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A February Bride
By Betsy St. Amant
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Betsy St. Amant
All rights reserved.
If wedding dresses could talk, Allie Andrews was fairly certain hers would have a sailor's mouth.
Four months later—to the day, actually, after she'd shucked out of her wedding dress in the backseat of the meant-to-be honeymoon car and gunned it down the highway with nothing but a bottled Yoo-hoo and her favorite faded jeans for company—the dress hung on the inside of her closet door, the once small tear in the seam now gaping and taunting her. Every time she opened the closet, that rip reminded her how she'd severed one of the few relationships in her life actually worth keeping.
Which was precisely why she had to give it away in the first place.
Allie grabbed her favorite purple sweater, the one she often wore to work at her antiques store since the air conditioner in the quirky old building refused to shut off year round, and tugged it over her head. She could use all the cozy comfort she could get today at lunch with Hannah. She'd put it off long enough. After ditching her best friend's brother at the altar, she'd fully expected Hannah to hold a grudge. Hannah's unconditional love expressed through multiple phone calls and text messages had been almost worse than the cold shoulder—harder to face than a much deserved grudge—which was probably why she'd been avoiding this meeting.
Besides, Hannah looked so much like her brother.
Allie's arm brushed against the dress as she adjusted her sweater, and the frothy number swayed on its padded hanger. The swish of the fabric only seemed to whisper more condemnation.
With a groan, she shut the closet door harder than necessary. She should just get rid of the thing, but it wouldn't be worth the wrath of her mother, grandmother, and aunt. Yet even though they all threatened her within an inch of her life if she sold the dress or threw it away, not one of them would store it at her own house. "It belongs to you now, and will until you wear it. Then you pass it down to your daughter."
Right. A daughter? Not at this rate.
And zero hope of getting over what she did to Marcus. Even if it was for his own good.
A knock sounded on her apartment door, and Allie dashed to get it, checking her watch. She needed to leave in less than ten minutes if she didn't want to be late, and with a long-time friendship already riding on this lunch, she really shouldn't push it by appearing like she didn't care. She pulled the door open.
Hannah, looking at once like her best friend and a total stranger in a pink cashmere sweater and skinny jeans tucked into boots. She looked great—like she hadn't lost her best friend or spent the past several months comforting a broken-hearted brother at all.
Maybe Allie hadn't mattered all that much to begin with.
"I was just heading out to meet you." Allie cautiously opened the door wider to allow her friend inside, bracing herself for ... something. And not just the chill of the January air that rushed to meet her despite the heated hallway. "Did I mess up the time?"
She took a step backward, and the heel of her boot caught on the striped rug under her feet. Maybe Hannah had changed her mind and decided to tell her off privately instead. Maybe she'd realized a polite lunch in public was way more considerate than Allie deserved.
"I couldn't wait another minute to tell you." Hannah shoved her left ring finger in Allie's face and let out an excited squeal. "I'm engaged!" She jumped up and down, her curly dark hair bouncing against her shoulders.
The word twisted in Allie's throat and refused to rise to her lips. "That's ... that's ..."
What was it? Surprising? Not really. Hannah and Zach had been dating for about six months, but she supposed not everyone had to be together for several years before tying the knot. A long courtship hadn't exactly worked out for her and Marcus ...
"I know, right?" Hannah pushed past Allie and sank down onto the arm of the overstuffed turquoise chair, exactly as she'd done a million times over the years. As if it were that easy to pick up. Like the past few months hadn't changed everything.
Maybe they hadn't.
Hannah held up her hand again, this time keeping it steady enough for Allie to focus on the significant princess-cut carat adorning her finger. "Zach is perfect. Well, no, he's not. He's pretty much a slob, and we don't like any of the same movies." She snorted a laugh. "But we're perfect together."
Allie slowly sank to the edge of the couch near Hannah. "Right. I understand." Sort of. She'd never felt like anything between Marcus and herself had been perfect. He was perfect, to be sure. As much as any six-foot, dark-haired, chocolate-eyed, car-loving athletic guy could be. The problem had been Allie. She'd been the one to fall short, thanks to her family—and the curse that ran though her blood.
Once upon a time, when gazing into Marcus's eyes and feeling the heady weight of that diamond on her finger, she'd thought she could break the family scourge. Break the effect of the words her mom had whispered when Stepdad #2 had roared off on his Harley, and when Stepdad #4 had slammed the door on his way to the bus stop, and when unofficial Stepdad #5 had plucked his clothes from the front yard and shoved them into a trash bag before calling a taxi.
"Remember, Allie, this is what Andrews women do. We break hearts before we get ours broken."
She could still remember the firm set of her mother's lips, the expressionless twist of her eyebrows, the wall of steel in her eyes. It was the same look Grandma had when anyone mentioned her first or second husband, and the same look Aunt Shelly got when she announced she was meeting another man from her online dating profile.
If a leopard couldn't change its spots and a zebra couldn't change its stripes, who was Allie to change her blood?
Since Marcus was way too gentlemanly to break a promise or dodge a bullet, she'd been the one forced to remove him from the line of sight.
A point no one seemed to understand.
Hannah grinned. "Of course you get it. I knew you would, since you've been engaged ..." Her voice trailed off, and she averted her gaze to the carpet. "I didn't mean to bring that up. Honest."
Her eyes radiated sincere regret, and Allie relaxed slightly. No firing squads. Just good ol' Hannah. "I was thinking George."
Hannah gave her a sharp glance, her brown eyes, as vivid as Marcus's, sparkling suspiciously beneath her furrowed brow. "What are you talking about?"
"I don't get it." Her voice hitched. "Are these guys you've dated since—"
"Calm down." Allie winked. "I'm just trying to name that elephant in the corner. He's been sitting there since you walked in, so I thought we ought to give him a collar and a home."
Hannah stared at her a minute longer before her lips quivered into a hesitant smile, then morphed into a full-out grin. "Funny. You had me there." She straightened her shoulders and arranged her features into a deadpan mask. "Clearly, though, he's a Steve."
"Steve it is."
That hadn't been so hard. Maybe her years of friendship with Hannah demanded loyalty in spite of the sibling relationship.
Not that she would ever ask Hannah to choose—in fact, that was why she had refused all contact with her friend all these months. She didn't want to put her in an even more awkward position. And Marcus had enough to deal with without her creating family drama for him.
But the fact that Hannah was right here in her living room meant maybe they could find their way around this. After all, it wasn't like she'd have to see Marcus if she and Hannah remained friends. Maybe he wouldn't even have to know.
"Anyway, Steve wasn't why I came. You've made it clear you don't want to talk about that, and I'll respect your wishes." Hannah rose from the chair and began to pace the small living area, pausing every few feet to nervously rearrange a knickknack on the mantel or straighten the royal purple pillows on the couch Allie had recently recovered. "I came to ask a favor."
"Anything." The word leapt from Allie's grateful lips before she could self-edit. She really would do anything to get her relationship with Hannah back, to grasp something good and familiar during this dismal season in her life. Maybe she'd brought it on herself, but that didn't make everything any easier to cope with.
Because one fact remained—if she'd run down the aisle instead of to her car that day, she'd have been married for four months right now. She and Marcus would probably be getting ready to go to a celebration dinner, where he'd have sneaked a card under her dinner plate or arranged for the chef to make a heart with cherry tomatoes in her salad. That was Marcus. Considerate. Romantic. Always thinking.
No question, she had done him a favor. They might have made it a few months, but they wouldn't have made it a few years. No one in her family had ever made it past three—and good grief, they'd all given it multiple tries.
"I'm glad you said that." Hannah's voice, and the squeak of a glass vase against the coffee table as her friend absently redesigned the floral arrangement, jerked Allie away from her thoughts. She wondered if Hannah realized that the vase had taken the place of the giant framed engagement photo of her and Marcus snuggled under an oak tree. "Because my favor is sort of big."
Couldn't be as big as Steve.
"You know how I've always wanted a Valentine's Day wedding."
Hannah's eyes gleamed, and Allie could almost see cartoonish, pulsing pink hearts shooting out of her gaze.
"Well, that means we only have about six weeks. Actually, more like five."
"Five weeks. Wow, you're right. That is soon." Allie knew better than to assume there was a secret reason, though others surely would speculate. Marcus would hate those rumors about his sister. He'd always been so protective of the women in his life.
"Really soon. So there's no time to lose." Hannah took a deep breath and twisted her ring on her finger.
"Whatever it is, I'm in." I owe you. The words faded from her tongue but still burned an aftertaste. She did owe her friend. Whatever Hannah needed, it was Allie's turn to support her. After all, Hannah had reluctantly honored Allie's desperate request to give her time and space after the wedding-that-wasn't, time and space from all things Marcus-related. Hannah had met her several hours after Allie sped away from the church that day to pick up Marcus's car, and their brief conversation had been tear-filled and beyond awkward. But Allie needed the chance to process her decision, and in allowing her that time, Hannah had given her a gift that beat all the premium toasters and coffeemakers in the world. Allie'd had to return those to the store, so it was the least she could do to return this favor for Hannah and keep their friendship alive.
Besides, what could be so bad? If Hannah's obvious willingness to bury the hatchet was anything to go by, this opportunity—whatever it may be—could be the catalyst to proving her ability to remain loyal to at least one member of the Hall family. And having Hannah around again would ease that unbearable loneliness that had taken over these past few months. There was no reason they couldn't rekindle their friendship apart from her brother. No reason for her to have to be around him at all, really.
"I want you to be my maid of honor."
Except maybe that reason.
* * *
Marcus Hall wiped his grease-stained hands on an even dirtier shop rag, then tossed it onto the bench inside his garage before bending back over the car's fender. Rebuilding the engine in this '67 Corvette Stingray had proved to be a little more complicated than he'd anticipated—and he still had to check the clearance on the headers—but ever since his sister broke the news of her particular choice in bridesmaids, he'd appreciated the distraction.
She'd had to pick Allie? His Allie? The only woman who'd ever made sense to him. The only woman who could make an obsession with anything in the shade of turquoise seem cute. The only woman who had ever possessed the power to steer his heart straight over a cliff—and probably still did.
Guess he'd be finding out.
When Hannah broke the news yesterday, he threw his wrench against the wall and nearly broke it. The resounding clang had been all but drowned out by the warning alarms wailing in his head. Wasn't the fact that Valentine's Day was right around the corner bad enough? The day he'd planned to take Allie back to the scene of their first date, a day he thought he'd be spending as a happily married man. Now he'd be spending what should have been a special holiday at his little sister's wedding.
Standing across from his should-be wife as maid of honor.
He groaned. It was like a reality show setup gone bad. He'd always hated those things. Now he could practically star in one.
One thing was certain—Allie Andrews meant personal system malfunction. It'd been a solid four months since she'd pealed out of the church parking lot, and he still couldn't take a full breath when he heard her name. He should be livid over what she'd done, leaving him at the altar with no explanation—or at least, so everyone told him. Maybe anger would be easier to deal with than the ever-present pain, but the emotion just wouldn't stick. Rolled right off like Rain-X on a windshield.
The familiar click of heels on concrete alerted him to the fact he was no longer alone. Hannah. He folded his arms over his chest and leaned against the wall, tipping his chin to acknowledge her presence. Two visits in two days. Never a good sign.
"You busy?" She offered a timid smile, and he dropped his crossed arms, trying to make his own smile appear more genuine than it felt. This was his little sister's big moment in life. He wouldn't ruin it because of his own problems.
Even if Allie was a big problem.
"Just fighting this Chevy." To prove it, he picked up a ratchet he didn't need and pretended to resume his work. There would probably be a whole lot more "fighting" if Allie showed up to every prewedding shindig and unnecessary couples showers people held for engaged people.
Definitely a whole lot more pretending.
Funny how he hadn't minded all that frou-frou stuff when it'd been his and Allie's celebration.
"I just drove over to make sure you weren't mad at me." Hannah shuffled inside, twisting her new diamond ring around her finger. She had the same look on her face that she'd had as a kid when he busted her for playing with his model cars.
He straightened, mentally noting a need to check the timing on the engine. "Not mad." Not really. More like confused. Why resurrect her friendship with Allie now?
Some things just needed to stay dead.
Too bad his heart couldn't remember that fact.
Hannah shoved her dark hair behind her ears, the overhead garage light catching the shine in her giant diamond. He wondered briefly—and not for the first time—what Allie had done with hers. And what had happened to all those gifts that had been piled up in the church?
And why he'd never taken his and Allie's wedding bands back to the jeweler's instead of shoving them in his top dresser drawer.
"So did you hear any more about Texas?"
So obvious, his sister's change of subject. But he wasn't going to argue. Marcus shrugged. "It's pretty much up to me right now, if I want to go there as regional manager for the new store or just keep my franchise going here in Louisiana. Not sure I have the time right now." Well, he did, though business had clearly picked up. He just wasn't sure he wanted to leave. Moving over the border, even temporarily, seemed like some kind of significant Next Step. In the aftermath of losing Allie, it had seemed genius, a decent goal to work toward. Now that it was within reach, it just made him feel like he was slogging boots through mud. Sticky. Heavy.
He hated that decisions were so hard these days.
"You know, you sure are here a lot now. You used to do more of your work from home." Hannah glanced around the packed garage, full of his company's half-finished motors, three parked cars—one of which remained on a lift—and a grimy workbench covered in tools that his employees had apparently not put away.
Marcus's heart constricted, desperate to prevent his sister from saying the words he knew were coming next.
"Don't you think it's time to go back into your home gar—"
He intentionally nudged the factory headers across the floor with his boot, the squeal of metal against concrete worse than fingernails on a chalkboard.
Excerpted from A February Bride by Betsy St. Amant. Copyright © 2014 Betsy St. Amant. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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