The perfect match, p.22
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       The Perfect Match, p.22

         Part #2 of Blue Heron series by Kristan Higgins
 
Page 22

  Author: Kristan Higgins

  “And then we have the cask room down these stairs. That’s where the barrels are. Watch your step. It’s kind of old-school, but it’s pretty, and the tourists like it. ”

  “I can see why. ”

  The cask room was a vast, dark room, formerly a root cellar, a stone storage area for potatoes and onions and the like. Now it held several dozen wooden barrels, a long, battered oak table surrounded by leather-upholstered chairs, some low lighting and voilà. People felt like they were in the Old Country.

  “We use different kinds of wood for each wine. Hungarian oak gives off a nice spicy flavor, French is very mellow, American is fresh and clean. ”

  “Interesting. ” He rapped one barrel. “Feel a bit like I’m in an Edgar Allan Poe story. ”

  “It’s very private here. I figured we can talk without being overheard. ” Her heart was rabbiting already.

  “Absolutely. ” He sat down and folded his hands. “I don’t suppose we can drink any of this?”

  “Oh, sure. ” She poured him a glass of the cabernet franc they kept down here for just that purpose, then watched as he gulped it down.

  He was nervous, too.

  “Okay,” she said. “I’ve done some research. ”

  “Why am I not surprised?”

  “Well, obviously, I have to know what I’m getting into. ”

  “Of course. Go on, then. ”

  Honor opened her bag and took out the outline she’d worked up today (and then deleted from her computer, just in case the Feds came looking). “Okay. So INS, which is now called something else—”

  “USCIS,” Tom said.

  “Right. ” Yes, of course he’d know that. “The regulations state that we have to stay married for two years, minimum, or you get deported, and you can never get a green card or be a citizen. ”

  “I know. ”

  “And if we get caught and convicted of marital fraud, you get deported, and I could get ten years of jail time. And fined a quarter of a million dollars. ”

  “That’s a bit stiff, isn’t it? Murderers get off with less. ”

  “Yes. But that’s what it says. ” She folded her hands and tried to put on her business face. “Look, Tom, here’s what I hope. Instead of viewing this as marital fraud, I’d like to think of it as an arranged marriage, sort of. I’d like to go into it with a good attitude. ”

  “What do you mean?”

  She looked over his shoulder. “Just. . . with the thought that maybe it could work out permanently. ”

  “You mean, we’d stay married and grow old together. ”

  “Um, yes. ”

  He raised one eyebrow. “Are you madly in love with me, Honor? Already?”

  “No. ” Hell. Time to be brutally honest. She’d pussyfooted around Brogan for years, and where had that gotten her? Nowhere. “Look. I’m thirty-five. I haven’t met anyone—”

  “Except Braedon. ”

  “Brogan. ”

  “Whatever. ”

  “Yes, except Brogan. And my views on marriage have changed from when I was a dopey teenager. I’d like to be married. I won’t lie. I’d like to have a baby. ”

  “Just one? How about two?”

  “Um, sure. Two would be nice. ”

  “Possibly three?”

  “Well, I’m thirty-five. ”

  “So we’d have to bang them out, then, all in a row. Or have triplets, maybe? How about quints?” He grinned, flashing that crooked tooth.

  She waited a beat. “Can you be serious? I’m trying to work this out for both of us. ”

  “Sorry. How have your views on marriage changed, Honor dear?”

  She took a slow breath. “I think people expect too much, maybe. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to find the perfect person. Because no one is perfect, of course. You’re nice, sort of. You’re smart. You seem like a decent guy. ”

  “Don’t forget fantastic in bed. ”

  “You know, sure. Fine. Yes. Last night was. . . fun. ” She was sweating. It wasn’t hot in here, but she was sweating. “I’d marry you, Tom. But I’d like to think that you’d give it a try. Not just. . . tolerate me for two years. ”

  Suddenly his face grew serious, wiping away the ridiculous appeal. “What if you meet someone, Honor? Someone real, that is? And fall in love, just like on the Hallmark channel?”

  “I’d still give you the two years. I understand what’s at stake. ” She cleared her throat and wiped her hands on her pants. “As for the baby thing, I figured we’d give it some time, see if we’re really compatible. ”

  He glanced away and rubbed his thumb across his bottom lip. “So you’re willing to give up two years of your life to me, just so I can be near Charlie?”

  Honor looked at her hands. “Yes. ”

  “That’s incredibly noble of you. Why else?”

  “Quite honestly, you’re my best prospect in years. ”

  The smile flashed and was gone. “You don’t have very high criteria, do you?” There was something in his gray eyes. . . pity, maybe.

  “I don’t know about that,” she said tightly. “But I can tell you that I’d try to make things work, I’m an honest person, I’d never cheat on you and. . . and that’s it. If you can say the same, then let’s give it a try. ”

  “Is there anything else you’d like to say?” he asked.

  Aside from Brogan, you’re the first guy to kiss me in six years. I’d rather have something with a stranger than nothing with no one. “Nope. ”

  “What else is on your list there, love?”

  Her toes curled in her shoes at the endearment. “We should have a timetable. ”

  “Very well. ”

  “Do you think INS will be investigating you?”

  “I’ve no idea. ”

  “In any case, I think we should move in together, the sooner, the better. Your place, by the way. My father’s getting married, and I don’t want to hang around and be underfoot. ”

  “You live with your dad?”

  “Yes. So we should move in, start getting to know each other, then I can meet Charlie, and we can look like the real thing if INS does check up on you. ”

  “And possibly become the real thing. ”

  She looked up from her notes. Her heart felt suddenly too big for her chest. “Maybe. ”

  He didn’t say anything. Just looked at her.

  Damn. She already liked that face way too much.

  He still said nothing. “So here’s my basic information,” she said, handing over a piece of paper. “You should memorize this—”

  “And then burn it?”

  “Yes. Oh, okay, you’re making a joke. Very funny, but yes, get rid of it. ”

  “Honor Grace Holland. Pretty name, by the way. Birthday, January 4. Cornell, Wharton, very impressive, darling. ”

  “Thanks. We should also make up a story about how we met and, um, fell in love. And we have to make sure your aunt and my grandmother don’t say anything. ”

  “Right. Aunt Candy won’t, I’m sure. Can your grandmother keep a secret?”

  “Goggy?”

  “Dear God, you don’t call her that to her face, do you?”

  “Yes. She can keep quiet. I hope. ” It would be a first.

  “Fingers crossed, then. ”

  “So what should our story be?” Honor asked. Her cheeks warmed again. Everyone in the universe had a better story than this. Even the people who met online had cute stories about how their emails had sparked something, or how they met for the first time, smiled and bada-bing, they were in love. eCommitment was much more romantic than a contract negotiated in a stone basement, like some illicit agreement between two shady government agencies.

  “Why don’t we just stick as close to the truth as possible?” Tom asked. “You picked me up in a bar, we shagged, you’re getting older, we figured what the hell? Let’s do it. ”<
br />
  She stiffened. “You know what I did this afternoon? I watched YouTube interviews about convincing INS that you’re actually in love. That’s the only reason you can marry someone seeking a green card. It has to be a love match. ”

  He smiled again. “Sorry. I love you, Honor. Will you marry me?”

  Her jaw clenched. “This is your ass on the line, Tom. And your relationship with Charlie. So try to be serious, okay? What do you love about me?”

  “It’s not your sense of humor. ”

  Had she thought he was charming? Lonely? Adorable? When was that again?

  “Sorry,” he said. “I appreciate this. It’s just. . . I’m nervous. Not just about getting caught, but about what you’re offering. ” He looked away and rubbed the back of his neck, then looked back at her. “No one’s ever done anything like this for me before. ”

  Oh, yeah, that’s what it was.

  Sincerity.

  “Well,” she said, and her voice was a little husky. “Let’s give it a shot. ” She paused. “But, um, I don’t think we should sleep together. Again. I mean, you know. Until we get a sense of whether or not this is going to work. ”

  Now why’d you say that, dummy? her eggs asked. We just opened that special anti-sag moisturizer.

  Because. She was already risking an awful lot. She’d be lying to her family, linking her life with a virtual stranger, committing a felony.

  She wasn’t going to risk her heart, too. Not yet. And if last night was any indication, her heart would be following her body and opening right up to him.

  “That sounds wise,” Tom said, and yes, she was a little disappointed.

  “I’ll need some information on you. Your family and where you went to school. ”

  “Very well. ”

  “And you need to meet my family. I thought Wednesday would be good. I can tell them we’ve been seeing each other for about a month. I don’t think I can stretch it further than that. ”

  “You’re a bit terrifying, you know that?” She gave him a pointed look. “Fine. Wednesday works for me, I’m sure. ”

  “And then we’ll move in together. ”

  “And then we’ll move in together. ”

  They looked at each other from across the table. Then Tom reached out, and they shook on it.

 

 

  CHAPTER TEN

  TOM WAITED UNTIL the last school bus had gone before he went into the school. Much brighter and bigger than his own high school. Smelled better, too, as there was no tire factory down the block.

  “Can I help you?” asked the secretary in the front office.

  “Yes, thank you. I need a word with the principal. ”

  “Are you a parent here?” the woman asked.

  “No. But I think there may be a bullying problem with one of your students. ”

  She gave him a dead-eyed stare and, without looking away, picked up her phone and pushed a button. “Bullying complaint,” she said. A second later, another woman came into the office. She was short and squat with graying hair and an ill-fitting suit.

  “Hey,” she said. “I know you, dude. You box at my gym. ”

  “Hello,” he said. “Tom Barlow. ”

  “Dr. Didier. Call me Ellen. I was gonna ask you to spot me the other day. I lift weights. Tournaments, stuff like that. I’m a little old to go pro at this point, but I love it. I can press about two-fifty at this point. How about you?”

  “Uh, I’m not sure. ”

  “We should be spotting partners!” She flashed him a broad smile. “So what can I do for you? You said bullying? Come into my office. ”

  She certainly seemed cheerful, he had to give her that. Her office was typically crowded, and she whipped off her suit jacket, revealing massive shoulders. Flexed her biceps. “Not bad, right?”
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