“This is definitely the worst idea you’ve ever had.”
Jaime held the door open as Brienne hesitated on the threshold. “Are you kidding? This isn’t even in my top ten.” He winked and grabbed her hand, tugging her into the ballroom with him. “Come on, we’ve got this.”
Jaime looked perfect, tall and lean in his tailored suit, an absolutely devastating hint of a smile on his lips. Brienne, on the other hand, looked like a drag queen, and refused to believe otherwise no matter how many times Jaime insisted she didn’t.
The ballroom of the Rose and Crown Hotel was decorated with bouquets of gold and green balloons and shiny confetti strewn on the tables. If not for the open bar and the immense banner reading “Welcome Back, Bitterbridge Class of 2004,” it would have looked exactly like the yearbook photos of the prom.
That thrice-damned yearbook was the only reason Brienne was here at all.
Brienne and Jaime had stopped by her apartment one night on their way to meet up with their work team, to celebrate the successful conclusion of the project they’d been working on for more than a year. Thanks to them, Westerosi soldiers on a peacekeeping mission in the cities of Slaver’s Bay would soon have better non-lethal projectile options, which were desperately needed.
While Brienne had changed clothes in her bedroom, Jaime had noticed her reunion invitation and yearbook on the coffee table. By the time she’d come out of her bedroom, he’d been looking at the senior superlatives. Brienne had refused to allow the yearbook photographer to take her picture, so they’d used one taken at lacrosse practice, in which Brienne was sweaty and red-faced, and captioned it Best Looking: Brienne “The Beauty” Tarth.
Jaime had held up the invitation and said, “You should go.”
“Why would I do that?” Brienne had plucked the invitation from his hand and tossed it onto her desk. She’d had no interest in seeing any of her classmates again. Her fondest memory of high school was walking out of the building on the last day, knowing she was finally free of that place.
When Brienne had looked back at him, she’d found Jaime’s expression disarmingly earnest. “Because deep down you still think they’re right. Go to the reunion, see them, put them behind you for good,” he had urged.
Fighting Jaime was pointless; he had a way of wearing people down. Brienne had decided to treat the reunion as a weekend retreat, scheduling a massage and buying several books to read by the pool. Jaime didn’t need to know that she had no intention of attending the reunion dinner, nor the Sunday brunch and campus tour. Her plan would have worked if Jaime hadn't noticed the unmailed RSVP card still on her desk when he'd come back to her apartment the next weekend.
Rather than cajole Brienne until she gave in, as she’d half-expected, Jaime had offered to come with her. His only condition had been that they book a suite and make a real vacation of it. Brienne had balked at the cost, she never spent so frivolously, but Jaime had won her over. The suite was stunning, with two bedrooms and a view of the river, but the luxury accommodations didn’t make actually attending the reunion dinner any more appealing.
Brienne vaguely recognized the woman at the registration table. Chemistry? Valyrian literature? Brienne wasn’t sure and didn’t recognize the name on her badge. The woman wasn’t interested in reminiscing anyway. She was too busy batting her eyelashes at Jaime. That was nothing new. Over the past year, women all over the continent had ignored Brienne to throw themselves at her best friend.
Brienne took her badge, but didn’t put it on. She was, after all, the only six-foot blonde woman in her class. She could hardly be mistaken for someone else. Besides, the badge featured her singularly unflattering senior portrait. Unfortunate haircut, acne, grudging smile, ill-fitting blouse picked out by her father’s girlfriend of the moment. Brienne had thought she’d thrown out every copy of that picture years ago.
"Can you hold this?" she asked, passing Jaime the badge. He pocketed it without a word.
They made their way to the bar without encountering anyone Brienne wanted to talk to, ordered drinks, and found a table near the dance floor.
Brienne sipped her wine, watched the crowd slowly filling the room. She could see the teenagers they'd been easily enough, though a few people had changed dramatically. Her classmates still gathered in the same cliques, as if ten years had changed nothing.
When people watching grew tiresome, Brienne turned her attention back to Jaime. He’d been a jock in high school, of that she had no doubt. If called upon in class, Jaime likely would have given a smartass answer even if he'd known the right one. He still did that occasionally in meetings, to her irritation.
“What are you thinking?” Jaime asked, idly sweeping the confetti on the table into a little pile of shiny gold shapes.
“You and I wouldn’t have been friends in high school,” she confessed.
Brienne had enough trouble understanding how they’d become such good friends now. Late nights at the office had evolved over the months to working dinners at one of their apartments, often followed by a movie or video games. Now they spent at least one evening together most weekends and rarely talked about work at all outside of the office. Brienne was hard-pressed to think of anyone beside her father to whom she was closer.
Jaime grinned. “Are you doubting my ability to braid hair, gossip, and make friendship bracelets?”
Brienne laughed. “So deep down you’re a twelve-year-old girl. I’ll keep that in mind. No, high school for girls is all fake niceness, backstabbing, and shunning anyone who is the slightest bit different.”
Jaime sipped his beer, scanned the room. “My school was all boys. We had enough issues without adding girls to the mix.”
Brienne considered reminding him that she’d been four years old when he’d graduated from high school, but teasing her only ally here seemed shortsighted. “Look, I’ll stay two hours, and then I am going upstairs to soak in that Jacuzzi tub. You promised.” She still thought the suite was an unnecessary extravagance, but Brienne was genuinely looking forward to stretching out in the huge tub which dominated the bathroom.
“I have a history of breaking promises. You, on the other hand, keep your word. And you promised to try to enjoy yourself,” Jaime reminded her. “You hold up your end, I’ll hold up mine.” He leaned forward, drumming his fingers on the table. “So who was responsible for that lacrosse practice photo?”
Brienne stiffened. That damned photo. Brienne the Beauty. She should have just ripped out the sports pages and disposed of the rest of her yearbooks long ago. “Probably Margaery Tyrell. She was the yearbook editor.”
Jaime frowned. “Why does that name sound familiar?”
“She’s a news anchor.” ‘Most likely to succeed,’ indeed. With her brilliant smile, shiny brown curls, and deceptively sweet voice, Margaery had been a shoo-in to end up in front of the camera. Brienne knew firsthand what a convincing actress Margaery could be.
Glancing around, Brienne spotted Margaery almost immediately. Her emerald-green dress was slinky and low-cut, too formal for the occasion. Her glossy hair was twisted up to emphasize the elegant line of her neck. “Margaery’s over there by the bar.”
“She doesn’t look evil, but they rarely do,” Jaime observed. “I’m going to grab us something to eat. Don’t hide in a corner while I’m gone, okay?”
Brienne waited until he’d walked away before she pulled out her phone to check her work e-mail. Brienne had three e-mails from Pod, one from Jaime crowing that he knew she couldn't resist checking her messages, and one from Catelyn. Cat’s message begged her to have a good time and not worry about work. This was the first vacation Brienne had taken in two years.
A braying laugh made Brienne look up. A husky guy in a plaid dress shirt and plain green tie stood across the table. The lights glinted off his ginger hair and beard. “Brienne Tarth. Wow. Never thought you’d have the balls to show up here.”
Her stomach dropped. Of course he was here. “Ron,” she said icily, getting to her feet. In heels, Brienne was at least half a foot taller than Ronnet Connington. She preferred to look down on him.
He shook his head, an easy grin on his face. “Man, the guys have got to see this.” Ron chuckled, moving closer. “You even dressed up like a girl! Brienne the Beauty. I haven’t thought about you in years.”
Brienne shuddered. “Same. Trust me.”
If she hadn’t already had misgivings about her short robin’s-egg blue dress, she would now. Jaime’s assistant had helped pick it out, and had insisted on pairing it with kitten heels. Brienne glanced toward the buffet tables, hoping to catch Jaime’s attention, but she didn’t see him. Damn. What good was it having him here if he was just going to disappear?
“Oh come on, Bri. Don’t take it personally.” Ron looked her up and down, making her skin crawl. “So you’re here alone too.”
“I’m not alone,” she bristled. Time to walk away.
Ron’s grin widened. “No? Where’s your Beast, Beauty?”
Two plates thumped down on the table beside her, one meatball rolling off a plate onto the green tablecloth. “Right here.”
Brienne risked a glance at Jaime, saw his green eyes narrowed in suspicion. She’d let him believe the yearbook was the worst she’d suffered in high school, but it hadn’t even been close. Ron and his friends had spent over a month pursuing Brienne. The football coach had finally called her into his office one day. She was distracting the team, he’d said. The players had made a bet about who could fuck her first.
Both men were watching Brienne expectantly. Finally she muttered, “Jaime, this is Ronnet Connington. Ron, Jaime Lannister.”
Jaime took Ron’s offered hand and shook it hard as Ron’s eyes darted back and forth between Jaime and Brienne. “So, you’re Bri’s…”
“Date,” Jaime said, just as Brienne answered, “Friend.”
A thrill ran down her spine. Apparently a year wasn’t quite long enough to stamp out the faint hope that things might someday change between them. Of course Brienne was attracted to Jaime. Most women were. She’d given herself a week at the start of their friendship to rue her penchant for unobtainable men, then accepted the situation for what it was. Pretending they were dating would not make that easier.
“How did you two meet?” Ron asked, as if he actually gave a damn.
Brienne wanted to escape and never see Connington’s horrible, smirking face again. But then he would win. “It’s boring, really,” she said dismissively.
Ron wasn’t even listening. He waved to someone on the other side of the dance floor. “Hyle, Ed, get over here. Look who I found,” Ron crowed.
Brienne took a startled step back, stopped by Jaime’s hand pressing against the small of her back.
Ron was obnoxious, but Brienne could handle him. She did not want to deal with Hyle and Ed too. Hyle Hunt looked exactly the same, brown hair and eyes, perfectly average and unassuming. Ed Ambrose, by contrast, had allowed his heavy linebacker’s muscles to go soft, a double chin unsuccessfully hidden beneath his close-cropped beard.
Ron pointed at Brienne as if they couldn’t see her themselves. “Brienne’s plus one was about to tell me how they met,” Ron prompted.
Jaime popped a bacon-wrapped fig into his mouth and chewed slowly. That wasn’t a good sign. When Jaime had time to think, he tended to get creative. The more outlandish the lie, the more seriously he would try to sell it. “It’s a funny story, actually. I was on assignment in the Riverlands, out in the middle of the nowhere. And out of the blue, I heard a roar, then a woman’s scream.”
All Brienne could do was stare as Jaime gestured wildly, spinning a story about how he’d broken his arm while saving her from a huge brown bear. His request that she join his team had rescued her from transferring to the Bear Island project, nothing more. Months later, on their trip to the Riverlands Weapons Testing Range, a disgruntled soldier, annoyed with Jaime’s constant quips, had “accidentally” shot him with a prototype bean bag round, breaking his arm.
Ron, Hyle, and Ed laughed in all the right places, clearly not believing a word Jaime said, but entertained nonetheless. Jaime could sell sand to the Dornish. He’d also angled himself just slightly between Brienne and her former tormentors. Jaime could be a mouthy ass, but he was fiercely protective of his friends and family. He had no way of knowing that these guys wouldn’t be distracted so easily.
When Jaime was done with his story, he winked at her.
Rolling her eyes, Brienne added, “We work together at Crown Industries.”
“Brienne is a senior Research and Development manager. Defense division,” Jaime corrected. He sipped his drink. “And what do you do?”
Jaime had told her more than once that most of these people would be little fish in big ponds now, no matter how popular or accomplished they’d been in high school. His twentieth reunion a few years ago had been the same way.
“I opened my dermatology practice last year,” Ed bragged. That explained the massive gold watch on his wrist. He was probably one of those guys who threw Botox parties for aging trophy wives.
Ron’s broad grin returned. “I just made manager at Mockingbird.”
Hyle barked a laugh. “Man, it’s a cell-phone store, not corporate.”
Ron’s eyes flashed. “At least I have a job.” His voice dripped with scorn.
Hyle’s gaze dropped. “Yeah, well, Tarly’s an ass,” he muttered.
Randyll Tarly was an ass. Brienne vividly remembered the man, red-faced with fury, berating his son Sam in the hallway after school one day. Sam had been two years behind her in school. Brienne hoped he’d gotten away from his father.
Tarly also owned the biggest car dealership in town. It didn’t surprise her that Hyle had worked in sales. He had a deceptively honest-looking face.
“You’ll have to forgive us, gentlemen, for cutting this short, but my lady promised me a dance,” Jaime said with just a hint of the patrician Lannister tone. He sounded unnervingly like his father had when Jaime had introduced Brienne to Tywin Lannister at a family wedding. If Jaime had intended to annoy his father by bringing her, he’d succeeded.
Grateful for an excuse to get away, Brienne let Jaime lead her onto the dance floor. She was surprised when Jaime stopped among the slow-dancing couples and pulled her close to him.
“Are we actually dancing? I thought that was just an excuse.” Brienne had most definitely not promised to dance this evening. The deejay was playing a trite ballad from her high school years, and she was nearly certain Jaime hated this band.
Jaime shrugged, but made no move to leave the dance floor. “They won’t follow us out here.”
The warmth of Jaime’s hands on her back and the woodsy scent of his cologne weren’t exactly calming Brienne’s nerves. When they went out to blow off steam with their coworkers, she never danced with Jaime for this very reason.
“I hate dancing,” Brienne protested, reluctantly resting her hands on his shoulders. Their height difference was more obvious now, Jaime’s eyeline barely reaching her mouth. Just another reminder of how unfeminine she was, even when she really tried.
Jaime chuckled as they swayed, turning her so that she couldn’t see the trio still lingering by their table. “And I loathe this song, yet here I am. The things I do for you, honestly. The least you can do is tell me why those idiots were so eager to talk to you.”
“You know how it is,” Brienne said vaguely. “Football players and their conquests. They started calling me ‘Beauty’ when they figured out I wasn’t buying their ridiculous come-ons.” She tried in vain to keep some distance between them, but his hip kept bumping into her thigh.
Brienne felt Jaime inhale deeply, knew he was going to ask her to elaborate, but she caught his eye, silently asking him to let her keep some dignity tonight. Jaime ought to understand sharing things when you were vulnerable that you normally wouldn’t. After the long night they’d spent together in a Riverlands emergency room waiting to see if his broken arm required surgery, Brienne knew things about Jaime that even his siblings didn’t.
Jaime offered up a lopsided smile, and said in a stage whisper, “You know, I talked to that girl. Margaery. You should have seen her face when I told her I was here with you. She almost made an expression.” At Brienne’s questioning look, he added, “I think she’s been visiting good doctor Ed. Her face doesn’t move.”
Brienne couldn’t help but laugh as he imitated Margaery’s rigid features. “You’re terrible,” she chided.
Jaime turned the full power of his smile on her. He was hard to resist when he acted like this, and he knew it. “And you’re terribly honorable. What a pair we make.”