Clara Forbes snuggled up in Parker Ambrose's lap, a soft smile on her face as she read her favorite novel. The study was cool, but she didn't feel the chill while she was in Parker's arms. Clara mouthed the words slightly as she read, trying to make the scene more entertaining.
The thought made her chuckle. Clara couldn't really see the appeal, but 70% of the viewers did. Apparently, she was cute when she read quietly to herself. She giggled softly, marveling at how gullible Americans are.
Parker tucked a finger under her chin, making her look into his sea green irises. "What are you laughing at?" His tone was mildly curious but mostly amused.
Dang, Clara thought. He's good at this.
She flipped her dark chocolate hair over her shoulder. "Nothing..." A flirty smirk tugged at the corners of her lips.
He ran his fingers through his curly hair, ducking his head. "Really? Why don't you tell them?" Parker gestured to the camera creeping towards them on a dolly.
Clara's cheeks flushed, and she whispered loudly, "Don't be silly! It's you I don't want to hear!" She gave his arm a playful smack.
"Oh." Parker grinned from ear to ear. "Well, I'm sure they can keep a secret." Gently, he scooped her up off his lap and placed her back on the chair. "I'll wait outside until you're done."
"Wait!" Clara jumped up and pulled him in for a quick kiss, lingering in his arms longer than necessary. "See you in a moment, Parker."
"Bye, Clara." He smiled at her encouragingly even though the camera couldn't see him anymore.
Clara smiled back because she had a great best friend and an amazing fake boyfriend. She settled back in her chair, smoothing her dress, and peered at the black eye of the camera.
Parker paced the hallway outside, frowning. Clara had been his best friend since freshman year in high school, and they'd stayed close all through their college years. She had never, not even once, considered him romantically until she needed to look "desirable" on reality television.
Clara knew she was going to be an actress when she grew up and had always loved theater and improv. She was a theater kid born and bred. Parker was sure she was acting when she smiled at him on TV, but he loved that smile.
He loved that smile so much.
Parker wasn't an actor. Clara had expressed surprise when he proved good at loving her for TV. Parker wasn't an actor.
Sighing, he leaned against the wall. Looking at the cameras wired up around the modern house and the attendants scurrying from one room to another, Parker knew he would reenter the study with a cheerful grin even though he despised this televised world, even though he just wanted to move back to London with her.
Parker would write a novel for her since she loved to read, and he would watch her on TV as she starred in a movie. They would laugh at some of her cheesy lines and chatter about the exotic location of the film. They would travel to the sets together so she wouldn't be alone behind the camera.
He smiled, the fantasy making him feel better, so he continued their story. They would talk about how ridiculous reality TV is while they eat her favorite foods. They would be the best of friends.
Parker cringed, ripped from the near-perfect story. He wouldn't do that to her. Clara loved this life. She was getting her foot in the door. This was her chance.
The cameraman ducked his head out of the door. "We're ready for you."
Parker nodded, following him in. Clara was looking out the window, her expression contemplative. He shut the door behind them, and she turned at the noise.
She caught his eye, and her expression brightened. "Parker!" Clara skipped over to him, throwing her arms around him. She whispered to him so softly that he almost didn't hear. "Are you okay?"
The camera focused on the pair, and Parker smiled wistfully. At that moment, he didn't mind so much.
They sat back down on the couch together, and Clara answered a few questions with vibrant enthusiasm. Parker nodded along, happy to be next to her. He answered a few questions himself, but since he wasn't a member of the show, there weren't many.
Finally, the segment began to wrap up. It would be cut down to the highlights and inserted between the focus of the show. Parker wasn't sure what the reality show was about, but he didn't need to know. Parker would rather he had never heard of the show.
Looking back, he wouldn’t be able to pinpoint what changed at that moment, but something snapped inside him. In a jerky motion, he stood up, Clara sliding from his arms.
Clara wasn’t quite sure of what to make of Parker’s expression as he disentangled himself from her embrace. His features were unusually slack, but there was a twinge of despair--no, desperation--to them. Where was his goofy grin? He had lost the twinkle in his viridescent eyes. “Parker?” She watched him with wide almond eyes. “Is everything alright?”
He nodded but then shook his head. “I’ve got to go.”
The camera flickered on to drink up the drama greedily, and Clara went into damage control. She nodded sympathetically. “Okay, I understand. I love you. Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”
Come on, she mentally urged. Just say it, and then you can do whatever.
Parker’s head bobbed mutely, and he hurried away. Clara fought the impulse to scowl, instead watching him go wistfully. “Goodbye, Parker.”
Before he shut the door, he managed to mutter, “Bye, Clara.”
Her mind went into overdrive, trying to placate herself and come up with an excuse for his behavior. The cameraman moved in for the kill. “Do you know what that was all about?”
Clara wiped at her eyes, and it wasn’t difficult to fake the tears. All she had to do was think about Parker leaving her in this mess. “Parker’s been going through a lot lately, what with his sister being ill. It means a great deal to me that he came to see me here in America.”
She wasn’t lying. Every word was true, and perhaps it truly was the reason he walked out like that. “His sister, Emalyn, was diagnosed with skin cancer when she was 10. Her treatment was successful, and she was perfectly healthy after that. But a few months after her eighteenth birthday, it came out of remission. She’s been taking the treatment rather well, but Parker feels guilty for not being there for her.”
The words flowed out easily, and Clara almost felt guilty for misusing the truth.
Almost, she thought as she stood. “In fact, I think I’m going to go talk to him now. I’m sorry I have to cut this short, but Parker needs some support right now.” It helped that her voice was raw, even if it was from anger.
As Clara daintily strolled away, she imagined how the audience would react to that segment. She could already see how their condolences would clog up her social media, and she knew she would have to make a post about it before the episode aired.
Clara decided she would go ahead and do that before she talked to Parker because it would be easier to do while she was in the calm. She had a sinking feeling that once she laid eyes on him the storm would begin. Putting that aside, she navigated the halls to her bedroom.
With one hand, she pushed the door open, nearly whacking Parker square in the nose. “Oh!” They both exclaimed, leaping away from each other. “Sorry!”
The two of them stood there awkwardly, frustration rippling off them in waves. Clara knew that the apologies were only reflexive. She glared at him fiercely. “Why did you ditch me like that? Do you know how much trouble you’ve caused? Don’t you know you only needed to wait another moment to do-” She paused her lecture, appraising him. “Whatever the heck you’ve been up to.”
A muscle in Parker’s jaw twitched, and he looked ready to argue right back until he suddenly deflated. “I don’t know. I don’t know anymore.”
Clara wasn’t sure how to respond. He wasn’t off the hook, but she had already stated her grievances. What more was there to say? “What kind of apology is that?”
Parker regarded her incredulously, fists tightly clenched at his sides. He spat the words at her feet like they were bitter on his tongue. “I’m sorry I ruined your freaking fake segment on freaking fake television. Happy?”
Part of Clara regretted provoking him, but the greater part of her was in wordless wrath. “No, I’m not happy! You can’t dump me like that! What is wrong with you today? And what are you doing in my room?”
Parker grinned mirthlessly at the floor, a cold laugh shaking his shoulders.
She growled, teeth grinding. “What’s so funny?”
His head snapped up, his smile transformed into a snarl. “Me? Dumping you? Can’t you see the irony?” Parker shoved past her, throwing the hard words over his shoulder. “I came to say goodbye. I’m going back to London so I can live my life, not yours.”
“But what am I supposed to do?” Clara wouldn’t feel the pain until later, only the desperation would surface now.
“I don’t care.”
Perhaps he had only rounded the corner, but Clara knew Parker was long gone. She numbly wandered back inside her room, settling into her desk chair. Her hands found their way onto the keyboard, and she typed an empty post about how Parker Ambrose was going back to London to visit his ill sister and how she would miss him dearly.
Her fingers fell slack as she typed those last words, and the first sobs shook her body. It hurt to know that Parker wouldn’t discount this story because he wouldn’t go looking for revenge. He had his freedom now, and he sought nothing from her anymore.
Clara crawled into bed fully clothed, waiting for sleep to claim her.
Now that he was free to live his own life, Parker wasn’t sure what to do. Moving back to his old flat in London was the first step, that much he was sure of. He was already sitting in the airport with his trunk, patiently waiting for his flight.
That was the easy part. Now came the hard bit. It felt like it had been ages since Parker held the pen, ready to write his own story. Despite how much the task daunted him, he liked the imagery.
He fumbled through his bags until he conjured a pen and a notepad, smiling to himself. Parker hadn’t intended for the thought to be literal, but he couldn’t find a reason not to. So he began a list, proudly dubbing it “Parker Ambrose’s Plan for His New Life.”
- Rent old flat in London.
No, Parker thought. Time to start fresh.
- Rent a different flat in London.
- Find an idea for a novel.
- Find a part-time job at a newspaper or magazine.
- Get in touch with friends.
He stared at the list, trying to muster excitement.
Parker began a mental pep-talk. Okay, so maybe the order is questionable at best. But it’s a start! And life isn’t a race, it’s a marathon, so you have to start somewhere. Sometimes you don’t know where the track is either, so you just have to pick a direction. No, that doesn’t make sense. Runners have the course cordoned off.
His train of thought grew increasingly incoherent, and he tried to get back on track.
This was going to be difficult, but it was up to him to make everything okay. Only him. This was his own life, and it was time he started living it.
Parker took a deep breath and boarded the airplane. He still loved Clara, he knew that, but he wasn’t going to waste any more of his life trying to make her love him.
When he finally found his seat, Parker had made a hard decision. It was going to hurt, but it needed to be done.
I’m sorry I left you so abruptly. I know I left you in a tight position. If there’s anything I can do to make it better from here in London, I will.
But I can’t keep living your life. I need to set off on my own, I need to find what I’m going to do with my life.
I know this is going to hurt both of us, but I think we will come out of this mess as better versions of ourselves. We will grow from this. I’ve been ready to set down permanent roots for a long time.
I care about you, and I will always be grateful for your friendship.