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Seven months ago
Isabella Kane, will you marry me?"
A series of gasps traveled around the large dining table at Maestro restaurant. Handsome Randall Jarrett smiled his newly acquired veneers at his girlfriend.
Isabella dropped her fork and fluttered a shaky hand across her heart. Her eyes widened to the size of saucers. Surely she hadn't heard her boyfriend of eight weeks correctly.
"We're perfect for each other," he added, clutching her hand.
Perfect, she noted. Not "I love you with all of my heart" or "I'm crazy about you and I can't see myself living without you." Just a calculated "we're perfect for each other."
Isabella stared down at a breathtaking two-carat princess-cut diamond and had a hard time pushing the word "no" through her lips. How could she? Before Randall she had never had a serious boyfriend her entire lifelet alone someone as gorgeous as Randall notice she was alive.
"Isabella?" Randall questioned with an awkward chuckle and then glanced at his parents and potential in-laws. "You're not going to leave me hanging here, are you?"
Isabella smiled; at least she tried anyway, and waited for the right words to come. And waited. And waited.
"Sweetheart?" Isabella's father spoke up and touched his daughter's elbow. "Are you okay?" he whispered.
"I think she's in shock," Randall injected with a nervous titter. "It's not every day a woman gets a marriage proposal."
Her parents joined Randall in his awkward laughter, giving Isabella sufficient time to break her silent trance.
"Yes," she agreed. "It's all so unexpected. We've only been dating two months."
"Well," Randall's stepmother, Eunice, piped up. "I, for one, thought Randall would never settle down."
Embarrassment darkened Randall's face. "Mother."
"What? It's true," Eunice said and smiled. "And frankly, I don't think he could have made a better choice."
"Amen," the other parents chorused and then clinked their champagne glasses together in a quick toast.
So they had all known he was going to propose.
Isabella's face warmed beneath their open praises, but she couldn't help but feel Ms. Eunice stretched the truth a bitwell, actually, quite a lot. Fact was, Randall Jarrett with his athletic, six-foot-three body and creamy, peanut-butter skin could have snagged any woman he wanted off looks alone. His wealth and ambition were bonuses.
What surprised Isabella was that he wanted hera school-teased ugly duckling who'd survived her adolescence by burying her head in books. Before she knew it, she had sailed through high school without attending a single sporting event or prom. A late bloomer, she couldn't even fill her paltry "B" cups until she was a freshman in college. But luckily, she finally found a home with Delta Phi Theta sorority, where brains were exalted more than beauty.
Still considered a plain Jane, Isabella couldn't believe the direction her life shifted.
Randall, still on bended knee, held up his free hand. "We can't celebrate just yet. I'm still waiting for an answer."
"Well, of course she'll marry you," Katherine assured in her honeyed southern voice. "Isabella knows you two are a perfect match."
Everyone murmured in agreement and glasses clinked all around. Again, Isabella noticed no one said anything about love.
"If it's all the same," Randall said. "I'd like to hear her answer." His dark, almost black eyes bored into Isabella.
The table fell silent as Isabella swallowed the invisible lump in her throat while maintaining a synthetic smile. The war between love and common sense raged in both Isabella's heart and mind, and on this night, this very important night, there was no clear winner.
After one last nervous glance around the table, Isabella took a deep breath and rode to Randall's rescue. "Yes. Of course, I'll marry you."
Both sets of parents erupted in cheer, while Randall plucked a diamond ring from its velvet box and slid it down her slim finger. Honestly, it was the prettiest shackle she'd ever seen.
The senator leaned over and wrapped an arm around her waist and planted a kiss against her left cheek.
"Baby girl, you've made me so proud." He gave her a hearty shake and rewarded her with another kiss.
For the first time that night, Isabella's smile was genuine. She lived to make her parents proud, and tonight they looked just as proud as when she'd graduated class valedictorian from high school and summa cum laude in both college and law school.
All her life Isabella had done what was expected of her and being the only daughter of a prominent senior senator, great things were indeed expected. After obtaining her law degree from Yale, she interned at the White House. There she met Randall, a straight-laced, ambitious attorney who'd swooped into her life with the speed of a locomotive and then disappeared just as quickly. Three years later, he popped up again while she hammered into tax law with Smith, Bryant and Smith, LLC.
Sure, she was dazzled by his attention. The man was exceedingly handsome and came from a powerful and wealthy family, qualities her parents approved.
However, after a few dates, when the newness of Randall wore off, Isabella realized there wasn't much there. No sparks, no romance no nothing. In fact, she suspected Randall was trying to construct an ideal power couple instead of searching for a true soul mate.
She suspected her father was doing the same.
Many times, she wondered what Randall saw in her. She wasn't ugly, but she certainly wasn't beautiful either. She'd seen pictures of Randall's ex-girlfriends. They all looked as though they should've had long careers in Hollywood or on the runways of Milan.
Isabella had often thought that the only pretty thing about her was her name.
Her mood flip-flopped for the rest of the night and passed by in a blur. There were smiles, laughter and champagnelots of champagne. Not until her buzz kicked did Isabella relax. It also afforded her the opportunity to detach and watch the swirling excitement as if everyone was talking about someone else's life.
Not her own.
Randall caught her in the act and leaned over to ask, "Honey, are you feeling all right?"
The mindless chatter stopped and everyone refocused their attention on her.
"Of course, sweetheart," she assured. "I'm deliriously happy."
Smiling, Randall squeezed her hand while his dark eyes sparkled. "You can't be any happier than I am."
He was certainly right about that. But who knows? Maybe she would grow to love him.
And in Atlanta
"Derrick, will you marry me?" Meghan Campbell stared up at her boyfriend with tear-glossed eyes. In her hands a black velvet box held a platinum band nestled in its center. "I know this comes as a surprise," she laughed. "But I'm hoping you know in your heart of hearts, as well as I do that we belong together."
Derrick closed his eyes and expelled a long breath. After a nice evening out with his Kappa Psi Kappa Fraternity Alumni, he had not expected to come home to this. In hindsight, maybe he should have.
"You don't have to answer right now," Meghan rushed to say. "Just think about it. I mean, we're happy, right? We have so many things in common. So why not get married?"
"Derrick, I know you're scared to settle down," she continued. "But you don't have to be. We don't have to get married right away. If you want we can have a long engagement. You know, so you'll have time to get used to the idea. We can even wait a few years to have children."
Setting his new Distinguished Service Award on top of the coffee table, Derrick fingered his tie loose and then stood from the leather sofa in order to put distance between them. "Meghan"
"Derrick, please. I"
"Meghan, stop. Please." He drew a deep breath and forced himself to stare into her sad brown eyes. "I can't marry you," he said as gently as he could. "I love you, but I'm not in love with you."
Snapping the velvet box closed, Meghan choked on a sob, while her entire body imploded before his eyes.
Derrick returned to her side, kneeling on the living room's plush carpet and pulling her trembling body into his arms. "I'm so sorry, Meg. I never meant to give you hope. I've always been upfront with you."
Meghan tilted her head, her eyes swimming in tears. "Maybe you could grow to love me?"
Sullen, he shook his head. "I'm sorry." He halfway expected more tears, prepared himself even. What he received instead was a burst of anger.
"You're sorry? Sorry?" With one strong shove, Meghan sent Derrick reeling backwards onto the floor. "Is that all you have to say after three yearsyou're sorry? Screw you!
"Don't! You lied," she screeched, jumping to her feet. "I never"
"Not with your words but with your actions. You've always made me feel special."
"You are special to me."
"You showered me with gifts, offered me security. You've done everything to give me hope that I would be Mrs. Derrick Knight one day. My father is a Baptist minister. I'm supposed to get married."
Derrick wished with all his might that he could love her the way she wanted to be loved, but he couldn't make his heart do it. He couldn't lie to her or to himself.
Wailing, Meghan kicked over the coffee table, and even sideswiped a lamp on an end table as she stormed across the living room. "I wasted three years waiting for you!"
"I don't consider them a waste," he offered as he climbed to his feet, only to dodge a flying vase aimed at his head.
"I just bet you don't! I've done everything a good girlfriend should do. I've been faithful"
"I never asked you to do that," he said. "We agreed that this was an open relationship."
Meghan's eyes widened. "You've been sleeping with other women?"
Another vase soared through the air. When it crashed inches from his head, a few shattered pieces ricocheted into his eyes. "Ow! Meghan you're being unreasonable."
"You're damn right I am." She snatched her purse and coat from the foyer's closet and then turned to give him a final glare. "I never want to see you again. I hate you!"
Derrick watched as she snatched open the front door and flinched when she slammed it behind her. It rattled in her wake. "Well that went well," he mumbled under his breath.
He looked around the high-rise apartment and realized he should be grateful she didn't cause more damage.
When he broke up with Mya, he had to hire a decorator to repair the place.
Sighing, he walked to the center of the room and picked up his award. A corner of the plaque had broken off, but it was nothing he couldn't fix. After another glance around, he promised himself he would clean the mess up in the morning before his flight to Washington. Right now, he just wanted to climb into bed and put this whole fiasco behind him.
In his bedroom, Derrick peeled out of his clothes, showered, and then slid between the bed's satin sheets. After two hours, he was far from dreamland. All he could see was Meghan's angry tears.
Exasperated, he flopped onto his back and stared at the ceiling. They had all loved him. They had all expected a wedding ring. But he wasn't in love with any of them.
"Maybe it's time to face the truth," he said into the darkness. "Love just isn't in the cards for me."
* * *
Isabella didn't float home on a cloud and she doubted she would dream of any happily-ever-after with her newly minted fiancé. Instead, Isabella wondered about the mess she got herself into.
"What do you mean, he proposed? You were supposed to break up with him," Keri thundered into the phone.
"I know. I know. But what was I supposed to do? He had invited our parents to dinner. Everyone was sitting there staring at me."
"You were supposed to say no."
Isabella sighed, and slumped onto the bed. She heard a loud rip, jumped up and ran to the mirror to see a long tear in the back of her dress. "Just great!"
"Uhm. How soon do you need your green dress back?"
"Izzy, you said you'd be careful!"
"I know. I know." She sighed. Why was she always such a klutz? "It's just a small rip," she lied. "I can fix it." Balancing the phone between her shoulder and chin, Isabella struggled to reach the back zipper. When it jammed halfway down, she opted to pull the silk dress over her head, which caused her to lose her precious balance, drop the phone and crush her toes.
"Ow. Ow, ow." She hopped around the room blind on her good foot. Once the throbbing eased, she shouted down to the floor, "Just a sec, Keri." Isabella wiggled and pulled and after a few long seconds managed to work her way out of the dress. "I'm back."
"Nothing. I dropped the phone." She sat on the edge of the bed and reached to take off her shoes when one heel came off in her hand. "Uhm, about your shoes "
"I'm sorry. I just.I'm just sorry."
"Forget the shoes. What are you going to do about Randall?"
Isabella checked behind her before easing back onto the bed.
"Isabella, are you there? Hello."
"I'm still here," she mumbled.
"So what are you going to do? I mean, you're not going to go through with it, are you? You're not in love with Randall."
"I could learn to love him."
"What?" Keri shrieked. "Please say you're joking."
Isabella sighed. Was she joking? Really, what was wrong with falling in love after marriage? Does true love really exist? Hell, she didn't know anymore.
"I don't know, Keri. Randall is a good catch and it's not like there's a line of men banging down my front door. There never has been."
"Don't say it like that. What about that guy you met at the library?"
"You mean, Arthur? That was years ago. We went out one time and all he talked about was reaching some ridiculous level in some video game. Besides he had too many no's."
"He had too many what?"
"No's. No job, no car, no money and most importantly no personality. Consequently, he got married last year."
"I wish I was. I was hard up enough a few months ago and called him again." Isabella grabbed a toss pillow, covered her head and proceeded to scream.
"Izzy? Izzy?" Keri shouted.
When her brief moment of anxiety and frustration passed, Isabella removed the pillow from her head and placed the phone back against her ear. "It's all right. I'm back."
"Okay. So Arthur is off the list. No big deal."
"No big deal? What does it say about the world when he can get hitched and I, an intelligent woman with a damn good job and somewhat decent looking can only get asked out once every three years?"
"Izzy, stop putting yourself down. You're a pretty girl. Any man would be lucky to have you."
How come she only heard those words from her parents and friends? Acidic tears burned the backs of Isabella's eyes. The truth was the truth. She wasn't beautiful and she should count herself lucky Randall Jarrett ever gave her the time of day. "Randall would make a good husband."
"So you're just going to settle?"
"I didn't say I was settling."
"That is exactly what you're saying. You're letting Randall and your parents run your life."
"No, I'm not."