Hi again! Hope you enjoyed Chapter One of The Unreal Boyfriend.
Before the book releases on the 30th, I'm excited to share Chapter Two with you as well. Here it is.
The Unreal Boyfriend Chapter Two
Bernadette shrugged into her coat and put on some lipstick. Then she practised a happy face in front of the mirror.
Good. She looked genuinely okay. Paige should be the only person she had to be extra careful with. Her best friend had a knack for guessing if she was feeling low. Still, she’d managed time and again to convince Paige there was nothing to worry about.
“Bernadette! We need to change my bedsheets!”
Bernadette exhaled harshly. Now that she was about to leave for Lara’s third birthday party, her mother had started to find things to hold her up and spoil her fun.
She grabbed her bag and left her room. “We’ll do it tomorrow, Mum, before I do the washing.”
June plopped herself in her favourite armchair in front of the TV and glared at her. “All you know how to do is to enjoy yourself. Look at you, all dressed up to join your rich friends for yet another party, and you can’t even give your mother enough money so I can go out and entertain myself.”
“Not when your idea of entertainment is pouring all of your cash into poker machines,” she retorted.
“Playing the pokies relaxes me! Isn’t that important for someone who’s had a heart attack? Anyway, I keep telling you to ask those bazillionaire friends of yours to help you out with a better-paying job. Then you won’t have to be stingy with me. And don’t forget you owe me your friendship with them. If I hadn’t taken you with me to the Shiptons’ house when you were little because there was no one to look after you while I worked there as a housekeeper, you wouldn’t have met Paige, and you wouldn’t have become best friends with someone from a wealthy family. And if you hadn’t become Paige’s best friend, then you wouldn’t also have met her rich husband and his rich friends. Come to think of it, you should tell Paige that I want to meet her again to say hi. She really owes me something too, you know, because if I hadn’t brought you to her parents’ house, she would have been a lonely only child with no one to play with—”
“I’m going,” Bernadette interrupted, heading for the door. “I’ve cooked your lunch and dinner. You just need to heat them up in the microwave.”
“If you let your Auntie May get you a date with her husband’s nephew, our problems will be lessened. We could be rich, too! But I just don’t understand why you—”
Bernadette shut her apartment door behind her and ran for the exit. It didn’t matter that this happened almost daily since her mother had reappeared in her life and moved in with her a year ago. Time and repetition only increased her hurt.
She got in her car and slumped on the driver’s seat. At least she’d soon be at Lara’s party. Any break from her mother’s favourite pastime of making her feel guilty for almost everything was very welcome. Unfortunately, today was also the day she’d get to meet Holly.
She sniffed and turned on the engine. She couldn’t decide if she’d rather suffer her mother’s incessant whining or see Derek with his girlfriend. But she wouldn’t think of not being there to celebrate Lara’s birthday.
She drove down Parramatta Road, grateful that the traffic wasn’t as bad as she feared. Congestion had been increasing more and more on Sydney’s roads, and she’d worried she might be late in getting to Rick and Lexie’s house.
She normally enjoyed driving so she could be alone with her thoughts. But right now, all she could think of was the possibility of witnessing Derek cuddle up with Holly. Ugh. Now she was getting a headache.
Hey, good! She could have a valid reason to leave the party early!
She snorted and pushed the button on the console to turn on the radio. Love song. Gah! She’d rather have silence.
Her mind strayed back to her mother as soon as she’d turned off the music.
June’s mild heart attack a year ago had suddenly turned Bernadette’s world upside down. Estranged for eleven years, June had called Bernadette from the hospital, saying she didn’t have anyone else to turn to in her time of need.
Seeing June unwell and looking years older than her age had shocked Bernadette. And to her surprise, she’d found herself open to a reconciliation. When June had expressed remorse for kicking her out of the house a day after her seventeenth birthday for choosing to go to university and only work part-time, instead of working full-time so she could hand more money to June, Bernadette had been ready to forget about the past.
But after two or three months of relative cooperation, things had started to get more difficult. June had gone back to moaning and whining that being a single mother had robbed her of her hopes and dreams. As if June was still supporting Bernadette! To the contrary, Bernadette had been doing everything for her mother, including cooking, cleaning, washing—practically all the housework. June even refused to look for a job, claiming she wasn’t ready to return to the workforce in any capacity as the stress would be detrimental to her health. Yet June nagged Bernadette to make more money so they—June, in particular—could have “a better life”.
Bernadette was already earning a good salary, having worked her way up in the insurance industry. But June wasn’t even impressed that Bernadette was now a senior underwriter in one of the biggest multinational insurers in the world. As far as June was concerned, Bernadette wasn’t doing enough to milk the relationships she had with her “bazillionaire” friends. To June, that was a sign of stupidity, especially when they “needed the money”.
Bernadette was nearing the end of her tether. The only thing holding her back from throwing June out was the fact that June was her mother. Somehow, she couldn’t do to June what June had done to her eleven years ago.
Perhaps it was because she sympathised with her mother, even if June’s attitude caused her grief. Being aware that her mum had had a difficult life, having been raised by different foster families, Bernadette somewhat understood June’s own emotional scars. And even though June hadn’t wanted to get pregnant at eighteen, June had done her duty of making sure they’d had a roof over their heads, putting food on the table and sending her to school.
Compare that to the father Bernadette had never known. Apparently, her then-teenaged dad had walked out on them when she was only six months old, unable or unwilling to stick around. At least June had raised her even if she wasn’t a wanted child.
And, truthfully, despite everything June had done, Bernadette still sought her mother’s love and approval.
She sighed. Would the need ever go away?
A car honked behind her and she noticed the red traffic light had turned green. She pressed the gas pedal and continued on her journey. As she got closer to Rick and Lexie’s, she shook herself and tried to relax. She wouldn’t want to inadvertently wear her heart out on her sleeve in front of her friends.
Soon she was parking her car about a block away from the Donnellys’ house. Judging by the number of cars parked in the area, most of their guests had arrived. She grabbed her present for Lara—a life-sized stuffed koala she’d crocheted herself from a pattern she’d bought online—and got out of her car. Was Derek already there? With Holly?
Well, time to meet the girlfriend of the man she had the hots for.
She made her way to the house, pasting a smile on her face as she neared it. The gate was open and she spotted Lexie and the birthday girl by the front door, greeting guests.
“Auntie Bernie!” Lara said, waving enthusiastically.
“Hello, sweetie! Happy birthday!” She hugged the child and exchanged kisses with Lexie.
“Is that for me?” Lara asked, pointing to the gift-wrapped present. “Mummy said I’ll open all my gifts later.”
“Yes, it’s for you. I made it myself. Hope you like it.”
Lara grabbed the parcel and grinned. “I think it’s a toy!”
“What do you say, Lara?” Lexie prompted.
“Thank you, Auntie Bernie. Do you like my fairy dress?”
“Yes, it’s very pretty.”
“And my wings?” Lara turned around to show her back. “Mummy got lots of wings for my party. You get one, too!”
“Thank you. Yes, I believe we’re all wearing wings today.”
“Yes. Including my daddy and my grandpas and Julian and Nate and Tanner and Uncle Brad and Uncle—”
“Everyone, including the boys,” Lexie interrupted with a laugh.
“Mummy, I want to give Auntie Bernie her fairy wings now.”
Bernadette followed Lara to the big family room at the back, where Lara’s grandmother was handing out costume wings. Bernadette selected a pair and slid her arms into the elastics, adjusting her dress around the armpits. “How do I look?”
“Good!” Lara said with a pleased grin. “Now you can go to the garden.”
“I’d love to.”
Lara led Bernadette to the Donnellys’ large backyard. It was already full of people, with both kids and adults wearing fairy wings of different shapes, sizes and colours.
Bernadette’s gaze landed on Derek immediately. He was sitting near the pool area with Tristan, Brad, Erin and a couple of people she didn’t recognise. Well, those two strangers appeared to be together, so the woman couldn’t be Holly.
Maybe Holly couldn’t make it? Or maybe Derek had changed his mind about introducing her to the gang today? Wouldn’t that be good?
“Hey!” She greeted Paige with a kiss and noticed a stunning brunette standing beside them. Her mouth dropped open as she recognised the face. It was Holly Stirling, the singer who’d won a popular talent show three years ago and was now one of the biggest stars in the world. Bernadette even loved her songs. She was such a fan.
Oh, hell. This was Derek’s Holly?
“Um, Bern, you know Holly Stirling,” Paige said. “Holly, this is my best friend, Bernie—Bernadette Luna.”
Holly extended her hand for a shake. “Pleasure to meet you, Bernie.”
“The pleasure’s mine, Holly,” Bernadette responded, her eyes still wide even as her heart constricted.
“I’m so happy to finally be meeting Derek’s friends,” Holly said with a smile. “We kept on talking about it, but it just hadn’t happened until now because I’ve been so busy these past couple of years.”
“We’re glad it’s finally happened,” Bernadette said brightly, her acting chops kicking in.
Holly chuckled. “I did tell Derek I’ll take the blame for him keeping my identity from you guys. I just had so much pressure coming from so many different directions that I’d asked him not to mention to anyone that he was going out with me. Even up till now, I’m still trying to adjust to the craziness of showbiz. And if the media discovered my relationship with him, it would just add to the pressure. Luckily, Derek’s also keen to keep the media from hanging around him in case they sniff out the dealings of his well-known clients. As you know, if the media finds out that he’s a buyer’s agent for some of the most recognisable celebs on the planet, he’ll have trouble keeping his clients’ affairs a secret from long-range camera lenses. Plus, he’s naturally very private, but I’m sure I don’t have to tell you guys that.”
“Yeah,” Bernadette murmured.
“And,” Holly said secretively, stepping closer to her, “we’re still pretending we’re not together. We’re telling people I’m here as Rick and Lexie’s guest, not as Derek’s girlfriend. I’m only coming out to Derek’s closest buddies because you guys have been insisting on meeting his girlfriend Holly.”
“Oh, right. Sure, no problem.” Any hope Bernadette had had that Derek wasn’t serious with his on-again, off-again girlfriend had faded fast. Ouch.
“Hey, Bernie, you’re here!”
Her heart skipped at the sound of Derek’s voice before sinking back to her stomach like lead. She managed to come up with a grin, though. “You’re a naughty one, keeping Holly Stirling away from us for so long,” she said in a low voice.
Derek let out a laugh that sounded forced. “Well, here she is, finally.”
“Careful, Derek,” Holly said under her breath. “Don’t stand close to me. A caterer already saw us talking privately inside the house and she’s been whispering to her workmates ever since—and sneaking glances at you.”
Derek casually moved away from Holly to inspect Bernadette’s wings. “Obviously, we have the same taste, Bern. Your wings are exactly the same shape as mine, just a different colour.”
“You two are so cute,” Holly said with a giggle. “The gorgeous prince and princess of the fairy kingdom.”
Bernadette chuckled nervously. Wow, she wasn’t expecting such a comment from Holly—
“Would you like a drink, ma’am?” a caterer asked Bernadette.
Ah, Holly was merely trying to deflect attention away from her and Derek. Okay, Bernadette was fine with helping throw off a scent. “Shouldn’t we be king and queen since Lara would probably want to take the princess role?” she said in a teasing tone before eyeing the selection of beverages on the tray carried by the hired worker. They all seemed alcoholic.
“Bernadette can’t handle much alcohol,” Derek informed the caterer. “Or you’ll find her passed out on the floor before you can count to ten.”
“Oh,” the server said. “Should I get you something else, ma’am?”
“I’ll get it,” Derek said. “You want your usual?”
“Yes, please,” Bernadette answered.
The server gave their little group a nod of acknowledgement and walked away to offer drinks to the other guests.
“Thank you, Bernie,” Holly said. “Hopefully, that would give that woman and her friends something else to think about.”
“No worries,” Bernadette murmured. If only Holly knew just how much she’d want to trade places with her in Derek’s heart, Holly might be horrified at what she’d just put Bernadette through. Pretending to be Derek’s girlfriend. Imagine that!
“Shall we go get your drink?” Derek asked.
Bernadette nodded and followed Derek to the makeshift adult drinks bar at the far end of the garden, away from the kids’ play area.
“Holly Stirling, huh?” she said softly. “So she’s not on-again, off-again, after all, hey?”
Derek didn’t answer, and she wasn’t sure if it was because she’d hit the mark or Derek simply didn’t want to be overheard by the other guests who were coming up to greet them.
Let it go, Bernie. No point wallowing in that question.
Easier said than done. Pretending to her closest friends that she wasn’t touched by the pain of disappointment would be hard. But for the rest of the day, she had to do her best.
By five in the afternoon, Bernadette felt proud of herself. The guests had left except for the gang, and here she was, chatting comfortably even though Holly and Derek were sitting right in front of her.
She couldn’t help but keep glancing at Derek, though. They hadn’t had a chance to talk about their little act. But then again, what was the need for a discussion? She was the one who’d effectively volunteered her services to Holly and Derek’s cause when she’d followed Holly’s lead of trying to confuse the caterer. Fortunately, the party was officially over, and the hired help had gone. Act well and truly finished.
“This was the most relaxing time I’ve had in a long, long while,” Holly declared. “I’m still enjoying myself, but I’m afraid I have to go. Dante, my manager, is about a minute away to pick me up. We have to go through a few things for a round of interviews tomorrow for my new release.”
“I’d walk you out,” Derek said, “but it might be better if I don’t. Paps might still be hiding out there.”
“Sorry about that,” Lexie said. “I’ll walk you out.”
Holly waved a hand dismissively. “No need to apologise. There’s nothing anyone can do about the paparazzi.” She hugged everyone goodbye, expressing her thanks for a wonderful day.
To Bernadette’s surprise and relief, Holly and Derek only kissed each other on the cheeks, not the lips.
“Catch up with you guys again soon,” Holly said as she hurried to the side gate with Lexie.
“See yah!” Bernadette said cheerfully along with the others. Her glance strayed towards Derek, and she found him gazing at her in a way that made her heart race.
She couldn’t look away, and she felt a pinching in her chest when Derek broke their eye contact.
Why, oh why, did he have to look at her like that?
Paige casually leaned over to whisper in her ear. “You okay?”
“Yeah. I survived the day,” she said under her breath.
“I still can’t believe you agreed to pretend to be Derek’s date today.”
“You know me. Ever ready to be of assistance,” she said dryly.
“Sorry, hon. I know it’s not as easy as you make it out to be.”
She smiled at Paige. “I just need to keep looking for my Mr. Right. He has to be out there somewhere, unless I’m permanently cursed.”
“Stop saying that about yourself! You’re going to find love and you know it.”
Bernadette merely sighed. She’d be kidding herself if she didn’t admit that she was hurting a lot at that moment. Out of all the men she’d met, she’d been hoping against hope that Derek was her Mr. Right. Clearly he wasn’t, so she had to try harder to kill the love bud that kept growing fast and unstoppable like a weed. Luckily, she seemed to have found an effective poison for it now: Holly.
“I think I’m gonna go, too,” she said to Paige.
“Oh, please stay. There’s plenty of food left and we’re partying till dinner, like we usually do.”
“I really just want to go home.”
Paige squeezed her arm. “Okay. We’ll have lunch sometime this week. Just the two of us.”
She nodded, rising from her seat as Lexie made their way back to them.
“Gosh,” Lexie said. “I’d hate to be someone constantly on the media’s radar. A guy sprang up from nowhere after Holly crossed the road to get to her manager’s car. Holly had to speak with him just to make him back off.”
“Now you know why I’d been so quiet about Holly,” Derek said. “I’d get in trouble with my clients if paps followed me around and got a photo of them checking out properties.”
“Still, how could you have kept this from us for so long?” Tristan asked with a frown. “Since when have we become untrustworthy?”
“Hey, you know it’s not that I don’t trust you. I was just keeping my promise to Holly not to tell anyone. That’s all it was—me keeping a promise.”
Tristan shrugged, still scowling. But he did clink Derek’s beer bottle with his when Derek held it up as a peace offering.
“Hey, guys,” Bernadette said. “I think I’m gonna head home, too. I have this headache that’s starting to get bad.”
Her friends murmured their sympathies, and she refused to change her mind despite their pleas to stay for dinner.
When she turned to Derek to say goodbye, their gazes locked for a moment—long enough to make her blush.
Oh, for heaven’s sake, Bernie, the man has a girlfriend! And what makes you think you can compete with Holly Stirling?
“I’ll walk you out, Bernie,” Lexie said.
“Okay,” she said gratefully. She had to leave now. She couldn’t take much more of any of this.
Lexie steered her towards the house instead of the side gate. “You okay?”
“I’m sorry I didn’t warn you about Holly the moment you got here. It was just that other guests were arriving and I couldn’t tell you—”
Bernadette put an arm around Lexie’s shoulders. “Hey, don’t worry about it. I’m fine.”
Lexie returned her hug and squeezed her tight. “Before you go, I have something to tell you about the paparazzo who approached Holly.”
“I’m sure he’s not interested in me,” she said with a laugh.
“I heard him ask Holly if she was going out with Derek McCarthy, the owner of Alpha Property Buyers Advocates.”
“Yeah. The man said he had photos of Derek leaving Holly’s house at eight in the morning last Wednesday, and that several publications were bidding for them.”
“Gosh, Derek wouldn’t be happy about that.” And Bernadette didn’t like the picture that invaded her head. Her chest felt heavier.
“No. But the pap also said that he was giving Holly a chance to give him the true story because he was a big fan, so he wanted to be as fair to her as possible. So Holly said she was definitely not dating Derek McCarthy. She said she simply had a meeting with Derek to interview him as a potential buyer’s agent for her brother, who was overseas, but that her brother has since decided not to buy anything yet. She also said she was sick and tired of all the fake stories being published about her, and pleaded with the pap not to sell the pictures.”
“I don’t blame her for lying,” Bernadette murmured.
“Me neither. Anyway, the guy tried to make a deal with Holly. He’d pull Derek’s pictures from sale, but he wants a couple of exclusive photos of her that he could actually sell. But before anything else, he wants proof that Holly and Derek aren’t an item. He said it was too juicy a piece of information to pass up if it was true. So… well… Holly said that Derek has a girlfriend and it wasn’t her. And guess who she mentioned when the pap insisted on a name.”
Bernadette’s mouth dropped to the ground. “No way.”
Lexie placed a comforting hand on her arm. “I’m so sorry, honey. This just sucks for you big-time. But obviously Holly thinks you’ll be okay with it after the help you gave them today.”
“Serves me right for being too helpful, huh?”
Lexie smiled sympathetically.
“Bernie!” Derek came rushing to them, eyes wide. “Thank God you’re still here.”
Bernadette’s lips twisted. She already knew what Derek was going to ask. Could she go further with their act?
And why on earth was she even considering it?
“I just got a text from Holly and…” Derek raked his hair, his face a picture of mortification, uncertainty and apology.
She sighed and gave him a smile. It wasn’t Derek’s fault he couldn’t return her feelings. Besides, she liked to think she was magnanimous enough to continue doing a good friend a big favour. What had she got to lose? Her heart was already used to suffering, especially when it came to him, anyway. So no big deal, right?
And might as well be useful so she could forget being so… unwanted.
***End of Chapter Two***
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