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Twenty-one years old
Fate. Hope. Love.
All words I think of as I stand at the front of this church in a gorgeous dress beside my best friend, Derek. It should be a happy day. One filled with tears of joy instead of tears of sadness.
No one knows that I’m not happy, though.
No one knows that he’s the one I love.
No one knows that I wish I was standing in her place, hearing him proclaim his love to me.
“Do you, Derek Matthew Hartz, promise to love, honor, and obey Meghan Kimberly Aston from this day forth?”
I stand behind him as his best woman, as he so called me, unable to see his face, but I don’t have to. I know what’s there. His strong jawline will be set, because when he’s serious he can’t stop himself from showing the determination that fills him. His two-day stubble that covers his cheeks is there just to please her. The love, though, the love that’s in his eyes should bring her to her knees. Because no one loves like Derek.
Another tear falls, but I plaster on a smile so people won’t see how much I’m breaking.
Please don’t say it, Derek, I want to beg. Please see that it’s me who you belong with. Just turn around. Just look to your left. See me. See us. See what could be if you’d open your eyes.
“I do,” he says with pride.
The ring slips on her finger, sealing their love, and I try not to feel the pain that’s threatening to overtake me. I would give anything to be the friend he believes me to be. The one who loves him like a brother, wants him to be happy, and stand beside him on the biggest day of his life. Instead, I’m dying inside. I know I will never—we will never—recover from this.
I can’t be his friend when I love him this much, and yet, I’m not strong enough to quit him.
“I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride,” the pastor says with a triumphant smile.
Derek dips Meghan back, presses his lips to hers, and seals their union and my broken heart.
I follow behind him as he walks his wife back down the aisle.
Another wave of emotion hits me, and I rest my hand on my very large stomach, trying not to be sick when the baby kicks, reminding me why exactly I could never have Derek anyway.
“Are you okay?” he asks as we exit the church.
Our eyes meet, and I use every ounce of strength to mask my emotions. “Yeah, sorry, just felt a little dizzy.”
Meghan immediately takes my arm. “Here, honey, sit. Someone get Teagan some water.”
“I’m fine! Really, I stood too long because Derek talks too much.” He rolls his eyes, and Meghan smiles. “I mean it, the baby is doing the salsa in there and I’m fine. This is your big day, please don’t worry about me.”
He eyes me like the protector he has always been. “You don’t have to be so tough around me.”
Oh, but I do.
I shake my head. “I would tell you. I always tell you.”
The lie slips from my lips so easily it’s scary. Derek and I have been best friends since high school. I’ve always told him the truth, until now.
“Okay. Just know, I’m really happy you’re here, Tea,” Derek says as he tucks Meghan into his side. “It was a lot for you to travel and probably hard to be on your feet the entire wedding, but you’re my best friend and I couldn’t have imagined anyone else by my side.”
The ache I had gotten under control is back to a steady throb. He has no idea why the wedding was hard. He thinks it’s because my now ex-boyfriend knocked me up and then left me. Keith doesn’t want anything to do with the baby, neither emotionally nor financially and now, I’m here, with a choice to make. I can fight him or run the risk of him exposing a secret that I never want out. I’m conflicted, angry, and my heart is decimated.
Yeah, this wedding is hard, but it has nothing to do with my ex and everything to do with Derek.
My chest feels tight, and I want nothing more than for it all to stop. I should’ve told him. So many times I could’ve opened my mouth, but it was one missed chance after another.
Then, it was too late. He and Meghan had fallen in love and were expecting a baby.
But he’s my best friend and I’m glad that at least one of us will be happy. There isn’t a person who deserves it more than he does.
“I love you, Derek,” I tell him, wishing this was the confession where he understood my love was more than just friendship, but that opportunity is gone, and I would be the worst friend in the world to tell him now. “You’re my best friend and I’m so happy for you and Meghan. You guys…you’re both so…” The tears start again, and for the first time, I’m grateful for the pregnancy. “God, I’m such a hormonal mess!”
They both laugh. Meghan steps forward, pulling me in her arms. “We love you so much, Tea.”
I know she doesn’t mean it. She’s always had issues with Derek and me, which if I were her, I would too.
Derek puts his arms around both of us. “My girls.”
We break apart, and it feels like so much more than him releasing me. It feels like he’s letting me go—letting us go.
I watch the two of them greet their guests, laughing, smiling, and completely in love.
It hits me like a bullet to the chest. Not only did I lose the love of my life today, but I also lost my best friend.
“Thank you, Mrs. Dickman, I’ll definitely let you know if I get any more of the chairs in from that set,” I explain with the phone to my ear as I try to tidy up the store.
“Okay, Teagan, you do that, but I’ll call tomorrow to be sure.”
She always does. It wouldn’t be another glorious day in Chincoteague Island if Mrs. Dickman didn’t remind me she still wants those damn chairs. I run an antique store, and our stock is whatever we find on any given day. But it makes her happy to check with us, so I smile and do my best to make her day a little brighter.
“Mom!” Chastity comes running down the stairs, her fabulous thirteen-year-old attitude already on display. “Why did you stick Mr. Stinkers outside again?”
I should’ve known the cat would be today’s argument.
“Because I told you that we can’t have a cat in the apartment.”
“Grandma will let me. I know she will.”
“She won’t. I’m not about to ask her and piss her off when we need to live here.”
We live above the store rent free, which means it’s the only place we can afford. Even though Mom says my living arrangement is part of my salary. Chastity doesn’t understand that I can’t feed another living thing. Or that the car is about three thousand miles overdue for an oil change and needs new tires, which means I say a prayer each time I start it. I leave out the part that I can’t afford to buy her new sneakers because I make minimum wage in my parents’ antique store—as the manager—and that I haven’t seen a dime from her father in thirteen years, since he signed his rights away. Not that my parents couldn’t pay me more, but they feel that choices have consequences, so me getting pregnant, dropping out of college, and allowing Keith off the hook means I need to suck it up.
“The cat needs to be inside where he can be loved.”
Yeah, kid, I need to be loved too.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. I really am, but we can’t have a cat or dog or any other stray thing you bring home.”
She huffs. “Animals need me.”
My daughter is really a great kid. She gets straight A’s, always listens, still thinks I’m sort of okay, unless we’re talking about animals. Then, she’s a lunatic. As much as I’d love to give her what she’s asking, it’s not possible. I’m saving every penny so I can get us out of this town and into a better life.
“Yes, they do, and all of this is fascinating, but you’re going to miss the bus and I can’t drive you today, so…” I grip her shoulders, turn her about, and start to march her toward the door to the apartment. “…off you go, my Ace Ventura.”
She shakes her head. “You’re really lame.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“Do you think we can go see Dr. Hartz today? Maybe I can volunteer at the clinic or help with the animals.”
Immediately I feel my chest constrict.
“You can,” I say with a tight smile. “I’m sure he would appreciate the help.”
Dr. Hartz is Derek’s father, and even though I haven’t spoken to Derek in over thirteen years, I still feel anxious just hearing his name. An unbreakable friendship that dissolved the day Chastity was born. I have no idea why or what happened to make him disappear. All I know is one day the phone rang and when we hung up, we never spoke again. It’s been so long since it all happened, and still it hurts.
There was no more help or calls. No more late-night talks where I had my friend, my only friend. It was like he vanished, and I was left completely alone.
“Good, then I’ll go see Dr. Hartz after school.”
Derek’s parents have always been kind to me. They’ve never judged me or made me feel small, which is great, because living in this tiny town doesn’t lend itself to avoiding people. It’s just that whenever we talk, it’s superficial because what do two people talk about when the common thread between them has been severed?
“I’m sure that’ll cure your itch regarding the animals.”
“Not likely, but I think I could do some good,” she says.
There’s my girl, always wanting to help. Her heart is ten times too big for her body. She would do anything for anyone. At her age, my life revolved around Friday night football games, my stupid boyfriend, and my friends—who were, I’m ashamed to say, the mean girls.
Chastity is my polar opposite. And I’m so thankful for that.
“I know you could. Let me know how it goes with Dr. Hartz, okay?”
She wraps her arms around my neck, squeezing me tight. “I will! Thanks, Mom!”
I kiss the top of her head, grateful that she still thinks I’m cool enough to hug.
“Don’t bring home any animals. Understood?”
Chastity smiles and I know that look. “I make no promises.” She rushes out the door, avoiding any response I could toss back.
And I begin my mundane day.
Once I’ve had my coffee, I head downstairs to the store. It’s the end of summer, which means tourists are gone and the town is going into off-season mode. The antique shop hours have dwindled, the beach crowd has thinned, and everything is a bit…calmer.
During the summer, the busyness keeps my mind off the things that haven’t panned out the way I hoped. My parents are gone the entire time because they want to see the world, which is great for them—and me. My mother drives me to drink, and I enjoy every moment when she’s gone.
It’s much quieter and less judgy.
In a few days, they’ll return, letting me know all the things I did wrong, reminding me that this is not the way I ever wanted my life to go. How much potential I had—and wasted.
It’s super fun times. However, I will survive, like I always have.
“Teagan?” Nina calls from the back. “You down here?”
She peeks her head over the lamp by the back entrance, waving her hand. “Hey!”
Nina is my best friend and has a glow about her. No matter how crappy things are, when she’s around, you can’t help but smile. Her energy is infectious, and she’s the kindest person in the world. She loves, forgives, and every day I wonder how she found it in her heart to give me her trust.
“How was yesterday? Sorry I couldn’t come by, but I had to handle Daddy and his doctor’s appointment. He would not go willingly. Trying to say it was a bruise from hitting the side of the boat when he clearly has a gash on his arm that needs tending. That man is either hell-bent on making my life a nightmare or he wants to join my mama in the ground.”
“Is he okay?”
Her lips purse and her eyes narrow. “Uhh hmm. He’s fine, just stubborn and thinking he can still go out crabbing. The man can barely walk on steady land, but he thinks he can navigate a boat?”
Nina’s father is the sweetest man. However, he’s old and refuses to believe he’s old.
“Well, at least he’s feeling good, you know?”
She sighs. “I know. I prefer him this way, but I’d also prefer he listen to what we tell him. Anyway, what’s new with you?”
It’s been a day since I’ve talked to her. “It’s Chincoteague, what could be new?”
Nina sits on the old sofa that’s been here since 1973 and will never sell. It’s probably the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen, but there’s something ornately beautiful about it. The sofa may not have the best upholstery, but the bones are there. The frame strong, withstanding countless times of being sat upon, and the cushions aren’t dented, regardless of the number of asses that have been there. If I ever get my own home, I plan to buy it because someone should see it for what it could be.
“Maybe some handsome stranger rolled into town to see the wild horses and realized you’re the fairest maiden in the land, professed his undying love, and now you’re getting married. Of course he only granted you a chaste kiss, after which you fell helplessly in his arms and wanted to stay there.”
Oh Lord. “You’re reading historical romance novels again, I see.”
“I always do. One day I’m going to find a man like the heroes I read about. Mark my words. Until then, I refuse to settle.”
I love my friend, but her head is always in the clouds. She’s beautiful, smart, and any man would be lucky to have her…she just won’t even give them a chance. I don’t know what it is that has her so afraid to love, and she won’t tell me. I’ve tried many times to get her to open up, but I’ve never been able to crack her.
There’s no secret as to what my issue is. Keith is the biggest piece of shit there is, my ex–best friend abandoned me, I’m broke, and I have a teenager who is my priority number one. As soon as I tell any potential date I have a kid—poof—they’re gone. Which is fine by me. I’ve had enough disappointment from men unwilling to commit.
“Well, I would like to meet a man who isn’t married, like the last asshole, or unwilling to deal with the fact that Chastity is my life. I’m tired of having to even explain that.”
“You shouldn’t have to.”
No, I shouldn’t.
“My love life is a damn disaster.”
“There’s a hero out there waiting for us, Tea. I know it. We just need to find him.”
“Well, so far I’ve gotten the antihero that you can’t even grow to like.”
“At least you know what it felt like to be loved,” she challenges.
“Keith didn’t love me. He didn’t love anyone but himself.”
Keith is still the town hero here. No matter what he did to me, it doesn’t matter. While Nina knows the truth, sometimes I wonder if anyone else would believe it if they found out. Of course, his version paints me as the whore who tried to trap him into marriage.
Each freaking Sunday during football season, I have to hear his name, see his stupid face across the television screen, know how much money he makes while I can’t even buy school supplies for Chastity.
Nina’s eyes go soft and her lips tighten. “I wasn’t talking about him, honey.”
“Well, I sure as hell hope you weren’t talking about Derek.”
She lives in a world where impossible things happen all the time. Like a man waking up and realizing that it was you he wanted all along. I don’t have time for fantasies because they’re just that—fiction. I would much rather have my head on straight and focus on what’s real. Like bills and teenagers.
“I still think that…”
“I know what you think.” I sigh. “He got married and had a kid and somewhere in that equation, I didn’t fit. That’s what happened. He knew I was terrified, alone, living with my parents, and freaking the fuck out and he felt that I wasn’t worth the time.”
At least that’s all I can come up with at this point. Why else would he bail? Why would the guy who was supposed to be the only one I could rely on just stop talking to me completely? Maybe it wasn’t me, maybe it was his wife, but at this point in my life, I can’t keep debating it in my head. Derek made his choice and I had to go on with my life.
“It was a long time ago, Tea.”
I roll my eyes. “And a long time that I haven’t heard from him. My phone number is the same.”
I say that last part and I feel so pathetic. I’ve given up on a sudden call or appearance at my door. Believing that he was different and would come around was only hurting myself. Now, I’m just numb.
“Okay, no more talk about Keith or Derek.” She raises her hand. “Have you painted anything new? I’ve been dying to see if you added to your collection.”
I shake my head. “I haven’t had much time to paint, but I’m going to head out to the beach this weekend.” My hands have been itching to hold a brush. Painting allows me the time to just…breathe.
“Good. I’m excited to see what you come up with.”
“Me too. In fact, I might head out there a little early.”
Nina smiles, probably happy that the conversation shifted a bit too. “That makes me happy.”
It does the same for me. At least I have something of my own, even if only two other people in the world know about it.
“Teagan, we’re back!” my mother announces as she opens the door dramatically.
“I see that. And so early!” I say with a smile even though I feel like screaming and throwing a fit. “How was Europe?”
“It was fabulous. Your father was so tired, he went straight home, but I wanted to come see you…and the store, to make sure it was still standing. I’m never quite sure what will happen in my absence.”
My parents are wonderful people. No one can deny that, but my mother has a way of cutting me down. It’s little comments that let me know how much of a disappointment I am.
No one is more disenchanted with the way things have gone than me.
In high school I was voted most popular, most likely to succeed, most outgoing, and best smile. I was captain of the cheerleading squad, dated the captain of the football team. We were the all-American couple that was going to set the world on fire.
Being a single mother with no money, working and living in this town, was never in anyone’s version of my future.
“Why wouldn’t the store be okay?”
She touches my face. “You never know, darling. Things don’t always go to plan.”
“Yeah, plans, daughters, who knows what might’ve happened…”
Mom ignores my jab and walks around. “I see you sold quite a few big pieces?”
I close my eyes, release a breath and nod. “I did.”
“Good. How’s my granddaughter?”
“Going to ask you if she can adopt a cat or a horse or maybe even an entire zoo.”
“I think it would be hard to keep a horse in the apartment.” Her smile is wide as she shakes her head. She may not be the most wonderful mother, but she is the best grandmother. Chastity is the one thing I’ve done right.
“Yes, but you know her, she loves animals more than people. She’s going to be volunteering with Dr. Hartz, cleaning out cages and whatnot. She’s really excited about it.”
My mother clasps her hands together, and her eyes brighten. “Oh, that will be wonderful for her.”
“And Dr. Hartz is such a good man. He’ll definitely teach her responsibility, how to deal with people, and other great skills. Things that she’s probably missing out on at home.”
Oh, Mom, please feel free to keep telling me what a bang-up job I’ve done so far.
“What does that mean?” I ask, unable to stop myself.
“Nothing, but the girl doesn’t talk to anyone, Teagan. She has no friends, no social life, she doesn’t do anything but read and talk to animals.”
God forbid she doesn’t act the way my mother thinks she should.
“She’s fine. Chastity is a wonderful kid with fantastic grades. She’s happy, smart, respectful, and I’m glad she’s nothing like me at that age.”
Now it’s her turn to look horrified. To her, I was everything she ever wanted in a daughter. My popularity furthered hers at that time. People thought she had some secret as to why I was “perfect” and sought her out for advice all the time.
Except I was far from perfect.
“You had your chance, Teagan Berkeley. You had everything right there in front of you and then, I don’t know what happened.”
“Why do we do this, Mom?” I ask with sadness in my voice. “Why do we always go back to this? You just got home and instead of us catching up about what happened while you were away, you showing me photos, telling me that you’re happy to see me, we’re arguing about twenty years’ worth of shit?”
I watch the fight drain from her. Neither of us want this animosity between us, but it feels like it’s all we know. “I just want you to be happy. I want Chastity to have the life that you could have had. That’s all.”
“I’m glad that she’s not boy crazy or trying to fit in with the popular kids, because those popular kids grew up and are still mean. They stayed in this town, where it’s safe and they’re loved by all. None of those girls are making a difference in the world, and you know what? I want that for Chastity. I want her to go, live, experience, and be passionate and happy. I will do everything I can to make sure she doesn’t end up like me.”
“You had friends. You were happy.”
“And look at me now!”
Mom rubs her forehead. “A lot of this was your doing, sweetheart.”
As though Keith wasn’t an active participant in the whole thing. I should’ve been more careful. I should’ve never asked him to give up a career in football, money, or his freedom because I got pregnant. If I had understood what he needed, I could be married and raising a child, but I didn’t do that.
Me, me, me. It’s always me. Women don’t exactly make a baby on their own, but we’re sure expected to deal with the consequences.
- On Sale
- Mar 17, 2020
- Page Count
- 368 pages