I told him we’d pretend we were engaged.
The words kept running through my head as Harrison went over the details of what we needed to do to prove to everyone in our lives that we had finally taken the leap past friendship and into a relationship.
According to him, no one would be surprised. Yet it was life-altering for me. Because in the back of my mind, I’d always wondered, what if? What if we’d gone to the same college? What if I’d been brave enough to make a move on any one of those nights we were alone? On the couch, watching a movie, swinging side by side on the elementary school playground while we talked about our dreams for the future?
What if he hadn’t gotten Lola pregnant when he ran into her at a bar and they had a one-night stand? But the rational part of my brain would remind me that he wouldn’t have moved back home if he hadn’t gotten Lola pregnant. There was no guarantee that Harrison would ever have seen me as anything more than a friend. We remained friends because he’d moved home to be close to Wren and Lola. He needed my help.
What he didn’t know was that I needed him like the air I breathed. We’d become friends the summer my dad walked out. I was ten and in shock. I didn’t understand what I’d done to make my father leave. I didn’t know if he’d ever come back.
It was Harrison who’d distracted me from the reality of my family imploding. He’d created all sorts of adventures that summer. And then later, when we found out my dad had created a new life with another woman, going on to have more children with her but wanting nothing to do with us, it was Harrison who was by my side. He was the one who grounded me, who kept me moving forward and thinking about the future. He never let me dwell on the past or how that one act changed my life forever. Because my mother never let me forget it.
“What do you think?” Harrison asked when our food was cleared.
I cleared my throat because I hadn’t been listening. “About what?”
“We need to tell my parents and my grandmother that we were dating.”
Every time he said the word dating, a little thrill shot through me. It was like getting that thing you’d always wanted, but it was still out of reach. The cold reality was that he wasn’t mine, and he never would be.
I was understandably wary about dating anyone seriously. I had trust issues. Harrison was a safe bet to crush on. He’d never make a move, and neither would I, so we were safely stuck in this friend limbo.
I hated the idea of lying to his grandmother, but she was the one we needed to convince. She had an active social life and friends whom she liked to talk to. If we could convince her, she would spread the word around town, and everyone would believe her. “Let’s do it.”
Harrison’s head tipped to the side. “How about this weekend?
My heart rate picked up. I felt like I was on a runaway train. I couldn’t do anything to slow it down, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. “That soon?”
Harrison nodded. “The attorney said that we need to establish that we’re currently in a relationship, that it’s not something new.”
“If that’s what he thinks is best.” When I agreed to his plan, I was hoping there’d be a few weeks to get used to the idea of being engaged to my best friend. Instead, I was being thrown in headfirst without any flotation device.
He paid the check, his head bent over the receipt as he calculated the tip and signed his name with a flourish. My heart ached because I was finally going to be acting the part that I had secretly longed for my entire life.
I’d always wanted Harrison to look at me as more than a friend, but he never had. He had never made any indication that he was attracted to me. I was by his side, willing to help with Wren. I listened when he needed to complain about whatever parenting thing Lola was doing that he didn’t agree with, or that she’d canceled on his visitation plans again. I was the one he called when he needed someone to talk to. In some ways, I think he took me for granted. And here I was, playing into it again. He needed someone to be his fake fiancée, and I was stepping up to the plate.
I should have tried to move on with someone else, or at least explored the possibility of a serious relationship with someone that could turn into something more. Instead, I was tying myself to the one person who’d never give me what I wanted, and certainly not what I needed.
Harrison was safe. With him, I didn’t have to date someone else. I didn’t have to go out of my comfort zone. I could like him from afar, and nothing would ever happen between us. I couldn’t get hurt, and he’d never walk out on me. It was a win-win.
“Are you having regrets?”
My gaze met Harrison’s concerned one. “Of course not.”
Harrison considered me for a few seconds before he nodded. “When do you want to move in?”
“When do you think would be good?” I sipped the lukewarm water, choking a little when it went down too fast.
I consoled myself by saying to myself that the reality of Harrison as my boyfriend wouldn’t be as good as what I’d imagined in my head. I was certain he had flaws, and living with him, I’d discover them all.
Maybe moving in with him would be a good thing. I’d learn all the reasons why we couldn’t work.
“We should do it right away. That way we can tell my family we’re already living together. It will make it seem more serious.”
I set the glass down, my brain working a little more efficiently now that he was asking me to pack my things and move in with him and Wren so soon. “You want me to move in before this weekend?”
Harrison’s brow furrowed. “That makes the most sense, doesn’t it?”
This was moving too fast, but I’d already said yes. “Of course.”
“You should move in with me. I have a single-family house and Wren to worry about.”
I rented a small apartment, struggling to make any sort of commitment other than the job I held. “You wouldn’t want to make any unnecessary changes for her.”
He nodded, looking out the window as if he was thinking of the million things that needed to be done.
“Do you think she’ll be okay with this?”
Harrison looked back at me. “You’re always around. She loves you. I think she secretly hopes we’d get together eventually.”
The words but what if it doesn’t work out lingered just out of reach. I couldn’t voice them. I wanted this too badly. Even if we all got hurt in the process. Instead, I said, “Just like your grandmother.”
“They’re both romantics.” Harrison smiled affectionately.
I wanted to ask if he felt the same way, but that was a line I never crossed. Friendship was safer than a relationship, and I never asked questions I didn’t want the answers to.
“Will we sleep in the same room?”
“I would think so. Do you have any other questions? I don’t want you to go into this situation without having all the answers.” He reached across the table, covering my hand with his.
He’d done this a billion times before, but it felt more meaningful since he’d just asked me to move in with him and sleep in his bed. How had my life changed so drastically during the course of one meal?
I pasted on a smile that felt as fake as our budding relationship. “I’ll live with you and sleep in your bed. What else is there to know?”
“Do you want to put an end date to this? We date until the custody case is over, then we can break up.”
My heart tore a little at his words, even though it wasn’t real. A small part of me didn’t want an end date. I wanted to pretend this man was mine forever. But he wasn’t in love with me. I needed to rein in my desire for him.
If he hadn’t said anything before now, there was zero chance he was harboring real feelings for me outside of our friendship. I told myself that so I could manage this silly crush. But things were about to be unscripted, and I felt like the floor had been removed from beneath my feet.
I was grasping at anything I could hold on to. Right now, that was Harrison’s hand. I turned mine in his, interlacing our fingers. There was a roaring in my ears and a rush of light-headedness. It was like holding a boy’s hand for the first time when you were a teenager.
My heart beat faster, my palms were damp, and my breath hitched. Did he notice how he affected me?
“I wouldn’t blame you if you were panicking. This is a lot to take in, and I’ve ambushed you.”
He’d mistaken my reaction for nerves, not attraction. “I wouldn’t call this an ambush.”
He asked, and I said yes. I was an adult. I could handle the consequences of my decisions. Or at least I hoped I could, because I would soon be living with my lifelong crush. The one who had zero clues that I had feelings for him. Was this all going to come crashing down on our heads? Was I crazy to think this could work?
“Want to head out?” Harrison asked before letting go of my hand.
Outside, light drops of rain fell. “You want to come to the house?”
When he said “the house,” he was always referring to his. Because of Wren, that’s where we ended up most evenings.
“You can take a look around and see what you’d like to bring with you.”
“I can do that,” I said, even though I already knew what was in Harrison’s house. I spent so much time there that I knew it like my own home. I would need to bring my clothes and possibly a few favorite kitchen utensils. I didn’t want to move too many things. It was only temporary.
Harrison walked me to my car. “I need to pick up Wren on the way. Meet you there?”
When I nodded, my throat a little tight from our talk, he leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. It was an exchange we’d done a billion times before, but tonight, it felt different. His lips seemingly hovered over my skin for a second too long, the contact sending tingles down my spine.
“See you soon, girlfriend.” Then Harrison winked before turning around.
I opened my car door and slid inside. I let the panic fill me. I was going to be living with my best friend, sleeping in his bed, and wearing his grandmother’s ring. What had I done?
I’d never survive it. My heart beat so hard in my chest it hurt. I forced myself to take a few steadying breaths before I started the car and pulled from the curb.
I was a relatively cautious person. I thought carefully about every decision I made. But in this case, I hadn’t. Harrison needed me, and I was happy to help. But at what cost?
To be fair, Harrison had no idea I harbored a secret crush on him. It wasn’t his fault I couldn’t put him out of my mind.
As I pulled into his driveway, parking in my usual spot, I could almost convince myself that not much would change. I already spent several evenings a week here, cooking and eating dinner and playing games with Wren. Except now, I was moving in. I wouldn’t have an apartment to escape to when my feelings overwhelmed me.
With shaky fingers, I used my key to unlock his door and close it behind me. I looked at his house with new eyes. I’d be living here, setting my shoes next to his, hanging my key on the hook by the door, and waiting for him and Wren to come home to me.
It was too much, yet not enough. I needed it to be real. Yet at the same time, I wondered if Harrison was attractive to me because he was unattainable. He didn’t like me as anything more than friends, so he was a safe bet. I wouldn’t get hurt, and he couldn’t walk away from me.
Maybe living together would prove that this crush was just that—a silly attraction that would dissipate in the light of reality. Maybe this was what I needed to do to finally lay it to rest. I didn’t want Harrison for real. It was just a nice fantasy that prevented me from finding someone who could be my future.
By the time Harrison arrived with Wren, I’d convinced myself that this was an experiment, a move in the right direction. An attempt to prove to myself that I could live with Harrison and that this crush would fade. Because at the end of the day, we were friends. No one had ever been there for me like he had, and I wouldn’t do anything to ruin it.
I was heating up water for tea when they entered the kitchen. Wren hugged me. “You’re here.”
I caught Harrison’s gaze over her head, both of us knowing I was going to be here a lot more often.
“Put your book bag on the hook and bring me your lunch box,” Harrison reminded Wren.
When Wren complied with a groan, Harrison asked me softly, “Are you freaking out?”
“A little, but then I realized why we are doing this. It’s for that little girl. You know I’d do anything for her.” Wren would be the perfect buffer.
“I’m counting on it,” Harrison said, his voice apologetic.
“You have nothing to apologize for. We’d both do anything for her.” Even if it meant one of us would get hurt.
“Can we watch a movie?” Wren asked.
“Not on a school night,” was Harrison’s automatic reply. “Do you have any homework?”
Wren’s mother had different rules at her house, so there was usually an adjustment when she came to Harrison’s.
“Let me see your folder. I don’t want to miss anything.”
Harrison was a good dad. A great one, even. My eyes filled with tears, and I quickly blinked them away. I admired him because he was what any child deserved. My dad was never that involved, but at least he’d been present—until he wasn’t.
Harrison went through her folder while I made tea for me and Wren. She liked to pretend she was an adult when I offered it to her. She usually took a few sips before setting it aside. It was a little ritual we’d created over time. Sharing tea together and having girl talk. She had a mother, but she seemed to enjoy our time too.
“I’m going to change and let you have your tea,” Harrison said.
I set Wren’s cup on the table and sat across from her. “This smells like flowers.”
I smiled as I breathed it in. “Try it. I want to know if you like it.”
Blowing on it first, she sipped it tentatively. “It’s okay.”
“How was school today?” I asked, cradling the cup.
Wren grinned. “We had extra recess for our reading logs.”
“Fun. Blacktop or field?” I asked, knowing she preferred blacktop. I loved that I already knew the details of her life.
“Blacktop,” she said with a smile.
“So, it was a good day.”
She grimaced. “I had health.”
It was the worst day of the week in her eyes. An hour-long health class when she preferred P.E. or art. “It’s done for the week, though, right?”
Wren laughed. “That’s right. I have double P.E. tomorrow.”
“Ah. The perfect day,” I said, before sipping the fragrant tea.
“Did you like P.E. when you were in school?”
“It wasn’t my favorite class.” I wasn’t athletic, and then there were those times when kids picked teams, and I was always last.
“You liked art.”
“It was my favorite.” I loved creating things. Still did. I longed to do it for a living, but that was unrealistic. Not practical. Everyone knew the starving artist cliché. I wouldn’t make any money selling art. It was why I’d gotten a different degree in school and worked a practical office job.
“Are you making any new invitations?” Wren asked.
“I made the most gorgeous one last weekend.” I scrolled through my phone to show her. I’d been playing with adding special details to the invitations, like embossed lettering and gold and silver filigree.
“It’s so pretty.”
Harrison returned, smelling of soap, like he’d jumped in the shower. He wore a T-shirt and gym shorts, his usual outfit for lounging at home. But he smelled masculine and fresh, and I wanted to slide his T-shirt up and feel my skin on his. I wanted to know if this attraction was all in my head.
Harrison met my gaze over Wren’s shoulder. “Another invitation?”
“You know I’m working with Gia at Happily Ever Afters now.” She’d recently invited me to be part of her business partnership. She already worked with Abby, the photographer; Sophie, the baker; and Lily, the florist. She’d recently hired her best friend, Harper, to help organize things, and another wedding planner, Ireland. “I created some options that she can offer as a package. The brides can choose one of those or create a custom invitation.”
So far, most brides wanted custom. It was what I preferred, getting to know the couple and creating something that was uniquely theirs. I offered ideas for how to preserve the invitation to hang on their wall, but Gia had ideas about streamlining income. She wanted her wedding planning service to be successful, but also our respective businesses.
“How’s that going?” Harrison asked as he grabbed a glass and poured water into it.
“It’s been steady work. Gia markets and gets the couples. We meet with them, show them our packages, and work with them to get it just right.” I was cautiously optimistic about it.
“You finally going to quit your day job?” Harrison was the one who encouraged me to start a business since he had.
But all I did was create wedding invitations. It wasn’t a sustainable source of income. “I wish.”
“I started the rental business as an additional stream of income, working in the evenings and on weekends. I built it to the point that I didn’t have a choice but to quit.”
Harrison owned a supply rental company. He purchased tents, tables, and linens, adding more to his collection as his business grew. He rented them out for a hefty price. Working with Gia really helped him get a steady income, and I knew he hoped for the same for me. But my business was smaller than his. It wouldn’t sustain me.
“I don’t see that happening for me.” It was always in the back of my mind that anything could change in an instant. Gia’s business might go under. Or she could decide my invitations weren’t good enough for her to offer.
“Keep an open mind,” Harrison said.
“I want to open a business,” Wren said.
Harrison grinned at her. “That’s my girl. What are you thinking about doing?”
Wren frowned. “I haven’t decided yet.”
“You have plenty of time for that,” Harrison said.
“Want to play a card game?” I asked them, getting up to grab a deck I knew Harrison kept in the kitchen drawer. It was one of my favorite things to do when Wren was over.
We decided on one and dealt the cards. It was familiar and comforting when we teased each other, accusing Wren of cheating by dealing herself the best cards. It was fun and light, and I wanted to hold on to the moment forever.
I wasn’t sure how living together would change things, but I knew it would. Nothing ever stayed the same.