She stood with her parents near the aisle on the right side of the auditorium at Tulsa's Lake Grove Middle School. For the past eight years, Jesse had been seated on stage with the faculty. This year, her expectation was to be in the audiencespecifically, in the second row of the middle section, where "the families" sat. As the fiancée of the principal, Greg Wilkinson, that would have been the appropriate place for her. However, the reality was that she was no longer a faculty member or Greg's fiancée. Instead, she stood with her mother, stepfather and her brothers, smiling, smiling, smiling as the audience of students, parents and community leaders applauded and welcomed the new happy couple. Principal and Mrs. Greg Wilkinson. HER Greg Wilkinson.
"I'm just so happy for them. I'm just so very happy for them," Jesse had repeated time after time already this evening. She needed to keep the phrase right on the tip of her tongue. She was determined that no other words would come out of her mouth. Nothing like cruel, faithless, betrayer or even heartless dickhead! could be spoken. She couldn't let anyone guess how hurt she was.
Jesse glanced over at her mother. Patsy Thackery's smile was as broad as her daughter's and just as fake. Beyond Patsy, Jesse's stepdad, Roger, made no concession to pretense. His face was a thundercloud. The sight of his anger buoyed Jesse somehow. He was always on her side.
Only her brothers were unmoved by the real-life soap opera. Austin, who'd just turned thirteen, had described Greg as "a dud." And Ryan, who was eleven, had piped in, "Yeah, sis, next time pick a dude not a dud."
The two had laughed at their funny joke with enthusiasm. Jesse had managed a contrived chuckle. She deliberately sheltered the boys from her drama, her anger and her disappointment. This was their school and she didn't want to complicate their love for it simply because the principal had dumped their sister.
The traditional open house three weeks into the fall semester had been well attended by all the local families. They had toured the facilities, talked to the teachers, eaten half-stale cookies washed down by watery punch and now had been thoroughly welcomed, given a basic orientation and handed packets of material that most would never read.
Jesse had not expected to attend. In fact, except for maybe prison, a war zone or a frat party, she could hardly imagine any place she less wanted to be. But her brother Austin was being honored for winning the Summer Scholars science competition. As his big sister and science mentor, she felt obligated to see him accept his award. He wanted her there and Jesse would not allow her broken romance to keep her away. He sat beside her now, clutching his gold-colored trophy with the molded plastic microscope on top.
The ovation finally withered away and Greg thanked everyone for coming and then dismissed them as if the assembled crowd was just another classroom of kids lingering after the bell.
With the deliberate smile in full force, Jesse turned to the aisle and tried to focus her attention on those immediately around her. She could not, however, stop herself from one quick glance toward the man with whom she had thought she'd spend the rest of her life. The man who had claimed to love her. The man she still loved.
She tried not to remember thattried not to feel thatas her family made their escape. Her mother, head determinedly high, made sure that they didn't look hurried. But her stepdad managed to get them out to the parking lot in record time.
"I'm just so happy for them. I'm just so very happy for them," Jesse repeated to everyone who dared to ask.
The five of them crowded into Roger's aging Crown Vic. Jesse had thought that showing up as a family, a united front, would make things easier. But now as she slipped into the backseat beside her brothers, she longed for the privacy of her own car. She wanted to rest her head against the steering wheel and pour out her sorrows. But instead she smiled bravely at her kid brothers.
"That didn't go so badly," she announced to the occupants of the car at large.
Roger made a sort of grunt of disbelief as he maneuvered the vehicle into the long exit line to Eagle Ridge Road.
"Jesse," her mother said, "I think it would be a nice idea for you to get away for a while. Take a little vacation." Patsy glanced over at Roger as she said this. He nodded in agreement.
Jesse almost smiled. It was not so much in amusement as incredulity.
"Yeah, great idea," she said. "I'm thinking maybe the French Riviera. Unfortunately I don't have enough left in my savings to get gas money to Oklahoma City."
Greg Wilkinson, former fiance, was not Jesse's only loss of the year. With the state legislature slashing funds for public education, Jesse's job as an earth sciences teacher had disappeared. She'd been devastated. She loved her work and thought she was good at it. Greg had agreed, but it wasn't about her qualifications as a teacher.
"Three positions are going to have to go," he'd told her. "It's last hired, first fired. But you and Melissa Echohawk have the same seniority. She's a single mom with two kids. What would it look like if I choose my own fiancée over her? I'll let you go, then nobody can accuse me of playing favorites."
A great political move for Greg, a terrible career hurdle for Jesse. But he had not explained it that way.
"So you get to take a couple of years off," he'd said. "You can still volunteer. You're still an important part of the school, and it will give you time to plan our wedding. After that, well, I'm not opposed to starting a family right away. I mean, your biological clock is ticking."
So with the sound of wedding bells in her ears and dreams of baby buggies on her horizon, Jesse had accepted her job loss as a new adventure. For the sake of frugality, she'd given up her apartment and moved home with her parents. In one swift blow, she'd lost a career she loved, the camaraderie she'd shared with her colleagues and the friends and neighbors that lived nearby.
Her consolation? Living happily-ever-after.
But this sudden change of circumstances wiped that clean off the board.
Sitting in the backseat of her stepdad's car, Jesse barely managed to suppress a sigh.
"Your mother and I will loan you money if you need it," Roger told her. "We'd put a bit of cash by to pay for the wed"
He stopped himself midsentence.
Jesse's mother quickly rescued him. "It's not a question of expense," Patsy said. "And you can't hide out in some resort by yourself. It's not healthy. You should stay with friends or family, somebody who cares about you."
That did make some sense.
"Most of my friends and family live here in Tulsa," she pointed out.
Her mother nodded thoughtfully. "Maybe Kelly would let you stop by for a couple of weeks?" she suggested. "The California desert might just be a breath of fresh air for you."
Jesse was sure that her former college roommate would tender an invitation if asked. But Kelly's husband had just returned from an overseas deployment.
"The last thing they need or deserve is a third wheel for their reunion," she pointed out.
Patsy nodded agreement.
"There's my sister in Boca Raton," Roger said. "I'm sure she'll take you in."
Roger's sister seemed like a perfectly nice
stranger. Jesse couldn't quite see herself hanging out with her during this heartbreak.
"No," Patsy said. "I think you should go stay a few weeks with Aunt Will. And she'll be as glad to see you as you will be to get away."
Aunt Will, or rather "Ain't Will" as it was pronounced among the family, was her nearest paternal relative. Jesse had loved spending summers visiting at the mountainside farm where her father had grown up. But over the years, she had become an infrequent visitor.
"I don't know," Jesse mused, shaking her head.
Roger's car was idling as he waited his turn in the parking lot exit line. Suddenly someone tapped on the window. Jesse glanced up to see the happy newlyweds smiling in on her. She heard a very uncharacteristic curse hiss from her mother's lips. Ignoring it, she bravely lowered the glass.
"Roger, Patsy," her former fiance said by way of acknowledgment. "Guys." He directed a half salute to her brothers. "We were so swarmed inside, I didn't get to introduce everyone to Sarah."
Jesse only glanced at his new bride. Her eyes were on Greg, the man she loved. He was only medium height, but his slim physique made him seem taller. His pale blue eyes were honest and sincere and appeared studious behind his glasses. He was so achingly familiar, yet he was already changed. His blond hair was gelled and brushed back from his forehead. It was a look he'd sported when they'd started dating. She'd teased him about it, calling it "evangelist hair." And to please her, he'd begun parting it on the side. The part was gone now, just as irrevocably as their engagement.
"Hi, Jesse. It's so wonderful to meet you."
A small, feminine hand had been thrust toward her.
Jesse clasped it briefly, realizing she'd ignored the woman and had been staring at the man she was supposed to have married. Deliberately she focused all her attention on the woman who had come between them.
"Greg has told me so much about you," Sarah said. "I really hope that we can be friends."
Not bloody likely! Jesse wanted to scream. But she did not.
"I'm just so happy for you," she recited instead. "I'm just so very happy for you."
She hoped her words didn't sound as bitter as they tasted.
"I thought maybe we could get together next week," Greg said. "Maybe the three of us could grab a cup of coffee, clear the air."
His smile was so sincere, so caring, so totally clueless. Greg didn't have a mean bone in his body. He was so happy, so Jesse should be, too. She had seen that look on his face many times. His openness and genuine concern for the students, their parents, even his employees was something about him she had so admired. Now seeing his concern directed at her, she had the almost uncontrollable urge to slap it off his face.
"Oh, next week's not good for me. I'm going out of town."
Sarah nodded, acceptinglooking closely, one could even detect relief.
Greg's expression was puzzled. "Where on earth are you going?"
"To see my Aunt Will," Jesse answered. "The Ozarks are so beautiful this time of year."
Once she'd announced it, the die was cast.