“We’re really looking forward to finally meeting your girlfriend.”
Noah Stafford froze in the act of shutting down his computer as one word echoed around in his head.
Outside of Jim telling him the company’s accountant had embezzled all of the business profits and fled to a small island in the Caribbean, leaving them all out of work, those were the last words he wanted to hear from his boss.
He didn’t actually have a girlfriend for Jim and his fiancée to finally meet. That was a problem.
“We’ve heard so much about Carly,” Jim continued. “It feels like we know her already, and I think she and Emily will get along great.”
They probably would, right up until the moment Emily said something about Carly and Noah dating and Carly laughed at her.
Carly Randall was his best friend, and had been for their entire lives. But she was definitely not his girlfriend.
And when the truth came out, the best boss he’d ever had—at his dream job no less—would know he’d been lying for the last six months. And then he’d be fired, two months before his one-year anniversary of working with the best architectural engineer in the region.
Jim had taken a chance on him. Noah’s degree wasn’t from a top school because he hadn’t been able to afford it, but he had the paper, talent and drive. And not having to move to a big city to make a living just made it all the sweeter. He’d worked there for barely two months before Jim put an addition on the building to give Noah his own office and started strategizing about how they were going to grow the business. Together.
He not only had the job of his dreams but his boss’s respect and now one really stupid lie threatened everything.
“I’m not sure she’ll be able to get the time off,” Noah said. “We’re hoping she will, but it’s a busy time of year for her with the tourists in town and all.”
“It’s only a week and a half from now, Noah. And she works for herself, doesn’t she?”
“Uh.” Shit. “She owns a bookstore with her cousin, but they usually both work on weekends because it’s busier.”
Technically that was the truth, although Carly and Zoe had covered for each other in the past if one of them had something important come up. Whether Carly thought the predicament he’d put himself in was important was another thing entirely.
If it came down to it, he could always wait until it was time and claim Carly had come down with something. Worst case scenario, he claimed they were both sick and skipped the weekend entirely.
He didn’t really want to do that, though. Jim not only signed his paychecks, but they’d become good friends. And he liked Emily, her determination to hook him up with her sister notwithstanding.
“I’ll remind her about it this weekend,” he promised. “I know she wants to go and she was going to talk to her cousin about getting the time off.”
That was a flat-out lie, since she knew about the wedding but had no idea she was supposed to be his plus-one.
It wasn’t hard for him to picture her reaction to that, since he and Carly had been friends for so long neither of them had a memory of the first time they’d met. They’d just always been friends. He’d have trouble seeing her blue eyes, since she’d probably have her long, dark hair in a ponytail pulled through the hole in the back of a ball cap, but he could already hear her laughter in his mind. She was going to laugh her ass off when he confessed what he’d done.
But he had to accept his impending humiliation and make the confession. It was Tuesday and he had a date to go four-wheeling with Carly tomorrow after work.
Well, maybe date was the wrong word since he was going to be asking her to go on an actual date with him. But fake. An actual fake date.
He’d put it off too long, unable to tell Jim they’d broken up or to find the words to explain it all to Carly. He kept telling himself he’d ask her next time.
And now he was out of time and next time was tomorrow.
Something was bugging Noah. Carly had known it as soon as she showed up at his house, where he kept her ATV on the trailer with his since she didn’t have a place to keep it or a vehicle to pull it with. Since she never went riding without him, it was easier to leave it with him.
He looked normal from a distance. His dark hair was short, but since she occasionally trimmed it for him in a pinch, she knew it was deliciously thick. And soft, unlike his beard, which was also thick, but more coarse. One of his hands was shading eyes the color of chocolate pudding from the sun while the other lifted to give her a wave. But as soon as she’d parked her small car off to the side and joined him by the trailer, she could tell something was off. He was jittery, as if he’d drunk about two gallons too much coffee, and every time she looked at him, his gaze darted away.
“Everything’s in the truck,” he said, “so I’ve just gotta lock up the house and I’ll be ready to go.”
“Yeah, why?” he asked, not meeting her eyes.
“No reason.” That was weird. He was definitely hiding something.
Noah told her pretty much everything and anything, so if something was bothering him and he didn’t want to tell her about it, maybe it was her. She couldn’t think of anything she’d done or said that might have upset him, though, so she let it go. For now.
It was a twenty-minute drive to the trailhead and he laughed at all the right places when she shared some funny stories from the world of tourist-driven retail. But he was drumming his fingers on the wheel.
She’d bide her time. Noah would crack. He always did.
But he said nothing while they parked and unloaded the four-wheelers. Or while they grabbed their gear—helmets, goggles and gloves—from the backseat of his truck. Maybe some time on the trail would shake loose whatever was stuck in his head, she thought.
She lost a quick Rock Paper Scissors best-of-three, so Noah got to lead and she’d have to ride in his dust trail thanks to a lack of rain in the last week. He took off up the trail and she followed, unable to keep from smiling as she hit the throttle. In their teens, they’d saved up their money and gone in halves on an old, beat-up quad they spent as much time working on as they did riding it. And they had to share it, riding double and taking turns driving, but they’d loved being out in the woods and they still did.
Not even five miles later, Noah’s tire went flat and they ended up on the side of the trail, looking for the puncture. Carly let him work in silence for a few minutes, but finally she couldn’t take it anymore.
“Spill it,” she said.
Having found the puncture, Noah opened the kit they always had with them and worked on plugging the hole in the tire. “What are you talking about?”
“You’re acting weird, like you do when something’s bugging you. Just tell me whatever it is you don’t want to tell me.”
“What makes you think I’m acting weird?”
“I’m not going to tell you because I like being able to tell when you’re hiding things from me.”
“Or maybe you’re imagining things.”
“Am I?” He might try to hide things or hedge around the truth, but he wouldn’t lie to her. And it wouldn’t do him any good to try. She knew those tells, too.
After plugging a small air compressor into his ATV’s accessory port, he popped it onto the tire’s valve. “Fine. My boss is getting married weekend after next on the Cape.”
“Yeah, you mentioned you had to go to that when we were trying to figure out when we could ride.” When he made a face, but didn’t say anything, she pushed. “What part didn’t you mention?”
“So Emily—the bride—has a sister, Sara, who’s single. And she seems to like me. Like a lot.”
That wasn’t earth-shattering news. A lot of women liked Noah a lot. “And?”
“And Jim and Emily think we’d make a great couple. Plus, it would tie me more to the business, being family, so to speak. They were not subtle about it.” He killed the air compressor and sighed, one hand resting on the tire. “So I told them I have a girlfriend. Like a serious one.”
She laughed. “You did not.”
“Have you been watching romantic comedies without me?” She unplugged the compressor from the machine and started coiling the cord. “So now you have to find a woman to pretend to be your girlfriend for your boss’s wedding. That’s some funny shit, Noah.”
“Trust me, I haven’t even gotten to the funny part yet.”
“It gets better?” After stowing the stuff they’d used back in the cargo box, she turned to him and crossed her arms. “I can’t wait.”
“They think you’re my girlfriend.”
That surprised another burst of laughter from her, but Noah didn’t even crack a smile. “They think I’m your girlfriend? Like kissing, sexy-times girlfriend and not your best friend who just happens to be a girl?”
He sighed. “They think you’re my kissing, sexy-times girlfriend.”
The idea of her and Noah having sexy times was so funny she had to laugh again, and he even joined in this time. “Why didn’t you make somebody up?”
“I was going to, but then I realized I have a shitload of pictures of the two of us on my phone, and all kinds of true stories of fun shit we’ve done. I’ve heard when you’re going to lie, it’s best to stick as close to the truth as possible.”
“If you were shooting for close to the truth, you missed.”
“Yeah.” He spent a longer time than necessary brushing dirt off his pants and hands before finally looking at her. “So you gonna help me out or what?”
“Help you how?” When he sighed and dropped his head, she realized what he was asking. “Oh, wait. You think I’m going to go to this wedding with you and pretend to be your girlfriend?”
“Carly, come on. Yeah, it was stupid, but we have each other’s back, right? We always do.”
“This is next-level shit. Besides, I’m a horrible actress. Did you forget that one time I joined the drama club in school the year they did The Wizard of Oz? I wasn’t good enough to get cast as a flying monkey and they don’t even talk.”
“This isn’t really acting, though. You love me.”
He pressed his foot hard against the tire tread, checking to see if it was holding air. “Remember the time you went to college and forgot your favorite slippers? And you were so homesick, you cried and I drove seven hours roundtrip to bring you your slippers and got back just in time to go straight to work?”
“I didn’t ask you to.” But the slippers and seeing his face had been enough to keep her from quitting and going home. And it was just one of God only knew how many times he’d been there for her, so she sighed. “I’ll think about it. Is that tire good to go, or what? The horseflies found us and I think they’ve invited their friends to dinner.”
“Yeah. No pressure, but how long do you think you’ll need to think about it?”
She just laughed and hit the button to start her quad. Let him sweat for a while, she thought. Maybe the horseflies would flock to him, instead, and he deserved it. This was by far the most ridiculous situation he’d ever dragged her into.