The wall of winnipeg and.., p.13
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       The Wall of Winnipeg and Me, p.13

           Mariana Zapata
 

  Aiden nodded gravely, forcefully.

  I wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or relieved, so I went with neither. Business mode, I needed to get into business mode. “I’m not going to go to jail for you, so we need to figure everything out. What are we going to tell Zac?” Speaking of Zac, where was he? I wondered.

  “Even if I told him to find his own place, he would know something was going on. We have to tell him. We would need people to confirm we’re in a real relationship together.”

  Was that the truth? I nodded, thinking of Diana, and how I had told her everything already. “Yeah. I have to tell my friend. She would know something was going on. I can get away with not telling anyone else.” I’d thought about it, and I was fairly certain I could embellish Aiden trying to win me over to come back as some sort of love story. At least, that’s what I hoped. Not being super close to anyone, including my little brother who had his own busy life, obviously helped in this situation.

  Aiden nodded, practical and understanding.

  But… I raised both of my shoulders. “What about everyone else?” Everyone else. Literally. Everyone in the world. Just thinking about it made me want to puke. Any idea or hope of possibly being able to hide a possible marriage had gotten flushed down the toilet when I remembered an article on Aiden years ago, when he’d been spotted eating dinner with a woman—a woman who turned out to be a rep for a company that was trying to endorse him. Who cared? I’d originally thought.

  Then it had hit me. Some people did. And too many people cared about all things involving Aiden Graves. He couldn’t cut his hair without someone posting about it. Someone in the world would find out we’d gotten married at some point. There would be no hiding it.

  And that made me feel uneasy. I hadn’t even liked the attention I’d gotten from people when they found out I worked for him. Getting hitched to him would be an entirely different ballpark.

  I had to swallow the saliva in my mouth to keep from gagging.

  “We could keep it quiet for a while—” the big guy started to say. I gave him a look that he just returned with a blink. “—but someone will find out eventually. We can get married without making a big deal over it, and divorce the same way. What happens on the field is for my fans, everything else isn’t their business.” The way he stated that didn’t give me room to doubt him.

  I would be living the rest of my life as Aiden Graves’s ex-wife.

  The thought almost made me cross my eyes at how absurd it was. Then immediately afterward, I wanted to put my head between my knees and pant.

  Instead of doing any of those things, I made myself process his words, and then nod. His idea made sense. Obviously, someone in the world would eventually find out, but Aiden was intensely private with the people he knew, and so much more with folks he didn’t. It wouldn’t look strange if we kept it a secret as long as possible.

  The thought had just entered my head when I asked myself, what the hell had I gotten myself into?

  “We wouldn’t be able to sign an agreement that says you get a house and your loan paid off, but I hope you trust me enough to know I wouldn’t back out on you.” Those dark eyes seemed to laser a message on my forehead. “I would trust you enough not to sign a prenup.”

  No prenup? Uh….

  “I won’t begin a relationship while the marriage is intact,” he continued out of the blue. “You can’t either.”

  That had me raising my gaze. My relationship status wasn’t going to be changing any time soon. It hadn’t in years, and I didn’t foresee it doing so any time soon, but my conversation with Diana seemed to haunt me. Even as a fake wife with a paper marriage, I wouldn’t want to look like an idiot. “Are you sure you can promise that? Because you might meet—”

  “No. I won’t. I’ve only loved three people in my entire life. I don’t plan on loving anyone else in the next five,” he cut me off. “I have other things to worry about. That’s why I’m asking you to do this, and not finding somebody else.” What he wasn’t saying in that moment was that he was in the prime of his career, but I’d heard him say those exact words countless times in the past.

  I wanted to cry horseshit, but I kept it to myself. I also wanted to ask who the only three people he’d ever loved were, but I figured this wasn’t the time. Leslie had to be one of them, I imagined. “If you say so.”

  From the way his throat bobbed, he wanted to make a comment, but instead he kept going. “I’ll help you pay off your loan over the next three years.”

  And negotiations suddenly came to a screeching halt. For a moment.

  Then I made myself think about it. Taking a few years to pay off the loan would look an awful lot less sneaky than if it was done in one or two big payments. If I made a few payments here and there, that would look a lot better too, wouldn’t it? Like if we waited a few months until after we signed the papers and everything? I had to think so.

  “Okay.” I nodded. “That works for me.”

  “My lease on this house is ending in March. We can rent another house afterward or sign another lease here. When my residency comes through, I’ll buy one that you can keep afterward. ”

  Afterward was the second thing I paid attention to.

  The main thing I didn’t miss was the beginning of his statement and the ‘we’ in the following sentence.

  “I’d have to move in with you?” I asked slow, slow, slowly.

  That big, handsome face went a bit squinty. “I’m not moving in with you.” I couldn’t even find it in me to be offended; I was too busy processing whether he’d made a joke or not. “You’re the one worried about making it believable. Someone is going to check our licenses.”

  He had a point. Of course he had a point. But… but…

  Breathe. Loans and a house. Loans and house.

  “Okay. All right. That makes sense.” My stuff. What was I going to do with it? My apartment with all my things that I’d collected over the years….

  I was going to have a panic attack at some point.

  I’d known I wasn’t always going to live there—at least I’d better not. But that didn’t change anything. This house wasn’t mine and it didn’t feel like mine. It felt like Aiden’s place. Like the house I’d worked in for years. But I could move in if I needed to, especially if it was the difference between making this hoax of a marriage seem legitimate and not.

  I had to. Had to.

  “When do you want to do this?” I pretty much croaked.

  He didn’t ask me. He just said, “Soon.”

  I was going to have a panic attack. “Okay.” All right. Soon could be a month from now. Two months from now.

  “Fine?” Aiden raised his eyebrows in what seemed like a challenge.

  I nodded dumbly, finding myself becoming more and more in tune with the idea that we were really doing this. I was going to marry him to get his papers fixed. For money. For a lot of money. For financial security.

  Aiden stared at me for a while, the bobbing of his throat the only sign that he was thinking. “You’ll do this, then?”

  I would be an idiot if I didn’t, wouldn’t I?

  That was a dumb question in itself. Of course I would be an idiot, a massive, gigantic idiot who owed a lot of money.

  “Yes.” I gulped. “I will.”

  For the first time in two years, The Wall of Winnipeg’s face took on an expression that was as close to joyous as I had ever seen. He looked… relieved. More than relieved. I’d swear on my life his eyes lit up. For that one split second, he resembled a completely different person. Then the man who wore a jockstrap on a regular basis did the unthinkable.

  He reached forward and put a hand on top of mine, touching me for the first time. His fingers were long and warm, strong, his palm broad and the skin rough, thick. He squeezed. “You won’t regret this.”

  Chapter Nine

  I didn’t call Aiden and he didn’t call me.

  I couldn’t blame the lack of communication on him not having my
cell phone number; I’d given it to him before I left his house the day I’d agreed to do what we were doing.

  A week passed, and when he hadn’t bothered getting into contact with me, I didn’t think much of it. The Three Hundreds were in the middle of preseason games according to the news. I knew how busy this time of the year was for him.

  Plus, there was the small chance that maybe he had changed his mind. Maybe.

  Well, I didn’t know why else he wouldn’t call, but I made myself not think about it more than I needed to, which I figured wasn’t much, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to stress about it.

  The reality that there was a chance he had found some other way of getting his residency petition filed wasn’t as crippling as I would have imagined, considering there was over a hundred thousand dollars riding on our deal. I wouldn’t even say I was disappointed but…

  Okay, maybe by the fifth day into the week I might have accepted that I was a little, tiny bit disappointed. Having my loans paid off would have been… well, the more I thought about having that amount of money resting on my shoulders, the more I realized just how repressing it was. It would be one thing if I owed that much money on a house, but in freaking school loans?

  If twenty-six-year-old Vanessa could talk to eighteen-year-old Vanessa, I wasn’t sure I would have still gone to such an expensive school. I probably would have gone to community college for my basics then transferred to a state college. My little brother had never made me feel guilty for leaving; he’d been the one to tell me to go. Every once in a while though, I regretted the decision I’d made. But I was a stubborn jackass idiot who wanted what she wanted come hell or high water, and I’d done what I wanted to do at an incredibly high expense.

  By the seventh day into our no-communication spree, I was more than halfway through coming to terms with the fact that I would be in debt the next twenty years of my life, and that I’d already assumed that would be the case the instant I’d gotten that first statement in the mail after graduation.

  So why cry over it?

  I had told him the truth. I didn’t need him or his money.

  But I would have taken it because I was an idiot, but I wasn’t that much of an idiot.

  * * *

  I was in the middle of uploading a Facebook cover file to DropBox for a client when my phone rang. Peeking over at it sitting on the coffee table behind my work desk, I couldn’t help but be a little surprised at the name appearing on the screen.

  Miranda P.

  I should probably change the contact information since he technically wasn’t my version of Miranda anymore.

  “Hello?”

  “Are you home?” the deep voice asked.

  “Yes.” I’d barely finished pronouncing the ‘s’ when a now familiar, heavy-handed knock banged on my door. I didn’t have to check my phone to know he’d hung up. A moment later, the peephole confirmed who I thought it would be.

  And, yep, it was Aiden.

  He barreled inside the instant the deadbolt was turned and slammed the door shut behind him, locking it without a second glance. Those dark eyes pierced me with a look that made me frown and freeze at the same time.

  “What is it?”

  “What the hell were you thinking moving here?” he pretty much growled in a disgusted tone that immediately put me on the defensive.

  Sure, I knew my complex was slightly scary, but he didn’t need to make it seem like I lived in a slum. “It’s cheap.”

  “You’re kidding,” he muttered.

  Where the hell did this smart mouth come from? “Some of my neighbors are nice,” I claimed.

  The expression on his face was dubious as he said, “Someone was getting jumped right next to the gate when I pulled in.”

  Oh. I waved him inside to change the subject. He didn’t need to know that happened on a weekly basis. I’d called the cops a couple of times, but once I realized they never actually showed up, I stopped bothering. “Do you need something?”

  Walking ahead of me toward the living room, he answered over his shoulder, “I’ve been waiting for you to let me know when you’re moving in.”

  That had been one of the first things I’d stopped wondering back when I began considering that he might have changed his mind. So hearing it again was like having ice thrown on me. Almost. I didn’t bother telling him I’d thought we weren’t going through with it anymore. “Were you... did you…” I coughed. “Was I supposed to do it soon?”

  Turning around to face me, he tipped his chin down before crossing his giant biceps over his chest. “The season is about to start, we need to do it before then.”

  I didn’t remember hearing about that being part of the plan. I mean, I figured sooner than later, but…

  He was paying off my student loans if I did this. I should have moved in the day after we came to a decision, if that was what he wanted.

  “When do you think I should?” I asked.

  Of course he had a date in mind. “Friday or Saturday.”

  I almost hacked a lung out. “This Friday or Saturday?” That was only five days away.

  That big head tipped to the side. “We’re on a time crunch.”

  “Oh.” I swallowed. “My lease is up in two months.”

  Sometimes I forgot Aiden didn’t believe in obstacles. “Pay it off. I’ll give you the cash.”

  This was happening. This was really happening. I was moving in. With him.

  I eyed him—the wide muscles of his shoulders, the dark hair dusting his jaw, those freaking eyes that seemed to glare at everything and everyone. I was going to be living with this guy.

  My loans. My loans, my loans, my loans.

  “What day is better for you? Friday or Saturday?” I made myself ask.

  “Friday.”

  Friday it was. I peered at my belongings for the first time, and felt a pang of sadness.

  Just as I was thinking about my things, Aiden seemed to be doing the same thing, glancing around the small living room. I thought he might have lifted a foot to toe my couch. “Do you need help packing… or something?” he asked in an unsure voice, like this was his first time asking someone if they needed help.

  I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.

  “Umm…” Right after I’d gotten home from his house, I’d decided what I would keep and what I would donate or give away. In conclusion, I assumed it would have to be most of my stuff.

  I figured I’d be taking the guest room since it was the only room not being used on a full-time basis. The other three rooms beside the master were Zac’s, the home office, and the huge in-home gym.

  “The only things I want to keep are my bookcase, my television, and my desk.” I didn’t miss the judgmental eye he slid toward the small, sixty-dollar black desk behind me. “The rest I’m going to give to my neighbors. There’s no point in keeping any of it in storage for”—I almost gagged on the words—“five years.”

  He nodded even as he took in my television. “Everything can fit in a couple of trips.”

  I nodded, sadness nipping my throat at the idea of leaving my apartment behind. Sure it wasn’t luxurious or anything, but I’d made it my own. On the other hand, an apartment I hadn’t been planning on staying at forever anyway wasn’t going to be the difference between living in debt and not.

  I could cry at Aiden’s later if I needed to… and that thought almost made me crack up out loud. What had my life come to? And why the hell was I complaining so much? I’d be moving into a nicer house, getting my loans off my back, and getting a house, all in return for ‘marrying’ a man. So I couldn’t date anyone if I wanted to. Whoop-de-do. The last date I’d gone on two weeks ago hadn’t exactly left me excited for a repeat. It was a fair exchange, more than a fair exchange if I didn’t calculate the risk of what would happen if someone found out that our ‘marriage’ was a fraud. Then again, you didn’t get anywhere in life unless you took a risk.

  “Okay,” I muttered out of the blue, more to myself than Aid
en.

  Then we just stared at each other, letting that same awkward silence that had been between us as boss and employee come out.

  I cleared my throat.

  Then he cleared his throat. “I talked to Zac.”

  “You did?”

  “Yes.”

  “And?”

  Aiden shrugged his shoulders carelessly. “He said he understood.”

  In that case, I needed to call him; I didn’t want to be a total coward, and just move in without talking to him about it.

  Aiden dipped his chin once before turning his body to face the door. “I need to go. I’ll see you Friday,” he said as he moved toward it.

  And then he was gone.

  He didn’t tell me to call him if I needed help with anything, and he didn’t say bye. He simply left.

  This was what I’d signed up for.

  This was the next five years of my life. It could be worse, couldn’t it?

  * * *

  It was seven thirty in the morning, and I was at my dining room table for the last time ever when that now familiar, three-rap knock made my door rattle. I’d just gotten out of bed twenty minutes ago, and I was sitting around waiting for the waffle iron to heat up. Hell, I still had my pajamas on, hadn’t washed my face, or even brushed my teeth yet. My hair was up in something that looked like a baby pineapple.

  “Aiden?” I called out as I dragged my feet toward the door.

  Sure enough, his dark facial hair greeted me through the peephole before I let him in with a yawn and a small frown.

  The man who was apparently going to be my new roommate, amongst other things, strolled in, not muttering a good morning or anything. Instead, he waited until I locked the door before giving me a lazy look. “You aren’t dressed yet?”

  I had to stifle another yawn, covering my mouth with my hand. “It’s seven thirty. What are you doing here?”

  “Helping you move,” he said, like I was asking a dumb question.

  “Oh.” He was? He’d said something about it only taking a few trips to move my things, but I’d assumed it would take me a few trips. Huh. “Okay. I was just about to make waffles… do you want some?”

 
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