Prized and stored away for safekeeping, the timeless ivory wedding dress, with its scooped neck and cleverly fitted bodice, sits gently folded in its box, whispering of Happily Ever Afters. To Kendra, Brianna, and Lauren it’s a reminder of what could have been, the promise of a fairy tale, and a friendship torn apart. But as Kendra knows firsthand: it wasn’t the dress’s fault.
Once closer than sisters, Lauren and Bree have grown up and grown apart, allowing broken promises and unfulfilled dreams to destroy their friendship. A successful author, Lauren returns home to the Outer Banks, fiancé in tow, to claim the dress she never thought she’d wear. While Bree, a bookstore owner, grapples with the realities of life after you marry the handsome prince. As the former best friends wrestle with their uncertain futures, they are both certain of one thing: some betrayals can never be forgiven.
Now on the eve of her daughter Lauren’s wedding, Kendra struggles with a secret she’s kept for far too long. And vows to make sure the dress will finally bring Lauren and Bree back together—knowing they'll need each other to survive the coming storm.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Wendy Wax
What can I say about the wedding dress? I can tell you it’s been in my family for generations. That after all these years it’s still beautiful. And what happened the day I wore it wasn’t the dress’s fault.
It was designed and created for my great-grandmother’s cousin Lindy’s wedding. She was the only one of my grandmother’s female relatives whose family came through the Crash with most of their money still intact. At the time it was made THE DRESS, which is how we refer to it, cost more than your average house, a flagrant extravagance at a time when so many had no homes, or jobs, or even food to eat.
It’s one of a kind. Ivory satin with a scooped neck, flange collar, and a cleverly fitted bodice. Long fitted sleeves narrow down to a gentle point just beyond the wrist. A creamy waterfall of satin cascades toward the floor and swirls around the ankles, rounds into a train. It’s clean lined and elegant. No cutouts. No jewels. Its stark simplicity takes the breath away. With its Chantilly lace mantilla it’s the kind of dress meant for a showy, yet tasteful, fairy-tale wedding to a handsome prince. And while happily ever after is never guaranteed, it’s implied.
After Lindy, my grandmother and her other cousins wore it. So did their daughters and those of us who followed. Somehow it flatters any figure. A satin version of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants long before it was written. In fact, I bet if you subtracted the alterations that were sometimes required and divided its cost by the number of family brides who’ve worn it, THE DRESS was probably a bargain.
Every single Jameson bride looked beautiful in it. I know because I studied the family wedding albums a million times when I was a girl in Richmond and imagined myself wearing it.
The portrait of my mother in the gown hung above my parents’ bed until the day she died. It was part of the room. A touchstone. A reminder that even plain women are beautiful on their wedding day. When reality is suspended and everything, especially happiness, seems possible. When no one is thinking about what it will feel like to deal with sickness rather than health. Or anticipating the till-death-do-us-part part.
The dress fit me perfectly. A fact I interpreted as confirmation that my marriage was meant to be. That Jake was my destiny.
Try as I might to forget I still remember every detail of my wedding day. Sipping from a flute of champagne with my bridesmaids at our house on Monument Avenue while we had our hair and makeup done. The way my hands shook when I was helped into THE DRESS. How fast my heart beat on the way to the church. The way my pulse skittered while the 150 guests were escorted to their seats as the string ensemble played.
I walked down the aisle barely feeling my father’s arm under my hand or the floor beneath my kitten heels. All eyes were on me. In the most beautiful dress ever.
I smiled at Jake. Saw the love in his warm brown eyes. Let him take my hand. He squeezed it as we turned to face the minister.
And then, although I’ve been replaying it in my mind for over forty years now, I don’t really understand what happened. It was as if everything I’d thought, everything I’d felt, flew out of my head. When Reverend Frailey cleared his voice and said, “Dearly beloved,” I was struck with a thunderbolt of clarity, or perhaps it was a thunderbolt of panic, that felt as if it had been delivered directly from above. (And I don’t mean the choir loft.)
Suddenly I realized that I might be making a mistake. That I’d only just turned twenty-one. That it was 1978 and I was woman, but I had not yet even attempted to roar. That I might not actually be ready to start the family Jake wanted so badly or even commit the rest of my life to another person. Not even Jake.
Like I said, it wasn’t THE DRESS’s fault. And it definitely wasn’t Jake’s.
Three months later when the presents had all finally been returned and I discovered that I was pregnant with his child, his family wasn’t speaking to mine and I’d already done far too much damage to tell him. Until then I hadn’t realized that God was into irony. I mean what kind of deity would smite you with a fear of commitment at the worst possible moment and then make you a single mother, arguably the largest commitment ever?
So there it is. A slight wrinkle in THE DRESS’s mostly unblemished history.
I’m hoping my daughter will have a happier ending in THE DRESS. If, in fact, she ever wears it.
Three days to forty
New York City
“Oh my God. You’re . . . you’re Lauren James.” The woman looks down at the book on her lap then back up at me. “I’m reading Rip Tide right now. I’ve read everything you’ve ever written. Every single word.” She looks so genuinely excited. As if it’s Christmas morning and she found me under the tree and can’t wait to unwrap me. If her feet weren’t currently soaking in warm soapy water she would be moving toward me, holding out the hardcover of my latest novel in her lap for my signature. “I just love your books. I buy them in print and digital. I listen to them on audio while I work out.”
As other women look up, I thank my lucky stars that I put on makeup and washed my hair today. Writing is not the glamorous profession people think it is. In fact, authors spend long periods of time alone, unwashed, and on deadline. Grooming and hygiene can take a distant second to word count.
“Ah, so you’re the one keeping me in print.” My smile is real and so is my gratitude. No matter how many times you hear that someone loves what you’ve written, it feels good. It’s like being told that your children are talented and beautiful. Or at least I assume that’s what it feels like since I’ve never given birth. The thing is, if you don’t have enough readers who love what you do no one will pay you to do it anymore.
She laughs at the very idea of being my only fan, because I’ve been successfully published for over a decade and hit the New York Times bestseller list on a satisfyingly consistent basis. In fact, I’ve been dubbed the “Queen of Beach Reads.” Which means I write the kind of books that those who want to appear literary like to sneer at, but that sell hundreds of thousands of copies. And allow me to own an apartment in a really great building on Central Park West.
“Thank you. I’m so glad you enjoy my books.” I shoot the woman a last smile then turn my attention to my manicurist, Hanh. After a few words of greeting and a couple of polite questions about her children, which is about all we manage given my lack of Vietnamese and her gaps in English, I settle back into the big leather seat. I close my eyes and try to focus on the warm water swirling around my feet, but I’m careful to keep a pleasant smile on my lips so that none of the women who are currently Googling me can interpret my silence as diva-ish or carry tales about how rude and unappreciative I am.
My breathing evens out as Hanh’s small, competent hands massage my feet. I attempt to visualize a bright-blue sky with puffy white clouds floating through it. Like the ones that used to form over the Atlantic Ocean in the Outer Banks, where I grew up.
I’m not very good at meditation and although it’s not supposed to be possible, I failed yoga. My brain refuses to slow down or follow instructions and no matter how hard I try to shut down, I’m inevitably thinking about all the things I’m thinking about but shouldn’t be. Then I think about not thinking.
At the moment, all I can think about is that I’m going to be forty in two days, twenty-two hours, and thirty-five minutes whether I’m ready or not. Then I think about how old that is. How not like my body my body has become. Hanh lifts one foot out of the water and I think about how unattractive my toes are.
I take a conscious breath, counting slowly to seven then holding it before I exhale to a count of ten. This is supposed to clear your mind and help you turn your thoughts in a more pleasant, affirmative direction. I’m not any better at this than I am at not thinking, but I finally manage to pull up an image of Spencer, the man I’ve been dating for almost a year now, three months longer than I’ve dated anyone since I came to New York. He’s a successful playwright and songwriter with a string of hit Broadway musicals to his credit. He understands what being on deadline means and he’s every bit as driven as I am, only way better at disguising it.
I let myself try to imagine the surprise birthday dinner he’s planning. I inhale again, even more slowly this time. I’ve spent more than a few birthdays alone since I arrived here just after my twenty-first and am beyond glad to have someone to face down forty with.
I was supposed to come to New York with Brianna, my best friend in the world; a friend who felt more like a sister from the day we met in kindergarten and discovered we were born on the same day. (We were both wearing paper crowns at the time.)
We practically lived in each other’s houses while we were growing up. When we were in high school her grandmother died and her archaeologist parents went on yet another dig on yet another continent and never really came back and she moved in with us.
Bree and I inhaled books and dreamed of being writers. We wrote our first illustrated fairy tale together in second grade and turned it into a graphic romance novel when we were fourteen. We brainstormed and wrote part of a work of historical fiction while we were in high school and plotted out a contemporary novel set on our favorite beach in the Outer Banks in college. We planned to move to New York right after we graduated from college and find an apartment to share, and we were both going to get jobs to support us while we wrote the novel we’d plotted.
Two days before we were supposed to take the bus to New York, Bree pulled out without warning or any real explanation. It was a betrayal of everything we’d dreamed and planned our entire lives and all she said was, “Sorry, I changed my mind.” Like she’d decided to order iced tea instead of Coke or thought she’d pass on dessert. I didn’t know a soul in New York. I climbed onto the bus with wobbly knees, scared to death.
New York City is intimidating in its own right. Alone and without money it can be hard, cold, and inhospitable. A place to be survived through sheer force of will.
I was barely hanging on by my fingertips three months later, when I heard that Bree was dating Clay Williams, my boyfriend all through high school and most of college.
Six months later they were engaged. Even though we were barely speaking I tried to warn her that Clay was nowhere near ready to settle down; something I did out of the remnants of friendship and that she interpreted as jealousy. Then although she’s not a blood relative she wore THE DRESS that’s been in my family forever. And my mother forced me to be her maid of honor, because of some stupid promise and a pinky swear we made each other in kindergarten.
If that’s not a novel, I don’t know what is.
Two days to forty
Manteo, North Carolina
“Mary? Are you there?” The voice sounds tinny as if it’s coming from a great distance, which it pretty much always is. The voice belongs to the woman who gave birth to me. She and my father are somewhere in the Middle East. Or possibly in sub-Saharan Africa. Or maybe the Galápagos on some archaeological dig or another.
I was named after Mary Leakey, the famous fossil hunter whom I’ve always hated because my parents clearly loved fossils and hunting for them more than they ever loved me.
I was five when I stopped answering to Mary and insisted on being called Brianna, which is my middle name. That was when my parents, who’d been dragging me from one archaeological dig to another, brought me to live with my grandmother Brianna in her house in Manteo on Roanoke Island so that they could continue to wander. My grandmother died just after my sixteenth birthday, forcing my parents to come back to bury her. They stayed long enough to decide that I was old enough to live on my own in the house she’d left me while they finished the dig they’d been in the middle of. After that they took turns coming back on occasion though I never sensed any method or thought to their comings and goings. If it hadn’t been for Kendra and Lauren Jameson marching over and packing up my things and insisting I move in with them, I’m not sure what sort of pathetic hermit I might have turned into.
“I’m calling to wish you a happy birthday. Your father’s out of cell phone range but I didn’t want to miss this opportunity.”
“Oh, right. Thanks.” There’s no way of knowing whether she realizes my birthday’s not for two days yet. Or the time difference where she is somehow makes up the gap. Or maybe she had the chance to call and realized it was close enough to my birthday to count. I really don’t know and every year it matters less. My birth story is a little murky. I’ve heard that she was on an island off the coast of California searching for signs of Late Pleistocene Paleocoastal peoples when she went into labor and simply had me there in the sand before going back to work like Russian peasant women used to do back in the day. But instead of tying me in a sling to her bosom she handed me over to an assistant.
“Do you have special plans?”
“Oh, you know, the usual.” This is a gibe because I can’t remember more than a handful of birthdays my biological parents were around for. Which is undoubtedly why I’ve made a big fuss and party for each and every one of my children’s birthdays, including Lily’s sweet sixteen last year.
“What’s wrong?” she asks, as if we’ve ever had a comfortable conversation since I became aware that I was never even a contender in the competition between my parents’ love of their work and their love of me.
“Nothing. It’s just that I’m at the store. And I can’t really talk right now.” This is a lie, but I can’t bring myself to come out and tell her that her occasional awkward attempts to communicate just make me feel worse.
“Oh, that’s nice.” They’ve seen my bookstore, Title Waves, a handful of times. The same for their grandchildren.
“Thanks for the call.”
I’d pace if the store weren’t so crowded with bookshelves and display tables. I settle for breathing deeply and telling myself that an unsatisfying phone call is better than no call at all. Then I tell myself that turning forty isn’t that big a deal. Ultimately, I do what I always do when I’m unhappy. Or nervous. Or angry. I pull my laptop out of my bag, boot it up, and open the manuscript file. I empty my mind and let go of my hurt and irritation as I read the scene I wrote last night when the house was finally quiet and I could sit down in the attic room I’ve claimed for my office. It’s not as bad as it felt while I was writing it. I read the scene again. Then I begin to cut and paste, which is when I realize what’s missing. I lean forward and begin to type. Everything else disappears as a picture of my characters forms in my mind. Heath would never take Whitney for granted or forget to bring home the paper towels like he promised.
“No, don’t go. I can’t bear for you to go.” His smile was wry, his tone self-deprecating. His blue eyes gleamed with . . .
The bell on the front door jangles. My fingers freeze on the keyboard. It takes a few long seconds to blink myself back to the present.
“Good day, Brianna.” Margaret McKinnon is a lovely woman of about eighty-five, an avid reader who loves books almost as much as I do and cannot bring herself to read in any format that doesn’t involve paper. She’s been a regular since I started working in this very bookstore as a teenager. She’s one of my best customers and will come in to help out or even take a shift when I need to take time off or the student who works part time has a conflict. I make it a point to keep her favorite authors, and any that resemble them, stocked. Which means lots and lots of historical fiction and the occasional erotic novel disguised as a romance. Recently she’s begun to wade into fantasy.
Since her husband died five months ago she’s been coming in more frequently and staying longer. Some people drown their sorrows and losses in drugs and alcohol. Mrs. McKinnon drowns hers in the written word, which is an escape I can relate to.
“It’s lovely out, isn’t it?” she asks with forced enthusiasm. “March can be so unpredictable.”
“That’s for sure, Miz McKinnon,” I say with a smile. Sometimes March brings record snowfalls but it’s hard to argue with today’s pale-blue skies, thin white clouds, and mild breeze. Not to mention a high in the low sixties. We’ll have things mostly to ourselves until the season kicks off on Memorial Day weekend, something I will appreciate as a storeowner and complain about as a full-time resident.
She returns the smile even though her eyes are red and swollen, and I imagine her forcing herself out of her cottage and into the stores simply to keep herself from crying.
“How’s the book coming?” She aims a friendly nod toward my laptop. We live in a very small town on a narrow barrier island and it’s no secret that I’ve been working on a novel for a decade and a half and have never let anyone read a word of it.
“It’s coming.” I started this book even before my former best friend stole the idea we’d plotted out together and launched her publishing career with it.
I smile again and am careful not to let it turn into a sigh. You’d think I’d be over Lauren’s theft of “our” novel by now, but it’s not easy to see someone you once loved not only living your dream, but succeeding at it on a level you never imagined. Sometimes I practically reek of jealousy. I mean I wouldn’t trade Rafe and Lily or my family life for anything—at least not on a good day. But I’ve had plenty of years to wonder if it really had to be either/or.
“I have a hankering for something exotic,” Mrs. McKinnon says. “What have you got for me today?”
We spend a lovely hour together browsing through the shelves. She chooses a Mary Balogh, Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches, and the fifth in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files. Like I said, she’s an equal-opportunity reader.
We talk about the next book club meeting at the store and then she stays to chitchat until I lock up. It’s clear she doesn’t want to go home, and I feel terrible when I finally have to usher her out onto the sidewalk. I’ve got to hit the grocery store and pick up Clay’s shirts at the dry cleaner. Lily’s dress is ready at Myrna’s Alterations. And then maybe I’ll run over to the Sandcastle and visit with Kendra for a bit.
Sometimes I don’t want to go home, either.
T-minus twenty-four hours to forty
New York City
My agent, Chris Wolfe, takes me to The Palm Court at The Plaza for the champagne tea the day before my birthday. Somewhere between forty and fifty, she’s small and stocky with a strong chin, a no-nonsense manner, and no patience whatsoever for anyone who doesn’t bring their A game, which is fine with me. She was a huge step up from my first agent, who was the only one willing to take me on when I was a struggling waitress/blogger/occasional ghost writer/aspiring novelist. In traditional publishing it’s all about trading up—in the beginning you take virtually any deal you can get at a major publishing house and then do everything humanly possible to convince them to get behind you. The more books you sell, the more valuable you become and the more options you have. The same is true with agents, the gatekeeper’s gatekeeper.
The trellis-patterned carpet is plush beneath our feet as we’re led to our table. There are no windows, but the restored stained glass ceiling and strategically placed palm trees give the elegant space a bright airiness. It’s a bit kitschy, but we toasted my first six-figure deal here and have been toasting milestones and occasions here ever since. Today we’re celebrating my birthday, but even before she air-kisses my cheek I know that she has news to impart and that news is not good. As if turning forty tomorrow doesn’t suck enough.
Normally, Chris’s poker face is world-class. I’ve seen her stare down titans of publishing and threaten to walk when we had nowhere to go, but I’ve been with her long enough to know her tells. She’s smiling when our glasses of champagne arrive, but her eyes are too focused and there’s a tiny crease between her brows that I’ve seen only a handful of times.
“So, how are things?” she asks.
“Good,” I say automatically because I’m determined to be positive about my looming date with old age—at least in public. But I watch her face carefully as I say it because all writers, regardless of their level of success, are appallingly insecure. “They are good, right?”
Chris blinks. Which in anyone else would be a shriek of panic.
“Oh God. What is it?” My jaw tightens to hold back the whimper that threatens. “I knew I shouldn’t have agreed to do that anthology.”
A little voice in my head shouts, Mayday! Mayday! We’re going down!! Without bothering to toast we both finish our champagne.
“No, it isn’t that. Well, not exactly.” She hesitates again. “But they were relying on your name to sell that book. And the numbers weren’t even close to what was anticipated.”
I’m getting older by the minute and it’s possible that new gray hair is sprouting. I’m in no mood to pry news I don’t want to hear out of her. “And?”
“And neither is Rip Tide. In fact, there’s been a decided dip in sales over the last two reporting periods. A cooling, if you will.”
Our eyes meet. Without discussion her hand goes up. The waitress hurries over and refills our champagne glasses. I remain silent as I wait for Chris to finish. It’s not as if I don’t watch my numbers—all writers do. Given online sales rankings and the author portals set up by publishers that supply sales figures on an almost daily basis, it’s almost impossible not to have a decent idea of how things are going. But I’m always on deadline, and I’ve discovered the hard way that nothing shuts down my imagination faster than fear. So I try not to check too often, and I’ve developed an aptitude for denial. I continue my silence and add a raised eyebrow when the waitress departs.
“There’s been a general falloff in women’s fiction over the last eighteen months. You’re not the only one who’s lost readers.”
Lost them? Where did they go? Siberia? And am I really supposed to feel good about not being the only loser? “What is Trove planning to do about it?” This is, after all, supposed to be my publisher’s issue. I’m supposed to write the books, they’re supposed to market and sell them. Hitting the big lists is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once you’ve done it a time or two in a big-enough way it can become almost automatic. The thrill gives way to expectation. Everyone forgets that it can stop at any time. There are plenty of once-huge names that aren’t anymore. And I’m not anywhere near ready to go quietly into that good night.
“Well,” she says with a sigh. “They don’t think it’s marketing. They think you may have lost some of your focus. That you may be just kind of going through the motions.” She swallows and manages not to drop her eyes.
“So I just have to write a better book and everything will be fine?” I can hear the anger and panic in my voice. When I was first starting out publishers would put almost nothing behind a debut and then blame a lack of sales on the author. I’ve seen what they can accomplish for an author when they want to and I’ve been fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of their largesse for almost long enough to have forgotten what being overlooked feels like. My readership has been growing for so long I’ve let myself forget that anything that can get bigger can also shrink.
I’m not hungry, but I reach for the tea sandwiches anyway. Tears threaten but I refuse to shed them. Not here in The Plaza. And not in front of this woman who has helped make me what I am.
“Don’t worry. Your core fan base is incredibly devoted. True diehards. They’d read the phone book if your name was on the spine.”
Is it just me or does this imply that my books don’t have to be that good because my readers—or at least those who haven’t gotten lost—will read them anyway? I want to put my face in my hands and cry. Actually I’d like to put my head down on the table and close my eyes. But only if I could wake up tomorrow younger, firmer, and with sales numbers that don’t make it so hard to swallow.
“So what are you doing for your fortieth?” she asks brightly.
“I’m sleeping in tomorrow and I don’t plan to write a single word.” Though under the circumstances maybe I should. “Spencer is taking me out to dinner.”
“I don’t know,” I say, matching her smile even though my brain is running around in circles shrieking in distress. “He said it was a surprise.”
“He’s a keeper, that one,” she says with another smile.
There’ve been quite a few men over the last two decades. I mean I’m not exactly a femme fatale, but I’m not chopped liver yet, either. Though I guess I might be after tomorrow. Happily, Spencer Harrison is smart and funny and he understands the rigors of succeeding in a creative field. Relationship-wise we’re in the perfect place—monogamous and committed without any of the angst that comes from wanting to take things to another level. I mean it’s not as if either of us is looking to get married. I’ve pretty much stopped thinking about my biological clock and have accepted that I may never be a mother.
Chris raises her glass. “To you, Lauren. To your fortieth. And to your talent and to future success. I know this next book will be your best yet!”
We clink and drink then decimate most of the desserts even though every bite is difficult to swallow and sits in my churning stomach like a lead weight. We talk about the weather and plays and movies we’ve seen. We don’t speak any further about my sagging sales. But then we don’t need to.
Someone is in the room. I realize this at the same time I notice that my cheek is pressed against a hard surface and my neck is stiff as if I’ve been in this position too long.
A hand grasps my shoulder, shakes gently.
“Wha?” My mouth is dry and cottony. My eyes are caked shut.
“Happy birthday.” The voice belongs to my husband, Clay. I can feel him leaning over me.
I yawn and blink my eyes open. I discover that the hard surface underneath my cheek is my desk. I apparently fell asleep with my arms spread across it in supplication. The fingers of my right hand are locked around my computer mouse. The pages I printed out yesterday are damp with drool. I manage to raise my head, swipe at the corner of my mouth, and focus on Clay’s face.
He’s six-two, almost six-three, and I have to crane my aching neck to meet his eyes, which are a bright, changeable blue. His blond hair has darkened. He’s still broad and solid, but not the football star heartthrob he once was. He’s holding a chocolate cupcake with one lit candle in it. Our sixteen-year-old daughter, Lily, stands next to him bearing a mug of coffee. She sings “Happy Birthday to You” quickly, on key, and with a minimum of emotion.
“Did you finish?” she asks, and I remember that I told them both I was going to type The End before this morning or die in the attempt. That I refused to turn forty until I’d finally finished what I started all those years ago. I know from experience that it’s not a good sign about the material when you fall asleep while you’re writing it. In my heart I know that if I’d finished Heart of Gold I wouldn’t have still been up here. I would have been downstairs celebrating. Or at least asleep in my own bed. Still, I unclench my hand and rouse the screen and make myself look. “Nope.”
“Here.” She sets the mug on the desk. “You’re close. And it’s not like you have a real deadline or anything.” It’s hard to tell if this is the dig it feels like. If I had a real deadline, as in a contract with a publisher like my former best friend does, it would have been done a decade ago.
Clay sets the cupcake in front of me. It’s a tradition my grandmother started when my parents first left me with her—birthday cake for breakfast—that used to make the day feel extra special. Now it’s just something that he knows I expect and remembers to do. They both look at me expectantly, so I lean over and blow out the candle. “We’re going to have your birthday dinner at Kendra’s, right?” Lily says.
“Yes.” This is another tradition, the joint celebration of Lauren’s and my birthday, that Kendra started when she took me in and made me the third member of their family. I can still remember how she’d cook all day to make Lauren’s and my favorite dishes, the homemade birthday cake with both our names written across the top in interlocking letters, how we’d make our wishes then blow out the candles together.
“Six thirty.” My voice wobbles with memory.
“Okay.” She hugs me then returns downstairs.
“I’m going to head out, too.” Clay doesn’t quite meet my eyes. “Are you all right with, um, celebrating later?”
“Sure. No problem.” I smile and try to mean it then watch him turn and leave.
I eye the cupcake but can’t quite bring myself to eat it. In the first few years we were married, birthday cake was a prelude to spending the morning in bed. And even then I would sometimes wonder if he wished I were Lauren. Because they’d gone steady for so long. It was only after I stayed home instead of going to New York with her that our friendship turned into something more. By the time we got married I’d convinced myself that we were better suited than he and Lauren ever would have been; that we wanted the same things. In my experience you can talk yourself into almost anything, and even believe it for a time.
Now we rarely do anything in bed together but sleep. When we do I worry that he wishes I were someone else. While I wish he were more like Heath, the hero in my novel. Loving and physically affectionate. And completely faithful.
Still, he’s given me Rafe and Lily, my two greatest accomplishments. Both of us love them more than anything. But it’s gotten harder for me to pretend Clay doesn’t have “fidelity issues.” Manteo is way too small for secrets.
The phone rings and I know it will be Kendra calling to wish me a happy birthday. Just like I know she’ll serve all of my favorite foods for dinner tonight and that she’ll lead the singing when she brings out the cake she will have baked from scratch. Even though it will have only one name on it.
Kendra Jameson is the mother we all wish for, but rarely get. Some people are born that way. Others are born to hunt for fossils and dig up civilizations. I would never have known how to be a mother if I hadn’t learned by watching my grandmother and Kendra, who never let her widowhood or lack of family stop her from always putting her daughter first.
I love Rafe and Lily. It’s been a joy and a privilege to be their mother. It’s the one thing I’ve excelled at. I would slit my wrists before I let them down. Or disrupted our family. Or took their father away from them.
New York City
Being forty sucks even more than I thought it would. And it turns out I am just the woman to embrace its suckiness. I drank too much at The Plaza then passed out fully clothed on my bed only to wake at two a.m. and every hour after that, my sense of apocalyptic dread growing with each bathroom run.
As I lie in bed hungover, my makeup caked all over my face, my bedding a testament to the tossing and turning I’ve done, it occurs to me that the dip in my career increased the suckiness of today’s milestone. (Yes, suckiness is a word, a noun in fact, and is defined in multiple dictionaries as “the state or condition of being sucky.” Feel free to use it in your next Scrabble game or Words with Friends.)
The phone rings and I pick it up reluctantly. My mother’s cheerful voice on the other end hurts almost as much as the sunshine slanting through the blinds. “Happy birthday!” she says with what I know is a huge smile. “I feel like it was only yesterday that I held you in my arms for the first time. Just wanted to wish you a great day and tell you how much I love you and how proud of you I am.”
“Thanks.” Her words don’t exactly make me glad to be forty, but my mother’s love and praise have always helped slay the dragons of doubt and insecurity. When I was little I used to beg for details of the day I was born and of my father who died while she was pregnant with me, and about how she left her aunt Velda’s, who was her only living relative, and brought me to the Outer Banks when I wasn’t even a week old. All she ever really told me was what a wonderful man my father was, how much he would have loved me. Then she’d sniff back tears and get this funny look on her face and I would know that the topic was painful and that I needed to drop it. The picture of her in THE DRESS standing next to him in church on their wedding day is still my most prized possession. Along with the photos of the grandparents I never met. My mother’s cheerful perseverance in the face of adversity was my greatest inspiration. At least after I began to get over the fact that I seemed to be the only child I knew who had only one parent. It wasn’t until I became best friends with Bree that I understood that having one mother who loved you more than anything in the world was better than having two parents who did not.
“So what are you doing tonight to celebrate?” my mother asks.
“Spencer’s taking me out to dinner. He refuses to tell me where we’re going, but I have my suspicions.”
“That’s so sweet,” she says, and I hear a slight tremor in her voice. My mother has dated some over the years, but nothing that ever really lasted. “You have to give a man points for understanding the importance of a dramatic gesture.”
“Mom, he is in the theater. Dramatic gestures are part of his DNA.” But I smile when I say it. My first of the day.
“Point taken. But even if he comes by it naturally you still need to enjoy and appreciate it.” There’s a beat of silence as if she’s considering her next words, but she says only, “Bring him down here soon. I’d like to meet him.”
I try to envision Spencer in a place where the sidewalks roll up at nine or don’t even exist at all. Where you can’t get food delivered at any hour of the day or night. Can’t wander into an all-night deli or restaurant. Can’t get a good bagel. A place where the only live theater is the longest running The Lost Colony on Roanoke Island and there are only two movie theaters within the hundred-plus-mile stretch of barrier islands.
“You could come up here to meet him, you know. We could see some shows, do a little shopping. I have tons of frequent-flier miles you can use.” I don’t add that I won’t have to see Bree that way. And I definitely don’t ask what Mom’s doing tonight, because I know she’s already cooking for what used to be our joint birthday dinner like she does every year. As if Bree were actually her daughter. And Bree’s children her grandchildren.
“We’ll see,” my mother hedges. “But it’s been way too long since you’ve been down. I don’t want you to forget your roots. Or shake off all that sand in your shoes.”
I don’t say no but I don’t say yes, either. This is not the day to argue.
“Well, enjoy the day and your birthday dinner, sweetheart. We’ll be thinking of you and sending love.” My mother makes the exaggerated kissing sound that ends all of our phone calls. “And when you blow out your candles don’t forget to make a wish.”
Later that day, way before there are candles, I wish I hadn’t wasted so much of my birthday nursing a hangover and trying not to worry about my career. It took a lot of the fun out of the bouquet of flowers and balloons Spencer sent, and made me eat more of the tower of chocolates that came with them than I meant to. I heard from a few friends and saw the thousands of happy birthdays posted by readers on my author Facebook page. Presumably from those who haven’t yet disappeared or defected.
Despite the beautiful March day going on outside my window I don’t leave the apartment. In fact, I barely leave my bed until it’s time to shower. The makeup artist I use for special appearances and occasions arrives at seven—now that I’m forty I’m going to need a lot more help not looking it. Barry, my longtime hairdresser/stylist/and friend arrives at eight to fuss and cluck over me.
He twists my shoulder-length hair into a messy knot at the base of my neck and pulls out tendrils to arrange around my face, giving me a casual-yet-elegant look that I have never achieved on my own. Then he helps me into a very simple black sheath that turns my lanky body into something far more feminine. Diamond studs, Christian Louboutin heels, and an evening clutch are my only accessories. It’s Barry who taught me that less is more, that designer fashions are designed for bodies like mine, and who finally convinced me that being tall is an advantage not a liability.
“Not bad,” he says as he brushes a small piece of lint from the three-quarter sleeve and straightens the dress’s boat neck slightly. From him this is high praise.
“Turn.” He motions with one finger and rewards me with an approving smile. “You are now fit to be seen and photographed.”
I face myself in the mirror and am relieved to see he’s right. Like most authors I’m an introvert at heart. I spend long periods of time alone in front of a computer, but I’ve learned how to handle myself in public, speak to book clubs, give keynotes, get interviewed, deliver sound bites. I can switch into bestselling-author mode when I need to but being on isn’t my default setting. I have no desire to be the center of attention.
Barry escorts me downstairs and leads me to the black car Spencer has sent. “Nice touch. A modern version of the fairy-tale coach. Let’s hope it doesn’t turn into a pumpkin pulled by field mice at midnight,” Barry teases as a liveried driver opens the passenger door.
“I guess this will just have to do.” I sigh theatrically as Barry wraps me in a hug then watches the driver help me into the backseat. Barry leans in before the door closes and whispers, “I expect to hear details. Not from the bedroom necessarily. Though some of us do like to live vicariously. That man of yours is quite hot.”
“I’ll be sure to tell him you said so,” I tease back. Then I draw the spring evening into my lungs and remind myself how fortunate I am. An entire day of wallowing is more than enough.
It turns out the ride is a brief one straight through Central Park. It ends less than fifteen minutes later in front of The Surrey hotel, where Spencer is waiting to hand me out of the car and sweep me into his arms. “Happy birthday!” He looks delighted to see me and his voice is almost a purr when he presses a kiss to my neck and adds, “Ummm, you smell and look divine.”
So does he, of course. He’s even taller than I am, with a lean runner’s body, dark hair, and features that are somewhat ordinary on their own but that somehow manage to pull together into something quite arresting. I couldn’t tell you exactly what he’s wearing. I only know it’s disconcerting to date someone whose style actually is effortless when you require professionals. But then Spencer grew up here on the Upper East Side while I grew up in a place where the wind off the Atlantic wreaks havoc with hair, shoes are often optional, and evening wear is likely to be a sweatshirt over your bathing suit.
“I know it’s kind of cheesy, but I thought we’d come back and relive our first date at Café Boulud,” he says as he walks me to the restaurant entrance.
“It’s perfect,” I say, meaning it. A nice quiet dinner suits me just fine. Who needs fanfare at forty?
Spencer’s latest Broadway musical, The Music in Me, has been running for two years now and he and Daniel Boulud are friends, so we’re shown to a discreet yet prime table that we’ve come to think of as “ours.”
Champagne arrives the moment we’re seated and we raise our glasses and stare into each other’s eyes. His are a beautiful green and are framed by long dark lashes. They’re filled with intelligence that’s almost always accompanied by a glint of humor. His mouth is wide and mobile, his hands long and beautiful. Whenever I look at them I think he should have been a concert pianist or sculptor. Or maybe even a surgeon.
“Happy birthday.” He smiles over his champagne flute, flashing the dimple that creases one cheek. “May we always have such happy occasions to toast together.”
I smile my thanks and clink my glass to his. The champagne is light and bubbly on my tongue, and I remind myself to enjoy the evening and not dwell on the reason for it. I’m hardly the first woman to turn forty and I won’t be the last. As they say, one must consider the alternative.
Moments later warm bread arrives. Menus don’t.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I went ahead and ordered the same meal we had the first time we came here.”
“How lovely,” I say, but I can’t help wondering how he could possibly remember what we ate a year ago. We’ve consumed countless meals together since then, many of them memorable. Meals are to Spencer what game plays are to sports fanatics, but still. One meal a year ago?
“I see the doubt,” he says easily. “But I’ve never forgotten that evening. I knew then just how remarkable you are. Even if we’d never seen each other again I would have remembered every bite and every detail of your face.”
I’m afraid he’s going to tell me what I wore that night and in fact he does. Which speaks to Barry’s styling abilities. I would go everywhere in stretch pants or sweats, which is what I work in, if I could get away with it. And frankly I don’t pay that much attention to food. Most of the time I couldn’t tell you what I ate on any given day or what color sweatpants I was wearing when I ate it.
Our appetizers of Escargot en Vol-au-Vent and a Chestnut Veloute arrive and are happily consumed. They are followed in perfectly timed succession by an endive salad and entrées of Striped Bass “en Prupetti” and Duck Breast in Magnolia Leaf, which don’t look remotely familiar. They’re paired with what I’m sure are the perfect wines.
“Wow. Did we really eat this much on our first date?” I feel a rosy glow from the alcohol and the spectacular food and the way Spencer is looking at me.
“Well, I think we may have drunk more than we ate that first time. But I was so entranced with you that the meal is indelibly stamped in my brain.”
It’s beautifully said but I catch myself wondering if he keeps some kind of food diary like some men keep a little black book. Or maybe he simply knows that I’m never going to call him on his food recall. Ever. I can recite a bad review back to you word for word years after it’s been written, but a meal? It’s never going to happen.
“I remember the meal because I shared it with you,” he says softly staring into my eyes. And I catch myself thinking how much Bree would appreciate this scene. I mean I would never write a line of dialogue like that. She was always the one wanting to turn everyone into a hero—on the page and in real life. She inhaled romance novels like an alcoholic consumes booze and insisted on believing in happily ever afters.
“You are a flatterer, sir,” I reply as if I’m a heroine in a historical romance.
“No. I’m a man in love.” His wink takes some of the schmaltz out of our exchange. He leans across the table to kiss me.
Before I can wonder at this display of affection in such a public place our dessert arrives, a Molten Chocolate Cake with vanilla ice cream and a single candle on top. Forty candles would turn it and our table into flambé.
“Happy birthday, darling.” He takes both of my hands in his. His smile grows larger and his eyes gleam with what I recognize as anticipation. Out of the corner of one eye I sense movement. A small group of people materialize beside the table. Before I can turn, the group begins to sing “Happy Birthday.” These are not a ragtag group of friends belting out the song. These are professionals. As I turn I see part of the cast from The Music in Me. They’re wearing their costumes and beaming at me.
The rest of the room falls silent. Just as the song ends the cast members step back, lock arms around each other’s backs, and begin to sway and do some kind of doo-wop background thing. Still holding on to one of my hands Spencer stands and moves around the table, where he drops to one knee. At first I think something’s happened to him. That one of his legs has given out. But then Merry, Kai, Jen, and Robert break into these big grins. Their doo-wop volume gets softer.
Spencer looks up at me expectantly. Suddenly there’s a velvet ring box in his hand.
I’m having a hard time taking it all in. My first thought is This is so sudden, but it isn’t exactly. He told me he loved me a month to the day after our first meal here. A month after that I said the same. But saying you love someone doesn’t mean you intend to marry them, does it?
As Spencer tells me all the reasons he loves me my heart is pounding so hard that I can hardly hear or think. My life flashes before my eyes like they say it does when you’re about to die, which seems like a bad sign.
Then he flips open the box and the diamond sparkles in the light. It’s huge and pear shaped with baguettes of diamonds on either side. Without meaning to I compare it to the ring Clay gave Bree, which might have come out of a Cracker Jack box. This pretty much screams Tiffany.
“I love you,” Spencer concludes emphatically. “Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
I swallow as I try to corral my random thoughts. I love him. But everyone’s staring. I feel a flash of anger that he’s done this so publicly and without warning. I’m happy with things the way they are. I thought we both were. But how can I say no in front of all these people? And if I do what are the chances we’re going to simply go back to how things were? No. He’ll be humiliated and I’ll never see him again. I’ll be forty and alone with a declining career and . . . No, those are not the reasons to get married. I shove them out of my head and try to think logically. But I can’t seem to think at all.
I want to shout at the cast to stop singing. To go away and leave us alone. I wish I could turn back time to just before dessert arrived. That I’d had some warning this was coming.
I see a shadow of worry steal into his eyes, turning them a mossy, less brilliant green. It has obviously not occurred to him until now that I might say no.
“Lauren?” He swallows and I see just how vulnerable he feels. “Will you marry me?”
And then I’m smiling and crying, though not necessarily for the reasons I should be.
“Of course I will. How can I possibly say no to all this?” These are the truest words I can come up with.
The cast swings into a well-rehearsed version of “Chapel of Love.”
Those close enough to have heard my answer stand up and applaud. It’s the cast that takes the bows.
Reading Group Guide
My Ex-Best Friend's Wedding by Wendy Wax
Questions for Discussion
1. Kendra kept a terrible secret from her daughter, Lauren. Do you understand why she made that choice? Would you have been able to forgive her if you were Lauren?
2. Kendra left Jake at the altar. Have you ever witnessed a bride or groom back out at the last minute? Similarly, in the part of the ceremony where the officiate says, “If anyone can show just cause why this couple cannot lawfully be joined together in matrimony, let them speak now or forever hold their peace,” have you ever witnessed someone actually objecting during the ceremony?
3. Kendra never married because no one could compare to her first love Jake. When Jake enters her life again, is Kendra happy about it? How has time changed them both? Why do you think it’s easier for Jake to understand the decisions Kendra made than it is for Lauren? Do you know where your first love is now? If you didn’t stay together, do you wonder what would have happened if you had?
4. Do you believe in love at first sight? Did you know you were going to marry your current spouse the moment you saw him or her? What was the deciding factor?
5. Lauren and Bree were such close friends. What kept them from resolving their differences? Have you ever had a close friendship that ended? What happened? Do you wish you could make up?
6. Bree’s marriage is not the fairy tale she was hoping for. What do you think of her reasons for staying with her husband? Would you do the same?
7. Both Lauren and Bree are writers, but they have pursued their writing careers very differently. Why do you think that is? Do you have any interest in writing a book? Do you think you would approach it more like Lauren or Bree?
8. How do you feel about Lauren and Spencer’s relationship? Do you think relationships are harder or easier as you get older?
9.The book takes place in New York City and the Outer Banks, very different places. Do you see yourself living—and thriving—in one of these settings more than the other? Why?
10. Kendra acts more like Bree’s mother than Bree’s biological mother. What are the qualities of a good mother? Did you understand why Lauren is sometimes jealous or resentful of Kendra’s relationship with Bree?
11. Both Lauren and Bree wanted to wear the wedding dress handed down through Lauren’s family. Is there a similar tradition in your family? If not, would you like to start one? Would you like to see your daughter wear your wedding gown or do you think each bride should choose a dress she falls in love with?
12. Both Lauren and Bree wanted to wear THE DRESS, but they envisioned very different weddings. Do you think brides are often pulled between what they envision and family obligations and expectations? Did you or do you have a clear idea of what type of wedding you wanted or want? What was your favorite part of your wedding or a wedding you’ve attended?