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“I didn’t choose to fall in love with Joe, Charlie. And if I knew how, I’d stop loving him right this minute. I swear I would.” Abby Foster sat slumped inside a jumble of blankets on the floor of her darkened bedroom. She rubbed her small horseshoe charm necklace with one hand and with the other she squeezed a pillow against her stomach.
From her perch across the room on the window seat, Charlie didn’t answer. But Abby imagined she heard skepticism in her friend’s stony silence.
“It’s true, Charlie! I want to stop. I know it’s the right thing. For my dad, for me…and probably even for Joe. He doesn’t love me anymore He made it clear he wouldn’t take me back now, even if I asked him to.”
She squeezed her eyes shut and bowed her head, remembering how furious Joe had been, the last time she saw him. The names he had called her…
She whimpered softly, lifting the pillow to muffle the sound. “But how do you stop loving someone, Charlie? How?”
Still no response. Abby wasn’t surprised. There was nothing to say that hadn’t already been said a hundred times. No one had the answer, not even wise Charlotte Morgan, Abby’s best friend, and the most sensible person she knew.
Because there was no answer. There was no hope. Abby was trapped. She couldn’t stop loving Joe, and, when the morning came, she couldn’t escape marrying Blaine Watts.
Just a few hours left…
She glanced at her wedding dress, hung over her closet door to “fluff out,” as the maid called it. In the daylight, it had seemed beautiful, even to Abby, whose emotions were so mixed. But tonight its pearls and sequins played tricks with the moonlight and shadows. It might have been a ghost pinned there, restlessly glimmering.
Was it really possible that, in the morning, she’d put on that dress, walk out onto the lawn, and in front of two hundred strangers become Mrs. Blaine Watts? If she did, happy Abby Foster, the spoiled little rich girl who had fallen in love with wild Joe Carlyle, would disappear forever.
Happy Abby Foster would become the ghost.
But the ghost of Abby’s happiness wouldn’t haunt this bedroom. More likely, people would report seeing her floating around the old swayback Carlyle outbuilding, where she and Joe made love the very first time.
And the very last time.
Despair washed over her again, like storm waves pummeling the shore. She felt bruised on the inside, wet and eroded.
“How?” she repeated in a whisper. Then she cried for a little while. Softly. The loud, hiccupping sobs had worn themselves out at least an hour ago, when the effects of the Kahlua, which she’d smuggled upstairs to help numb the pain, had kicked in.
Time drifted, marked only by an occasional sniffle, or a fresh seeping of tears. Eventually, though, the unnatural silence from the other side of the room began to register. She let go of her necklace, and she lifted her head.
“Charlie?” She squinted toward the arched windows, where Charlie sat in a beam of blue moonlight. No response. Suddenly, Abby couldn’t even remember when Charlie had last murmured so much as an “um-humh” to anything she’d said.
“Charlie, are you awake?”
Nothing. Abby dropped her pillow, unwound herself from the blankets, and walked across the room, her bare feet making no noise on the thick carpet.
When she got close enough, she had her answer. Charlie was dead asleep, her face pale, with shadows under her eyes. She was still propped upright, with her willowy, beauty-queen legs stretched along the cushioned seat, but her mouth was open, her head tilted awkwardly toward her shoulder.
Her notepad had tumbled to the carpet, and her right hand dangled beside it. Somehow, the ballpoint pen still rested in the limp crook of her fingers.
Abby glanced toward the fireplace, where her mother’s gilt-and-white Limoges clock had stood as long as Abby had been alive. Stephanie Foster hadn’t needed it…she’d died while Abby was being born.
To Abby’s surprise, it was already two a.m.
A sliver of shame pierced her fog of self-pity. Charlie was such a good friend. She’d agreed to spend this awful night here, though she must have guessed Abby wouldn’t sleep. She’d shared the Kahlua, though she didn’t like it much. She’d listened without judging…and she’d even agreed to help make this list of the arguments for and against the wedding.
Abby bent down and scooped up the notebook. Across the top, in her firm handwriting, Charlie had written Marrying Blaine Watts. Below that, she’d created two columns, labeled Pros and Cons.
Even from a distance, you could see how lopsided the debate was. Charlie had taken faithful dictation, copying down every word Abby said, without even changing the pronouns.
The Pros side was long.
- Blaine’s a real grown-up. And successful. I’d be secure for life.
- He loves me.
- He’s very attractive.
- Dad says this is the kind of marriage my mother dreamed of for me.
- Dad needs to know I’m taken care of, especially since the cancer.
- I’ve spent so much money on the wedding.
- All those people are coming from everywhere, all his bigwig friends. How embarrassing for him if I called it off.
- I gave my word to Dad.
- I gave my word to Blaine.
Abby frowned at it. The list was pretty compelling, here in black and white. All those great reasons to go through with it.
And on the Cons side, just one entry.
- I still love Joe.
She stared at those four words a long time. The sentence looked so small. Insignificant …maybe even selfish…next to the nine big, righteous reasons in the other column.
But so what? She had a sudden urge to rip the notebook to shreds. The list had been a stupid, stupid idea. No one could make a decision this important with a list. Love wasn’t measured in words and ink. Happiness couldn’t be predicted by its weight on a scale, like fish at the grocery store.
But then, in this tug of war between her heart and her brain, the brain side of the argument gave a sharp yank.
Be honest with yourself, Abby. The decision’s already made.
She’d come too far to turn back—and where would she go, anyhow? Joe had said he never wanted to see her again. And her father was dying, so the perfect harbor she’d known all her life was smashed. She was in the middle of the ocean, with no land in sight. She didn’t have the courage to overturn the boat now.
As someone once said, when you’re going through hell, keep going.
She glanced through the window at the white party tents below, already erected in the backyard, waiting for the ten thousand white Dutch roses that would arrive by jet at dawn.
Number Six. She’d spent so much money…
When she’d finally said yes to Blaine—after weeks of ugly scenes with Joe that always ended with him calling her a snob, or a spoiled coward—she’d started planning the wedding. In spite of the rush, she’d insisted on the best of everything. She’d felt like she deserved it, if only for being the obedient daughter and choosing the “sensible” life path.
So she’d asked for the dream dress, which cost more than most people made in a year. The diamond the size of a boat anchor. The cake that rose nine tiers, the bridal march played by a string quartet, the honeymoon in Greece, the trousseau fit for a queen.
Her father had paid even the most outrageous bills without complaint, just as Blaine had done with the solitaire and the cruise. Both men had actually seemed amused, as if her extravagance proved her excellent taste, and her worth as a trophy wife and daughter.
Joe, however, had recognized the reckless spending for exactly what it was—a bribe from the men. A bribe Abby had accepted out of a deadly mix of despair, anger, and maybe a little revenge.
He hadn’t cared whether calling it a bribe insulted her. Joe had always been a straight talker, and he didn’t mince words about this, either.
Just three days ago, when Abby and Blaine were picking out chocolates from Sage Carrigan’s store to add to the dessert buffet, Joe had spotted them. Impulsively, he’d stormed into the shop and barreled right up to Blaine. Two of his brothers raced in after him, but they were too late. Joe already had shoved the heels of his hands into Blaine’s broad chest.
“You pathetic pile of horse manure,” Joe said in a hard voice, so loud everyone in the store could hear. “Do you think she’s a whore? Do you think you can buy her?”
Devlin, four years older than Joe, caught Joe’s right arm. Rafe, who was only ten, caught the other arm, but Devlin obviously was doing all the work.
“Shut up, Joe,” Devlin said, his voice low and steady, though the glare he shot toward Blaine was every bit as poisonous as Joe’s. “Let’s just get out of here.”
Joe didn’t even seem to notice he’d been pinned. He was still lunging forward. “I asked you a question, you useless stuffed shirt. You think you can buy her?”
Blaine’s answering smile was contemptuous, as if Joe were just a gnat at his picnic, easily disposed of with one carefully placed thumb.
He chuckled. “I don’t have to buy my women, son. But apparently you do. And this one, unfortunately, has just been priced out of your reach.”
Joe surged forward on such a powerful fury that even Devlin could hardly control him. But somehow he held on and kept Joe from launching himself at Blaine like a torpedo. Abby recoiled, honestly believing, in that moment, that the boy she loved, who was so gentle with his family’s horses, his overworked mother, his pesky little brother, could have done real violence.
Even then, Blaine remained unfazed. Still smiling, he watched Joe wrestling against Devlin’s hold the same way he might watch a bug squirming on a pin.
Abby’s cheeks grew hot, embarrassed for Joe, and for herself. It was such a hopeless mismatch.
On one side, there was Blaine. A muscular former athlete, a millionaire at almost thirty, he was sublimely confident—of his money, his physical power, his two-hundred-dollar haircut, and, most of all, his claim on Abby. Joe might still be fighting this war, but for Blaine it was already over. He’d already won, and he’d chained his gaudy rock around Abby’s finger to prove it.
On the other side, there was Joe. Only seventeen—a full year younger even than Abby, who had turned eighteen last week. Skinny, eternally underfed and wiry from working long hours with the horses.
He was dressed in the same black t-shirt and faded blue jeans he wore every day, the little rips stitched in irregular lumps by his own clumsy hands so he wouldn’t add to his mother’s burden. His glossy dark hair, already a month or two past needing a trim, tumbled over his forehead in messy waves. It stuck to his neck with bits of grass and mud.
Of course Joe had already lost. He’d never had a chance. The minute it became clear Blaine wanted Abby, everybody had advised Joe to back off gracefully. His mom, all three of his brothers, Abby’s father, Principal Stern, and even Reverend Davis from St. James. Everybody.
They told him he wasn’t ready to get serious about any girl. He was still a minor, still in high school, still flunking history. Why, just this past summer, he and his brothers had been arrested for letting cows loose in the computer lab at the high school.
He was a fool to imagine he could take on a wife. And he was a selfish fool if he asked Abby to wait for him, especially if it meant she’d have to give up a catch like Blaine Watts.
Behind her, Abby heard one of the chocolate store’s customers snicker. And then a woman said, in a stage whisper, “One of the crazy Carlyle boys, I assume?”
The crazy Carlyle boys….
At that moment, Abby had hated Joe. Hated him for being so young, so poor. For being so hot-tempered and easily provoked. For not being able to beat Blaine without beating him up.
She’d hated him for having inherited the wild streak everyone in Marietta called “the Carlyle crazies.” All the boys had gone through it, people said, though luckily the oldest two had seemed to have come out the other side okay.
Most of all, she hated him for proving everyone right—for proving that he wasn’t ready to be trusted with her future.
Pushing the memory aside now, she let the notebook fall back to the carpet and pressed her fist against her heart, which pounded painfully. Hated him? Yes. She had. But even in that moment, she’d loved him, too.
She’d loved him then, and she loved him now. Her dad could call it “a hormonal haze,” but she knew she’d still love Joe tomorrow morning, when she put on that white lace gown.
And she’d still love him tomorrow night, when she was alone with her new husband, when Blaine started unbuttoning those pearls, and peeling away the lace, and putting his hands on her bare flesh.
Goose bumps ran across her shoulders. The Kahlua rose in her throat. No. No. She couldn’t let Blaine….she just couldn’t…
“Oh, God, Charlie,” she whispered through her raw throat. “What am I going to—”
But then she closed her lips, forcing back any more sounds. How selfish was she willing to be? Charlie was exhausted and needed sleep.
Besides, the only person who could end this nightmare was Abby herself.
It wasn’t too late. In the war between her brain and her heart, there was still time for her heart to pull off a surprise victory. She still had more than eight hours. She caught a glimpse of herself in her cheval glass. All she needed was courage. Surely somewhere underneath this pampered princess froth, she had a little of that?
Time to find out.
She touched her horseshoe necklace again, as if for luck. She would go to her father right now, and she would kneel beside him, and she’d make him understand. Surely, surely, he could see the truth. He loved her. Everyone called Markham Foster ruthless, and cold, and a beast of a businessman. But no one ever said he didn’t love his only daughter.
She dragged on her robe and made her way to the door, careful not to step on any of the debris she and Charlie had scattered around the room through the long night.
She flew down the hall. She rapped softly on his door and whispered. “Daddy?”
No answer. She cracked the door. Her father wasn’t in his room.
Her heart sank. Was he still downstairs, talking to his friends? Four other guests were bunking at the ranch tonight, people who had arrived from other states on early planes. A congressman from California, a hot-shot cattleman from Colorado, a woman who owned a meat processing plant in Texas, and Abby’s mother’s only living relative, an elderly distant cousin named Gerty.
Except for Gerty, Abby didn’t know any of them. In fact, of the two hundred people expected for the wedding, she’d met only twenty-five or so.
Oddly, that thought gave her an extra shot of courage. She didn’t know them, so why should she care what they thought? Sure, they’d gossip, but her dumb little soap opera couldn’t hold the interest of a California congressman for long.
She descended the central staircase slowly, still careful to make no sound. When she reached the first floor, everything was in darkness, except for the moonlight coming through the fanlight over the door, and a bronze glow emanating from the library.
Maybe her father had fallen asleep in there, reading. Since he got sick, he seemed to drop off in odd places. He slept in chairs as often as he slept in bed. Still, she approached the room quietly, in case he wasn’t alone.
The door stood ajar. Just as she put her hand on the knob, her father spoke. She let go, startled.
“You know, Gerty, sometimes I still talk to Stephanie,” he said in an odd voice. Was he just tired? Or had he been drinking? The s’s were a bit slurred. But, as far as Abby knew, he hadn’t had a single drink since the diagnosis six months ago.
“Well, of course you talk to her, Mark.” The old woman’s crisp, no-nonsense tones didn’t seem changed by either drinking or exhaustion. “You miss her.”
“I do. God, Gerty, you’ll never know how much I miss that woman.”
Abby pulled back, bewildered. If she didn’t know better, she’d say her father had been crying. Was still crying.
But her father never cried.
“Mostly, I talk to her about Abby. I say…I say…” The slurring continued, even worse. “I tell her how beautiful our baby girl is. How sweet, and smart, and good. I tell her she’d be proud.”
In those few sentences, her father’s voice had shifted through an agony of registers, through the wetness of tears, the high pitch of a tightened throat, the chest-deep bass of pain. Only half-conscious of moving, Abby sank to her knees, bracing herself against the wall. She clutched the doorframe.
“She never even saw the baby. Did you know that, Gerty? They’d put her under, and she never woke up. Stephie never saw how perfect our little girl was.”
“Yes,” Gerty said quietly. “I knew.”
“But before that, when we saw how bad things were…she made me promise the baby would be fine, no matter what. She made me promise I’d always protect her, and love her…and…”
“Which you have, Mark.” Gerty broke in quickly, her voice crustier than ever, as if she were eager to prevent a total breakdown. “God knows you’ve given that girl everything. The only thing you can be accused of is spoiling her. You might have said no, once or twice. Might have been good for her.”
A silence greeted that, as if her father were thinking it over. It gave Abby time to think, too. She knew Gerty was probably right. Joe certainly thought so. Spoiled, superficial, weak. Those had been the least horrible of the labels he’d thrown at her.
Weak. Too weak to fight for him. For them.
“You know what the hardest part was, Gerty, when I found out about the cancer?”
Abby shot a glance toward the door, surprised by the sudden change of subject. Apparently her father had not been thinking about Gerty’s comment. He’d been following his own tragic thoughts. His voice was clearer, as if the tears were finished, but the grief in the sound was bottomless, and Abby felt a sudden rush of vertigo, as if she might faint.
“No, Mark,” Gerty said steadily. “What was the hardest part?”
“It wasn’t the idea of dying. Hell, no. I don’t care about that. It was knowing I’d see Stephie on the other side. And I’d have to explain why I didn’t keep my promise, why I left Abby all alone.”
“No, don’t tell me it’s ridiculous. It’s how I felt. But it’s over. I’m not afraid anymore.”
Gerty made another small noise, but he kept talking, apparently oblivious to anything but his own thoughts.
“Blaine Watts is a good man, a strong man,” he said. “Strong enough to protect Abby when I’m…when I’m gone.”
“Mark, don’t. It might be a long time before you—”
“No, it won’t. But that’s all right. It’s so much easier now, because when I get there, I can say…” His voice broke one last time. “When I get there, I can say, it’s all right, Stephie. I left her in good hands.”
Ten minutes later, Abby was once again sitting on her bedroom floor. She was propped against the wall beside the window seat, finishing the bottle of Jack Daniels she’d filched from the dining room as she fled upstairs.
She was down to the last quarter inch when she heard Charlie mumble, shift, and finally wake up.
“What was that?” Charlie blinked, rubbed her face sleepily. “Oh, darn. Sorry. I guess I dozed off. But I’m good now. Where were we?”
Yawning, she fumbled in her lap, then leaned over and picked up the notebook. “Oh, yeah. We were working on the list. The cons. Let’s see… we’d just put down…I’m still in love with Joe.”
“I’m still in love with Joe,” Abby repeated, and then she laughed. Or at least she meant it to be a laugh, but it didn’t quite come out right.
She should have brought two bottles. Ignoring Charlie’s anxious gaze, she lifted the whiskey to her lips and sucked out the last few drops. Then, tossing it onto the carpet, she smiled down at her toes cryptically. It felt like a cat smile, all tight, curling lips and half-closed eyelids.
“Abby?” Charlotte’s voice was pitched low. She sounded worried.
“Hmmm?” Abby wiggled her toes, wondering why people even had legs if they weren’t allowed to use them. These two healthy legs should have been able to run her straight out of this house. They should’ve been able to take her far, far away. But look at them! They were absolutely useless.
“Abby, listen. I shouldn’t say this, probably, but…” Charlie hesitated, then started again somberly. “If you really still love Joe…”
“Ah, Charlie, my sweet, clueless, innocent Charlie.” Still staring at her toes, Abby shook her head and waved her hand airily, dismissing all that. “I’m getting married in three hours, honey. What on earth has love got to do with it?”
End of Excerpt