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Jill Barton was oblivious to the loud knocks and the hysterical shouts of her bridesmaids. She had to use all her concentration to keep her own hysteria under control. Jilted! She had been left waiting at the altar! What a fool she had been, standing there like some ninny, waiting. It was the pity in the minister's eyes that finally told her what she had been dreading. Deke wasn't going to show up. It was hard to be believed— Deke had been so insistent, so certain, telling her she needed a man in her life—that he was that man. She could almost hear his voice, so close to her ear: "You need me, Jill. The business world is no place for a girl like you. We can make it together. I know we can. I've wanted to ask you long before this, but there were always financial considerations. Now, with that little inheritance of yours, those problems are solved. Trust me, Jill, bells aren't supposed to go off in your head when I kiss you. That kind of love comes later, after marriage." His persuasive voice had whispered those words, banishing her doubts, gratifying her inner longings for marriage and family. "All your friends are married," Deke had continued, his lips nuzzling her ear. It was true, when they went to visit friends she was uncomfortable, feeling left out, as though she were missing something or someone. It was the intimacy, the sharing, that she wanted. Quietly, with a kiss, she had agreed to become Deke's wife.
Twenty-three was time to get married. It was time to start a family and put down roots. This, she thought, looking around the tiny apartment, was hardly what a person could call roots. Her job, while assured for the moment, could never be labeled as security. Each day she went to work she didn't know if her temperamental boss would fire her or not. If her copy was good, he would smile; but if it wasn't up to par, he would say there were thousands, yes, thousands of people who would jump at the chance to work for the Vancouver Advertising Agency. It was true. And they could all have the job if they wanted it. She didn't like the job, didn't want the pressure. Marriage would have been a graceful escape from it all. Would have been.
"Jill, open the door! Please! We can't leave you like this. Come on now, open the door!" It was Nancy Evans, her maid of honor.
Jill walked on leaden legs over to the door. She opened it a crack and spoke softly. "Go home, Nancy. I just want to be alone. I'm all right. I plan to have a really good screaming and yelling tantrum where I cry and throw things. I might even roll around on the floor. After that I'll be all right. Don't worry about me. Tell Sue and Mary to take all the food home with them and thank them for being so understanding."
"I will, Jill. You're sure, now, that you'll be all right?"
"No, I'm not sure if I'll be all right. I'm going to try." Her voice cracked and then became firm. "I might just take off for somewhere. I'll send you a card or call you. Please, I want all of you to leave now." There was desperation in her voice. What would she do now? She had already left her job and had been disgraced in front of her friends.
"Okay, Jill. If there's anything I or the girls can do, just call us. Promise me and then I'll leave."
"I promise, Nancy." Tears were burning her eyes again. Leave, her mind shrieked. Leave so I don't have to hear the pity in your voice.
Jill gasped when she heard the filtered words through the door. "I knew it was too good to be true. You owe me five dollars, Sue. I bet you that Deke wouldn't go through with the wedding, and I was right. What a rotten thing for him to do. The least he could have done was call Jill and tell her the wedding was off and not put her through this humiliation."
"You're right, Nancy. I don't know why I even bothered to make the wager. Everyone in the office was so sure this wedding would never come off. Jill was the only one who didn't seem to have even one small doubt. I feel so sorry for her. I just wish there was something we could do, but I know that Jill needs to be alone now to sort out her emotions."
"Forget the five dollars. I'm just sorry that I ever made that silly bet in the first place. It was a terrible thing for us to do. Jill is our friend. What we should have done was tell her what a bounder Deke really is. That would have been a real favor for our friend."
"I didn't have the nerve, Nancy," Sue all but squealed. "Besides, there was always the hope that Deke was serious about the wedding and truly did love Jill. Whatever, it's over and done with now. The best thing we can do is leave Jill as she suggested. In her own way she'll cope with all of this. If she needs us for anything, she knows where we are."
Jill closed her eyes. They all knew. Even the people in the office. How they must have watched the wedding preparations proceed and even counted down the days. Would he or wouldn't he go through with the wedding? How degrading, how humiliating.
A long sigh escaped her as she waited for the sound of the apartment door to close. They meant well, but the look in the minister's eyes was all the pity she could handle for one day. Her eyes fell to the stack of luggage next to the door. She was packed. All she had to do was walk out the door behind the girls. Everything had been taken care of. The elderly lady down the hall had promised to come in every day to feed her tropical fish and water the plants. The post office was going to hold her mail. Even the newspaper and milk deliveries had been canceled.
The loud sound of the front door closing made Jill's shoulders slump. They were gone and she was truly alone. Alone to take out her hurt and humiliation in the small apartment. What was it she had told Nancy? That she was going to throw a tantrum and kick and scream. Why? What was the point? It was over, finished. Why make herself more miserable, more angry? She had to start new, get on with her life! If she didn't do it now, this minute, she would stay locked up in this apartment that was full of Deke and memories of him. Before she could change her mind, she opened the bedroom door and then picked up the two suitcases.
The tweed luggage, her gift to herself, rested in the back of her yellow compact car. Her pocketbook was in the bucket seat on the passenger side. She took another deep breath, turned the key and maneuvered the small car from the curb. She would drive until she was exhausted and then stop.
Deftly, without a wasted motion, she slipped a cassette into the tape deck. Strains of romantic music rose and soared within the confines of the small car. Hastily, Jill withdrew the cassette and replaced it with her new disco tape. That was better.
She drove steadily north, her mind blank as she kept her eyes on the road and the beautiful autumn colors.
It was three hours later when her neck began to ache that she realized for the first time that she was still wearing her wedding gown and veil. A rich bubble of laughter escaped her. Some new life she was starting. Dumb. It was a dumb thing to do. No wonder people had smiled at her whenever she slowed down for traffic. She would have to risk the amused glances of gas station attendants when she stopped for gas.
She drove for another hour before she saw what she considered to be a suitable gas station. "Fill it up, and please let me have the key to the ladies' room," Jill said in a firm voice that brooked no questions. She slid from behind the wheel and gathered up her long train. Regally, she tripped her way to the washroom, only to remember halfway there that she needed her suitcase. A grimace on her face, she made her way back to the car and grabbed for the smaller of the two cases. "Please check the oil too." Not for the world would she let her eyes meet those of the attendant. What must he be thinking? Someday when I'm old and gray I'm going to write the memoirs of Jill Barton, she muttered as she fit the key into the bathroom door. The room was clean but cramped. Impatiently, she struggled and tugged at the heavy satin. Free of its stranglehold, she felt a hundred percent better. She balanced the suitcase on the sink and manipulated the numbers of the combination lock to her birthdate. Just the sight of her jeans and the pullover shirt made her feel better. This was her style. A pair of sneakers for added comfort was all she needed. Now, what was she to do with the gown and gossamer veil? There was no way she could fit them into her suitcase, and she just couldn't leave them in a gas station washroom. She would throw them in the backseat for the time being. Perhaps the day would come when she could put all of this behind her and have a use for them again. Her back straightened and her eyes spewed sparks. It would be a very long time indeed. She had made a fool of herself. Once was enough. There wouldn't be a second time.
The heavy gown and veil were on her arm, the suitcase in her other hand, as she made her way back to the car. She offered no explanation to the curious attendant as she paid for her gas and a quart of oil.
Back on the highway she realized she was getting hungry. She didn't want to stop, because that would mean talking to people and she wanted only to be alone with her thoughts. She wanted to be insulated from everything and anything. The car was working its own brand of quiet magic as it ate up the miles on the highway.
She drove for another two hours and then pulled over to the side of the road. She would just take a little catnap. She couldn't keep her eyes open another minute.
It was still dark when she woke. The digital watch glowed with red numerals. It was 3:30—the middle of the night. After rubbing the sleep from her eyes with one hand while she turned on the ignition and lights, she continued to drive steadily north with no destination in mind.
Dawn broke softly, casting streams of reddened sunlight across the dew-drenched countryside. Jill Barton yawned sleepily, tightening her hold on the steering wheel of her mud-splattered car. Squinting her eyes, she forced herself to concentrate on the stretch of road in front of her. She had been driving aimlessly for hours and realized suddenly that she hadn't passed another car for miles. Instead of feeling threatened by the thought of having the road to herself, she was buoyed by a thrilling surge of freedom. Even a flat tire at this point wouldn't dampen her spirits. Jill smiled as she thought about the prospect of such a mishap. She was totally prepared for any mechanical disaster her car might decide to present her with. Night classes at the community college had made her an expert on the basics of servicing motor vehicles. She could change a tire faster than a twenty-year man at a mechanic's shop. Her knowledge of all the intricacies of just what made her car purr along so happily was so impressive that even Deke had had to admit that she was a born grease monkey.
Now that she had been jilted—must have something to do with her name—and had burned her bridges behind her, it was time to look her situation full in the face. And it was time to take a look at Deke and what had happened to her yesterday.
Deke had never been perfect, far from it. He was bound to be a success, there was no point in denying it; his drive had earned him a secure position in the advertising business. Deke had started low in the ranks only five years previously and used his wit and charm to his own advantage. Jill had been enticed by him from the start. His personality was almost overwhelming. Assured and confident, he seemed to lack any faults or idiosyncrasies. His face was actually quite unremarkable, but his blue eyes gleamed with a boyish mischievousness, making him the prime target for all the single girls in the office. Some of the girls were so blatant in their approaches to him that Jill had learned with a jolt that she wasn't the only one who harbored coffee-break fantasies about him.
Of course, Jill held no secret hopes of being singled out by him. It wasn't that she didn't consider herself worthy of his attentions; she knew that she had the type of looks that turned men's heads. Her hair cascaded down her back in silken blond strands. The practice of confining the length in plaits before bed each night gave the tresses a beautiful series of waves, causing some of her friends to refer to her teasingly as Rapunzel. Her eyes were a muted green, sparking into flashing embers when someone tried her temper. In an age of elaborate makeup and chic hairstyles, Jill felt content to pat a smidgen of face powder across her countenance and dab just her lips with color. In many respects Jill was a woman who combined a little of the good old-fashioned ways with an ample helping of liberated ideas. She enjoyed her independence, yet knew that she craved a real family life. At times she chided herself for her thoughts of puttering around a kitchen stocked with an array of copper pots, potted herbs and bubbling concoctions from exotic cookbooks. She could almost picture herself in a red gingham apron, greeting that special someone at the door with a long, romantic kiss. But just as quickly as it would seize her, the vision would shimmer and fade.