The Wedding Obsession

by

Madeline Ash

Emmie Morgan woke up from heart transplant surgery, saw her best friend Brandon Tan sitting by her bedside, and promptly asked him to marry her. If there was a faster way to ruin a friendship, she didn’t know it.

One year on, Bran has returned home to open a restaurant and Emmie adds trying to make amends to her already chaotic life. She’s also running her own music venue, battling survivor’s guilt—oh, and secretly tending a wedding obsession sprung from her near-death experience.

Bran needs answers. But all Emmie has are problems. Hating that he couldn’t help her last time, he resolves to ease the trouble in her eyes. He sets aside their attraction and awkward past and tries to focus on being friends again.

If she would just stop trying on wedding dresses…

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Dear Donor Family,

I’m sorry it’s taken me a year to write and thank you for the gift your loved one gave me. I’ve tried so many times, but words have failed me. It’s impossible to bend the depth of my gratitude into the confines of language.

It will seem trite for me to say I am sorry for your loss. But I am deeply, immeasurably sorry.

I can’t imagine your grief. My family, however, came close to understanding. My heart’s degeneration came with years of warning—diagnosed at sixteen and on the donor waiting list by twenty-one. Finally, I received news that a suitable organ had become available. I cried tears of joy for myself and tears of sorrow for your loss.

This heart is strong. With it, I can move again, think without distraction, and laugh until I ache. I run in the park. I’m achieving my dreams. I don’t know if that brings you any peace, but not a day goes by when I don’t think of your loved one and the life they granted me.

Thank you.

The Heart Recipient.

“Happy Rebirthday!”

Emmie looked up as her mom burst into the room, hand raised and fingers shimmering. It was almost midday. The doors of their lounge bar Carpe Vesperum wouldn’t open for another few hours, so she had the main lights up bright. The mass of misshapen glass spheres hung at various lengths from the ceiling, glowing golden on couches and floorboards, bookshelves and lamps. The basement venue was in the center of the city’s Gaslamp District where bars, cafes, and entertainment abounded. After operating it for more than six months, Emmie still took an introverted delight at being alone twenty feet below a crowded street.

She noted the bunch of flowers in Vera’s other hand and smiled. “Thanks, Mom.”

“An advance on tonight’s celebrations.” Reaching the bar, Vera handed her the bright yellow bouquet. “And before you ask, we’re doing cake whether you like it or not.”

Emmie pulled a face, withdrawing a pitcher from under the counter. “Why wouldn’t I like cake?”

“And we’ve invited some people, just a handful, it’ll be fun.” Vera dumped her purse on a barstool and leaned forward, expression sobering. “Have you sent it yet?”

“Yes.” Nerves filled her like the water she ran into the pitcher. She’d rewritten the letter three times, but the handwriting had continued to capture her tremble. She’d quaked, wondering how the donor family felt about her; how they might react to her words. The pen had flipped from her hand, a tight grip pressed too hard, at the possibility they might actually respond.

But she’d had to send it. Step one in clawing away from the monsters in her head.

Setting the pitcher aside, she unwrapped the flowers. “I mailed it this morning.”

Her mom nodded, frowning. The lights tugged out the gold in her ash-blonde hair. “Do you think they’ll write back?”

Emmie slid the flowers into the pitcher. “Maybe.”

“Do you want them to?”

She raised a shoulder, avoiding her mother’s gaze.

“I’m proud of you, sweetie.”

“Yeah.” Eyes fixed down, Emmie grabbed a sponge and worked at a sticky dollop on the counter. They wouldn’t know how she’d bled onto the paper. The tears, the sodden gratitude, the breath-stealing guilt. She’d hardly slept last night. When she’d finally climbed out of bed, brittle and gritty, grief for the donor family had risen within her.

This one-year anniversary was not something to celebrate.

“Have you seen Liz?” she asked, not looking up. “She said she might swing by for lunch.”

Vera snorted, making her way around the bar. She picked up a few of the unopened cardboard boxes near the register, and said, “Then expect her for dinner next week.”

Emmie smiled wryly. That was the endearing thing about Lizzy; she was rapidly flying up the cardiology ladder as an electrophysiologist in one of California’s top hospitals, funneling ninety-nine percent of her significant intelligence into her work—which seemed to leave her stranded with fluff and fluster the rest of the time.

“I’m in contact with another international act,” Emmie said. “I’ve got a call with their manager today.”

“Genre?”

“Gothic folk-pop.”

“What does that even…?” Vera put her shoulder to the swinging door behind the bar, then disappeared into the storeroom. Raising her voice, she called out, “Heard from Bran?”

Emmie stiffened, hand falling to the countertop. No, she hadn’t heard from him. Why would she? Silence had long since sank and settled at the bottom of their friendship. Full culpability went to her on that front.

“He’s good,” she answered, resuming scrubbing. “Working, sleeping, sightseeing.”

“We should do a family dinner whenever he finally comes home. Can’t be long now.”

Why? So they could say, hey Bran, remember that time Emmie proposed to you and you said yes, and then she retracted the proposal the next day, because apparently she’d woken from surgery with this weird urge to get married, so she proposed even though she didn’t love you like that, not yet, and you said yes to be nice even though you didn’t love her like that, not yet, but she didn’t say any of that or anything, she just said, I don’t want to marry you, and it was all super awkward?

Ha ha ha. Remember that?

“Maybe,” she said, rinsing the cloth under the tap.

“In fact, he can cook.” Vera emerged, the storeroom door swishing closed behind her. “He must have learned many delicious things.”

Bran had left the country pretty damn fast, off to a stage with an esteemed chef in Spain. He’d emailed her, a series of stilted, surface-deep messages that described his apartment, his kitchen, and his overworked routine. Despite knowing an olive branch when it dangled uncomfortably in front of her, she had ordered herself not to reach for it.

“Maybe,” she said again.

Her mom paused, eyeing her. “You’re nailing noncommittal today.”

“Yeah?” She nailed it again.

“Are you tired? You are, aren’t you? You’re working too hard. I knew it. You should take time off.”

“I’m fine,” she said. “It’s the letter, Mom, that’s all. I’ll get started on emails.”

Vera gave a concerned smile. “All right.”

After picking up the pitcher of flowers by the handle, Emmie made her way across the venue to the door side of the stage. It opened into a cozy, couch-filled greenroom that quickly hit capacity if a band exceeded five members. Of the two adjoining doors, one led to a change room for performers and the other to the private office Emmie shared with her mother.

Office door closed behind her, she booted up her laptop and set an elbow on the desk, chin in hand. Her inbox was teeming. She had to get on the phone to the ticket sellers. Several bar staff had requested leave over the same weekend, so she had to source casuals. The fresh fruit delivery had arrived minus peaches for the Ginger Peach Soda, one of their most popular mocktails, and the band scheduled for this evening had called to say their flight had been delayed, but they were crossing their fingers tightly if it was any consolation. It wasn’t.

Regardless, it didn’t take long for the urge to rise. Out of habit…out of some place inside her she didn’t understand.

“Don’t you dare,” she muttered a warning to herself. She had too much to do.

But she did. Of course she did.

With one furtive click, Pinterest opened on her screen. Almost instantly, captivation bound her to the spot, threading in and out of her ribs like ivory ribbon. The photos had been painstakingly collated, and she scrolled through the endless styles and themes, possibilities fanning in her like a swatch of lavish fabrics.

She categorized obsessively: ceremony, dresses, bridesmaids, flowers, table settings, hairstyles, invitations, shoes, reception, lighting, groomsmen, bouquets, makeup, rings, vows, cakes…

The obsession didn’t end there. It overwhelmed her browser history, her email subscriptions, and had started to encroach into the real world.

It made no sense.

This fascination with weddings hid in her like shame. She hadn’t told anyone. She’d never wanted a wedding. Marriage was not essential for love. She appreciated the concept—the symbolic significance of a ritual designed to express commitment—but in current society, it seemed less of an emotional contract and more of an excuse to blow tens of thousands of dollars on one day so friends and family could take selfies in their fancy clothes and share socially using a hashtag of the lucky couple.

Emmie adamantly did not want a big wedding. She didn’t want to get married at all.

Yet sometimes, a valve seemed to open inside her, sudden and pumping fast, filling her with a fluttery, effervescent urgency.

In those moments, she was desperate, desperate, for that celebration of love.

Her psychologist reassured her that craving lifelong love was common after a near-death experience. He’d suggested Emmie try dating. Her business was off the ground, her health was being managed, so perhaps it was time to add a third scale to her balanced life.

So she’d tried. Done the dinner date thing, only to decide she hadn’t liked how self-conscious she felt eating main meals in front of men she didn’t know—that, and she always used their menu choice to form negative preconceptions about them, without fail, every time. She’d done the coffee, well, decaffeinated tea, thing, only to decide she hated the first-date questions that held her up like a prospective purchase, and more than that, hated evaluating her dates in return. She’d never worn purple, yet her favorite dress was purple because the fluorescent lights in the store had made it appear navy blue, and if they hadn’t, she’d never have bought it and realized how magical the color looked on her. So how could she hold a man up to the light and decide in that moment whether they would or wouldn’t be good together?

She’d even done the film-watching thing, only to decide to never do it again, because there were two mental spaces in a cinema—one being engrossed in the film, and the other being unable to detach from her surroundings—and she always got stuck in the latter because there was a stranger sitting next to her, with her, and all she could hear was him chewing popcorn, all she could smell was his deodorant, and all she could feel was the mutual awareness they were on a date—which was weird, wasn’t it, because choosing to close herself in a dark room with a stranger went against human instinct. She’d ultimately axed that option, too.

All for the best. The Emmie who went on dates was a fraction of herself. A glint of light reflecting from the eye of a much darker, cumbersome being.

With bated breath, she enlarged an image of a bride, her back to the camera, shoulder blades exposed by a sophisticated scoop of white lace. Emmie carefully, reverently, traced the curve on the screen with her finger.

Her mom had called today her rebirthday.

Happy one year of being crazy.

Bran sat alone in the crowd.

Half an hour earlier, he’d taken the stairs down into the venue. Music had escalated around him as he’d emerged into the heel of an L-shaped room. A bar lined the toes of the shorter section, tucked out of sight, while the stage filled the top end of the space, currently occupied by a group of bearded men playing drums, guitars, and a banjo.

The vibe was young. The bar staff were college-student aged, their enthusiasm spilling onto each other and the patrons, grinning as they blended fruits, laughing as they shook colorful cocktails. A pink-filled martini glass, mint-green tumbler, flute of plum purple, and a tray of ginger goblets.

Amber light glowed on endless lush-cushioned lounges, of which no two were the same. Granite grey and sage green, beetroot pink and burnt orange. Some new, some age-worn. Throw pillows added extra plump to the cushioning, and blankets were folded over the arms—or tucked around people. A creature comfort, for the ventilation was ideal for his shirt and jeans. Some people were even curled up and reading, thanks to the fully stocked bookcases lining the walls. The general chatter was light, easy; the atmosphere invited him to stay like a friend’s house that felt more like home than his own.

As he’d claimed a vacant armchair, dissolving into the mostly seated crowd, pride had struck him like an elbow nudge to the ribs that said told you so.

Emmie had done it. She was running her own live music venue.

Hurt had struck next. She’d done all this—launched a music venue that packed out—and hadn’t told him.

He scanned the room, teeth clamped together. He didn’t belong here.

Vera was the only reason he’d come. She had emailed out of the blue, asking if he could visit for Emmie’s rebirthday. And to keep it a surprise, because she knew her daughter would love it, and didn’t he want to finally see Carpe Vesperum anyway?

At first, he’d assumed she’d contacted the wrong person. Emmie wouldn’t love it. She’d cut him out of her life a long time ago, and she hadn’t pasted him back in since. He was not party favorite material.

Then, curious despite himself, he’d Googled Carpe Vesperum. That had smashed open his sense of betrayal with all the finesse of a mallet. Emmie hadn’t even told him about achieving this dream. Even after a year of silence, the fact still gutted him.

He’d almost written back to decline Vera’s offer. Almost added, By the way, your daughter and I aren’t friends anymore. Has she forgotten to mention that?

But then he’d hesitated, caught by that very fact.

Vera didn’t know Emmie had discarded their friendship. The strangeness of that had baited him, a hook in his mind, tugging, trailing him along, until he finally accepted the invitation, despite knowing her family’s ignorance was more likely an oversight than a clue.

“There you are. Mom’s having conniptions.”

Startled, he shot a look up at the woman standing beside him. In her early thirties, she had the physical presence of a bored predator.

“Carrie,” he said, leaning back. “Hey.”

She wore a maroon fitted blazer, matching skinny-leg trousers, and a black tie, with her dark hair spiked short. Evidently, Carrie hadn’t let her professional goals slip in his absence. He was pretty certain she’d rule the world one day, and just as certain he’d reap zero privileges out of his association.

“I would ask how you are, but I don’t really care,” she said. The twist of her lips betrayed she was joking on some very low level. “Now, tell me what’s wrong with Em.”

Baffled, he asked, “What?”

“Don’t pretend you don’t know.”

He lifted a hand off the armrest, fingers wide. “Not pretending.”

“She always talks to you. She must have told you about it.” Her frown scrutinized him. “Are you covering for her?”

Yeah, he was covering for the woman who’d given him radio silence for twelve months. Brows high, he asked, “Covering what?”

“The cause of her troubled stares.”

Disquiet stilled him. No. He didn’t want her to tell him that. He didn’t want to know about troubled stares or anything that could complicate this. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Seconds passed, and concern gradually replaced her suspicion. She sat on the arm of the couch beside him. “Damn it.”

“Throw me some context,” he said.

Carrie fixed her eyes on the stage. “Obviously you know she moved out of Mom’s place a few months ago. She’s still living here, on the second story. Which is great, but it means Mom can’t keep an eye on her anymore. And she won’t talk to us. We ask, and she says she’s fine.”

He was still stuck on her mistaken obviously. “Maybe that means she is fine.”

Carrie shook her head. “She’s always thought herself into knots, you know that. Overanalyzing and then getting stuck. We think she’s tangled again.” Clicking her tongue, she stood and subtly adjusted her tie. “We’re worried, but thought she’d at least been sharing with you. Now I’m even more worried that she didn’t want to do it long distance. You’re back for good now? You can find out what’s bothering her.”

He frowned. Back in San Diego for good, but not in Emmie’s life. Nettled, uncomfortable, his muscles readied to stand. He should leave now, and yet—

He swiped up a napkin from the small table beside him, then pointed distractedly at her breast pocket. “Pen,” he said, opening his fingers.

Affronted, she handed it over.

“I might find out,” he said, writing with the napkin spread over his thigh. “If you give her this.”

“Meet me at the marina by 10,” Carrie read, then regarded him in disbelief. “Luring her away from the party, are we?”

“If she wants to be lured.” She could choose whether she wanted to see him again. If she didn’t show, that’d be the end of it. He wouldn’t walk this way again, regardless of the hook that had tugged him here. Pain tried to hug him, smother him, anticipating that final rejection, but he pushed it away.

“Fine. You’ll tell me as soon as you know what’s wrong?” Carrie wanted what Carrie wanted.

He angled his head, evading the question as he passed the pen back. “Why haven’t you asked her yourself?”

Her breath out was dismissive. “I’m not good at that kind of thing.”

“What, emotion?”

Her arched brow didn’t deny it, and she left him as Vera’s voice filled the bar.

“Excuse me? Can I have everyone’s attention, please?”

Bran looked to the stage. Vera stood in the spotlight, holding a hand up to shield the glare from her eyes. The room fell silent.

“This will just take a moment.” She smiled. “As some of you know, this venue only exists because of my daughter Emmie. She’s dedicated her energy and compassion to make it the inclusive, prominent live music venue we all know and love. Now, today marks the anniversary of a very significant moment in Emmie’s life, and we’d like everyone to put their voices together to celebrate.” She turned, gesturing to the side of stage. “Emmie, come out here!”

Bran’s pulse leapt, and he forced his eyes closed. It was fine. He could see her again. Time had healed the man who had fallen in love with his best friend. This wasn’t a big deal. He’d see her and then he’d leave.

Curling his fingers into fists, he watched Vera continue to gesture offstage, her expression becoming more and more stern.

“Oh, okay, fine, we don’t have to do this.” When she turned back to the room, she smiled apologetically. “But while I’m here, perhaps I’ll tell my pickle joke.”

Between one moment and the next, Emmie was on stage.

The crowd applauded. People stood, whooping, cheering. Some even tossed glitter, casting the air into a multicolored shimmer.

Bran stared.

His stomach had tensed, his muscles set; a nostalgic tightening as his body remembered how it used to react to her. She looked good. Black shorts over black stockings and her old red tartan boots. Her fitted top tucked into the high waistline of the shorts, with sleeves bunched at her elbows.

He hadn’t remembered the length of her hair until he saw how much longer it had grown, dark and pulled back in a plaited ponytail. He’d forgotten other small things, too. The bunch of her eyebrows when she concentrated, listening to someone shouting to her from the crowd; the slight snap of her head when someone addressed her unexpectedly, her mother this time, passing her the microphone. It was Emmie, moving without struggle, lifting her arms in a crowd-wide wave without straining her pulse, laughing without pausing for breath.

His next inhale was unsteady.

She was well.

He stopped breathing altogether when she accepted the mic. Her low voice poured across the room like an ocean wave washing the night shore. “Wow, thank you all so much.”

Sadness sank down the back of his throat.

God, he missed her.

“I know Mom had something to do with how many of you are here tonight.” Her face was red, vividly embarrassed, but she smiled and held herself with shoulders back. “And I’m glad. Running Carpe Vesperum is the best job because you all seize the evening with such spirit—especially my amazing team over there.” A flurry of noise erupted from the bar. “The road to recovery has been bumpy, and this hasn’t been the easiest venture, but you’ve been patient while I’ve found my feet and built this place up. Thank you for making this journey worthwhile. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

His lungs burned. He was aware of his hand grasping the arm of the lounge chair; aware of a ventilation shaft blowing cool air at the back of his neck. Being in the same space as Emmie had once made him feel utterly grounded. Except she was thanking a room full of strangers for supporting her through her recovery, acknowledging that several hundred people had helped her succeed in something he hadn’t even known about.

It devastated him.

As the room shouted Happy Rebirthday at Vera’s count of three, Bran stood. He didn’t have to handle this. He didn’t want to be grounded by a woman who didn’t care she had him pinned. Carrie would pass on his message. Emmie would read it and maybe regret would strike her, maybe she’d frown, and maybe she’d decide to meet him before the night was too late.

He took the stairs as something lodged inside him, just beneath his collarbone. His heart pounded, blood thudding against it, vainly trying to push through the blockage.

Or maybe he’d never see her again.

End of Excerpt