Chapter no 7

Better Than the Movies

“I’d rather fight with you than make love with anyone else.”

The Wedding Date

“Good morning, sunshine.”

I grunted and went straight for the Keurig. I adored my father, but the sight of his bright-eyed, smiling face peeking out from behind the newspaper at the breakfast table was just a little too much. My eyes didn’t want to be open, and I de1nitely didn’t want to engage in chipper morning conversation after being up all night with a throbbing nose.

“How’s the honker?”

I smiled—that’s what Wes had called it—and hit the button that made the water warm. “Sore, but I’ll survive.”

“You work today?” “Yup—I’m the lucky opener.”

He closed the paper and started folding it. “Did you 1ll out the dorm paperwork I sent to your email?”

Crap. “I forgot. I’ll do it today.”

“You have to stop putting it oP. If you’re old enough to go to college on the other side of the country, you’re old enough to 1ll out a few forms.”

I sighed. “Got it.”

File that under Another Thing Liz Was Avoiding. I was dying to go away to school and get started at UCLA. I was even looking forward to the actual studies. Classes on music curation wouldn’t seem like work, would they? But every time I thought of living there, I got this huge ball of dread in my stomach that had nothing to do with California and everything to do with leaving the only place I’d ever lived with my mother.

And the few times I’d allowed myself to consider the reality that I would no longer be able to just toss on my running shoes and see her at the cemetery, my vision instantly blurred with tears and my throat felt like it was closing.

So, yeah. I had some issues to resolve there.

He gave me a dad look. “Quit procrastinating. The early bird gets the better dorm room, Little Liz.”

“Hey. Speaking of that.” I put the pod into the machine and closed the top. “Was I a nice little weirdo when I was a kid?”

He cocked an eyebrow. “Come again?”

I hit the button, and the Keurig started whirring. “Wes said that back in the day, I was a nice little weirdo, and I just don’t remember it that way. Is he right?”

My dad’s face split into a wide smile. “You don’t remember it that way?” “Not at all.” I stared at the coPee as it spat into my cup. “I mean, I maybe

wasn’t supercool, but—”

“You were de1nitely a strange little kid.”

“What?” I looked at his grin and was torn between laughing and being annoyed. “I was not.”

“You made our deck into a wedding chapel when you were seven—remember that? You spent days setting it up with stolen Aowers from your mom’s garden and white sheets. You tied a string of empty corn cans to Fitz’s collar.”

“So? That’s some impressive creativity right there.”

He gave a little laugh as I joined him at the table. “That’s right—that part was cute. The part that was weird was when you talked that kid who used to live on the corner—Conner something—into pretending to marry you. He let you boss him around until you told him that it was legal and he was married to you forever. Then he tried going home, but you tackled him to the ground and said he couldn’t leave until he carried you over the ‘tressel.’”

“A reasonable expectation from a bride.”

“He cried until we 1nally heard his wails through the screen door, Liz.” I blew on my coPee. “I’m still waiting for the weird part.”

“You broke your black oval glasses in the scuAe and you still wouldn’t let him up.”

“He should’ve stayed put like a good husband.”

He started laughing and so did I. So maybe I had been a little weird.



“Excuse me—do you work here?”

I rolled my eyes as I tried to 1nish shifting the bottom row of middle-grade 1ction to the next shelf over. I’d made it through a full morning of What happened to your nose? at the cash register, so I’d switched to stocking new releases in hopes of avoiding further human contact.

I stood from my squat and turned around.

And almost swallowed my tongue when I saw Michael. “Oh my God—hey.” “Hey, Liz.” His face jumped into a big grin. “I didn’t know you worked


“Yeah.” I so wanted to cover my hideous nose and maybe disappear. He’d been the instigator of our text conversation last night, but I felt weird about how awkward it’d been.

“I’m impressed.” His hands slid into his pockets and he said, “Two jobs and



“I can’t believe you wait tables and work here, when I don’t even have one job at the moment.”

Ugh—“The” Diner. My lies were really becoming difficult to manage. “What can I say? I like money.”

I felt my breath hitch as I looked at him. He was wearing a button-down plaid shirt—not casual plaid Aannel, mind you, but, like, a nice shirt. And it was paired with perfect pants and leather shoes that looked like they belonged on a fancy boat. He looked beautiful and classy, like someone who could successfully win an argument without raising his voice.

I bit down on my lower lip and tried not to stare at his perfect face. “Is there something I can help you 1nd?”

His smile turned into a self-deprecating, embarrassed smirk. “I’m looking for a book. It showed up as available online, but it isn’t in the section.”

“What book?”

He looked like he didn’t want to tell me. He put his hands in his pockets and said, “Okay, don’t laugh. I’m looking for The Other Miss Bridgerton by Julia Quinn.”

I rolled my lips inward and tilted my head, trying to 1gure out what the story was. I’d read that book—I mean, I’d read all of the Bridgerton novels—but historical romances were typically read by women. “Why would I laugh? That’s a great book.”

His eyes narrowed. “Are you being sarcastic?”

“Not at all. I love everything Quinn has ever written.”

His mouth loosened a little in relief. “You’re judging me for reading them because I’m a guy, though, aren’t you?”

Hmmm… let’s see. A guy who reads romance—really, really good romance? Someone who doesn’t care about labels and loses himself in books about clever, funny heroines and the men who appreciate their individuality?

No judgment here. A little light-headed smittenness, perhaps, but no judgment.

I casually rested my hand over my horrible nose and said, “Absolutely not. I’m kind of curious how you picked them up, but I sincerely think they’re of Jane Austen quality.”

That made his mouth curl in a tease. “You don’t think that’s maybe a stretch?”

“Trust me, Michael, you don’t want to debate this with me. I’ve got a four-hour shift in front of me and an obsessive love of romance books. You can’t win this one.”

He gave a chuckle that reached his eyes, squinting them in the warmest way. “Noted. And for the record, it all started with a bet.”

“As all good things do.” Before the last word left my lips, an image of Wes’s face popped into my head. All day long I’d been replaying our phone call, the gravelly sleepiness of his voice as we’d watched Miss Congeniality together from two separate houses.

Michael laughed again, and just like that I was back in the present and we were both smiling all over each other next to the secondhand Judy Blume section. He crossed his arms in front of his chest and said, “A friend of mine

challenged me to read The Duke and I a few years ago. She put money on the idea that if I actually read it, I would like it.”

I loved that book. “And that was it?”

“That was it.” He gave me a sheepish smile and said, “Besides, what’s more fun than a story that starts with a fake relationship?”

Every 1ber of my being wanted to laugh maniacally at the words he’d just spoken, but I nodded and said, “I wholeheartedly agree.”

“You do know that your hand isn’t doing anything to cover your nose, right?

I can still see it.”

I rolled my eyes, which made him grin. I dropped my hand and said, “It’s just so atrocious that I can’t help but try to cover it, y’know?”

“I get it, but it doesn’t look bad at all compared to last night. Maybe a little swollen, but that’s it.”

“Thanks. You know, for lying to me.” I owned a mirror, so his words only served to con1rm that he was as nice as he’d ever been. And that accent? Oh, baby. I gestured for him to follow me. I knew exactly where to 1nd the book he was looking for, and it was on the other side of the store. “I do think it is shrinking, even though it’s still Potato Head-y.”


“So how are your parents?” I glanced over my shoulder. “Catch me up.” “Well, the folks are good,” he started, and I wondered if his parents were still

super serious. I had blurry memories of thick glasses and frowning mouths.

“Do you still have cats?” I’d loved that he liked cats better than dogs. It had been another reason why he always seemed smarter than the rest of the neighborhood kids. “Purrkins and Mr. Squishy?”

“I can’t believe you remember their names.” He was grinning again, looking the kind of happy that made me want to eat his face oP. “Squish lives with my grandma now, but Purrkins still resides with us, tormenting us on the daily with his shitty cat attitude.”

“His cattitude.” I stopped in front of the large-print section. “Good boy.”

My mind went to Wes then, because when we’d talked on the phone the night before, he’d asked if my cat was outside. It’d taken forever for me to fall

asleep once I got into bed, mostly on account of the incessant smiling that I was doing as I recalled our conversation.

The growly sound of his voice when he teased, And you can’t sleep until you know where I am. I see you.

Michael said, “Speaking of Wes—”

“What—I wasn’t,” I blurted, blinking fast while trying to 1gure out what the hell I’d missed, and what words he’d been saying as I’d zoned out.

Michael frowned as he looked at me strangely and said, “I really think you should give him a shot.”

Wait, what?

Michael had already done his wingman duty by mentioning it to me at the basketball court, right? Sure, they were friends, but if he had any thoughts about me that went beyond friendship, it seemed like he wouldn’t be pushing so hard.

But he had texted me, and he had been the playful one. So what did it all mean? I needed a bulletin board and some string at this point. As we got to the Quinn section, I said, “A shot. What constitutes a shot, exactly?”

He reached up and pulled the book from the shelf. “Just get to know him.” “I already know him.”

“The now him, not the hide-and-seek him.” He opened the book and Aipped through the pages. “Wow—those are some large words.”

“Sorry, we only have the large-print edition in stock.”

“Anyway,” he continued, giving me enough eye contact to make me 1dget. “He likes you, Liz. Honestly, I’ve only been here for a few days, and I can’t get him to shut up about you.”

What exactly was Wes saying when I wasn’t around? Was he playing it up too much? Because if he did, the plan might totally back1re. I said, “He doesn’t even really know me—he knows the hide-and-seek me.”

“Just try—that’s all I’m asking. Go out with him and try.”

I looked at him and gnawed on the corner of my lip. “Are you asking me out

for him?” How in the flipping flip were Wes and I going to get out of this?

That made him smile again. “Not at all. But I’m having people over Wednesday night to watch movies since seniors have late-start Thursday, and y’all should come.”

I swallowed and teased, “You mean together, right?” That made him smile. “Just carpool with Wes. Please?”

God, this whole thing was starting to spin out of control. Now Michael was having people over so Wes could make a move. But Wes was only pretending to think I was amazing to show Michael how amazing I was. I was getting whiplash, and this was my own plan. I needed to end it soon. I asked, “What if, after that, I still only like him as a friend? What then?”

“No harm, no foul.” His eyes moved over my face, and it felt like a moment. It felt like he was really seeing me, or considering something about me, and I wondered just how bad my nose looked.

“Fine,” I said. Maybe he was giving his friend one last shot before he moved in. I said, “I’ll give him a shot.”

“Yes.” He beamed down at me and did a little 1st pump thing. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take my romance novel home and read it in a steamy bubble bath.”

I laughed. “Go treat yourself, honey.”



“It was just straight-up adorable, Ma.” I leaned back against the headstone and crossed my ankles, inhaling the smell of fresh-cut grass. Sometimes April was slow to hit in Nebraska, with the occasional late snowstorm blowing in to destroy the promise of spring, but not this year.

Birds were chirping in the budding leaves of the cemetery’s tall trees, the evening sun was warm(ish), and that springtime feeling of anticipation Aoated through the air, along with the smell of the blossoming chokecherries.

“Not only was he buying a romantic book that no typical insecure male would ever admit to reading, but he was funny and charming and, between you and me, Airty with his eyes. Flirty with his eyes, and he’d been for sure Airty with his text last night. I think he thinks… I don’t know, I don’t want to say he thinks I’m cool, but maybe funny…? Yeah, I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m funny.”

I pictured his laughing face again—for, like, the twentieth time since he’d left the bookstore—and I wanted to squeal. “I swear to God you would love him so much.”

She so would. He was mature and polite and charming and smart, totally the kind of guy she made the hero of every single one of her screenplays. Every script she’d written had the solid, dependable cutie landing their love.

Which was why I just wanted him to ask me to prom so badly. Somehow, going to prom with someone she’d known—who’d known her well enough to know about and remember her daisies—seemed vitally important. Like it might make it feel like she was somehow involved in my senior year.

Ridiculous, right?

But I just wanted the hole of emptiness in my life to shrink just a tiny bit. Was that so much to ask? I kept waiting for the “closure” I was supposed to feel, but I was starting to think it would never come.

The chokecherry tree I’d been looking at got blurry, and I swallowed down the pinch in my throat. “Dad and Helena keep asking me about prom—if I’m going, if I need a dress—and the thing is, I don’t want their help with anything. It’s sel1sh and they don’t deserve it, but if I can’t have you doing those things with me, I don’t want anyone else.”

“Are you talking to yourself?”

I jumped, knocking my head against Mom’s headstone, before turning around to see Wes. He was standing there in sporty clothes with a sweaty running brow, and I put my hand over my racing heart and said, “Oh my God— what are you doing here?”

His mouth went down and his eyebrows squinched together like he was confused. “Whoa—sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

For some reason, I was pissed by his appearance. I knew I should feel embarrassed that he’d caught me talking to a piece of marble, or worried about what exactly he’d heard, but all I could think about was the fact that he was in this space. It was my space—my mom’s and mine—and he shouldn’t be there.

I scrambled to my feet. “Wes, did you follow me here? What is your problem?”

“Oh.” His smirk disappeared and he glanced at my mother’s grave—now that I’d moved, he could see her name—before saying, “Shit. I was already running when I saw you turn in here. I thought you were just cutting through.”

“Yeah, well, I wasn’t, okay?” I blinked fast, trying to stop my emotions from speeding down whatever chute they were headed for. “It’s probably best if you just don’t run after people without them knowing. That’d probably be your best bet.”

He swallowed. “I didn’t know, Liz.”

I rolled my eyes and pulled my earbuds from my pocket. “Yeah, well, now you do know. You know that weird Little Liz is the freak who can’t get over her dead mom. Awesome.”

“No. Listen.” He stepped closer and wrapped his hands around my upper arms, gently squeezing as his intense brown eyes moved all over my face like he was desperate to convince me. “I’m gonna go now, and you stay. Forget you ever saw me.”

“Too late.” I breathed in through my nose and gritted my teeth, stepping back from him and his hands. “Stay if you want, I don’t care.”

I jammed my earbuds into my ears and started the music. I cranked Foo Fighters so loud that I couldn’t hear whatever Wes was saying to me, and I turned away from him and started running down the road, even though I knew he was yelling my name.

I ran home at a record pace, trying to think about mundane things like homework in a weak attempt to shut down my emotions. I needed to write a paper on patriarchy in literature, and I couldn’t decide if I should use “The Yellow Wallpaper” or “The Story of an Hour.” I liked the second one better, but the 1rst had more material.

I slammed through the front door and had almost made it to the safety of my room when my dad yelled for me.


“Come in here for a sec.”

I went down the hall to his room and pushed open his bedroom door, still breathing hard from the exercise. “Yeah?”

He was sitting up in bed, reading a book, with an episode of Friends on TV in the background. He didn’t even tear his eyes from the paperback when he asked, “Hey, did you go prom dress shopping with Jocelyn yet?”

“Not yet—her mom got tied up and I didn’t really feel like it because of my nose.”

“Oh, yeah. How’s that feeling, by the way?”

I shrugged and thought about how much I loved hearing Friends reruns in my dad’s room. He and my mother had watched that show in bed so many times that it’d become like a lullaby to me, a sound that conjured the sights and smells of my early childhood. “Better, I guess.”

“Glad to hear it.” He turned the volume on the television down to zero and 1nally looked at me. “Listen, since you haven’t gone yet, maybe you could see if Helena wants to go with you guys. I know she’d love to do this, and I’m pretty sure she’ll pay for your overpriced dress too.”

Oh, the timing. I didn’t want her to come, and I de1nitely didn’t want her to pay for my dress. I felt an anxious skip in my heartbeat and tried, “I think she’s probably too—”

“Come on, Libby Loo.” My dad took oP his reading glasses. “She really wants to do this with you. Why is it such a big ask?”

I swallowed. “It’s not.”

“Really? Because I’ve heard her mention two or three times that she’d be happy to take you shopping, yet you made plans with someone else.”

“I’ll take care of it.” Why couldn’t he—and Helena—let it go? Why did they have to pile on to the prom pressure? It felt like everyone wanted me to do something—multiple somethings—that I didn’t want to do.

He cocked an eyebrow. “You’ll invite her? And not say something like it was my idea?”

My throat was tight, but I said, “Sure.”

He moved on to talking about something else, but I didn’t hear any of it. Why should I have to go dress shopping with Helena? For the rest of our chat and the entire duration of my shower afterward, my brain shouted arguments to the great unknown. I felt suPocated by the thought of Helena taking my mom’s place, the kind of helpless desperation that caused your 1ngernails to leave tiny crescent grooves on your palms. I don’t want her there, so why is it getting forced down my throat? Why do her wishes count more than mine? The arguments

boiled through me as I brushed my teeth and laid out my clothes, and by the time I shut oP the light and climbed into bed, I was exhausted.

And totally racked with guilt about what a bitch I’d been to Wes at the cemetery. He’d done nothing wrong, but the sight of him in that weirdly sacred place had set me oP. I guess it was because that was the only place where I felt her anymore. The rest of the world—and my life—had moved on, but in that one spot, nothing had changed since she’d died.

I was pathetic.

I Aipped on my TV and loaded the Two Weeks Notice DVD. It was another movie where Hugh Grant was playing a sketchball, but the banter between him and Sandra Bullock more than made up for that fact and actually made him forgivable. I pulled the blankets up to my chin as Sandra Bullock’s character ordered too much Chinese food. When I reached for my phone to plug it in, I noticed I’d missed a text.

From Wes.

Wes: I’m sorry. I didn’t know that your mom was there or I never would’ve followed you inside. I know you think I’m a dick but I promise you—I would never intrude on that.

I sighed and sat up. I was so embarrassed. How could I even explain it? No one normal would ever understand.

And wait—he thought that I thought he was a dick?

Me: Forget it. I’m the one who should be apologizing because you didn’t do anything wrong. You caught me at a bad moment and I freaked out—not your fault.

Wes: No, I get it. It wasn’t a parent so I know it’s not the same, but I was close to my grandma. Every time we go to MN, the 1rst thing I do is go to the cemetery to talk to her.

I looked up from my phone and blinked. Then I texted: Really? Wes: Really.

I nodded in the darkness and blinked fast while my thumbs Aew over the keys.

Me: I started “running” as a way to go talk to her without having to explain. Wes: No shit—that’s why you started running?

I could hear Fitz meowing at my door, so I got up and went to open it. Me: Not past tense—that is why I run.

Wes: Wait a second—are you telling me that every day when I see you take oP and I assume that you’re training in order to make it to the Olympic trials, you’re actually just running to Oak Lawn to talk to your mother?


Mr. Fitzpervert looked up at me, meowed, and walked away. Now there was a dick. I shut my door.

Me: Bingo. But I swear to God I will gut you with a vegetable peeler if you tell anyone.

Wes: Your secret is safe with me, Buxbaum.

I walked over to the window. Your house looks dark—are you up in your room?

Wes: Are you ever not creeping on me, creeper? And before you ask, I’m wearing a kicky pair of trousers, a pirate blouse, and a black beret.

I laughed in the quiet of my room.

Me: I wasn’t going to ask, but that sounds hot. Wes: It is. I’ve got heatstroke up in here.

I looked down at their front yard, where someone had left a football next to the hydrangea bushes.

Wes: And the answer to your question is that I’m out back, in the Secret Area.

The Secret Area. I hadn’t thought of it in years. Wes’s house had a bit of land behind their fence that had never been developed. So while the rest of the houses on this street backed up to other backyards, Wes’s had a tiny little forest behind it.

In grade school, during peak hide-and-seek days, we’d dubbed it the “Secret Area.” It was where we’d explored, pretended, started unapproved camp1res… It had been incredible. I hadn’t been back there since the summer before middle school.

Me: Why?

Wes: Come see why.

Did he really want me to come hang out? Hanging out by ourselves, in a way that had nothing to do with Michael? My mom had cautioned against dating

Aighty boys, but it was okay to be friends with them, right? I texted: My dad and Helena are already asleep.

Wes: So sneak out.

I rolled my eyes—so typical. Unlike you, I’ve never snuck out. It seems ill-advised.

I couldn’t, but part of me felt like I could hear him laugh at my response.

After about a minute, my phone buzzed.

Wes: “Ill-advised.” Buxbaum, you never fail to make me laugh. Me: Thank you.

Wes: Not a compliment. BUT. You’re looking at this the wrong way. Me: Oh? And what is the right way?

Wes: You—a very well-behaved teenager—simply want to get some fresh spring air and look at the stars for a couple minutes. Instead of waking up your parents, you decide to quietly slip out for a few minutes.

Me: You’re a sociopath. Wes: Dare you.

I glanced in the direction of the hall as those words—“dare you”—brought back so many memories of Wes goading me to do things I shouldn’t, like climbing onto Brenda Buckholtz’s roof and ding-dong-ditching Mr. Levine’s house.

Before I could respond, he texted: I’m shutting oP my phone so I won’t get your excuses. See you in 1ve minutes.

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