Authors: Tess Oliver
Copyright© 2016 by Tess Oliver
Cover Model: Lane Dorsey
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.
All Rights are Reserved.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Jeremy gripped the
headboard to keep it from smacking the wall. “Sorry, baby,” he grunted as his body stiffened and he came.
He dropped onto the bed next to me. I sat up, plucked his shirt off the end of the bed and pulled it on.
“I said I’m sorry, Kenna.” His voice reminded me of a petulant little boy trying to apologize for purposely tripping a girl in the hallway.
I buttoned the shirt halfway. It was one of his good ones, the kind that only the best dry cleaners could
. “Don’t worry, it’s me, not you.”
His angry laugh followed. “Shit, that’s a classic. It’s me, not you,” he mimicked. I clamped my teeth together at the sound of it. I couldn’t remember exactly when it had happened, when sex with Jeremy had become like eating dry crackers on a hot day with no water to chase the salty crumbs down. But I couldn’t seem to find my way back to loving him. And Jeremy knew it. He wasn’t ready to give up on us yet, but I’d surrendered months ago.
I walked over to the desk that I’d set up in the corner of the bedroom. Jeremy had insisted we rent an expensive apartment in the city. With him being newly hired at a law firm and me still plodding through law school, it was more than we could afford, but he’d wanted to impress his friends. He’d arranged himself a posh office in the spare bedroom and had allowed me to carve out my own cramped workspace in the corner of our bedroom.
I stared down at the stack of law books, the printed and bound monsters that haunted my daydreams and nightmares. It seemed I was doing more studying than breathing these days.
was a light, teasing word for how I was feeling about it all. Especially because when I wasn’t poring over textbooks and lecture notes, I was asking myself why the heck I was going into law. As noble and intellectual as the profession had first seemed, it was slowly disintegrating into a blur of paperwork, legal terms and precedents. The weight of it all had been plaguing me with anxiety and panic attacks. More than once, in the past month, I’d had to rush from a lecture hall because it seemed that the walls were squeezing in on me, keeping me from taking a decent breath.
I reached up and fingered the shell necklace that I’d dangled from the corner of my monitor. It was a reminder of the past, one of the few tokens I’d taken with me when I left Mayfair for college. I’d been living an entire country away, on the east coast, in a big city, for six years, but my small, quiet suburban hometown called out to me every once in awhile. Even more so lately.
Behind me, the bed creaked. I heard Jeremy pulling on his pants. He walked over and leaned down to kiss the top of my head. “Guess you’re thinking about Harrison’s test on Monday. Just relax, take deep breaths and you’ll do fine. I’m sure that’s why you’re having such a hard time—tough time reaching orgasm. You’ll see, once finals are over, you’ll feel your old self, and everything will be back to normal.”
There he was, trying again. If only he were right, but the hard knot in the pit of my stomach assured me he wasn’t.
My gaze fell on the necklace again. “Actually, I wasn’t thinking about the test at all.”
Jeremy swung around and braced his hands on the edge of my desk as he sat against it. “So, what
you thinking about?”
The necklace had tossed me back in time, headlong into the memories of those carefree days in Mayfair. It made me smile. “When I was nine, I wrote down an entire life’s plan.” I chuckled, thinking about it. “I called it Kenna’s Life Plan. Original, I know. I was going to be a marine biologist, and on my wedding day, the groom and I were going to arrive at the ceremony riding a pair of dolphins. And I was going to wear a pink bathing suit and a wreath of shells in my hair. After the ceremony, we were going to eat my mom’s macaroni and cheese and blueberry cobbler. Then, naturally, we were going to live happily ever after.”
“Sounds like a good, detailed plan. Did you already know who your husband would be?”
I could see another smile reflecting back at me in the computer monitor, but this one was sad. “Yes, I knew exactly who it would be.”
Jeremy waited, but I said nothing more. I stood and walked past him to the bathroom.
“We need to leave in an hour. We’re going to breakfast at Juniper’s with my new boss and her husband,” he reminded me.
“Ugh.” I turned on the sink water.
Jeremy popped his head into the bathroom. “Did you say something?”
. Your new boss is an ugh, and the food at Juniper’s is so ostentatious it’s almost comical. I mean, who the hell wants caviar on their freaking blintzes? Or blood sausage deep fried in Belgian waffle batter.” I squeezed the toothpaste onto my brush. “That’s a triple bypass in the making if there ever was one. Their whole damn, pretentious menu should just list the disease that comes with the meal. Diabetes will cost you fifty dollars. And if you want a nice case of atherosclerosis with that, then add fifteen bucks.” I shoved the toothbrush into my mouth, deciding it was probably time to silence my rant.
Jeremy circled behind me. I should have seen anger and frustration in his face, but instead, I saw hurt. He wrapped his arm around my waist and pressed his chest against my back. “I know these meals are dull and hard to sit through, but I need you by my side. You’re beautiful and charming and smart, and everyone is more impressed with me when I have you on my arm.”
I spit into the sink. “So, what you’re saying is, I’m your Rolex watch.”
He dropped his arm with an audible sigh. “Some mornings there is just no getting through that tough shell of yours, Kenna.” It seemed he was going to give up on his quest to sweet talk me, but then he stopped and turned back to me. “I don’t mind a beach wedding or macaroni and cheese.” He reached up to my hair and brushed it behind my ear. “And this gold hair would look amazing with a shell wreath. Once you graduate and take the bar exam, we can move on with our lives and start planning that dream wedding.”
Guilt was replacing my earlier irritation. Jeremy was trying again, and it seemed the more he tried, the farther he pushed me away.
I looked out toward my cluttered desk, nearly lopsided from the stack of books on it. “I don’t know if I want to finish law school. I’m starting to regret the whole thing.” I pulled my eyes from the books and looked at him. For the first time, there was a flicker of something that wasn’t just the pain of a failing relationship. It was disappointment.
“What do you mean? You’ve only got two trimesters left, and I’ve already got you an interview lined up at the firm. You’ll be great.” He laughed dryly. “Probably be passing me up on the way to the top.”
“That’s just it, Jeremy. I’m not interested in the top. I’m not even sure I’m interested in law.”
His next comment was stopped by my phone ringing. It was the bell save I’d needed. I’d blurted out my doubts about law school without much warning, and Jeremy was obviously going to need some time to absorb it.
I slipped past him to the desk. It was my mom, which meant a long conversation. Even better.
I looked toward the bathroom and caught Jeremy’s eye roll as I spoke. “Hey, Mom.”
“Kenny, baby, how are you? You didn’t call me last week, so I took a chance that I’d catch you not hunched over your textbooks. Are you free to gab for a second?”
“Sure, Mom, I’ve got time.”
I startled as Jeremy snapped the bathroom door shut harshly. The shower turned on.
“Oliver finally helped me put up an online store for my candy. And he did a beautiful job, of course.” My oldest brother, Oliver, had been born a tech genius, or at least that’s what my parents liked to say. Oliver was seven years older than me, and Peter was just a year under him. The big age gap had always made me just a ‘little turd’ to my big brothers, a pesky little sister who rarely got any attention from her big brothers. But when they did take the time, even if it was a teasing noogie on my head, I was thrilled. They’d both gone off to college and then jobs and marriages, while I was still just a teenager. I was now engaged, a college grad and in law school, but whenever I saw them on holidays, I was still ‘little turd’.
“How’s the store going, Mom? Are you keeping up with orders?”
She produced one of her exasperated Mom huffs. “No, I’m not. Making the candy and packaging it and keeping up with the online stuff, of which, as you know, I’m not an expert, is going to put me in an early grave. That’s all. So, your mom is heading for the grave. But enough about my chaotic life. I did it to myself, so I can’t complain.”
“Except that’s what you’re doing.” Three years after I’d left for college, my dad had developed severe back problems, mostly due to the heavy lifting he’d done working in construction. He’d ended up having to quit work, and suddenly, my parents were struggling, financially. We’d never been flowing in money, but we’d had everything the neighbors had, a small pool, air conditioning, a must have in California, and enough extra for a yearly week long vacation at a nearby lake. But after putting all of us through college, my middle-aged parents had suddenly found themselves cutting huge corners and missing bill payments. My mom’s candy had always been famous in town. Neighbors paid her to make them some of her delicious treats for holiday gifts. The online store had been my idea.
“Mom, why don’t you hire someone to help?”
Another exasperated sound effect. “I tried that. Remember Eleanor, your friend from school?”
“We weren’t friends, Mom. She was totally weird. She chewed the erasers off all her pencils and spit the pieces on the classroom floor.”
“Oh—well, I thought you two were friends. I hired her younger sister, Nina, to help. I ran into Esther, her mom, at the grocery store, and she was lamenting about how smart and wonderful Nina was but that she couldn’t find a job. So, I decided to do the neighborly thing and hire her. Big mistake. There was a reason she couldn’t get a job. No common sense. And, on top of that, she was nibbling too many pieces of candy. She’d be assembling a box of six truffles and eat two in the process. All my profit was going down her gullet.” Mom’s phone beeped, letting her know she had a call coming through. “Now who could that be?” she asked herself unnecessarily. “Everyone only ever calls when I’m on the phone.”
I heard the shower shut off. I was going to have to drag myself in and get ready to continue my morning with a pretend smile plastered on my face as I listened to Jeremy’s annoying boss brag on about her new Mercedes and diamond watch. I wasn’t up for any of it.
“I should go anyhow, Mom.”
“Wait,” she said, “I have just a few more things to tell you.” The phone beeped again. “Let me just see who it is.”
Before I could tell her I’d call her later, she zipped away to answer the call waiting.
Jeremy poked his wet head out of the bathroom and scowled at me as I pointed at my phone with a shrug.
“We need to get going,” he reminded me and shut the door again.
I was just about to hang up and make the excuse later that I was cut off, but Mom came back on. I heard a distinct sniffle.
“Mom? Everything all right?” My heart sped up, and my mind went instantly to my brothers. “Are the boys O.K.?”
“Yes, yes, Kenna.” She sniffed again. “I didn’t mean to alarm you. Your brothers are fine.” Her voice was shaky. “I’ve just heard some terrible news, Kenny.” She paused. “Grady Stratton died in a car accident yesterday.”
I sat down hard on the desk chair as if someone had kicked my knees out from under me. My first thought was that it was impossible. I’d talked to him just three weeks ago for our usual first Monday of the month phone call. I’d spent the whole conversation whining about how I wasn’t sure about going into law anymore. “Holy shit.” My own sniffles followed right in tune with hers. So many memories and visions went through my head. Growing up, I’d had a lot of friends, but only one true best friend, and that had been Grady Stratton.
I swallowed hard to relieve the lump that had grown in my throat. “Where was he? What happened?”
“Apparently he was on his way here to Mayfair for a visit. I know you mentioned to me that he’d gotten a nice job at an energy company in Wisconsin.” She sniffled again. “So tragic.”
We’d moved in across the street from the Strattons when I was five. Grady was the same age, and we became instant friends. I was too young at the time to understand the confusing Stratton family circumstances, but while Grady lived across the street with his natural mom and dad, his older half-brother, Caden, lived just a few blocks away with his own mom, the ex-Mrs. Stratton, an older stepbrother named Jack and Walt, his stepdad. After the divorce, Caden’s mom remarried, and they decided to buy a house just up the street from Caden’s dad. They had thought it would be a way to keep Caden close to the other half of his family. But watching him grow up, always looking lost and without an anchor, never really belonging anywhere, it seemed it had been a bad decision.
“I don’t know the details yet. That was Suzy from next door calling to tell me.” Mom’s thin, reedy tone pulled me from my thoughts. “She’d just heard the news.”
“Mom, please let me know the second you hear anything. I’m almost done with the trimester. I’ll fly home for the funeral.” One moment we were talking about her candy store, and suddenly, we were talking about the funeral for a young, brilliant guy who had been one of the most admired people in town. Once Grady and I had gone our separate ways for college, our paths had rarely crossed. But we’d always kept up by phone, text or email. I’d always looked forward to my first Monday of the month phone calls with him. We used the time to catch up on each other’s lives and we, of course, always made promises to get together. But we were both always too busy to make it happen. The few rare times we’d both ended up in Mayfair at the same time, we’d fallen back into our friendship as if we’d never parted. He had always been my best friend, even when he was miles away. Grady was the kind of guy who could lift you out of a dark mood and make you forget the thing that had put you there. He was that kind of person.
The bathroom door opened, and warm soapy steam drifted out. Jeremy had a clean-shaven face and a towel wrapped around his hips. He noticed my tears and came up next to me. His aftershave stung my watery eyes.
Mom’s phone beeped again. Mayfair was a small, close-knit town. This would be terrible, devastating news for everyone. I was sure she’d be on the phone all day commiserating with friends. “I’ll call you later, Mom. See you soon.”
I peered up at Jeremy through the tears that had pooled in my eyes. “I’ve got to fly home.”
Jeremy’s dark brows knitted together. “But you are home.”
“No, I mean home to Mayfair.” I swallowed to make the next words easier to my own ears. “My best friend, Grady, died in a car accident. I need to be there.”
“I’m so sorry, Kenna. I know you’ve mentioned him many times. Sounded like a great guy.” Jeremy put a comforting hand on my shoulder, but I felt little genuine sympathy. Empathy had never been his strong-suit. He knew a trip would only put more space between us. “How long will you be there? When will you be back?” The questions came out sounding fast and anxious.