by Q. D. Purdu
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Q. D. Purdu’s debut romance FAKING LUCKY, under the title of DESDEMONA FINDS THE BIG O IN LOVE, won first place in the Texas Writers’ League Romance category, 2014. Her novella THE LIGHT WE FOUND, first published in MOTHER'S DAY MAGIC anthology, is now available as a stand-alone short read.
Q. D. loves her rescued puppy, red wine, running through sprinklers, dark chocolate with sugared ginger, and anything wrapped in a corn tortilla. Her prized possessions include a hot pink Christmas tree and a garden full of okra and basil.
She hasn’t decided what she’ll be when she grows up, but whatever it is will be filled with romantic impossibilities.
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So I’m home alone on Saturday night in my flannel PJs, relaxed on my denim sofa, eating fudge and brazil nuts, and channel surfing. Jewelry channel—maybe a flashy gem would jazz up my life. Gag—tonight it’s cameos. Sex in the City—I bet they all faked it, even Samantha. Marriage Exposure--where do they find people who will go on television and argue about their sex lives?
I don’t believe my eyes. It looks like Burt on Marriage Exposure. I raise the volume and edge closer to the screen. It is him, the same reddish-brown hair and sharp features. He’s even wearing his favorite green-striped polo shirt. I haven’t seen him in a year, and he’s wearing that same shirt. The short-haired woman sitting next to him has her hands covering her face. She’s wailing something like, “You never loved me! You never loved me!”
It can’t be. Burt’s in an L-word relationship? I edge closer to the screen, hardly breathing.
Burt pulls at the back of his neck with one hand, the way he always does when he’s stressed, and looks down toward his feet. “I wouldn’t have married you if I didn’t love you.” Unbelievable. He’s married to her.
She uncovers her red, puffy face and leans close to him. “You never loved me.” Spit flies out with her words. “You’ve always loved…” She gives a big, gasping sob and then slowly, distinctly blurts out my name. “…Desdemona. With…with…her beautiful dark eyes. Her perfect body. Her incredible piano playing.” More spit with the p’s. “Her long, thick raven hair.” She raises both hands to her head and pulls at her brownish spikes.
No. I must have misheard.
But she repeats my name, dragging out each syllable as if it causes her physical pain. “Des…de…mon…a.”
Could Burt have dated another Desdemona?
Something mushes between my toes. Fudge under my foot oozes out onto my creamy-white lamb’s-wool throw, which is now on the floor. I must have stood when she wailed my name. Brazil nuts are all over the floor.
Burt takes her by the shoulders. “Jenny, no.” He always was considerate of everyone’s feelings. “I could never love Desdemona. She…she’s a freak. She fakes orgasms.”
A crazy giggle snakes its way up from my chest. Is this really happening? How could he have known? Guys can’t really tell, can they? The giggle morphs into a nauseated groan. Am I dreaming? Drugged? In a parallel universe? Has Burt just announced my unspeakable flaw to the world?
And so what if I don’t get the big O every, single time? Well, I guess I hardly ever get it…OK—I got it three times, and it would have been four if my vibrator had not quit working. But I’m not even twenty-seven yet—far from the sexual peak of forty.
At some point during the last minute my phone has started buzzing. My autopilot eyes glance at it. Friends are texting me about Burt being on TV. So there is something worse than being a nonorgasmic faker. It’s being a nonorgasmic faker and having the whole world know it.
A loud animallike howl shocks the breath out of me. What is that? I freeze and listen for a split second before I realize the roar is coming from me.
I muffle my howls, hoping I haven’t alarmed my landlady, who lives in the attached duplex. With foot in fudge and phone facedown, I’m transfixed.
Burt embraces his sobbing wife and mutters endearments. The MC hoofs it into the audience, whose members are clamoring to speak into the microphone.
A long-haired, leather-vested guy gets the first shot. “Hey, Burt.” He’s got an oily, smooth voice—could be a talk-show host himself. “Ah, maybe you just ain’t man enough for Mona.”
Mona. I hate when people call me Mona. But this could be good. Maybe the world will forget my real name. Yes! Mona.
Next a clean-cut, older guy steps up and glares at the leather vest. “Des. De. Mon. A. Not Mona.” Crap. “You should be respectful enough to pronounce her complete name.”
The audience interrupts with hoots that could be boos or cheers or random insanity. The MC swings the mic toward an elderly lady, but the clean-cut guy jerks him back. “I’m not finished. The first gentleman—” He rolls his eyes toward the leather vest. “—was correct about one thing.”
The impatient grandma reaches for the mic, and the MC blocks her hand and tries to hurry the clean-cut guy, who looks like he’s gearing up for a long lecture. “If Desdemona is not satisfied, it’s clearly a sign of the male’s lack of technique. Research shows…”
Grandma’s hand darts between the two men and snatches the mic. She runs down an aisle with the MC in pursuit. “Burt!” Her voice is surprisingly loud and shrill. “Did you ask Desdemona what’s a matter?” She screams out questions as the MC chases, grabbing futilely for the mic. “Did you ask her why?” This elderly woman sprints like a teenager. “How do you know she faked? Did you go down?” The audience is out of control now.
In a shuffle of arms, a tall, skinny guy commandeers the mic. “Hey, Desdemona.” It’s as if he’s looking straight at me—in the room with me—seeing me. “Come to me.” Hairs skitter across the back of my neck. “I’ll get you there, baby.”
Somehow the MC has produced a second mic that overrides the other one and muffles the noise of the audience. “Thanks for being with us for another shocking episode of Marriage Exposure. Tune in tomorrow for an unbelievable brother-in-law who sneaks into bed with his own brother’s wife—” He pauses, moves close to the camera, and raises both eyebrows several times. “—without her knowing it. You’re not going to want to miss this.”
The camera pans over the audience that is now chanting, “Desdemona, Desdemona, Desdemona…”
A diet-pill commercial is halfway over before I shake off the shock enough to silence the TV. Eleanor, my cat, is batting a Brazil nut across the floor. My phone rings. Ugh. It’s Mom. I grab the phone and the ruined lamb’s wool, scoop up the nuts, and hop toward the kitchen to stick my foot in the sink. I would ignore my mother, but if I don’t answer, she’ll call my landlady to come over and make sure I’m not bound and gagged, unconscious, or murdered.
How will I deal with my mother’s shock about Burt’s revelation?
“Mija, where are you?”
“Alone?” She’d like me to be married and have several kids by now. Alone is never a word she welcomes.
“On Saturday night—home alone? With all there is to do in Austin?”
She lets a long silence hang. I would normally fill it with disclaimers about being too tired to go out or the last-minute cancellation of my gig tonight. Instead of chatting her up, I wait her out and run water over my foot. Eleanor, maybe sensing my misery, rubs against my other leg. Nothing I could say will divert Mother from Burt’s blast. I take deep breaths, steadying myself for the onslaught.
She finally seems to realize she’s not getting an explanation about my solitary Saturday night. “How do I say this?” She sighs loudly. “It’s one thing to know people privately, but to see them as a nationally known personality…it’s…it’s…”
“Mom, just say it.” Tears well in my eyes. The reality of an insane TV show barging into my life stabs in places I didn’t know I could hurt.
“OK, OK. Well, it happened while I was with my book-club group at the bookstore.” It’s really just a book corner in the general store on Main Street.
“You’re at the store?” This makes no sense. It’s too late for the store to be open.
“No—I’m not there now. We were there from six to eight tonight for our weekly meeting, and then we went to ladies’ night at the margarita bar and had two-for-ones, and I just now got home. You know that new bar that opened where the bakery used to be?”
There are only a dozen stores in my hometown of Garcia. How could I forget? “Yeah.”
“The antique store is also adding a coffee shop—oh, I’m rambling. Want me to just get to the point?”
I force out a whisper and blot my tear-slicked face with a paper towel. “Yes.”
She takes a deep breath again. No question that she’s unnerved by the conversation we’re about to have. My stomach knots. It will be worse to hear my mother talking about Burt and fake orgasms than it was to hear strangers on national television. I lower my wet but clean foot from the sink so I’m standing solidly. I pick up Eleanor, who allows one of her rare cuddles. She must know I need it.
I gasp. His name triggers the same pow in my chest that happens every time I think of him, or see a stranger tilt his head that certain way, or hear a laugh that mimics Hunter’s deep ring, or dream of kissing him only to wake and remember it will never happen again. Pow.
“Desdemona, are you there? Did you hear me?”
I should answer Mom—say something. It’s been over nine years since Hunter and I were seniors in high school and he left the campus in handcuffs. Nine years since we swore our love to each other. Nine years since I ruined our chances of ever being together. But still the regret and loss slice razor sharp.
“What about Hunter?” My voice scrapes.
“Oh, good, I thought we’d been cut off. Well, we were about to discuss our new novel when all these people flooded in. Not locals, but people from San Antonio, Austin, Houston. It was just amazing. Our quiet little Saturday-night book talk was turning into…”
“What about Hunter?” I can’t fathom where this is going. I’m so caught off guard that for a full two seconds I forget Marriage Exposure.
“I’m getting to him. So Alma went up to the manager and asked, ‘What’s going on?’ And he said a national best-selling mystery writer was here for a book signing. Have you read Des Amone’s books?”
“Yes. Sure I have.”
“Did you read the one that was made into a movie?”
“Mom. Where is this going? What does it have to do with Hunter?”
“Des Amone is Hunter’s pen name. And Hunter came to Garcia to do a hometown launch of his new book tour. It’s all over the Internet, but none of us noticed. You know we mainly stick to romances.”
“Des Amone…” I repeat her words to make sense of them. “…is Hunter’s pen name.”
“Isn’t that a hoot? And ya’ll were in school together.” Mom is oblivious to the relationship I had with Hunter. She lives in her own little world that revolves around her tiny, barely-break-even flower shop with her upstairs living quarters—my home until I moved to Austin. “So we each bought his book, and when he signed mine, he asked about you. Can you believe it—a famous, rich author still remembering a classmate from all those years ago? Isn’t it funny how his pen name kind of sounds like Desdemona?”
She doesn’t wait for me to answer. “So for our next meeting we’re all reading Hunter’s book. You know it’s just so much fun to read a book with a group…”
“What did he say about me? What did you tell him?”
“He just asked how you are, and I told him you were playing all over Austin and giving lessons. I showed him that picture of you in your long, red dress, playing that red baby grand. I think it was taken in some bar on Sixth Street. He said, ‘Still beautiful as ever.’” I shut my eyes and make myself breathe. “We could have talked and talked, but there was a line behind me, so I moved on. I told him to look you up when he goes to Austin on his book tour. And I gave him your number.”
The pow that hit me when she said his name evolves into a melody that fills my chest while she drones on. The melody, not one that I could ever put to music no matter how hard I try, is always there—inside—below the surface. But at times like this it expands, presses, and hurts in the middle of my chest.
Until nine years ago, Hunter’s and my lives had always bordered each other’s. Garcia has only one high school, which at that time had fewer than eight hundred students. Hunter stood apart—confident, smart, athletic. For years my eyes were drawn to him whenever we had a class together—his height and his thick mahogany hair were like banners catching my attention. Even the bones in his face seemed more substantive than anyone else’s. His strong nose, his forehead with its masculine bulge above his eyebrows, the vertical line that creased each cheek, making his face strong even when relaxed. Our art teacher in ninth grade had said, “Hunter, with your bones, you’ll look the same when you’re an old man as you do now.”
Throughout high school, whether I was in class or the hallway or a common area, my ears sought out his deep voice and warm laugh. Every day, no matter what else was going on, a part of me was always listening for Hunter.
In our junior year, we had homeroom together. During the first semester, he sat in the middle of the room, usually surrounded by three cheerleaders, who acted as if it were their official role to keep him entertained. I sat in the back, pretended to study, and wished I could be pretty, blond, blue-eyed Georgina, the one sitting behind Hunter. Get over it. He’s a nice guy—nice to everyone. His occasional smile at me is just that—a simple smile. I was totally out of the in-crowd, and piano practice took all my time. So I never knew for sure who he was dating.
One morning in homeroom, his three groupies were giggling about some whispered joke, and Hunter turned around to face Georgina, who was tapping his shoulder. I watched her hand relax onto his bicep and imagined it was my hand—imagined I was stroking those prominent muscles. When I let my gaze slide up his arm to his face, I was shocked that his eyes were waiting to meet mine. An involuntary gasp escaped from me, and somehow my soft sound pierced the giggling, and all three girls followed his gaze and turned to stare at me.
I shook my head, and frowned down at whatever textbook was lying open in front of me. I pretended to be perplexed at some academic mystery. Then I gazed slightly to the right of Hunter, hoping they would think I was deep in thought and not that I had been salivating for him.
After that embarrassment, I vowed to myself that I would keep my eyes off of Hunter, but the very next day, I was again drawn into watching Georgina and him. She slid into her desk and pulled a tightly folded sheet of notebook paper out of her jeans pocket. Hunter seemed to be ignoring her, focusing on an open book on his desk. She grabbed his shoulder and squeezed, but he just held up one finger as if to acknowledge her. He didn’t turn to face her. She stood, leaned her whole body over his shoulder, and passed the note to the cheerleader sitting in front of Hunter.
The cheerleader unfolded the note, scanned, and instantly turned and slapped the paper onto Hunter’s desk. “Hardcore.” She grinned wickedly at Hunter.
Hunter shook his head, covered the note with his hand, and slid it under his book. Clearly whatever he’d seen written on the paper was something he saw fit to cover up. By now a smattering of giggles all around Hunter caught the teacher’s attention at the exact moment Hunter tried to hide the note.
Miss Gomez walked purposefully down his aisle, halted at his desk, and held out her hand. “Let’s have it, young man.” She was a first-year teacher, and she took her role as disciplinarian very seriously.
Hunter gave her the note.
The teacher’s eyebrows shot up above her black-framed glasses. Her tan skin flushed a burgundy red. “Does this…” Her voice shook. “…this thing belong to you?”
Hunter nodded solemnly with his eyes cast downward toward his desk. “Yes, ma’am.”
She wadded the note, stomped back to her desk, and started writing furiously on her pink pad. Hunter, anticipating a discipline referral to the office, dropped his book into his bag and was standing, ready for the pink slip as soon as she ripped it off the pad.
Unbelievable. He was innocent. It was Georgina’s note. He had nothing to do with it. I gaped at Georgina, waiting for her to own up, but she slumped into her chair and guiltily stared at Hunter as he walked out of the room.
I fumed all morning. And Georgina’s weeping in the hallway, telling her friends about Hunter taking the blame for her, didn’t soften my resolve. She needed to own up.
I’d always been so frozen by my crush on Hunter that I’d never actually walked up to him and initiated a conversation. But now. Now I was determined to help him. At lunch I waited near his locker, hoping to talk with him. The hallway was almost empty. It looked as if he wasn’t coming. My heart sank lower as each second ticked by. Then he rounded the corner and started toward his locker.
I blurted out, “Hunter.” My voice was too loud in the quiet hallway. “I…” I lowered my volume. “Could I talk to you?”
He grinned and picked up his pace. In a few long strides, he was next to me, looking down at me. Warmth radiated from his body. The scent of him made my heart rate speed up—made me want to inhale deeply. His neck, up close, was strong and muscled, and I could see his pulse beat on one side. He had black stubble on his chin. His lips, the bottom one thicker than the top one, were slightly parted, as if waiting for me to say or do something. For long moments we stared at each other. Was he remembering the time in our sophomore year when he rescued me and we almost had a date? My face got hot, and then I did what I always do when nervous. I babbled. “Georgina brought that note in. You had nothing to do with it. You even ignored her when she tried to get your attention. She practically bowled you over leaning across you to pass the note. You are innocent. And it wasn’t fair for you to take the fall. I witnessed the whole—”
He put his hands on my upper arms and gently squeezed. “Are you worried about me?” He grinned, and his eyes lit up as he peered into mine.
“Well, I…it just isn’t right. I don’t think you should be blamed for something—”
He squeezed again. The touch of his hands on my bare arms arrested my thoughts and my words. It wouldn’t have mattered what he said at that moment; I was speechless just from the touch of him.
“Don’t worry. Nothing will happen to me—coach will just make me run extra laps—it’s no big deal.”
I shook my head—mainly in an effort to clear my head. Then I said as much for myself as for him, “You must really, truly love her.”
“Georgina?” He huffed out a laugh. “Everyone loves Georgina. But she’s with Leo. They’re solid.” Leo had graduated the prior year—I had known they were an item while he was still in high school; I didn’t know they were still dating. “He probably gave her the joke—saw him with it last weekend.”
My head was reeling with this new information. “But, still, you shouldn’t have to take—”
“Desdemona.” My heart stopped when he said my name, especially when he squeezed my arms again and moved a little closer. “Georgina wants to be class president. If she took the wrap for the note, they’d probably DQ her. All that will happen to me is laps. And I do laps every day. It’s nothing.”
My need to babble had ceased. All I knew was that Hunter, gorgeous Hunter, wasn’t with Georgina, and he was standing closer to me than necessary, and he was holding my arms way longer than he needed to, and his breath was warm on my face, and if I were to stand on tiptoes and lean four and one half inches forward, I could put my lips on that pulse beat on the side of his neck.
And then one side of his lips tilted upward in a grin that tugged at a secret place deep inside my body. He whispered into my ear. “It will be worth every single lap just to know it matters to you.”
And the next morning in homeroom, Hunter dragged a desk to the back of the room and sat behind me. No one questioned it. We were suddenly together. We didn’t get to actually go out on dates that year—neither of us had a car, and Hunter had huge responsibilities helping his mom take care of his dad, who had suffered a brain injury in a construction accident. But all day, every day at school, we were together. And within weeks we started having stolen moments alone in the piano room.
The band director had given me keys to the high school’s main entry door and the small piano room because I spent so much time there either practicing alone or accompanying a student instrumentalist. From my freshman year on, my piano teacher often hooked me up with paying gigs in the community, so with no piano at home, I needed lots of practice time at school. During our junior year, Hunter’s mother took the job as school secretary, and often, hours after most people had left the campus, she and I would be the only ones in the building. Usually, few people ever came down to the small piano room, wedged between janitor’s supply and book storage.
But sometimes Hunter would come in before he checked in with his mother after athletic practice. At first I would be surprised to look up from my music and find him listening to me play. But soon I tingled with hope everyday—hope that he would come in and tell me about his day.
The first time we kissed was on the piano bench.
He had been standing in the doorway while I practiced “Always on My Mind” for a fiftieth-wedding-anniversary party the next weekend. The small spinet piano was angled so that my side faced the doorway, and I could see him in my peripheral vision. After the last measure, I turned toward him. The word huggable flashed through my mind. That’s how he looked with his shower-wet hair, gray sweats, and sleeveless T-shirt.
His head was tilted in his reflective way. “That’s beautiful.” Our eyes connected. “You’ll play it this weekend, right?”
“Yeah—and some others—all their favorites.”
He stepped closer. “Will it bother your playing if I sit beside you while you practice?”
“Of course not.” I patted the bench.
Instead of facing the piano, he straddled the bench and faced me. His closeness set every cell in my body dancing. His warm exhale touched my neck. My body breathed in on its own as if hungry to capture his breath. My eyes dropped from his eyes to his lips—and lower. As if my hands had a will of their own, they moved to reach for him. I caught myself. Forced my eyes forward. Forced my hands to the keyboard.
But he leaned closer, his gaze on my face. I turned back toward him.
“Maybe…” His brown eyes burrowed into mine. He seemed to be casting for his next words. “…maybe someday you and I—” I inhaled the breath of his words. “—will have a lifetime—” He moved so close that I felt his lips moving with his last words. “—of favorite songs.”
I wanted to say, “That’s the sweetest, most romantic, most touching, beautiful thing anyone could say.” I wanted to say, “You’ve just probed into my deepest, most wonderful fantasy.” I wanted to say, “Hunter, I love you, love you, love you.” But I froze. Somehow his eyes asked me if I was OK. I must have nodded because the distance between our lips closed. The feeling of being connected to him—of not knowing where I ended and he started—blurred out everything else. For a time, I lost track of where our hands were, of how his legs were embracing me along with his arms, of how our bodies were plush together, of how his secret bulge was speaking to my thigh.
Footfalls, his mother’s high-heeled shoes clanking up the empty hallway, pulled us apart.
Hunter stood, and I played the opening measures of “Always on My Mind” as she opened the door.