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Will pressed the phone to his ear and willed his best friend, Ted, to answer. The odds weren’t good, not when Boston was a solid three hours ahead of L.A. and it was already past midnight here in California.

That couldn’t be helped. He’d needed to wait until filming was over and he’d done his required interviews. He’d needed to wait until after the debrief with Malcolm and his mother. Wait, with the taste of her still on his tongue. Something sweet and tangy that no amount of whiskey had burned out.

“Pick up, pick up, pick up,” he said, tapping his foot against the tile floor of his personal cabin. He still had his dress shoes on. It was the middle of the night and he still wore his wool suit. At least he’d discarded his tie long ago. The rest could wait. Comfortable clothes, a shower, bed…they’d all still be waiting after this phone call.

The phone rang again and Will debated hanging up and trying Logan, when the call picked up and Ted’s muffled “hello” came through the speaker.

“It’s me,” Will said. “I need a favor.”

There was a long sound from the phone Will thought might have been a yawn, and then some rustling and his friend said, “Sure. Gimme a minute.”

This was why Will called Ted. Ted who did anything he could for his friends. Ted who would not berate him about the time or demand explanations that he simply wasn’t ready to give.

“Alright what do you need?” Ted said a minute later, voice thick with sleep and Will pushed a hand through his hair because this was asking a lot, even of his closest friend.

“I need you to go to my apartment and get something,”

“Right now?” Ted asked.

“Yes,” Will said, before he could overthink it. His future was staring him in the face right this second. He’d known it was coming. His mother, Malcolm, the network executives, had talked of nothing else for months, but tonight he walked through the front doors of a palatial estate and into a ballroom full of sparkling dresses and cheerful chatter. He’d walked into a ballroom knowing that one woman inside the four walls would end up his wife.

He’d known that even before he’d seen her at the bar, wrapped in blue.

And then again in the gilded bathroom.

And on the backs of his eyelids every time he blinked.

“Okay,” Ted said. “Shoes.” There was a muffled thump, and then Ted was back on the line. “I’ll call you when I get into your place. Kay?”

Will nodded before remembering his friend couldn’t see him. “Perfect. You taking your bike?” Ted had a headset but usually preferred to ride without it on.

“My neighbors wouldn’t like that,” Ted said, his voice low. “I’m getting in the car now.” The line went dead.

The commute between his apartment and Ted’s ranch house was only a few minutes without traffic, and there was probably none this late at night. Still, he should have waited. Ted could have easily run to his apartment in the morning. It wasn’t like this was incredibly time sensitive. Well, it was, but not for another few weeks. He had time on his side. Right? Maybe? Neither of them were leaving L.A. until the final five.

You’re making a mistake, Will told himself, pacing in the small living room. She’d told him she wasn’t looking for more. Told him she was only here for a job. He’d also felt the way her body melted into his. How her lips opened for his tongue as if no time had passed at all. She’d tasted the same, like heat and spice and woman. Even the waxy taste of lipstick hadn’t masked any of her.

Eight years had vanished in the blink of an eye, and there he was boosting her in the bathroom of The Bar and taking her mouth with his as all their friends waited outside. Instead of sequins and floor length skirts, she was in an old novelty t-shirt and a pair of cutoff denim shorts. Both of them skating the edge of need as he pressed his aching cock to the juncture of her thighs. Not appropriate, but not illegal, yet. Both of them rocking their hips together in a slow press and release, meant to tease until they couldn’t take another moment. Until they waved half-assed goodbyes to Logan and Ted and fled into the bustle of Boston after-dark, determined to make it to whichever apartment was closer. Fast.

The heat was still there. The chemistry unmatched. Will hadn’t even felt a stirring towards another woman since AJ had detonated his heart on the way out of his life. And after he’d picked up each individual piece, and fit them back together like a 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle, he still only wanted her.

Will’s phone rang and his fingers shook as he swiped the green icon across the screen. “I’m in,” Ted said, his voice muffled around what Will assumed was a yawn. “What am I getting?”

Will kept a normally tidy apartment. It had been ingrained in him as a child, but even if he’d had boxes in every corner and a million knickknacks crowded onto shelves, he’d still know exactly where this one item was. It was in the same spot it had always been for the last eight years. Even when Janet cleaned every other week, she knew not to touch. “My bedroom, bedside table, top drawer,” Will said, and listened to the thuds of Ted’s feet as he walked down Will’s hallway to the suite with the private balcony. The rent had been worth it for that extra twenty-five square feet of private space. It sounded dumb to say that. Will didn’t have roommates. He lived alone. In theory, the entire apartment was his own private space, but it wasn’t. Not really. Even his life wasn’t his own private space, not when his mother invaded every choice, every movement. When every waking thought was plagued by the knowledge that it would affect his whole family. Their whole image.

That bonus balcony was only Will’s. He reused to let outside thoughts intrude. He’d drink a cold beer, put his feet up on the rungs while he sat in his Adirondack chair, and would pretend he was just another random person living in the city that housed 680,000. Pretend he didn’t have the weight of the Masters’ name. Pretend he didn’t have the heartache from watching the love-of-his-life walk away. Pretend he didn’t have to worry about what everyone else said or thought or did.

“Warn me if I’m about to stick my hand into something embarrassing,” Ted said, and Will heard him open the old wooden drawer. It usually caught if it wasn’t pulled straight out, something that would be hard for Ted to do with the phone pushed to his ear.

“I haven’t dated anyone in ages.” Years.

“I know. That’s why I’m a little worried I’m going to find your toy collection.” Ted’s voice was a deadpan drawl.

“Don’t worry,” Will couldn’t help the laugh. Ted was one hundred percent still about to stick his hand into Will’s drawer for him, no matter what was in there. Ted was one in a million. “I brought all my unmentionables with me.”

“Expecting to be that bored? Aren’t you surrounded by a gaggle of beautiful women?”

Will wasn’t bored at all, but it had nothing to do with the number of contestants. He really only had eyes for one beautiful woman.

“Just push your hand all the way to the back and behind the clamshell box. You can’t miss it.” He should probably ask for the box, too.

It held an old first edition set of some author that had made AJ go starry-eyed. An old relative had given him the books when he graduated eighth grade, one of those gifts that they had taught him to smile and nod a thank you for, even if he hated it. His mother had put up such a fuss about the books that he’d had to take them everywhere he went. And Will had never thought much of the bright red binding and the wafer-thin pages.

And then AJ had found them. It had been one morning after she’d fallen asleep at his place, in his arms. She’d tried to brush off breakfast, saying she had some work to get done, and he’d been desperate to carve out any extra minutes that she was willing to spare. Desperate in a way that made him ignore all his good breeding and etiquette and ignore the subtle way she was trying to extricate herself from his space. A gentleman would have offered her a ride home, or a walk to the T, or a to-go mug with coffee. He wouldn’t have pushed.

Fuck that.

Will had offered her the desk he rarely touched in corner of the living room. The one meticulously staged by his mother to look like he worked from home frequently. He didn’t. Mostly, Will stayed late at the firm, and if he brought work home, he worked from his couch. In his pajamas. He’d offered her the space, knowing she had her tablet on her. Crossing his fingers that she’d say “yes” and sit in the warm morning light and let him just look at her for as long as he could.

She’d surprised him by saying okay, a small smile lifting the corners of her wide mouth. Will had been so excited that she’d agreed to stay, so entranced by the sight of her, that he’d completely missed the fact that she’d pulled the books out of the drawer while looking for a piece of paper. He hadn’t missed her shriek, or her falling out of the overpriced office chair.

“These are Jane Eyre,” she’d breathed from the floor, hand pressed to her chest. “Do you really have a first edition copy of Jane Eyre?”

Then she’d walked him through the importance of the books, how old they were, what they were probably worth and he’d smiled at her like a lovesick fool ready to gift wrap them and hand them over if she’d just keep sparkling at him in his living room.

She’d left before he could give them to her.

He should absolutely—

“Holy shit,” Ted said through the phone.

“You found it?” Will knew he had.

Only one kind of thing came in little square boxes coated in soft velvet.

One one thing mattered so much that he’d send his best friend to go hunt it down in the middle of the night.

“I can’t send you this,” Ted said, which…wasn’t what Will was expecting.

“Why not?” It was his damn ring. It was beautiful, a large circular center cut diamond, ringed with stones cut to look like flower petals. Unique and different and full of joy.

“It’s an engagement ring.” Ted said, and Will rolled his eyes.

“Of course it is. You graduated from Harvard with that brain? Or is your memory starting to go?”

That wasn’t a big deal. The show expected him to propose, even if they couldn’t require it. Will already knew that he’d be headed out to film footage of himself pouring over ring displays, platinum bands and diamonds glistening under the lights. Some jewelry store had probably paid big money to be featured, to claim to be the place where Will Masters bought a ring for the first season of First Lady. Not that it mattered. If his mother liked his eventual choice, she might even hand over the family diamond. It was likely that she already had a woman picked out. Someone no-doubt perfect. Will wondered if he could guess who the woman was? Probably not any of the ones that stuck in his brain.

“I can’t send it to you,” Ted said again and Will sighed.

Maybe he should have called Logan after all. The man would have dumped the expensive bauble into a mailer and stuck it in a blue box for USPS to come collect, but hey, it would have been mailed.

“I’ll pay whatever it costs. You can use the company's courier service.” Will said, “I have insurance on the damn thing anyway, so don’t worry about that part.”

Insurance that he’d kept paying for even as the ring sat untouched in the back of his bedside table drawer.

“No,” Ted said again, and Will massaged his temples. It was late at night. Ted was tired, and the man was grumpy and gruff when well-rested and fully fed.

“Ted, please. I need that one.”

There was a sigh from the phone.

“Why do you still have this ring?” Ted asked. “And why do you have it shoved in the back of a drawer like a dirty secret?”

Will thought of the day he’d marched right into the little jewelry store in Newton. His mother would have had a fit over the vintage, one-of-a-kind design. What about clarity? She would have asked. What about classic beauty? What about tradition? And none of that had mattered because he wasn’t buying a fucking ring for his mother. He’d been buying it for AJ. For whenever she was ready. It was too soon, much too soon, but he hadn’t been able to help himself.

And then she’d left, and he’d put the ring away.

“You know why,” Will said, because he couldn’t get rid of it. Couldn’t sell it back. Couldn’t bear the thought of anyone other than—

“So you know why I can’t send it to you,” Ted interrupted. “It’s AJ’s ring, Will. I can’t let you throw that away on someone random, not when you kept it all this time.”

Throw it away. Like Will hadn’t agreed to join First Lady because he was bored. He’d been aware that the show was meant to find him a wife, a partner. He’d gone into it assuming he’d leave affianced. That was a completely separate issue from falling in love again. He could do one without the other. It would sting like hell, but he could do it.

“I know you’re on that show,” Ted was still talking, “but it doesn’t have to mean anything. Do you know how many couples that end up together in the finale actually stay together? Less than half, Will. So do the show, get your mother off your back, and then come home and go after her. You kept this ring for a reason. It’s AJ’s. Find a different one for the show. Hell, I’ll mail you a different one tomorrow. Not this one.”

“I need that one,” Will said again, repeating the words slowly because it was one thing to change a person’s mind, and quite another to change it when they were, in fact, right about everything.

“Why?” Ted said.

Will didn’t answer, just let the silence stretch between them as he willed his best friend to understand without him having to explain. He was afraid to open his mouth and admit what he was doing. It was crazy. The idea was only half-baked. More like not-baked-at-all. But the idea of letting her go again, letting her walk out of his life for the second time, was absolutely untenable. It twisted his guts like a long, twisting car ride in the blistering sun.

“Fuck,” Ted swore into the phone. “Is she there?”

“You know I can’t answer that,” Will said, but his voice cracked on the word “can’t.”

“She is.” Ted whistled. “What are the motherfucking odds?”

Will was good at math, and even he didn’t know how to calculate the odds. Unless his mother… no, she hadn’t really known AJ at all. There’s no way she would pull strings now.

“Don’t let her go again,” Ted said. “Don’t be an idiot twice.”

“Hey,” Will’s protest was weak. He had been an idiot. Ted was right.

“Do you know how many men would kill to find their perfect other half? Someone to stand with them? A partner? How you managed to not only find her once, but let her walk, and then find her again I’ll never know, but you can’t look this gift horse in the mouth. Fight Will. Fight for her or I may need to find a new friend.”

“I’m not just your friend,” Will said to the man who was honestly closer than certain members of his family. “We also work together.”

“I’ll find a new coworker as well,” Ted said.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Will said, feeling his heart race again at the possibilities lining up in front of him. “I just know I need that ring.”

“It’ll be in your hands tomorrow afternoon.” A pause, “Actually later today. Fuck, it’s late.”

“I’m sorry I woke you,” Will said, and he meant it, but he’d still call all over again.

“I’m not,” Ted said. “Someday you can repay me by helping me catch my soulmate, too. If I ever meet her.”

“You will,” Will said. “If I did, twice, you will too.”

“Nah,” Ted said, “Knowing my luck, my soulmate is allergic to relationships and we’ll only ever cross paths once as we head in entirely different directions.”

“Well, when that time comes, I’ll help you catch her too,” Will said. “Thanks man. Crash there instead of driving home.”

“I will,” Ted said, and then the line went dead again and fourteen hours later, a haggard-looking delivery driver handed Will a small package, just as Ted promised he would.

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