Just because I didn’t want to be the one standing in front of a crowd and promising forever to someone—once was enough for me—didn’t mean I couldn’t be happy for my business partner and former sister-in-law. The word former was questionable, but that wasn’t something I was prepared to discuss with anyone . . . especially my ex, who at the moment was sitting right beside me at the rehearsal dinner, repeatedly tapping his name card on the table.
Was I bitter? A little.
Deeply hurt? Blindingly so.
None of that made this weekend any easier.
A woman with wild, copper curls walked up to the table. “Hank Sparks, introduce me to your bride. I am so sorry I missed your wedding. Has it really been eighteen months since then?”
Hank turned the color of a freshly power-washed sidewalk. “Aunt Joji, hi. This is Nacha.”
That was it? He wasn’t going to say anything else? No mention of the fact that our happily-ever-after imploded months after the wedding when Hank moved to a different state?
Doing my best to hide the uncomfortable thumping on the inside of my skull, I smiled. “I’ve heard so much about you.” ‘So much’ translated to snippets of stories about a very wealthy but a somewhat eccentric, aunt.
She wrapped me in a hug, and the sleeve of her flowy muumuu landed in Hank’s drink. “I like you. People with interesting names should stick together. And I’m so sorry about the confusion with your room. They should’ve had it ready for you.”
“It’s fine. I used Haley’s room to get ready.”
Aunt Joji tapped her sides, then stuck a hand in her pocket. “Here they are.” She handed me a keycard and then to my horror, handed one to Hank. “They bumped y’all up to one of the nicer cabins. And I added an extra night. Enjoy!” Waving, she floated through the room.
I grabbed the table and counted to ten . . . then twenty. How high did I have to count before the urge to strangle Hank dissipated? “She thinks we’re still married.”
Hank rubbed his chin. “I haven’t seen her in ages. And with everyone so happy about the wedding, I didn’t bring it up.”
I finished my drink, contemplating a second. “Fix it. I don’t care what you have to do. Fix it.”
“I will.” He sighed. Just as the waiter started serving dinner, Hank left the table. “I’ll do it right now.”
I picked at my salad. Would anyone notice if I crumbled a chocolate bar on top? If I broke it into small enough pieces, maybe they would assume my salad had cacao nibs on it. Alcohol hadn’t been part of my plan for the weekend, but I had twelve bars of dark chocolate in my bag. And one in my purse.
Remembering to smile, I counted to three as I breathed in, then after holding my breath for a second, I let it out slowly. Coming to this wedding required every ounce of courage I had. Embarrassed, I was prepared to face questions about my failed marriage. Nothing had prepared me to pretend like I was happily married.
Hank walked back across the room. The tiny part of me that didn’t ache with every breath, that part missed being married to him.
Without looking at me, he dropped back into his chair and downed his drink, the one the sleeve had tainted. He wasn’t about to share good news. “They’re full.”
“What about the room I was supposed to have?” I rubbed my temples, then dropped my hands into my lap.
His voice rumbled with emotion. “Believe me, I asked. Nothing is available. Someone booked the last few rooms a few minutes ago. Just be thankful we have a suite.”
Great. For the entire wedding weekend, I’d be sharing a suite with Hank.
He glanced at his bowl. “We should probably eat.”
“Probably. Want some chocolate?”
“They don’t have any of the good kinds in the little shop in the lobby. I checked. I figured you’d want some since . . . you’re stuck with me.” He picked up his fork. “Sorry about that.”
“I brought my own.”
“Of course you did. Because you knew I’d be here.”
“Your sister is getting married. Of course you’d be here.” I finally tasted the salad. “Wow, this is good. You should try it.”
He picked up his fork. “I really am sorry.”
I’d heard too many of his apologies.
We survived dinner. The lack of conversation could be blamed for why we finished our food before any other table. Watching Zach and Haley flirt over dinner proved an entertaining distraction. Focused on them, I acted like I didn’t notice Hank studying me.
After dinner, the guests moved out of the private dining room onto the back patio. Just when I thought the rehearsal dinner was over, phase two was just getting started. My smile needed to last a little longer.
Being included in the wedding party meant enjoying an entire wedding weekend, not just a few hours on a Saturday.
I was doing this for Haley.
Putting on my best smile, I joined the others outside.
Hank mumbled an apology, then walked away.
After having drinks with dinner—I’d only had one—guests were relaxed. I didn’t do relaxing well, so fitting in now would be a chore.
Cocktail tables surrounded a pool, and on the lawn, a game of Cornhole was waiting to be played. Firelight from bamboo torches lit the area, and portable heaters chased away the chill in the November air.
Most of the guests wandered toward the game, ready to toss the beanbags. A few made their way to benches out on the lawn to watch the competition. But I found a spot at a cocktail table, close enough to the other guests to be polite but far away enough to enjoy a moment alone.
All I needed now was another cocktail. Wind gusted, and I fought to keep my dress down. Pale yellow and flowy, it wasn’t suited for windy situations. All the advice about wearing pretty undergarments to improve self-confidence didn’t take into account wind.
I glanced around, making sure I hadn’t unintentionally given anyone a peep show. Hank’s gaze snapped away. Why did it hurt to catch him staring? It had been more than a year. Why couldn’t I move on?
His shoulders tensed as he tried his level best not to look at me. While he watched Cornhole like it was an Olympic sport, I took the opportunity to admire how good he looked. During dinner, I couldn’t stare without him noticing. He’d lost a bit of weight, and the extra muscles in his arms suited him. The usual stubble was gone. Clean-shaven cheeks coordinated better with dress shirts and tuxes, his attire for the weekend.
Cheers sounded from the guests gathered around the game. Haley threw her arms in the air. It was good to see her getting her happily-ever-after, but it shaded my vision with a tint of green. I snuck another look at Hank.
I knew I’d be seeing him this weekend. I’d mentally prepared myself, but I’d done a shoddy job. How would I share a room with him all weekend? And why hadn’t he mentioned to his extended family that we hadn’t been happily married in over a year? Learning we were sharing a room almost undid me, but I’d maintained my control.
My smile never faded.
My life in its current state was all about maintaining my walls. I’d become quite skilled in keeping up a good front.
Haley’s Aunt Joji sashayed toward my table, her muumuu blowing in the breeze. “Nacha, I do hope we can get to know each other better. Since I’ve been traveling for the last two years, I’ve missed so much. But just seeing the way Hank looks at you, I can see how happy you are.” Perhaps she needed glasses. “Tell me about your name.”
My gaze cut to Hank. When he winked, I pressed the heel of my shoe into my other foot. He was a lot like my very expensive heels. They looked great but hurt so much.
Aunt Joji cleared her throat, and I turned back to the table, frustrated with myself for staring at Hank.
“My given name is Ignacia, but everyone calls me Nacha. It’s easier to say.”
“I get that. Georgia Jean is what my mama called me when I was in trouble. Other than that, everyone called me Joji.”
A young man approached, a drink in his hand and a wide smile on his face. “Hi! Zach says I should call you Aunt Joji.”
She tucked an arm around his waist. “Absolutely. Are you having a good time?”
“I am. It was kind of you to invite me tonight.” His green eyes danced with excitement.
“We couldn’t have Zach’s cousin missing all the fun. I am sorry you have to work tomorrow.” She patted the table. “Join us. I’m hoping the waiter will find me. I wasn’t anywhere near here when I ordered my drink.”
He stepped up to the table next to me, and I inched over, wary of the pool behind me.
Grinning, he stuck out his hand. “Eli Gallagher.”
The Gallagher family resemblance was hard to miss.
“Nacha.” Leaving off my last name saved lots of questions.
Aunt Joji lit up like the night sky on the Fourth of July. “This is Hank’s wife. You know him, right?”
“I sure do. So nice to meet you.” He rubbed the back of his head. “But I thought . . . never mind.” He lifted his beer bottle and used it to point. “Haley is pretty good at that game.”
“She practices a lot so she can beat Hank.” I clenched the fabric of my skirt, trying to keep it from flying up.
Zach pointed at our table. “Eli, get over here.”
“She’ll probably beat me too.” Eli chuckled, then walked away.
Aunt Joji patted my hand. “Everyone seems to be having a great time.”
“It was so nice of you to treat Haley and Zach to all this.” I shifted farther away from the pool.
Water and I did not get along. When I was seven, I’d fallen in a pool and nearly drowned. I hadn’t been in one since.
A waiter walked up with two drinks on his tray. “Ladies, these are for you.”
“You found me! What a dear.” Aunt Joji pressed a hand to her heart.
If I’d only heard her talk and had someone describe her clothing, I would have expected Aunt Joji to be a large woman. She wasn’t. Not even five feet tall, she was thin as a twig.
“A mojito for you, as requested.” He handed her a glass. “And from the gentleman, this is for you.” The waiter set a glass on the table in front of me.
This time when I glanced up, Hank met my gaze. He was better at faking happily married than living it.
I smiled and gave a small nod.
When he’d gotten me a drink before dinner, I’d discovered a new favorite. But no matter how good the mix of Coke, vanilla syrup, and vodka tasted, I would not allow myself too many. That would only get me into trouble. I didn’t need my defenses down when Hank and I would be sharing a suite.
“After booking this place, it struck me how it probably seems like I’m playing favorites since I wasn’t around for your wedding. I assure you, I love both these kids—well, they aren’t kids anymore. And I’m not playing favorites. I just haven’t had a chance to talk to you and Hank about my plan. I’d never want anyone to think I loved one more than the other. I’ve booked that little romantic cabin over there”—she pointed to a cheerily lit cabin down a path—“for an extra night for y’all to enjoy. Even after a year, I can see y’all are still in that wonderful honeymoon phase. And, speaking of honeymoons . . .” She turned as Zach laughed and spun Haley around.
No one was talking about honeymoons except Aunt Joji. Hank and I weren’t even next to each other. How was she dreaming up the image of a gushy, starry-eyed couple?
She sighed as she sipped her mojito. “I just love these. But too many, and I’ll fall in that pool. That would be embarrassing.” Ice clinked in the glass as she shook it. “But one more won’t hurt. Now what was I saying? Oh! I’m sending y’all on a second honeymoon.”
I couldn’t continue pretending Hank and I were still a couple. “Aunt Joji—”
“No buts. This is important to me.” Georgia Jean Sparks was a force to be reckoned with.
“Thank you.” I stared at the cabin. A pebble-stone path led away from the patio in that direction. I lifted my glass, thankful for the drink. It tasted good and gave me something to do.
“Secluded. That’s why I booked it for you two.”
I choked, and Coke splattered down the front of my dress.
“Oh no. Your dress!” In her haste to wipe at the pale-yellow fabric, Aunt Joji bumped the glass, launching the rest of my drink at me. Coke covered my dress, and the glass shattered on the ground, drawing attention from everyone at the party.
“My dear. I am so sorry.”
“It’s fine. I’ll be fine.” I tried to decide on the quickest escape. “I’m just going to slip into the ladies’ room.”
“But you’ll come back, right? It’s much too early to hide in your room.”
“Of course.” There went my plan of ducking out early.
The waiter arrived with a broom.
Embarrassment probably had my cheeks colored an awful shade of red. “I’m so sorry.”
He winked. “No problem. It happens more than you think.”
Aunt Joji waved at Haley. “I should mix and mingle. I’ll see you again in a bit. I am sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it.” I walked to the bathroom in the lobby. Wetting paper towels, I dabbed at the spots.
They faded a little, but wetting the fabric made the dress completely see-through. I turned on the hand dryer and prayed no one would walk in. Contorted, I positioned myself under the blower, hoping to dry my dress a little. I was probably just setting the stains with the heat and giving myself hot flashes.
Why had I worn this dress? It only reminded me of Hank. And now it was ruined. That seemed darkly poetic.
Why hadn’t I brought an extra dress?
After several minutes under the dryer, I surveyed the damage and decided the dress looked good enough to make it through the rest of the party.
So far, this night wasn’t going as planned.
Hank was waiting at my table. He pointed at a fresh drink. “I ordered you another one. Is it okay if I share this table with you?”
“Of course, dear.” I sipped my drink. “I’m surprised you aren’t throwing the bags at the holes.”
“Didn’t feel like it. You okay?”
“You only say that when you’re mad.”
“Whatever would I have to be mad about?” I shook my glass. How had it gotten empty so quickly?
“You still upset about the room?”
“She said it was a suite.” Clinging to that word helped make the weekend seem tolerable.
Hank glanced at the cabin. “Kind of.”
Her description—mainly the word romantic—and his reaction hinted that a two-bedroom suite wasn’t where we’d be spending the weekend.
“Hank, we haven’t lived in the same house for over a year. I don’t know how you conveniently forgot to mention the demise of our marriage in all that time.” Smiling while I spoke, anyone watching would be fooled . . . except Haley.
“I don’t know what you want me to do. I asked at the front desk again. They don’t have any other rooms.”
“If you’d said something before, this wouldn’t be a problem.”
“Did you want me to send out Christmas cards that read: Ho Ho Ho! My marriage lasted three months?” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “I messed up. Just like I do with everything else.”
“Did you send out Christmas cards?”
He dragged his fingers through his hair. “It’s like you don’t even know me. Of course I didn’t send out Christmas cards.”
“So people think I didn’t send out Christmas cards. You might’ve mentioned that before tonight.”
“Nacha, I’ve lost track of all the ways I’ve ruined everything. Let me grab a pen and you can give me the list again.” He leaned in close, and his cologne wrapped around me, reminding me of days and nights I’d tried to forget.
I blinked, snapping back to reality. “Do not play the martyr.” I finished my drink. “But after this weekend, will you please say something? Aunt Joji wants to send us on a second honeymoon.”
“Crap. Saying no to her isn’t easy.”
“You need to figure out how. I’m going to say goodnight to Haley and head to the room.” How was I going to make it through the weekend?
Haley smiled and stepped away from the game as I approached. “You okay?”
I hugged her. “Everything tonight has been beautiful. If you don’t mind, I’m going to head to my room. This dress is a mess.”
“Hank told me about the room. I’m so sorry.”
“We’ll be fine. I’ll throw a pillow at him if he snores.” Throwing pillows might happen whether he snored or not.
Zach walked up, grinning. Being Hank’s best friend made him privy to the whole situation, but I never knew what he was thinking. He leaned in to hug me. “Give him a chance.” Whispered so even Haley couldn’t hear, his words twisted my insides into knots.
Nodding, I turned and walked away in deliberate steps. Tears blurred my vision, and my one focus was making it to the cabin without crying in front of people. I’d given Hank a chance—I’d married the man, and then he chose a job opportunity over me. Time was supposed to heal all wounds, but the wound in my heart was still as raw and painful as the day he’d walked out the door, promising that the long-distance marriage wouldn’t be bad. What had changed in the last year was my ability to act like I was okay. I’d mastered it. Or so I thought.
I even had Haley fooled.
But if I didn’t get out of here, no one would be fooled. I’d already embarrassed myself enough tonight.
I blinked. Wind gusted again, and I spun around, holding down the front of my dress.
“Nacha!” Hank waved his arms.
My defenses couldn’t handle talking to him right now. Forcing a smile, I closed my eyes, spun back around, and marched forward. The heel of my pump landed in a hole and snapped off. I grabbed at air as I toppled forward, and my feet flew out from under me. After only a split second of worrying about being upside down in a dress and how much it would hurt to land on the pebbled patio, my head plunged under the water.
My nightmares became real.
Gulping water, I kicked and flailed, struggling to find the surface. Why was this happening to me?
After what felt like hours, cold air slapped my face, and I sucked in air before sinking back under the water. My skirt billowed out in a circle, putting everything underneath on public display. But I cared more about breathing . . . and not drowning.
Regrets flashed before my eyes. The last fifteen months had been full of them.
Feeling pulled under again, I moved my arms faster.
“Don’t fight me. I’ve got you.” Hank wrapped a strong arm around me. “It’s a little cold for swimming, don’t you think? Or is pool water good for removing stains?”
I grabbed at his shirt. “Don’t let me go.” Terrified of having my face back under the water, I gripped his neck and shoulder.
In my head, he was a tree, and floodwaters were rising. I grabbed at him, trying to climb up high.
“Um, Nacha, if you don’t calm down a little, we’ll both sink.” He peeled my fingers off his neck. “Trust me.”
“I tried that once before.” Lashing out wasn’t helpful, but in my emotional state—something most people never saw—I couldn’t find nice words to say . . . even to the man who’d just saved me from drowning. But I stopped trying to climb him.
“That’s better. I’ll get you out of here, then when we get back to our room, if you want to climb all over me, I’m completely open to that.”
I slapped at his chest but only ended up splashing both of us.
“I thought you didn’t like water in your face.”
By the time we made it to the stairs at the shallow end, the dinner-party guests surrounded the pool.
“Nacha, are you okay?” Haley sounded genuinely worried.
Hank pulled me against him as I started to shiver. “She’s fine. Just a little drenched.”
Aunt Joji waved everyone away. “She’s in good hands. Let her be.” She held out towels. “What do you need me to do?”
Hank helped me out of the pool and wrapped a towel around me. “Stay with her a second. I’m going to dive in and grab our phones.”
I waved at Haley. “I didn’t mean to cause a scene. I tripped.” Determined to get away, I trudged across the patio. The pebbles hurt my feet, and my beautiful shoes—part of them, at least—lay at the bottom of the pool.
“Wait for Hank, dear.” Aunt Joji wrapped her skinny fingers around my arm. Fighting her wasn’t worth the effort.
Drying my face with the towel, I waited.
Hank waved off her offer of a towel as he climbed out of the pool. Dripping wet, he scooped me up. “Goodnight, Aunt Joji.”
I pressed a hand to his chest, ready to demand that he put me down, but there was no fight in me. And his chest felt amazing. I leaned my head on his shoulder, no longer holding back my tears. “Why are you carrying me?”
“Because that dress was not made for being worn wet and half of your heel is still stuck in the patio.”
I didn’t want to think about the wet dress clinging to me in all the wrong places. “Thank you.”
Hank’s shoes squished and squeaked as he carried me. And if the entire scene weren’t so horrible, I would’ve laughed at the trail of water we left behind.
Hank was the only person at the party who knew about my fear of water, and he hadn’t hesitated to jump in and save me. “You scared me, Nacha. I tried to stop you, but you ignored me.”
“I was hurrying away because I didn’t want anyone to see me upset.” A breeze whipped at us, and I snuggled closer. “They’ll assume I had too much to drink. It’s so embarrassing. What’s worse is that tonight is the first time I’ve had any alcohol since . . .” I glanced back toward the patio, hoping the festivities had returned to normal.
Aunt Joji waved. Hank and I would be on display all weekend. And my dip in the pool only made it worse.
“Please don’t cry.” He stopped on the porch and looked down at me, our faces only inches apart. “I’m sorry about everything. As soon as I change clothes, I’ll go find Aunt Joji and tell her we aren’t together anymore.”
This weekend was about Haley and Zach, not me.
I shook my head. “Not tonight. It can wait until after the wedding. Let’s not cause any more of a ruckus.”
He shifted me in his arms. When he spoke, I could feel his breath tickling my lips. “I promise I’ll be good.” His eyes crinkled at the corners, an expression that always made my knees weak.
If I moved even a fraction of an inch, our lips would meet.
One thing hadn’t changed in fifteen months. Hank was hot. Maybe hotter than the day he walked out.
That thought jolted me back to reality. “You can put me down.”
“Once we’re inside.” He dragged the keycard across the corner of the towel on my hip, then held it next to the little black box. Thankfully, the light turned green, and he opened the door. “It isn’t exactly a suite. I know Aunt Joji called it that, but . . .”
I shoved on his chest, trying not to think about his well-defined pecs, the ones his wet shirt did little to hide. When my feet hit the floor, I whipped around.
In the middle of the room a round jacuzzi tub was sunk into the floor. Above it, a crystal chandelier glowed, sending dapples of light dancing on the walls. A large king-sized bed sat at the far end of the room. Near the door, a love seat was positioned in front of a fireplace. And a bottle of champagne sat nestled in an ice bucket on the small table near the love seat.
“There’s only one bed. And that isn’t even a full couch.”
He chuckled as he unbuttoned his shirt. “I figured you’d mention the jacuzzi tub first.”
“What are you doing?”
He looked at me like I was speaking a different language. “Taking off my wet clothes.”
“Here?” I sounded unreasonable even to myself.
“Would you rather I drip water all over the room? You don’t have to watch.” He shrugged off his dress shirt and let it puddle on the tile.
You don’t have to watch. He was completely mistaken. I could pretend not to watch, but I did have to watch. Compelled was the word I’d use.
“I think my luggage is still in Haley’s room.” I exercised my peripheral vision. “And my purse. It must be in the pool or maybe beside it.”
He yanked off his t-shirt.
I didn’t mean to sigh.
His lips twitched at one corner, but other than that, he acted like he didn’t notice. Continuing to undress, he unbuckled his belt. “I brought your stuff in earlier. It’s on a luggage holder on the other side of the bed.”
“You knew this was a quaint, romantic honeymoon cottage and didn’t tell me? Are you the one who ordered the champagne?”
He sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. He did that when he was trying not to argue.
Instead of saying something to pacify me, he inched closer. “You can’t stand champagne. Why would I order it? And for the record, this seemed like a better place to have our little couples spat. Are you going to get out of your clothes or just stand there pretending not to watch me?”
The Hank riddled with self-pity wasn’t attractive. But this one—the one who snapped back and called my bluff, the one who knew me—still made me heart go flippity-flop.
It would be a long weekend.
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