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It was the worst basketball game in Waide brother historyeven including the one when David, at fourteen, had been showing off for a cute neighborhood girl and ended up with stitches. At least he'd sunk the layup before taking the trip to the emergency room, not to mention going on the subsequent movie date and having his first real kiss.
Given David and Tanner's combined performance this December afternoon, however, a team from White-berry Elementary could probably take them. David's shots kept going wild. He knew he was throwing with too much force, taking repressed anger out on a ball that had never hurt anyone.
"This is getting humiliating," he called as Tanner jogged after the ball for the rebound.
"Getting?" His younger brother smirked. "Then you haven't been paying attention for the past hour. The irony is how hard you're trying. Last time I saw a guy push himself like that was Dylan Echols when he was up for a baseball scholarship. But you're not a high school athlete, you're a middle-aged store manager."
"Thirty-one is not middle age," David retorted. "And it's not like you're doing any better. You couldn't hit the broad side of a barn."
Tanner grinned, unfazed. "Guess my mind's on my beautiful bride-to-be."
David rolled his eyes, but they both knew he was happy for his brother. Ecstatic even. Definitely not jealous.
"So we know my excuse," Tanner continued. "You want to tell me what's eating you?"
No. He and Rachel had agreed not to break the bad news until after the holidays, after the wedding. Maybe by then, it wouldn't even be necessary. Their problems could be nothing more than a temporary aberration brought on by Rachel'smedication and mood swings. "Nothing's wrong."
"You sure? I could pay you back for all that great advice you used to give me."
"Great advice you consistently ignored."
Growing up, there'd been an unspoken friction between Davidthe oldest sibling, high school valedictorian and heir apparent at the family storeand Tannerthe restless rebel who couldn't seem to win their dad's approval. With time and distance, the two brothers had matured and their stern father had mellowed. Last winter, when Tanner had moved back to Mistletoe, family peace had been restored. At the same time, Tanner had rekindled his relationship with high school sweetheart Lilah Baum. On December 28, the two would finally marry.
When his brother didn't start dribbling, David straightened. "We done?"
"Not unless your ego can't take it anymore." Tanner checked his watch. "I need to clean up before I meet Lilah for dinner, but she and the girls should still be at the fitting."
David looked away; one of those "girls" included his wife. Amidst all of Tanner and Lilah's nuptial preparations, David couldn't help being reminded of his own wedding. How excited he'd been, how in love. He'd known from the moment he'd seen Rachel Nietermyer that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. He swallowed hard.
"Can I get your opinion on something?" Tanner asked.
Only if it has nothing to do with marriage or women in general. David's own first year of marriage had been blissful. If he could go back now, what advice would he give himself? What could he have done differently? He'd worked to give Rachel everything she needed. Of course, the one thing she'd truly wanted hadn't been within his power.
"I might not be your best bet for wisdom," David said. "Maybe you should talk to Dad or Mom."
Zachariah and Susan Waide were informal experts on relationships; they'd been together nearly forty years. No Waide David knew of had ever been divorced.
Tanner laughed, the carefree sound of a confident man in love. "It's not a huge crisis requiring the big guns. I glanced at one of Lilah's magazines, and some bridal checklists mentioned a wedding present. I'm stymied. We're getting married three days after Christmas. Is she going to expect something even bigger than her Christmas gifts? If I get her something too extravagant and she gets me a small token, am I going to embarrass her?"
"Seriously? These are the things you worry about?"
"Stupid, right?" Lowering his gaze, Tanner bounced the ball against the concrete. "But this is Lilah. I've screwed up in the past. She deserves I want everything to be perfect."
Remembering various anniversaries, Christmases and birthdays, David sighed. "No, it's not stupid." Still, perfect was a tall order.
He kept his skepticism to himself. What did he know? Maybe Lilah and Tanner would find their own version of perfect. Perhaps in marriage, the erstwhile prodigal son would succeed where the overachieving problem-solver was currently failing.
Rachel Waide suspected that the best way to survive emotional traumaseparating from your husband, just as a crazy for-instancewas to depend on the support of friends and family. Which was spectacularly unhelpful in her case, since she and David had sworn not to tell any of their friends and family. Weddings should be festive, celebratory events, and she and David refused to ruin Tanner and Lilah's moment.
Blinking away the omnipresent threat of tears, she gave her reflection a reprimanding scowl. Think happy thoughts. She wasn't going to let herself turn into the self-centered Ebenezer Scrooge of bridesmaids, visited Christmas Eve by three vengeful wedding coordinators.
"Rach?" Lilah's perky voice came from the other side of the thick mauve curtain. "How's the dress look?"
Tight. Rachel dropped her gaze from the circles underscoring her gray eyes to the sparkling beadwork at the gown's neckline. Though she'd been in for preliminary measurements, the bodice was too snug. She should've known better than to seek solace in the arms of salt-and-vinegar potato chips.
Then again, as a side effect of fertility treatments, Rachel had already gained a cumulative fifteen pounds. Why castigate herself over three more? She'd diet after the New Year like the rest of the free world. For now, she'd simply do her best to get through the next three weeks and invest in some bulge-minimizing undergarments for the wedding. Visions of Spandex body shapers danced in her head. On the big day, all eyes would be on the bride anyway.
For just a second, her memories reverted to her own walk down the aisle four and a half years ago. The sanctuary doors had opened, and despite the dozens of people present, her gaze had gone straight to David standing at the front of the church. Dark-haired and blue-eyed, he'd been impossibly handsome in his tuxedo. It was the smile, the way he'd beamed at her, though, that had made him breathtaking.
When she'd made the painful decision after Thanksgiving to separate from her husband, it had been in part because she couldn't remember the last time she'd seen that smile. The two of them had become so much less than they once were, than they should have been.
Marshaling her expression into a smile, Rachel smoothed a few wayward strands of her long black hair and drew aside the curtain. "Ta-da."
Lilah Baum clapped her hands to her cheeks, like a little girl delighted with what Santa had left. For a moment, the auburn-haired woman resembled the fourth-graders she taught. "Oh, Rachel. You look just beautiful! Everything is going to be so so " She fanned her fingers in front of her face, trying to stem tears as she sobbed something apologetic.
Behind Lilah, twenty-three-year-old Arianne Waide rolled her eyes with wry affection, looking a lot like her oldest brother. "She's a little emotional lately."
The maid of honor, petite and blond Arianne wore a dress that was completely different from Rachel's but cut from the same green satin. Clover, the seamstress had called the color. Arianne and Lilah were longtime friends who would be sisters-in-law by the end of the month. For the past four and a half years, Arianne had been Rachel's sister-in-law, too. Rachel was closer to the young woman than she was to her actual sister back in South Carolina. Throughout Lilah and Tanner's engagement, Arianne had joked that at long last, women would outnumber the men in the Waide family.
Her eyes stinging again, Rachel ducked her head. "Nothing wrong with being sentimental, especially right before your wedding."
"Yeah, but it's not your wedding." Arianne stepped closer while Lilah dug a tissue out of her purse. She lowered her voice, her pixie features unusually somber. "You okay?"
God, no. Ending a marriage had to be painful at any time or place, but here in the close-knit community of Mistletoe, Georgia, surrounded by people who loved her and David and didn't know they lived in opposite sides of their house, made it impossible for her to start the grieving process and move forward. Mercifully, in a few days she'd get some respite. She'd leaped at the chance to house-sit while a neighbor with multiple dogs took a fourteen-day luxury cruise. It provided Rachel a socially plausible excuse for not sleeping under the same roof as her husband, not that she'd been sleeping much.
On the plus side, she was providing tons of job security for people who manufactured under-eye concealer.
"I bet I can guess what's wrong," Ari said softly.
"Really?" Rachel's heart skipped a beat. It was bad enough she and David shouldered this secret, an ironic final intimacy; she didn't want to burden Arianne with it.
"Maybe it' ll happen next month." Arianne squeezed her hand. "I just know you guys will make wonderful parents."
Rachel choked back a semihysterical laugh. She thinks I started my period. It was true that, for months, she'd thought that glimpsing those first telltale signs of blood was the most upsetting thing that could happen to her. She'd recently revised her opinion.
"Someone's gonna have to help me with this blankety-blank zipper," came a cantankerous voice from the third dressing room. "I ain't as limber as I used to be."
Lilah had blotted her eyes and was now grinning. "On my way, Vonda!"
If Lilah's bridal party wasn't the most eclectic ever seen in Mistletoe, Georgia, it had to be in the running. Top five, easily. She had thirty-year-old Rachel, a woman who would be trying to look anywhere but at her own husband during the wedding; a maid of honor who constantly joked that after growing up with two older brothers, you couldn't pay her to live with a man willingly again; second-grade teacher Quinn Keller, who had the face of an angel and an unexpectedly devilish sense of humor; and seventy-four-year-old Vonda Simms Kerrigan, a town fixture who'd had a hand in Lilah and Tanner's courtship last winter. The woman was a spitfire who won nearly every card game she played and dated younger men, or as she put it, "hotties in their sixties."
"Sorry I'm late!" Quinn said breathlessly as a saleswoman escorted her past the mirrored dais toward the fitting rooms. "Our meeting ran over." She was on a committee bringing Christmas to local families in need.
Rachel nodded toward the space she'd just vacated. "You can use that one."
No doubt Quinn would look sensational in her dress. Rather than try to find a gown that would suit four differing body types and ages, Lilah had asked the seamstress to create three individual dresses and, for Vonda, a suit. Quinn was the only one with the figure and attitude to pull off a strapless gown in December.
As they waited for the other women to emerge, Arianne turned to Rachel. "You know what might cheer you up? Shopping! Want to hit some stores after this?"
"Um " In the past, she would have jumped at the suggestion, but time alone with Ari might provide too much temptation to confide in someone.
"Well, think about it," Arianne said as she turned her attention toward a shelved display of shoes. She picked up a sling back. "Unless you and David have plans?"
"Nothing specific." Just awkward silence and retreating to separate corners.
If she curled up in the den with a book, he turned on the television in the front living room. If she watched TV, he went for a run. She wasn't sure if he was avoiding her because he was angry or simply trying to defuse the tension by giving her space. She wasn't even sure how she felt about it. When he was in the room with her, it was like she couldn't breathe and just wanted either of them to be anywhere else. Yet whenever he left, her chest hitched with the urge to call him back: Don't go, hold me, make it better.
But that was part of the problem, wasn't it?
She'd met him at a time in her life when she was overstressed and questioning what she wanted in life, taking a vacation from her South Carolinian life as an advertising executive in Columbia. David was a natural-born leader, evidenced by civic committees he'd headed and his volunteer duties coaching touch football in early fall and soccer in the spring. They'd barely been on two dates before he was encouraging her to let him shoulder her burdens. He'd advised her as confidently as he did five-year-olds who were confused about which goal to kick toward. It had felt like a blessing at the time.
Unfortunately, in "simplifying" her life and inviting David to gloss over her problems, Rachel had lost herself somewhere along the way. In the past year, she'd begun to question whether her husband loved herromantically, not just dutifullybut could she really blame him for not seeing her? She wasn't even sure who she was. Resolution number one for the New Year: find out.
David was stepping out of the shower that evening when he heard the tentative "Hello?" from the outer room. Re-flexively, he clutched his towel around him, as if the woman on the other side of the door hadn't seen his nude body a thousand times. As if she might accidentally burst in while he was undressed and make the strain between them even worse.
The thought was truly asinine on all levels. When was the last time Rachel had "burst in" anywhere? Since the miscarriage last spring, it seemed as if even rising from her chair took effort. And how on earth would it be possible for the awkwardness between them to become worse?
"In here," he called back.
"Okay. Just checking." Her words were followed by retreating footsteps.
He dried off and dressed, keeping his movements slow and deliberate so that he didn't impulsively run after her. The caveman deep inside him seemed to think that tossing his wife onto the bed and making thorough love to her would somehow resurrect what they'd once shared.