Rufus squirmed in his seat while his friends speculated about Amber’s secret. He knew what it was but he would never break a confidence, not even Amber’s. He thought back to a conversation the two of them had a couple of months ago.
The first time he had received her text, he looked at it and deleted it. The next two times, he deleted it without reading it. Finally, his mom asked him to please text his friend Amber, who sent her a Facebook message asking her to get in touch with him. Finally he texted Amber to find out what she wanted.
Amber texted him back immediately and asked him if they could meet at Elevated Grounds, a coffeehouse close to the Stanhope’s elegant home, that no one in Ellowyne’s circle of friends frequented. Reluctantly, he agreed.
He walked into the coffeehouse and immediately realized he could never afford to order even half a scone. When Amber saw him, she waved him over to where she was sitting. She had his favorite latte and two big oatmeal chocolate chip cookies waiting for him.
“Rufus, I am so glad that you came. It’s nice to see you again.”
He glowered at her. “Cut the crap, Amber. What do you want?”
“Well, I do have a favor to ask.”
“I knew it.” He grabbed the cookies and his drink and stood up to leave. “You’re only nice to someone when you want something.”
“No, please. Don’t go.”
Rufus sighed and sat back down. “Fine. So what do you want?”
Amber looked down onto the table. She took in a sharp breath and said, “I need to tell you something first. But I need your strict confidence. You are the only person I’m telling this to.”
He drank some of his coffee. “Go on.”
“Promise you won’t tell?”
Rufus pondered this for a minute or so. If he knew Amber’s secret, he could use it against her. But no, he had too much integrity to betray anyone’s secrets to hurt them. And he could never break anyone’s confidence, not even Amber’s.
“I promise. Go on, Amber.”
Amber sipped her green tea, then bit her lip. “I like Ellowyne. I mean, I really, REALLY like her.”
“Everyone likes Ellowyne. Nothing so secret about that.”
“I feel the same way about Ellowyne as you do.”
Rufus furrowed his brows. “Sorry. I don’t follow.”
“Look. It’s totally obvious that you’re totally in love with Ellowyne. When she enters a room, your eyes light up. You’re always doing nice things for her like bringing her flowers and extra large cans of whipped cream. We all know it, well, except for Ellowyne, who can be so oblivious.”
Rufus blushed, then gathered his thoughts. “You just said that you know I’m in love with Ellowyne. What does she have to do with this?”
Tears welled up in Amber’s eyes and she nodded her head. “I haven’t told this to anyone. My friends—especially Ellowyne—would freak out.”
He was a bit surprised when Amber referred to Ellowyne as a friend rather than a frenemy, but he said nothing.
“I don’t want to be this way. I’ve have tried so hard to be—what—what I’m not. The clothes, the makeup, the flirting…”
“Amber. You’ve done way more than flirting. You’ve kissed me when I didn’t want it. And then you’ve slapped me. Your behavior has made me uncomfortable and confused. I could post my own ‘me, too’ story.”
“I am so sorry. I didn’t think about your feelings. I only did it because I was trying so hard to convince myself that I wasn’t, I wasn’t—Rufus, you have two mothers. Don’t you get what I’m trying to tell you?”
With that, Amber started to weep. In all the years he had known her, Rufus never once saw her cry. He stood up, moved closer to Amber and took her in his arms. She sobbed onto his shoulder. “I don’t want to be gay, Rufus. I really don’t.”
“What can I do to help you? I can introduce you to my moms and they can help you get comfortable with yourself and tell your parents, and get information on PFLAG.”
Amber tore away from Rufus’ comforting embrace. “Oh, no! I can’t do that. I can’t tell my parents. They’d be devastated.” She sat down and wiped away her tears. But that’s why I need a favor.”
He eyed her suspiciously and cocked an eyebrow. He had never seen Amber so vulnerable and sad. But what did she really need from him?
“I can’t tell my parents. Not now. They’ve been wondering why I haven’t brought home any boyfriends. Would you…”
Rufus shook his head. “Oh hell no. I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to be your beard.”
“Please! Just for a little while until I can get up the courage to tell my parents.” She paused. “I’ll help you get Ellowyne away from Penn.”
Every cell in Rufus’ body screamed “RUN!” but his heart told him to stay. “How can you help me win Ellowyne’s love?” he asked. “Especially when you’re in love with her too?”
Amber said, “I doubt that Ellowyne would ever fall in love with me. But you—at least you have a chance.”
She made sense. And his heart shouted that he should trust her, even when his sweaty palms and churning stomach screamed “NO!” He took a bite of his second cookie and asked her to continue.
“Yes, I want to pretend that you’re my boyfriend, just for my parents. They’ll back off when they see me with you.”
Rufus cocked an eyebrow. “Wait a minute. This isn’t a game, is it? I don’t flatter myself unjustly but is this some kind of ruse to get me to spend time with you?”
She looked down at her tea and her lower lip trembled. “I don’t blame you for not trusting me. I’ve done some terrible things to you. But please, please trust me on this. Besides, I’ve confided my secret to you. I trust you. Can you trust me?”
Rufus paused as he collected his thoughts. “Well, you do have more to lose than I at this point. But if I do this, how will you help me compete against Penn for Ellowyne’s affection? Ellowyne gushes every time she sees him and she hardly notices me.”
“Well, let’s take a look at Penn. What does he have that you don’t?”
Rufus scratched his chin. “Money, good looks, great job, social skills.”
Amber smiled for the first time in their conversation. “I can take care of all of that. Just trust me.”
There was that word again. Trust. Again. “I don’t know. What are you going to do for me that will impress Ellowyne? And what will I need to do if I agree to do this?”
“You will be expected to accompany me to upscale events like dinners and parties and dances at the country club. That’s going to teach you some social skills.”
“I have one suit, and I can’t afford to buy new clothes.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll buy all the new clothes you want. I’ll even get you a tuxedo.” She looked at him and brushed her fingers through his hair. “I’ll call my stylist to give you a new haircut. You’ll look so sharp that Ellowyne will have to notice you instead of Penn.”
Rufus said nothing for a minute or two. “I don’t know, Amber. I’d like to help but I need to think about this. I’ll text you, okay?”
He tossed and turned that night. And the next. And the next. His mind conjured up images of Penn and Ellowyne together laughing, hugging, and kissing. Rufus loved her so much and it pained him to think that Penn had her heart. But if he agreed to be Amber’s beard, he might learn how to be as suave as Penn, since that’s what Ellowyne apparently liked. He might gain self-confidence and get up the courage to finally ask Ellowyne out. And when Amber cried—if she was up to no good, she might have turned their comforting hug into something else. Finally, he texted Amber and made arrangements to meet.
Just like their first meeting of the week, Amber had a latte and a brownie waiting for Rufus. She smiled sweetly when he sat down.
She asked, “Have you made a decision yet?”
“No. I need to know a few things first. Am I expected to engage in any PDAs with you?”
“We’ll need to act a little affectionate around my parents and at social functions. But nothing more than a hug or kiss.”
“Without the slapping. No groping. And no tongues.”
“Got it. Now I might need to do a little of the outrageous stuff when we’re around Ellowyne, Prudence, and Lizette. If we’re too nice to each other someone might think there’s something up.”
“Just no slapping. If you want to slap someone, do it to Penn.”
“Okay, I will save my worst for him.” She offered up her little finger. “Pinky swear?”
Rufus smirked, thinking of how Amber would totally humiliate Penn. “Pinky swear.”
On his way home, Rufus thought about his arrangement with Amber. It looked like a win-win. Her parents would get off her back and he would learn social graces to impress Ellowyne. And now that he knew Amber’s secret, he knew why she acted the way she did. But of course he would never, ever tell.
Prudence waved her hand in front of him. “Rufus. Rufus! Earth calling Rufus. Are you in there?”
Rufus’ attention abruptly came back to the moment. “Sorry, Pru. My mind was elsewhere.” Indeed it was. Rufus glanced at his Apple watch, a gift from Amber, and rubbed the Diesel jeans she got for him. Of course he’d never break Amber’s confidence. He had too much integrity to tell Amber’s secret–and because he liked the places they went and all of her expensive gifts. Surprisingly, he discovered he enjoyed the upscale life. That night he would join Amber and her parents at a country club dinner. He would wear the Italian suit Amber bought for him. Rufus hoped there would be caviar. He loved caviar. And he could get very accustomed to this lifestyle.