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“We need to talk.”
Playfully Rachel picked a bit of ribbon out of her fiancé Dan’s hair before she noticed his serious expression. The laughter welling in her chest was replaced by an all too familiar tightness…one she’d been trying to ignore these last few months, and mostly had.
“Do we? About what? I hope you’re not changing your mind about the morning suit.” Pale grey with pink ascot tie, the morning suit was rather formal for St Stephen’s but Rachel had wanted the little girl fantasy of a Disney princess wedding, with all the OTT extras it entailed. Her own dress, with its lace overlay, full skirt, and sweeping train was certainly a match for Dan’s suit.
“I’m not changing my mind about that.” His voice was heavy with emphasis, the implication being that he was changing his mind about something else, something big.
Rachel stilled, her gaze sweeping over her fiancé’s face, noting for the first time the look of total misery swamping his hazel eyes—eyes that were usually glinting with good humour. He jammed his hands in the pockets of his trousers and hung his head. He looked guilty. Her stomach cramped.
“What’s going on, Dan?”
“Can we go somewhere private?”
They were standing in the foyer of the vicarage—her family home since she’d been a toddler—having just finished the rehearsal in the church, with her father officiating, a tear already glinting in his eye. Everyone was heading over to The Winter Hare, Thornthwaite’s one bistro, for the rehearsal dinner, but Rachel had wanted to freshen up first and Dan had followed her back to the vicarage.
“Somewhere private?” she echoed. “No one’s here.” The house echoed emptily around them, its familiar rooms suddenly feeling ominous…or was that just the awful look on Dan’s face? Why was he looking so miserable, when they were about to get married?
“Fine.” She took a deep breath, trying not to show her irritation as well as her fear. Surely it couldn’t be as bad as all that? Dan was so reasonable, so eminently even-tempered. Surely it was nothing. Rachel pushed open the door to the vicarage’s sitting room and went inside. With its wide, floor-to-ceiling bay window, high ceilings, and ornate fireplace, it looked like something out of a Jane Austen drama on the BBC, and there had certainly been enough parishioners perched on the settee over the years, cups of tea balanced on their knees as they made chitchat with the vicar. Now the room was empty and silent, having been ruthlessly cleaned both for the wedding and her parents’ imminent move to China, where her father had accepted a ministry position.
Rachel turned around and faced her fiancé of nearly six months. “What is it, Dan? You aren’t…you aren’t getting cold feet, are you?” She tried to make it a joke and didn’t quite manage it.
“I’m not getting cold feet.” Again with the emphasis, making Rachel feel both frustrated and fearful.
“What are you trying to say?” She let out an impatient breath and stalked forward, plucking another piece of ribbon from his hair. At the rehearsal, her sisters had thrown handfuls of ribbons from her pretend bouquet all over them, everyone laughing, but it felt offensively ridiculous in this moment to talk about something serious while festooned with bits of pink satin.
“Rachel…” Dan sighed and raked a hand through his hair, his slumped shoulders seeming to bear the weight of the world, and then only just. “This isn’t easy to say…”
“Obviously.” She folded her arms, barely managing to keep from tapping her foot. Better to seem irritated than terrified, surely. At least it made her seem strong. “Just spit it out, Dan, please.”
“The wedding’s off.” Rachel blinked. “What I mean is, I’m calling it off.”
She blinked again, trying to absorb what he’d said. Even now, dazedly, she wondered if he was joking, but she knew from his face that he wasn’t. Still it felt too impossible to accept. The wedding was tomorrow.
“What… Why…” She was too stunned to ask a question, or even to know what question to ask. “Why would you do this?” she finally said, framing the words with effort, each painful syllable costing her something. “How could you do this? Everything’s planned…” The church. The reception. Their house, their lovely house up on the fells, with its Lakeland stone exterior and huge fireplace, the views of Derwentwater glinting in the distance, waiting for them to move in and start living their happy life together. “How could you do this?” The cry was ripped from her, the words ringing out.
“I’m sorry, Rachel.” Dan looked completely wretched, but also resolute. “I wish I’d had the guts to do it earlier, and save us both a lot of pain. I kept closing my eyes to the truth because I so, so wanted this to work out. I hope you believe that.”
“I don’t know what I should believe. I can’t even think.” Her lips felt numb, everything in her buzzing. She pressed her hands to her pale cheeks, trying to formulate at least one coherent thought when her mind felt as if it were full of static. “Dan, there are fifty people waiting for us at The Winter Hare to celebrate our marriage tomorrow.”
“All my relatives are here…all your relatives…my dress…our honeymoon in France!” Her voice rose on a peal of despair as the realisations kept piling on top of one another, crowding each other out. All of it…everything…over. “We’re meant to be flying to Nice tomorrow night.”
“I know, Rachel.”
Even in the midst of her shock she caught a flicker of something almost like annoyance or even hurt in his eyes and she stilled, dropping her hands from her face. “Doesn’t any of that matter to you?”
“Of course it does, but not, I think, as much as it matters to you.”
He spoke quietly, but she still heard the faint, repressive note of judgement. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Well, let’s see.” Dan blew out a breath and folded his arms. “What have you been upset about since I told you I wanted to call off our wedding?” He started ticking off his fingers. “The reception, our relatives, your dress, the honeymoon.” He spoke flatly, and Rachel recoiled.
“Am I not supposed to care about those things—”
“What you haven’t been upset about,” Dan continued in that same flat voice, “is the fact that we won’t be marrying each other, after all. We won’t be spending our lives together.”
Rachel looked away, blinking rapidly. “Of course I’m upset about that. How could I not be—”
“Are you?” Dan cut across her quietly, those two lethal words like the snick of a blade. Rachel stared at him for a long moment, and then looked away. She didn’t reply.
In truth, she didn’t know what to say. What was Dan implying? That she didn’t care about him? He was the one doing the jilting. She felt the need to rewind, to start the conversation over. “All right, let’s go back to the beginning,” she managed after a moment. “Why are you calling off the wedding, Dan? Is it because you…you don’t love me?” She hated having to ask the question, but what else could it be?
“No,” Dan answered, and now he sounded sad. “It’s because you don’t love me.”
Rachel blinked, jerking back as if he’d struck her. His words seemed to reverberate in the silence of the room.
“You don’t deny it,” he remarked after a moment when Rachel hadn’t said anything.
“I don’t know what to say.” Her mind felt like the tyres of a car, spinning in mud, getting no traction. “You call off our wedding because of what you think I feel?”
“Do you love me, Rachel?”
Her mouth opened and closed soundlessly several times. She felt like a fish. “Of course I love you—”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Well, what can I do about that?” Rachel exploded. Anger felt so much better than the other emotions skirting around the edges of her dazed brain, her numb heart. Fear. Hurt. Sorrow. Relief. The last one, that tiny, treacherous flicker, she pushed away instantly. Of course she didn’t actually feel relieved. It was just that she was too shocked to know what to feel, and everything was coming at her so fast.
“Tell the truth,” Dan urged. “Not just to me, but to yourself. Do you love me? Do you love me in that heart-stopping, spine-tingling way, where the thought of me makes you breathless with anticipation?”
“Oh come on.” She tried to scoff. “You’re talking like a teenager.”
“Considering we’re not even newlyweds yet, I don’t think we need to settle for acting and feeling like an old married couple before we’ve even begun.”
“According to you, we’ll never be newlyweds!”
“I think it will be better for us both in the long run if that’s the case.” Dan spoke steadily but Rachel heard a break in his voice, like a hairline crack just starting to fracture.
“You see, the trouble is,” Dan continued, and the break was more audible now, the words themselves jagged, “that I love you. Very much. I love you with that spine-tingling, heart-stopping excitement, and nothing would make me happier than saying my vows tomorrow and making you my bride.”
Rachel gaped for a few seconds before managing a word. “Then…”
“But I’ve been closing my eyes to how you’re feeling—and more importantly, how you’re not feeling—for too long already,” Dan continued. “And I can’t put us both through that misery, Rachel, not on the off-chance that you might come to love me in time. If you can’t love me now, when we’re supposed to be in that blissed-out honeymoon stage of a relationship, when can you love me? When will you?” He shook his head, both miserable and resolute. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for waiting so long, and making it so awkward. I’m happy to take all the blame, tell everyone it was my fault—”
“That you changed your mind?” Rachel cut across him, her voice full of hurt. “And make me a laughing stock?”
“Is that what you’re worried about?”
She didn’t miss the slight curl to his lip. “It’s not my primary concern, but it matters. Why are you making out everything I say and do to be selfish and shallow, Dan? Is it so wrong to care about my dress or my family or what people think?”
“It’s not wrong—”
“I just wished you cared more about me.”
“You’re making it rather difficult right now,” she snapped, wanting to hurt him, and sadly succeeding in her aim. She whirled away, towards the window, the sheep pasture in front of the vicarage glinting gold in the evening sunlight. It was summer in Cumbria and the sun wouldn’t set until nearly eleven o’clock at night. A night that now felt endless and unbearable.
“Everyone’s waiting for us,” she said dully, when the silence had stretched on for several painful minutes. “They’ll be wondering where we are.”
“Then let them wonder.”
She let out a heavy sigh, a sound of hopeless despair. “Is there anything more to say? You seem so certain.”
“I am, but…” Dan hesitated, and Rachel turned around.
“Do you still want to marry me, Rachel?” He looked at her beseechingly. “I don’t think I can feel lower than I already do, but…if you still wanted to marry me, if you really felt, deep in your bones, in your heart, that we could make each other happy, that you could love me in time…”
“Then you’d go through with it after all?” Rachel finished disbelievingly. “Are you really saying that now, Dan?”
“Do you not want me to?”
“I don’t know what I want.” She shook her head, despairing. It was impossible to go back to what they’d once been just a few moments ago. “I don’t want to marry you whilst feeling as if I’m holding a gun to your head.”
“You wouldn’t be, Rach.”
The nickname caught her on the raw. How could she be Rach in a moment like this? “I feel like everything is ruined,” she said, her voice quavering. “We can never go back now.” Why did he have to say anything? “What do you want from me, Dan? What would convince you that I love you enough?”
Dan sighed heavily. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have put it the way I did.”
You’re bloody well right there. Rachel bit her lip to keep from saying something she knew she’d regret.
“It’s just…” He sighed again, this time the sound heavy with sadness and regret, a burden he’d held for a long time and was now finally putting down. “Can you honestly say you love me, Rachel? Me, and not just the idea of me?”
She only just kept from rolling her eyes. “What is that even supposed to mean?”
“I mean…if there was no house in the fells, no Aga, no Land Rover…”
“Honestly, you’re making me sound so materialistic!” She flushed, both ashamed and angry that he apparently thought so little of her. “It was never about those things.”
“All right, forget the materialism then. If there was no cosy home, no Golden Retriever puppy, no house full of kids in the offing…”
A lump formed in her throat. They were meant to pick up their puppy from a kennel near Carlisle in less than a month. As for the kids…they’d always agreed that they wanted lots, and were planning to start trying soon after the wedding, since she was already past thirty. Why was he taunting her with their shared dreams now, as if she’d been somehow wrong to have them, to want them?
“I still don’t know what you’re trying to say.”
Dan blew out a breath. “I’m saying if it was just me, take or leave all the rest, would you still want to marry me, just me?” He gazed at her steadily, waiting for her answer. Her verdict. “Tell me the truth, Rachel. Am I enough?”
Rachel stared at him wretchedly. How on earth was she supposed to answer that? And then with a thud of realisation, she understood that the answer should have been easy—and it wasn’t.
She loved Dan. Of course she did. She’d known him since she was a kid, and their friendship had blossomed into romance nine months ago, when they’d reconnected at a party for one of the teachers at the primary school where she taught. They’d both been past thirty, living in Thornthwaite, looking to settle down. It had seemed simple, obvious, and she’d been so excited about planning their life together. And yet…
“I think your silence is answer enough,” Dan said quietly. “See, it really is better this way.”
“It isn’t,” Rachel protested. “I do love you, Dan.” But she heard how half-hearted she sounded, and she hated herself for it. She’d loved him enough, she knew that much. She never would have even thought about breaking it off the way he was doing. She loved him enough to be happy, and she thought Dan would have been, as well. All right maybe it hadn’t been in that spine-tingling way he seemed to crave, unbeknownst to her, but so what? Who needed all that loopy, hormonal stuff? What they had was better. Stronger. More solid.
Except of course it wasn’t.
How could this be happening? Her mind still resisted the truth, insisting on the impossibility of it. Half an hour ago they’d both been stood at the front of the church while her father had cracked jokes and she’d clutched a bouquet of ribbons and everyone looked on, smiling. She’d been so happy. She’d been sure of it.
“What should we tell everyone?” Dan asked. Somehow they’d already moved on to the damage-control stage, mopping up the mess of their wouldn’t-be marriage. Rachel shook her head.
“I have no idea.” Not, she hoped, that Dan had realised she didn’t love him. How would everyone react to that? They’d think she was heartless, and maybe she was, because she couldn’t feel anything right now.
She crossed to the settee and sank down on it, her mind both numb and whirling. She felt strangely distant from herself, as if she were watching this melodramatic scene unfold from the outside. I wonder, she thought, what’s going to happen next? What is that poor woman going to do?
“I’ll take care of it, if you like,” Dan said. “Since I’m the one…well.” He sighed. “Just let’s agree on what we’re going to say. That it’s a mutual decision, or…?”
“A mutual decision, I suppose,” Rachel said after a moment, her voice flat. Anything else seemed too awful to contemplate, to announce, and yet… She could not envision walking across to The Winter Hare and telling everyone the wedding was off. She simply couldn’t.
“All right, then.”
“But what about everything else?” She let her head fall into her hands, too overcome and exhausted to think through the endless repercussions. What about their honeymoon? Their house?
“We can tackle those later. The important thing now is letting everyone know and cancelling the imminent wedding stuff.”
The wedding stuff. Rachel thought of her beautiful dress hanging upstairs, swathed in plastic. The trays of canapés in the fridge, the bottles of champagne on ice, for the after-party back at the vicarage. The hotel in Keswick ready to be bedecked with flowers for the reception, her sisters’ bridesmaid dresses, her father’s toast… None of it was needed anymore. None of it was going to happen.
“Dan, are you really sure about this?” She lifted her head to stare at him blearily; it felt like more than she could manage to so much as rise from this settee, never mind face fifty guests. Everything felt insurmountable, impossible.
She stared at him, unsure how to answer. She didn’t feel sure of anything. And yet even now, in the midst of her shock and despair, she couldn’t deny that treacherous little flicker of relief she’d felt when Dan had first told her he was calling it off. It hadn’t lasted more than a moment, a second, and yet…
It had been there. As much as she wanted to deny it, she couldn’t.
But was an elusive flicker of feeling a real reason to derail her entire life?
“I don’t know anything,” she told Dan. “I don’t know anything at all. I’m completely blindsided by this.”
“I’ll handle it all. You don’t even have to come over to the restaurant if you don’t want to.”
She didn’t, she definitely didn’t, and yet that felt like a cop-out.
“Rachel…” Dan hesitated by the door. “I’m sorry. Really, I am. More than I could ever say. I know this is the last way we’d want things to end…”
She nodded dumbly, because she didn’t know what else to do. Maybe later she’d find it in herself to be angry, to feel wronged. Right now she just felt overwhelmed.
“I’ll go tell everyone.” He hesitated, and Rachel wondered what she should do. Say. This was the moment—the final moment. If Dan walked over there, went to The Winter Hare and told all her waiting family and friends the wedding was off…well, then there was really no going back, was there?
Except Rachel knew, with a leaden certainty, that they’d already reached the point of no return. Maybe it had happened when those first words had come out of Dan’s mouth. The wedding is off.
Now she said nothing and after another endless moment Dan walked out of the room.
End of Excerpt