For Better or For Worse, For Richer or For Poorer
By Kristen Bealer
o O o
Erin gripped the phone in her hand, tears running down her face as she waited.
At last, a click. "Hello?"
"Moootheeer!" Erin wailed immediately.
"Oh, sweetie, what's wrong?"
"Buh-Brian!" she choked out through her sobs. "Ohmygod it's terrible!"
Rita's voice was rising with panic. "What happened? Is he hurt? Where are you?"
"At-at home," she said with a sniffle.
"And Brian? Is he there, too?"
"No," Erin snapped. "I kicked him out."
"Again?" Rita's voice calmed noticeably. "What did he do this time?"
Erin became more coherent as anguish was replaced by anger. "Okay, so I told him I wanted to go shopping and he said he wanted to stay home and watch the football game but I said it was a one-day sale and we had to go today or we'd miss it and he said I could just go on my own but I said I wanted him to come to because I always feel stupid going out by myself and besides the checkout lines were probably going to be super-long and I wanted someone to talk to while I waited and he said he didn't want to go and didn't I have any friends to shop with and I got mad and said if he didn't come with me I was totally going to buy the most expensive stuff I could find and make him pay the credit card bill and he was like, 'fine, go ahead' because he doesn't make any money right now anyway and I said he was a stupid lazy jerk and he said I was immature and silly and needed to grow up!" The end of the tirade came out high-pitched from both outrage and lack of oxygen. She took a few breaths and finished, "And that's when I kicked him out of the house."
"Poor dear," Rita said soothingly. "Don't worry; he'll come back and apologize as soon as he calms down."
"Huh-uh!" Erin exclaimed. "This time I mean it! I want a divorce!"
There were a few seconds of silence on the other end of the line. "Are you sure that's what you want, honey?"
She bristled at the doubt in Rita's voice. "Mo-ther! Of course it is!"
"I just don't want you to rush into anything-"
"You aren't seriously going to lecture me about relationships, are you?"
Rita sighed. "Never mind. If this is what you want to do, then that's what we'll do. I'll call your Aunt Helen and see if she'll help us out, okay?"
Erin relaxed. "Okay, Mother. Thanks so much!" She hung up the phone and slumped down in her chair. It's over, she thought with a bittersweet mixture of relief and sorrow. Mother and Grandma will take care of everything and I won't ever have to see that jerk again.
o O o
"...and then a couple days later Grandma called me up and said, 'Pack your things, Erin, you're going to a spa to relax and calm your nerves,' and I was like, 'Where?' and she said 'Stadt' and I thought she sneezed or something but it turns out she meant the place in Switzerland where we're going! Isn't that funny?"
"Yes," said the man sitting next to Erin on the plane. It was one of only half a dozen words he'd managed to squeeze into the "conversation" during the past five hours of the flight.
"My Grandma is sending me here for a whole week!" she continued. "It's going to be great!" She smiled, thinking about it. I hope Grandma paid for a body wrap. Those are really nice. Oooh, and a couple of massages. Not deep tissue this time, though-those can hurt.
The man was startled by the sudden break in the chatter. "She's very generous," he replied, running a hand through his curly blond hair.
"She can totally afford it," Erin explained with a shrug. "She and Mother are always buying me presents, sending me on trips, giving me extra spending money, and whatever." She smiled at the man, then gasped in surprise. "I just realized I never even asked what your name was!"
He smiled back. "Jason."
"Hi, Jason! I'm Erin. Oh, I think I told you that already. Well, anyway, you're a really good listener!"
"And you are an enthusiastic conversationalist," Jason replied diplomatically. "But I'm sorry about your divorce."
She sighed. "Thanks." She turned to stare wistfully out the little window next to her seat, and Jason waited cautiously for a few minutes-just in case-before settling back for a nap.
Erin wondered how Brian was feeling now. Was he angry? Was he glad they were splitting up? Did he feel bad about the things he'd said? He was so nice when we met. What happened?
o O o
"Hello there, little lady." Erin looked up to see a dark-haired man with a round face and a confident smirk wink at her. "Is this seat taken?" He pointed to the chair next to her at the café table.
"Well, no," she replied, flustered. She'd been engrossed in her novel, a spy thriller that had just gotten to an exciting part when he interrupted her. As he sat, she put aside the book, picked up her long-neglected coffee mug, and sipped-then grimaced as she realized she'd ignored it long enough for it to become cold.
Noticing her reaction, the man motioned for a waiter. "Let me buy you a fresh cup," he offered.
"Thank you." Erin glanced wistfully at her novel, but good manners won out and she looked back at her new companion. "I'm Erin."
"My name is Brian, and I'm thrilled beyond words to meet you."
Erin tried not to roll her eyes at the insincerity as Brian asked the waiter for two cups of coffee. He's almost as bad as the guys at the country club, she thought as she tucked a stray lock of red hair behind her ear.
"So," Brian said, turning his attention and his smarmy grin back to her. "What do you do for a living?"
"I work at the Leeville Historical Society. I just came from there, actually."
"That sounds interesting."
"It really isn't," she replied abruptly. "I mostly answer phones and file stuff." She watched him falter as he ran out of responses, then relented a little. "What do you do?"
Brian was silent for just enough time for Erin to become curious. Then, glancing around, he said, "I really shouldn't say in such a public place."
Erin's second cup of coffee joined the first in utter neglect. "What do you mean?" she whispered.
"Well, I suppose you could call it a government job, but specifically..." He held a finger to his lips, then pulled out a pen and scrawled something on a napkin. He pushed it across the table to her, allowing his hand to brush hers as she took the napkin from him.
Erin lifted her hand to read one word: "INTELLIGENCE."
"Ohhh," she murmured. "You mean you work for, like, the-"
Brian shook his head quickly to silence her, then took back the napkin and dunked it in a water glass. "I can't go into details here. However, my apartment is secure. If you'd allow me to escort you there, it should be safe to explain."
Erin nodded, breathless, as Brian stood and offered her his hand.
o O o
With a sigh, Erin blinked away the memory. He was so charming, so...exciting, she thought. I'm going to miss that. She frowned as a sudden pang of sorrow shot through her. I'm going to miss him. A lot. Biting her lip, she drummed her fingers on the seat rest. Am I doing the right thing? Maybe I shouldn't have rushed into this whole divorce thing. I wonder...if we just take some time to cool off and maybe try some counseling or something...
The pilot chose that moment to announce that the plane was beginning its descent, disrupting her thoughts before she could make up her mind. Jason glanced over at her and, misinterpreting the distress on her face, said, "I'm sure it'll all turn out for the best. You're making a big step, so it's natural to feel nervous. At least you've got your family to rely on."
Erin nodded without looking at him. Family...oh! I promised Mother I'd call her at the Morgendorffers' when I arrived.
Once the plane had landed and the passengers were shuffling their way to the exit, Jason put a hand on her arm to get her attention. He had to lean down to speak; now that they were standing, Erin noticed that he was taller than she'd expected. "Listen," he said, "I'm going to be in town for a few days. If you'd like, maybe I can stop by the spa and see how you're doing?"
"Sure," Erin said, giving him a wavering smile. She was pretty sure he was trying to flirt with her, but she didn't care. It would be nice to see a familiar face occasionally-even if it was one she'd only just met. "I think Grandma made the reservation under my maiden name, Chambers."
Jason nodded and gave her a small wave as they parted. Erin pulled out her cell phone and turned it on as soon as she was finished at the baggage claim, then hit the preset for the Morgendorffers' house.
A chirpy voice answered after only one ring. "Hello?"
"Hi, Quinn. It's Erin."
"Oh, hi, Erin! Sorry about Brian. I hate having to break up with guys I'm dating."
Erin cringed. God, I do not want to talk about this right now. "I, um, that's actually kind of different from-"
Quinn charged ahead, still as bubbly as ever. "No, you're right; marriage isn't the same as dating." Shut up shut up SHUT UP! "Nobody ever gives you really nice appliances just for going out with a guy."
After a brief stunned silence, Erin tried to reply but only managed a slight squeak. She staggered against a nearby wall, taking deep breaths as she struggled to calm down. Though she tried to suppress it, a small whimper escaped.
"Erin, why are you crying?"
Another deep breath. "I'm-I'm not. I'm fine." She swiped at her watery eyes with her palm and asked, "Is my mother there?"
"She's kind of busy with Mom right now. Lawyer-y stuff, you know."
"Oh." Erin started as the word "lawyer" triggered a thought. "Oh! Um, I just remembered-could you tell her that Brian and I have a pre-nup? We agreed to split everything fifty-fifty. Crap, I can't believe I never told her about that."
After a few seconds, Erin could hear her cousin's muffled voice relaying her message. While she waited, an alarm started beeping on her watch and she realized she needed to get a bottle of water. The moment she heard silence on the line, she said, "Quinn? I've gotta go. Bye."
Hitting the "end" button, Erin quickly located a vending machine and bought some water. She made her way into the nearest restroom, wheeling her suitcase along behind her, and pulled a small pill bottle out of her purse. She glanced around to make sure no one was looking before shaking one out and swallowing it with a gulp of water.
Erin stuffed the pill bottle back into her purse. It's been over two years, she thought. I shouldn't still be embarrassed about this. Still, she checked to make sure the pill bottle was safely hidden away before leaving the restroom.
Walking outside, Erin quickly saw the car her grandmother had ordered for her and handed her suitcase over to the driver, who was holding a sign that read "Chambers." Sliding into the backseat, she thought again about the pills and sighed. I'm not the one who should be embarrassed, anyway. It's Brian's fault.
o O o
"It's your fault!" Erin stood in the doorway of Brian's apartment, clutching a medical report in her hand. "Herpes? How could you?"
Brian held up his hands, wide-eyed in the face of her fury. "I hadn't had an outbreak in a while so I figured it was no big deal! I didn't think I could pass it on to you!"
"Well, you did!" She gestured at him with the papers as though they were a weapon. "Jesus, do you have any idea how bad this is? My mother is going to kill me!"
"Just-just calm down, okay? There's all kinds of pills and treatments and-"
"I know, dammit! But there's no freaking cure, right? You've completely ruined my life!" Erin buried her face in her hands and began to cry.
Brian rolled his eyes. "You're being melodramatic. I mean, my life is fine, you know?" He glanced back at the tiny, poorly-furnished apartment behind him, littered with beer cans and roach-infested pizza boxes, and cleared his throat nervously. "I mean, well..."
Erin let out another shuddering sob. "Oh, God, what is Grandma Barksdale going to say?"
"Bark-Did you say Barksdale?"
Erin sniffled. "Uh huh."
"Is your grandmother Bethany Barksdale?"
"Yeah. You know her?"
"Yes! I mean no, I haven't met her but-holy shit, everyone knows who Bethany Barksdale is! She owns, like, half of Virginia or something!" Brian fell silent for a short time as Erin struggled to compose herself. Finally, he stepped back and finally motioned for Erin to come inside. "Sit down, Erin. Let's talk about this."
She stormed into the apartment and threw herself into a chair. "Fine. Talk. Explain to me how you haven't just trashed any chance I had at having a real relationship with anyone, ever, just because you couldn't keep it in your pants around some scuzzed-up skank!"
Brian settled into a chair next to her, making an obvious effort to keep his voice calm. "First of all, getting herpes was...an unfortunate result of my work as a secret agent."
She snorted. "That doesn't make any sense. How would your job in intelligence cause you to get herpes?"
"I'm afraid I can't divulge that information." Brian's expression grew pained. "It was worth the cost, though, to protect this country from harm."
Erin started to give an angry reply, but the seriousness of his tone stopped her. "Really?"
He nodded. "I made the sacrifice willingly, but it wasn't right to make you share this burden. I'd like to make that up to you, if you'll let me."
Anger forgotten, Erin stared at him in confusion. "How?"
Brian took her hand in his. "Erin, will you marry me?"
Erin covered her mouth with her free hand. "You...you mean it?"
He smiled. "It's only fair. I got you into this, but we'll get through it. Together. If you-"
"Yes! Yes, I will!" Squealing, she threw her arms around him. "Mother is going to be thrilled!" She gasped and leaned back again. "Ohmygod! There's so much we'll have to do! We have to get a minister and rent a reception hall and buy the flowers and choose music and I have to get a dress!" Wide-eyed, she breathed, "My wedding dress!"
Brian added, "And there are a few legal things we'll need to take care of, first. But don't worry your gorgeous little head about it-I know someone who can draw up some papers for us..."
o O o
The car pulled up to the spa and the driver got out to help Erin with her suitcase. She followed him inside and approached the front desk. On the way, she passed elegant columns and a huge window that provided an excellent view of a lush forest and, beyond that, a majestic mountain range. She barely noticed it, though. Nor did she pay attention to the soothing tones of a string quartet playing nearby.
"Good evening, ma'am," said a cheerful receptionist with only a faint hint of an accent. "May I help you?"
Erin went through the check-in process on autopilot and found her way to her room. Once alone, she dropped onto the luxurious four-poster bed and stared at the ceiling. I miss him. I love him. I'm sure I do, she thought, biting her lip. Exhausted and jet-lagged after spending most of the day on a plane, Erin felt herself drifting off to sleep. Just before she did, a tiny voice whispered in her head: Liar.
o O o
When Erin woke up, it was almost noon in Stadt but still very early in the morning for her body clock. She called for room service, then showered and dressed in slacks and a plain blue blouse.
After a cup of coffee and a small breakfast, she kept herself occupied by unpacking her suitcase. She paused when she got to her pills, then stuck them behind a few other things on the bathroom counter and tried to pretend they weren't there. Finally, she decided to seek out whatever amenities had been planned for her that day.
First was a facial, and the chatter of the girl assigned to her helped keep Erin from resuming her thoughts from the previous day. After that, however, was the least relaxing massage she'd ever had.
I guess I knew even when he proposed that he didn't love me, she thought as the masseuse worked in silence. But he was the best I was likely to get after...well. I wasn't sure I loved him, either, but maybe I hoped we'd fall in love with each other at some point. By the time I found out that all we had in common was an STD, we were already married.
"Stress?" the masseuse asked softly, and Erin realized she been unconsciously tightening her muscles. She made an effort to relax, distracting herself by watching the flickering candlelight, and the masseuse continued.
But is divorce the right choice? I wonder what Grandma said when she found out. Mother never told me what happened when she called her. I know Grandma didn't like Brian anyway, but she hates divorce, too. She hit the roof when Mother split from her second husband. That's probably why Mother just dates a lot now.
Erin winced at a sudden twinge when the masseuse pressed too hard on a tense spot. Trying again to relax, she decided to clear her mind completely. It lasted about thirty seconds.
Oh, God. What if I end up like her, though? What if I just dump guys every time we have a little trouble? I mean, if I can't make this relationship work, who says I can make the next one work, either? The pill bottle flickered through her thoughts. If there even will be a next one.
The masseuse paused in her work with a quiet "tsk," and Erin started mentally screaming the lyrics to "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" to force herself to stop thinking and relax.
o O o
She returned to the lobby after the massage, where the receptionist checked Erin's schedule. "We have you set for a body wrap next, ma'am."
"Can I reschedule it?" She was too worked up to enjoy it now.
"Of course, ma'am. Tomorrow morning at ten o'clock?"
"Okay." Erin checked her watch and decided on an early dinner. Preferably with a glass of wine or three.
She sat in the in-house restaurant, a spacious room filled with sparkling chandeliers and quiet piano music, and studied her menu. A spa employee approached her and said in a low voice, "Ms. Chambers, there is a gentlemen in the lobby who is asking to speak with you. He says his name is Jason. What would you like me to do?"
Erin thought about it. "Let him come in," she replied. I need a distraction. Any distraction.
The employee nodded politely and left. A few minutes later, he returned with the tall, skinny man from the plane, who sat down but hesitated to accept a menu. Erin waved a hand. "Don't worry; meals are included in my package. I'll cover it."
Jason took the menu and smiled at her. "Thanks." Once they'd ordered and the two were alone, he leaned forward. "So, how's the spa visit been going?"
"Fine," she said, then took a nervous sip of her wine.
He blinked at the short response. "Well, has it been relaxing? Take your mind off...stuff?"
"Not really." Erin looked down at the table. Some distraction he turned out to be.
They sat in silence for awhile before Jason finally spoke again. "What's wrong? Normally you're so chatty."
"Normally?" Erin asked with a puzzled look. "We only met yesterday!"
Jason's blue eyes widened innocently as he chuckled. "Yeah, but I think we had about six months' worth of conversation on the plane."
Erin finally gave him a small smile. "Well, one of us did, anyway."
He nodded. "I guess that means it's my turn to be the talker, then." He leaned back into his chair and thought for a moment. "Okay. You already know my name is Jason. I'm also twenty-seven, I run my own computer business, I like to play basketball in my spare time, I have a dog named Sparky, I'm trying to learn to play the guitar, and, uh...I'm a Pisces." He raised an eyebrow. "How's that for a start?"
Glad to have something to focus on besides her own problems, Erin giggled. "Pretty good. Do you have any family?"
"I've got one brother, but I don't see him much. Too busy with work. You didn't say yesterday; do you have any brothers or sisters?"
She shook her head. "Nope. Just me on my own."
"With your mom and grandma." He smiled. "Sounds like they're pretty good to you."
Erin paused. "I guess."
"They flew you first class to an expensive Swiss spa. That's got to count for something, right?"
"You mean they sent me away so they could keep me out of sight while they sweep my problems under the rug." Erin's hand flew to her mouth, but it was too late. The words had poured out before she could stop herself.
"No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that." I didn't even realize I was thinking it until now.
Jason didn't seem to know what to say, and Erin was afraid to speak in case more bitter comments slipped out. Both were relieved when a waiter arrived shortly after with their food, breaking the awkward silence.
They ate without comment for a few minutes, until Jason set down his knife. "Was it true?"
Erin looked up, startled. "What?"
"What you said about your family. Is that how they treat you?"
She sighed. Too late to take it back. Might as well go the full distance. "Kind of. They mean well, I think, but it's like there's this unspoken rule that we don't talk about problems. We ignore them or we spend enough money to make them go away, and then we all pretend like nothing happened." She nudged a piece of carrot around her plate with her fork. "And that's in the family. I can only imagine how much they'd freak out if they knew I was telling a complete stranger about this."
Jason winced. "I'd like to think I'm not a complete stranger."
"Oh...I suppose not." She laughed, but it sounded hollow. "In fact, you're probably the closest thing I've ever had to a friend." She thought about all of the back-stabbing debutantes and sycophantic wannabes she'd put up with. "A real friend."
"I'm glad to hear it." He reached across the table to put his hand on hers. "Seriously, that means a lot to me."
He looked like he wanted to say something else, but the topic was getting hard for Erin to bear. "I hope you don't mind," she said before he could speak, "but I'm not really that hungry anymore."
"Me either." Jason hopped out of his seat and stepped around the table to pull Erin's chair out as she stood. "Got something special planned at the spa next?"
She frowned. "No. I think I'd rather just go back to my room for now." She looked at him. "Would you walk with me? I understand if you've got business stuff to take care of-"
"Nah," he said. "Anyway, I figure it's my responsibility to try and cheer you up before I leave. Since it's mostly my fault you're upset." When Erin started to protest, he shook his head. "I'm the one who got all nosy and made you lose your appetite. I bet you a cup of coffee I can make you laugh by the time you get back to your room."
She raised her eyebrows, fighting a small smile at his mock-challenging tone. "You're on."
o O o
"...so then I told her, 'But Sparky is my dog's name!' and this lady-who's been yelling curses and insults at me all this time-turns redder than anything you've ever seen and says, 'You have a dog?'"
Erin finally broke, having held in her laughter for the past six jokes. In between giggles, she gasped, "And then what did you say?"
"Nothing. Sparky finally came back to me and we left the park. I think that lady might still be there, though, sputtering like an old car engine."
Although she didn't quite understand the car reference, Erin starting laughing all over again. She pointed at the door to her room to indicate Jason could stop walking, then waited to catch her breath so she could talk. "Thank you. Really. I needed that sooo much."
"I'm just happy you're smiling. I was getting worried."
Erin leaned against the wall next to her door and toyed with the keycard in her hand. "Would you like to come in? You're good company, and I don't want to be by myself just yet."
"Sure, if it will make you feel better." She opened the door and stepped inside. Jason followed, adding, "Listen, I know things are rough for you right now, but you're dealing with a lot of stuff at once and I promise you that life will get-" He was abruptly cut off as Erin kicked the door shut, wrapped her arms around him, and pressed her lips against his. After a few moments of shock, Jason pulled her closer and returned the kiss.
Erin relaxed into his arms, letting everything else fade away. Jason's fingers slipped under the hem of her blouse, brushing along her ribcage and making her shiver in pleasure. Brian who? She leaned her head back as he trailed soft kisses along her jaw line. What family? Gasping slightly, she felt his body pushing against hers, gently at first and then harder as they lost themselves in each other. The rest of the world? Never heard of it. Slowly, Jason pulled her down with him onto the bed.
Herpes? Erin abruptly pulled back. "Wait."
Jason was startled for a second, then released his hold on her and nodded. His face was flushed and his breathing heavy, but he looked embarrassed. "You're right; we're moving too fast. I'm sorry."
"It's not that. I..." Erin closed her eyes, willing herself to say the words. "I have herpes." There. I said it. Jason didn't say anything. Erin kept her eyes closed, too afraid to look.
An eternity later, a hand touched her cheek and she opened her eyes to see Jason smiling at her. "It's okay," he said. Leaning over, he kissed her forehead and said, "But we should still slow down."
Erin let out the breath she hadn't realized she was holding and nodded. "Okay." She reached up to take his hand in hers, and they both shifted to sit side-by-side on the bed. "Tell me more about you?" It was less of a question than a plea. Don't make me think about me anymore.
Jason gave her hand a gentle squeeze and said, "Sure. What do you want to know?"
"Um...what brings you to Switzerland?"
A few seconds passed before he answered. "I'm meeting with a potential investor for my business. Very important." He slipped his hand out of hers and traced a pattern on the bedspread. "Could be big for me."
"Sounds kind of exciting. Is there a lot of money riding on it?"
He nodded, shifting his weight as he leaned forward a little. "I hope so, anyway. Um..."
Erin sensed another awkward moment and rushed to fill it. "What kind of computer stuff do you do?"
"A little of everything, really. Hardware, software, IT stuff, whatever people need, you know?" He leaned back again and scratched the back of his head. "Listen, I don't know how interested you are in the computer business, but..."
"Oh, I don't really know anything about computers," Erin said with a shrug. "Half the time I'm afraid I'm going to make the thing explode or something!"
"I'm sure you aren't that bad. Hey, maybe I can give you some tips." He tapped his fingers on his knee, adding, "I could explain how computers work and tell you about the most common mistakes and stuff like that-then you might not feel so nervous about them."
"That would be nice." Erin stifled a yawn. "I think I should probably get some rest right now, though. It's been a rough day and a nap would be good."
"No problem," Jason said, rising quickly and taking a step toward the door. He turned and added over his shoulder, "I'm meeting with my client again in an hour anyway, so maybe I'll swing by after-"
"Client?" Erin was jolted out of her sleepiness. "I thought you were here to talk to a potential investor."
Jason turned around, startled. "Did I-oh, well, what I meant-"
Suddenly much more alert, she took a closer look at the man standing in front of her. He'd been fidgeting almost constantly ever since the subject of his company had come up. He had nothing even approaching the confidence and demeanor that the head of an international computer company should have. He looked more like a frightened schoolboy-
-who's been caught in a lie. Erin stood up slowly, staring at Jason. "You don't own a computer company, do you." It was no question; it was a flat statement of fact.
Jason deflated. "I do have a computer company," he replied, a slight whine creeping into his voice. "It's just...really small."
Gone was the charming, sensitive man she had known up to that moment. In his place was a guilty, stammering adolescent in an adult's body. "Um...it's pretty much me working out of my apartment. I've got a couple of customers, but it's mostly just minor repair work. If I could get some decent advertising and maybe hire some more people..." He looked at her with a pleading look on his face. "I just need some help to get it off the ground."
Erin shook her head slightly, confused. "But what are you doing here, then? You flew to Switzerland-first class-for...what? And how could you afford it?"
"A contest," he said. When she didn't respond, he started mumbling quietly and rapidly. All Erin caught was the word "yodeling."
"Slow down and speak up!" she demanded.
Red-faced, he let the words pour out in disjointed sentences. "There was this radio call-in thing. They said they'd fly someone to Switzerland. For this yodeling festival. It was like a gag prize, but they were offering a first class ticket and I called in. I don't even like yodeling. Just figured I'd try for the hell of it." He shrugged. "I won. They only paid for the plane ticket, though. I'm staying in a hostel a few blocks away."
Erin wondered if the strange story was true, then decided she didn't care. "So why did you lie about having a computer company?"
"I didn't lie! I told you; I do run my own computer business. I started it up last year, and I was doing okay until my savings ran out."
"But you made me think you were some kind of big-time CEO or something after you...met me...on the plane..." Erin trailed off. "My grandmother. I told you all about my rich grandmother and all the money she throws around for me." She glared at him, and he shrank back. "Of course."
"We were getting along really well, though!" Jason cried. "I helped you feel better, and I thought since we were becoming such good friends that maybe you could just talk to your grandma and-"
Erin silenced him with an upraised finger. "Don't. Just...don't."
He glanced indecisively between Erin and the door, then stepped closer to her. "I'm sorry."
She exploded. "'Sorry'? You lied to me, tried to use me, and then came close to-ugh!-and all you can say is 'I'm sorry'?"
"I am! Look, maybe we can talk this over tomorrow. I could buy you a cup of coffee and-"
"No!" Erin stood rigid, glaring fireballs at the man she'd thought was her friend-if not more. "I don't want anything to do with you. Ever." She stormed past him and stomped her way to the door. "Get. Out."
Not even hesitating, Jason lowered his head in shame and scurried out the door without looking at her. She slammed the door behind him and leaned her back against it. Burying her face in her hands, she took a few deep breaths. Just as she'd managed to find something close to calmness, though, someone knocked on the door.
He came back? I don't believe this. "Go away!" The knock sounded again, more insistent this time. He doesn't get it-he is the absolute last person on this earth I ever want to see again. Angry, she yanked the door open and prepared to unleash a scathing rant. Instead, her voice died as she came face-to-face with a man with a familiar smirk, holding his arms out to her for an embrace.
"Hi, sweetheart." After waiting in vain for her to come to him, Brian stepped forward and folded Erin into his arms. "I missed you so much."
Too shocked to react, she allowed him to enter the room with one arm still draped around her shoulders. "What...why are you here?" she asked weakly.
He chuckled. "Silly girl. Why do you think I'm here? I came to find you!"
"Me?" She struggled to clear her head. This is...surreal. What the hell is going on?
"Of course. You're my wife and I love you. I couldn't let one dumb argument prevent us from sharing a lifetime of happiness!"
"But you said..." What did he say? It feels like years ago. "...You said you were better off without me. You said-"
"I said a lot of things I didn't mean, honey. But I'm ready to work things out. What do you say?"
"I...I..." Erin felt like her head was going to burst. Computer companies and grandmothers and STDs and Swiss spas and money and dogs named Sparky kept swirling around in her thoughts until everything was one loud humming ball of chaos and she wanted to scream.
"Come here," Brian said, seeing her distress. He wrapped his arms around her again, pulling her close and whispering into her hair, "It's going to be all right. I'm here now, so you don't have to worry about a thing."
God, that sounds nice, Erin thought, leaning into him with a sigh. I'm just so frustrated and confused and...tired. So tired. "Okay," she found herself murmuring.
"Let's just move on with our lives, all right?"
o O o
Erin giggled as Brian struggled to carry both her and their suitcase into their new apartment. Nearly dropping both, he staggered in and just managed to set her down before the suitcase slipped from his grasp and he toppled over onto the floor. "Welcome to your home, Mrs. Danielson," he announced with a grandeur unsuited to the small efficiency they were renting.
"Welcome to you, too, Mr. Danielson," she replied, then frowned. "Oh. I guess that doesn't really work for you." She moved closer to him. "Oooh, I know! Welcome home, Secret Agent Danielson!" Her eyes danced as she looked at him, but he wouldn't return her gaze.
"There's something I should probably tell you about that," he said nervously. "About my job."
She drew back from him. "What?"
He didn't answer right away. Finally, he said, "I've been...fired."
"What? When? How did this happen?"
Brian glanced around the apartment, looking everywhere but at her. "I called HQ from a pay phone at the airport. While you were in the restroom. They said, uh, that they can't have an agent with a family, because it was a...security risk. So they had to let me go." He finally looked at her, waiting for her reaction.
"They can do that? Just...fire you?"
He shrugged. "It's the government, you know? They can do what they want."
"But that doesn't sound-"
"Look, it happened and arguing about it isn't going to change anything! Let's just move on with our lives, all right?"
Erin blinked at his harsh tone. "O-okay." Her mouth twitched a little as she weighed her next words carefully. "What about money? We've got my paycheck, but with rent and bills and everything, I'm not sure it'll be enough for us to live on."
Brian waved a hand and grinned. "I really doubt we're gonna starve, baby. You don't think your grandma would let that happen, do you?"
"Grandma? Um, well, I guess I could ask her for help if we really need to, but-"
"Great! Then what's the problem?"
"But you're going to look for work, right?"
"Oh, definitely. I'm sure something will come up. Hey, I heard you can make pretty good money in real estate!"
o O o
Erin stepped back from Brian, jolted out of her daze by the memory and a sudden sense of déjà vu. "How could you afford to come here?" she asked. "I took all the credit cards with me, and we didn't have enough in our bank account to pay for a plane ticket that expensive."
"I just, um, had some money put aside for a rainy day or something." He tried to pull Erin back into his arms, but she stepped backward again.
"Since when do you know how to save money? And...and how did you know I was here? Even if you knew I was in Switzerland-even if you knew I was at this spa-this place is meant to be very private. No one else is supposed to know who's staying here, let alone which room they're staying in!"
Brian drew his arms back and let them drop to his sides. "Well, you see, I still have a few friends in Intelligence who could pull some strings and track down some leads, and I called them up and-"
"Bullshit!" Erin spat the word at him, temper flaring. "You really think I bought that lame 'I got fired' story? You've never been a secret agent and I was stupid to believe you in the first place!" Pieces began fitting together in her mind. "Someone told you I was here! Someone-goddammit!"
Brian was backing away now, watching as Erin grew angrier and angrier.
"Grandma told you, didn't she? She told you where I was staying, even down to the fucking room number, and she bought you a goddamn plane ticket, and somehow convinced you to-" She gasped. "Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no. Please, please tell me she didn't pay you off to get you to make up with me."
The sheepish look on Brian's face confirmed what she already knew was true.
"Of course she did. She found out about the pre-nup, so she knew you weren't afraid of getting cut off if we divorced. So she bribed you to stay rather than allow another broken marriage in the family, rather than risk another scandal among her precious social circle, rather than let me live my own life!"
The alarm on her watch beeped just as she shrieked the last few words, and she tore it off her wrist and hurled it against the closest wall. The sound as it broke was faint, but the act was oddly cathartic. Staring thoughtfully at the shattered watch, she said, "My pills are in the bathroom. Please go get them. I'll also need some water."
Without a word, Brian hurried to comply. Erin finally took her eyes off the watch to accept the pills and water from her husband, and as soon as she'd swallowed her dose she rested a calm gaze on him. "I've made up my mind," she informed him. "We are not going to get a divorce." Brian, hope returning to his face, stepped toward her until she put up a hand to stop him. "I've seen what single life will be like for me, and I don't want it. Turns out this," she said, gesturing at the pill bottle, "isn't the problem. Money is the problem, and I've decided to solve it."
"You-are you going to ask your grandmother for more money, then?" Brian asked. His expression stayed neutral, but his eyes had lit up like a winning slot machine.
Erin snorted. "No. I'm closing the Bank of Grandma as far as we're concerned. As long as I let her pay for my life, I'm letting her manipulate my life. And I guess I can't do much worse of a job screwing it up than she has."
Brian's mouth dropped open. "You can't-!" He stopped himself and gave her a condescending smile. "I mean, let's not rush into anything, okay?" he said soothingly. "You're just upset, that's all. Once you take a minute to actually think-"
"I am thinking," Erin interrupted. "I know, it's about time, right?" She smiled at his discomfort. "You'd better get used to it. Unless you want to go through with the divorce?" Not giving him a chance to reply, she continued, "Thanks to the pre-nup, you'll get half of our assets. Once I give back the money we got from Grandma, that should leave you with about...two thousand dollars' worth of debt." She thought for a moment. "Oh, and you can have that really ugly lamp we got for our wedding, too."
"This is insane!" Brian exploded. "What are we supposed to do for rent? Bills? Food?"
"Sounds like you'll finally have to get a job," Erin answered sweetly. "And you'd better hurry. Our second honeymoon isn't going to be free."
"My flight back home doesn't leave until Friday. Until then, we can spend some time together and talk about our new arrangement." Erin frowned thoughtfully. "Hmm. I guess I can accept the rest of the spa visit and the return plane ticket as Grandma's last gift to me-I'm sure they're nonrefundable anyway-but you're going to need someplace to stay while you're here. I heard there's a hostel not far from here; that should be in our budget."
"You mean I have to pay for my own stuff?"
Erin giggled. "Oh, of course not. We're a team; we'll split the costs." She walked over to the wall and picked up her broken watch. "But you'll be buying me a new watch before we leave." She winked at Brian. "Apparently they make some pretty nice ones here."
He just stared at her in shock. "We're ruined."
"Nonsense! Once you start working, we'll just have to cut some extras, like cable and going out to eat and our cell phones-oh! I should call Mother and let her know what's going on." She picked up her cell phone from its place on the nightstand and called the preset number. "Hi, Quinn? It's me. Guess what?"
o O o
Thank you to RLobinske for beta-reading.