It's late when he rolls out of bed, trying carefully not to wake me. He cautiously crosses the room and with a click of the door, he's gone.
I force my eyes open to look at the clock. The red LED blinks 1:32 AM, as if mocking me. My eyes squeeze shut as I try to stop the tears from falling, like many nights before. For the past three months, this has been a regular occurrence; he wakes up in the middle of the night, disappears for hours, and sneaks back into bed smelling like other women's perfume.
Two long hours later, the bed dips slightly as he settles underneath the covers, wrapping a solid arm around me. He places a gentle kiss on my forehead and I stiffen. He smells like vanilla and lilies, different from yesterday's scent of lavender.
…How many different women has he been with?
"Avery?" he whispers. "Did I wake you?" I don't respond, pretending to be asleep. His arms, the ones that I once found comforting, feel like heavy weights against my body.
I walk into the kitchen where Mark is flipping pancakes. Hearing my footsteps, he turns around and his face immediately brightens. "Hey you," he grins adorably, pulling me close to him. I can't help it, I melt into his touch even though I know it should repulse me. His damp hair indicates that he took a shower, but I still can't get the scent of vanilla and lilies out of my head.
"I made you breakfast," he says, nodding at the table where a plate of pancakes, sausage rounds, and eggs are waiting for me. He already put ketchup on the eggs, just the way I like them, even though I know he finds it disgusting. I smile at the gesture in spite of myself.
"Thanks." I force myself from his grip and walk over to the table, where he joins me a few moments later.
"You've got a bit of ketchup right there…"
I reach for a tissue, but he's already leaning over, his gaze concentrated on my face. He wipes at the corner of my mouth with the pad of his thumb and my breath catches. My lips tingle where he brushed against them and I feel myself getting angry. Even his smallest touch makes my mind go blank and I momentarily hate him for making me feel like this.
His face is so close to mine that I can feel his breath heating my face. I'm overwhelmed by the urge to tilt my head up to kiss him, but instead I jerk away. I don't miss the flash of surprise that flickers across his face.
"I'm sorry, I'm not that hungry right now," I say, as I pick up my half-eaten plate of food.
His gaze is concerned. "Are you feeling okay?"
"I'm fine, I guess I ate too much last night." The lie slips easily past my lips and I wonder if it's as easy for him to lie to me.
"Alright," he nods uncertainly. "Let me know if you're not feeling well." I watch as he clears his plate and picks up his briefcase. Even in these small actions, his movements seem confident. Mark is nothing if not sure of himself, something that attracted me to him in the first place.
"I forgot to tell you, I'm uh, working late tonight," I hear him say. I pick up the hesitation and guilt in his words, but I don't comment, already knowing what they mean.
"Why?" I ask casually, my voice not betraying my suspicion.
"That new project for the Anderson Group is a pain in the ass," he says good-naturedly. "Sorry babe, but we probably won't finish till eleven. I'm just going to get dinner with the team after, so don't wait up for me."
Asshole dickhead bastard son of a bitch – expletives run through my head and I want to hurl each one of them at him. Instead, I paste a smile on my face, something that I've had a lot of practice doing these past few months. "Don't work yourself too hard, okay?"
"I won't." He gives me a quick kiss and pulls back so that he's looking into my eyes.
"I love you." He says it so convincingly and I want so badly to believe his words like I used to.
"Love you too," I mumble. Mark grins and gives me one last, lingering kiss before walking out the door.
I feel like he just took my heart with him.
The phone rings a few moments later and I'm grateful for the interruption from my insidious thoughts.
"Hey Avery, it's Mary," comes the cheerful voice of Mark's secretary. "Did Mark leave yet? I want to remind him to bring the contract for Barner and Co. You know how forgetful he is."
"Sorry Mary, you just missed him." A thought occurs to me and I seize the chance. "You must be so busy, with the Anderson Group and having to stay late and everything."
"Oh honey," Mary laughs, "you must have gotten mixed up. It's the Fourth of July weekend, nobody is staying late."
The Fourth of July is Monday, in three days. How could I have forgotten? It'll be our five year anniversary…
Disappointment rushes in me, so fast my head spins and I feel like I can't breathe. Deep down inside, a part of me still believes that Mark would never lie to me, would never cheat on me, and I had wanted desperately for Mary to confirm what he had told me earlier.
"You're right," I say, like my heart didn't just get broken into two. "I did get mixed up, silly me. Thanks Mary."
As I replace the phone back in its cradle, I realize that my hands are shaking. I will them to stop but it gets worse until my head is pounding and my body is trembling and my legs feel weak beneath me. I sink down to the floor pathetically and let the sobs take over my body. Three month's worth of hurt, frustration, and confusion pour out of me, tears that I had never let myself shed before.
I don't know what happened. For five years, it's been Mark and Avery. Avery and Mark. The couple that everyone says they envy. We aren't without our fights here and there, but it's never anything that can't be fixed. So where did we go wrong?
I have repeatedly told myself that I'm blowing things out of proportion, but I can't ignore the signs any longer. I think of the phone calls he answers in other rooms, the faraway smiles he gets sometimes when he's with me, the way he's been shutting himself off more and more, and most of all, his late-night rendezvous and the different scents of perfume I smell on him, and I can't come up with another conclusion.
It should be obvious to me what my next move should be. "Dump his ass," I can hear the voice of my best friend, Lexie, tell me.
All my life, I have sworn to myself that I would never tolerate cheating. But this is Mark we're talking about. Mark, who held my hand when I was sick with a contagious cold even after I threw up on him. Mark, who told tall, gorgeous Bianca Sweeney that he wouldn't date her in a million years because he had me - plain old Avery James. Mark, who used his vacation days to take a few days off from his job as a marketing executive because I was feeling lonely after Lexie moved away. Mark, who I love, and who I, as of three months go, wanted to spend the rest of my life with.
I sniffle and lean against the wall, completely at a loss of what to do.
It's past one when he walks in the door, to find me sitting on the couch. The television is blaring, but I'm barely paying attention to it.
"Ave?" he calls out. "You're still up?"
I look at him, and even after all these years, it sometimes still takes my breath away how gorgeous he is. Messy brown hair, light brown eyes, a strong jaw, full lips, and a tall nose. But even though his face is perfect, what makes me think that he's gorgeous is the light that seems to come from within him every time he smiles at me.
"Hey, what's wrong?" he asks, likely seeing my red and puffy eyes. He sets down his briefcase and sits next to me on the couch, wrapping me in his warm embrace. He rubs soothing circles on my back and I clutch his shirt, burying my face into his chest.
I inhale and an incredible aroma hits my nose. I can smell hints of honey, something floral, and notes of a spice I can't identify. Whoever this perfume belongs to, she has excellent taste.
Excellent taste such as my boyfriend.
The thought makes me break out into new sobs and I push him away from me.
"Avery, please tell me what the matter is," he pleads with me, helplessness written all over his face.
I take a deep breath, trying to calm myself down.
"Are you cheating on me?" I blurt out bluntly. The accusation comes out before I can stop it. Smooth Avery, smooth.
"No!" he exclaims loudly, recoiling as if I had physically hit him. "Are you fucking serious?"
I look at his face and I catch a bit of hurt before it is replaced with anger. I have never seen Mark so furious, not even when he caught Taylor Manning forcing his lips on mine (and he was furious enough to leave Taylor with a black eye and a bloody nose).
I feel my own anger rise. He has no right to be mad at me when he's the one sneaking around! Something in me snaps and I can't hold back anymore.
"Well, what else am I supposed to think!" I yell. "You barely talk to me anymore, you have secret phone calls, you sneak out at night, and you come back smelling like perfume!" I swipe angrily at my tears.
I see the anger slowly drain out of him as he puts his head in his hands. He sighs, as if unsure of what to do. The fact that he doesn't deny his actions doesn't escape me.
It's a few moments longer before he raises his head. Slowly, like he's afraid that I'll push him away again, he tilts my chin up. He pauses, as if taking my face in, before brushing his thumb over my jaw.
And in this moment, it becomes clear to me that this is the Mark that I know, not the near stranger that I have been living with for the past three months. This is the Mark that knows me inside and out and would never hurt me intentionally. There has to be another explanation for his behavior. There has to be, because I don't think I can handle it if there isn't.
"Avery, do you trust me?" he questions me. Though his voice is quiet, his words are heavy, and I know that my answer has the power to make or break us.
Do I trust him? The fact that I just asked him if he's cheating on me should say that no, I don't. But…in spite of all the signs that tell me that he's being unfaithful, I just can't bring myself to believe Mark to be capable of something that would destroy our relationship…and me, in the process.
His jaw tightens with each passing second and though he's trying not to let it show, I can tell that he's scared that I'll say no.
"Yes," I tell him finally, my heart feeling a little less heavy with the truth I hear in my voice.
The relief that washes over his face is instant.
"Then you have to believe me - I'm not cheating on you. I have never, and I never will," he swears intensely.
"Then tell me what you've been doing at night!" I hear the neediness in my words and it sickens me.
He shuts his eyes for a moment and takes a deep breath. Suddenly, I know that he's not going to tell me, but it still doesn't stop me from hoping he will. I falter as he takes my hands in his and traces his thumbs over my knuckles. Inwardly, I shiver at the tingles making their way up my arms.
"I will," he assures me. "But…I need bit more time. Please, Avery. I just need you to wait a little longer."
I yank my hands out of his. "I've been waiting three damn months," I spit out. "Do you know how hard it is, knowing that you're shutting me out of your life? That you're deliberately lying to me?"
I'm proud of how my voice doesn't waver.
"I trust you," I tell him again, "but you don't seem to trust me."
His face falls and I feel guilty for being the one to put such an expression on his face, but then I remember that it's his fault. He opens his mouth, presumably to contradict my words, but I cut him off before he can say anything.
"I need a few days," I say, my mind made up. "I'll be back, so don't come after me."
"Avery-" He sounds strained.
"Don't." I grab my keys and run out the door before he can stop me.
In spite of the fact that Lexie lives on the other side of the state, I'm driving to her house in the middle of the night. Luckily, there are barely any cars on the road at this time so the trip only takes me a little more than an hour. My phone rings on the way there, but I ignore it. I don't feel like talking to him yet.
Lexie isn't mad as she answers the door at nearly three in the morning. She doesn't ask me what I'm doing there, but instead, pulls me into the big hug that I needed desperately. "Tell me what's wrong," she demands, before I even greet her.
I'm almost done filling her in when my phone rings loudly. I look at the caller display, even though I already know it's him calling. I let it ring and a minute later, I hear the beep indicating a new voicemail. I know that I won't have the willpower to ignore it, so I listen to his message.
"Ave," he starts. I wait, expecting some sort of apology. "I know that you're not going to pick up your phone but if you're listening to this, will you please call me or text me to let me know where you are and that you're safe? It's late and I'm- I'm worried about you. I know you need some space so I promise I won't follow you." There's a long pause and I'm about to hang up when his deep voice comes through the speaker again. "I love you."
I blink and I'm surprised at how wet my eyes are. Stupid Mark. Stupid Mark for not apologizing. Stupid Mark and his stupid message that makes me want to forgive him more than any apology he could ever come up with.
I text him telling him I'm at Lexie's and almost immediately, my phone lights up with his simple response: "Thank you."
It's the Fourth of July and I'm on Lexie's couch in my pajamas, eating a popsicle and watching the Discovery Channel.
She glances at me from the side of her eyes. "It's July fourth."
"I know," I reply, sucking on my popsicle. "Look at them salamanders," I nod at the screen.
She rolls her eyes. "Like you give a shit about the salamanders. Avery, you've been here the whole weekend. Don't you think it's time you go home and talk to Mark?"
"So eager to get rid of me?"
"You know I'm happy you're here. But it's your frigging five year anniversary!"
I pout. "Exactly. It is our five year anniversary. And you'd think that if Mark cared, he'd be here, feeding me popsicles and on his knees, begging for forgiveness."
Lexie points at my phone, where I have seven missed calls, not that I've been counting or looking at it or anything. He calls just enough not to annoy me, but enough that I know he cares. "He's just respecting your wishes. I'm sure if you stay until later, he'll be here. But you told him you'd be back."
"I know, I know," I sigh. "I was just about to leave. I'm done being childish. It's not like I'm even that mad anymore. I just need some answers."
I'm changing when I hear the doorbell ring. My heart soars against my will, but quickly plummets when I hear the words "UPS delivery" through the bathroom door. I suddenly feel stupid for caring so much.
I gather the pajamas and pull open the door. Walking into the living room, I'm prepared to say goodbye to Lexie.
And then I see who is sitting on the couch. As usual, my heart skips a beat like it does every time I see him.
My eyes dart to the front door, where an UPS package is sitting there innocently. Mark must've arrived at the same time as the delivery.
He looks up at me as I walk in, not saying a thing. I sit down with some distance between us.
"Hi," I whisper, suddenly feeling shy. I nervously tuck a stray blonde tendril behind my ears and his eyes unconsciously follow the movement, before refocusing on my face.
I'm tempted to run back into the bathroom and at least put some makeup on, but then I remember that this is Mark, and Mark thinks I look beautiful even in the morning, when I have bed head and eye crusts and creases on my face from the pillow.
"Hey," he says back, his voice hoarse. He doesn't move any closer to me and I don't know if I'm relieved or disappointed.
I sneak a peak at him and he looks perfect as always. His hair is in its usual messy-but-stylish fashion, his shirt doesn't have a single wrinkle, and I can catch a faint whiff of his cologne. I almost think he isn't affected at all by this, until I notice the purple bags under his eyes. The sight of them cheers me up more than they should.
"I thought you said you wouldn't follow me." I say it teasingly, so he knows that I want him here.
He smiles at me uncertainly, but quickly turns serious again. "Like I would miss our five year anniversary."
I flinch at his harsh tone and he immediately softens. "I'm sorry," he apologizes, his voice tired. "I didn't mean to snap at you." He seems frustrated, but with himself, not me.
"Listen," he says. He is fiddling with his fingers, a sign of nervousness I rarely see him display. "I'm just going to say it. I need you to understand everything, so please don't say anything until I'm done. Is that okay?"
I nod, not sure if I can speak even if I want to.
"Five months ago, LaRosa Cosmetics approached our company about promoting one of their new products. We took on the project and I got to talking with one of the chemists in their company. I had an idea about a product that I had been thinking about for awhile and he agreed to help me out, as a favor. This product isn't something that's going to be mass-produced, so I had to work on in my own time. That's what I've been doing at night."
I'm about to ask him why he had to hide it from me when I remember that I'm not supposed to speak until he's done.
Mark reaches down beside him and hands me a shimmery gift bag. "Happy five year anniversary," he says, and I know that he means it.
Inside the bag is a brightly wrapped gift with a ribbon.
I untie the ribbon and slowly pull away at the wrapping paper, suspense building in me. A professional product box with my name embossed in gold font greets me. I slide my finger underneath the top of the box and pull it open. Reaching in, I take out an elegant glass bottle, my name written on it in the same gold font as on the box.
I glance at Mark in confusion. "What is this?"
"Do you remember that time we were at the department store and we walked past the fragrances? And there were all these celebrity-made perfumes and you said you wondered what it'd feel like to have a perfume created for you and named after you?"
I gape at him, speechless. There was no way Mark made a perfume for me…
"I was kidding!" I exclaim.
"Test it out," he says, gesturing at the bottle. His voice is so quiet that I know he's embarrassed.
I spray a little on my wrist and hold it up. The same delicious scent that I smelled on Mark a few nights before, the night I ran from him, wafts up my nose and it immediately has a calming effect on me.
"I wanted to get it exactly right. That's why I had different perfume on me all the time - I was trying out different oils." He hesitates.
"Do you like it?" His voice is unsure.
"I love it," I breathed.
"It's a mix of honey, lily, and cinnamon. I know it sounds weird but I think it smells just like you: warm and bubbly and like breath of fresh air." He scratches his neck sheepishly. "I wanted to surprise you, but you know how bad I am at keeping secrets. Every time I talked to you, I was so scared I would blurt it out that I just talked to you less and less. I didn't even realize it. When you left Friday, I was going to tell you everything, but then you were already in car by the time I made it to the door.
"I was stupid and I hurt you, which is the last thing I want to do," he continues. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I know those are just words but I promise you, I'll make it up to you."
I can't take this any longer.
"You are stupid," I say to him. He looks tortured and I decide to put him out of his misery. "And you must be the best boyfriend in the world.
"God…I can't believe-…I mean, what I said to you-…I-..I'm…" I stutter because it suddenly hits me – the full force of what Mark did, the sacrifices he made – the time he dedicated, the sleep he lost, the lying - because he wanted to make me happy.
Because he loves me.
The feeling of happiness overcomes me and it's so powerful that I feel unstoppable, invincible, but I'm still struggling with how to tell him how much he means to me and how sorry I am for what I put him through.
And then, it's okay…because he's flashing me a big, reassuring smile. A smile to let me know that he's already forgiven me, and more importantly, that he understands everything that I'm unable to say.
"I was coming back, you know," I say suddenly. "Before you showed up, I mean." I don't want him thinking that I wasn't.
"I know you were," he assures me. "But I figured, hey, this girl is worth chasing after, so…"
"So does this mean I can hug you now? Because I've been wanting to do that this whole time," he admits.
I don't need a second invitation. I fling myself at him, closing the space between us and holding on to him, relishing in his touch and never wanting to be without it again. He tugs me even closer, kissing the top of my head.
"Maybe you think I'm the best boyfriend in the world, but I don't want to be your boyfriend anymore."
My world stops and I panic for a millisecond, before rationality takes over and I realize that he's joking…
And then he's down on one knee with a small, velvet box, saying the words that I've been waiting forever to hear.
"Avery James, will you marry me?"
It's late when he rolls over, unconsciously pulling me tight against his body.
I force my eyes open to look at the clock. The red LED blinks 1:32 AM and I go back to sleep with his ring on my finger and a smile on my face, secure in the knowledge that he is right beside me and always will be.