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Wrong Man by Aurora, Lexi (1)

Chapter 1: Annie

Five years...

Annie lolled back on her comforter and tried to make herself smile. When she’d moved to Toronto after the incident, determined to make her way in the nursing world, no way would she have thought she’d come back to Hamilton, basically unchanged.

Sure, she had five years of nursing experience under her belt, but the only real change in her circumstances was that she felt even more tired. That, and the fact that Kyla was getting married.

Kyla, with her rosy curls, rosy cheeks and rosy, rosy smile. Annie couldn’t have resented her friend for her expansive happiness even if she’d tried. Kyla had been her best friend since they’d both tried using the Purple Passion gel pen from their Grade two class stock.

Five years...

Yes, here Annie was, twenty-five years old, an accomplished nurse, homebody and wallflower, and, topping it all off, still a virgin.

From under her bed, Jiji let out a low whine.

“I know it’s weird,” Annie said. “But it’s not my fault. I’ve just been working like a maniac and sleeping terribly.”

A derisive snort echoed up and Annie sighed. She could almost see the toy poodle’s half-open dubious eyes .

Jiji was right, too. Annie’s crazy schedule as a nurse – lately three twelve-hour shifts three days a week and overnight – not to mention her crazy sleep schedule because of it, which was four hours tops on a good day, were just excuses.

A knock pounded against the door. Annie rose to open it.

“Honey, is Jiji in here?”

It was Mom, her green eagle eyes scanning the room for their toy poodle. Just then, Annie spied a tell-tale donut of poop by her bed’s back leg. Casually stepping in front of it, she forced a smile. “Not sure.”

Her mom nodded, warily.

Annie understood her frustration, sort of. Every few days, Jiji had apparently taken to pooping in the most random of places – the shower, the couch side table. Currently, her parents were engaged in a war of sorts. Annie’s father wanted to take the twelve-year-old dog to the vet, while her mother (who had never been a dog person) felt their pet’s faulty bowel problems was a sign that the dog’s time had come.

So, another one of Jiji’s “poopstakes” (as her dad called them), would only set off another fight between her parents, if not lead to her mom’s demand that Jiji be cut loose immediately. Everyone knew her mom was the real head honcho in the house.

“What about you? Did you get some rest?” her mom asked, her eyes softening as they came to rest on her. “Marlene and Pat would be happy to say hello; they even brought Ulric by.”

Annie shifted, “I don’t know. I should probably get to Kyla’s soon.”

“Oh, come on.” Her mother hooked her arm in hers. “Five minutes won’t kill you.”

If only it did, Annie thought grimly.

She knew she was being overdramatic, but she was already exhausted without having to rouse herself to deal with the solicitous attention her parents’ friends always showed her.

Oh, a nurse? How lovely. Cue delighted smile. And still single too, well, that won’t last long. While Annie pretended that, after five years of these comments and five years of dismal dates, she actually believed them.

“Here she is,” Mom trilled as they entered the living room, presenting Annie with a proud flourish. As if Annie wasn’t wearing the slouchiest grey sweats she owned and already glancing longingly at the door.

“Hi,” Annie gave them a wave. The blonde woman with the bowl cut, the brown-haired man with the bowl cut, and the boy who looked more or less her age who, thankfully, did not have a bowl cut.

“You remember Ulric,” the blonde woman said, pushing the boy forward. “You two were in the same grade at St. Eustache, wasn’t it?”

“No, Mom, I was a year younger,” the boy said.

Annie gazed at him evenly. She had some vague memory of a bowl cut boy spitting loogies at her as she walked home from the bus stop, but wisely chose to keep this information to herself.

As they shook hands, Annie noted that he was not bad looking. He had a swath of honey-colored tangles for hair and eyes that opened slightly too wide.

He grinned his charmingly imperfect teeth at her. “Back in Hamilton, then? Must be a bit of a letdown compared to Toronto.”

Annie shrugged, “I just got here.”

He smiled, determinedly. “No offense meant. I mean, I live here.”

His dad patted his son on his collared-shirted chest proudly. “Ulric’s a lawyer.”

“A lawyer,” Mom said, with the appropriate reverence.

Annie glanced at her father, who was waggling his eyebrows, clearly bored.

“Anyway,” she started for the door, glad she’d had the foresight to loop her purse over her shoulder before leaving her room. “I should get going. Kyla’s waiting.”

“Oh, so soon?” her mom said, disappointed more than was really necessary.

Annie gave them all a wave, feeling relieved already. “It was nice meeting you all.”

At the door, it took her forever to tie up her stupid TOMS.

“There’s a party tomorrow night.”

At the sound of Ulric’s low voice, Annie jumped. She hadn’t even noticed him approach.

“You should come,” he continued, smiling down at her as she struggled with her other lace.

She let her eyes rest on him for a few moments. Say something.

In those few seconds, she let the situation play out in its entirety. Her, actually taking him up on his offer and going into a party of strangers. Him, spending the requisite two minutes with her before becoming bored out of his mind. Then her, alone on the couch for the next three hours until she’d finally rouse herself to get up and go home.

“Thanks,” she said. “But I’m good. See ya.”

On the way to Kyla’s, she tried imagining what Kyle, Kyla’s fiancé-to-be, would be like. She knew he was a teacher and had seen pictures of them together on Facebook, but right now her mind was drawing a blank. For her and Kyla’s Sweet Sixteens, they’d crafted wedding books, and Kyla’s had featured shirtless Nick Lachey and Aaron Carter. Something told Annie that would be a bit off the mark.

But Annie wasn’t overly worried. Kyla had always had sublime taste in men – the good boyfriend, loyal partner types. Unlike her.

At Kyla’s, Annie had barely pressed the ring-a-ling-dong doorbell before the oak door swept open.

“You’re here!” Kyla exclaimed.

Her friend’s thin arms closed around Annie as a dog barked over the still ringing doorbell.

Laughing, as they parted, Kyla hoisted the little Pomeranian up. “This is Lop.”

The grinning dog gave Annie’s face one lick before breaking free from Kyla’s hold and hopping to the ground to race away. Kyla was still smiling as she watched him go.

“His name was supposed to be Hop, but Kyle misheard it, misspoke it for too long, and the damage was done. Lop doesn’t respond to anything else.” She sighed, smoothing out a fold in her peach-emblazoned summer dress. “I still can’t believe you’re here!”

Her eyes fell on Annie’s lazy clothes. “You know, you could always borrow one of my...”

Annie waved a hand. “We both know they wouldn’t fit. Besides, these are comfier and at Shakespeare’s, the wait can get pretty intense.”

“Yeah, about that.” Kyla bit at her thumbnail. “Kyle’s friend apparently ixnayed it. Thought Hooters would be more fun.”

“Did I not get the memo that this was a bachelor’s party?”

“I don’t know. Apparently his friend has some kind of membership thing there.”

“Sounds like a winner.”

Kyla opened her mouth to argue, then smirked. “I know, right? Kyle’s never been, and, it’s cute, but Annie, he actually thinks Hooters is an owl-themed restaurant.”

The two girls burst out laughing. Kyla, still cracking up, nodded her head. “I didn’t have the heart to tell him. Today, he’s wearing his owl shirt, and he even bought me this little guy” she lifted a gold owl pendant on her necklace.

“Sounds like quite the guy,” Annie said, meaning it.

The whole Hooters thing had admittedly given her a pause, but it sounded like that was the doing of his dubious friend.

“And he’s been so... stubborn about this marriage thing. Our friends and parents keep urging us to wait, but...” Her gaze far off, she nodded. “He just knows.”

There was silence, as Annie tried and failed to come up with a convincing ‘I’m so happy for you’. Because she was and wasn’t. And the ‘wasn’t’ part was based more on her own ineptness and lack of experience with men. It was making her feel like the worst maid of honour in the world.

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry.” Kyla clapped a horrified hand over her mouth. “I am the least sensitive friend alive. How are you doing? I didn’t even ask! I mean, your flight, the folks. Tell me everything.”

Annie smiled as Kyla threw her arms around her in another spontaneous hug. That was Kyla for you. Basically, the Mother Teresa of friends.

“You’re the bride,” Annie reminded her. “These next few weeks are totally yours. Though I appreciate the concern, don’t we have a dinner to get to?”

“Alright, alright, mystery woman,” Kyla said. She leaned over to give Lop one goodbye pat before throwing a leather tote over her arm and shutting the door behind her. “Though, you know I’m not going to let the matter rest just on that.”

Annie smiled thinly. Yep, Kyla was a bulldozer when it came to extracting life details out of her, although her friend had never gotten the incident out of her.

As they went into their separate cars, Annie was thankful that she was alone for a bit longer. If they’d been in the same one, Kyla would’ve, doubtless, spent time grilling her.

Maybe Annie was just being finicky about the whole restaurant thing, but the fact that they were going to Hooters gave her an ominous feeling in the pit of her stomach.

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