It was a bad idea.
Emily was certain of that, but once she’d gotten it into her head, she couldn’t quite force it out. It was petty and wrong and, in the end, would probably cause more headache for her than internal amusement. She was probably crazy for even considering it.
Or, more than considering it, she was crazy for actively soliciting a co-conspirator.
“You’ve met my mother,” she was saying dryly, one brow arched to emphasize the point. “Every year it’s the same thing. I’m summoned to the annual Prentiss holiday party. Mother will have invited diplomats and ambassadors, CEOs and judges, legislative staff and those few conservative pundits she feels she needs to court.”
As it was unlike Emily to open up about anything, much less her family, JJ merely nodded, taking a sip of her mocha as she waited for more.
Emily sighed, shaking her head in bemused consternation, though her voice was caustic. “She called me last night to remind me that the party is but mere days away. ‘It would be nice if you could manage to show up with an attractive, successful gentleman on your arm this year’ she said – her words, not mine. I assume she’s embarrassed by my solo attendance. Without an other half, I’m apparently defective.”
The last word was nearly hissed, the deep running currents of resentment and resignation underlying it eliciting a pang of sympathy within JJ she knew Emily wouldn’t want. “That seems harsh,” she said slowly, limiting herself. If Emily had been someone else, if she’d been Garcia, for example, JJ would have reached over and placed a comforting hand on Emily’s arm. She was tempted to do so anyway, but there had always been something about Emily that discouraged physical contact. She was like a well fortified castle, surrounded by high walls designed to be impenetrable; JJ hadn’t yet built up enough stocks to lay siege.
There was a tightening of Emily’s jaw, as if she wanted to say something further. Instead, she sighed again, shaking her head and offering a tight smile. “I’ve decided to grant her wish this year – or, at least, most of it.”
As before, JJ decided to wait it out.
“So what do you say, JJ,” Emily said, a rueful, self-deprecating smile drawing forth the gentle hint of dimples. “Would you like to pretend to be my attractive, successful date to my mother’s holiday party? And please… feel free to say no and to tell me how petty and immature it is to want to torture her like this.”
At the question, Emily’s eyes skittered to the ground. In the silence that followed it, she had no desire to break their intense connection with the sidewalk.
JJ’s laugh was a misty cloud, freezing for a moment before dissipating. “She really pissed you off, didn’t she?”
Emily’s shoulders slumped. “It’s petty. I’m sorry I even asked.”
“Hey,” JJ chided softly, “no taking it back now. I’ve always wanted to see what happens when Republicans let their hair down.”
Emily’s amused snort was followed by the beginning of a tentative grin. “Trust me. It’s not pretty.”
JJ took another sip of her mocha. “You know,” she said, licking a stray drop from her bottom lip, “when you asked me if I wanted to go grab a coffee, I had no idea that you planned on propositioning me to be your partner in crime in upsetting the establishment.”
“I was hoping I’d get over the urge to do something this juvenile,” Emily muttered, rolling her eyes at herself. “But the truth is, I really don’t want to. I want to see the look on her face.”
Eyes twinkling in anticipation, already a bit more invested in the role than she probably should be, JJ asked innocently, “So, what time are you picking me up?”
“You look gorgeous.”
Emily had said the words when she’d arrived at JJ’s door close to an hour earlier, a slightly shocked expression on her face.
“Thanks.” JJ glanced down at herself, suddenly shy. “You do too.”
And it was true. Emily did look gorgeous. She was wearing a form-fitting dress in a deep, chocolate color that perfectly accented her hair and coloring. And it was true that she looked gorgeous as well, though she’d never admit to Emily that the dress was a new one, the deep royal blue chosen specifically to highlight her eyes.
And then Emily had stepped back to reveal the waiting limo, and JJ had smirked. “Now that’s the way to impress on a first date.”
She swore she’d seen Emily blush, if only for a moment, before she rolled her eyes and smiled. “I intend to consume as much alcohol as necessary to get through the evening and didn’t want to have to worry about it.”
Not that JJ was going to quibble.
“This can’t be our first date,” Emily said later, so long after JJ’s original joke that she almost didn’t get the reference.
Pulling her attention back from the close attention she’d been giving to the passing scenery, JJ waited.
“Not our first,” Emily repeated, expression thoughtful. “We’ve been dating for a little while. Not too long. We’re not an established couple, but we are comfortable with one another. We should have the appropriate body language: lean toward one another when we’re talking, touch each other unconsciously. A little brush on the arm or, and I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable, perhaps an arm around the waist. Little things.”
JJ smiled indulgently. “Are you putting together a profile of our fake relationship?”
Emily blushed. “I’m taking this too far, aren’t I?”
“No, you’re just worrying too much.” JJ offered a reassuring smile, reaching over to take Emily’s hand in her own. “By the end of the evening, I’ll have everyone there believing that I’m absolutely smitten with you. Trust me, your mother’s head will be on the verge of exploding.”
“Oh,” Emily said hesitantly, eyes focused resolutely on JJ’s face and not daring to look down at their linked hands. “Well, I don’t want to actually kill her.”
JJ’s fingers squeezed softly before relinquishing their hold, and her smile turned devious. “Don’t forget that the purposeful manipulation of information, when the situation warrants, is my job description. You’ve chosen your partner wisely in this endeavor, kemosabe.”
“And now I’m a little bit frightened.”
When she felt JJ’s fingers tangle with her own, Emily visibly startled.
The look in Emily’s eyes was reticent even as she nodded her assent. “Right. Comfortable.”
Of course, the fact that they were walking hand-in-hand made Emily feel anything but comfortable, but she wasn’t about to share that fact.
After briefly untangling to deposit their coats with a clerk, JJ immediately reclaimed Emily’s hand. “I think we’ve been dating for six months,” she said thoughtfully. “And I bet you didn’t wait long before you had me in bed.”
In response, Emily nearly choked. “I think you overestimate my prowess.”
“Well then, maybe I didn’t wait long.”
Even though she sounded stern, Emily’s eyes flashed with amusement. “I see. So, you think I’m easy?”
“Emotionally, psychologically – you’re definitely very complicated. Very hard to read. Very difficult to anticipate,” JJ teased, her voice an intimate murmur. “But when it came to the chance to have sex with me… yeah, you were easy.”
Emily laughed softly. “I see you have no doubts about your prowess.”
“You haven’t had any complaints.”
“I see I’ve created a monster.”
The bubbling sound of muted conversation grew, dampening out any further conversation as they drew nearer to the door guarding the row of attached suites her mother had rented for the party. JJ once again gave her fingers a light squeeze, though this time she didn’t let go after.
They paused just out of the line of sight of the other guests on the other side of the opened doors. “This is your last chance to back out,” Emily offered with a nervous smile. “Once we cross that threshold, there’s no escape.”
With the door still closed before them, there was a single, last moment in which the words JJ said and the actions she took were nothing but the truth. Whether Emily would recognize them as such, she didn’t know.
“Maybe I don’t want to escape,” she said, leaning forward as she spoke. She watched as Emily’s eyelids fluttered closed, as her lips parted and she drew in a soft breath of anticipation and surprise. It was the kind of kiss that existed only in movies, with the kind of yearning that had built and built until the moment was just right. It was sweet but purposeful, a kiss that would take a willful act of obfuscation to misinterpret.
The noise of the party spilled out as the door was opened, and JJ and Emily pulled apart, startled by the unexpected intrusion of reality.
There was a gasp, a strangled, “Emily!”
Emily’s fingers found JJ’s and tightened around them. Unable to look away from her, JJ mirrored Emily’s slowly widening smile. It deepened even further when Emily reached up, gently wiping away a hint of smudged lipstick with her forefinger. An easy confidence replaced the stiffness in Emily’s shoulders, and JJ felt herself sway forward in an unconscious desire for closeness.
“Mother, you remember JJ, don’t you?” Again, JJ thought she caught a glint of amusement in Emily’s eyes. “You did say I should bring a date.”