Imogene doesn't see Lee until all the cops and news people leave and she's settling into her fort. It's so late it's early, the sun streaking gold across the Jersey sky. She's just pulling her fort flap down when Lee squats down next to her and pulls it open again.
"Hey," he says, "you don't have to sleep here, you know."
"Well, that's funny," Imogene says, punching her pillow into a decent shape before flopping her head down on it, "because someone is sleeping in my room."
Lee settles comfortably down onto his knees. "The bed fits two, Imogene. You know that. It's not like it we haven't done it before."
"Oh god," she says.
He grins at her. "I don't mean that. I mean we've shared it before. We don't have to do anything. I just think the savior of the house shouldn't have to sleep on the floor." When she only looks at him, he continues, "I mean, I could offer to sleep on the floor and let you sleep on the bed, but I'm not that chivalrous. Besides, I'm paying good money for that bed."
"You're a little shit," Imogene says.
"But a sharing one," he says. "You coming or what?"
Lee holds out a hand, and she takes it, and they walk up the stairs together without letting go. In the room, once they're settled in bed, he asks quietly, "Are you alright?"
"Yes," Imogene says. She thinks about the long day. She's found out all her friends are fake, met her dad, confronted her mother, and almost lost her family and her life. "Maybe. No."
His hand finds hers again under the covers. "You wanna talk about it?"
He'd asked her this earlier, in the car back from New York, and she'd said no. Now, in the almost-dark, in the room she grew up in, maybe she can. "We almost died," she says.
He squeezes her hand. "I know. You were amazing."
Before she knows it, she's spilling her guts. The stress of the day has really gotten to her. "…and then we met our dad and he didn't even remember Ralph's name; it was so terrible; I idolized him for years and he's just another selfish fucker like all the men who've hurt me, and I…" She starts to cry so hard she can't talk anymore.
"Hey, c'mere," Lee says gently, and pulls her to his side of the bed and snugly against him. His hands rub circles against her back, and she dissolves into tears against his chest. He doesn't say anything, just lets her cry and stutter out things about her mom and dad and childhood and Ralph, until it's bright daylight and her throat hurts from the strain of talking while crying.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I'm keeping you up."
"Nah, you're good," he says above her head. "I don't have to go to work 'til six this evening. I can sleep in."
"I'm so tired," she says. She wonders if she should scoot of his arms. She doesn't want to. It feels good here.
"Then go to sleep," he says, and his arms adjust their grip on her. "You're safe."
She sniffles. "Okay."
She hears him shuffling around in the afternoon, getting ready for work. She groans and steals his pillow to smash over her head. Before he leaves, he brushes a kiss on her exposed shoulder, and her hand shoots out to grab his arm.
"What?" he says.
"Have a good day at work," she says. "Don't catch any STDs from Britney-Christina."
He laughs and uses his other hand to gently pry her fingers off his arm. "I won't. Go back to sleep, okay? You need it."
"'Kay," she mumbles.
On Saturday, the family goes to the boardwalk so Ralph can sell crabs, because keeping up with habit is good for their sanity. Imogene takes a turn manning the crab booth with Ralph while Lee goes to buy ice cream. Mom and George haven't been seen since they all got here, and Imogene sincerely hopes that they're not doing it in the public bathrooms. Knowing them, it's entirely possible.
Things have been moderately busy, people coming over because they recognize Ralph and Imogene from TV, and Imogene realizes that somehow, the Duncans have managed to become the local celebrities of Ocean City. Ralph even signs a few autographs, and it does wonders for his self-confidence.
During a lull in customers, Imogene happens to glance up and see that Allyson the glitter lady is waving her over to the glitter station. Imogene winces. She had been so awkward last time she went over there. But oh, Ralph can handle the booth for now, and she owes it to him to try and fix the mess she made with the glitter lady.
So she makes her way over and says hi. "Hi!" greets Allyson brightly. Some kind of yellow and orange sparkly swirl is under her left eye today. "I saw you on TV! You are so brave! Weren't you scared?"
"Um, yeah," says Imogene.
"I would have been terrified!" exclaims Allyson. "I don't know how you did it!"
Imogene shrugs. "Well, you know. Just gotta do what you gotta do. Didn't have much time to think."
"Well," says Allyson, pushing Imogene down into her glitter chair, "I think this calls for a glitter celebration!"
"Oh no, you don't have to do that," says Imogene, trying to get back up.
Allyson pushes her back down. "Don't worry, honey! It's free! On the house! For our very own heroine of Ocean City!"
"It's fine, really…"
"I insist!" proclaims Allyson. Imogene resigns herself to walking around like a glitter freak all day again and tries to make herself comfortable in the tall chair.
"I saw Ralph on TV, too," remarks Allyson, out of the blue, and Imogene snaps to attention. The woman is eyeing her seriously. "You don't really have graphic fantasies about your brother, do you?"
"Oh, god, no!" Imogene turns bright red and slaps her hands over her face. "No! God, no! He just likes you and he wanted me to get your attention and I didn't know what to do and it just kind of came out and oh my god! No!"
"Hmm," says Allyson.
"No! I have a boyfriend!" gasps Imogene, grasping at straws. "I have a boyfriend, and he's not my brother, and he's wonderful and I'm madly in love with him! And his name isn't Ralph!"
Allyson laughs at her. "Honey, I know that. I just wanted to know why you lied."
Imogene suddenly realizes that the glitter lady is far cleverer than she lets on. "You're evil." She frowns at Allyson.
Allyson looks speculatively over at Ralph, still dealing with customers. "You know, I always thought he was kind of cute."
"Yeah?" asks Imogene hopefully. "What about Jim Bob or whatever your boyfriend's name is?"
Allyson waves a dismissive hand. "Ahh, I'm getting tired of him. All he wants to do is stay in and drink with the boys."
Imogene reflects that all Ralph likes to do is stay in and feed his hermit crabs. She'd better teach him some new hobbies.
"So he likes me, huh?" asks Allyson, turning back to Imogene.
"He's crazy about you," confirms Imogene, starting to get up from the chair. "So if that's all you wanted, we could go over and—"
Allyson pushes her back down into the chair. "Hey! We haven't done your glitter profile yet!"
"Oh, you still wanna do that? I…forgot."
Allyson humphs at her. "Now sit still and let me feel your energy."
Lee wanders over about ten minutes later, Imogene's strawberry ice cream cone in one hand and his pistachio in the other. "Hey, sorry it took so long!" he says, handing Imogene her ice cream. "The line took forever."
"You can't eat that yet," Allyson says, interrupting the cone's trajectory to Imogene's mouth. "It will make crinkle lines in your glitter profile."
Imogene sighs and sits still again.
"Oh, hi," says Lee to Allyson, holding out a hand. "I'm Lee."
She takes his hand warmly. "You must be Imogene's boyfriend!"
Lee opens his mouth to respond, but Imogene beats him to it. "Yes! Yes, he is!" she exclaims, securing a vice grip around Lee's waist and dragging him to her side. He goes with a kind of shocked surprise that makes her fear the conversation that's going to come after. "This is my boyfriend! My boyfriend Lee!"
"The one you're madly in love with?" Allyson asks. Lee chokes on his pistachio ice cream. And okay, something's definitely up with Allyson. She knows.
Just what, Imogene isn't sure.
"Yes! We're so happy together!" says Imogene, and Lee chokes again. She pounds him on the back. "Are you okay, honey?"
Lee launches into a coughing fit, and by now, Imogene is sure her cheeks are fire-engine red. "Yeah, I'm fine, baby," he says finally. "Do you have a boyfriend you're not madly in love with that I should know about?"
He is not doing a good job of not smiling. Imogene pokes him in the back, where Allyson can't see. "No, just you, sweetheart."
"Huh," says Lee, apparently deciding to go along with it for now. "So what's going on over here, ladies?"
Allyson launches into an explanation of glitter profiles. When she's done, Lee says, "That's interesting. So what does Imogene's mean?" He gestures to the red sparkly heart under her eye.
"Well, when I read Imogene's energy, her aura comes off as this deep, spicy red. It means she's head-over-heels in love, in a passionate and tempestuous relationship. Not that I have to tell you about that!" She nudges Lee and waggles her eyebrows. Imogene suffers her own coughing fit. It manages to smother Lee's bit-off laughter, or at least, she hopes it does.
"Aw, sweetie, you gotta sit still," chastises Allyson. "There sure is a lot of coughing going on today."
"Allergies," mumbles Imogene.
"Yeah," says Lee.
Allyson ignores them. "Did she tell you what her glitter profile was last time she was here?" she asks Lee. Imogene winces. Allyson frowns at her.
"No," says Lee, looking interested. He probably senses something he can use to blackmail Imogene with later.
"It was tears," says Allyson. "She was in a really sad place. Brokenhearted, I think. There's none of that now. You've done wonders for her."
Lee looks at Imogene and gives her a cheeky grin. "I like to think so."
Imogene sticks her tongue out at him.
"All right, Imogene! You're done!" Allyson stands back to appraise her work. "Doesn't she look beautiful, Lee?"
"Gorgeous," agrees Lee, winking at Imogene.
"It's your turn now!" Allyson says, grabbing his arm as Imogene gets up.
"What?" Imogene laughs at his panicked expression. "No, I'm good, thanks!"
"Don't be silly! I saw you on TV, too! I want to give all of you free glitter profiles to thank you for keeping Ocean City a safe place!"
Lee's in the chair before he knows it, and he sends Imogene a pleading glance. "Aww, do you want me to hold your hand, baby?" Imogene asks. The word "baby" leaves a bad taste in her mouth. She resolves to never, ever call him that again.
He glares at her as Allyson reads his energy. He ends up with a heart with flames coming out of it, because "his passion is for Imogene is on fire." Imogene is surprised by how much she enjoys glitter profiling once she's not in the chair. "That heart is very sexy," she tells Lee, who's apparently resigned himself to his fate. He's easygoing like that.
"You think so?" he asks, examining it in the handheld mirror Allyson holds up for him. "I think it's cooler than yours."
They thank Allyson, who gets them to agree to watch the crab shack and glitter booth while she and Ralph go off for a walk. Ralph goes off with her, looking like he's about to puke out of nervousness and excitement, and Imogene prays that the walk goes well. She's startled when a hand curls around her waist under her shirt, and turns to find that Lee's sidled up next to her in the crab shack. "Hey!" she protests. "You're supposed to be at the glitter booth! You're the one who told Allyson you could paint!" She points to the empty booth.
Lee shrugs. "There's no one over there now. I'm keeping an eye on it. So, when did I become your boyfriend?"
Wow, he didn't wait to cut to the chase, did he? Imogene covers her face. "Oh my god."
He laughs in her ear. "I'd assume you told her that because she was hitting on you, but she seems pretty interested in Ralph, so that theory is shot."
"So what's the story?" he prompts.
"It's so embarrassing I don't want to tell you."
"Was she trying to set you up with a friend? Was she asking about me and you got jealous? Did you have a crystallizing moment while she read your energy?"
He seems to be taking this really well. Just amused, not concerned at all. She's grateful, but still completely embarrassed. "I wish it were any of those." She still won't look at him.
"Really?" He sounds surprised. "So what was it?"
She doesn't answer, and he starts tickling her sides. Her hands come down from her face to try to fend him off, but he bats them away. She's squealing and it's hard to breathe. "Lee!"
"Tell me!" he laughs.
He lets her go, and she leans on the counter, catching her breath. "On Thursday, I was here with Ralph, and he asked me to go over and chat her up for him, because he likes her."
"Well…I may have told her I thought he was hot."
"You told her you thought your brother was hot?!" Lee exclaims.
"Well, I told her we weren't related," mutters Imogene.
"Oh my god, Imogene! For a writer you are the worst at bullshitting people." He dissolves into laughter.
"It's not funny!" she protests, mortified.
"It totally is!" he disagrees. "It's hilarious! So she found out you were related and you told her you were lying and you already had a boyfriend!" His shoulders shake with laughter.
"…yes," says Imogene primly.
"That you were madly in love with!"
"Hahaha! You just had to dig the hole deeper, didn't you?"
She shoves his shoulder. "Stop laughing!"
"I can't! You are the world's worst liar!"
"Fine, okay? I'm an idiot!" She goes to check on the hermit crabs on the opposite end of the shack. Away from him.
He catches her arm and pulls her back. "An adorable idiot," he says, wrapping his arms around her. "You've got to work on bullshitting, okay?"
"I'm aware of that," she grumbles.
"I'm gonna kiss my girlfriend now," he decides.
"I'm not your—mmm."
When Ralph and Allyson come back, Lee gets severely chastised for leaving two customers to wait in line at the unattended glitter booth. "Your hearts are both smeared, too," remarks Allyson dismally. "I'll have to fix those up later."
Imogene and Lee don't talk about it again, but Lee uses the opportunity to call her pet names any time he feels like it, which is apparently a lot. Imogene's getting sick of all his "baby, sweetheart, honey, sexy, babe, sweet thing, and dear" quips. And she's going to tell him. Really. Next time he does it, she and he are going to have a talk.
Well, the next next time, then.
It's six weeks later, and Imogene is washing dishes in the kitchen. Lee has just finished telling her about some changes to the Backstreet Boys act, and he's leaning against the counter.
Imogene has been trying not to ask, but she finally blurts out, "Has Britney-Christina been making grabby hands at you?"
Lee steals an apple off the kitchen island and takes a bite out of it. "Charlotte?" he asks through a mouthful of apple.
"The blonde who couldn't keep her hands off you at the club."
"Huh." Lee raises an eyebrow at his apple. "Maybe. Should I tell her I'm taken?"
Imogene shrugs. "Tell her whatever you want."
"All right," says Lee, and proceeds to finish the apple.
Imogene puts the lash dish in the dishwasher and tries to squeeze past him. Lee catches her by the waist and pulls her close. "Hey," he whispers against her neck, "I'm going to work now, and when I come back the only woman I want in my bed is you."
Imogene can't deny the fluttery feeling that spreads through her, but she tries to hide it. "Well, technically, that bed is mine, so you'd be the only man in my bed."
He presses a light kiss to her neck. "Mmm, I can work with that."
He drags his lips to her mouth and kisses her before pulling away. As he walks out of the kitchen, he calls over his shoulder, "The room is still mine, though."
Every so often, she asks him how old he is. He doesn't tell her. Instead he answers with things like: "Old enough for you." "Fifty." "I'm legal. Just barely." "Eighteen. Or is it seventeen? I can't remember." She'll huff and shove him, and he'll distract her with his lips or his hands until she can't remember the question.
"Seriously, why does it bother you so much?" he asks one day when she's managed to evade his distracting attentions by keeping the kitchen island between them.
"Because," she says, inching to the left as he inches to the right.
"Because, it's important!"
He scrunches up his face. "No, it's not."
"Yes, it is!"
"No, it's not," he says emphatically. He makes a dash for her around the island, but she sprints to the other side just in time. They face each other from opposite ends. "We're good together and we make each other happy and our sex life is amazing. What's age got to do with any of that?"
"Lee!" she whines when he says "sex." They're downstairs, for god's sake! Her mother might hear him. She might have to hear her mom and the Bousche going at it all the time, but that doesn't mean she wants her mother to hear about this.
"What?" he asks innocently. "Your mom knows we have sex." When she whines again, he says, "S-E-X. We share a room, you know."
"I think you like being the older one," he comments. "It makes you feel superior."
"It makes me feel like a pedophile!" she retorts, and he starts laughing his head off. "This isn't funny!"
"Imogene," he says, wiping his eyes, "I know I joked that maybe I was seventeen, but I'm actually not. I did graduate from Yale, you know. After I started college when I was seventeen. And it's been a few years since I graduated."
"I know," she says.
"So I'm very, very legal."
"I know. That doesn't make me feel any better."
"What would make you feel better, then?"
"For you to be older! Or me to be younger! Probably for me to be younger." She momentarily gets derailed by imagining herself younger, but then shakes her head to clear it. "People don't do this! This is like, a Desperate Housewives thing! When the woman's having a midlife crisis, she gets a boy toy to deal with it! It's not something respectable women in their right minds do."
"You're not having a midlife crisis. You're too young," points out Lee.
"And it's not fair that you know my age when I don't know yours!"
He shrugs. "Your age doesn't bother me. I don't give a shit how old you are. And I'd tell you how old I was if I didn't think you'd freak out."
"Oh my god, how young are you?"
"See?" Lee says. "Clearly you're not ready to hear it. And who cares what people think? What we do and who we are to each other is between you and me and no one else."
"Imogene," he says patiently, "are you happy with me?"
She settles her hands on the counter and looks away.
"Well?" he prods.
"Yes," she says quietly.
"Do you look at guys your age and think, 'I'd rather be tapping that than be with Lee'?"
"I'll take that as a 'no.' And I'm happy with you, and I don't look at girls my age and think I'd rather be with them, so what's the big deal?"
Her head whips around to face him. "Seriously?"
Lee looks confused. "What?"
"You don't look at girls your age and think they're hotter than me?"
"Oh my god, is that what this is about?"
She looks away again.
"Imogene, I tell you every day how hot I think you are. You are not allowed to be insecure about this."
It's true—he does tell her every day. It's just hard for her to believe it.
"Look, if I wanted to be with a girl my age, I would be with one. But I don't. I want to be with you, so I'm with you. And you want to be with me. So it's simple, okay?"
"But it's not!" she whimpers. "People think I'm a cradle-robber or something…"
"So tell them to go to hell! Who cares what they think?"
He's made it to her side of the counter without her noticing, and his arms pull her close. "Hey, I'm a grown man, and I make my own decisions. Have you ever made me do anything I didn't want to do?"
"Yes. I made you drive me to New York. I made you go to the store and buy tampons last week. I make you put the toilet seat down."
He laughs. "You didn't have to force me to do any of those things. I did them because they made you happy. If I really didn't want to do something, I wouldn't do it. I refuse to sing the Backstreet Boys to you."
"That would make me happy," she grumbles.
"But it would not make me happy," he says. "So anyway, it's not like you seduced me against my will into a relationship with you. You're not a cradle-robber."
"Hmm," she says.
"So next time someone comments on how young your boyfriend is, what are you gonna say?"
"He's not my boyfriend."
He sighs. "I think it's time to change that."
She startles in his arms. "Why? I thought you didn't like labels."
"I don't, usually. But you're scared I'm gonna fool around on you, and giving our relationship a label gives you a kind of right to me. So next time Charlotte bugs you by talking to me, you can tell her, 'That's my boyfriend, you bitch!'" At Imogene's snort, he says, "Come on, I know you want to. And I don't want to be with anyone but you, so you already have a right to me. Giving you a label lets you know that."
"You can be very philosophical sometimes, Lee," she says. Having the prospect of telling off Britney-Christina has calmed her a bit.
"I went to Yale; I can't help it," he says. "So, Imogene Duncan, will you be my girlfriend?"
She settles herself more comfortably in his arms and reaches around him to put her hands on his back. "I don't know," she says, from where her face is buried in his shirt. "Will you tell me how old you are?"
"I will tell you how old I am if you agree to be my girlfriend and then have sex with me. And if you promise not to freak out."
"Have to tire me out first?" she asks. "Are you afraid I'm gonna run out on you?"
"Yep," he says. "So how about it?"
"You sure you wanna be with me? I have some very weird habits."
"I know that, Imogene, and I want you anyway."
"Okay, then," she agrees.
Later, when she's supremely satisfied and contentment is buzzing through her body, he tells her, "Twenty-five."
She sits up so fast it makes her head spin. "WHAT?!"
He's got his arm hooked firmly around her waist in case she decides to run. "Come on, it can't be that much of a surprise for you."
"You're fourteen years younger than me!"
"You're a baby!"
"I'm your boyfriend!"
"When I'm fifty, you're going to be thirty!"
"When you're fifty, I'll be thirty-six. That's practically forty. It's not that big of a difference," Lee says calmly.
"Oh my god!"
"Imogene, calm down!"
"Oh my god!"
He shakes her a little, and she looks down at him with wide eyes. "I love you, okay? It doesn't matter to me."
"YOU LOVE ME?!"
"Well, yeah. Obviously. Why else would I put up with you?"
Hmm. He has a point.
"And I wasn't going to tell you yet, because I thought you'd freak out too much, but you're already freaking out a lot, so I guess it can't hurt? Just, please calm down."
"You love me," Imogene repeats dumbly.
Lee sits up next to her and wraps his arms around her. "Yeah," he says, looking into her eyes, "I love you. And you make me happy. So please don't break up with me because I'm twenty-five."
"Oh my god."
"If I kiss you, are you going to freak out more?"
She shakes her head. "I don't think so."
"Okay, I'm gonna kiss you then."
So he kisses her, and he does it in his perfect-Lee way, all unbridled enthusiasm and burning energy, until she gets swept away again. When she comes to awareness a second time, with him grinning down over her, she says, "I love you, too."
His grin gets bigger. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," she says. "But I didn't want to tell you yet, because I thought I'd freak out."
"Oh," he says. "Well, that was probably wise. Too bad we shot that to hell. Are you freaking out?"
"A little," she admits. "But you did a really good job of distracting me."
He gives her his shit-eating grin. "Okay, we'll just do that every time you freak out, and we'll be all good."
She punches him in the arm. "You can't always distract me with sex."
"It's worked pretty well so far."
She punches him again.
"Ow!" He nuzzles his nose against the side of her neck. "Hey, you don't want to hurt me. You love me."
"God, this whole day has been one big ego boost for you, hasn't it?"
"Yep." He pops the 'p' in her ear, and she swats at him.
"Hey," she says, channeling her inner vixen, "since you love me, will you do something for me?"
He stiffens above her. "You're gonna ask me to sing you the Backstreet Boys, aren't you?"
"Please?" she purrs. "You're so sexy when you do it. It makes me soooo hot."
Lee drops his head onto her shoulder for a moment. "Okay," he says finally. "Just this once."
She fist pumps her arm behind him, where he can't see.