“Jesus, Emma.” He ran a hand through his hair for the second time today, which I was noticing he did when he was caught off guard or nervous. A rarity for a guy like him. “Are you okay?”
Was he nuts? I must have looked at him like that question was written on my face because he finished with, “I mean, do you want to talk about it or anything?”
What was up with him and all the talking? Apparently on the day I was developing in utero, the second X chromosome forgot to get the “chatty” piece of the DNA that most women had, enabling them to talk about shit all the time.
“I didn’t mean to say it like that.” I shook my head. “And I’m fine. No I don’t want to talk about it. There’s nothing to be done. I’m fine.” I shrugged.
I made peace with who I was and how I came to be a long time ago. It wasn’t until Rhys that I felt that peace be challenged. It made me start to question if peace wasn’t what I had felt about my life, emptiness was a more appropriate word.
“You play things off so well, like they don’t affect you,” he said.
“Because they don’t. I’ve had a lifetime to deal with this. I never had a mother who collected all my stuff, so who’s to say I’m missing anything?”
He looked me up and down for a moment. I was just ready to end the conversation. Thankfully, I didn’t have to.
“Rhys? Emma? Dinner is ready,” Gwen called from downstairs.
I moved past Rhys and got just outside the door when he grabbed my hand. I turned and looked at him, but he didn’t say anything. Looked like he really wanted to, but didn’t have a clue as to what.
“I’m fine, Rhys. I’m sorry I said anything.”
“No, don’t be sorry,” he said quickly. “I just . . . I wish I could have . . .”
“Stop.” I gave him the best smile I could, because all this was starting to hurt my stomach. “You can’t save me from my past. And if you’re going to start looking at me with pity again, I’m out of here.”
“Not pity, Emma.”
“Well, whatever it is, just quit. I’m fine and have handled plenty before I ever met you.”
“I know,” he said.
“So can we eat now?”
He nodded. “After you.”
“Dinner is great,” Rhys said from across the table. He sat to my right and his mother across from us.
“Yes, it’s very good, Gwen. Thank you.”
“Oh, you’re so welcome.” She beamed. “So, tell me how you two met.”
My bottom lip started to twitch and I couldn’t figure out how to answer that. Not because it was a particularly hard question, but her tone when she said it insinuated that Rhys and I were a legit couple. Should I make clear that we weren’t? That this was probably the only time I’d ever see Gwen because in a couple weeks I’d be gone?
“We met at the gala for Striker Solutions a few months back,” Rhys offered because my silence swallowed up everyone in the room.
“Oh, that’s sweet. You must have seen him in a tux — doesn’t he clean up nice? I keep trying to get him to cut his hair,” Gwen grumbled and Rhys just chewed on his dinner. This obviously was a regular conversation for the two of them and Gwen switched subjects. “So what do you do, Emma?”
Much easier question! I was so excited to tackle this one you’d think it was the final round in Jeopardy. “I’m a freelance programmer.”
She nodded. “That’s computers, right?”
I smiled. “Yeah.”
“Ah!” She snapped her fingers. “I knew I was with it. That twerp at the nerd group the other day kept saying I wasn’t.”
“It’s the Geek Squad, and I’m pretty sure he said that because you took in your Presario from ninety-four to them. I got you a nice laptop that you never use,” Rhys said in a soothing voice, obviously trying to help, but his mother wasn’t having it.
“There’s nothing wrong with my computer. Maybe, Emma, you could look at it?”
“Oh, ah, I can . . . try?” I glanced at Rhys, who just shook his head and grinned a little.
“Great! We’ll set a girls’ date!”
My smile turned more into an uncomfortable showing of my teeth. I would be seeing Gwen again after all. Not that I didn’t like her. Quite the opposite actually. I just felt uneasy and had no clue what to say.
“Smart girl like you probably has to help your friends all the time with computer stuff.”
“Um, sometimes.” Adam once asked which type of tablet I would recommend because he wanted to get one for Kate as a gift. Did that count as helping?
I focused on my plate. Partly because I wasn’t super great at responding to the notion that Gwen thought I was smart. She was nice and nurturing and so . . . mom-ish. She cared about Rhys, obviously, but also seemed to genuinely want him to be happy.
The baby pictures were one thing, but the conversation was turning toward me and I had no idea how to react or what to say. I didn’t want to be rude, but this was way out of my expertise. As I’d told Rhys, I had never been “taken home to mom” before. Not that Rhys and I were dating, but she was asking questions that I didn’t know how to answer.
“You’re a modest one, aren’t you?” Gwen winked. “So, you two met at the gala,” she pushed. “You from New York, then?”
“No. Chicago, actually.”
“Oh, lovely city. What brought you to New York?”
I cleared my throat, hoping to get a few spare seconds to figure out how to handle that line of questioning. Before I could think too hard, Rhys answered for me. “Emma was in the city for work.”
Gwen nodded. “I see. Is your work in New York temporary or . . .” She was obviously fishing for how serious Rhys and I were and geographical location was a huge clue to that.
“Yes, she’s in New York temporarily,” Rhys said. “She’ll be going back to Chicago in a few weeks. Just visiting here.”
“Oh.” Gwen’s face fell. “New York is much better than Chicago in some ways,” she offered in a chipper tone. I appreciated that she liked the idea of me sticking around. “Unless, is that where your family is, dear?”
“My brother and his wife are in Chicago,” I said.
I looked up to see Gwen’s sweet gray eyes, the same eyes Rhys had, waiting for my answer. This is why I didn’t date. Why I didn’t do the “meet the parents” thing.