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Ring of Truth

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Ring of Truth

By Jaclyn Weist

This is a work of fiction, and the views expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the author.

Likewise, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are represented fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events or locales, is entirely coincidental.

 

Ring of Truth

Book design and layout copyright © 2015 by Dragons & Fairy Tales Press

Cover design copyright © 2015 by  Jeff and Rachelle Hearn

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means whatsoever without written permission from the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. 

Copyright © 2015 by Jaclyn Weist

Printed in the United States of America

Year of first printing: 2015

Dedication

For Gaye ~ The best neighborly-sisterly-friend a girl could ask for.

Acknowledgments

It constantly amazes me how much fun it is write a brand new shiny book. This book has been especially fun because it took me on a whole new adventure from what I’ve written before. True, my books always contain romance. I can’t write without it because it’s what I enjoy in other stories.

I want to thank my friend, Gaye, for reading my first attempt at romance, and for enjoying it enough that she threatened my life when the last twenty pages were cut off and she had to know what happened. Thankfully, we found them and she was able to finish. She’s been such a great cheerleader through all of my writing shenanigans.

Thank you to Laura, Lindzee, Liz, LaChelle, and Rachelle for reading through and helping me make the book come alive. Also, I want to give a huge thanks to Rachelle for yet another fantastic cover.  Thank you to my family for putting up with my late nights.

Thank you to my fans for enjoying my books. I love you all!

And I want to thank Steve most of all. I love you!

Chapter 1

Erin’s day started out great, but went quickly downhill from there. She’d worked hard on the presentation for work, and it was a success. She won the account for Smithson Jewelers, and if her proposal was accepted by the client, the ads would be displayed in all the top magazines in the country, just in time for the start of the Christmas season. Never mind that it was still August.

After the meeting, however, was announced that because of several cuts to the budget, most of her personal staff were laid off. She watched in dismay as they all left the office, carrying their belongings in cardboard boxes. She waved as her best friend, Carissa, trailed behind the others. They’d worked together from day one, and had been inseparable since. In fact, Carissa had helped put this ad campaign together. Now, she was gone, and Erin hadn’t even had a chance to say good-bye.

Then when Erin had gone back to her office to put together a list of the reasons why she needed to have Carissa hired as her personal assistant, she’d found a phone message that her cat had gotten loose and was now at the pound, and another one saying her parents would be in town for the weekend for a wedding.

She’d had it. She closed the door, walked inside her small, cramped closet and screamed. It was possible the others in the office could hear her, but she didn’t care. It was time to go home and take a hot bubble bath and forget, well, life. After saving her poor kitty, of course.

Erin printed out the list, then stormed into her boss’s office and waited for her to get off the phone. Debra held up a finger and lowered her voice as she finished the call. She smoothed her perfectly pressed skirt and reorganized her spotless desk before finally looking up at Erin.

“Yes, Erin?” Debra’s eyes had dark circles under them.

“I, um, I wanted to ask if I could have Carissa rehired as my assistant.” Erin cleared her throat and handed Debra the list she’d made. “She is the big reason my ad is so successful.”

Debra sighed and handed back the list. “I’m aware of how valuable she is to the company, but it was out of my hands. Corporate told me I had to let go of thirty employees.”

Erin stared in shock. “She’s finally in remission, and this is how you congratulate her?”

“It wasn’t my choice. I was given the letter last night.” Debra rubbed her eyes. “I’m sorry. Now, please excuse me, I have another meeting.”

***

Erin stormed back out of the office and wiped a tear away. She couldn’t believe this was happening. She shut down her computer and grabbed her purse and laptop bag before heading for the elevator. There was still another hour left of work, but she needed to get to the pound before it closed. No doubt it was her lousy maid who’d left the door open again. She’d have to talk to the landlord about her again. She chose the apartment because it promised free maid service once a week. What it didn’t say was that the maid was the landlord’s daughter, who sometimes left the apartment in worse shape than it had been in before. Maybe Erin could get a discount on rent if she didn’t use the maid service.

The rain was coming down in sheets when Erin got to the front doors of the office building. She could have sworn it had been sunny that morning. Apparently the weather wanted to match the mood she was in. She searched her purse, but the small umbrella was no longer inside. She pulled up the collar on her light jacket and hurried out, trying to flag down a taxi.

The taxi pulled up, Erin climbed in, and gave the drive the address. This wasn’t the first time she’d had to save her cat, and she knew it wouldn’t be her last.

As soon as she arrived at the pound, she handed off a few bills to the driver and hopped out. She shook out her coat before walking inside. The barking and meowing from the pound was loud but welcoming after the day she’d had. While she waited for the attendant to come to the front of the store, Erin studied the animals in the cages behind the counter.. There were more than usual, and some looked like they’d been caught in the rain as well.

“Can I help you?” a deep voice asked. A man Erin had never met before stood at the counter. His brilliant blue eyes and dimples had her breathless for a moment, and that southern twang made her homesick for Georgia. She cleared her throat while she tried to remember her name.

“Yes, I have a cat named Coco that was brought here. She’s white and fluffy, and has a pink collar with fake diamonds.” The collar had been a gift from Carissa for Christmas. She insisted that even cats need bling.

The man raised his eyebrows. “Diamonds? Wow. Spoiled cat. Although, I guess she’s not too spoiled if she was left outside all day. You know that’s illegal, right?”

“Of course I do. She got away while I was at work.” Suddenly those eyes weren’t quite as tempting.

“Did you forget to lock your door on the way out? This is New York, after all.” He grinned, but instead of making Erin comfortable, it annoyed her.

“Whatever. Just get my cat, please.” Erin was ready to get out of there before he found anything else to point out.

“I need to see some ID first.” He nodded to an older woman who came in behind Erin.

“Oh. Right.” Erin searched her purse for the paperwork. Her stomach dropped. “Um, it’s not in here. Can I just use my driver’s license?”

“As long as you have proof of residence, and a way to prove she’s yours.” His muscles rippled as he leaned on the counter.

Erin grumbled. “I told you, I don’t have those papers.”

He shrugged. “Sorry.  I don’t make the rules.”

“People keep saying that.” Erin pulled out her phone and flipped through her photos. “There. How about this?” She showed him the pictures of her with her cat along with her driver’s license.

“Good enough. That’ll be thirty-five dollars.” He tapped a few keys on the computer in front of him.

“Thirty-fi—that’s ridiculous. I came as soon as I heard she was in here.” Erin wanted to get out of there before she started crying, and she knew she was close.

He pointed to a sign behind her. “Sorry, new regulation.”

Erin sighed and paid the fee. “Okay, now  can I please have her?”

He grinned and left the room. “I’ll bring her out.”

Oh, brother.  Erin smiled at the woman behind her and glanced around the walls. She hoped this was the last time she’d have to be in here. The new help just wasn’t the same as Mr. Dayley. He’d always been so accommodating.

“Here you go.” He held Coco out to her. “Maybe you should write your name on the collar, or get her microchipped. It would make it easier for everyone.”

Erin rolled her eyes. “She must have pulled the tag off again, and I don’t like the idea of having her microchipped.” Of course, if this kept happening, she might not have any choice. She held her cat close to her and took comfort in her purring. “Thank you …” Erin paused, realizing she didn’t know what to call him. She turned and headed for the door.

“It’s Jake,” the man called from behind her.

She turned back. “What?”

“My name is Jake.” His smile almost melted her annoyance. Almost.

“Bye … Jake.”  She left the pound and smiled when she noticed it had stopped raining. She took a step toward the curb and shrieked when a car hit a puddle and water splashed all over her. Coco hissed and tried to climb up her shirt, scratching her in the process.

“Whoa, there.” Jake stood behind Erin and took the cat from her. “What happened?”

“Puddle. What are you doing out here?” Erin shook off her jacket and readjusted her bags before taking her cat back from Jake.

“I found this on the floor.” He held up Coco’s tag. “It must have come loose.”

Erin held Coco still so he could put it back on the collar. She couldn’t help blushing when his hand brushed up against hers.

“There you go.” He stepped back and smiled.

“Thanks again.” She was too flustered to think of anything else to say. She flagged down another taxi and turned to say good-bye, but Jake had already left. She climbed in and set Coco on her lap. The taxi driver shot a disgusted glance at Erin’s muddy clothes, but didn’t say anything.

After driving several blocks in silence, she finally arrived at her apartment. Erin paid him cash and climbed out of the car. Coco scrambled to get out of her arms, but Erin held onto her and scratched between her ears.

“What’s going on, sweetie? You’re not usually this skittish.” Erin walked into the building and grimaced at the Out of Order sign on the elevator before climbing the worn, wooden stairs up to her apartment on the third floor.

“There you are.” Carl stood in his doorway. “Your door’s been open all day. You should really make sure it’s locked behind you.”

Erin sighed. “You know you could have closed it for me, right? I had to pay thirty-five dollars just to get Coco back. I’ll just take that off my rent. And let your daughter know I don’t need her cleaning my apartment anymore.” She pushed her door open and walked in, making sure it was double bolted behind her, ignoring his protests.

The thought that someone could be hiding somewhere in her apartment crossed her mind, but she didn’t have much to take anyway. Besides, if she knew Carl, he would have made sure no one came near her door—even if he hadn’t shut it himself.

She dropped her purse and laptop on the coffee table to work on later, and changed into sweats and a T-shirt before listening to her messages. She jotted down a couple of the phone numbers for later, and groaned when she heard the five from her parents. They must have tried her cell phone before calling at work. She’d wait to talk to them until they called back. And they would.

Erin grabbed leftovers from her fridge and plopped down on her couch. She pulled out her phone and dialed Carissa’s number without having to look.

 “Hello?” Carissa sniffled.

“It’s that bad, huh?” Erin felt horrible that it had taken this long to get back to Carissa. She should have called the second she was out of the office. Her mind instantly started planning ways to help her best friend feel better.

“Yeah, but I’ll live. I was getting bored there, anyway.” She tried to sound cheery, but Erin could hear the pain behind it.

“I guess that means you don’t care that we got the account?” Erin couldn’t help the excitement that flowed through her. She’d been up against five other people, trying to get this campaign.

Carissa squealed. “Seriously? Okay, that makes this day so much better.”

“I’m glad. I’ve been feeling so bad for you.” Erin played with the tassel on her grandma’s old afghan that hung over the couch. “How did Matt take it?”

“He’s fine. We’re both disappointed, of course, but at least he got that raise. That way we can still pay for the dress. Of course, we still have to get on the schedule. They’re still booked way out.”

Erin cringed. Carissa’s wedding was only a few months away, and every dress shop was full because of brides wanting to have their Christmas weddings.  “We’ll figure out a way to get you in. You need your perfect dress.”

“Yeah, I do.” Carissa sighed. “So, did you do anything to celebrate the new account?’

Trust Carissa to turn the conversation back on Erin. “I wish. This day has just gone from bad to worse.”

“Uh-oh. What happened?” Carissa gasped. “You weren’t put on the account with Nate, were you?”

Erin rolled her eyes at the mention of Nate. He was the ultimate competition and a total jerk.  “No, thankfully. Mom and Dad are coming to visit, and Coco got out again. And the new guy at the pound is irritating.”

Carissa laughed. “Irritating, huh? And yet, you took the time to mention him. Is he cute?”

“You have no idea. But that’s beside the point. I had to pay thirty-five bucks, and he went out of his way to be annoying.”

“Uh-huh. And does this guy have a name?”

Erin could sense the grin through the phone. “Jake. And it’s not like that.”

Carissa laughed again. “You’re hopeless. Now, are we going to go get some ice cream, or what? I need sympathy, and you need to spill. I want all the details.”

Erin looked down at her untouched plate. Leftovers could wait. “Sure. Meet me at the diner.”

There was only one diner worth going to, and it was only a few minutes from Erin’s apartment. The food was fabulous, and it was noisy enough that they could talk boy problems or whatever else without worrying about anyone listening in.

“See you in ten.” Erin ended the call and tossed her phone on the couch.

She would have changed, but it was late, she was tired, and it was the diner where she’d poured her heart out many times before. No one would know she usually wore sharp suits and had her own corner office—and that’s exactly how she wanted to keep it. Tonight was for her friend.

Chapter 2

Jake watched Erin go and shook his head. She was feisty and beautiful, and while her southern drawl was muted, he’d picked up on it immediately. And he was pretty sure he’d messed up any chance he had with her. He’d had all of the procedures drilled into him until he could repeat them back in his sleep, but he still felt bad making people pay for their own pets. When she’d left the collar behind, he was sure it was the perfect chance to ask for her number, but he’d chickened out at the last second. And he’d probably never see her again. Unless her cat got out again.

“She’s quite a looker, isn’t she?” an older customer said, chuckling.

Jake blushed. “Yeah, she is. What can I do for you?”

After helping her find the perfect dog, Jake finished up the paperwork for the day, then checked to make sure each of the animals had enough food and water. He hated to leave them, since really they were the only living things that he’d gotten to know in the city. He missed his small town, but this job would work great while he looked for an acting job. Mr. Dayley had given him a flexible schedule so he could work around his auditions, which was something he most likely wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else.

He needed some groceries, or he’d have nothing to eat the next day, so he walked quickly toward the corner store a few blocks away from his apartment.

The store was quiet, with only a few shoppers among the aisles—one reason he liked this place. It was off the beaten path. He picked up a basket and headed for the produce. It wasn’t quite the same as fresh off the tree, but he needed something he could grab on the way to work every morning. Two women gossiped near the potatoes, but stopped when he walked by. Their appraising eyes made him uncomfortable, so he chose to ignore them.

Jake picked out what he wanted and headed for the bread aisle. His mom would never have approved of his PB&J sandwiches, but until he got his next paycheck, he didn’t have much choice.

Once he had everything he needed, he checked out and left the store, making sure to grab a newspaper on the way out. A small diner sat on the corner a few blocks away from his apartment, and he made a note to head there after payday. For now he could deal with eating a sandwich.

Jake walked the few blocks to his small apartment complex. It wasn’t much, but it’s what he could afford. He picked his way along the hallways, avoiding the toys from the neighbors’ kids. Two young kids raced past, giggling and yelling to each other.

Jake set the groceries down on his counter and put the food in the empty cupboards. He poured himself a drink and dropped onto his couch. While he sipped his juice, Jake went through the classifieds and circled any ads that had to do with acting. A few looked promising, while others had been there for a few weeks, and he’d already tried to get auditions. It was always the same thing. He had great looks and acting, but he just wasn’t right for the part. It was hard to hear, but he wasn’t about to give up. He needed to prove that he could do it. To himself, to his parents. To Melody. He pushed his ex-girlfriend out of his head.

With that done, Jake took a quick shower, and checked his phone. He groaned. Only a few people knew his number, and he was hoping to avoid all of them.

 “Jake, this is Philip. Your payment is overdue. Again. I don’t want to evict you, but I need something.” The deep voice was kind, and that made Jake feel worse than if he’d yelled. Philip was a great guy and had been more than patient with him.

Something needed to happen soon with his auditions, or Jake would have to get another job. He’d been told not to expect a raise at the pound for the first year, which he hadn’t really expected anyway. Jake made a sandwich and sat down on the old couch that had been left by the previous owners, and turned on the TV. The reception was terrible, but he couldn’t complain, because it was also free.

He made a few phone calls to different agents, and then entered all the new audition dates into his phone. Tomorrow would be busy, but he hoped it would be worth it.

The phone rang, and Jake answered it, grimacing. “Hey, Mom.”

“You didn’t call at all this week. I was beginning to think you’d been mugged.” His mom shouted for Jake’s dad to come on the line.

“I’m fine. Just busy.” Jake set his plate in the sink and turned on the faucet, waiting for the water to go clear before getting a drink.

His mom sniffed. “Too busy to call your parents? After everything we’ve done—”

“Enough, dear. How’s your job, son?” his dad asked.

“Great. I sold a few dogs and returned a few runaway pets.” Erin’s face appeared in his mind. She was so beautiful with her long dark hair and green eyes—even if she was upset at the time.

“How nice. And your acting? Found anything yet?”

Jake sighed. “It’s … going. I have a few auditions tomorrow.”

“Excellent. Well, honey,” his mom paused, and Jake could hear whispering. “We have some great news. We have a wedding to attend in New York City this weekend, so we’ll be coming to visit. They invited you as well. We made sure to add a plus one for you.”

Jake looked around his empty apartment in alarm. “Uh sure. That would be great. I have some plans I might need to move around, but I can make it work.” Plans, like making his apartment look somewhat furnished.

“Plans? Like … date plans?” His mom’s voice was excited.

Jake shook his head. Typical . “Not all plans have to involve dating, Mom.”

“So it is  a girl. Oh, I’m so excited.” She squealed, making Jake roll his eyes. It’s not like he was all that old. Mid-twenties gave him plenty of time to find someone. “Although, that does ruin the second half of my exciting news.”

“And what’s that?” Jake wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

There was a slight pause as his parents whispered back and forth. “Melody left what’s-his-name and will be in town, so we were hoping you two could go together. I got her number from her mom.”

Jake cringed at her name. “Mom. No. Besides, you’re right. I have a date.”

“Ah, well. I’ll have to break the news to her parents. They’ll be so disappointed. She would make such a wonderful wife.”

“Look, I need to get to bed. I’ll see you when you get here.” Jake knew the conversation would go on for hours if he didn’t hang up now. And this was a conversation he never wanted to have.

“Well see you on Friday. Our flight gets in at six o’clock, and our hotel isn’t too far from your place. Love you,” his dad said, clearly agreeing with Jake.

“Love you too.” He hung up as he heard his mom still going off on how wonderful it was that he had a date.

Jake grumbled at the phone and tossed it on the bed before going into the bathroom to brush his teeth. Now on top of work, he had to come up with a way to furnish his apartment, and find a date in two days.

Chapter 3

Erin met Carissa at the diner and gave her a hug before they slid into a booth. The smells of hamburgers and fries filled the air and brought her a sense of comfort.

A waitress came by holding her notepad and pen. “You two want the usual?”

“Yep. I could use a huge mug of hot chocolate about now.” Erin studied Carissa as she put in her order. While she looked a little pale, Carissa had finally put on some weight and looked better than she had in months. It had been touch and go for a while, but she’d been given the all clear a few weeks before.

The two of them talked about work and Erin’s upcoming projects. Erin waved at a few of the regulars who came in and said hi. Maybe she should have changed out of her pajamas …

“So how are you really doing?”

“I’m fine, really. Having the money for the wedding would be great, but now I have more time to plan everything. This whole thing has dragged on forever and I just want to get married.”

“But what about insurance?” Erin didn’t want to mention the possibility of a relapse, but it weighed heavily on her mind.

“Mom and Dad stepped in and helped. I’ll pay them back somehow, but insurance didn’t really cover most of my bills anyway.” Carissa took a bite of a fry.

Erin leaned forward. “I tried to get you hired on as my assistant, but I was told it wasn’t possible. I’m not letting it go, though. I need you.”

Carissa smiled. “You don’t have to do that. Really. While I’d love to be your assistant, I’m actually fine with being let go. Matt’s job pays well enough that I don’t need to work once we’re married, and I was thinking of staying home to write anyway.”

Erin looked at her in surprise. “Seriously? That’s great.”

“You know I’ve always wanted to try to write a book, and this is as a good time as any.”

“What would you write about?”

Carissa ran her fingers through her short blonde hair. “Write what you know, right? I was going to try a memoir.”

Erin grinned. “That would be awesome. Maybe we could do a trade. You could help me with the ads, and I could help you with whatever you need on the book since I was there through the whole thing.”

Carissa nodded. “I was thinking the same thing. I just hoped you wouldn’t mind.”

“Of course not. I’d love it.” Erin looked at the clock on the wall. “I need to get going soon. Mom and Dad are coming into town for a wedding, and I’ve got to get some work done first.”

“Dang. I was hoping you’d be able to look at dresses with me this weekend.” Carissa frowned.

“I’ll be there. They can’t make me skip that for anything. Just text me the details and I’ll make it work.”

“Great. Matt is the greatest guy ever, but I need you to make sure I actually look good.”

“That’s what best friends are for.” She took another bite of her fry.

“Okay, so I want to hear about this guy.”

Erin shook her head. “There’s no guy. I don’t have time for that right now. New project, remember?”

“Uh-uh. You’re not getting out of this. Who is he?” Carissa took a bite of her steak.

Erin sighed. “Fine. Yes, it’s the guy from the pound. He’s … hot. But I was rude to him, so I’d rather not see him again.”

“Hot? Details, woman.” Carissa was engaged and wanted nothing more than to have Erin get married off as well.

“Blue eyes that can stare into your soul. Dimples, great smile. Lots and lots of muscles.” Erin ate another fry and moved on to her steak.

“And you were rude to him, why?” Carissa set down her fork and leaned forward.

Erin shrugged. “It was rainy, I was mad about your job, and I wanted my cat back.”

“Ah. So just a few things. But you can make it better, right?”

“Probably not. Even if he did run outside to bring me Coco’s collar when I left it in the store.” She rubbed her hand where it had brushed against Jake’s.

They laughed as they left the diner. The temperature had dropped and Erin shivered in the cool breeze.

“See you this weekend, if not before.” Carissa hugged Erin tightly before letting go to find her keys.

“For sure. See you later.” Erin turned and headed for her apartment.

“Good luck with your guy,” Carissa called, and then laughed.

Erin just waved and kept going. She should have known Carissa wouldn’t let it go. She pushed Jake out of her mind and focused on what she needed to get done that weekend. She realized she hadn’t called her parents back, but it was too late by then. She’d just have to call and apologize in the morning.

***

Erin had only slept for about three hours by the time her alarm went off the next morning. She’d stayed up rearranging a few of the ad layouts and making sure her presentation was just right. This job meant a promotion, and Erin was determined to make it happen.

She climbed out of bed and took a quick shower, then changed into her blazer and pencil skirt. This was her lucky outfit, and she needed anything she could get. She’d won over her company, but now she had to win over the client. The jewelry campaign was solid, but that didn’t stop the butterflies. She pulled her hair up into a bun, and applied a little mascara and lip gloss.

“Hey, Coco. You hungry?” Erin looked at her cat, who sat next to her food bowl when Erin walked into the kitchen for breakfast. She dumped food into the bowl. “There you go. You’re not going to run away today, are you?”

Erin pulled out some bread to make some toast and then fried up an egg. The blender was still in the sink, so she skipped her smoothie and poured a glass of orange juice instead.

“Okay, am I forgetting anything?” Erin made sure she had all the papers she’d need for the presentation, she shut her laptop bag and left her apartment. She double checked the locks so Coco couldn’t leave again—pushing away the idea of letting Coco go so she could go back to the pound to see Jake—and then headed outside to find a taxi. She flagged one down quickly and climbed in. It would take a while to get to work, so she pulled out her phone and sent a quick email to her parents. They wouldn’t be thrilled that she hadn’t called, but at least it was something.

Her phone rang just as the taxi pulled up to her building. She paid the driver and answered the phone, groaning. “Hey, Mom.”

“You don’t call me back, and you just expect me to be okay with an email?” Mom asked.

“Sorry. The day got away from me.” Erin nodded to the man who’d opened the door for her and headed for the elevator. She stepped to the side so other people could get on. This call could take a while. “I just wanted make sure you heard from me. Sorry I didn’t call.”

There was a pause on the other end. “So what kept you so busy?”

Erin rolled her eyes. What her mom actually wanted to know was if there was a guy involved. “Work. I got the account I wanted.”

“Oh, honey, that’s so great. You worked hard on it. Too hard, if you ask me.” There was another pause. “Listen, I need to leave for the salon, but I wanted to remind you that you have a plus one for the wedding. You do  have a date, right?”

Right. The wedding.  She hadn’t seen her cousin, Emily, in years, but she was still expected to go. “Uh, not yet. But I’m working on it. Look, I’m at the office, and I have a huge meeting in ten minutes. I’ll call tonight, okay?”

“Fine. But I hope you have a date by then. Otherwise, I have a few connections and we’ll find you one.” Her mom hung up.

Erin punched the button for the elevator and waited for it to open. This conversation was the last thing she needed today. Debra stepped into the elevator right behind Erin.

“Parent problems again?” Debra asked, amused.

“You have no idea.” Erin clutched her briefcase tighter.

“You’d be surprised.” Debra laughed. “Are you ready for the meeting?”

Erin nodded. “I went over everything again this morning.”

“Perfect. There’s a reason I chose you. And look, about Carissa …” Debra started. “I’m trying to get her rehired.”

Erin looked at her in surprise. “I thought you couldn’t.”

“Well, I was thinking about how much of an asset she is to the company. I’m going to do my best to get her back to work. Although, it might just be part-time.”

“That would actually be perfect. Thank you.” Erin hoped it would work. It would be nice for both of them to have Carissa back.

The elevator reached their floor and they walked into the conference room. Debra pulled out her copies of the ad campaign while Erin looked over her notes. This would be her first time with a jeweler, but it meant big bucks for her company, so she wanted to do well.

Debra’s secretary poked her head into the room. “Excuse me, but your nine o’clock is here.”

“Send them in please.”

Mr. Smith, the owner of the jewelry store, along with four of his top executives, entered the room. They were all in sharp suits, and carried briefcases or notebooks that they set on the table in front of them. Their smiles were friendly as they sat and turned their attention toward Debra and Erin.

Erin took a deep breath. She could do this.

Debra stood. “Welcome. We’re so glad you picked Silver Script Ad Agency. You will find that Erin is wonderful to work with and has great ideas.”

Erin stood and smiled at each of the executives. “Thank you for coming today, and thank you, Debra, for the opportunity I have to work on this campaign. As you know, sales have been down for the jewelry industry, but I have ways to build them back up.”

Debra turned on the projector for the presentation Erin had put together. Erin picked up her pointer and directed their attention to the first slide.

“Television is still the best advertising medium for jewelry, but with all the digital media that is available, we want to find a way to advertise on those as well. A diamond is still a woman’s best friend, and we want to make sure that her boyfriend or husband still remembers that in the middle of their college football game.”

The group laughed, and Erin sent a mental “thank you” to Carissa. That had been her idea. Erin continued on with sales numbers and threw in a few more jokes for good measure. By the time it was done, everyone had smiles on their faces as they came up to shake Erin’s hand.

“Excellent work. We’ll want to start as soon as possible. I’m thinking Monday, if that works,” Mr. Smith said.

“Monday is fine. I will get working on more of the concepts before then.” It was everything Erin could do not to start dancing. The meeting couldn’t have gone better if she’d tried.

Mr. Smith shook Erin’s hand and then Debra’s before leaving. He met up with the rest of the group and they headed toward the elevator. Once they were out of sight, Debra turned to Erin.

“You did a fantastic job. I knew you were good, but you blew them out of the water. I better watch out, or you’ll have my job.” Debra smiled and headed for her office.

Erin dropped into the chair in relief. She pulled out her phone and texted Carissa to let her know how it had gone.

Her phone beeped with a message.

Let’s do lunch and you can tell me all about it. Meet you at the cafe across the street .

Erin typed a quick message back.

Got it. See you there.

***

The rest of the morning was spent researching other ads and costs to place their commercials during football games. It wouldn’t be cheap, but she would do her best to make it work. She checked her email and deleted all the dating emails that her mom had signed her up for before closing down her computer and heading out for lunch. She could have unsubscribed, but she knew her mom would just sign her up again. The things the woman would do for a grandchild.

Erin hurried out of the building and across the street. The cafe wasn’t quite the same as the diner near her apartment, but it was close, and it was cheap. Carissa stood inside and smiled when she saw Erin walk in.

They ordered their food and found a spot to sit, then talked over what Erin had found while doing her research. Erin was tempted to tell her what Debra had said, but it was still up in the air, and she didn’t want to get Carissa’s hopes up.

“Hey, sweetie.” Matt sat down next to Carissa and kissed her on the cheek.

“You’re early.” Carissa looked over at Erin. “I hope you don’t mind. He’s working just up the street for now and asked if I could have lunch with him.”

Erin smiled and shrugged. “That just means he’ll have to listen to a lot of girl talk.”

Matt started saying something, but Erin didn’t catch it, because just then Jake walked in and ordered a drink. He turned and caught her eye, seeming just as surprised as she was. This diner was several blocks away from the pound. Why was he here?

“Earth to Erin.” Carissa laughed.

Erin jumped. “Oh, sorry. What were you saying?”

“We were saying that we’d have to do dessert later.” Carissa turned and looked behind her. “Who is that guy?”

“That’s Jake.” Erin couldn’t take her eyes off of him.

“You mean the over-charging-to-get-your-cat-back Jake? You didn’t tell me he was that  hot,” she whispered.

“Hey!” Matt stuck out his bottom lip.

Carissa kissed his cheek. “Don’t worry, you’re cuter.” She peeked behind her. “He’s coming this way.”

Erin looked up and panicked when she saw him coming over to sit by her. She checked her hair, and wiped her face, even though she hadn’t eaten anything yet.

“Hey.” Jake smiled down at Erin.

“Hey.” Erin was mortified. The last time they met, she’d been so rude to him.

“How’s your cat?” he asked.

“Um, she’s fine.” Erin tried to force herself to say something else, but she couldn’t.

Carissa cleared her throat and gestured to the seat in front of Erin. “You can sit here.”

 “Oh, uh, are you sure? I don’t want to interrupt anything.” Jake looked between Erin and Carissa.

“No, not at all. Matt and I were just leaving anyway.” She held out her hand. “I’m Carissa, by the way.”

“Jake.” He shook both Carissa’s and Matt’s hands.

“Well, Jake, you enjoy your lunch. We’ll see you later.” Carissa pushed a protesting Matt out the door and turned to mouth “Call me” to Erin.

Erin wanted to crawl under the table and never leave. Instead she put on her business persona and pretended like she wasn’t sitting with the hottest guy she’d met.

“So was I really interrupting something?” Jake sat down across from Erin and gestured toward where Carissa had just left.

“No, we were just having lunch to celebrate something that happened at work.” She took a bite of her salad so she’d stop talking.

“Oh? What happened at work? Big promotion?” Jake sipped his drink, keeping his eyes on her. The deep blue was brought out by the blue in his sports coat.

She shook her head. “No, although I’m hoping it will end up getting me a promotion. I got an account for a jewelry company, and I get to do all their advertising for Christmas.”

Jake raised his eyebrows. “Christmas? You realize it’s August, right?”

“We’ve actually been putting it together for a couple of months now, and they announced who would be over the account yesterday. This morning I had to present the campaign to them so we could finalize advertisements, get the commercials filmed, that sort of thing.” She took a sip of her drink. “What about you? Why are you all dressed up?”

He looked down at his jacket and blushed. “It’s nothing. I’ve just been to a few auditions this morning.”

“Auditions? You’re an actor?” She stared at his face, wondering if she’d seen him in a movie before.

“Well, I’d like to be. I’ve been trying to find something, but for now, I’m just the animal shelter guy.” He laughed, and it sent a thrill through Erin. It was deep and welcoming.

“It’ll happen. Do you have an agent yet?”

He shook his head. “I’ve been working on that since I moved here from Georgia. They want to see my acting resume, but I can’t have that until I get an agent and get some gigs. One big circular mess.”  

“The joys of acting. I’m sure you’ll find something.” She brightened suddenly. “Hey, maybe I could help you out. We’ll need a guy for the ads, and maybe we could use you. We’d need to do some kind of audition first, though.”

“Seriously? That would be great.” He reached forward and put his hand on hers, but jerked back when he realized what he’d done. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” She could feel her face burn. Her hand still felt the warmth of his. “How did the auditions go today? Do you think you’ll get any of them?”

He laughed. “No. They were looking for people who were younger, or older, or with more fur.”

“Fur?”

“Yes, they wanted dogs. I guess I could have taken some of the dogs from the pound.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I have a couple more auditions tomorrow. Among other things.”

Erin pushed her food to the side, work forgotten. “What things?”

Jake waved his hand away. “It’s nothing, really. My parents are coming, and I have to get a few things done before they arrive.”

“Must be world parent day or something. Mine are headed into town as well.” She felt her phone buzz with a text message and pulled it out of her pocket. “Oh, hey, that’s my boss. They want to discuss some of the ads. But, look. If you give me your number, I can call you once we’re ready to shoot the commercials.”

“That would be great.” Jake checked his pockets. “I don’t have a pen, do you?”

Erin handed him her phone. “Here, just type it in. That’ll be easier.”

Jake entered his name and number and handed it back. “Thanks. I’ll see you around.”

“See you later.” Erin stood and followed him out. She watched him go, and then headed back to the office.

Debra was waiting at Erin’s desk when Erin arrived. She held up a thick folder full of papers. “Here’s your schedule for the next few weeks.”

Erin took it from her and shuffled through it. “Wait, this starts tomorrow. I thought we were starting Monday.”

“This is just how it goes. They liked your ideas enough that they wanted to get started early. Did you get the numbers on the advertising costs?”

“Yes, they’re on my desk.” Erin grabbed the papers she’d been working on and handed them to Debra. “I think we can make it work with the budget they gave us. We’ll just have to be more careful with who we choose to work with since there won’t be much time for an audition.”

“Perfect. I’m sure we have some great actors in our database.”

“Actually, I have an idea for the guy. We just need to come up with a female.” Erin didn’t mean to bring Jake up so fast, but she hadn’t had much choice. Not to mention she had no idea how well he could act.

“Does he have good credentials?” Debra asked.

“He’s an up and coming actor. He has no guild, so that could actually save us some money.” Guilds were expensive, and while she planned to pay him well, he’d still be cheaper than most of the actors they usually used. Now if only she knew that he could actually act. Maybe she should have watched his audition first.

“Wonderful. I’ll send these numbers on.” Debra left Erin’s office, and Erin sat down to go through the agencies. Since she already knew what Jake looked like, she could find someone who would pair well with him.

By the end of the workday, Erin had a list of a few girls who would work, and she’d called them to make appointments. Two called back and  planned to be there the next day. She sat back and stretched, hoping she knew what she was getting herself into.

Chapter 4

Jake had a hard time concentrating at work after his encounter with Erin. There was something about her that was intoxicating. She seemed to know what she wanted in life, and it made her that much more attractive. The job she’d talked about sounded appealing, but he wasn’t sure if it was because of the job itself or the fact that he could spend time with her.

He pushed that thought away. He didn’t know if she’d call. She hadn’t seen him act, and besides, it could be weeks down the road, and he needed something now.

A small family came into the pound looking for a dog they could adopt. Jake showed them around to the different dogs that would work well with kids. They decided on a beagle, and Jake helped take care of the paperwork while the kids played with the dog. He was relieved to see that it would be going to a good home.

Once they left, Jake made sure all of the animals had food and water, and then pulled out the newspaper he collected on the way back from lunch. He circled a few more ads so he could call when he got home.

A few more people came in to pick out a new pet, and then it was time to close. He was shutting off the lights in the back room when he heard the doorbell ding.

“Sorry, we’re closed,” he called out.

“Okay, I’ll wait outside,” Erin called back.

Jake hurried back to the front. “Wait. I didn’t realize it was you. Did you need something?”

Erin grinned. “How would you like a job starting tomorrow?”

“What? Seriously?” Jake looked at the calendar. He already had the day off so he could fix up his apartment, but that could wait. He needed this job more than a few decorations.

Erin handed him a paper. “I got back to the office to find out that they wanted to start tomorrow.”

Jake read through the offer, and tried not to show his excitement over the pay. It wasn’t huge by any means, but it was more than enough to pay off his rent and get a few things for his apartment. “This looks great. Wow. I don’t even know what to say.”

“Say yes. Or, at least say you’ll think about it. I found girls that would match you for the ad, so I need you.” Her face reddened, but it only made her more beautiful.

“Okay. Well, I’ll be going over to an audition in a few minutes. I can call you afterward with my answer. Unless … you want to come with me?” He asked before he had time to think. She just had him so flustered.

“I … sure. I could do that.” She checked her phone.

“Did you already have plans? I can just meet you tomorrow instead.” He shouldn’t have asked. Of course she’d have plans.

“No, really. I’d love to come. This way I can see you act. Where is the audition?”  She put her phone back in her pocket and slipped her purse over her shoulder.

“Downtown. We’ll have to catch a cab. I don’t have a car.”  He clocked out and turned off the computer.

“The subway might be faster.” She looked at her watch. “Especially right now.”

It was Jake’s turn to blush. “I don’t do the subway. Confined spaces and all that. I either walk or I take a cab when I have some spare change.”

Erin laughed. “My favorite mode of transportation.”

Jake grinned. “Perfect. I’m done here.”

He turned off the lights on their way out and watched as Erin flagged down a taxi. He was surprised at how fast she’d managed to get one to stop. Usually it took him several tries.

They sat quietly while the driver took them to the address Jake gave the driver. Jake wanted to say something, but he had no idea what to talk about. He just enjoyed sitting next to her. Their legs brushed as they drove over bumps in the road.  After several glances from the driver, Jake knew he needed to say something.

“So, how was work? Did you get everything figured out?” There. Work was safe, right?

Erin nodded. “Yeah, we got the numbers sent over to Smithson Jewelers, and things look great. I hope.”

“I’m sure it’s great.”

Erin studied him. “I guess. I still feel like I’m pretending to know what I’m doing.”

“I bet everyone else feels the same way. We’re all just pretending to be responsible, when we really just want to hide under a blanket and play video games.” Not that he could do that. His only TV had no connectors for anything but cable.

“I know I’d be a lot happier that way.” She laughed at the look on his face. “Bet you didn’t expect me to be a gamer, did you?”

“No, I can’t say I did, but what I really want to know is what system you have.”

“Sadly I don’t have any right now, but I have several retro Nintendo games I’ve collected over the years.” Her face reddened and she looked out the window. “Wow, I haven’t admitted that to anyone.”

“Why not? What good is having all those games if you don’t play them?” Jake looked out the window in surprise when the taxi pulled up in front of a skyscraper. They’d arrived at the studio a lot sooner than he’d expected. He paid the driver and climbed out and helped Erin before closing the door. He couldn’t believe he’d just said that. “Sorry, that was rude of me.”

“No, you have a point. I just haven’t found anyone to play with. I got hooked on games in college and just buy them when I find a good sale.” She stared up at the building. “So what’s this audition for?”

“A soda commercial. I’m pretty stoked.” Jake tried to look serious, but the expression on Erin’s face cracked him up. “Okay, so I’m desperate. But it’s a job, and it’s better than the dog food one from yesterday.”

“I think anything is an improvement.” Erin followed Jake in while he followed the directions to the right floor.

“Exactly.” Jake’s stomach was tied in knots thinking about having to audition in front of Erin, but he knew she’d need to see him act before she let him be in her commercial. “Here we go.”

He opened the door slowly to find a brightly lit room with a desk and a few chairs just inside. Jake filled out the paperwork for the audition, then took a seat outside the studio. Erin sat next to him and pulled out her phone to type a message.

Jake rubbed his hands together and closed his eyes to try get rid of the butterflies. He’d done this dozens of times, but he still got nervous.

Erin nudged his shoulder. “You’ll be just fine. Just pretend you’re talking to your best friend and ignore the big camera.”

He opened his eyes and smiled at her. “Easy for you to say. You’re not the one in front of the camera.”

“Exactly. Good luck.”  

A tall, thin man opened the door to the studio and stood in front of Jake with a clipboard. “Are you Jake Wilson?”

“Yes, that’s me.” Jake shook the man’s hand and took the script he was handed.

The man checked something off on his list. “Great. You’re up next. We just have to set a few things up. Who is this?”

“This is—”

“I’m Erin Tyler. I’m with Silver Script Ad Agency, and I’m here to see how you audition your talent.” She handed him her business card shook the man’s hand. Totally cool and calm. As always.

The man opened the door and gestured for them to walk in. “Come on in. We just ask for it to be completely silent on the set.”

Jake walked in and read through his lines a few times so he’d know what to say. He shook off the nerves, and went into acting mode.

The director sat in his chair and motioned for Jake to go. Without thinking about what he was doing, he stared straight at Erin as if he was talking directly to her and the words flowed from him. The slogan was familiar enough that he didn’t have to think about it.

When he was done, it was silent in the room for a split second while everyone watched for the director’s response. Two agonizing seconds later, he stood and clapped.

“That was fantastic. Best I’ve heard all night. Or ever. And the way you spoke, it was like you were talking right to the TV audience. Brilliant.”

Jake stood there stunned. Did that mean he had the job? “Wow, thank you.”

“We’ll be contacting you in the next few days.” The director held out his hand and Jake shook it.

After shaking everyone’s hands one more time, Jake and Erin were ushered out the door before it shut behind them.

Jake turned to Erin. “What just happened?”

Erin laughed, her eyes dancing. “I think you got the part. That was amazing.”

“Thanks. Are you sure?” Jake stood there, still stunned by what had just happened. Usually his auditions were just a few polite words and promises that they’d call him back. They never did. He had no idea how much he would even get paid. He probably should have asked.

“Seriously, it was fantastic. I can’t wait to see how you do with the commercials for me. You’ll be perfect.” Erin took Jake by the arm and pulled him toward the elevator.

“So you still want me for the job?” Jake laughed. “That would really make my day.”

Erin stopped and stared into Jake’s eyes. “The director wasn’t kidding when he said what he did. You made us believe that it was the best soda ever.”

“Thanks. I guess it helps when you know the slogan by heart.” He laughed. He wanted to tell her that she was the reason he’d been able to do so well, but there was no way he’d admit that right now. Not when he’d be working for her the next day.

Chapter 5

Erin woke the next morning to her phone ringing. She rubbed her eyes and reached for it, knocking papers to the ground in the process. It was Carissa.

“Hi. Why are you up so early?” Erin glanced at her clock and groaned. She still had another half an hour before she needed to wake up. She could have used the sleep after staying up late finalizing the script for the advertisement. That day was more of a run through, but she wanted it perfect.

“You didn’t call yesterday, so I barely slept. Why didn’t you tell me this Jake guy was perfect?”

Erin rolled her eyes. “Because I was annoyed with him.”

“He didn’t seem too annoying at the restaurant.” Carissa’s voice sounded a lot like her ‘I’m going to play matchmaker’ voice.

“No, he was nice then. And after work when I went to his audition with him.” Erin added the last part in just so she could hear Carissa’s squeal. She put her phone on speaker so she could get dressed. Since she was up, she might as well get to the studio early.

“You went out with him last night? How was it? Did you kiss?”

“I just met the guy. Besides, we were busy the whole time. It was more of a business thing.”

“Right. Well, if you two have anymore ‘business dates,’ you better tell me as soon as you get home. I want details.”

“Got it. Now, I really need to get to work. I’ll talk to you tonight.” Erin slipped on her shoes.

“You’d better.”

Erin put her phone in her purse, then headed out to the kitchen.

“Sorry, Coco. I don’t have time to eat breakfast with you.” Erin dished out Coco’s food before throwing some bread into the toaster.

Coco meowed and watched everything Erin was doing before turning to her food. Erin picked her up and scratched under her chin before setting her down and grabbing her bags. She hurried downstairs and flagged a cab, then pulled the paper out of her purse so she could give the right address to the cab driver.

Usually they filmed the commercials in a studio that was close to her office building, but since they were going all out with this account, she’d found a higher end studio to work with. She just hoped it was worth the extra cost.

They pulled up to a building near where Jake had auditioned the night before. Erin paid the driver, and climbed out. She stared in awe at the large glass building in front of her. They’d pulled out all the stops when it came to the contemporary architecture. Erin walked in through the main doors and past the sleek, modern couches toward the reception desk. While waiting for the receptionist, she took in the splashes of bright colors in the paintings, and the almost sterile look to the waiting area.

“May I help you?” the receptionist asked.

“Yes, I’m here for the commercial shoot for Smithson Jewelers. Erin Tyler.” Erin tapped her fingers for a moment before she made a fist. Her mom was always getting after her for the nervous habit she’d had since she was a kid.

“You’ll be in studio four, just down the hall and to your left. The crew is here, but I haven’t seen anyone from your party yet.” The woman handed Erin a badge, and then went back to whatever it was that she was doing on her computer.

“Thank you.” Erin clipped the badge on and readjusted the strap of her purse before heading to the studio. Her heels clicked on the tile hallways. She nodded to a group of people walking down the hallway and stopped outside of the studio. Everything would be fine. Jake was a great actor, and would do fine. Erin took a deep breath and opened the door.

The room was large and full of film equipment. The director and his crew moved around getting everything in place. Erin put her bag down and walked around the set, making sure things were how she wanted them.

By the time the set was ready, the others had arrived. Jake stood in the center of the set talking to the director and the woman Erin had chosen. She was a good height for Jake, and with her dark hair and brown eyes, she complemented Jake’s lighter hair and blue eyes. Erin pushed down the slight twinge of jealousy, surprised that it affected her so much. She’d only met him two days ago. This was ridiculous.

Jake looked up and smiled when he noticed Erin. She smiled back and nodded, then headed over to where Debra stood.

“Morning.”

Debra nodded toward Jake and Sophia. “What do you think?”

Erin watched them for a minute. “They look good together. We’ll just have to see how their chemistry works on camera.”

“I’m still deciding. Where’d you find this guy?” She checked the clipboard in her hand. “I couldn’t find much on him.”

 “I met him a few days ago and he mentioned he’s an actor.” Erin rushed on after catching the look on Debra’s face. “I’ve seen him act as well. I went to an audition last night. Trust me. He’s good.”

“We’ll see about that. Sophia wasn’t very easy to convince to do this, so I hope it works out. She wasn’t cheap, but she was also the only one available.” Debra’s disapproval was apparent. She walked over and sat down in a chair, and Erin sat next to her.

The director stood and shouted a few orders before Jake and Sophia got into position.

“Quiet on the set!” one of the crew yelled.

“Action!” the director called. He leaned forward to watch the scene. They’d only gotten two lines in when the director yelled “Cut!”

Jake and Sophia broke apart and turned to the director. He walked over to stand between the couple.

“Look, you’re just about to get engaged. You need to show excitement, love, passion. This is the perfect Christmas gift. Show it.” The director sat back down. “Okay, take it from the top.”

By take fifteen, the director looked ready to pull his hair out. Sophia snapped her lines instead of pretending like she was in love, and it seemed to be throwing Jake off. The director whipped around to face Erin and Debra. “Seriously, do something about these two. I can’t work with them.”

Debra leaned forward, but Erin hopped out of her chair first. She had to make this work. She hurried over to Jake and pulled him aside so the crew could set things back up for another take.

Erin walked up to the director. “Let’s take a short break so they can cool down.”

“Fair enough.” He set his clipboard down and headed for the refreshment table.

Jake walked over to Erin, while Sophia grabbed her script and dropped into her chair.

“Hey, what’s going on? You were just fine last night.” She brushed a piece of cotton off his shirt.

“I don’t know. She’s so stiff.” Jake glanced over his shoulder and flinched.

“Hey, don’t you blame this on me. I delivered my lines perfectly,” Sophia snapped. “You just don’t know how to charm a lump of coal.”

“You said it yourself.” Jake laughed at his own joke, but cleared his throat when he looked at Erin. “Sorry. I’ll make it work.”

“Let’s run through it really quick. They’re pretty simple lines.”

Jake nodded. “That would be great.”

Erin ran through the lines a few times, making sure to do the actions as they went so Jake would know what to do next. Once he was relaxed, Erin grinned. “That was perfect. Do it just like that.”

“Thanks.” Jake walked over to the set and stood on his spot.”

Erin nodded to the director. “Okay, let’s try again.”

The director studied her for a moment before turning back to the set. “Okay, let’s try again. Action.”

Jake moved in again to talk to Sophia, but there was still a definite lack of chemistry. Erin sunk down in her chair, mortified. This couldn’t be going any worse.

“Stop, stop.” The head of Smithson Jewelers, Mr. Smith, stood near the doorway.

Erin looked over at Debra in horror. How long had he been here? If they blew this commercial, her job would be on the line.

Debra moved around Erin and hurried over to Mr. Smith. They spoke quietly, but the gesturing told Erin that it wasn’t a very pleasant conversation. At one point, they all turned to look at Erin, and she suddenly felt lightheaded. This couldn’t be good. They finally nodded and parted ways.

“Sophia, step aside for a moment. Erin, is it? I need you over here.” The director snapped his fingers.

Sophia huffed and stomped off the set. “I don’t have to work with this.”

“We’re just giving you a break. Go see Makeup.” The director turned back to Erin. “Now, please.”

Erin stood and looked over at Debra, who smiled and gestured for her to do what the director asked.

“Is something wrong?” Erin asked. She really didn’t want to find another guy. Jake was perfect for this.

“We’ll see in a moment.” The director handed her the script. “Study this. I want you to do exactly what you were doing when you practiced with him.”

“Okay.” This hadn’t happened before with any of her other clients, but she was desperate to keep this account, so she’d do whatever it was they wanted her to do. She read through the parts until she had it down. “Got it.”

“Perfect. Now. Stand here, and do just what the script tells you to do.”

Erin stood on the x and looked up at Jake. “Ready?”

Jake nodded. “Ready.”

The director yelled action, and Jake took Erin’s hands in his own. His hands were warm and so … protective. She looked up into his eyes, her heart in her throat.

“I know we said we weren’t doing gifts this year, but I couldn’t help it.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a jewelry box. “Merry Christmas.”

Erin gasped like it told her to in the script. “It’s beautiful.”

Time seemed to slow, and the studio faded into the background as Jake slid the ring onto her finger, then embraced her. Erin looked up into his eyes and they closed in for a kiss just as the director yelled cut.

Erin pulled away from Jake, but it took a couple of seconds to remember to breathe. It had felt so natural, and she wanted his arms back around her. From the dazed expression on his face, he seemed to feel the same way.

“That was brilliant.” The director jumped from his chair and hurried over to them. “Welcome to the commercial, Erin. I’m Steve.” He held out his hand, and Erin shook it. He turned to Sophia. “Sorry, but this won’t work. We’ll send you a check in the mail. Ed will show you out.”

Erin felt like she’d been punched in the face. “Wait, what?”

“You two have the perfect chemistry together. I need you to make this commercial work. Sophia’s out. You’re in. We’ll get a contract filled out after we shoot. Back to your marks.”

“You can’t do that. This was my part.” Sophia stomped over to Steve.

“It was  your part, but now it’s Erin’s. Now, please go before I have to call security.”

Sophia glared before letting out a string of curse words as she stormed out of the room. Steve shook his head and turned back to Erin and Jake.

“Let’s try this again. Do it the same as the first time. Don’t mind the cameras. They’re just trying to get different angles.”

Erin nodded and got back into place with a quick glance over at Debra and Mr. Smith. Both seemed happy with how it had gone, so she must have done something right. She could do this. She just had to concentrate on Jake. Simple. Right?

***

After running through the scene several more times, Steve declared the commercial done. He pulled out the contract for Erin to sign and then started packing up his equipment. Erin slipped her ring off and handed it to the guard.

“Oh, you keep these. They’re fake rings. I have the real diamonds in a box over here. They’re only used for the close-ups.”

Erin looked down at the ring he gave back to her. “Are you sure?”

“Part of the payment. Mr. Smith does this with all of his ads.” He winked and went back to talking to one of the crew.

Erin stared at the guard for a moment before walking away. She’d heard of other clients receiving gifts, but this was the first time she’d received anything. After making sure she had her bag and jacket, she headed over to where Debra sat.

“Why didn’t you tell me you two were dating?” Debra shook her head.

“We’re not. I told you we just met two days ago.” Erin didn’t want to get into this right then. She was still sorting things out in her mind.

Debra smirked and stood. “I realize you’re trying to keep things professional and everything by not dating him, but let’s face it. You two have more chemistry than most couples I’ve met.”

Erin stared at Debra’s retreating back. She couldn’t be right, could she? Jake was just a friend. A gorgeous, sweet friend, but still. Just a friend. Erin left the studio, surprised that so much time had passed. It felt like they’d just started recording.

Mr. Smith stood to the side, talking to a few of his employees. When he saw Erin, he shook their hands and walked over to her. “Well done. I’m impressed. You saved the commercial in there.”

“Thank you. I’m glad you liked how it turned out. Next week we’ll start the newspaper and magazine ads.” Erin pulled out her portfolio. “I’ve drawn up a few ideas, and a list of which models we can hire.”

Mr. Smith held his hand up. “We won’t be needing any of those. We have our models already. I want to use a real couple, and you two seem to be the perfect choice. We’ll be seeing you next week, Ms. Tyler.”

“See you then.” Erin shook her head. Seriously. What had just happened?

“Hey, Erin, great job in there.” Jake shoved his phone in his pocket, and blushed.

“You were fantastic. The owner just told me he wants to use us for all his ads.” Erin smiled, unsure of how to act around him. They’d just met, but what she felt back there on the set …

Jake laughed. “Seriously? That’s great. I just found out I have the other gig too.”

Erin smiled, wanting to throw her arms around him. “Congratulations!”

Jake grumbled as his phone rang. The country ringtone belted out across the room. He pushed a button to silence the phone, but didn’t answer it.

“Is everything okay?” Erin asked.

“My parents are driving me crazy. They think I have a date tonight and want to invite themselves to dinner with us.” He punched a message into his phone before sticking it in his pocket.

“Oh, so my parents aren’t the only ones, huh? They want me to have a date for this weekend. They won’t give it up.” Erin twisted the diamond ring around on her finger.

“They let you keep that ring?” Jake asked, surprised.

Erin held up her hand. “It’s fake. They told me I could keep it.”

“Wow, that’s really cool.” He took the ring from Erin and examined it. “Uh, Erin? Are you sure it’s fake?”

“Yeah, why?” Erin’s heart skipped a beat at the look on Jake’s face.

He held it up to the light. “Look at the inscription.”

There was a symbol that represented Smithson Jewelers engraved inside the ring along with a 14-Karat. “Maybe they do it with their fake diamonds too.”

“Maybe, but I still think it’s real. Watch.” Jake grabbed a piece of paper off a bench and set the ring on top of it. “If this diamond was fake, you could see through it. This one you can’t. I think they gave you the wrong one.”

“How do you know that?” Erin’s mind was reeling.

Jake shrugged. “My grandpa taught me how to tell a real diamond. I’m pretty sure that’s one right there.”

Horrified, Erin turned around to look for Mr. Smith but he’d already left, and Debra was gone as well. This couldn’t be happening. She’d be in so much trouble. Fired, arrested, something. She dialed Debra’s number, but it went straight to voicemail. She found Mr. Smith’s number in an email, but he didn’t answer either. She left a quick voicemail, hoping he’d get it soon.

Erin’s phone buzzed and she pulled it out of her purse, praying it was Mr. Smith. She groaned when she saw that it was her mom. “Hello?”

“Surprise! We’re here in New York. Dad got off a day early so we came up.” Her mom’s voice was nearly drowned out by a radio in the background.

“Where are you?” Erin held up a finger to Jake to let him know it would be a second.

There were a few whispers before her mom spoke again and rattled off an address.

Erin’s eyes widened. They were only a few blocks away. “I’m about to head to a store, but if you want to meet me, I could use a ride back to the apartment.”

“Of course, dear. What’s the address?”

Erin gave her the address and hung up. She looked up at Jake. “So … my parents got here early.”

“I heard. How far away are they?” Jake glanced around at the cars crawling by.

“They said they’re only a few blocks away. You can take off if you want.”

“I might do that. I have—”

“There you are, sweetie.” Erin’s mom came up behind Erin. “You look wonderful. Have you done something with your hair?”

Erin smiled and hugged both of her parents. “It’s the same always.”

“It’s so good to see you.” Her mom’s eyes flitted between Erin and Jake. “And who is this?”

Jake stepped forward and held out his hand. “I’m Jake. Nice to meet you.”

“I’m Suzanne. This is her dad, Bill. Erin has said … nothing about you. How long have you two been dating?” her mom beamed.

“We’re not—” Erin blurted out just as Jake said, “A few months.”

Erin could feel her face redden. “Yes, what he said. We’ve been together for a … while. I just hadn’t told you yet.”

“Did you hear that, Bill? Our daughter’s been sneaking around with a guy.” Mom pretended to be upset, but she was practically dancing.

“It’s great to meet you.” Bill held his hand out to Jake again and pulled him into a hug.

Jake looked at Erin over her dad’s shoulder, and Erin cringed at his stunned expression. What had just happened?

“Do you have the ring already?” Her mom stared at Erin’s hand. “Oh, you do. Let me see!”

Erin held out her hand as she felt her face redden. She should stop this. She should tell them right now what happened. But she couldn’t speak as her mom oohed and ahhed over the diamond and had to show her dad.

“You two should come to dinner with us. We were just headed there, but your mom wanted to surprise you.” Bill rolled his eyes and laughed.

“Sure, we can do that. We’ll just catch a cab and follow behind you. We wouldn’t want to all squish into the same car.” Erin was desperate to talk to Jake without her parents around.

“Nonsense. We rented a car this time so we could do our own sightseeing. There’s plenty of room in the back.” Her mom beamed.

“Right.” She watched them head for the garage.  “Of course you did.”

Jake chuckled. “Your parents remind me so much of mine.”

“Sorry, about this. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.” She hurried to catch up to them, wondering how in the world she’d ever pay him back. This was beyond embarrassing.

Jake caught up and took Erin by the hand. His warm, strong grip sent tingles up Erin’s arm. “Don’t worry about it. I have the perfect way you can pay me back.”

Erin looked up at him in surprise. “Do I want to know?”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” Jake winked down at her and stopped by the sleek black BMW 3 Series Erin’s parents had rented. “Nice car.”

“Thanks. Suzanne wanted the cheapest option, but I figured we don’t get out often and I wanted something with style.” He unlocked the car and climbed in.

Jake raised his eyebrows. “Well, he sure chose one.”

“Dad loves his cars. He’s wanted one of these for as long as I can remember.” Erin opened the door and climbed in, followed by Jake. “So where are we headed?”

Bill turned to face them. “We were going to ask you that same question. We have tickets to Broadway tonight, but need a good place to eat. What do you recommend?”

Broadway wasn’t too far from where Erin lived. “There’s a diner nearby that I go to all the time. We can eat there. That way you can park at my building and walk to the play.”

“Oh, that’s a great idea. Let’s do that.” Her mom beamed at Erin and turned back to the front.

“You’ll have to remind me how to get there again.” Bill started the car and pulled out of the parking lot.

They constantly shot questions about where Erin and Jake had met and how he proposed, only stopping when Erin had to give them directions. Her head was spinning as she tried to keep up with the lies. She took short notes in her phone as they went so she could reference it later.

Erin was dying to know what was going on in Jake’s head as he stared out the window. He’d stayed quiet, but he’d put his arm around her as they drove. She leaned back against his arm, and he turned.

“So they always rent a car?” he asked quietly.

Erin nodded. “They want to do sightseeing on their own time.”

“And we love it,” Bill said from the front seat. “Traffic jams are a nightmare, of course, but this way we can get where we’re going and not have to worry about which bus or subway we have to take.”

“That’s great. I usually walk everywhere unless it’s farther out for an audition, but I’d like to get a car so I can drive out into the country when I want to get away,” Jake said.

“Are you from the country?” Suzanne asked.

Jake nodded. “I’m from Georgia.”

Erin looked at him in surprise, but didn’t say anything. The twang had given away that he was from the south, but she hadn’t realized he was so close to where she grew up.

“Oh, that’s wonderful. We should have the wedding there. It would be perfect.”

“Uh, wedding?” Erin asked, blankly. Jake elbowed her, and she remembered the ring. “Oh, right. Wedding. “Um, well, we were thinking of a quiet event here in the city.”

“I think a small country ceremony would actually be nice. I mean, if that’s what your parents want.” Jake squeezed Erin’s shoulders.

Erin felt panic setting in. She glared at Jake for playing it up, but she couldn’t blame him. She was the one who started this mess by not admitting anything.

“Great. We can start the plans tonight after dinner. We should do a Christmas wedding. The colors are perfect, and that gives us a few months of planning. Unless you want a spring wedding?” Suzanne pulled out her phone and planner.

“We haven’t had much time to talk about it. We need to decide on a few things before we get into the actual planning.” Like what in the world was actually going on. Why was he going along with this? She was dying to get away from her parents so she get him to answer.

“Of course, dear. We can wait if you’d like.” Her mom put her phone away, and Erin groaned at the hurt look on her mom’s face.

Erin sighed. “We’ll let you know in the morning. Is that okay? We just need to talk first.”

Her mom brightened a little, but she wasn’t as talkative for the rest of the trip to Erin’s apartment. Erin told them how to get to the parking garage. Once they were parked in her spot, they climbed out and stretched.

“The theater is just up from this diner. Would you like to freshen up before heading over? We can go up to my apartment if you’d like.”

Erin’s dad looked at his watch. “We’ll need to be leaving for the theater soon. We can stop by your apartment on our way back to the hotel if you’d like.”

“No, I’m fine. Let’s head out.”  There was no way she would have guessed that any of this would have happened when she left that morning. And here she was engaged.

Chapter 6

Jake breathed a sigh of relief when Erin decided not to go to her apartment. He didn’t know what he would do if she’d left him there with her parents.

“So how did you two meet?” Bill started walking toward the exit to the garage.

“I took care of her cat.” Jake hoped that the whole mess hadn’t come up with her parents, but he didn’t know what else to say.

Suzanne pursed her lips. “I see. So you do that for a living, then?”

“That’s just a side job. I’m actually working on a career in acting. I have a couple of different ads I’m working on right now.” Great. He’d picked exactly the wrong thing to say.

“How nice. Anything we’d know?” The approval in her voice made Jake relax just a little.

“Just commercials. So, how far away is this place, Erin?” He hoped they wouldn’t notice the extreme shift in subject, but he really needed to talk to Erin and soon.

“Where are we going exactly?” Suzanne and Bill fell into step with Jake and Erin.

Erin gestured down the street a few blocks away. “Carissa and I found it a while ago. This is where we meet when we need to talk. The food is amazing, and I love the old diner theme.”

Jake was surprised to see that it was the same diner he’d wanted to go to a few nights before. He’d have to come here more often if it meant running into Erin. Jake looked around while Erin found a spot to sit. The diner had an old jukebox in the corner, and the old-fashioned booths and barstools.

“This place is amazing.” He slid into the booth next to Erin, and her parents sat across from them.

“It really is. Just wait until you try their food.” Erin opened her menu, and the others followed.

A waitress came over and looked directly at Erin. “I see you brought new company. You want the usual?”

“That sounds good to me. I always tell myself I’m going to order something else, but I never do.” Erin handed her the menu.

Jake leaned over and whispered, “What’s the usual?”

“The James Dean. Burger, fries, and a shake. I always add mushrooms.” Erin looked up at the waitress.

“That sounds good,” Jake said. “I’ll have that, but without the mushrooms.”

“You’re not a mushroom person?” Erin asked while her parents ordered their food.

Jake shrugged. “They’re fine. I just don’t like them on my burger.”

“Erin has loved mushrooms since she was a little girl. We had to keep her from eating the wild ones in the forest behind our house.” Suzanne laughed.

Erin blushed. “It’s true. They had to run me to the hospital once. You’d think that would keep me from liking them, but nope.”

“Wow, that is quite the devotion you have to mushrooms.”

“That’s what you get with Erin. When she finds something she loves, she sticks with it.” Suzanne looked between Erin and Jake.

“Mom …” Erin groaned.

Jake took Erin’s hand and stroked his thumb across her fingers. “That’s what I love about her. I’ve seen how much she loves her job.”

Erin stared into his eyes, and suddenly jerked her hand away. Jake’s face burned when he realized how good it felt to have her hand in his.

The food came just then, and Jake could see Erin relax. Jake thanked the waitress and stared at the burger on his plate. It was larger than he’d expected, and suddenly the peanut butter sandwiches he’d been living off of didn’t seem quite so appetizing. He added ketchup and mustard and picked up the burger, fully aware that Erin was staring at him.

He took a bite and savored the juices that burst in his mouth. This was one of the most amazing things he’d ever tasted. He gave her a thumbs up and finished chewing. “You’re right. This is the best.”

She grinned. “Told you.”

Bill added more steak sauce to his steak, and Suzanne seemed to be enjoying her pancake and eggs. Bill told them all about his latest advertising campaigns and the sites he’d been to recently. While Erin seemed more focused on jewelry and clothing lines, her dad was more into ranches and farm equipment.

Jake looked down at his last bite, almost wanting to order another burger, just to enjoy it all over again, but he was too full from his first helping. Erin reached for her purse, but her dad put a hand up.

“No, this is our treat. We insist.” Bill went to the front to pay, and the others followed.

“You really didn’t have to do this, Dad.”

“Yes, I did. We’ll see you later tonight after the play.” Bill patted her on the shoulder. “How do we get there again?”

 “Okay, head east about three blocks and then take a left. Night.” As soon as they were far enough away that they wouldn’t hear anything, Erin turned to Jake. “Okay, so what’s up? And how do we get out of this?”

Jake studied her for a second. “Can we talk somewhere more private? It’s complicated.”

“Sure, let’s head to my place. Unless you prefer somewhere else?”

“That sounds good to me.” He held out his arm for her to take, but she raised her eyebrows.

“We don’t have to keep this up when my parents aren’t around.” She turned and walked toward her apartment, and Jake had to run to catch up.

The night air was crisp and cool, a perfect August night. Jake could hear the traffic in the distance, but it was nice and quiet in the part of the city where they walked. He wanted to start talking right then, but knew it wasn’t a good idea. What he was proposing was crazy, and he didn’t really want witnesses.

“So how long have you lived here?” Jake asked.

“Since I graduated from high school. My parents wanted me to stick around and work with my dad, but I wanted to try it on my own.”

“So your dad is in advertising as well?”

“Yes he is. I could have gone to work with him, but I came here instead. I guess I just wanted to prove I could do it myself instead of just doing well because of my dad.”

 “That makes sense.” Jake followed Erin into her apartment, his stomach in knots. Her place was small, but she’d done a great job decorating. Knickknacks filled up the empty spaces, making it feel homey where his felt … bare. “Nice place.”

“Thanks.” Erin set her purse on the couch and grabbed some food for her cat before coming over to sit next to Jake. “Okay, spill.”

Jake blinked. She wasn’t wasting any time, was she? “I’m sorry for getting you into this mess, but I thought we could both help each other out. You needed a date to get your parents off your case, and I … need the same thing. My mom was trying to set me up  with… an old acquaintance, and I told her I already have a date for this wedding I’m supposed to go to. Except that I don’t. I was hoping you could fill in. It’s only for a few days, and then we can break it off.”

“Wait, wedding? What time is it at? I’m supposed to be one on Saturday as well.”

Jake checked his phone. “It’s at six o’clock at the Booth Gardens Reception Hall.

Erin’s jaw dropped. “Um, that’s where I’m going for the wedding. What are their names?”

“Andrew and I don’t remember the bride’s name. Emily?” Jake tilted his head to the side. “Why?”

“How is that even possible. You know the groom’s family. I know the bride’s family. She’s my cousin. We were already planning on going to the same wedding.”

Jake laughed. “Well, I guess that makes it easier, doesn’t it?”

“I guess it does.” Erin studied him. “So we just pretend to be each other’s dates until they’re gone?”

Jake nodded. “They each get to think we’re dating, and we get out of constant nagging. It’s a win-win situation.”

Erin leaned back on the couch and studied Jake. “Mom and Dad already think we’re together and they’ve seen this ring, so we have to do something. Although, I’m going to have to give it back tomorrow, so how do I explain that?”

Jake thought for a moment. “We can just tell them we had to get it resized, or that the prongs were loose.”

“That works.” Erin stared at the ring on her finger.

“So, will you do it?” Jake sat back on the couch.

Erin sighed. “You saved my sanity, so I’ll save yours. But we need to be careful. No making huge plans with parents that we’ll have to cancel or lose money on later.”

“Deal. Now if we can just get our parents to agree to that. My mom loves planning events, and this is the perfect opportunity.” He grinned and stood. “Well, partner, I better get going. I have to get my apartment ready for when my parents get here. You good for dinner with them tomorrow night?”

“Sure. Although, I have to see what my parents are up to as well.” She bit her lip. “This is going to get messy, isn’t it?”

Jake laughed. “We’ll make it work.”

“I hope so. Thanks again. And, really, you were great in the commercial today. Thanks for doing it on such short notice.”

“It’s easy when you have a great person to work with.” Jake could feel his face redden and he turned and opened the door. “See you tomorrow.”

Jake left Erin’s apartment and headed down the stairs. He nodded at one of the tenants who stared as he went past. Was that jealousy on the guy’s face? Probably. He couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face as he left the building. He couldn’t believe that Erin had gone along with the plan. It helped her too, but it had been a long shot. And it would be a miracle if they managed to survive the weekend.

The night was cool, so Jake decided to walk home. He wasn’t all that far away, and he wanted to think. He was glad that the ads would be next week so he could concentrate on this weekend. As much as he dreaded having his parents come before, now he just wanted to get it over with.

His phone rang, echoing among the silent buildings. He pulled it out of his pocket, taking a deep breath. “Hey, Mom. What’s up?”

“We just wanted to make sure you’re ready for us.” She whispered to someone in the back ground. Probably his dad.

“You’re not in New York already, are you?” Jake cringed. He hadn’t had a chance to furnish his apartment yet. His mind went back to Erin’s apartment, but he pushed the thoughts away. Having her help him decorate wasn’t an option. He was already asking too much of her.

“Our flight gets in tomorrow at two. We’ll head to the hotel first and then find out where to meet you. Can you give me your address?” More whispering as she asked Jake’s dad for a piece of paper.

Jake gave them the address and told them the best place to park.

“Wonderful. We’ll see you tomorrow night. And you’re sure you don’t need me to call Melody’s mom?” his mom asked.

“No, I have a date. Her name is Erin.” Jake stood outside his apartment complex. He didn’t want to be talking when he walked past the landlord. He’d have the rent the next morning, but didn’t want to draw attention to himself and have to apologize. Again.

“Well, we look forward to meeting her. Is it serious?”

“You could say that, yes.” Jake cringed as he imagined the cheering that would go on as soon as they got off the phone. They’d been waiting for a long time to hear him say that.

“That’s so great! If this doesn’t work, there’s always Melody—” She was suddenly interrupted by the phone being yanked away. His mom had been devastated when Melody broke up with him. Their parents were good friends and wanted a marriage to happen.

“Don’t mind your mother. We’ll see you tomorrow at seven, all right?” his dad said.

“Sounds great. Tell Mom bye.” Jake chuckled.

“Bye, son.” His dad disconnected just after Jake heard his mom yell to Jake that she loved him.

Jake shook his head and entered the building. The warmth flowed over him as he crept up the stairs and into his apartment. The bare living room greeted him. Home sweet home. It was too late to go out tonight to find anything. Hopefully Erin wasn’t busy a tomorrow and could help him.

He dropped onto his bed, too tired to worry about looking for new auditions. Instead, his mind ran through the different things he needed for his apartment, and it worked like counting sheep.

 

Chapter 7

Erin couldn’t help staring at the ring on her finger as she got ready for the day. It was gorgeous, but it was also causing a lot more trouble than it was worth. Well, probably not. The thing had to be a few thousand dollars. She finished blow drying her hair and pulled it up into a French twist. It was her day off, but she had to meet with Mr. Smith to give him back his ring.

She pulled on her boots and checked the mirror before leaving her room. Hopefully she looked good enough to satisfy Jake’s parents. She couldn’t help the butterflies, even if she wasn’t really  engaged to him. Maybe that’s what made it worse. She had no idea what his type usually was, or if she would mess everything up. They’d have to go over everything before that night.

Erin’s phone buzzed with a text message. She smiled when she saw that it was Jake.

Hey, what are you up to this morning?

She typed back, Just returning the ring. What are you up to?

I was going to see if you wanted me to come with you. And I need to ask you a huge favor. Don’t worry, it’s not as huge as what I asked for last night.

Erin paused. She was dying of curiosity, but what more could he want? She already had to play his fiancée.

What’s up?

My parents are heading over here tonight and my apartment is pretty much bare. I need some help figuring out what to do with it.

Erin sighed in relief. She could do that. She loved decorating. She checked her watch to make sure she had time. She’d called ahead to make an appointment so she could see Mr. Smith. He was more than happy to meet with her, and told her to come right over. Hopefully he’d be that happy once she got there. She texted Jake for his address so she could what she was working with before picking out decorations.

Jake texted her his address, and she texted back that she’d be over soon. She shoved her phone into her purse and fed Coco before heading out the door.

The morning sun matched Erin’s cheerful mood as she flagged down a cab and headed for Jake’s. His building was a tall brick building, in about the same shape as hers. She checked her phone again for the right apartment number and rang the buzzer so he could let her in.

The door opened, and Erin went upstairs. The stairs were worn, but polished, and there were paintings along the walls. Whoever owned the building cared about making it look nice. She smiled at a young girl peeking out from one of the doorways, and continued on.

Erin took a deep breath before knocking. Jake opened the door with a grin on his face and stepped back.

“Thanks for coming to help out. As you can see, I need some major help.” Jake blushed as he looked away. “Most of this was here when I got here. That’s actually why I chose it.”

Erin studied the room to get some ideas. It was small, about a third of the size of hers, and the couch was worn. The walls were bare, and the wood floor needed a good polishing. She moved on to the kitchen where the drab white cupboards were begging for a repaint. Something that definitely wouldn’t happen before that night. She’d just have to make the rest of the apartment look nice to hide it.

“Your parents are coming when?”

“I won’t see them until our dinner tonight.” He looked over at her sheepishly. “You’re still planning on coming, right?”

“Yes, although I need to check on my parents’ plans. They kind of do their own thing when they come to visit, and I haven’t heard from them since they left last night.” Erin checked her phone again just in case. “But right now I need to get over to see Mr. Smith. I’m not looking forward to admitting I still have this.”

Jake chuckled. “You didn’t tell him over the phone?”

Erin shook her head. “I left a voicemail, but I don’t know if he got it or not.”

Jake grabbed his jacket. “Let’s go. Then we can hit a few of the thrift stores in the area. I mean, if that’s all right with you.”

“There are some great ones around there. And I know of a few closer. We can just decorate around the furniture that’s already here. That way we don’t have to try to find a truck to get it delivered.”

“I’m so glad you said that. I’ve been stressing about it all night.” Jake pulled her into a hug, but let go quickly.

Erin pushed away the desire to keep hugging. They had things to do, and this was a business deal of sorts. Even if she kind of wished it was the real thing.

“Hey, that’s what I’m here for.” She opened the door and stopped when a man stood outside, ready to knock. “Oh, hi.”

“Hi. There you are, Jake.” The man smiled and looked between Erin and Jake.

Jake stepped forward and pulled out his wallet. His face was a bright red. “Hey, Philip. Here it is. I meant to bring it by last night, but didn’t get back until late. Next month will be better. I promise this time.”

Erin wished she could disappear, just so she could avoid Jake’s embarrassment. He wouldn’t look her in the eye as they headed down to the curb to grab a taxi. They climbed in, and Jake stared out the window. She debated saying anything, but when he’d been quiet for a few blocks, she couldn’t stand it anymore.

“Hey. Don’t be embarrassed. We’ve all missed rent once or twice. It’s part of starting out.” She put her hand on his arm, unsure of what else to say.

He put his hand over Erin’s and glanced over, his blue eyes piercing into her. “Yes, well, not everyone has a beautiful woman standing there while they have to pay it.”

Suddenly it was too hot in the car. Erin’s face now burned as she grinned like a dork. She pulled her hand away and cleared her throat. “Well, now you’re a big shot actor, so you can afford a penthouse.”

“I don’t think two commercials will get me there quite yet. But they’ll help.” Jake smiled at her again and looked out the window. He seemed more relaxed than before, which helped Erin relax as well.

Erin paid the driver and they climbed out. She made sure to enter the right door this time, and walked over to the receptionist.

“Hi, I’m Erin Tyler. Mr. Smith is expecting me.” She took a deep breath to calm her nerves. She met with clients all the time, but this wasn’t exactly business.

“Take the elevator to the tenth floor. He’s expecting you.” The receptionist handed her and Jake a badge and went back to her computer.

Erin and Jake headed for the elevator and climbed on. The music was low and peaceful. The slow beat helped calm her nerves.

“So do you know what you’re going to say?” Jake leaned against the wall of the elevator.

“Kind of. I’ll just explain what happened and then pray he doesn’t throw me in jail.” Erin meant it to be funny, but it just made her want to throw up.

Jake rubbed his chin. “Good plan. Especially the not going to jail part.”

The door opened into a large open office. The marbled floor gleamed under the thick rugs placed throughout the room. A secretary sat outside a dark cherrywood door. She looked up when they came closer.

“Ms. Tyler?” she asked.

“That’s me.” Erin winced. She needed to calm down and focus. She took a deep breath and straightened her jacket.

“Go on in. He’s ready.” She gestured toward the door.

Jake opened the door for Erin, and she walked in. The room was covered in the same cherry trim as the door. It was smaller than she’d expected, and it had several pictures of what looked like his family on the walls.

Mr. Smith stood and held out his hand. “Ah, my favorite couple. Come on in.”

Erin shook his hand, followed by Jake. They took the seats in front of his desk. It felt like she was back in school and sitting in the principal’s office.

“So what brings you two here?” Mr. Smith sat and leaned forward, his hands clasped on the desk.

Erin blushed and pulled the ring off her finger. “I was given what was supposed to be a copy of this ring, but we realized after everyone left that this was the real thing. We tried catching you, but you were already gone.”

Mr. Smith studied Erin for a moment, then took the ring from her. His shoulders shook as he laughed. That was the last thing Erin had expected.

“I clearly need to get better security guards. The two sets should never have been close enough to each other for something like this to happen. Thank you for returning it.”

“Y—you’re welcome.” Erin cleared her throat, shocked at his reaction. “I’m glad it wasn’t lost as well. It’s a beautiful ring.”

“It’s like our ad says. We only choose the best. This ring was out of the premiere collection. I’d been hesitant to use it because of its worth, but we needed something to pull people into the store.” He picked up the ring and examined it. “Now, you two just have to promise me that you’ll buy a ring from us when you decide to tie the knot.”

Erin didn’t know what to say, but Jake jumped in. “Oh, you know we will. I only want the best for my girl.”

Mr. Smith handed Jake a card with his name and number on it. “Call me when you’re ready and I’ll make sure you’re treated right.

Jake put it into his wallet. “Thank you. I appreciate it.”

“Wonderful. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must head to another meeting. I’ll see you two on Monday.” He stood.

“We’ll see you then. Thanks again for understanding.” Erin shook his hand and waited for Jake before leaving the office. She nodded at the secretary and walked to the elevator. She wanted to be out of the building before she said anything. Her heart still pounded in her chest. She couldn’t believe he hadn’t been angry or fired her.

The receptionist didn’t look up as Erin and walked past her and out the door. Erin let out a deep sigh of relief. “That went way better than I’d imagined it would.”

“I was fully expecting to have to bail you out of jail, personally.” Jake started walking down the sidewalk and Erin had to run to catch up.

“Liar.” She laughed and walked into one of her favorite thrift stores in the area.

Jake grinned. “Okay, so I figured he wouldn’t be as angry as you thought he would be, but I was still a little worried.”

“Thanks for being there for me. I think it helped. Now, let’s look around here for some ideas for your apartment. If you don’t see anything you want, we’ll try somewhere else.”

“Perfect.” He looked around and turned back to her. “Except that I have no idea what I’m looking for.”

“Right. Okay, we need something to cover your couch. A nice blanket of some sort. Maybe a rug, and a coffee table. And then a few things to go on your walls.” Erin walked over to a box of paintings. She sorted through them and found a few pictures of the skyline, and a country landscapes. “Something like this.”

Jake rubbed his chin while looking through them, then picked up a painting of a ranch. “I like this one. Reminds me of home.”

“Perfect. Now we can find other things to go along with it.” Erin found a few blankets and held them out. “Pick one for your couch.”

Jake glanced between them and then up at Erin. “What if I don’t like any of them?”

“Then we go somewhere else. This is your apartment so you have to like it.” Erin set them down and wandered through the store, while Jake looked at different trinkets.

“What about this rug?” Jake held up the corner of a large rug he found laying over a table in the corner.

Erin set down the lamp she’d been looking at and went back to him. “That would look good in your living room.”

Jake checked the price and his smile dropped. “Never mind. I’m not sure I need a rug right now.”

“Yes you do.” Erin rolled it up and put it under one arm. “It matches the picture. I’ll get it and you can pay me back. With interest.”

Jake stared at her for a moment before shaking his head. “I can’t let you do that. It’s too much.”

“Well, then, Happy Birthday.” She went to the front and paid for it, aware that Jake was staring at her from where they’d been standing. When she headed out of the store, he finally caught up.

“I told you not to get it.” His voice was harder than Erin had heard it before.

She turned and met his eyes. “You wanted my help, and I’m offering it. If you decide you don’t like the rug when your parents leave, I’ll put it in my own apartment, or give it to my cousin for her wedding.”

It took a few seconds before Jake relaxed. “You’re stubborn, you know that?”

Erin smiled mischievously. “You have no idea. Let’s head for the next store. Although, I recommend we head back toward our neighborhood. This thing is heavy.”

“Oh, sorry.” Jake took the rug from her and hefted it over his shoulder. “So we need blankets?”

“Yep, and some old dishes. I’d suggest a new paint job, but you probably don’t have time for that.”

Jake checked his watch. “Not really. The walls probably just need a good scrubbing. I haven’t really had the time, and the former tenants weren’t exactly clean.”

“That will definitely help.” Erin went downstairs to hop on the subway. “I could grab a taxi, but the rug won’t fit in the trunk.”

Jake glanced around. “Being down here is not my favorite.”

Erin’s eyes widened. “I’m sorry. I forgot about your issue with subways. We can figure out a way to make the taxi work if you want.”

“It’s fine.” He smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Which one do we get on?”

“There should be one coming soon. It’s the Seventh Avenue Express.”

Jake readjusted the rug on his shoulders and checked the map. “Yeah, I think we have about five minutes.”

Erin watched him as his eyes followed the different routes. His jaw was still clenched, and his shoulders were stiff. “Jake, if you need to go back up and take a taxi, we can do that. Really. I just figured this would be easy with that rug.”

“Thanks, but I’ll be fine. It’s time to become a New Yorker, right?” Jake winked at her and went back to the map.

“I guess so.” Erin’s phone buzzed, so she changed the picture to her other arm and pulled it out. “Hello?”

“You sound terrible. Where are you?” Debra said.

“I’m in the subway. Is everything okay?” Erin ran through her week’s schedule in her head, trying to figure out what she could have missed.

“Mr. Smith called and mentioned your ring was switched. How’d that happen?” Debra’s tone was a mix between annoyed and amused.

Erin was glad Debra couldn’t see her burning face. “The security guard gave me the wrong one, and thankfully Jake noticed it. Did you not get my message?”

“I must have missed it. You’re very lucky he likes you two so much.” Debra laughed. “That’s not why he called, however. He got a preview of the commercial, and he is raving about it. He wants a couple of other commercials shot with the two of you, and asked you to buy some more slots between now and Christmas. He raised the budget to cover it.”

Erin’s eyes widened. “Seriously? That’s great! I’ll get on that as soon as I get home tonight.”

I’ll see you Monday morning. And Erin? Great job.”

The call ended just as the train pulled in. Jake had to take Erin by the elbow as they followed the other passengers onto the train.

“Hey, Earth to Erin. What’s going on?” Jake waved his hand in front of her face. “I thought you  were supposed to be helping me  survive the subway.”

Erin grinned. “Mr. Smith liked the commercial enough that he wants more.”

“That’s fantastic.” Jake hugged her tightly to him, then leaned back to look at her. “So … does that mean I’ll be doing them?”

“Yes, he wants the two of us.” Erin shook her head. “I have no idea how this happened.”

“I don’t know, but I’ll take it.” Jake let go of Erin so he could readjust the rug. “How many stops do we have before we get off?”

Erin checked the sign. “Four more stops to your apartment. There’s a cute little store nearby that will have what you need for the kitchen.”

Jake raised his eyebrows. “Cute? Did you just say cute?”

“Fine. It’s a nice store. Manly store. Is that better?” Erin teased. She pushed the button to open the doors of the train car and climbed out, Jake following behind.

“Well, as long as it’s manly, I’m okay going there.” He flexed, making Erin’s heart flutter. “Hey, after we take the rug back, let’s grab some lunch before going to the store. I’m starving.”

“Sounds good.” Erin had picked the store because it was fairly close to Jake’s apartment, and because it had lower prices than the other stores she would have picked from. They passed a few of Jake’s neighbors on the way up to his apartment, each one saying hi. Erin was impressed with how well he knew each of them, and how he joked with the kids, even when carrying the heavy rug up the stairs.

Once they were in the apartment, Jake laid out the rug on the floor and went to go find some nails to hang the picture. Erin flopped down on his couch to rest for a moment and checked her messages. Her mom had texted to see what she was doing that night, so she texted back about her dinner plans. As she was texting Carissa about what had happened over the last couple of days, her mom called back.

“So his parents are in town?” her mom asked before Erin could finish saying hello.

“They should be getting here any time now.” Erin glanced up when Jake came back in the room, and held up a finger to let him know she’d be done soon. She hoped.

“That’s great. We should meet them while they’re here,” her mom gushed.

And this right here was what Erin had been dreading. “No, I don’t think that would work. What if they got reservations for just the four of us?”

“Nonsense. If they’re just barely flying in, there’s no way they could have. We need to meet so we can talk wedding details.”

Jake crouched down next to Erin and mouthed “What’s going on?”

She pulled the phone away and whispered, “They want to meet your parents.”

“Who are you talking to? Is that Jake?”

“Yes, it is. I’m helping him today.” Erin watched Jake pull out his phone and text someone.

“How sweet. Listen, you let me know when you find out more about dinner and then we’ll meet you. For now we’re going shopping. I have to find the perfect silverware for your wedding.”

“Wait, Mom, no. Don’t worry about that right now. We haven’t even figured out a date yet.”

Jake’s phone buzzed. “Tell your mom and dad my parents would love to meet them.”

Erin sighed. She couldn’t believe this was happening. “Jake’s parents say dinner would be great.”

Jake drove a nail into the wall and hung the picture.

“Fabulous. We’ll be your house at six so we can meet them at the restaurant.” Her mom paused. “What is that noise?”

“Jake’s hanging a picture. I better get going. I need to help him. I’ll see you at my apartment.” Erin hung up and fell back on the couch. “We’re in so much trouble.”

“We’ll be fine. You knew they’d want to meet at some point. This way we just get it over with.” Jake stepped back. “How does it look?”

Erin stood on the other side of the room. “It looks great. We just need a few other things to go around your living room, and we’ll be good.” Erin gestured to the corner by the couch. “We should probably get rid of those papers as well.”

“Oh. I forgot to dump those.” He scooped up all but a couple of the papers into his arms. “Ready?”

Erin grabbed the last two and opened the door. “Let’s do it.”

Jake went out the back door to the recycle bin and dumped the newspapers inside. He took Erin’s hand and helped her through the alley. “Sorry, this probably wasn’t the best way to go, but I didn’t think you wanted all my neighbors to stare at you again.”

“No, it’s a little embarrassing. Besides, this isn’t too bad. I’ve seen worse alleys in this city.” Erin shuddered at the thought of the smells she’d experienced.

“Sounds like you have some interesting stories.” Jake let go of Erin’s hand once they were out.

Erin wanted to reach out and take his hand again, but forced herself not to. She didn’t need to complicate this any more than it already was. “Okay, it’s just over here. This is where I go when I need cheap props for ads.”

“Perfect. I like cheap. Much better than cute. Not quite as cool as manly, though.” Jake’s elbow brushed Erin’s, sending a thrill up her arm.

“Well, you’re in luck, because it’s all three. So we can go and grab what we need and put your room together before I head to my apartment to meet my parents.” Erin stopped at the intersection and pushed the button. She glanced up and noticed he’d been looking down at her. “What?”

“You always have everything mapped out, don’t you?” Jake held up a hand when Erin started to argue. “Don’t take that as a bad thing. I admire it. I have no idea what I’m doing after these two jobs, and you probably know exactly what you want to do. It’s pretty cool.”

Erin stayed silent. It was true she liked things organized, but she wasn’t that  predictable. She liked doing spontaneous things. Like offering him the job. Or most of what she’d done in the last couple of days. They crossed the street before she answered.

“I just want to have some control in my life. I wanted to make something of myself, and I have to keep things perfect in order to stay where I’m at.”

“Doesn’t that get stifling, though?”

Erin shrugged. “Sometimes. But that’s when I go shopping or explore the city. I learned the ins and outs of the city and I’ve been to every part of town. Of course, that all has to fit into my schedule, but I make it work.”

“Now that sounds a little more exciting. So, what’s your favorite part?” Jake hit the button and they waited.

“Right here. Although, I love Times Square and Chinatown. But this area is perfect. Close to work, close to being able to see a play, close to my favorite diner.”

“Close to me,” Jake’s face turned red. “So where is this store?”

“It’s just one more block ahead.” Erin couldn’t help the smile as she kept walking. She was pretty lucky that he was nearby. She opened the door and gestured for Jake to walk in.

Jake shook his head. “You took the one job I had.”

“Sorry. I’ll let you do it from now on.” Erin headed straight for the country-style decor in the back and picked through to find a few things that would work with the painting. “What do you think?”

“I think you think I’m more of a cowboy than I really am.” Jake kept a straight face while he picked up a horseshoe. When he looked over, he started laughing. “I’m kidding. This is great. I just want something more … neutral. More, I don’t know, something that you’d find in an actor’s house. Something New Yorkish.”

“New Yorkish? Pretty sure that’s not a word. But I have some ideas.” Erin walked over to another section and pulled out some dark red and blue pillows and a few blankets. “Something like this?”

Jake scratched his chin. “I do like those.”

“Perfect. Go look at something over there and let me work.” Erin shooed him away and waited for him to leave before filling her basket with some brown and darker blue decor. She found an old set of silverware and a dish set that would help fill his empty cupboards.

“How’s it coming?” Jake asked near Erin’s ear.

Erin jumped. “Man, you scared me. I think I’m done. Did you find anything?”

Jake held up a Yankees foam finger. “Yep.”

“Well, at least you have good taste in teams. My dad might not disown me when he asks your favorite sport.” Erin laughed and took her basket to the front.

Jake set the finger next to the rest of the stuff on the counter. “So your dad is a Yankees fan?”

“You have no idea. He lets my mom think they’re coming for the theater or to visit me, but it’s really so he can catch a Yankees game.” Erin pulled out her credit card and handed it to the cashier, ignoring the protests from Jake. She handed him some of the bags and headed for the door. “I told you earlier that you could just pay me later.”

“That was for the rug. Not everything else.” Jake shook his head and walked to the intersection.

Erin rolled her eyes and crossed the road. “You’re impossible.”

“At least let me buy us some lunch.” Jake stopped at a small deli.

“Perfect. I’m starving. But let’s take it back to the apartment so we can get this done. Your parents will be in here in a few hours, right?”

Jake opened the door for Erin and she walked in. Since he’d been there before, he ordered them his favorite sandwich and drink, and they sat down to wait for their food.

“This is cute. I’ve been down these streets hundreds of times and I’ve never noticed it before.”

“I like finding the little hole in the wall places. They’re my favorite.” He picked up their order and came back to grab the other bags. “You’re going to love this.”

They walked back to the apartment and weaved their way up the stairs and around toys. Erin’s arms and legs were burning by the time they got inside. She set the bags on the couch and pulled the items out. “Okay, ready for this?”

“Let’s eat first. Then we can work.” He handed her a sandwich and a soda, then sat down on his couch. “Sorry there’s no table.”

“This works.” Erin unwrapped the sandwich and took a bite. The avocado, tomatoes, and turkey were seasoned perfectly. “Oh man, you weren’t kidding. I may have to go back more often.”

“Did you notice I even requested mushrooms for yours?” He asked smugly.

Erin laughed. “Yes, and they’re fantastic. Thank you.”

Once their sandwiches were gone, Jake threw away their wrappers and stood in the center of the living room. “Okay, where do we start?”

Erin handed Jake one of the small shelves. “This needs to be hung under your picture, right about here.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Jake picked up the hammer and moved closer to Erin. He tapped two longer nails into the wall and carefully the shelf on them. “Like that?”

Erin stood back, then grabbed a couple of items. “Yep. Okay. These candles and this horseshoe can sit on top of the shelf.”

Jake took the items and set them on the shelf. He rearranged them a few times before turning to Erin. “Okay, this is why I don’t decorate.”

“Like this.” Erin took the candles from him, brushing her hand up against his. She was very aware of him standing right next to her as she set up the knickknacks just right. When she straightened back up, he was right there, looking down at her with his blue eyes. Her breath caught for a second before she turned away and picked up the next item. “Okay, these pillows will go on your couch.”

Jake took them from her, his hand covering hers as he pulled away. He set them on the couch and rubbed his chin. “This looks girly. Are you sure this is how it’s supposed to look?”

Erin stood next to him, biting her lip. “If you don’t like them, I can take them back to my house. This is your place.”

“Maybe that’s a good idea. Then I can come and see them when we try out your new gaming system?” His eyes danced, making Erin’s heart beat rapidly.

“I like that plan. Although I have to warn you. I’ll probably beat you.” Erin flexed, but it was ruined by her laugh.

“Oh, so that’s how it is.” Jake grabbed her around the waist to tackle her, making Erin laugh even harder.

“Okay, okay. I’ll give you a chance. Now let’s finish this apartment up.” Erin meant to pull out of his arms, but when she glanced up at him, she couldn’t move. It just felt … right. She wanted him to bend down and kiss her, and for a moment it seemed like he would.

Jake stood back up and cleared his throat. “Sorry. Um, let’s get this done.”

Erin nodded and handed him a few different items to go around his television, barely registering what she was doing. She wanted him to hold her again, to finish that kiss, but now wasn’t the time. She helped him lay out the blanket on the couch, and then they moved on to the kitchen. They brushed up against each other as they filled the cupboards and drawers, but she was careful not to linger when he touched her hand. By the time they were done, the apartment looked completely different.

“What do you think?”

Jake smoothed out a piece of the rug and stepped back. “It’s perfect. Thank you.”

“No problem. Now, I better get going so I’ll be ready when our parents get here.” Erin’s stomach lurched at the thought. She wasn’t ready for this. She grabbed the pillows and reached for the doorknob.

“Oh, hey. Before you leave.” Jake pulled out a small ring with a round diamond set in the middle. “It’s not the same as what you were wearing before, and it’s not a real diamond, but I found this at the store.”

Erin put it on her finger and held it out to inspect it. Her heart beat rapidly, even though she knew it meant nothing. “Thank you. It’s beautiful, and it should hopefully keep my parents from asking questions.”

Jake brushed a hair from Erin’s face, sending shivers through her. “You’re welcome. Thanks again for helping today.”

“No problem. I’ll see you in an hour.” Erin gave Jake a quick hug and left the apartment. She pulled her phone out of her purse and dialed Carissa’s number. There was so much she needed to tell her.

Chapter 8

Jake straightened his tie and stepped back. Not bad, but was it good enough? He hadn’t seen his parents for a few months, but that wasn’t what concerned him the most. Erin had become one of his closest friends—his only friend in New York besides Mr. Dayley. And as irritating as she could be when she insisted on doing things her way, he couldn’t stop thinking about her.

He slipped his wallet and phone into his pocket, and checked the mirror one more time. His parents would be there soon, and then they’d head over to meet with Erin and her parents. Jake still couldn’t believe he’d set them up to eat together. Maybe the city was getting to him and he was going insane. Or maybe he was just falling head over heels for Erin, and wanted this to be more than just a fake engagement.

No, he couldn’t think that way. It was way too fast. They’d only met a few days before.

There was a loud knock at the door and Jake chuckled to himself as he went to answer it. His dad always pounded on the door, even though he insisted he didn’t.

“Hey, Mom and Dad. Come on in.” Jake moved out of the way so they could go past.

“Oh, wow. This place looks nice. I’m impressed.” Jake’s mom moved through the small apartment, looking at what Erin had done.

Jake’s dad went to the kitchen to get himself a drink. “So what’s this girl like? Is she a city girl?”

“No, she moved here a few years ago. She’s nice.” And beautiful . But his parents would see that soon enough. “You’ll love her. She’s from Georgia as well.”

“She sounds wonderful.” Jake’s mom came into the kitchen. “I don’t know what I was so worried about. You’re doing just fine.”

“Thanks. I’m an adult after all.” Jake sighed. “Should we go?”

“Yes, I’m starved.” Jake’s dad straightened his jacket and moved to the door.

They walked down to the rental car and climbed in. It was more compact than the car Erin’s parents had rented, so Jake had to sit sideways in the backseat. He gave the directions to her apartment and watched as they drove past the store Jake and Erin had been to earlier that day.

“Okay, this is her building.” Jake straightened his tie again, and took a deep breath. He was crazy. This was never going to work. His parents would see through it.

His dad pulled up in front and parked. “Here you go.”

“Wait, aren’t you coming in?” Jake asked, surprised.

“We don’t want to intrude. Besides, you two won’t fit in our car and it doesn’t make sense to keep you apart. We’ll go on ahead to get our place at the restaurant.”

Jake put his hand on the door handle. “Are you sure?”

“Of course. Now don’t leave her waiting.” His mom smiled at him.

“We’ll be there soon. Thanks.” Jake climbed out and waved as they pulled back onto the road. He checked his tie one more time and climbed the stairs up to her apartment. He could hear Erin’s mom laughing as he knocked on the door.

Erin answered, and Jake forgot to breathe. She was wearing a black dress with her hair pulled up, and small curls that framed her face.

“Come on in.” Erin moved and let them past her. “Where are your parents?”

“They insisted on going ahead of us. Something about not wanting to separate the two of us.” Jake’s face burned. “Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Tyler. It’s good to see you again.”

Erin’s mom pulled him into a hug. “Oh, you don’t need to be so formal. We’ll be family soon enough.”

Bill laughed. “Please excuse my wife. She’s a hugger.”

“I noticed.” Jake laughed.

“We should get going if Jake’s parents are already there.” Erin pulled on a thin wrap to cover her shoulders.

“Oh, right. I have the directions in my phone.” He took Erin’s arm and led her out the door.

The ride to the restaurant was filled with small talk as Erin’s parents told them all about their trip to the Statue of Liberty and Staten Island. Jake put his arm around Erin and smiled to himself when Erin snuggled in just a little. Whether it was to sell their story, or if she really meant to, he didn’t care. He enjoyed having her next to him.

The restaurant they pulled up to had valet parking, so everyone piled out and met Jake’s parents, who were waiting for them.

His dad reached out his hand. “Hello, I’m Sam, and this my wife, Kate.”

Erin’s parents introduced themselves as well, and they headed into the restaurant.

Jake’s dad stepped up to the maître d’. “Table for six. It’s under Wilson.”

It was nicer than any of the restaurants Jake had been to back home, but he wasn’t going to complain. As long as he didn’t have to foot the bill. This would cut into his rent check for sure.

Jake put his arm around Erin as they walked toward their table. They ended up sitting between both sets of parents, and he felt like he was in the hot seat. Of course, he probably was. He took a drink of his water to calm his nerves. Erin rubbed her arms, looking as nervous as Jake felt.

After the waiter left, Suzanne leaned forward. “So have you two decided on a date yet?”

Jake looked over at Erin. That was one thing they hadn’t talked about. “Christmas—”

“Springtime. We’re doing a spring wedding,” Erin said at the same time.

Both sets of parents looked between them.

“Er, I meant spring. Like she said.” Jake could feel his face burning. Next time he was just going to let her talk. They really should have gone over the details, but it was too late now. He’d just have to agree with whatever she said so he didn’t mess anything up.

“Oh, I was hoping you’d choose Christmas. I found the loveliest reception hall for you to get married in, and it would just work perfectly for Christmas. I suppose it would work for spring as well.” Her mom sifted through her purse and pulled out a pamphlet. She handed it to Jake’s mom. “Isn’t it nice?”

Jake’s mom looked through it. “Yes, with the colors and shrubbery throughout, this is definitely better for Christmas.”

“Well, show Jake and Erin, sweetie. It doesn’t matter what we think.” Jake’s dad handed the pamphlet to Jake.

Erin leaned toward Jake so they could see what it was their parents were dying over. Jake had to admit the reception center was breathtaking. Vines around the edges with flower baskets throughout the hall. A winding staircase opened into the room.

Erin handed it back to her mom and took a drink of her water. “Mom, this is in Georgia. I told you we wanted to do it here. How did you get this pamphlet, anyway?”

“Oh, I’ve had that for months. When I found out where Jake was from, I dug through my files to find something that worked. You can never be too prepared. Of course, I was hoping it would be for—never mind.”

Jake knew exactly what she was going to say. She’d wanted him to marry Melody. He glared, but didn’t say anything.

“It’s really beautiful, but I think we should look here.” Erin’s shoulders were tense, and Jake recognized her stubborn look.

He took her hand and rubbed it with his thumb to soothe her. “We’ll think about the date, but I really think we should hold it here. It’s hard to get away right now with our jobs.”

It didn’t matter that he didn’t have any friends here. There wouldn’t actually be a wedding anyway.

Her mom stared at him for a moment before grabbing the pamphlet and shoving it back in her purse. “Great, well, here are some brochures for a few places we visited today.”

Erin shook her head. “You’re impossible, you know that?”

Jake had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing. It’s exactly what he’d said about Erin just a few hours before.

Suzanne nodded. “Fair enough. Just look at them, please. We took time out of our tours to see these places. We also found a cute little wedding planner who is thrilled to work with us.”

Jake’s mom pulled out her phone. “I hope you don’t mind, but I called one of my friends from college who owns a shop here. It takes months to get in, and she managed to squeeze us into a cancellation for this Saturday. Can you believe it?” She smiled proudly and patted his hand. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell us about your engagement.”

“Um, right. We wanted to tell you when you got here.” Jake had to laugh. This was getting messy. “And now I know why you sent me with Erin and her parents on the way over here.”

His mom smiled and handed him another card. “Well, I couldn’t ruin the surprise for Erin, now could I?”

Erin clapped her hand to her forehead. “Oh, shoot. I can’t do that. I’m supposed to meet Carissa for her dress fitting. I promised.”

“Well, does she already have an appointment?” Kate asked.

“We were just going to try a few places since she can’t get into the shop she wanted until next month. That way she will know exactly what she wants when she has her appointment.”

“Well, just have her come with you. It will be perfect.” Kate smiled.

“That would be wonderful, actually. Thank you.” Erin smiled as she pulled her phone out and typed a message into it.

“So once we’re done with the dress, we can look at the different reception halls, and look through ideas for decor.”

“Mom, this wedding isn’t happening for a while. We don’t have to do all the planning right now. Give Jake and I some room to breathe, please.” Erin’s voice wasn’t as steady as usual, so he put his arm around her for comfort.

“She’s right. With our schedules, it could be next Christmas by the time we actually have the date set.” Or no date at all. Which, strangely enough, made Jake feel a little depressed.

Their moms exchanged glances before Suzanne leaned forward. “We understand that, sweetie, but who knows when all of us will be in New York at the same time again. We want to make sure the small details are set you can deal with the rest later.”

By the time dinner showed up, their parents had planned out the whole next day, and Erin looked like she was ready to cry. Jake couldn’t blame her. He was ready to end it right then and there, but the weekend wasn’t over yet.

“We just have to make sure we’re done in time for Emily’s wedding. Your Aunt Diane would never forgive me if we missed it.”

“Wait, wedding?” Kate looked between Jake and Erin. “I thought you were going with us to Andrew’s.”

Jake chuckled. “About that. We’re all going to the same one. We’re going for Andrew, and Emily is Erin’s cousin.”

The parents sat quietly for a second before they all started talking at once about coincidences. Jake couldn’t help enjoying the fact that the focus was no longer on his imaginary engagement.

***

After dinner that night, Erin went with her parents and Jake with his. With all the craziness the next day, he figured he needed to spend more time with them while he had the chance.

Jake squeezed into the backseat. His parents talked about news back home. He half listened as they told stories about their ranch and the neighbors.

When they finally got back to his apartment, he climbed out and stretched.

“Thanks again for the ride,” Jake said.

“It’s no problem. I don’t blame you for not wanting a car here.” Sam clapped Jake on the back as they walked up to Jake’s apartment.

Jake laughed. “It’s not that I don’t want one. It’s that I can’t afford one right now. I’ll come and get my truck later.”

“Yes, you two will need it when you get married. Have you decided which apartment you’ll keep?” his mom asked as they climbed the stairs to his apartment.

“We haven’t really talked about it. Her apartment is much nicer, but I’d really miss the people here.” It was a toss-up. Wait, it wasn’t even a question. Jake pushed away his thoughts and went to the kitchen to get drinks for his parents.

His mom stood up to study the painting on the wall. “This is a nice piece. Where did you pick it up?”

“At a shop here in the city. It reminds me of home.” Jake thought about the ranch and his horse that waited back in Georgia. He’d have to go visit soon. Maybe for Christmas.

“Well, we better get going. Tomorrow’s a long day, and your dad wants to head back to the hotel for whatever ball game he can find.” She kissed his cheek. “See you in the morning.”

“See you tomorrow. Thanks again for dinner.” He kissed his mom and then hugged his dad.

“She’s beautiful, son. I’m happy for the two of you. I just wish you would have told us about her sooner.” Sam pulled out his wallet. “Here’s some cash to get the wedding going.”

Jake’s eyes widened at the hundred dollar bills his dad handed him. “No, I don’t need this much. I got a couple of contracts, so I’ll be fine.”

“Nonsense. Weddings are expensive. We had this saved up for you. I’m just glad it’s finally happening.”

“You guys make it sound like I’m old.” Jake laughed. “Thank you.”

“We just want you to be happy. And I’ve seen how you look at each other. I couldn’t be more thrilled.” His mom walked to the door.

His dad put his arm around his mom. “We’ll see you tomorrow at the dress shop. You still have the address?”

“Yes, Dad.” Jake pulled the card out of his pocket. “I’ll see you there.”

His parents gave him a hug before leaving the apartment. Jake collapsed onto the couch and rubbed his face. He texted Erin to see if her parents had left and told her to call when she had the chance.

Erin called a few minutes later. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Jake turned the lights off in his living room. “So you survived tonight? Sorry it was so crazy.”

“It really was. But I think we did pretty well.” There was a pause. “So, what do we do about the wedding dresses and everything else?”

Jake dropped onto his bed. “Well, your friend is coming too, right? Maybe you can just try to keep the focus on her. That way they’ll forget they’re there for you.”

“Good idea. My parents are pretty stuck on this whole thing. They raved about you the whole ride back to my apartment.”

“That’s good to hear. Although, maybe I should be hard to deal with. Then they wouldn’t want us getting married.”

Erin laughed. “Not a chance. I think they’d still love you. Anyway, I better get to bed. Long day tomorrow.”

“See you in the morning. Thanks again for all your help today. My apartment looks great, and I had a great time.”

“I did too. Bye, Jake.” The phone disconnected, and Jake suddenly felt lonely. He’d spent months here already, and had been fine being by himself. Until now.

Chapter 9

Erin yawned as she pulled her coat on. She’d talked to Carissa until late the night before.  Carissa wanted every single detail, and squealed when she got to the ring part.  Erin glanced down at the ring on her finger and smiled. It wasn’t the huge diamond from before, but she liked this one more anyway.

After checking to make sure she had the address in her purse, she ran down to catch a cab. Her parents had offered a ride, but it would’ve been out of the way for them. She took the time in the cab to reply to some business emails and accept another account. The jeweler contract would be done by the end of the week and she needed to start another one.

Erin climbed out of the cab and walked into the dress store. The carpets were white, and there were several benches throughout the store. A few were already occupied as other customers shopped.

Kate spotted Erin and waved her over.  Jake was nowhere in sight, which made sense. There’s no way her mom would have let the groom near her. It was bad luck, even if the wedding wasn’t actually going to happen.

“Erin, this is my dear friend, Karlene. She owns this shop and will personally help you find the perfect dress.”

“It’s nice to meet you.” Erin looked around. “Is Carissa here yet?”

Kate pointed behind Erin. “She got here a while ago, so we’ve been helping her out. It’s a shame her mom can’t be here.”

“Thanks for taking care of her.”

Carissa squealed when she saw Erin. She lifted the long white dress she’d been trying on and hurried over to hug Erin, then pulled her toward the dressing room. “I still can’t believe his mom got you in here. I might actually have a dress by my wedding.”

“It’s all about who you know, I guess.” Erin stepped back. “That dress is gorgeous.”

“You think so? I haven’t decided if I like it. I was thinking of something with a little more flare.” Carissa inspected herself in the mirror. The A-style skirt was made of a chiffon material, and it flowed around her.

Erin walked around her. “You’re right. You need a fuller skirt, and maybe a little color. Not too much. Maybe just a necklace or something. Oh, I know. Maybe a ball gown style?”

“That’s what I think, too. Come on. You can help me look.” Carissa pulled her arm and walked back to the racks of dresses.

Erin looked through the dresses, telling herself she was looking for a dress for Carissa, but she couldn’t help but look for one for herself. She pulled one out that had a full skirt and a light scooped neck.

Karlene came up behind her. “That’s beautiful, but I think you need something more like this.”

Erin turned and her jaw dropped. The skirt was full like she wanted, but the bodice had intricate beadwork, and it had a high collar. She needed  that dress.

“Since you’re having the wedding at Christmas, your mother figured you’d want something a little warmer. If it’s not what you want, we can look at other styles.”

“It’s gorgeous.” Erin didn’t care to correct her about the wedding date. This was perfect. She checked the size before going in the back to change. One of the other employees helped her slip the dress on, insisting that’s how it’s done. The dress fit like it was made for her. The zipper was difficult, but her mom could help her with that. She shook her head. Not that it mattered. This was all pretend. And that made her more depressed than she wanted to admit.

“You ready in there?” Carissa called out.

Erin lifted the dress off the floor and opened the stall. “What do you think?”

Carissa gasped. “That is perfect for you.”

“I could say the same thing about yours.” Erin knew that Carissa had found the perfect dress. It almost added height to her small frame, and black lace along the bodice and the hem at the bottom was just enough of a flare to make it work. “That ball gown cut is exactly what you needed. And that black lace? It’s perfect.”

They walked out of the dressing room and took turns showing off their gowns to the small group that had gathered around. There were gasps and exclamations before they were shooed back into the dressing room to try on the next dress. Karlene handed them both a new dress and the attendants helped them into each one.

Erin’s was a mermaid style with a cinched up side, and while it was beautiful, it wasn’t quite the same one as the first dress. Carissa’s was also mermaid style, and hers had pink ribbons laced along the bodice. They walked out into the main room. Erin twisted and posed along with Carissa. It was agreed that these weren’t quite right and they walked back in to wait for the next dress.

After trying on another ten or so dresses, Carissa went back to the dress with the black trim, and Erin had decided on the first dress she tried on. They set it aside, and Erin promised to come back and get it later. She couldn’t help wishing that she was actually going to be using it. She let the attendant pull it off and then sat down in the dressing room for a moment, allowing herself a little time to lament the fact that this wasn’t real. She was so excited for Carissa, but she couldn’t help the small twinge of jealousy that crept in.

Jake, Sam, and Bill showed up soon after to take them to eat. They went to a small deli Karlene had recommended, and spent the time deciding on food for the wedding. Somewhere along the way, Kate and her mom decided the wedding would begin in the early afternoon so they wanted to try a few different dishes for the dinner.

Once the sandwiches were decided on—chicken salad sandwiches and shrimp rolls—they headed off to check out napkins and the dishes they wanted to use. The tablecloths were next, and Erin agreed to let her mom pick out the silver and navy blue table settings.

Jake didn’t say much, but his hand on Erin’s back, or his arm around her, kept her going through all the decisions that were being made for the wedding that wouldn’t happen. She could have argued, but she knew she would burst into tears. When their moms began discussing what lights they wanted to use, Jake finally put his hand up to stop them.

“That’s enough. You two have planned more than what we need right now. We should probably head back to our apartments to get ready for tonight.”  Jake squeezed Erin’s hand and winked at her.

“Oh, dear. You’re right. I almost forgot the time.” Her mom picked up her purse. “We’ll meet you there. Please don’t be late.”

Erin nodded, rubbing her forehead to fight the headache coming on. “I’ll be there in plenty of time.”

Her mom kissed her on the cheek and followed Bill outside.. Kate and Sam left soon after, leaving Jake and Erin to get a cab back to their apartments.

“You okay?” Jake asked.

Erin sighed. “Yeah. I just feel like I’m using my parents. I don’t like it.”

“I don’t either.” Jake took her hand, but dropped it suddenly. “Sorry. It’s a hard habit to break.”

“It’s fine. I don’t mind. And maybe that’s why I’m having an issue. I want … Never mind.” Erin stared out the window, wishing she hadn’t said anything.

Jake stayed quiet for the rest of the trip, and Erin worried she’d just messed things up. The tiniest part of her wished he felt the same way about her. That he wished this whole wedding thing was actually happening. But that didn’t happen in real life.

The cab pulled up in front of Erin’s apartment, and she turned to him. “See you in an hour?”

“I’ll pick you up. See you then.”

After paying for her part of the fare, Erin climbed out and hurried up to her apartment. She dropped her purse and jacket on the couch next to the bag of pillows from Jake. The purse thumped against something, which made her pause. Pillows weren’t supposed to make a noise.

She opened the bag of pillows and pulled out a controller followed by another one. At the bottom of the bag was an old Super Nintendo. Jake had apparently managed to find one at the thrift store, but how had he been able to slip it into the bag without her knowing? She laughed to herself as she set it next to her TV. Hopefully the thing still worked, but she’d have to try it later. For now, she had to get ready for the wedding.

 Erin stared at her closet trying to figure out what in the world she should wear. They’d spent so much time faking a wedding, she’d forgotten to buy a new dress.

The red strapless dress had been perfect for a cocktail party she’d attended for an ad campaign earlier in the summer, but would red be too flashy for a wedding? Of course, she’d like to see Jake’s reaction to it, but that could wait.

Coco leaped onto the bed and watched Erin pull dress after dress out of the closet. Erin flopped on the bed next to her.

“What do you think? Am I crazy?” Erin stroked Coco’s fur as she stared at the closet. All she got back was a simple meow . “Well, you’re no help.”

She finally chose a form fitting navy blue dress. It hugged her curves just right. She hung it back up and hopped into the shower. The hot water helped calm her nerves, and she regretted having to get out and face reality again.

She’d been planning to curl her hair for the wedding, but a glance at the clock showed her there was no time. Besides, a French twist would look better with this dress anyway. She pulled it up and added some jeweled bobby pins to make it pop a little more.

The dress went on next, and she finished off the look with mascara, lipstick, and a little blush. She’d just slipped on her black stilettos when the buzzer rang, letting her know Jake was downstairs. Perfect timing.

 Erin grabbed the small blue purse that went with the dress and made sure her ID, keys, and some cash were inside before hurrying downstairs to meet Jake. She took a deep breath before opening the door. “Hey, long time, stranger.”

The stunned look on Jake’s face was worth all the fuss she put into getting ready. She was pretty sure her expression matched his. His tailored suit showed off his physique, and his blue eyes seemed to pull her in.

Jake swallowed before speaking. “Wow. You look amazing.”

“Thank you. I must say you do, too. I think we’re going to show up my cousin and her husband. They might kick us out.” Erin closed the door and slipped her arm through Jake’s.

“It’s possible. We do clean up pretty well.” Jake opened the door to the cab and waited for Erin to climb in. “I don’t know where we’re going, so you’ll have to give the directions.”

“Oh, right.” Erin pulled her phone out and scrolled through her messages until she found the address. She gave it to the driver and settled in. It would take a bit to get there since it was on the other side of the city. She just hoped they’d make it in time.

***

Erin and Jake arrived at the wedding with minutes to spare. They hurried in and grabbed a seat next to Erin’s parents. Jake’s parents sat one row behind them.

“Cutting it close,” her mom whispered.

“Sorry, we would have been here sooner, but traffic was worse than normal.” Erin looked around and recognized a few people here and there among the crowd. Emily’s younger sisters poked their heads through the door just as the wedding march began.

The girls walked slowly down the aisle, throwing rose petals on the floor as they walked. They beamed at their mom as they walked past, then took their place on the left of the podium. The ring bearers came next. They must have been related to Emily’s fiancé, because Erin didn’t recognize them.  

The wedding was short and simple. The bride and groom used the simple vows instead of writing their own. Erin stole a glance over at Jake, wondering what he was thinking. She couldn’t help wishing she was up there with him, exchanging vows. She pushed away the thoughts, and concentrated on her cousin’s happiness. When it was over, the group was moved over into the reception area. Erin stood and walked with her family and Jake’s so they could find a table.

The reception hall was breathtaking. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and mirrors covered the walls, making the room seem even bigger than it was. It was like stepping into a fairy tale.

“Okay, I was wrong. You should get married here.” Her mom stared in awe.

“I’m sure it wasn’t cheap. We need something smaller.” Erin had money saved up, but she was pretty sure she didn’t have anywhere near enough. As much as she would have loved something like this, it would just have to stay in her dreams.

Erin’s aunt and uncle came by as they stood in the entrance. After a few introductions, her aunt Jenny turned to her.

“I wanted to congratulate you on your engagement.” She smiled over at Jake. “You found yourself a wonderful woman. I hope you realize that.”

“Oh, I do. She’s everything I could have asked for.” Jake put his arm around her protectively.

Erin smiled up at him. “He’s pretty amazing himself. Believe me, I’m the lucky one.”

After a few questions about when the wedding would be, her aunt and uncle drifted off, but were quickly replaced by other family members, also there to congratulate her.  By the time they were able to find a place to sit, Erin’s face was burning. All these people thought she was engaged. She was ready to tell the next person that came by that it was all a lie, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

The room began to spin and Erin had to hide her face in her hands to get it to stop. She could hear people calling her name, but she couldn’t look up or she would probably lose her lunch.

Jake took her by the arm. “We’ll be right back. She just needs some air.”

“Oh, I can take her,” her mom said as a chair scooted back.

“No, I’ll take care of it.” Jake pulled Erin out of her chair and walked her out of the room. He had to stop a couple of times to tell people they couldn’t talk, and finally made it out of the room. “Here, sit down.”

Erin sat down on a soft couch and kept her head down. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Are you okay?” Jake rubbed her back, soothing her.

Erin shook her head. “Give me a minute. It was all too much.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” Jake stayed quiet until Erin was finally able to lift her head.

“It’s not your fault. Well, I guess it kind of is. But it’s mine too. We shouldn’t have done this. All my family. And your family. What if they find out? What if they disown us or something?” Erin shook her head, trying to clear it. She needed to pull herself together.

Jake knelt in front of her and put his hands on her shoulders. “Hey, look at me. It’s okay. We can end this whenever you’d like.”

Erin stared at him for a moment. “Really? You won’t be upset if we tell them early?”

Jake caressed her cheek, sending a thrill through Erin. “Of course not. I don’t want to hurt them, either. I just highly suggest we don’t do it here. Your cousin probably wouldn’t like it if you took away her happy wedding day.”

Erin laughed and stood up. “You’ve got a good point. Let’s wait until tomorrow. Your parents have their show tonight, and I don’t want to ruin that for them.”

“Tomorrow, then.” Jake pulled her into a hug, and they stood like that until a server walked by with the first round of food. “Oh, looks like we’re going to miss dinner. Ready to go back in?”

Erin nodded. “Yes. Sorry. I haven’t had an attack like this since finals of my senior year in college.”

“To be honest, this helped me too. I needed to get out of there.” Jake took her arm and they walked back into the reception hall.

“You haven’t even met half of them.” Erin smiled as she sat next to her mom. “Hey, sorry. I don’t know what happened.”

“No worries. You’re probably just overwhelmed with everything that happened today.” Her mom patted her arm and went back to her salad.

“That must be it.” Erin set her napkin on her lap and smiled at the server as they put a salad in front of her.

As the dinner continued on, the low murmur of conversation helped Erin relax, and she was able to joke with her parents. She finally relented and told her mom they could at least check on the price for the hall. That wouldn’t be until Monday, and by then her parents would know the truth.

Sam and Kate were called away to visit with the groom’s family, so Erin’s parents grilled Jake about everything from what college he went to down to his favorite sports teams. Erin smiled to herself when her dad welcomed Jake to the family after finding out he was a Yankees fan.

Jake’s response was drowned out when Emily’s husband stood to start the toasts. While everyone else laughed at the jokes that were made, Erin paid attention to Emily and the look of pure adoration as she watched her husband. That’s exactly what Erin wanted in a marriage. Someone to make her that  happy. Would Jake do that? She wasn’t sure. He could make her very happy, but she’d only known him for a few days.

Emily’s dad stood and took the microphone. “Let’s get the dancing started. We’ll start with the couple’s first dance.”

Everyone stood and moved to the edge of the room so the tables could be moved. Emily and her husband walked to the center of the room and began the dance. Once others joined them, Jake turned to Erin.

“Would you like to dance?”

“Yes.” Erin followed Jake out to the dance floor and put her arms around his neck.

He held her close as they moved to the music. Erin wanted to deny feeling at home in his arms, but she couldn’t. She felt that she’d always be safe with him. When the song ended, they kept dancing.

When it was time for the bride to dance with her dad, Erin and Jake broke away. Erin wanted so much to lean forward and kiss him, but Jake kissed her forehead before taking her hand to lead her off the dance floor.

Erin excused herself and went to find a drink. Her throat was dry, and her head was spinning after the dance.

“Is everything okay?” Erin’s mom asked.

Erin jumped, almost spilling the punch she’d just picked up. “I didn’t hear you come up. Yes, everything is fine. Why?”

“Don’t give me that. Something isn’t right. You two are clearly crazy for each other, but you’re so formal. Did you have an argument on the way here?”

“We’re fine, really. Just tired from how crazy things have been.” Erin just wished she actually felt that way.

“I hope so. I’d hate to see you let him get away.” Her mom walked away with a smile, leaving Erin even more confused than before.

She made her way back over to him just as the next song started. “Having fun?”

Jake stood. “Now that you’re back, yes. Would you like to dance again?”

“Sure.”

They danced a few more songs before they announced that it was time to cut the cake and throw the bouquet. Erin laughed with the rest of the crowd while they smeared the cake in each other’s faces, but the whole time she kept thinking about the man who stood next to her.

Soon, it was time to throw the bouquet, Erin stood in the back of the group. She hoped someone else would get it, but the bouquet went right to her. She reached out and grabbed it so it wouldn’t hit her in the face. She laughed and took a picture with Emily before it was time for the garter.

Jake stood behind the other guys, but jumped up to grab it as soon it was thrown. It helped that he was taller than everyone else, because he reached above them all to snatch it out of the air.

Erin caught the excited whispers as everyone pointed out that it was the engaged couple that had caught them, and they became the center of attention again. Erin wanted to crawl into a hole.

“Let’s get a picture of you two together.” The photographer gestured for them to stand next to each other.

Erin stood next to Jake, but smiled at the camera instead of acknowledging that he was there.

“Come on, you’re engaged. Show it.” The photographer handed his camera to his assistant and walked over to them. “Put your arms around each other with the garter and bouquet in front of you. Like that. Perfect.”

Erin looked into Jake’s eyes and smiled for a few of the pictures before the photographer stopped again.

“Okay, one more. You two kiss. I want a big one.”

“What? No. You got enough.” Erin pulled away.

Emily laughed and came over to stand next to the photographer. “Come on. Just one. It would be fun to put in our album.”

“Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!” the photographer chanted. The group started in until Jake pulled Erin toward him and leaned down to kiss her.

The kiss started out soft and sweet, shooting warmth through Erin’s entire body. She leaned into the kiss, no longer caring that everyone else was watching. She just wanted make the kiss last forever.

Jake finally pulled away, leaving Erin breathless. She shook her head to clear it and handed the bouquet and garter back to Emily. She was aware that everyone around them was cheering and clapping.

The crowd slowly dispersed as Erin went back to gather her things. She needed air again, but she couldn’t think straight. She stayed at the table until she felt more under control, and then went to find Jake and her parents.

“There you are. We’re ready to go.” Her mom slipped on her jacket that Erin’s dad held out for her. “We planned to go back to your place for a while, but I’m exhausted after the day we had. Will you be upset if we just head back to the hotel?”

“No, I think I might go straight to bed when I get home, too.” Not that she’d be sleeping any time soon. Not after what had just happened.

“All right sweetie. We’ll see you tomorrow morning.” Her mom kissed Erin on the cheek and followed Bill out of the reception hall.

“We’re leaving as well. Would you like a ride to your apartments?” Sam asked.

Erin looked up at Jake pleading him to say no, and he put his arm around her, pulling her close.

“I think we’ll take a cab. Your hotel is the opposite away.” He kissed his mom’s cheek and hugged his dad. “See you tomorrow?”

“Of course. I hope to see you as well, Erin.” She smiled and walked toward the exit with Sam.

Jake stood next to Erin. “I guess it’s just you and me again.”

“Yep, I guess so. I have my purse, so we can leave whenever.” Her stomach had butterflies around him after the kiss. It felt like a high school crush all over again. Except that high school crushes didn’t maker her knees go weak like this.

“Sounds good. My parents already left for the hotel. I could use a little quiet tonight as well.” Jake took Erin’s hand and they walked outside to flag down a cab.

The trip back to Erin’s apartment was silent. The kiss had shown Erin that Jake meant a lot more to her than what she thought. She could still feel the press of his lips against hers. It was almost a relief when they pulled up to the curb. Jake paid the driver and climbed out behind her.

“I figured I’d just walk the rest of the way,” he explained. He ran his fingers through his hair before he continued. “Look, about tonight.”

Erin’s smile slipped a little. Apparently her feelings were different than his own. “You know, it’s fine. It didn’t mean anything, right?”

Jake’s expression went from surprise to hurt. “Oh. Yeah. Right. I’ll see you tomorrow? When we tell our parents?”

“Okay. I’ll see you then.” Erin realized she’d just totally messed things up. “Jake?”

He turned back. “Yeah?”

“Thank you. For everything. Helping me out with the dates. It means a lot. And—” Erin hesitated before running to him. She reached up and kissed him.

Jake cupped her face in his hands and kissed her with an intensity that left her breathless. He pulled away and brushed his thumb across her cheek. “Good night.”

“Good night.” She hesitated. “Unless …”

He turned around. “Yeah?”

“Well, I have this Nintendo someone gave me, and I could use some help setting it up.” Erin smiled up at him.

“I think I could help with that.” He smiled and took her hand as they walked up to her apartment.

Chapter 10

Jake rolled over in bed, wondering why the world seemed so awesome that morning. Memories of the night before came flooding back. The dancing, the kiss. That dress on her. It had all been so perfect, he wondered if it was a dream. Except his dreams were never so vivid.

He took a quick shower before going into the kitchen to grab some breakfast. His parents wanted him to go to church with them that morning, so he’d need to get ready soon. His mom had found some small chapel nearby that they were dying to check out for the ceremony, and figured going to the service would be the best way to do it.

Right. The wedding. Jake took a bite of his cereal and stared off into space. What was he supposed to do with this whole mess? He knew he was falling hard for Erin, but while she’d returned the kiss, she was adamant that they break all this off today. That meant only a few hours and he’d be back to being single.

He could fight it. He could insist that they go through with it instead of letting go of the relationship, but was it worth it? The answer was yes, but he had to convince her of that. Thoughts of Melody flashed through his mind without warning. He’d been so sure they’d be together forever, and he thought she felt the same way. Until the day she ran off with some biker who had wooed her the summer after graduation.

Except that Erin wasn’t Melody. She was sweet, sincere, and knew what she wanted. Melody had been so flaky. Jake shoved the last bite of cereal in his mouth and set the bowl in the sink, then filled it with water.

Jake changed into a suit and found a tie to wear. The doorbell rang, so he grabbed his shoes and headed out to the living room.

He opened the door to find his parents standing in the hall. “Hey, you’re early.”

“We wanted to have time to walk. It’s a beautiful day and it’s just around the corner.” His mom straightened Jake’s collar and finished tying his tie. “There you go.”

“Thanks.” Jake slipped his shoes on and made sure he had his keys before leaving the apartment.

They walked down the street toward Erin’s apartment, but took a right and headed down two more blocks. The small chapel was nestled among the tall buildings. The opening hymn echoed through the hall as they walked inside. He found a pew at the back of the church and slid into it. He took in the architecture around him. It had the perfect acoustics for the music that was playing while the congregation sang.

The pastor stood and began speaking on service. Jake tried to pay attention, but his mind kept turning to Erin. He hated to think of what this evening would do to their friendship. Jake shook his head to get her out of his mind, and scanned the crowd for other distractions. He noticed a family from his complex sitting a few rows up. He smiled at the boys playing airplanes instead of listening. That had been him when he was young.

Another woman wrestled her two young children while her husband snored softly next to him. And there was—Jake blinked. His eyes had to be playing tricks on him. No, that had to be Erin. She sat near the front with her head bowed. It was the way she held herself, and that silky brown hair. Jake willed her to look up so he could get a better look at her.

The chance didn’t come until the service ended an hour later. Jake couldn’t remember a single word from the sermon, and brushed off his mom’s questions as he scooted past them to get to the woman ahead of him.

“Erin?” He asked as he got closer.

Erin whipped around, her eyes wide. “Hey, Jake. What are you doing here?”

He gestured to his parents behind him. “They wanted a service to go to, and figured this was a good chapel because it was so close. And because they wanted another venue for the wedding.”

“The wedding? Here?” Erin laughed. “I guess this would work. If it was going to happen.”

Jake cringed. “Yeah, I thought so too. It’s nice.”

“Oh, Erin. I didn’t know you belong to this congregation. Jake, did you know she goes to this church?” his mom asked.

“No, I had no idea.” Jake put his arm around Erin, hoping she wouldn’t mind. This wasn’t the best place to admit to their lie.

“It’s so perfect. We really need to have your wedding here. Erin, do you think they’ll mind?’

Erin smiled. “I don’t think they’d mind at all. They’ve done several here.”

“Great, let’s go talk to them.” His mom turned and headed toward the pastor with his dad following after her.

Erin looked up at Jake in horror. “She’s doing it right now ?”

“My mom is persistent. And they’re leaving today. Come on.” He grabbed her hand and darted around a few groups of people who were still talking, but it was too late. Jake’s mom was already introducing herself and gestured toward him.

“Oh, there you are. This is Reverend Thompson. He would love to officiate your wedding. After an interview, of course.”

Jake glanced between them before shaking his hand. “Hi, I’m Jake. I assume you already know Erin?”

“Yes, of course. You’re very lucky to have found such a kind and giving woman.” He then shook Erin’s hand.

Jake nodded. “She really is amazing.”

Erin’s face went to an even brighter red than it already was. “Okay, okay. That’s enough.”

The Reverend laughed. “Fair enough. Now, when were you thinking of holding the ceremony?”

“We haven’t really thought of a date. I guess it depends on when you’re available.” Jake groaned inwardly. This was not the best way to get to know a pastor. Hi, I’m new to your congregation, and I’m already lying to you.

“I’ll look at my schedule and get back to you.” He put his arm on Jake’s shoulder. “Welcome, again. I hope you feel like you can be a part of this congregation.”

Jake could see the guilt in Erin’s eyes, and knew she felt the same way he did. He put his arm around her and they walked out of the church while his parents chatted behind them.

“I know. We’ll fix this,” he whispered. “Where are your parents?”

Erin sighed. “They had to take an earlier flight. There was an emergency at his firm back home.”

“Emergency?” his mom said from behind them. “Did I hear that right? Is everything okay?”

Erin turned. “Yes, things are fine. One of his accounts is trying to back out, and he’s going back to fix things.”

“Oh, that’s too bad. I was hoping we could do brunch together. Oh, well. We’ll have plenty of time for that. Would you two like to come with us? We have one last chance to tour before we have to leave.”

Erin smiled sadly. “You can go on without me. I’m worn out from last night, and I need to get a few things done for tomorrow. It was really nice to meet you both. Thank you for dinner the other night.”

“Is everything okay? Are you sure your dad is fine?” His mom leaned in, concern etched in her face. “Did we say something wrong?”

“No, I’m fine, really. You’ve been so sweet.” She hugged his mom tightly and then hugged Sam. “I’ll see you later, Jake.”

“I’ll call you tonight.” He leaned down and kissed her, surprising himself. It had been out of instinct, but it felt so natural. He wanted to go with her, but knew she needed some time alone. He felt the same way.

She walked off, her head down. Jake watched until she was around the corner, and then turned to find his parents whispering.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“Your mom is worried we scared her off.” Sam scratched his chin. “Did we do something wrong? Push too hard?”

“No. It’s just …” Jake stopped Not yet. Not at the church. “Last night wore her out, like she said. She loves you guys. So, where are we going?”

“We haven’t decided. Do you know of somewhere close?” His mom readjusted her purse and dabbed at her eyes.

“There’s several, but I’ll take you to the little diner that Erin introduced me to. I think you’ll like it, and it’s not too far away.” Jake started walking and his parents followed. He’d been craving one of their milkshakes. He tried to ignore the fact that he hoped she’d stop there on the way home.

***

The diner was busy for a Sunday morning, but there was one more booth near the window. They sat down and looked through the menus. Jake played with a packet of sugar while he waited to order his food.

“This all looks fantastic. I can’t decide what I want.” His dad set down the menu. “I give up. What do you like here?”

“Erin would recommend the James Dean. I have to say I agree … without the mushrooms.” Jake smiled to himself.

His mom’s eyebrows scrunched together. “This doesn’t say there are mushrooms.”

Jake laughed. “I know. Erin adds them.”

His dad leaned forward. “You’re head over heels for this girl, aren’t you?”

“What do you mean?” Jake asked.

“You’ve talked about her nonstop since she left this morning. It’s good to see that you’re past the heartbreak of, you know.” His dad shrugged when his mom elbowed him.

Jake set the sugar down. “Yeah, she’s pretty amazing. And nothing like that other person.”

The waiter came to take their order, saving Jake from having to talk about Melody. Sam and Jake got the James Dean meal, and his mom chose a breakfast platter.

“So what are your plans today?” Jake took a drink of his water. He’d planned to go with them, but he was eager to get home so he could call Erin.

“Mom wanted to shop for your niece and nephew. Their birthdays are coming up, and she wants to check out the toy store. And I was planning to hang out in Central Park. See the zoo, enjoy the quiet.”

Jake laughed. “That’s what home is for. But that sounds fun. I can help you find a gift, and then go over to the park.”

The waiter brought their food, and set down the syrup for Jake’s mom. “You should take a tour of the park. It’s worth the money.”

“Thanks. I’ll look into it.” Jake’s dad smiled at the waiter, and popped a fry into his mouth as she walked away.

“Sounds like we have our day planned out for us then.” Jake took a big bite of his burger. The flavors burst in his mouth, and he had to admit Erin was right. As good as the burger was before, the mushrooms made it ten times better.

Jake didn’t realize his parents had said anything until they started laughing.

“Earth to Jake. What is going on? You haven’t been yourself since we left the church.”  His mom set the fork down. “We did say something wrong, didn’t we?”

Jake sighed and put his burger down on the plate. “You didn’t do anything wrong. We did. Well, it was my fault, but Erin went along with it.”

His mom cleared her throat and wiped her mouth with her napkin. “What exactly did you do?”

“Oh, man. Nothing like that. Erin’s parents were coming into town, and you two were coming into town, and neither of us had dates even though you were all expecting it. I asked Erin to … pretend to be dating me.” Jake went on to explain about the ring, and everything else that had happened since then. The disappointment was evident on his parents’ faces as they picked at their food in silence.

When they didn’t say anything for a few minutes, he continued. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking. And then it just kept escalating. Erin’s family kept congratulating us, and then this morning … I think that’s what Erin is upset about.” He held a hand up to stop his mom from apologizing. “Not you. I think she would have loved to use the pastor. It was the lying that got to her. And to me. And I’m sorry. I’m actually relieved I told you before you left.”

His mom stood without saying anything and walked into the bathroom. His dad stared at the door for a moment before turning back to look at Jake.

“Why did you think this was okay?” His low voice beat into Jake’s soul.

Jake ran his fingers through his hair. “I don’t know. We both just needed dates.”

His dad glared at him. “That’s a weak excuse, and you know it. How long have you known her? Did you just pick a random person off the street, or did you actually put some thought into it first?”

Jake’s anger flared. “That’s not fair.”

“Neither is lying to your parents,” his dad argued back. He stood and left the table and walked over to the bathroom. He tapped on the door and spoke softly until it opened. His mom came out, her eyes swollen from crying, and they left without saying good-bye.

Jake wanted to kick something, but knew it was all on him. He’d made the deal, he’d pushed it, and now everyone around him—everyone he cared about—was angry with him. He pulled out what cash he had and dropped it on the table before leaving.

Chapter 11

The morning was chilly when Erin left her apartment that morning. She pulled her jacket closed and kept her head down to protect her face from the wind. It was good they’d have her go through makeup before the shoot that morning. Her hair was already flying around her face, and leaves whipped around her.

A cab pulled up to curb and she climbed in, thankful to be out of the wind. Erin directed the driver to the studio and stared out the window. She’d considered asking Jake if he wanted to go with her, but he hadn’t called at all the day before. Never mind that she hadn’t texted or called him either. Walking away from him probably hadn’t been a good idea, but it was all too much to handle at the moment.

“Doing anything exciting?” the driver asked.

Erin looked at him surprise. “What?”

“Doing anything exciting? If you’re going to the studio, you must be doing something fun.”

“I’m shooting a commercial.” Erin slouched down in her seat, wanting the ride to be over.

The driver laughed. “All right. I get it. I’ll be quiet. Just saw that you were down, and wanted to cheer you up.”

Erin smiled, but didn’t say anything. When they pulled up at the curb, she made sure to tip him a little more than usual. “Thank you for trying to brighten my day.”

The driver tipped his hat. “Any time.”

Erin was the first one from her group to show up, so she was able to sit and go through the different ads Mr. Smith had suggested. They would be short and simple, but he wanted a variety, so Erin had helped find another couple to trade off doing the commercials. That would help Jake since he would be starting the other job soon.

Voices came down the hallway, so Erin stood and smoothed her dress and hair. Oh, man. Her hair. She quickly brushed her fingers through it to calm it down. When Mr. Smith came in the room, Erin moved forward and held out her hand for him to shake.

“Welcome. I’m glad you could make it.”

“I love to see my visions come to life. Did you see the changes we made?” he asked.

“Yes, and I think they’re great. There are a few more changes we can make if we need to the family commercial, but I like the concept.”

Jake walked in with another couple and set his stuff down on a bench. He smiled over at Erin, but didn’t come over to say hi.

“Erin,” Debra called out. “This is Brooke and Liam. They’ll be the other actors on this project. We’ll have each of you go through the scenes and then decide from there which we can use.”

“Nice to meet you.” Erin remembered them from their profiles.

The director came in and studied the stage before turning to the group. “Okay, let’s have Jake and Erin first. Then we’ll move on.” He handed them their scripts, and Erin walked over to the set where Jake joined her.

“Hey, how was your Sunday?” he asked.

Erin shrugged. “It was quiet. What time did your parents leave?”

Jake frowned and looked away. “I don’t know. They were angry when they left, so I don’t know what they did after that.”

Erin gasped. “You told them?”

Jake nodded. “It went about how we thought it would. Let’s forget about it for now. Not much we can do, and I need this to go well.”

“Okay.” Erin gave him a hug, but he seemed tense for some reason. The meeting the day before must have really gone bad. They walked over to have their hair and makeup done. Erin couldn’t help glancing over at Jake, but he continued to stare straight at the mirror in front of him. Once they were done, they went back to the set and waited for directions.

“Let’s get ready,” the director shouted. “You two sit there near the Christmas tree. Yes, right there. And … action!”

***

Erin caught Jake’s eye as she walked toward him and handed him a gift. His dimples showed as he pulled out the teddy bear she gave him. Jake then went down on one knee and pulled a box out of his pocket. Erin put her hands on her cheeks in excitement before holding out her hand for the ring. They ended with the two of them leaning in for the kiss.

“Cut! Let’s try it again. We need you two to feel more for each other. You’re in love, and this is the moment he’s going to show how much he cares. Got it?”

They both nodded and get back into their positions.

“Action!”

Erin went through the motions again, this time ignoring all the people around them. She pretended like this was real. It was easy enough, because they’d been pretending to be engaged for a few days already. Her smile slipped, and the director yelled, “cut!”

“Emotions. You’re in love with this guy. One more time.”

The look on Debra’s face told Erin that she better get it right this time, or she was in trouble. Okay, enough with the sad. She cared a lot for Jake, so she just had to show it. She poured all of her feelings for him into her acting. The friendship, the feel of his lips on hers, everything. It was just enough so that when Jake slipped the ring onto her finger, she had tears of joy in her eyes. Jake leaned in for a kiss, and Erin held her breath in anticipation.

“Cut! That was perfect. Remember that for the other commercials. Brooke and Liam, you’re up.”

Jake and Erin stared in each other’s eyes for a second before he let go of her, and they left the stage and sat next to their stuff. Erin was still trying to compose herself when Debra sat next to her and studied her for a moment.

“You had me scared there for a minute. You two were so perfect last week, and today it was just sort of blah until that last one. I’m counting on you. Don’t disappoint me.” Debra stood and walked away.

Erin took a drink of water, and sat back to watch the other couple. They were pretty good. The chemistry wasn’t quite there, but it was okay. Erin thought back to how it felt when Jake put the ring on her finger. She’d wanted it more than anything. But it couldn’t happen. Not now. Not when his parents knew the truth of what had happened.

One of the assistants brought Erin a copy of the next commercial they’d be shooting. This time they’d have speaking parts, so she went over to sit by Jake.

“Hey, want to practice?” she whispered.

Jake looked through the script and nodded. “They don’t give you a lot of time for these commercials, do they?”

“A few of these were last minute, so no. Sorry.” Erin waited for the commercial to be finished before she turned to face him. “Okay, ready?”

“Sure. Okay …” Jake cleared his throat. “Hey, honey. Are the kids in bed?”

Erin nodded. “Yes, finally. It’s always so hard to get them to sleep on Christmas Eve.”

“They’re so excited for Santa to come tomorrow.” Jake laughed.

“The tree looks so beautiful with all the presents underneath it. Did you make sure we didn’t miss any?” Erin asked.

“Well, let’s see,” Jake pretended to count the gifts. “Wait, a minute. There’s an extra one.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s this one. It has your name on it.”

Erin gasped. “Oh, it’s beautiful.”

The rest of the commercial was the voice over and action, so they ran through the script a couple more times before it was time to go to wardrobe. Erin put on a pair of pajamas and a robe. The makeup artists combed through her hair and touched up her makeup.

Erin went out to the set where they’d set up a couch and decorations around the tree. She was told where to sit and handed a mug she had to pretend to drink from. Jake came out soon after in pajamas. The gray shirt was tight across his chest and accented his muscles. He was also handed a mug and soon they were shooting the commercial.

As they said their lines, they settled in front of the tree. Jake pulled out a small rectangular box and handed it Erin. She opened it and gasped at the beautiful necklace inside. It was a heart that was encrusted with diamonds along one edge.

Jake took the necklace from the box and put it on Erin’s neck. His fingers tickled her neck and sent tingles through her. She turned and cupped his face in her hands, and kissed him. It was just a short, simple kiss, but the feeling behind it left her breathless.

“Cut! That was great. We’ll run it again from a few different angles.”

Erin moved back into position, and took the necklace off so they could put it back in the box, then picked up her mug.

By the time they’d run through the commercial a few times, Erin had decided that shooting this commercial was going to be the death of her if they didn’t get done soon. Working with Jake played with her emotions, and made it really hard to stay away from him. She had to keep reminding herself that everyone was standing around watching her—including her boss.

“That’s a wrap for these two. Let’s get the others on set. Erin and Jake, head to wardrobe. The  scripts for the next commercial are in there.” The director leaned back in his chair.

Jake caught up to Erin as they walked into the other room. “Hey, are you okay?”

“Yeah. Just overwhelmed. I’ll be fine.” Erin couldn’t bring herself to look at him. Her emotions were too raw still.

“You’re doing a great job. Your expressions look so authentic.” He smiled and walked over to the rack of suits.

Erin was sure he meant that as a compliment, but it felt like a slap to her face. The emotions looked authentic, because they were. She’d fallen hard, and couldn’t do anything about it. She put on the nice outfit and looked through the notes. It was easy enough to go through. She could do this with a smile, and without Jake having to touch her for this commercial, she could handle this one. She hoped.

When Brooke and Liam came into get changed, Erin went back out to the set. She was surprised to see half the crew leaving with equipment.

“We’re done?” she asked Debra.

“No, they’re getting ready to shoot the last commercial outside with artificial snow. The wind died down just in time. Otherwise, you could have been filming in a blizzard instead of a simple snowstorm.” She laughed.

“That’s good. It was pretty nasty out there. How did the other two do?” Erin looked over the notes Debra had taken.

“They did great. It’ll be tough to decide which commercials to go with, but each of you bring something different to the set.”

Erin had to agree. It took more time, but this gave them a few more options if they were able to get the extra TV spots.

“We’re ready for you.” The assistant’s voice made Erin jump. She led Erin over and had three children stand up. “This is Avery, Morgan, and Michael. They’ll be your kids for this commercial.”

Erin bent down to their eye level. “Hi, I’m so glad to meet you. Are you excited?”

Avery nodded, but the other two just stared at her.

Jake knelt down by them. “We’re going to play a game. See this coin? I’m going to make it disappear.” He moved his hands around and then held them out to show they were empty. “Where’d it go?”

The children giggled while they tried to find it.

“Oh, I think I see it. Erin, come here.” He reached up and pulled the coin from behind her ear. “There it is.”

“Do it again!” Morgan yelled, and the others cheered and jumped up and down.

“Okay, but first we’re going to do this commercial. Let’s sit here and pretend to open presents.”

Erin watched him play with the kids, and her heart melted. He was a natural when it came to making them laugh. She sat down in her spot and held out a present to Michael.

When the director yelled “action,” they started pulling the lids off the boxes. Each one had a small gift inside.

Jake moved closer to Erin and handed her a small box. Inside was a diamond bracelet. She grinned as Jake put it on her wrist and then kissed her.

“Cut!”

The kids giggled at Jake and Erin as they stopped playing with their toys and put them back in the boxes for the next take.  

They shot the commercial a few more times from different angles, and then did a few with just Erin and Jake, and then again with just the three kids. Once they were done, the kids tackled Jake.

“Do the trick again!”

“Okay, okay.” He reached over and pulled a coin from Avery’s and Michael’s ears, and then stopped. “Hey, Morgan? What is that?”  

“What?”

Jake slowly pulled the bracelet that had been on Erin’s wrist from behind Morgan’s ear. “You have expensive taste.” He stood and helped Erin up. “Great job you guys. We have to go get ready.”

Erin and Jake walked back into wardrobe for the last commercial. She was surprised at how late it had gotten already. It was nearing evening. Shooting three commercials in a row would do that.

She vaguely listened as she was directed to put on a gorgeous evening gown. Her mind was already going through what needed to be done for the ads tomorrow. She slipped the gown on and inspected it in the mirror to make sure it looked right. They’d managed to find a perfect fit, and the glittery black material hugged her body just right.

As Erin sat getting her hair done, she caught a glimpse of Jake in a tailored suit. He laughed at something one of the assistants said, and it made her heart pound wildly. She wished the whole dating mess had never happened so she could drool over him without large amounts of guilt piled on. She still hadn’t told her parents, and if it had gone badly, for Jake, she knew things would be worse with her parents.

Once Erin was ready, she followed the crew out to the street. They had blocked the wind as much as possible and a box of snow was ready to go. While it wasn’t Christmas yet, the chill to air made it easy to believe. Now they just needed to make the audience believe that as well. She shivered and pulled her shawl closer.

“Oh, here. Take this.” Jake put his jacket over Erin’s shoulders, and kept his arm around her. “It really cooled off, didn’t it?”

“Yes it did. I thought I’d blow away this morning.” Erin noticed how tense Jake was, and how his hands were shoved in his pocket. “Oh, now you’re freezing. Here take it back.”  She tried to pull of the jacket, but Jake stopped her.

“No, keep it. I’ll put it back on for the commercial. Why they don’t have you in a coat is beyond me.” He walked away and talked to a few people before bringing back a thick, fur-lined coat. “Here you go. This looks more appropriate for winter anyway.”

Erin handed him back his jacket and put on the coat. “Oh, this is much better. Thank you.”

“Okay, you four come here.” The director waited for Jake, Erin, and the other two actors. “You’re going to walk along the street and laugh at each other’s jokes. As you get closer to the camera, the men will pull out the box, slip the ring on the girl’s finger, and then hug. Short and simple. We’ll have Mr. Smith doing the voiceover part so you know the timing.”

“Got it.” Jake and Erin took their spots and waited for their cue while Liam and Brooke stood to the side and waited for their turn.

***

Erin was grateful to be back in her own warm clothes after being outside for the shoot. She walked out of the dressing room to talk to Jake, but he was nowhere to be found. She couldn’t help the crushing disappointment that washed over her.

Debra hurried over to her. “That was fantastic. I think Mr. Smith is thrilled with how today turned out. So go home, rest up, and we’ll see you in the morning.”

“Sounds great. I have a few ideas after today. I’ll send them over to you.”

“Later. For now, you go home and rest. It was a long day, and you need to relax your brain. Watch a movie, read a book, whatever. Just take some downtime. You did a great job with this project, and I need you rested for the next campaign. I’ll have options sent to you by morning.”

“Thank you.” Erin forced a smile as she left. She trudged outside and flagged down a taxi to take her home. It was too bad it wasn’t the same driver who had made her laugh before. She could have used it right then.

Once she got to the apartment she ran upstairs and bolted the door. Determined not to feel sorry for herself, Erin buried herself in the ads for the upcoming project. She’d be going from jewelry to cars. Both were huge sellers at Christmas, but that’s about the only thing they had in common. Nate had managed to score the TV commercials for the cars, while Erin would be doing the magazine and newspaper ads.

Erin’s phone rang with Carissa’s ringtone. “Hey, what’s up?”

“Are you busy right now?” Carissa’s voice was partially drowned out by noises in the background.

Erin stopped doodling on the page in front of her. “I’m working, but it’s nothing that can’t wait. You okay?”

“Fine. I’ll be up in a sec.” Carissa hung up, and Erin set her phone done. This wasn’t the first time Carissa had suddenly shown up.

When Erin heard the knock at the door, she got up to answer it. She opened it and was nearly plowed over by a very excited Carissa.

“Whoa, what’s going on?” Erin shut the door, and pulled Carissa to the couch.

Carissa pulled out a piece of paper and squealed. “Look!”

Erin took the paper from her and read through it. Silver Script Ad Agency was hiring her back on as Erin’s partner. She squealed and leaned over to hug Carissa.

“Debra didn’t tell me she was hiring you back. Last I heard was that her hands were tied. Are you accepting the job?” Erin would have to thank Debra as soon as Carissa left. They were about to hit their busy time, and she’d need help.

“I told her to keep it a secret. I wanted to tell you myself. She’s giving me the small office next to yours. Apparently the cuts to the staff were done prematurely, and there’s been an influx in projects. I did tell Debra that I’d need to work from home sometimes because of my doctor’s appointments.” She paused. “Are you okay with that?”

Erin nodded. “You already told me that’s what you preferred, and I don’t mind.”

Carissa cheered one more time before putting the contract in her purse. “So … how was the commercial shoot?”

“It was great. I’m exhausted, and I’m glad tomorrow is just a photo shoot.” Erin picked up the notebook she’d been working on. “Here’s what we’re doing next. Any ideas?”

“Wait. Are those tears? Why are there tears?” Carissa took the book, but stared at Erin through narrowed eyes. “What’s going on?”

Erin knew there was no way she’d get out of spilling her guts. “Jake told his parents about us yesterday. Today he barely spoke to me even though we had to do the commercials together. And I thought everything was perfect after that, but when I turned to talk to him, he was gone. Without even saying good-bye.”

“You’re sure he was gone? What if he was just in the bathroom or something?” Carissa sighed. “Did you let yet another guy get away? Erin, this guy was cute. And you’ve done everything together since you met him.”

Erin flopped back on the couch. “I’m not the one pushing him away. He’s the one who disappeared without saying good-bye.”

“Fine. We’ll pretend you’re right for now. It’s a good thing I brought this.” She pulled out Erin’s favorite chocolate bar and tossed it to her.

“Just what I needed. Thank you.” Erin unwrapped it and took a bite. “So what does Matt think?”

“He thinks Jake is perfect for you.” Carissa pulled out another candy bar for herself.

Erin threw her pillow. “You know what I mean. What does he think about the job?”

Carissa laughed. “He’s fine with it. Although he did want to make sure we got time off for our honeymoon.”

“I don’t know. I hear your partner is pretty awful.” Erin took a bite of her chocolate.

“Since I’m over here, we should probably do some work. I thought of something we could do for another ad.”

Chapter 12

Jake stared at the ceiling, not wanting to get out of bed. He was sure things were back to normal, but then Erin had left without saying good-bye. How he was going to face her today was beyond him.

He needed to work at the pound for a few hours or he’d lose the job, and he didn’t want to lose the steady paycheck. Even if it was less than what he needed.

After a quick breakfast, Jake grabbed his umbrella and headed outside. He nodded to his landlord as he walked past, and dodged a toy truck in the middle of the hallway. He opened his umbrella and stepped out into the rain. It took a few minutes to grab a taxi. He gave the directions to the studio and sat back.

Erin was already at the studio when Jake walked in. He went right to wardrobe to change into a suit and tie for the shot, wanting to avoid her for as long as possible. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long. Erin was sitting in a chair getting her makeup done—right next to where he needed to be.

“Hey.” He sat down.

“Hey.” She stood and started to walk away, but stopped. “This shouldn’t take too long. You’ll get your paycheck once we’re done here.”

“Thank you.” Jake ached to pull her into his arms, but since he was stuck in the chair getting his hair done, he just watched her walk away. Once they were done, Jake thanked them and walked over to the set. He was surprised to see Erin’s friend—Carissa?—at the shoot, but by the way she was holding the clipboard, and directing people where to go, he figured she belonged there.

“Oh, you’re ready,” she said. “Go pick up the ring from over there, and get in your place. We’ll get a few shots, and then change the scene a little.”

Jake nodded and walked over to the counter. There were a few rings to choose from, so he chose the ring that looked closest to what Erin would have liked. It was a small, round diamond that wouldn’t snag, not too flashy. He picked up the smaller box and walked over to where Erin stood.

“Ready to go?” Erin asked.

Jake held up the box. He was just going to play it cool and professional. “Yep. Let’s do it. How do you want me to stand?”

The photographer held up his camera. “Just act like you’re giving her the ring of her dreams, and we’ll do the rest.”

Jake got down on one knee and held out the opened box. Erin gasped and placed her hand on her heart, as she allowed him to put the ring on her finger. Then he stood and pulled her into a hug. Erin ran her fingers through his hair and laughed. He leaned in for a kiss, and everything would have been perfect if he didn’t have to hear the clicking of the camera through the entire thing. When Jake pulled away, Erin pulled off the ring and set it in the box, avoiding Jake’s eyes.

“Awesome. That was perfect. Wow. Okay, go find a coat while we get the fake snow and building backdrop set up.” Carissa ordered the set crew around while Jake went into the other room.

An assistant handed Jake a long trench coat and a fedora. He looked over to see Erin trying on a fur coat. “So, Carissa works with you?”

“She’s my partner as of last night. She’s pretty amazing, isn’t she?” Erin pulled off the coat and sorted through what was on the rack.

“She’s great.” Jake walked over and pulled a wool coat off the hanger and handed it to the assistant. “Here, this works better with her eyes, and makes a good winter coat.”

“Oh, thank you.” The assistant helped Erin into the coat. “Oh, I like this better. What do you think?”

Erin glanced in the mirror. “You’re right. Thank you.”

Jake tipped his hat. “Just trying to help, ma’am.”

Erin laughed. “Let’s go. I need to finish this up before lunch.”

“Sounds good to me.” Jake followed her out to the set. This time they were going to advertise a bracelet. They acted out a few scenarios while the photographer circled them, clicking away. He wanted to kiss her again, but settled for caressing her cheek and twirling her in the air.

After the shoot was over, Jake took his jacket back to the rack and grabbed his own belongings. Erin waited for him out by Carissa and her boss.

“Here you go. Thank you for helping us out.” Erin handed him an envelope. “This is for the commercials. We’ll send the check for today as soon as it goes through payroll.”

“Thank you for letting me be a part of it.” Jake wanted to say more, but stopped himself. He shook their hands and left the studio.

Since the pound wasn’t too far away from the studio, he decided to walk. The bank was on the way, and he didn’t want the check to sit in his bag the whole day. When he pulled out the check to sign it, he stopped in shock. He was expecting one or two hundred dollars at the most, but there were a couple of extra zeroes. He checked the receipt to make sure it was correct, and his jaw dropped. His pay was what they’d agreed on, but there was a hefty bonus added to it. That meant rent would be paid, and he’d have more to save up.

Once the check was deposited, he headed to the pound. He was met with the familiar barking when he walked inside. Mr. Dayley sat at the front desk working on the computer.

“Sorry I’m so late. The shoot ran long.” Jake took his bag and jacket to the back office and checked on the animals. Several new dogs and cats had arrived in the last few days. When he went back to the front, Mr. Dayley was helping a mother and her son. When he took them back to look at the animals, Jake took over at the desk and continued entering the bills into the program on the computer.

When the customers had left with a terrier on a leash, Mr. Dayley turned to Jake. “So how was the shoot?”

“It was great. I’ll have the other one starting tomorrow evening. That shouldn’t take nearly as long. I hope.” He had a lot of time to make up for after missing the last couple days.

Mr. Dayley brushed away his concern. “We both know that’s why you’re here. I’m just glad to have some help when you can make it.”

“Put me to work, then. What needs to be done?”

“I’ll make a list.” He wrote a few things down and handed it to Jake, just as another family came in.

Jake left the customers to Mr. Dayley and went to grab the mop to clean the back room and do the rest of the errands. Once the cages were done, he went to the back to get some more food for the animals. He checked on each one, enjoying the quiet monotony of the job. This was the only time he ever admitted that he missed his ranch.

Chapter 13

Erin pulled out the ad mockups for the car campaign, and took them to Debra’s office. Carissa had been over at Erin’s until late the night before so they could have everything ready to go to print. The photographer had shot some amazing pictures, and it was fun putting them together with all the small details for the magazines.

When she got to the office, Nate sat in one of the chairs. He smirked at her as she handed off the prints and sat next to him.

Debra studied each of the ads before setting them down on the desk. “I want to thank you both for getting this done so quickly. I worried about their timeframe, but I shouldn’t have doubted either of you. Nate, you have a meeting with the toy company in thirty minutes. I want you to go prepare. Erin, I want you to stick around for a minute.”

The smug expression on Nate’s face turned to curiosity. “My presentation is all done. Is there anything else you need?”

Erin rolled her eyes at his obvious attempt to know what was happening in the office.

“I need you to look over them again. Now, please leave. And tell Sydney I need some coffee.” Debra waited for Nate to leave before turning back to Erin. “I got back some of the samples of photos for the jewelry ads. I couldn’t be more thrilled, and Mr. Smith agrees with me.”

She pulled out a folder and handed it to Erin. The photos turned out better than she could have expected. Jake had definitely been right about what jacket she should wear. Her mind immediately began adding the wording on the ad as she moved to the next one.

“Your commercials turned out well, and are being prepared to send on to the television stations, but they’ll come to you for final approval.” Debra clasped her hands together as she studied Erin. “You should be pleased with your work.”

“Thanks. I’m glad we went with this photographer. He’s amazing.” Erin held up the photo of Jake proposing to her. She still remembered the surprise when he pulled out the exact ring she’d been eyeing moments before. Her heart had been pounding, and it wasn’t hard to show her emotion in the photos.

“He’s very good at what he does, but it was all you two. We’ll have to remember this for future commercials.” Debra took the folder that Erin handed her. “I just sent you a few clients to go through and decide what you want to work on next.”

Whoa. That never happened. Everything was usually assigned beforehand. Erin’s eyes widened. “Thank you. I’ll get back to you after lunch.”

Debra smiled. “That’s perfect.”

Carissa was sitting at her desk when Erin got back to her office. She stood and followed Erin into the room, closing the door behind her.

“So? What did she think?” Carissa asked.

Erin grinned. “She loved it. All of it. And check this out.” She went to her desk and pulled up the email from Debra.

Carissa came around the desk and peeked over Erin’s shoulder. “Whoa. Those are some pretty big names.”

“No kidding. And I get to choose which one to work on.” Erin scanned through the names of the businesses and what they were asking for. “Let’s see, toy commercials, winter fashion, chocolates. Anything jump out at you?”

Carissa pointed to the fashion shoot. “This one could be fun. We haven’t done anything like this for a while, and I know this designer. He’s fantastic.”

“Great. We’ll ask for this one. And maybe the chocolate ads. Nate is over a toy company account, so I’d prefer to stay away. Why don’t you look at the chocolate company while I study the clothing designer? Then we can decide which one to work on.”

“Yes, Miss boss lady. I’ll be in my office if you need me.” Carissa closed the door behind her.

Erin pulled up all the information she could find on the company and studied past advertisements, comparing them to the new line that would be coming out in the next few weeks. Carissa was right. This designer was good. Erin pulled out a few of the new designs and started on a few mockups to get some ideas. It was perfect.

She typed a quick email to Debra before turning off her computer monitor.  With Carissa helping, it was possible they could do both projects, but it depended on what Carissa had found on the chocolate company.

She knocked on Carissa’s door. “Hey, I’m starved. Are you ready to go?”

“I’ll grab my jacket.” Carissa went back to her desk, and Erin followed not long after.

They left the office building and Erin purposely walked the other direction from the restaurant they’d eaten at before. The fact that Jake could be there was enough to keep her away. It hurt too much. Although, now that she thought about it, he was probably filming the soda commercial.

They stopped at a small cafe that Carissa had been dying to try since it opened. They ordered their sandwiches and ran through a few ideas for the accounts Erin would hopefully work on.

Erin filled Carissa in on everything she’d learned about the designer, then Carissa talked about her wedding. Erin pushed away the rest of her food, no longer hungry.

“Oh, hey, I need to run by and finalize my invitations. See you back at the office?” Carissa picked up her purse.

“Sounds good. I’ll see you there.” Erin waved and headed back to the office. When she checked her messages, she saw that Debra had approved both accounts. Erin cheered silently and went back to the mockups for the designer.

Erin’s phone rang, and she grumbled when she realized it was her parents. They knew they weren’t supposed to call during work, but her mom never listened.

She turned the speaker on and kept researching. “Hey, Mom. What’s up?”

“It’s your dad.” Her mom’s voice shook.

Erin grabbed her phone and turned the speaker off, her heart beating rapidly. “What’s wrong with Dad?”

“He was onsite at one of the farms he was advertising for, and one of the stacks of hay fell right on top of him.” She paused. “Sweetie, it’s bad.”

The world seemed to close in on Erin. Her daddy was hurt? She shut her computer down and grabbed her keys. “I’m coming. I’ll be on the next flight.”

“Thank you.” Her mom sobbed into the phone, making Erin’s heart ache. “Oh, I need to go. The doctor’s here.”

“Love you.” She hung up and rushed into Debra’s office. “Hey, my dad’s been in an accident. I’ll be back as soon as I can. I’ll have my computer with me, so I’ll work on the accounts when I have a chance.

Debra gasped. “Go. Don’t worry about the accounts. Carissa can take over while you’re gone. Good luck.”

“Thank you for understanding.” Erin rushed out of the office and wiped the tears that ran down her face. She called Carissa, but no one answered. She must have been held up at the store. Erin left a quick voicemail telling Carissa to call, then broke into a run.

She ran up the stairs to her apartment and stopped in her tracks. Her apartment door was open. She pulled out her keys to use as a weapon and crept inside. A quick check of each room showed her that no one was there. But then, neither was Coco. She growled in frustration. By the look of the living room, Carl’s daughter had been here. She wasn’t supposed to be cleaning the apartment anymore.

Erin quickly packed a bag and left the apartment, making sure it was dead-bolted. She’d have a talk with Carl when she got back.

She tried Carissa one more time.

“Hey, Erin. I got your message and was just about to call. What’s going on?”

“Dad was injured in a farm accident. Coco is missing. And I need to leave.” Erin double checked to make sure she had everything she needed.

“Whoa. That was a lot of information. You go to your dad. I’ll take care of Coco.” Carissa was using her “Don’t mess with me” voice.

“You sure?” Erin could just see Coco wandering aimlessly in the streets of New York.

“Go. Now.” Carissa hung up and Erin stared at her phone before running for a taxi.

The trip to the airport was agonizing. Erin checked flights on her way there and managed to book one leaving in two hours. That gave her just enough time to get checked in and get to the right terminal. She thanked the driver and handed him cash before running through the door of the airport. She checked in using her phone and stood in line for security. It was quite a wait, and she hoped she’d be to her flight on time.

After going through the metal detector twice—she’d forgotten to take her keys out of her pocket—she raced to the gate and dropped into a seat so she could catch her breath. They’d already started boarding, so she waited until the line was a little shorter before standing and getting onto the plane.

It was crowded and there was barely room for her small bag by the time she found a space to store it. She pulled out her laptop to do some work on the flight. Her nerves were shot, and she wanted to bury herself in planning the ads so she could calm down. Her mom would be a nervous wreck, and Erin needed to be there for her.

There was a slight delay due to a storm in Atlanta, but soon they were off the ground. Erin got to work, ignoring the couple sitting next to her. By the time they reached Georgia, she’d managed to outline ideas for both accounts, and find a few people for the chocolate ads in her database. She closed her laptop and slipped it into her bag on the descent. There were a few bumps of turbulence on the way down, but soon she was in her home state.

Once she was off the plane, she pulled out her phone and dialed her mom. “Hey, Mom. I’m in Atlanta. How’s Dad?”

“He was life flighted to the Emory University Hospital. He’s in surgery right now, but is expected to recover. Do you need me to give you a ride?” Her mom’s voice was shaky, but less upset than when Erin had talked to her last.

“No, you stay there. I’ll rent a car and be there as soon as I can.”

“Thank you. Please drive safely.”

Erin headed for the rentals. “I will. Love you.” She hung up and got in line. Once she had her keys in hand, she ran toward the garage to pick it up. She wanted to be there when her dad woke up.

Chapter 14

Jake sat at the desk in the shelter staring at a script that had been mailed to him. He took a bite of his sandwich and turned the page, still surprised that he’d been asked to consider the part. Something about having heard rave reviews about him. He’d laughed at the idea since he’d only done the two commercials, but apparently the owner was a friend of Debra’s.

The bell on the door rang as someone entered the shelter. He took one more bite and set his sandwich down before going to see who it was.

“Please tell me you have her,” Carissa pleaded. She leaned against the counter trying to catch her breath.

“Who?” Jake hadn’t seen any animals come in all day.

“Coco. I promised Erin I’d help her find her cat while she flew home.” Her hands gripped the side of the countertop.

Jake’s mind was spinning. “When did she get out?”

Carissa shrugged. “I don’t know. I just know that when Erin went home to pack, the door was open, and the cat was gone.”

“Give me a sec.” Jake searched each of the cages in case she’d come in earlier, then leaned back into the office. “Hey, I need to take off for a bit. Lost cat.”

“That’s fine. See you tomorrow.” Mr. Dayley waved.

Tomorr—?” Jake checked his phone and realized the time. He was supposed to be at his ad shoot in an hour. “Right. See you then.”

Carissa was typing into her phone when Jake came back out. “Erin said she has a couple of different hideouts, but I tried them already.”

“Do you know if she ever just goes home?” Jake pulled the door closed behind them and they hopped in Carissa’s old Honda.

“I don’t know. This is the first time I’ve had to look for her.” She pulled out and headed back toward Erin’s apartment.

“So … what did Erin go home for?” Jake had never heard if she’d told her parents about their lie.

Carissa was silent for a moment as she drove. “Her dad was in a bad accident. She went home to help out.”

Jake felt like he’d been punched in the gut. “Is he okay?”

“Last I heard, he was pretty beat up.”

They drove around several blocks, hoping to find the small cat among the crowds. With it being near rush hour time, it was nearly impossible.

“I don’t think she’d be on the busier streets. Let’s go back around Erin’s apartment in case she was headed home.”

“You’re probably right.” Carissa turned down a side road and slowed down so they could watch for the cat. After several minutes, she slammed on her brakes and pulled over suddenly. “Isn’t that her cat right there?”

“Yes.” Jake jumped out and walked slowly toward Coco. He talked softly and bent down to pick her up. “There you go. Let’s get you back to the shelter.”

Carissa raised an eyebrow. “Why? So you can charge her another thirty-five dollars?”

Jake winced at the accusation. “Unless you want her to stay at your house, it’s best to have her at the shelter where she’ll be taken care of for now. No one is at Erin’s and who knows when she’ll be back.”

“Good point.” Carissa waited for the traffic to go by, and then flipped a U-turn to head back to the pound.

Jake took Coco inside and talked to Mr. Dayley about it before setting her down in the office with food and water. Thankfully, Mr. Dayley knew Erin well enough that he was okay with the arrangement.

Carissa was still outside when Jake left the pound for his shoot. He tapped on the window and waited for her to open it.

“Is everything okay?” he asked.

“Yeah, I was just waiting to see what happened so I could tell Erin things were okay.”

Jake nodded. “Good idea. Coco has her own cage, and she seems to be fine. Hey, could I get a ride to my photo shoot? I’m running late. It’s not too far from here.”

“Hop in.”

He climbed in and gave her the address. She pulled out and dropped him off just a few minutes before his audition was supposed to start.

“Good luck.”

“Thank you. Let me know if you hear anything else, please.” He climbed out of the car.

“Will do.” She pulled away and was soon lost in the crazy New York City traffic.

Jake walked inside the studio he’d auditioned at, and checked in before heading to the set. He’d been looking forward to this, but now all he wanted to do was hop a plane to go see Erin. He was sent through wardrobe and then onto the set. Each time they had to do another take, it was like a stab to his heart. He was itching to leave.

Just as they were finishing up a take, Carissa appeared at the door. Her eyes were red-rimmed and she gripped her keys and phone tightly like she was trying to stay under control.

“One more time, people,” the director called.

Jake could have screamed. He took deep breaths before running through his lines, and as soon as they announced it was a wrap, Jake shook their hands and excused himself. He followed Carissa out into the hallway.

“Things are looking bad, Jake.” Her eyes filled with tears.

Jake’s heart constricted. “What’s going on?”

Carissa handed him her phone. There was a message saying that Erin’s dad had some internal bleeding and it was worse than they’d expected.

“Do you know where they are?” Jake pulled out his phone to book a flight. He couldn’t let her do this alone.

“I think she said Atlanta. Why?” Her eyes widened. “Are you going?”

Jake looked up from his phone. “I have to. She needs me. What hospital?”

“I … don’t know. I can ask.” She typed a message into her phone.

Jake typed in Carissa’s name and handed the phone to her. “Can I get your number so you can let me know what’s going on?”

“Sure.” She typed it in and handed it back. “Be careful. And, Jake? Don’t give up on her, please. She really cares about you.”

Jake kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you. I won’t, I promise. And do me a favor. Don’t tell her I’m coming.”

He took off running down the hall and out of building. He flagged down a taxi and hopped in. “I need to get to JFK as soon as possible.”

The taxi pulled out and made its way toward the airport while Jake messaged Mr. Dayley and his parents to let them know what was going on. Mr. Dayley told him to take as long as he needed. His parents told him to let them know as soon as he got down to Georgia and offered him a ride if he needed one.

The drive to the airport seemed to take an eternity as the miles stretched into hours. He’d need to buy a toothbrush and some clothes when he got down to Georgia, but he didn’t want to take any more time. He should have left as soon as he heard about what happened.

As soon as he got to the airport, he checked in and ran through security. They asked him several questions since he didn’t have any bags with him, then took off running to the right gate as soon as they get him go. He had another half hour before it was time to board, so he texted Carissa to see if she’d heard anything, and she texted back the name of the hospital.

By the time he boarded the plane, Jake’s nerves were a mess. He knew he’d need to find more acting jobs when he got back to the city, because this trip had pretty much depleted everything he’d gotten the day before. But it was worth it. He hoped. He had no idea how Erin would feel when he showed up.

Jake fished out the small box that held the ring they’d used in the commercial. Mr. Smith had insisted that Jake use it when he was ready. It was perfect. And Jake hoped he’d be able to use it soon. He stood and joined the other passengers in line to board the plane. He squeezed into his seat and turned his legs sideways, hoping the seat next to him would stay empty so he could have some legroom.

The flight was just long enough to get in a quick nap. No one had shown up to sit next to him, so Jake was able to sprawl out. He sat up as the plane landed and coasted toward the terminal.

Now that he was in Georgia, Jake felt the pressure of what he was about to do. He’d only known Erin for a few days, but he knew he couldn’t spend the rest of his life without her. He just hoped she felt the same way.

Jake climbed off the plane and went through security so he could leave the airport. He climbed into a taxi and asked the driver to take him to the hospital. He watched the city pass by as they drove.

“I hope everything’s okay.” the driver said. “Family?”

“I sure hope so,” he muttered.

The driver chuckled. “Trouble in paradise, eh?”

“You could say that.” Jake pulled his wallet out and paid the driver as soon as they pulled up. “Thank you.”

The receptionist at the front desk wasn’t willing to give Jake a room number, so he figured he’d look for a waiting room and hope they were still sitting there. He got a fern for Erin’s mom, and a large bouquet of red roses for Erin at the gift shop, then looked for the OR. Jake took a deep breath before stepping into the waiting room.

Suzanne gasped when she saw Jake but didn’t say anything else. He handed her the plant and sat next to Erin who had her head lying on her arms. Jake hesitated for a second before he set his hand on her back.

“Erin?”

Erin jumped and sat up straight. She stared at him with her mouth open before she wrapped her arms around his neck and sobbed into his shoulder. “What are you doing here?”

“I didn’t want you to be alone. And I wanted to give you these.” He set the bouquet on her lap and pulled her closer.

“Thank you for coming.” She let go of him and wiped her eyes. “We’re still waiting for him to get out of surgery. I just … I don’t know what I’ll do if something happens to him.”

Jake took her hand and squeezed it. “He’ll be fine. They’ll find what’s wrong and fix him. In the meantime, I’m here for you. Is there anything you need?”

Erin shook her head, but her mom jumped in. “You can take her to get some food. She hasn’t eaten since she got here.”

Jake stood and pulled Erin up as well. “I’ll take care of that. Do you need anything?”

Suzanne shook her head. “I’ll be fine.”

“Great. We’ll be back.” Jake put his arm around Erin and led her toward the cafeteria. He couldn’t imagine what she was going through right now.. He just hoped what he said was true, and that her dad would be okay.

“So how did you know where to find me?” Erin rubbed her eyes.

“Carissa. She had me help find your cat and told me what had happened. When she showed up at the set, I knew I couldn’t just stay there.”

Erin’s eyes widened. “I’d forgotten that was today. How did it go?”

“Good. I think. They seemed to be happy with it.” Jake went into the cafeteria and stood in line to order. He put his arm around her, and she laid her head on his shoulder.

“That’s great. I’m sure it turned out really well. You’re a natural.” Erin moved forward in the line and ordered a chicken sandwich and a milkshake.

Jake ordered his burger, fries, and drink, realizing he hadn’t eaten since that morning. He waited until they were sitting before he continued.

“I’m only a natural because you were there to help cheer me on. I was so nervous for the soda audition, but I knew I’d be fine as long as you were right there. When I found out what had happened, and that you were here dealing with this, I wanted to leave my job and come straight here. For all I know, I totally flopped the commercial since I spent the whole time wanting to just get through it and leave.”

Erin played with the straw of her shake. “I felt the same way while we were shooting those commercials. But then when you left without saying good-bye, I figured I’d upset you somehow. I thought we had something.” She wiped a tear that escaped down her cheek.

Jake chuckled. “If you mean the night of the shoot, I thought you left me. I’d gone into the bathroom and almost everyone was gone when I left. We had such a great connection both days that I figured we could make things work. When you weren’t there, I figured you were over me.”

“That will never happen.” Erin pushed away her plate. Just then, her phone buzzed. “Oh, Dad’s out of surgery. I need to get back up there.”

Jake stood and followed her out of the cafeteria, dumping their plates in the garbage on the way out. He took her hand as they walked, hoping to bring her some comfort.

The doctor was still talking to Erin’s mom when they entered the waiting room. “… looks promising.”

“What’s promising?” Erin asked.

The doctor turned. “We found the cause of the bleeding and were able to close it up. Your father has a long road ahead of him, but he’s very lucky.”

Erin teared up. “Thank you so much.”

He nodded and walked back through the door to the OR. Suzanne stood and hugged her daughter tightly, then turned to Jake and hugged him as well.

“Thank you both for coming. I couldn’t have done this without you.” She wiped her tears. “I just hope he’s doing better for the wedding. It would be a shame if he can’t walk you down the aisle.”

Jake looked at Erin in surprise. “You didn’t tell her?”

Erin blushed and shook her head. “I couldn’t. Not with what was going on.”

“What’s going on?” Erin’s mom looked between them. “Don’t tell me you called it off.”

“There … there never was an engagement.” Erin dropped into a chair. “Jake and I made a deal to pretend we were dating so our parents wouldn’t worry about us. But then you saw the ring from a photo shoot and thought we were engaged, and it just escalated from there.”

Suzanne stared at her, but didn’t say anything. Her eyes narrowed as she turned to look at Jake. “How could you?”

“I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean it to go this far.”

“Get out.” She sat next to her daughter.

Erin jerked back in shock. “Mom, he just got here. You can’t just make him leave.”

“I don’t care. I want him out. Go.”

“I’m sorry. I feel horrible—”

Suzanne stood up. “I don’t want to see you near my daughter again.”

“Mom—” Erin stood and grabbed her mom’s arm.

Erin’s mom turned on her. “Don’t think I’m letting you off so easily …”

“Fine, I’ll leave. But I want to wish you the best. I loved getting to know your family, and I hope you can forgive me at some point. He turned and headed down the hallway. He could hear Erin and her mom yelling as he walked out of the hospital. It was probably good that he’d left when he did, but he couldn’t help feeling sorry for Erin.

Jake couldn’t help being frustrated that Erin hadn’t told them yet, but could he blame her after what happened to her dad? Hopefully it would just take a few days for them to calm down, and then he could try to apologize again. Jake pulled out his phone and called his parents.

“Hi, Jake. Is everything okay?” his mom asked.

Jake ran his fingers through his hair. “Yes, he’ll be fine.”

There was a sigh of relief. “Oh, I’m so glad. We’d like to visit them. Are you still at the hospital?”

“No. Well, yes, but I’m outside. I got kicked out by Erin’s mom.” Jake sat down on a bench.” So, I was hoping to head over home to visit for a while before flying back to New York. If that’s okay.”

“Kicked out? After you went all that way?” His mom’s indignation almost made Jake laugh.

“She just found out Erin and I lied. Look, if I can’t come, I’ll just head back to New York. I can’t just sit here or someone’s going to think I’m loitering.” He stood and walked toward a bus stop.

“Of course you can. Your Uncle Robert should be there soon to pick you up. I sent him as soon as I heard you were coming. I’ll see you in a few hours. Come hungry.” She hung up.

Jake walked back into the hospital and found a different waiting room to sit in. It was another hour before Robert showed up, and Jake climbed into the truck.

“Hey, thanks for coming.”

“No problem. I had to get a few things while I was here anyway.” He pulled out onto the freeway.

Jake stared out the window as they drove to his parents’ house in Savannah, answering the questions Robert threw at him in one or two word sentences. It wasn’t long before Robert gave up and drove the rest of the way in silence. It was late, so he couldn’t see anything, but it was better than staring at his phone, hoping Erin would call.

Robert pulled up the long circular drive to the white colonial style home lit up by bright lights and stopped. “Tell your mom ‘hi’ for me.”

“Will do. Thanks again. I appreciate it.” Jake climbed out of the truck, breathing in the familiar farm smells before heading toward the house. He wanted to go see his horse, but figured his parents would want to see him first. He climbed the stairs to the front door and peeked in.

His mom dropped the blanket she was crocheting and hurried over to give him a hug. “Welcome home, sweetie. Let me dish you up some dinner.”

Jake pulled off his shoes and sat down at the table he’d eaten at since he was born. “Where’s Dad?”

“Some cows got loose at the Johnson’s so he went to go help.” She pulled a steak and baked potato out of the oven and put them on the plate, then added corn on the cob and a roll. “Here you go.”

“Thank you.” He took a bite and groaned. “Just as good as I remember.”

His mom sat at the table and watched him eat. “So Erin’s mom is pretty mad at you, huh?”

“Yeah. I just hope she’s not too angry with Erin. They were yelling pretty loudly when I left.” Jake took a drink before continuing. “Look, I’m sorry. It was stupid, and the last thing I wanted to do was hurt anyone. I just wanted you two to lay off a little.”

She grimaced. “I suppose we should leave you alone about your relationships. I have to admit that I wish it had been real. She’s a wonderful woman.”

“I know. I mean, I just flew three hours for her.” He attacked the potato and mashed it up so he could add toppings.

“You’re a romantic, just like your father. And impulsive, like me. Things will work out. You two belong together.” She stood and cleared off the table.

Jake smiled and took another bite of food. He just wished he had his mom’s optimism. When he was done, he took his dishes to the sink and rinsed them off. “Oh, do you have a toothbrush? I kinda left New York without anything.”

His mom laughed. “See? Impulsive. There should be everything you need in the storage room.”

“Thanks.” He went into the storage room and found some toothpaste and a toothbrush before heading up to his old bedroom. It looked like his mom had recently dusted and cleaned, and there was a fresh linen scent.

He opened the window and stared out, enjoying the late summer sounds. In the distance he heard cows. He hadn’t heard his dad come in, and wondered if they’d finished rounding up the cattle. He grabbed an old jacket from the closet and searched for some jeans. Lucky for him, his mom never got rid of anything, and there were some tucked away in the closet. He went downstairs to find his mom.

“I’m going to go find Dad.”

“Okay, be safe. They should be out in the north field.” She never looked up from her crochet as Jake pulled on his shoes and went out to the barn.

“Hey, Blue. I missed you old buddy.” Jake brushed his horse and put on the saddle. “Let’s go find Dad.”

They left the barn and Jake guided Blue to the north before allowing him to get up to a gallop. Soon he could see the flashlights from his dad and the Johnson’s. He was about a hundred yards away from them when he heard a movement from the left. He went to investigate and found a cow tangled up in some barbed wire. He climbed off his horse and moved over to the cow. It fought to get out, but it was only making things worse.

“Hey, buddy, calm down and I’ll get you out.” He knelt down and pulled the wire away from the cow’s legs and body. The barbs had cut into its legs in a few places, but otherwise it seemed fine. He guided it back to the Johnson’s barn, where everyone else was getting the rest of the cattle back into the pen.

Frank Johnson turned and saw Jake coming. “Hey, the last cow has been found. We were just about to come and find her. Wait, is that you, Jake?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Figured you could use some help. She needs to be looked at because she was caught, but she should be fine.”

“I’m impressed. The big city didn’t make you forget everything about living on a ranch.” Frank laughed. He turned to the rest of the men. “Okay, we got them all. Thanks again for your help.”

The men wandered off toward their homes, and Jake’s dad headed over to Jake, then continued toward the house.

“When did you get here?” his dad asked.

“About an hour ago. Mom told me where you were so I figured I’d help out.”

“I appreciate that. Especially since you found the cow. We’d looked all over for it.”

Jake nodded even though his dad wouldn’t be able to see it. “Glad I could help. Race you?”

His dad laughed. “Okay, city boy. Go.” His horse took off at a gallop and Jake encouraged his horse to catch up.

They arrived at their barn at about the same time, but his dad had won. Jake brushed down the horses as part of losing the race—something the loser had done for as long as Jake could remember.

His mom had gone to bed by the time they got home, so Jake went to his room. That night as he lay in bed, he decided to stay one more day to help where he could. After that he needed to get back to New York. He went to sleep with the vision of Erin in his mind. If only he hadn’t messed up the best thing that had happened since he’d left home.

Chapter 15

Erin sat next to her dad’s bed, watching the monitors. She could have left to get some sleep, but she knew she wouldn’t get rest anyway. She hadn’t been able to sleep since the day her mom had kicked Jake out of the hospital. It had been two days since her dad had pulled out of danger and he’d been conscious more and more since then. It was time to get home and fix a disastrous account, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to leave her dad yet.

She should have run after him. She should have told her mom that while it had started as false, she’d since fallen in love with him. And now he probably hated her.

Her dad stirred, and Erin quickly wiped her tears away. She stood and took his hand. “Hey, Dad.”

He cleared his throat. “Hi, sweetie. Can I get some water?”

“Of course.” She jumped up and helped him get a drink. “How are you feeling?”

“I’ve felt better.” He laughed and coughed. “Can you help me up? I’m sick of lying down all day.”

She handed him the remote to the bed so he could push himself up to where he wanted. “The doctor says you’re healing well.”

“I’m feeling better than when I first woke up.” He stopped and squinted at her. “Were you crying?”

“A little. It’s just been a crazy couple of days.” She sat back in her chair and leaned her head back.

“Your mom told me what happened with Jake.”

Erin looked up at him surprised. “Why would she do that?”

He chuckled. “She thought I was sleeping. Look, sweetie, I can’t say I’m happy with what happened. Your mom loved getting ready for this wedding. You can’t expect her to just laugh it off.”

“I know. I understand why she kicked him out.” Erin sighed. “Dad, I need to get back to New York. Apparently one of the contracts I’ve been working on is failing miserably. Are you going to be okay? Because if not, I can change my flight and tell my boss to let someone else take it.”

“I’m not going anywhere any time soon. You go back and smooth everything out. I’ll be fine. I’m just grateful you took the time to come down. We’ve missed having you here.”

Erin pushed down the guilt that threatened to overcome her. It had been too long since she’d visited last. “I wouldn’t have forgiven myself if I hadn’t. You really scared me, Dad.”

Her dad reached for her hand. “I was scared too. But then I heard two of the most beautiful voices talking to me, and I knew I needed to come back. Now, please go. I need to sleep some more and your mom will probably be here soon.”

Erin stood and kissed her dad’s forehead. “Love you, Daddy. I’ll be back at Thanksgiving.”

“I look forward to it.” He squeezed her hand and kissed her cheek. “I’ll tell Mom you said good-bye.”

“Thanks.” She picked up her purse and headed for the door. The only flight she could get that day was only a couple hours away and she needed to get to the airport. She was sad to miss her mom, but they hadn’t spoken much since Jake left.

“Oh, and Erin? Don’t give up on Jake.”

Erin nodded once and left the room. Thoughts of texting him were pushed away by guilt.

She climbed into the taxi and checked her messages. Carissa and Debra had both sent emails asking for help with the clients. She emailed them back, and climbed out of the taxi. Once she was checked in, she sat and pulled her laptop out of her bag, hoping there would be Wi-Fi that she could use to send the plans she’d made.

The files pulled up, and Erin made a few last minute changes she’d thought about during the night. She cheered silently when the Wi-Fi worked. While it was slow, it was still enough to send out the plans she’d made. She climbed on the plane and sat in her seat. A young girl sat next to her and smiled politely before turning to giggle with her friend.

As soon as the flight took off and they were high enough, Erin pulled out her laptop and worked on the designs for the clothing ads. Taking samples from the company’s old line, she put together a few different samples.

“Whoa,” the girl next to her whispered. “That’s really good.”

“Thanks.” She saved the files and pulled up another document so she could work on the men’s ads next.

“You do this for a living?” she asked in awe.

“Yep. Do you like fashion?” Erin stopped and looked at the girl next to her. She was cute with freckles splashed across her nose and cheeks.

The girl shrugged. “I guess. I mean, I like looking at the magazines, but I think it’s cool what you’re doing with your program. I’d love to learn how to do that.”

Erin pulled out a business card. “Here. Email me in a couple of years and I can teach you how to design the ads. It’s pretty easy, and it makes a really good job.”

“Thank you.” She pulled out a magazine. “Did you do any of these?”

Erin took the magazine and flipped through the pages. She found an ad she’d helped with a few months before. “That’s mine. This was harder because it was cold and rainy. We had to use artificial light to make it look right.”

The girl took the magazine back. “That’s really cool. Um, could you sign it?”

Erin laughed. “Really? Sure. I guess.” She pulled out a marker and signed the ad.

The girl grinned and showed her friend. Erin turned back to her work and finished the line just as they were told to begin preparing for the descent. She put her laptop away and made sure her seatbelt was fastened.

As they were getting their bags out of the overhead storage, the girl turned back to Erin. “Thanks again for signing my magazine.”

“You’re welcome. Don’t forget to call me.” Erin figured the girl would forget a few minutes after leaving the airport, but it was fun to talk. And if she did remember to call later, Erin would be happy to have an intern.

***

Erin was glad to be back in New York. She went straight to the pound to pick up Coco, then went back to her apartment. Coco wouldn’t leave Erin’s side while she made dinner and sat down to watch television. Erin grumbled as show after show was filled with romances. She finally turned it off and went to her room.

After changing into a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, Erin headed for the door. She was craving a milkshake, and there was only one place she could get one that was just right. She texted Carissa to tell her to meet at the diner in ten minutes. The reply came quickly with a “K,” and Erin grinned.

Carissa arrived not long after Erin. She dropped a DVD on the table and sat down across from Erin. “That came today.”

“What is it?” Erin picked it up and flipped it over, but there was no label.

“Your commercial. Mr. Smith wanted your approval before he signs off on it. I saw it earlier today. You did a fantastic job. Even if you weren’t speaking to each other at the time.” Carissa took a drink of her water. “Are your parents still mad?”

“Mom hasn’t really said anything, and Dad is still in and out of sleep, but he was cool about it. Cooler than I expected, actually.” She sighed. “I still can’t believe my mom kicked Jake out.”

“I can’t either.” She stopped, her jaw dropping as she looked over Erin’s shoulder. “No way.”

“What?” Erin turned around to find Jake standing there, surprised. She turned back and closed her eyes. Her face burned with the memory of the last time she’d seen him.

“He’s coming,” Carissa whispered. “Oh, wait. He went to the counter instead. You need to invite him over.”

Erin shook her head. “I can’t.”

Carissa rolled her eyes. “You’re hopeless.”

“I know.” Erin stared at the milkshake in front of her. She just had to crave chocolate tonight, didn’t she? She should have just stayed home.

Carissa stood. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow. I want details.” She walked over to Jake and gestured toward Erin before leaving the diner.

“Hey. Can I sit here?” Jake asked.

“Sure.” She sat up and cleared her throat. “How was your flight home?”

“I drove back. I wanted my truck here. Yours?” He took a drink, never taking his eyes off her.

Erin smiled. “It was fine. I got to autograph an ad for a girl on the plane.”

“Impressive. Much more exciting than hours and hours of driving.” Jake thanked the waitress for his meal and took a bite of his burger.

“Wait—are those mushrooms?” Erin asked, surprised.

Jake grinned sheepishly. “Someone told me it was better this way. I have to admit she was right.”

Erin shook her head. “I never thought you’d try it.”

“I’m full of surprises.” He took another bite, and Erin wished she’d ordered one for herself.

She hesitated before speaking. “Look, I’m sorry about what happened. I had no idea my mom would do that to you.”

Jake sat silently for a moment. “I was mad at first. That was a long, expensive flight. But deep down I knew I deserved it. I made a stupid mistake.”

“We. We did it together. This isn’t just your fault. I didn’t have to agree to it. And I admit I enjoyed it.” Erin picked up the DVD and put it in her purse so she wouldn’t forget it.

“What’s that?” Jake nodded toward her purse.

“It’s a copy of our commercial.” She paused, biting her lip. “Do you want to watch it with me?”

Jake wiped his fingers and took another drink before answering. “Sure. I’d like to see how it turned out.”

“Okay, let’s go back to my apartment. It’s closer.” Erin stood and picked up her purse.

“Sounds good.” They paid for their food, and Jake opened the door for her. “I have my truck, so we don’t have to walk.”

“Great.” Erin followed him to an old beat up Chevy pickup. It didn’t fit well in New York, but it was exactly what she would have pictured Jake driving. “Nice truck.”

“Thanks. Dad and I fixed it up when I was a teen. I hated leaving it behind, but I wanted to get used to the city before I even tried to drive here.”

They drove to her apartment and Erin had him park in the space designated for her apartment. She had butterflies in her stomach as they walked up to her apartment. After what had happened in the hospital, there was no way she would have expected to be walking to her apartment with Jake again.

“I have to admit I’m a little scared to see the commercial.” He rubbed his hands on his jeans and waited for Erin to open her apartment door.

“You did great.” Erin set her purse down and put the DVD in her player. She grabbed a blanket and sat on the couch to watch it. Jake sat next to her, and Erin couldn’t help the thrill that shot through her.

Music played, and Erin watched in awe as the commercial started. She could remember filming every moment of it, but Debra had been right. There was a chemistry there that was tangible. As the end of the commercial faded away, Erin noticed that her pulse had quickened.

“Wow.” Jake sat there staring at the TV. “That was … wow.”

“I know.” Erin didn’t want to move and ruin the moment. All the feelings from that day crashed down on her. A glance at Jake showed that he was feeling it as well.

Jake leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “Did you feel it too?”

Erin nodded.

“This was the reason I traveled to Georgia. Somewhere along the way, the pretend feelings blossomed into something so much more. I’m so in love with you, Erin Tyler.” He got down on one knee and pulled out a small box. The same box they’d used in the commercial.

“I’m so in love with you too.” Erin’s eyes filled with tears as she opened the box to find the simple diamond ring inside. “Do you always carry rings around in your pocket?”

“Well, not usually. But I came over here for two reasons. One, I want to challenge you to a rematch on Mario Kart. And two—” Jake slipped the ring on Erin’s finger and smiled up at Erin. “Hey, look. It’s the perfect fit. Will you marry me? For real this time?”

Erin nodded and wrapped her arms around his neck. Jake leaned in and kissed her softly, then more insistent. Erin thought her heart would burst with joy as he sat next to her and put his arms around her, holding her close.

When they finally pulled away, Jake looked into her eyes. “I was thinking we could have the wedding at Christmas.”

Erin grinned. “Perfect. I already have the wedding dress and everything.”

Also by Jaclyn Weist

Silver Script Novels (Contemporary Romance)

Ring of Truth

A Christmas Worth Billions

Fashioned for Love

The Luck Series (YA Fantasy)

Stolen Luck

Twist of Luck

Best of Luck

More Than Just Luck

No Such Luck

Just My Luck

Fairy Tales (YA)

The Princess and the Prom Queen

Endless

Gates of Atlantis (Middle Grade)

Magicians of the Deep

About the Author

Jaclyn is an Idaho farm girl who grew up loving to read. She developed a love for writing as a senior in high school, when her dad jokingly said she was the next Dr. Seuss (not even close, but very sweet). She met her husband, Steve, at BYU, and they have six happy, crazy children who encourage her to keep writing. After owning a bookstore and running away to have adventures in Australia, they settled back down in their home in Utah. Jaclyn now spends her days herding her kids to various activities and trying to remember what she was supposed to do next. She has published six books in a year, and her mind is still reeling from the awesomeness. Her books include Endless: A Modern Cinderella Tale; The Princess and the Prom Queen; Magicians of the Deep; the Luck series—Stolen Luck, Twist of Luck, Best of Luck, and Just My Luck, a novella.

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Ring of Truth

Erin doesn’t have time for a relationship. After six years of late nights and mind-numbing assignments at her job as a marketing executive at the billion dollar Silver Script Ad Agency, she’s finally landed the coveted Smithson Jeweler’s account—which means her love life will have to wait a little longer. When the actress at the first commercial shoot upsets the director, Erin finds herself cast as the leading lady alongside Jake, a handsome up-and-coming actor who rescued her cat from the streets and stole her heart. Flustered, she walks away from the shoot wearing the diamond ring, and her mom mistakes it for an engagement between Erin and Jake. Both are desperate enough to get their parents off their backs, that they run with the lie. Now Jake and Erin have to figure out how to admit their story is false without hurting their parents or destroying the friendship they’ve gained with each other.

  • Author: Jaclyn Weist
  • Published: 2016-07-12 07:05:11
  • Words: 43435
Ring of Truth Ring of Truth