|//haven't the foggiest who these people *really* are//|
Instead, he glared at the bus-stop and the knot of fellow passengers with Milly's question still flinging around his brain: "Why do you love her? Or do you?"
She stood there--Milly, not his fiancee--waiting for his answer and their bus in turn. When he looked her way she was ready, meeting his gaze with a keen, blue-eyed look.
"So?" she said.
He shuffled closer and dipped his chin to keep the raw wind from biting at his jugular. "Of course I love Victoria."
"There's never an 'of course' in love, dear."
He hated when Milly called him "dear"--she had no right to say it, even if her tone had been romantic instead of motherly. He lifted his chin and the wind rammed his Adam's apple. "What business is it of yours if I marry Victoria? No--no." He pointed a finger at Milly's face. "What does it matter to you if I love her?"
Milly's usually animated hands were buried deep in her pockets so she wagged her elbows and shrugged. "I don't think you love her, is all."
He bandied a few harsh words in his mind but he'd not further disgrace himself by shouting at a crowded bus-stop; Milly's opinion was worth keeping intact.
"I'm happy when I'm with her." Stupid. You're nervous when you're with her. "Vic is a beautiful, charming woman. She knows her business and has a great job and she won't want or expect me to follow her around, hanging on her every word."
"So she's independent."
"Shut up, Milly. Don't look at me like that."
She blinked at his explosion. "Like what?"
"Like you're so impossibly older and wiser than me and you know my marriage is doomed to divorce court."
If possible, Milly seemed to sink deeper, grow smaller, behind her chunky-knit scarf. "All I said is she's independent. It's true."
Everyone else at the stop had their smartphones out, absorbed--cocooned--in the pleasantly ubiquitous world of social media. He wished he could end this conversation by texting Victoria but he knew about how well that would work where Milly was concerned. Where was that stupid bus? Of all the days to be late...
"Jer, we've been friends, what--since birth?"
The pleading, apologetic tone. Ha. "Yeah, Mil. That's what happens when you're cousins."
"Pardon me for claiming a closer relation, your highness."
Milly took a step closer and he backed off, fearing the urge inside him to pull her close and make the pained, sad look leave her face. Poor kid. He never thought she'd care about him and Vic.
"Jer, please don't take this the wrong way..."
"No promises. Depends on what you say."
"I think Vic's too independent."
"You mean she can take care of herself?"
"Noooo..." it came out a long sound. "She doesn't understand loyalty. She doesn't get teamwork. Vic is her own best friend...a loner."
"Isn't that an awesome trait for my wife?"
"Jer. She doesn't need you."
Stunned silence on his part followed and when the bus finally heaved alongside the curb, he choked on the diesel exhaust as if inhaling it would help him find a response to Milly's grenade. Victoria doesn't need you. It was the only thing that spooked him in the relationship. A think he'd thought they'd put behind him when she accepted his proposal. Truthfully, he'd been a little surprised when she said yes.
"And what's Vic gonna do? Walk out?" he asked, shoving Milly onto the bus ahead of him and braced with one hand against the overhead bins as the new passengers shook down into their seats.
"Jer, I just don't want to see you..."
He sat and shoved his satchel under the next seat. "Vic would never do that. She loves me." Milly's silence was worse than conversation and that was saying something. "Mil, are seriously worried about this or are you just being a bum? Cuz..."
She dropped into a seat behind him where he could not longer see her face. With a hiss the bus eased into the street and started the long haul up to the fifty-five speed limit.
"You're right. Vic won't leave you. But don't you ever think for one moment, Jeremiah Talbot, that she'll notice anything wrong about entertaining a crowd on the side. Marriage to her is just going to be another piece of paperwork and a nice diamond ring." Milly made a weird sound--a laugh. But not like any laugh he'd ever heard. "And she'll probably take the ring off in the evenings on the outside chance of having more fun."
Her weary, bitter tone chilled him more than any amount of Chicago wind; could she be right about Victoria? Milly was observant...what she'd read into his future...was it true? He shivered inside but turned his chin so that, casting his eyes far to the side, he could see the top of her mint-green beret.
"Just shut up, Milly, will you? Your objection has been duly noted."