I don’t want to say I’ve got my life together. That’s asking for trouble, right? But, well, I kind of do have my life together.
I know, I know. It sounds like I’m bragging here. Which I’m not. Really. It’s just that at twenty-five, I adore my job as a second-grade teacher, I’ve got a cute but admittedly tiny apartment I’ve decorated to look like I’ve stepped into a super fancy house in the Hamptons, and I’ve got my boyfriend.
Well, my soon-to-be-fiancé, if I’m reading the signs about this evening right.
And I have a feeling I am.
I’m waiting impatiently as the crowds mill around, nerves and excitement pinging. I glance at my phone and chew on my lip. Dex is late. This shouldn’t surprise me. He’s always late and has been ever since our first flush of high school love when we were seventeen.
I crack open my can of soda and take a sip. I need to chill out, take in the Santa Monica sights. It’s a beautiful evening, the sun glistening on the calm water, the sound of laughter and music floating on the warm October breeze.
Buuuuut I can’t help myself. Tonight could be the night I’ve been waiting for. The night Dex finally asks me to marry him.
I can’t help but run through the signs:
- Dex seemed super nervous when he asked me to meet him here.
- We are at one of the most romantic spots in the city, the Santa Monica Pier. Seriously, Google “where to propose in LA,” and this place comes up.
- He told me to meet him at the Ferris Wheel, site of countless romantic proposals, and soon to be the site of our romantic proposal.
- It’s sunset. I mean, come on! Sunset? The. Perfect. Time. To. Propose. Period.
And yes, in case you’re wondering, I am talking about Dex Ryder, star of the smash hit TV series, Serious Bite. Of course, when we first fell in love, he was plain old Dexter Grubb, before he changed it up and became the phenomenon he is today.
I don’t care about any of that. To me, he’s Dex, my high school sweetheart, fellow drama club geek, who also happened to be the school’s football star. The guy who took me to senior prom. The guy I held out for right through college, until I could be with him here in the City of Angels.
I tuck my bobbed hair behind my ears and search the crowd. Still no sign.
I haven’t seen Dex in over a month. He’s been filming the second series in the smash hit show in Albania, a country I had to look up on the map.
My foot grows impatient as it taps a tune out on the concrete.
“Hello, Ms. Cole,” a voice says, and I look down to see one of my students beaming up at me. She’s clutching onto her mommy’s hand, looking even smaller than her seven years amidst the crowd.
Some teachers make sure they live in a different neighborhood from the one their school is in to avoid seeing their students when they’re off duty. That’s not the way I roll. I love my job and my students—even the more challenging ones—and seeing the joy they get from meeting me out of school puts a big old smile on my face.
“Hi there, Violet,” I say to her as I smile at both my student and her mom.
“You look pretty, Ms. Cole,” she tells me.
I beam at her. “Thank you. It’s a new dress.”
In fact, I bought my dress the moment Dex told me to meet him here. Call it a sixth sense, but I knew I needed to look special tonight. I spotted this navy floral V-neck dress with the handkerchief hem in my favorite vintage store last weekend. The moment I put it on I knew it was the dress. The one I got engaged in.
“I hope you don’t mind us coming to say hi, only little miss here was super excited to tell you something,” Violet’s mom says.
“It’s fine. Really,” I reply. “What do you have to tell me, Violet?”
“Mommy got me this.” Violet thrusts a magnet at me. It’s an illustrated view of the pier, complete with the famous Ferris wheel and sunset.
“Oh, Violet, it’s beautiful. Do you want to bring it to school tomorrow to show everyone?”
Her entire face lights up in a beaming smile. “Yes, please!”
I wink at her as I hand the magnet back. “It’s a deal, then.”
“Thank you, Ms. Cole. You’re very kind,” Violet’s mom says.
“It’s Harper, and you’re welcome.”
“Are you meeting some friends here? If it’s some other teachers from school, we’ll make sure to get out of your hair right away,” she replies.
A mixture of anticipation and excitement claims my belly. “No other teachers. I’m meeting—” I flick my gaze to Violet who’s hanging on my every word. I don’t need Violet spreading the news around class that Ms. Cole met her boyfriend at the pier. I’ve got to have some boundaries. “—a friend.”
Violet’s mom gives me a knowing look. “In that case, we’ll definitely leave you to your evening.” She takes her daughter’s hand in hers and leads her away.
“See you at school, Ms. Cole,” Violet says over her shoulder.
“Sure thing. And remember that magnet.”
As the two disappear into the throngs, I scan the crowd once more. This time, my eyes land on him, and my heart squeezes.
Dex is a sight for sore eyes. With great genes from both his Brazilian mom and all-American lumberjack dad, he’s got that tan, brooding, stubble-lined jaw thing going on with rich brown eyes, the color of chocolate. He wears his hair long and messy, down to his chin, which he runs his fingers through with hot guy regularity, making his newfound fans swoon.
I glance down at his oversized white shirt, open to expose his impressive pecs and smooth, tan skin, a collection of chains hanging from his neck. It’s a little…how do you say?…look at me. Yeah, that’s it. Not his usual style, that’s for sure.
People turn to look at him as he approaches. Looking the way he does, he’s always attracted attention.
But tonight, it feels different. They know who he is.
With his Hollywood star in the ascendency, it’s not surprising, but a part of me wants to tell them hands off. Dex is all mine.
My belly flips when his eyes land on mine, and I suddenly feel light, my limbs tingling with anticipation.
“Hey, babe,” he says as he saunters over to me and pulls me into an embrace.
“I’ve missed you so, so much,” I tell him as I wrap my arms around him and plant a kiss on his lips.
“Yeah, you too, Harps. It’s been a while.”
“A whole month. I’m so glad you’re home.”
I touch the strings of necklaces against his chest. “Is this a new look for you?”
“I’m trying something new. You like?” He holds his arms out and does a quick spin, showing off his loose-fitting top, tucked into faded jeans on one side, the other left to hang casually at the side.
He looks like a model on a shoot, selling jeans and sexiness.
“It’s different,” I reply.
Of course it’s good. Dex always looks good. From his high school football uniform to his current ensemble and everything in between, Dex does things to clothes. Good things. And clothes thank him for it.
I shake my head and smile at him. “Do you seriously need me to stroke your ego?”
He flashes me the grin I’ve seen splashed across billboards and popping up regularly in my social media feed.
I pull him close and breathe. “Next time you have to go film in some far-flung place, you’ve got to time it for the summer so I can come with you.”
He takes my can of soda in his hands and takes a sip. “Let’s go over there.” He leads me over to the railing overlooking the ocean, aka the most romantic spot on the pier.
I glance at him, nervous, my heart hammering in my chest. His features have tightened, showing me he’s tense, too. Could this be it? The moment he finally asks me the question I’ve wanted him to ask for so long now? The question he promised me he would ask me one day, when the time was right, when we were established in our careers?
Finally, we are established in our careers. I’ve been teaching for a few years and Dex has worked and worked and worked to get where he is now. It’s been years of acting training, auditions, small parts and commercials that were so full of promise, but went nowhere. There were long periods of time when he was out of work, and we had to survive on my meager teacher’s salary. How did we handle it? Debt, that’s how. And it had to be in my name, because with such an erratic work schedule, Dex’s credit rating is a joke.
None of that matters anymore. Not tonight.
He stares out at the sunset, glowing vibrant orange and red against the darkened water of the horizon, the clouds tinged with a soft purple hue.
I turn to face him, taking his hand in mine. “It’s great to see you,” I say again, hoping he can overcome his nerves quickly enough to propose to me before the sun is gone.
Sunsets are surprisingly fast, you know.
He clears his throat. “You know how you’ve got to say something, and you can’t quite bring yourself to say it because it means so much?”
Oh, my gosh. This is really it!
I offer him the sympathetic look I’ve used more than a few times on my students when they’ve scraped a knee or messed up an art project. “It’s okay, Dex, say what you need to say,” I reply in soothing tones that belie the dance party of excitement happening in my belly.
“You’re right. I need to just spit it out.”
“Well, don’t spit it out exactly. This kind of thing needs to be finessed. Don’t you think?” I shoot him an encouraging smile, and all the while my heart threatens to burst from my chest, right into the Pacific Ocean below our feet.
With a quick rub to the back of his neck, he begins. “We’ve known each other for a long time. Since we were kids, really. I know we always said we’d be together forever, and I want you to know that I love you, Harps. I really do.”
I beam at him. This is perfect. Perfect!
“The thing is…” He swallows.
“Yes?” I ask in a breathless voice.
Just say it! Say it!
“I kinda met someone.”
The world around us slows.
My smile slips. “I’m not following.”
At least I hope I’m not following.
“I’ve, you know, met someone else.”
Does he mean what I think he means?
No. Surely not, because that would make no sense.
“Harps? You okay? You’ve gone all fishlike.” He gestures at my face.
“Fishlike?” I repeat dumbly, not quite believing my ears about the I’ve met someone else part, not the fact I look like a fish right now, allegedly.
“Yeah. Your eyes are all big and round and your mouth is—”
“Forget the fish thing,” I blurt in irritation, because seriously? Who cares what I look like right now? “You’ve met someone else? What does that even mean? You’ve met someone else, or you’ve met someone else?”
He furrows his brow. “I don’t get the difference.”
“The difference,” I begin in a high-pitched tone that tells the world exactly how I’m feeling about this new turn of events, “is that the first one suggests you’ve just met some random person off the street who means nothing to you or to me or anyone else, and the other suggests…that…you…”
My throat dries. I can’t get the words out.
“I’ve met a woman,” he clarifies. “She’s my co-star. Serenity Delaney. She’s on the billboard with me. You know the one near your school? She’s the one with the catlike eyes, although they aren’t catlike in real life. They’re totally regular eyes.”
I gawk at him.
A fresh grin claims his face, completely at odds with my inner turmoil. “Serenity’s amazing. She’s strong and confident and such a great actress. Or am I supposed to say ‘actor?’ I dunno.” He shrugs. “My point is, we kinda fell for each other and, well, you’d really like her, Harps.”
“I’d like her?” I guffaw. I’m certain my eyes have surpassed fish and graduated to fully fledged startled frog.
“Come on. Be cool.” He places his warm palm on my arm, giving me an electric jolt, sparking me into action.
I shove his hand away. “Don’t you ‘Harps’ me,” I spit at him, vaguely aware of a growing crowd listening in, but not caring one bit. “Are you trying to tell me you’re with this Serenity person now and…and—” The words stick in my throat like gum in hair. “Are you breaking up with me?” My voice is small, hollow as my heart bunches into a tight ball in my chest.
I hold my breath, waiting for him to say that my world is about to come crashing down around me. That he’s leaving me. That we’re over. Done.
He hangs his head and lets out a heavy breath before he looks back up at me. “Harps, I’m sorry. I didn’t plan it, but Serenity and me, we’ve got this thing between us, and we agree it’s bigger than we could ever have imagined. Like super big. Supernova big.” He places both hands on the bare skin of my arms. I stiffen. “I know I’m hurting you, and I’m so sorry, but I also know that if you love me—truly, truly love me—you’ll let me go.”
I gawk at him.
Did he really just say that?
Did he really just say I should let him go to be with someone else?
“I need you to know that what we had was so special to me. Is so special to me. I’ll never forget you, Harps. You were my first love. I’ll always remember you.”
“You’ll always remember me?” I choke out, my rising anger flashing hot. “Is that supposed to make this all better for me? Because you need to know that it doesn’t. No siree.”
No siree? Great, I’ve been dumped and turned 75, all within one conversation.
Dex’s gaze darts around the crowd. “Harps, come on. You’re making a scene.”
I let out a bitter laugh. “I’m making a scene? Oh, I’m so sorry.” I place a hand over my heart and simper at him. “Would you prefer if when you dumped me and ruined my life I smiled and said, ‘sure thing, honey, anything you want’?”
Okay, maybe ruined my life is a step too far, but I thought my boyfriend was going to propose to me tonight, not dump me for some woman with an entirely inappropriate name considering the current circumstances and then expect me to be fine with it because she’s allegedly so dang great.
I mean, seriously?
I am not proud of what I do next.
It’s not my finest moment as I take the can of soda in my hand, glaring at him as I lift it, and empty its contents over his head, brown, bubbly liquid sugar rolling down his hair and face, dripping onto his look-at-me white shirt.
To his credit, he takes it like a man. Well, he takes it like a man with an audience of phone-wielding fans eager to capture the drama involving TV’s hottest new heartthrob.
He tightens his lips—the lips he kissed Serenity with while I thought he was out ring shopping—and asks, “Can we go somewhere to talk?”
With my heart in my shoes, I fight hard not to allow the tears threatening to spill over, because he doesn’t deserve my tears.
He doesn’t deserve my anything. Not anymore.
Instead, I lift my chin and puff out my chest, desperately trying to reclaim my shattered dignity. “I don’t think that’s necessary. As you said, you’ve moved on from me to Serenity, your Serious Bite costar,” I announce to the gathered crowd, who takes a satisfyingly shocked intake of breath at the declaration.
As I said, I’m not proud.
Anxiety tightens his jaw. “Harper,” he warns.
I’m not listening. “So, you enjoy Serenity and, since I’m not interested in a sister-wife situation, I’m gonna leave now. Goodbye, Dex.”
The crowd separates for me to pass through, like Moses parting the Red Sea, leaving them and their cellphones with a soda-drenched Dex, watching me leave.
Want to read more? Faking It With the Grump is out on March 14!