The photos said it all. A thousand words, spoken through a series of gestures. A pair of hands clasped together, smiles on faces, laughter... a kiss. It was as though he didn’t care. As though he wanted the world to know how he felt about her.
Sophia’s hands trembled as she flipped through the photos again. She didn’t realise she was crying until a tear landed on the iPhone screen in front of her. She took a shaky breath in, composed herself, and looked up at Liam, her best friend.
“I’m sorry, Soph... I hope it’s a ruse or something.”
“Me too. Look, it’s probably nothing.” Sophia wiped her eyes, smiling. “It’ll be fine. I'm sure he has a perfectly good explanation.”
Three weeks later
“Honey! I’m home!” the sing-song voice of James rang through the silent house. Sophia felt her heart stop as she leaned against the kitchen counter. She’d had plenty of time to prepare herself for this, but being in the situation and having to actually confront him about it was something she couldn’t have prepared herself fully for at all. She took a breath and plastered a smile on her face. She hadn’t seen him for weeks. Nearly two full months, while he’d been working in New York. Her own job had kept her in Texas, and it had killed her when Liam came with the news. Three weeks to stew on it, to research who she was, what she was doing, why she had her hands all over her guy... or was it the other way around?
“Sophia? Are you alright?”
“What? No! What?!” Sophia snapped out of it. She grinned up at him, a little too maniacally. “James! Hi!” she threw her arms around him, swallowing her tears.
“Everything alright, baby?” James tried to pull away, but Sophia kept her grip around his neck. She couldn’t look at him right now. Not yet. Not into those eyes. “Sophia? What’s... are you okay?” Sophia nodded. “Then... can I look at you?”
“Sure. Sorry. I didn’t - I mean, I... sorry. I’m really tired.”
“Why? What happened?” James looked at her, his eyes concerned. He took her face in his hands.
“Nothing. I... I just had a bit of a bad... dream. It must have been a bad dream.”
“Want to talk about it?”
“No. It's fine.” Sophia smiled brightly. “Did you have a good journey home?”
“I... did, yeah. It went well... I haven’t heard from you for a while... three weeks.”
“Well, I got busy with work, you know? It got real hectic.” Sophia turned to the counter she’d been wiping over, and scrubbed at a stubborn spot with her cloth. “And then I figured I’d sort the stuff out that I’ve promised I’ll sort for a while, you know?”
“It’s... I was going to say it’s really neat in here...” James looked around. Usually, when he came back from extended trips, the kitchen was a bombsite and the place, while clean, was a mess. Usually something was growing somewhere. But this time, it was pin-neat. Sophia’s trauma kitchens were one of the only banes of their relationship. Trauma kitchen, because she’d grown up with the constant stress of keeping the kitchen clean, but could never get it right. It had resulted in endless attacks from her stepdad, and as such the thought of cleaning it made her feel sick. But, with James, she was working on it. As best she could, she was working on it.
Sophia’s cleaning had been a distraction for her. Loud music every day, drowning out the images of James and Mystery Woman together, enjoying themselves publicly on the streets of New York City. Dating an actor came with its flaws, but they’d managed to make it work for nearly three years – why now? She couldn’t think about it without panicking, so she’d cleaned. She’d cleaned the entirety of the house she’d moved into with James, from top to bottom. Every cupboard was pin-neat, every surface gleamed. Even the tiling in the kitchen was the same white it had been when it had been finished. She’d spent an entire day on her knees scrubbing it with a brush no larger than a toothbrush. Trauma kitchens paled in comparison to ‘my boyfriend I gave everything up for for the past three years might be cheating on me with someone far better suited to him’. But now he was back, and there was no hiding from it.
“I got busy.” Sophia turned and smiled. “Anyway, you’re back now. Dinner?”
“Sure...” James looked at her suspiciously. She wasn’t an actor. She wasn’t a good liar. And thanks to him, she wasn’t good at hiding her feelings any more.
It ate her. She couldn’t figure out how to bring it up, but it ate away at her as he slept next to her, it ate at her as she went for her morning run through the stunning Texan countryside, and it ate her as she stretched in the sun, and still more so as she showered and listened to him singing in the kitchen as he made a coffee. It ate her as she got dressed. But it stopped eating her when she went into the kitchen and found herself on the receiving end of that look that was just for her.
“Good morning, baby.” He poured a coffee for her. “Sleep better?”
“Er... yeah.” She was drained. The run had done its job. The stretch and meditation and prayer had too.
“Sophia, something’s bothering you... what is it?” Sophia looked down.
“I...” she sighed. “I know about... her. Whoever she is, James. I know about her.” She swallowed the lump in her throat. “And... and I’m okay with it, because I expected it.”
“What?” James stared at her.
“The photos... I mean... I was stupid. I didn’t even see them, but it was all over the press... like I get it. Why we’re not public.” Sophia took a shaky breath in. “But I get it. And I'm okay with it.”
“Soph, what are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about, James. New York. The redhead.”
“Oh.” He looked down. “That... not to sound cliché, but it’s not what you think.”
“I don’t want to hear it, okay?” Sophia stood up. “I need to work.” She turned, coffee in hand, and left.
The truth was that James had done so much for Sophia. And she’d left everything behind for him. She knew it was a risk, dating someone well-known in the public, but the trade-off was that she could finally pursue her own dream of being a writer. In the year since she’d moved to Texas with him, she’d written one feature film and worked as a co-writer on several series, and she felt complete. With James, she’d been able to work on herself, too, overcoming a large majority of her own historical problems. Their relationship had blossomed, even with the thirteen-year age gap. They adored each other.
So why had he done this to her?
The truth was, Sophia hadn’t had much luck with relationships in the past. They nearly always ended with the other person leaving her for someone thinner, cuter, prettier, fitter... the minute she’d started working on herself, James had stumbled into her life with those eyes and that smile, and had been attentive and refreshing and never gave her any bullshit.
So why had he done this to her?!
Locked in her office, Sophia focused herself on writing the scenes she had planned for that day. A knock on the door broke her out of the reverie she was in, running through a scene in her head. She spoke without thinking.
“I can’t. The door’s locked.”
“Oh.” Sophia closed her eyes and took a breath. She checked the clock. Half one. Lunchtime. She stood and opened the door. James was stood there with a sandwich on a plate, and a bowl of fruit salad. “Hi.” James couldn’t cook for shit. A sandwich was his biggest effort. And he’d really tried.
“I brought you some food... Sophia, can we talk?”
“Thanks.” She took the plate, starving. “Sure. What do you want to talk about?”
“I... Vanessa. I want to talk about Vanessa.” Sophia nearly choked on the grape she’d eaten.
“She has a name. Awesome.” She took a seat and saved her work, locking her PC. “Vanessa...”
“Sophia, I am so sorry for what I did. I had no choice – no. No, I can’t... I did have a choice. I difficult choice. And I should have made the other choice, but I didn’t because I’m selfish.”
“Again, James, I don’t blame you. I just wish you hadn’t been so public with it.” Sophia looked down, picking a strawberry from the bowl. He could cut fruit up, too. “Do what you need to do... but it hurts seeing the press tout this... this gorgeous woman as your new girlfriend. That’s too far. Especially when I’m the secret we’ve kept for 3 years. I can handle secret affairs, I can handle you saying how you’re single on interviews... but not a public thing.”
“Sophia, I am sorry.” James kneeled in front of her. “Truly, I am. I had two options. Give her what she wanted, or make us both public. And I couldn’t get in touch with you to see if you were okay with finally being out with me.”
“What... do you mean?”
“She blackmailed me. And I chose the easiest option. Easiest for me...” he looked down. “I... She’s an ex of mine, technically-speaking. She never got over me, but we never dated – not properly. Just for a few weeks. But she had a lot of stuff going on and started relying on me to fix her issues. I couldn’t. I wasn’t doing well myself. Anyway, she was working on something in the same studio as me in New York – an interview or something – and she overheard me calling you. She heard us talking and then got jealous, I guess.”
“And then later on that day, she collared me and saw my phone’s lockscreen. She asked me who you were, and I said you were a friend. She invited me to dinner with some friends – old mutual friends I haven’t seen for a while. So, I naively went. And I shouldn’t have gone, because it was just her, and I thought I might as well have a drink. So, I had a rum and coke.”
“You drank alcohol?! James, you’re supposed to be training! Months of hard work!”
“I know! I know. And believe me, that’s the first mistake I made that night, because it went straight to my head. And I don’t know how many I had, but I ended up telling her who you are. And then I got back to her place. I remember her telling me she’d out us both unless I gave her what she wanted.” James looked down. Sophia felt the tears drip down her cheeks. “I’m sorry, Sophia. I... I’m really sorry...” He took her hands and kissed them. She let him. “I s-slept with her, and then the next morning she kept me locked in the fucking hotel room until I agreed to go on a date with her. By that point, I realised I’d already fucked up. But I couldn’t remember exactly what I’d told her, so I figured I’d better do what she wanted, because I’d already hurt you so much...”
“And you decided to keep it a secret when you got back here?”
“No. I wanted to tell you everything. But I figured if you hadn’t seen anything yet, maybe... maybe I could tell you in a more controlled way.”
“Meaning tell you this first and THEN show you the headlines!” James’s tears were falling too. “Because fuck, Sophia, I adore you! I love you and it’s killing me to see this happening! But I couldn’t exactly call you and say that I’d fucked up and, oh, by the way, we’re public now... you deserve so much better than that.”
“I... don’t know what to say, James.”
"I have proof, too.” He reached into his pocket for his phone and opened up a voice note. He handed his phone to her, and Sophia hit play.
“See, James, if you don’t do... want you... then I’ll slip up and make it public tomorrow. Little Sarah won’t be your little secret for... longer.”
“No... no’S’fia... Please... she’s good... I love her so much...”
“You think you love her. But you loved me, and look where that landed you.”
“Didn’t love you... love Sophia...”
There was a sharp slap. Sophia winced.
“OW!” The recording after that was muffled, and then it ended. Sophia looked down at it. She pressed her lips together.
“I’m sorry, Sophia. Truly I am...”
“Well... How... how do we fix this?”
“Whatever you’re comfortable with,” James whispered. “I’m in the wrong. So if you’re comfortable being in the public eye, and everything that comes with it, so be it. If not... I’ll do whatever you need me to do. If you want to leave, I’ll help you.”
“I don’t want to leave.” Sophia’s voice was small. “And I don’t want you to leave either.” She locked his phone. “Tell the world you were filming something. Guerilla filming. And then when she tries to out us, she’s the jealous ex.” James nodded. “And promise me... promise me you won’t ever do anything like that again?”
“I swear, Sophia. Please... forgive me...”
"I do forgive you... because I love you."
"And I love you... more than I have the words for."
Six months later
“So! Is that a ring I see on that finger?” Ryan grinned across the table. The audience was silent. James lifted his hand and smiled, the shiny wedding band sat neatly at the base of his finger.
“Sure is,” James grinned back. He was tanned, rested, relaxed, and fully loved-up. Sophia had agreed to marry him, and six months later, they’d just got back from a three-week honeymoon in Hawaii. And they were still very much private.
“Who’s the lucky lady, then?”
“Aha, that would be telling. And a lady never kisses and tells.”
“Aww, come on, James! You’re the most eligible bachelor on the planet! And not seven months ago you were spotted with Vanessa Harrison – is it her?”
“It’s not Vanessa Harrison, no – that was a filming thing, not an actual date. As if I’d walk around seriously in shorts and tube socks, come on.”
“And I’m clearly no longer eligible, nor a bachelor. I've known my wife for three years. I’ve been lying to you all and you ate it up. She completes me, she’s amazing. She’s... I hate saying people are perfect, because humans aren’t perfect. But she’s pretty damned close, and I don’t deserve her at all.”
“Jesus!” Ryan was stunned. “Well... congratulations, man.”
“Thanks! Thank you.”
“Any plans for a baby, then? You said you wanted kids.”
“I’d say you’ll find out soon, but let’s face it – you won’t.” He winked.
In the audience, Sophia laughed. Her wedding and engagement rings glittered on her finger. On her wedding ring, James had had ‘Forever and always’ inscribed. She stroked the large curve of her stomach softly, feeling the baby kick gently. James’ eyes met hers, and he grinned. She grinned, too.
If only they knew.