rush. “He lives a half hour away. The next town over. We met for coffee once, just to talk. He told me he always had a thing for me after all these years. I kind of always knew it, I guess. So we got to be friends, and then . . .”
She knew it didn’t sound convincing, and Dale was not convinced. Still, they both pretended she still had feelings for Thomas. When the silence made her nervous enough to start picking at her nails, she added, “I heard you were seeing someone, too.”
“Yeah. Tess. She is nice, but she’s nothing like you were.”
Haley swore she felt her heart stop. He was moving entirely too fast. This wasn’t how this was supposed to go. Or was it? There were no rules laid out beforehand. She had the heady realization that he was calling all the shots.
As she reached for her wineglass only to realize it was empty, she bit her lip. “Tess, huh? She’s a nice girl. Does she know you’re here?”
Haley blushed again. “Does he know about this? No. I decided it was best not to tell him.”
“Probably a good idea. He knows me too well.”
“Why, what are you planning on doing?”
“Nothing.” Haley was surprised to see the cast of red on his cheeks. “It’s just that we’ve been friends for a long time, you and me. I was crazy about you. I’m still crazy about you. How could I ever get over someone like you? You’re funny, beautiful, smart . . . you know, all the things Tess isn’t.”
“Hey.” Suddenly Haley felt very defensive on her friend’s account. “Be nice to Tess. She’s a nice girl. Besides, I thought you liked her.”
“Not as much as I liked you. Not as much as I like you right now.”
Haley touched the pooling sweat at her temples. If this was how he wanted to take it, then fine. She would play along.
“I’ve really missed you. Thomas isn’t like you. He makes fun of the music I like.”
“Thomas is a jerk. You always had good taste in music. Tess doesn’t laugh at my jokes.”
“You were always funny to me.”
Haley reached across the table to touch his hand. They shared a moment stretched beyond two worlds, two people, and two ridiculous lies. But in the pale blue glint of his eyes she could see the person he was, and she found herself wanting him to come back.
For his sake, however, and because he seemed to be enjoying this – she continued to play her part.
With as much love as she ever had for him, she coyly exclaimed “Let’s go somewhere.”
Dale paid the bill, and the two of them left the bar as the band broke into another session. Haley felt the pulse of the music as she passed the stage to follow Dale to the exit. Her heart was pounding in her chest. Deep down, she didn’t want to go through with this. Not like this. Not as this person.
He took her hand as they began the walk back to his car.
In the gentle evening breeze, Haley felt her tears freeze to her eyelashes. She tried to smother the sting of her failure. She had wanted to seduce him, and now she was the one being seduced. And she was certain she could take no more of this, for as much as she longed to be someone else, she only wanted to be herself with him.
“Hey,” she said, stopping at the car. Dale turned to face her and she read his eyes. They were still warm, so she continued. “I don’t think I can do this.”
“What do you mean?”
“This. I don’t want to do this.”
“What’s the matter, Haley? I care about you. I’m in love with you.” He touched her face, briefly looked into her eyes, and she felt the fireworks as he kissed her, but not because he was playing a part. She felt that way regardless, no matter how many times he had kissed her in the past. There was no need for the ruse. She loved him for him.
“No,” she said after she broke away. “I don’t want to pretend anymore.”
Dale’s face nearly fell, but he caught himself. “Oh. You sure?”
“You weren’t having fun?”
“A little at first. But not anymore. Not now.”
“That’s too bad. I was having a blast.”
“I’m sorry. I just can’t.”
“Because. It’s just silly. I shouldn’t have to pretend to be someone else in order to be in love with you. I want to love you as me.”
Dale sighed heavily. She could read disappointment in the eyes she knew more than her own. But as she braced herself for bargains, pleas, or perhaps even a bitter outburst, instead he pulled her close and kissed her forehead like a child.
“Let’s go home,” he said softly.
Haley closed her eyes in relief, wrapping her arms around him, feeling as if she already was.
In the car, she held his hand while he drove. The silence finally got to her.
“You’re sure you’re not mad?”
Another minute passed before she spoke again. “Someday we will laugh at ourselves. That we ever did this.”
“I mean, Thomas? Tess?” She exploded into giggles. “I hope they never find out!”
“Now that would be funny.”
They continued to laugh together, basking in their own familiarity and good-natured humor. When it finally died down, Haley reached into her purse.
“Almost forgot,” she said, placing the thick metal band in Dale’s hand before she slipped her own ring back on her finger. Then she settled into the passenger seat, once again holding her husband’s hand.