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Sleep is only pleasant when you're allowed to do it. Being scared to death out of a fairly enjoyable dream, however, was not pleasant. Not at all. As the phone continued to ring, Frannie tried opening her eyes enough to find the handset. Eventually bringing it to her ear, she managed a sleepy "'lo." only to be greeted with,
"Heather has chicken pox."
The calm yet strained voice of her older sister helped bring Frannie to a more conscious state, rubbing her sleep-stuck eyes and attempting to sit up. Quickly finding that useless, she yawned and tried to get her brain to focus on the problem at hand.
"Oh, I was wondering if you were listening."
She forgave her sister's snippy tone, knowing it must be difficult to have your five-year-old down with the pox. However, if Debra and her husband didn't have such absurd notions about childhood vaccines, they wouldn't be facing this current problem and she would still be happily asleep, dreaming of Orlando Bloom.
"Yes, Deb, I'm listening, but it's..." She opened one eye to the clock on the bedside table, red numbers blurred before her, she shut her eyes tight and tried again. "...four in the morning."
"I know, but I had to tell you. If Heather's got them, no doubt Chastity will come down with them, too."
The purpose of the phone call finally made its way through her foggy brain. Frannie sat up, trying to control the disappointment she felt, not even sure why she was disappointed and knowing her sister would hear it in her voice, anyway.
"Oh, then I guess ... well, you ... won't ... need me, then."
Impressed with her own eloquence, she rolled her eyes inthe darkened room.
"No, Frannie. Donald and I still want you to go."
Frannie felt a headache coming on and began rubbing at her temple with her free hand. "You want me to be a third wheel on a romantic Caribbean cruise?" There was no way she was going to be able to control the dry sarcasm that radiated in her tone that time, so she didn't bother trying. "Absolutely not, Deb."
Frannie slipped back down the sheets and burrowed herself deeper into the warm bed. "It was one thing when you needed me to baby-sit. The girls and I were going to have a great time, you and Donald would get your alone time, and it would be fabulous. But you don't need me. I know you got the trip insurance, so you can get your money back..."
"We did on the girls, but..."
The long pause didn't look good for Frannie. She knew her sister was about to insult her.
Out of love, of course.
Frannie braced herself.
"It's not like you have a life, anyway."
Even though she'd been expecting it, Frannie felt her mouth silently drop open at the slight. She knew Debra didn't mean it with any malice, but it still stung.
"And it will do you good to get around other people for a change. Everyone's worried about you, Frannie. You don't come to Friday night dinners anymore; we hardly see you. The girls miss you--all your nieces and nephews do--and so do your sisters. Kelly's due next month and you've practically missed the whole pregnancy."
Kelly's growing belly was one of the reasons she'd been giving her family a wide berth these days, although she found it exceedingly hard to do in such a small town. Kelly was the second oldest, and as single and childless as Frannie. Selfishly, Frannie had been using Kelly's lack of a love life to vindicate her own. Until three years ago. Now happily married, Kelly already had little Karen, and a second child due any time. All of it only served to remind Frannie that she was the reject sister--the one who would never find anyone and always be alone, only not alone. In a family as big as hers--Frannie being the youngest of six girls--it was hard to find any time to be alone. This only served to make the situation worse, because everyone was so invested in her happiness.
"Deb, I've been busy. I've, been..." What? You've been what? "...dating!" Frannie cringed as the word left her mouth, wondering what on earth she was thinking, telling that lie. Nothing could be further from the truth. Other than Pete Taylor at the Jiffy Lube, who'd copulate with anything that had the right parts and stood still long enough, no man ever looked at her. She pulled on a long strand of dark auburn hair, reflecting that it was too long and frizzy most of the time to actually do anything with.
No man had ever found her attractive; all her blond sisters got the attention. Even after Gail dyed her hair a rich, sable brown, she was still the raving beauty. Not Frannie. Frannie knew she was fat. Her breasts were abnormally large, in her opinion. Her eyes were too sharp, her skin too pale, and her hair out of control and wiry.
She could rattle off a list of her faults without hesitation at any given moment, but at this moment she readied herself for her sister's onslaught of questions. She'd either have to 'fess up to the first lie or start making up others. A fine corner she'd painted herself into this time.
"Dating? Frannie, why didn't you tell me?"
Oh, I don't know, because on general principles, I prefer not to lie to my family. She rested her arm over her eyes as she decided how to answer. Luckily, her sister had more to say.
"Frannie, you know how we all worry. Ever since Keith..."
On the other hand, maybe not so luckily.
The mere mention of his name brought waves of shame crashing down on her. Her only relief came from knowing no one in her family knew the truth of what really happened between her and the man who used her, lied to her, and berated her for over a year. She realized her sister was still talking and tried to pay attention.
"...and besides, you could think of it as your Christmas present."
"Christmas isn't for three months, Deb." It was sweet that her sister still wanted her to go, even though her purpose for going would now be staying with Grandma.
"I know, so don't be surprised when there's nothing under the tree from me and Donald."
She could hear the smile in Debra's voice. Debra was the cute, perky one. Frannie was invisible next to Debra. Of course, that was the way with all her sisters, really. There was Rosalie, the smart one; Kelly, the one with purpose; Patsy, the kind one; Debra, of course; then Gail, the independent one. She was Frannie, the indistinct one. She let out a huge sigh at the thought of it.
"What?" The sound of Debra's voice brought her back.
"Then you'll go?"
Frannie knew she had backed herself into a corner, but a full week on the high seas watching romantic couples--and gorgeous guys, who would never in a million years give her even a second look--wasn't her idea of a good time. She supposed she could bring her books and read in her cabin the whole time. She wondered how much attention Donald and Debra would actually pay her. This was to be a second honeymoon, after all.
Finally, she came to the decision that she could look at it one of two ways. One, torture. A way for her sister to show her what a real life looked like. A way to see lots of happy, in-love people, and realize once again what a freak she was. Or two, escape. A time alone to re-discover herself and not be constantly reminded by her family, friends and co-workers that she was utterly alone in the world--a misfit on the Noah's ark of life. Another deep sigh later, this one into her pillow, she agreed to go.
She could practically see her sister leaping around her organically decorated home. She had to admit the thought brought a smile to her face.
"Then I guess I'll see you in four hours." There was still a hint of disbelief in Debra's voice, but Frannie understood that.
"I guess so." There was a hint of uncertainty in Frannie's.
"And Frannie, don't let whatever it was that happened with Keith ruin this trip for you. You could have a good time if you'll only let yourself."
Keith again. It's been seven years since Keith. Can't anyone just let that memory rest?
In fairness, even she couldn't let the memory rest. It haunted her every waking moment, causing her humiliation and sickening remorse time and again. Insinuating itself inside her every time she even thought of starting a relationship with someone else.
Oh, how I wish I never met that man.
"I'll try, Deb. See you in the morning."
She disconnected the call and let the receiver drop to the floor. Before she could stop it, memories of Keith came down around her. Curling into a tiny ball and pulling the covers over her head, she cried until her heart was empty.
The church was magnificent. A picture straight out of a Hollywood Weddings magazine: enough space for all one thousand guests, the scent of rose and gardenia blooms filling the air, satin ribbons and hundreds of candles. It was the perfect setting...
...to break someone's heart.
Now that the last guest had left, the grief could begin. And grief it would be. West knew without a doubt that his best friend's heart was most definitely broken and, even though he considered himself a good friend, he couldn't honestly say he was sorry Angie hadn't shown up for the nuptials. He did think she could have done better than send her brother in with a note after the ceremony had actually started.
Two very powerful families had counted on this wedding to join them for years, and many would be disappointed in the union not being ... consummated, so to speak. The worst part in West's mind, however, was that his friend had loved Angie Harrington since he first saw her in a pale yellow dress with matching hair ribbons on the swings at recess. He ought to know; he'd been told the story a million times.
Nick was a good guy and deserved better. West, on the other hand, was actually relieved to know he wouldn't have to put up with any more of Angie's flirtations. She always came right up to the line without crossing it. For years he could never be certain if she wanted a good fuck or not.
It didn't surprise West one bit--he considered all women lacking in loyalty and basic morals. A lesson he'd learned young and often, until he was certain he'd never forget, and certain never to commit his life to one of them. He had three hard, fast rules that were never broken. Never date--pick up, hook up and get out. Never bring a woman into your personal space. Never, ever, stay the night. He had one other rule that he kept to himself. It was his golden rule. Don't get attached. Not to anyone. Because he knew better than most that as soon as you did, they left you behind.
He'd made up these rules in college and felt they served him well. Both his friends were perfect examples of why the rules were necessary. He shook his head, looking at them both now. Matthew was the shortest of the three. With his wild blond curls and dimples, he always looked youthful and mischievous. Nick, on the other hand, standing almost eye level with West, was dark haired and serious. Both Matthew and West knew that underneath that serious exterior his family so carefully cultured in him, beat the heart of a hopeless romantic. A sensitive and genuinely sweet guy. All reasons why this disappointment would hurt for a long time to come.
West believed firmly that if only his two best friends would have listened to his self-proclaimed wisdom, neither would be in the mess they were in today.
Matthew, divorced twelve years ago, was raising his only son alone. Nick had been pulled around by the nose for years by that platinum-blond bitch and now dumped at the altar. West tried to muster sympathy for them, but how many times had he told them? Love is for fools. That was one train he wasn't ever buying a ticket on.
He watched Nick sitting on the front pew of the enormous, ornate church. Matthew sat beside him, his hand across Nick's slumped shoulders. Both were silently sharing Nick's heavy heart and West could deny it all he wanted, but in his heart, he knew his 'don't get attached' rule didn't apply to them. He loved Nick and Matthew as if they were his brothers, and right now, he hurt for his friend as much as Matthew did. He just couldn't let it show openly the way Matthew did.
With an exaggerated sigh for their benefit, West moved towards his two oldest friends and sat flanking Nick. The man's head hung low over his knees. West knew how terrible he was at making people feel better, but would try his best anyway, because after all, that's what friends did.
"Nick, it'll be all right."
He wasn't about to say there were plenty of other fish in the sea, although he knew that to be true. In fact, he considered himself a catch and release expert in this arena. Instead he went with, "Angie wasn't even all that pretty, and she had amazingly small tits."
He heard Matthew groan and quickly shot an 'I know what I'm doing' look at him over Nick's back before continuing.
"I mean, think about it. She would be the only woman you'd ever fu ... uh, sleep wi ... no..." his eyes brightened at having latched onto the right phrase. "--make love to from now until eternity. And I could tell by how she moved..."
Matthew's hand clamped down on West's in a deliberate--and painful--plea for him to stop. It was only because he really had no idea where he was going with that silly sentiment that he did.
"Nick, I don't think she really loved you. You know?" Matthew's quiet voice was almost soothing. "I watched her, at family functions and things. She had the same wild look in her eyes Kate did right before she left me."
Nick slowly twisted his neck until he could see Matthew. "You tell me this now?" He stood and turned. "Now?"
Matthew and West stood as well. West put a hand on Nick's shoulder. "Nick, you've been in love with that girl since the fourth grade. Would you have listened?"
Nick's look told West he was having difficulty holding back tears. West could only imagine how many broken pieces of his heart were piercing him. He put his other hand on Nick's shoulder as well and turned him, looking him dead in the eye. "I think she used to come on to me, Nick. I never liked her. She wasn't good enough for you."
At that, Matthew jumped in. "He's right. You're a good guy. A hard worker. You have a big heart and..."
Matthew and Nick both looked at West, appalled.
"What?" He gave them an elaborate shrug. In truth the three of them were all loaded, so he knew they wouldn't take offense. Matthew's attention went back to Nick. "Truthfully, I think she just wanted the family name."
"And the money. Is there a bar around here?"
"West, you're not helping."
Matthew's ability to sound like a mother hen at the drop of a hat always grated on West's nerves. Sometimes he wondered how the three of them ever became so close. He was the wild one out of the bunch now, but he remembered that before Matthew and Kate had William, Matthew had known how to have a pretty wild time as well.
"Actually, a bar sounds good." Nick's wicked smile was a relief to see and West took over from there.
"I have a better idea. Let's go on your honeymoon."
Matthew obviously disagreed, but West effectively quieted him with a wave of his arm that wasn't anything close to subtle.
He plucked a gardenia out of a flower arrangement and turned to Nick.
"You got the kickin' honeymoon suite, right?"
West ran his fingers over the velvety petal of the white flower, awaiting Nick's response. Nick looked dazed as he nodded.
"Well, then, the three of us on the high seas?" He looked at them expectantly and all he got in return were looks of bewilderment, with a bit of censure added in Matthew's look.
"C'mon, think of it. Women in barely-there bikinis, drinking, looking for a good time." Both looked at him as if he was deranged. "This is the first time we've all been single together in years." He tucked the gardenia in Matthew's curls then put his arms around each of his friend's shoulders, pulling them close. "Remember the reactions we'd get whenever we traveled in a pack? The girls couldn't take their eyes off us."
West got that all the time, regardless. For whatever reason, he'd been blessed with the best features of both his parents. His father's dark almost exotic hair and skin and his mother's brilliant blue eyes and full lips. The fact that he worked out compulsively didn't hurt, nor did the fact that he stood taller than most men. West was a sight to behold and he knew it, but back in college the trio had been dubbed the blue-eyed killers, because each had unbelievable varying shades of blue eyes. They could get any woman they wanted, and did, at least for a while. West wanted to re-live those days, even if only for a week.
"Aw, c'mon. I know you're hurting, Nick. I'm not asking you to find a replacement for Angie. Just have some good times, some laughs. A few drinks and a few women, and the world will seem a brighter place." He hoped he was at least tempting them.
Nick sat back down on the pew and hung his head again. The late afternoon sun drifting through large stained glass windows reflected a colorful swath against the otherwise desolate man.
"I can't believe you. Is sex your answer for everything?" After telling West what he thought of his brilliant idea, Matthew loyally joined Nick.
"I resent that. I work just as hard as the two of you, and I've made just as much success. More, if you consider where I came from."
Matthew looked contrite and might have actually apologized if West hadn't grinned just then and added, "Besides, it would be alcohol and sex."
A disgusted sound strangled at the back of Matthew's throat as he sat back in the pew on Nick's right side. West, feeling defeated, took the left side. All three men hung their heads for a time until the minister stepped up to them.
"Nicholas, is there anything I can do?"
Nick raised his head only for a moment, and shook it, telling him there was nothing.
"Your parents are outside. They'd like to come back in."
The minister eyed West, who gave him an innocent shrug, knowing it was his tirade the minister was silently alluding to, but what was he supposed to have done? His best friend was humiliated, he didn't need an audience and West didn't care what people thought of him, so he'd cleared the church--of everyone. He had to look away for a moment, remembering the look on Nick's mother's face. He could almost hear her still chanting, 'This is not dignified. This is not dignified', as West pushed her down the aisle.
Nick stood, tugged down his tux jacket and faced the minister, his shoulders straight and proud. "Reverend, tell them I've gone on my honeymoon and I'll call them when I get back."