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Tonight was the night the world would say good-bye to Carrie Anderson, single-girl-in-the-city, and hello to Carrie Anderson, deliriously happy woman-engaged-to-a-wealthy-hunk.
Ever since her boyfriend, James Carrigan, had asked her to dinner at Farallon, San Francisco's most elegant restaurant, she'd taken to staring at her bare left hand with a secret smile. She'd have bet the contents of her 401(k) that, come Thursday night, a sparkling diamond was going to be weighing down her left ring finger. Farallon was their special place. It was where they'd dined for their first date, the night they'd first slept together, and their one-year anniversary.
Dinner had been lovely. Although, to be honest, she hadn't really tasted the butternut squash soup. And she'd barely been able to swallow her grilled salmon on a bed of polenta. With every moment that had passed, her stomach had twisted into a tighter, tenser knot. And when the waiter had asked her if she'd like to see the dessert menu, she'd nearly bitten his head off. No, I don't want flan, she thought. I want an engagement ring!
At long last, the waiter cleared their plates away and brought over two snifters of warmed B&B. Carrie had never been a huge fan of the potent after-dinner drink, but as it was James's favorite, she gamely took a sip. It burned her tongue and stung her throat, but she didn't mind, because James was finally reaching into his pocket. For a ring!
Her very own Prince Charming was about to bend down on one knee and ask her to become his wife. She'd run through the scene at least a hundred times. Her eyes were going to be filled with tears as he popped open the Tiffany's box; her hands would be trembling slightly as he slipped the engagement ring on her finger. She would whisper yes, and then they would kiss passionately to a backdrop of applause.
But James didn't bother getting down on one knee. Instead he simply put the open ring box on the place setting before her and said, "It's finally time for you to become the next Mrs. Carrigan." Carrie's breath left her chest in a whoosh of disappointment.
She knew she was supposed to gasp with glee, to offer James her hand so that he could slip the ring on at the very moment she said "yes." Carrie worked to swallow her dissatisfaction at James's unromantic proposal. She tried desperately to get her lips to form the one word that would ensure her position as newly crowned Princess of the San Francisco elite. She pushed her tongue into her molars and opened her mouth. She could do it, she could say it. "Yes" was a one-syllable word. Even her one-year-old niece could say it. But all that came out when she forced the air up from her lungs was, "Yeourgh."
What was wrong with her tonight? Of course she was going to marry James and live happily ever after. They were going to have 2.4 children and live in a large ranch house in the wealthy suburbs of Palo Alto behind a remote-activated iron gate. She was going to drive a HUMMER with booster seats in the back, and she'd drop off her kids for swimming lessons in the summer, piano in the fall. They'd play tennis every Saturday with the Williams gang, winter in Hawaii at the family beach estate, get their teeth whitened twice a year by his uncle John. They'd have the perfect life, the perfect kids, the perfect marriage.
It was all so perfect that Carrie's head swam. She felt nauseous.
This perfect life was what she had always wanted. Wasn't it?
Evidently, a badly mangled "yes" was good enough for James. He reached for her clammy hand and slid the enormous, square-cut, canary yellow diamond onto her ring finger. The huge jewel sparkled in the candlelight, but Carrie felt like it was mocking her, telling her she'd never fit into his world of society galas and charity lunches. Of gray-haired moguls with barely legal, silicone-enhanced second wives. Sure, during the past two years she'd learned to play her part to perfection. She went to the right hairdresser, used the right personal shopper at Neiman's, made the right witty remarks at exactly the right time. But could she do everything just right for a lifetime? And, she couldn't help but wonder, did she really want to?
James's voice cut through her reflections. "The minute I saw this ring I knew it would look perfect on you, Carolyn. And I was right."
A silent "as always" hung in the air between them.
Carrie looked up from the blindingly gorgeous jewel. James was better looking than any other man she'd ever met, let alone dated. Too bad his smug grin seemed to say marriage proposals were only a formality for a catch like him.
And why did he insist on calling her Carolyn when he knew she much preferred Carrie? She'd always thought it was charming, the way he was so formal, but now she wondered if it was simply a way to change her into his image of perfection. For her to be the perfect addition to his already perfect life.
On paper, James was Prince Charming come to life. His staggering wealth and his Harvard MBA, combined with his classic blond, blue-eyed good looks put him at the top of any list of eligible bachelors. One of her residential landscaping clients had set them up, and Carrie had been shocked, and terribly pleased, that he'd wanted to see her again. On their second date, he'd hired a classical quartet from the San Francisco symphony to serenade her with Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture. For the next two years he'd showered her with gifts and weekend trips to Paris.
And yet . . . something was missing. None of her other lovers had treated her like a porcelain doll in bed. At first, she'd felt cherished when James had insisted on taking things slow. But as the weeks had rolled into months, she couldn't help but wonder if there was something wrong with her, if she wasn't sexy enough to drive her boyfriend wild.
She felt like she was seeing the real James for the first time. Even though she hadn't agreed to marry him yet, he'd already closed the deal.
Ring, check. Fiancée gaping at size of diamond, check. Now all he had to do was iron out the details.
"We will use Grace Cathedral for the wedding, of course. Mummy will have a word with the pastor for us. They're quite close, you know. The Olympic Club for the reception. And then -- "
"James," Carrie said, trying to stop the train before it picked up enough speed to smash into a brick wall. And flattened them both.
"Carrigans have always honeymooned in Bora-Bora, so of course you can spend a month on the beach while I play golf."
Carrie cleared her throat and tried to steel her nerves. Could this be any more awkward? Somehow, some way, she needed to avoid a scene.
"James," she tried again, "maybe we should discuss this at your -- "
But James had already clicked open his cell phone and speed dialed darling Mummy. "Guess which great-looking San Francisco couple just got better-looking thanks to a two-hundred-thousand-dollar diamond?"
Agnes's grating squeal came through the earpiece, and something inside Carrie snapped in two. It was one thing to deal with the idea of waking up next to a gorgeous man who didn't really listen to her every day for the rest of her life, but the thought of having to do Sunday brunch with his mother fifty-two times a year (not to mention countless family dinners and parties) was truly vile.
She could no longer avoid the horrible truth: She didn't love James after all. She couldn't marry him. She was going to have to give the four-carat ring back.
And just like that, the fairy-tale love story she'd been trying so desperately to hold on to shattered into a million pieces.
"No!" she shouted, yanking the beautiful ring off her finger. Well, she should have yanked it, but she couldn't. It was too beautiful. Instead, she slowly slid it off, fighting back tears at the thought of willingly giving up such beauty. Even if it was the right thing to do. Could she help it if turning down six-figure engagement rings made her a little weepy and shallow?
She tried to hand it to him across the table, but he was still holding the cell phone to his ear and frowning at her. Before she could close her fist back around it, the ring dropped onto the table. It bounced off the pristine white tablecloth and rolled beneath the stiletto heel of the woman sitting at the table beside them, who looked to have undergone one face-lift too many.
Clearly irritated with her, James said, "Sorry, Mummy. I'll have to call you back," then scooted back his chair to retrieve the precious ring.
But Carrie felt that it was her responsibility to be the bigger person here. To act like a lady, one last time. Besides, she wasn't angry with James. She just didn't want to marry him. The least she could do was give him back his ring in a civil manner.
A moment later, she was on her knees, with her butt way up in the air and her hair hanging in front of her eyes. She reached for the ring just as Ms. Extreme Makeover's stiletto pierced the back of her hand.
"Ouch," she cried, smacking her head on the bottom of the table as she sat up too quickly.
Suave as ever, even in the midst of an embarrassing situation that involved approximately one hundred strangers, James held out his hand to Carrie. All out of options, she allowed him to escort her back to their table. He slipped the ring back on her finger and said, "Why don't you hold onto this until Monday, when your PMS isn't quite so bad."
At that moment Carrie knew without a shadow of a doubt that she was making the right decision. She stifled a scream and fled the restaurant into the streets of Union Square. She was desperate to put as much distance between her and her ex as she possibly could.
Thank God she was leaving tomorrow for a weekend of wine tasting in the Napa Valley with the girls. If there was ever a time for late-night wine and chocolate-inspired advice, it was now.
Carrie waited to spill the news until her two best friends, Rose and Vanessa, were buckled into her silver Mustang convertible and the wind was whipping through their hair en route to Napa Valley.
Vanessa, unromantic to her very core, cut right past congratulations. "Where's the bling?" she asked, tucking a few long, red strands of hair that were flying around her face back into her chic black cap and kicking off her Manolos.
"I'm not wearing it," Carrie said as she reached into her beige linen slacks for the ring that was burning a hole in her pocket. The ring that had haunted her all night long. "I didn't know what else to do with it."
"My God," Vanessa said as she grabbed the ring and stared at it with big eyes. "I've got to try it on." The band was a perfect fit on her left hand, the yellow diamond nicely offset by her deep tan. "I can't believe you get to wear this ring every day, you lucky bitch! Which begs the question, why the hell aren't you wearing it? Afraid you'll blind the other drivers when the sun sparks off it and they crash into the center divider?"
Carrie laughed. "Yeah, that's exactly why," she said, wondering if they were going to think she was crazy when she told them how she'd panicked at the thought of a life sentence as a perfect little society lady.
Rose held her unruly black curls down, having lost her scarf five minutes into their drive, and yelled from the backseat to be heard over the engine noise. "Does that mean you said yes?" Her oversized white blouse flapped in the wind, and her blue eyes were full of concern.
The song "I Will Always Love You" came on the local pop station, and Carrie temporarily avoided answering Rose by fiddling with the tuner. In the best of circumstances this song made her want to puke. What she needed right now was a female power song. Something like Aretha Franklin's "Respect."
Despite her moment of clarity at the restaurant, she'd been up all night wondering if she was making a mistake snagging the catch of the decade and then, in the eleventh hour, deciding to throw him back. Which was why she'd tucked the ring into her pocket before leaving the house. Maybe her friends would make her see the light and she'd want to slip it on her finger.
The digital tuner landed, ever so helpfully, on "Ironic."
Carrie gave up. The radio programmers were out to get her. Over Alanis Morissette's catchy, but so awfully appropriate tune, Carrie finally replied.
"I didn't exactly say yes."
"Under any other circumstances I'd encourage you to play hardball for a bigger ring. But in this case," Vanessa said as she held her left hand up and salivated over the diamond some more, "even I'd say that's going too far. This baby is big. Nice and heavy. Just the way a girl likes it." She winked to send home her none-too-subtle double entendre.
Carrie playfully smacked Vanessa on the shoulder. "Holding out for a bigger diamond is something only you would do."
Vanessa sniffed. "That's because I'm the only one with the panache, not to mention the balls, to carry it off."
"You said no?" The shock in Rose's voice was strong enough to carry over Alanis and the road noise.
Heat flooded Carrie's face. "I didn't say no, I yelled no." Now that the dam had broken, everything came spilling out. "He was talking about Mummy and Bora-Bora and I wanted to smack him. He didn't even wait to hear if I said yes before he was naming our children."
In a show of solidarity that Carrie couldn't have predicted, especially since she knew firsthand how difficult it was to take the diamond off, Vanessa slipped the ring off her finger and shoved it back into Carrie's pocket.
"At least now you don't have to give up your career to be a trophy wife," Vanessa said, in her characteristically blunt manner.
Carrie's mouth fell open and she spun around to face Rose, putting their lives in jeopardy for several seconds. "Vanessa just called me a trophy wife. A trophy wife! Aren't you going to make her apologize?"
Rose bit down on her lip. With great reluctance, she finally said, "She's right, Carrie."
Vanessa reached across Carrie to take the wheel as they swerved into the fast lane and Rose let out a high-pitched yelp of fear.
"Sorry I'm almost killing us here," Carrie said, turning back to the road. "I just can't believe this. Why didn't you guys ever say anything?"
Vanessa shrugged. "James was rich and successful and good looking, and you seemed to like that."
"And this was your 'Year of Marriage,'" Rose said, an embarrassing reminder of Carrie's drunken New Year's resolution. "We didn't want to mess that up for you."
Last December 31 she'd decided that nearly two years with James and no wedding ring was long enough. Plus, she'd been thirty-two, and time had seemed of the essence. Babies, the next stage of life, the whole nine yards. Which meant it had been time to get her boyfriend to make the big move. And so she'd declared her "Year of Marriage" resolution to her friends in a private, well-liquored embrace and had dropped numerous hints to James for the past nine months, not to mention leaving dog-eared copies of Bride magazine on the coffee table at her apartment.
"I still don't understand why neither of you went out on a limb to tell me what you really felt about James. If I'm too blind, too stupid to save myself, isn't it up to my best friends to save me?"
Vanessa pressed her lips together, making it clear that she didn't appreciate having to defend herself. Rose stepped in to smooth things over. "You always said how perfect everything was with James, so we kind of figured things were just how you wanted them. That they were good enough."
Carrie looked at Vanessa for the full, unvarnished truth. "And?"
"You never want to hear anything negative. You convinced yourself that he was wonderful, and if we'd said anything you would have blown us off."
"We didn't want you to have to choose sides," Rose said, trying to soften Vanessa's harsh, but honest, statement. "No matter who you marry, we'd always want to be your friends. But if we'd said we didn't like him . . ." Rose didn't say any more, didn't say how Carrie might have given up her best friends because she hadn't wanted to face the truth about the man she'd been dating.
Carrie felt tears welling up and was glad she had her sunglasses on. "You're right."
"Don't be mad at us, Carrie," Rose said.
Carrie shook her head. "Of course I'm not mad at you guys. How can I be? I'm just upset that it took me so long to face up to who James really was. To what our relationship was all about. I wanted him to be perfect, and he was on paper, so I pretended that he was in real life too. But all along, he was only good enough. And I was just as bad as he was, because last night I realized that I never truly loved him. Even though I tried to convince all of us that I did."
While Rose rubbed Carrie's knotted shoulder muscles gently from the backseat, Carrie wished she could rewind the last two years and start over.
In a shaky voice, she said, "Well, now you know the whole sad story," hoping that they could drop the subject for now. But, of course, she knew there was one more question on everyone's mind. And she could trust Vanessa to ask it.
"So, since you said no, what are you doing with his ring in your pocket? Shouldn't that be on its way back to Tiffany's so that one of my überthankful lovers can buy it for moi?"
Carrie sighed. "He told me to think it over. He thinks I'm going to say yes on Monday."
"What an idiot." Vanessa rolled her eyes. "Any guy who gets turned down with a ring like that should know that it's going to take a hell of a lot more than a weekend to change a girl's mind."
Sensing that Carrie would welcome a change of subject, Rose poked Vanessa in the back. "Speaking of breakups, Elliot dumped me."
Carrie's head whipped to the backseat again. "Oh, honey, I'm so sorry."
Vanessa grabbed the wheel and straightened out their weaving course. "You want to watch the road already? I'm not going to be too happy if we roll into Napa in an ambulance." She shifted in her seat again to see Rose better. "What happened?"
Rose shrugged. "The usual, I guess. He went thinner. Younger. Have I mentioned thinner yet?"
Vanessa snarled. "I don't get it. So what if you're not an anorexic stick? You're lush. You're curved in all the right places." She looked down at her own slim hips and small breasts. "I hear butt implants are the new breast implants. When I was sleeping with that plastic surgeon, he gave me a great price quote on some work and I briefly toyed with the idea."
Rose groaned. "Don't tell me that I've been trying my whole life to look like you and even you're not happy with what you look like." She closed her eyes, and when she opened them, her blue orbs were bleak. "I'll tell you a surefire way to get some curves. Right after your boyfriend dumps you, eat every cookie, piece of chocolate, and ice cream bar in your house. I always get a nice five-pound bonus with the 'it's not you, it's me' speech."
Carrie couldn't believe the bad turns their relationships had taken this week. "You know he didn't deserve you, Rose. And one day you'll find a man who loves you for the gorgeous, wonderful woman you are." Rose pinched her lips together, and it was clear that she didn't believe a word of it, so Carrie barreled on, saying, "Seems like at least two of us desperately need this weekend to unwind."
Rose shook her head. "I don't need to unwind. I need to diet."
"Bullshit," Vanessa said. "You need to get flamingly drunk with me and Carrie by the pool while we pick apart all the women's haircuts and drool over the men. Elliot was a boring, balding loser with a roving eye. You deserve better. Both of you do."
"Which brings us to you," Carrie said, pointing a finger at Vanessa. "Any traumas come your way lately? Any losers to lose?"
Vanessa pulled the black cap off and let her striking red hair blow free. "You know I don't do boyfriends. Or trauma. I do sex. And fun. This weekend is all about the girls, the booze, and, if all goes well, an uncomplicated, wine-country fling." The corner of her mouth curved up. "For all of us."
Carrie shook her head. "I can't. I mean, I've hardly broken up with James. There's no way I could jump into bed with a stranger."
"I'm with Carrie," Rose said. "I can't imagine sleeping with someone I don't know or have feelings for."
"Your problem is that you think Prince Charming actually exists," Vanessa said pointedly. "Because he most certainly doesn't."
Rose protested immediately. "Don't say that, Vanessa. Lots of people find true love." She paused for a moment, frowning. "At least I think they do."
Vanessa pounced on that small seed of doubt. "Haven't you ever wondered what really went on behind the scenes in all those fairy tales? All the things they don't let little girls know about."
The conversation was hitting far too close to home for Carrie's comfort, but Vanessa had a way of drawing people into her world, whether they wanted to go there or not.
"Behind the scenes?"
Vanessa shifted slightly in her seat to better address her grudgingly captivated audience. "I never bought into those fables my mother read to me. I couldn't help but wonder how many of the princesses-to-be had trouble saying 'yes' when the princes rode up on their white chargers and kissed their cherry red lips. What if they had a crush on the stable boy? Or a different prince from another country? A better-looking one? A prince with more money? A bigger penis?"
Carrie chuckled, feeding Vanessa's fire. "And why was it that every princess in every story had pale white skin? What about all the redheaded, dark-skinned princesses out there? Because we all know that red lipstick would clash terribly with a complexion like mine."
"Oh, Vanessa," Rose sighed. "You're taking all the fun out of it."
Strangely, for the first time, Carrie could see Vanessa's point. "I don't know, Rose. She might be on to something. What if the girls were so desperate to get away from their evil stepmothers that they hopped into the arms of the first prince that came along?"
Just like I almost did, she thought, and I didn't even have a good excuse like an evil stepmother to justify my stupidity.
As Carrie made a right turn into the entrance to the Napa Valley Hotel & Spa, Vanessa took one look at the hunky bellboys and her mouth curved into a come-hither smile, fairy tales already forgotten.
Carrie handed her keys to the young valet, wondering if there wasn't something to Vanessa's love-'em-and-leave-'em attitude. Since college, as she'd watched her friend go through men like cigarettes, she'd always questioned Vanessa's behavior, certain that she'd been missing out by not opening herself up -- emotionally anyway -- to the opposite sex. But both she and Rose had opened themselves up, and here they were, battered and bruised.
Maybe Vanessa was right. And true love didn't exist after all.
Copyright © 2007 by Bella Andre