Authors: Cher Carson
“You are, aren’t you? Put him on the fuckin’ phone. We need to get a few things straight.”
“Are you crazy? I’m not going to put him on the phone.”
Mark pushed off from the doorframe when he overheard her last comment. He had followed her to the kitchen, intent on making plans for later, when he heard her answer her cell phone.
Judging by the tone of the conversation, her boyfriend was pissed. Too damn bad. He reached for the phone, using the element of surprise to catch her off guard.
She glared at him when he held her phone up his ear. “Give me that phone right now, Atwell.”
He shook his head, turning his back on her as he walked into the living room. “You wanted to talk to me, buddy? What can I do for you?”
“Who the hell is this?” an irate male voice shouted.
He held the phone away from his ear and smiled. He couldn’t blame the poor guy; he’d feel the same way if he were losing Jen to another man. “Mark Atwell.” He gave it a minute for the name to register, before he asked, “And you would be?”
Jen stalked into the living room, looking decidedly dishevelled in last night’s clothes. Her make-up was streaked and her long blond hair was standing away from her scalp at odd angles. Her lips were chafed from his hungry kisses and the sensitive skin on her neck bore abrasions from his whiskers. Damn, she looked good enough to eat, all over again.
“Mark Atwell, the hockey player?”
Mark smiled and winked at Jen, who was standing with her hands on her hips, tapping her bare foot on the hardwood floor. If looks could kill, he’d be a dead man. “One and the same.”
“Jen didn’t tell me she knew you.”
Mark chuckled, folding his leg over his bent knee as he stretched an arm over the back of the leather sofa. “Sounds like there’s a lot she hasn’t told you, man.”
“When did you two meet?” he demanded.
“I don’t know, a few years ago. Why, what’s it to you?”
He laughed. “You must have been the asshole she broke up with when she met me.”
Mark planted his feet on the ground, leaning forward. This guy was the reason Jen left him? If that was true, this wasn’t a casual relationship, as Mark had assumed. This was serious.
“How long have you two been together?”
“I don’t know. We dated for a year before we got engaged, so I guess we’ve been together almost two years.”
Mark jumped off the couch, stalking toward Jen, who backed up into the wall. “You’re engaged?” he shouted.
“Yeah,” Kevin said. “We’re getting married in three weeks.” He laughed. “Did my beautiful bride-to-be fail to mention that you were just a way for her to get even with me?”
Mark felt his blood pressure rise to the point where he thought his head might explode. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
He chuckled. “Let’s just say I had a few too many at my bachelor party last weekend. I slept with some stripper and…”
Mark flattened his palm on the wall beside Jen’s head, caging her in with his body. If she thought he was going to let her make a quick escape, she was delusional. “You fucked a stripper last weekend?” Mark couldn’t believe any man could be that stupid. He had an incredible woman like Jen, and he cheated on her with a stripper? This loser clearly didn’t deserve her.
“It was a lapse in judgement.”
Mark looked into Jen’s eyes, trying to read her expression. Embarrassment, shame, fear… “I can’t believe she didn’t dump your sorry ass.”
“Believe me, she wanted to.”
“I convinced her that I loved her, that we could still have a great life together.”
“That’s bullshit. You wouldn’t have cheated on her if you love her so much, asshole.” If this guy were in Mark’s face right now, he’d knock all of his teeth out. How dare he claim to love Jen after what he’d done to her?
“You don’t know anything about our relationship. I love her more than anything, and she loves me.”
“Is that why she made love to me last night, all night long?”
Jen dropped her head into her hands, looking mortified.
“You can call it whatever you want to, Atwell. The bottom line is you got her for one night. She’s mine for the rest of our lives.”
The sharp barb felt like a blade to the chest, piercing his heart. “Don’t count on it.” He punched the end button, ending the call.
“Mark, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” she said quietly, reaching up to touch his face.
He pressed her phone into her palm and stepped out of reach. “I can’t believe this,” he whispered, trying to process the fact that the woman he loved was marrying another man in a few short weeks.
“I tried to tell you last night, but you didn’t want to hear it.”
He walked to the window, looking out over the angry rush of water rolling in on the frigid beach. “I thought…” He braced his elbow on the window and fisted his hair in his hand. “I thought you still wanted me.”
She came up behind him, touching his back tentatively. “I did want you last night. I needed you.”
He turned to face her. Looking at her made his heart ache. He couldn’t believe he was losing her again. “Why me? If you wanted to get even with your fiancé, why not use some random stranger who didn’t give a shit about you?”
She pressed her palms into his bare chest. “I didn’t expect it to be like that. I thought we could just have a good time and walk away.”
He swallowed against the ache of protest in his throat. “Is that what it was like for you the last time? ‘Cause it sure as hell wasn’t that easy for me.”
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
He closed his eyes, shaking his head. “You still don’t get it, do you?” He grabbed her shoulders. “I loved you, Jen. I still do.”
Her face drained of color as her mouth fell open. “What? What are you talking about?”
“I tried calling you, texting, emailing. Hell, I showed up at your building so many times the security guard threatened to take out a restraining order if I ever showed my face around there again.”
A tear slid down her cheek as she shook her head. “I don’t believe you. I think you just thought you felt that way because I was the one woman you couldn’t have anymore. You’re not used to rejection. I don’t believe you loved me, then or now.” She struggled to break free of his grip. “You’re just so used to getting what you want. Well, guess what? You can’t have me.”
The pain in his chest intensified as his heart refuted her claim. “Baby, don’t say that. It’s not too late for us. We can’t let it be.”
She pushed against his chest, breaking free of his hold. “Trust me, it is too late. I’m getting married in a few weeks, remember?” She walked back into the kitchen.
He followed her, knowing this may be his last chance to prove that what he felt for her was real. “You don’t love that guy.”
She shoved her phone in her purse. “You don’t know how I feel.”
“You couldn’t have made love to me last night if…”
“You keep saying that, but it was just sex. We fucked; sure it was great, but so what? Great sex isn’t enough to build a future on, Mark.”
He slammed his fist down on the granite countertop, savoring the sharp bite of pain shooting up his arm. It was better than the numbness that seemed to be rendering him immobile.
He couldn’t just stand by and watch her walk out of his life again. He had to find a way to stop her. “I’m willing to bet you don’t even have that with him, do you?”
She slipped her boots on and fastened the zipper. “My sex life is none of your business.”
He panicked when he saw her grab her coat and throw it over her arm, preparing to leave. She was just steps away from the door, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to stop her.
Except… He stepped toward her, crowding her against the wall. “Prove to me that I don’t mean anything to you.”
She glanced at his lips before looking away. “I don’t have to prove anything to you.”
He watched the rise and fall of her chest. “Fine, prove it to yourself then. If you don’t, you’ll always wonder what might have been between us, Jen.” He thrust his hand into her hair, gripping the back of her neck. “You know you will.”
“That’s what last night was about for me,” she said quietly, closing her eyes. “Putting the past behind me. Mission accomplished.” She opened her eyes to look at him. “I’m ready to move on now. To get married and…”
He pressed his fingertips against her lips, silencing her. “Don’t do this. I know you’re just trying to hurt me.”
“This isn’t about you, Mark. This is about me and what I want.”
He brushed his lips against her cheek, pressing his hardness into the softness of her stomach. “You want me; just admit it. You want me as much as I want you.”
“I spent almost a year of my life wanting you to want me. Meanwhile, you chased after everything in a short skirt.”
He closed his eyes and lowered his head. He couldn’t argue with the truth. “I’m not the same guy anymore, Jen. I know I made mistakes back then, but if you’d just give me a chance…”
“You’re too late. How many times do I have to say it? I’m getting married.”
He was dying inside, a slow painful death. It felt like acid was burning through his body, eating him alive. “You can’t do this.”
She reached into her purse and pulled out a large diamond solitaire. She slipped it on the third finger of her left hand and held it up for him to see. “It’s already done. This should be all the proof you need.”
That ring didn’t belong on her finger, his did. No matter what she said, he was going to find a way to make her realize that before she married the wrong man.
By the time Jenna arrived at the boutique, after a quick stop at home to shower and change, her sister and future sister-in-law had already had their final dress fitting and left. According to Callie and Tracey, they were anxious to get home to their husbands and children.
That left her trapped there, under the watchful eyes of her two best friends. Given the fact that she left the bar with Mark last night, there was no reason to make empty excuses for her tardiness. They knew her too well.
The seamstress thrust her wedding gown at her, ordering her into a vacant change room while muttering under her breath that Saturdays were the busiest day of the week.
Jenna slipped into the dress and fastened the hidden zipper running down her back. She stared at her reflection in the full-length mirror. It wasn’t the first time she’d worn the gown, but for some reason, today it didn’t have the power to make her feel like a princess. She just felt sad, tired… overwhelmed.
She fixed a smile on her face before stepping out of the dressing room. “How does it look?”
Her two friends whistled under their breath. “Wow, you look gorgeous, Jen,” Trace said, walking around her to admire the dress from all angles. “It’s perfect. Just wait ‘til Kevin sees you in this dress.”
She had a vision of Mark waiting for her at the end of the aisle, raking his eyes over her, smiling in awe.
She shook her head, trying to refocus on the task at hand. She wasn’t marrying Mark, she was marrying Kevin. Only three weeks until she took the vows that would change her life forever.
Forsaking all others…
Trace slipped her arm around Jen’s waist and squeezed, smiling at her reflection in the mirror. “Hey, are you okay, honey?”
Jenna offered a shaky smile, taking a deep breath. “Sure, I’m fine, great.” She giggled, forcing herself to stop before it erupted into a case of full-blown hysteria. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Her friends exchanged a look of concern. “Uh, why don’t we get this over with so we can take you out to lunch, Jen?” Callie suggested. “You look like you could use a drink.”
That’s how this whole mess had started. One drink to relax, two to lower her inhibitions, three to give her courage. Next thing she knew she was in Mark’s arms, falling in love with him all over again.
She flattened her palm against her quivering stomach. “I don’t think so. I’m not feeling very well.”
Callie came up behind her, putting her arm around her shoulders. “Does this have anything to do with what happened last night?” she whispered.
Jen bit her bottom lip, trying to hold back the tears. “Kevin knows I spent the night with Mark,” she whispered.
She was vaguely aware of the bustle of excited brides looking for the gown that would complete their wedding day fantasy. Women who were probably counting down the days until they married the man of their dreams. In her case, as her wedding day drew closer, it felt like a noose tightening around her neck.
Trace sighed. “Here comes the seamstress. Let her do her thing so we can all get the hell out of here.”
The matronly woman knelt down on her knees, working frantically with pins sticking out of her mouth and a measuring tape hanging around her neck. When she was finished with the hem, she stood behind Jen, her work-roughened hands drawing in the silk bodice. She smiled. “You’re one of the most beautiful brides I’ve seen in a long time, my dear. Your groom is a very lucky man.”
Jen couldn’t hold back the flow of tears any longer as one escaped, slipping down her cheek. Mortified, she dipped her head and swiped her hand across her face.
The lady squeezed her shoulder. “Don’t worry, it happens all the time. It’s a very emotional time for most brides. Just remember, your wedding lasts only one day, the marriage lasts a lifetime.”
A lifetime with Kevin. Jenna felt a sharp pain in her chest, restricting her airway. She didn’t think she could do this.
Trace cleared her throat, obviously sensing Jen’s distress. “She’ll be fine. She’s not feeling very well. I think she just needs to go home and take a nap.”
Taking the hint, the woman quickly worked the bodice of the gown, nipping and tucking, as required. “This was the supposed to be the final fitting, but I think it needs a few more adjustments,” she said. “Could you come back next weekend to try it on again?”
Jen nodded her head numbly. She would say anything, do anything, to get out of this gown. The first time she tried it on, six months ago, it felt so right. Now it just made her feel like a fraud setting out to deceive a few hundred of the people closest to her.
“Okay, you’re all set,” the seamstress said, drawing back the curtain for her to enter the change room. “You go home and get plenty of rest. You wouldn’t want to be sick for your big day.”
was starting to feel more like her sentencing day.
She changed back into her clothes quickly, slipping into a snug pair of jeans, pulling her sweater over her head with little consideration for her hair. She hung the gown on the hanger, barely able to look at it as she rushed out of the change room. “I’ve got to get out of here,” she muttered, rushing past her friends.
They followed her out onto the street, rushing to catch up when she all but sprinted to her Roadster.
“You can’t drive in your condition, Jen,” Trace said, grabbing her keys. She pointed down the street. “Look, there’s a little café down the street. We’ll grab a sandwich and talk about it, okay?”
She nodded her head, turning in the direction of the café. They were right; she needed to face this. She couldn’t run away from it anymore, and the only people who could help her were the two women who had known her most of her life. They understood the dynamics of her relationship with both men; they would be her voice of reason.
Walking the short distance to the café, her friends remained quiet, as though they could sense that she needed time to collect herself before they began trying to restore order to the chaos that was her life.
They spent a few moments claiming a table and placing their order before Callie finally said, “Okay, spill, we want details about what happened with Mark last night.”
Instead of responding, Jenna fixed her attention on the small ceramic bowl containing the sugar and sweetener packets. She re-organized them according to brand and color.
Trace finally took the bowl away from her, setting it on an empty table behind them. “Honey, we know you’re going through a difficult time. We want to help if we can.”
Jenna propped her elbows on the table, covering her face with her hands. “I don’t think anyone can help me. That’s the problem.”
Callie pried a hand away from her face, covering it with her own. “You’re having second thoughts about marrying him, aren’t you?”
Trace rolled her eyes. “Can you blame her? He cheated on her with a stripper.”
“Sssh.” Jenna looked around quickly, hoping no one had overheard the comment. Telling her best friends had been humiliating enough; she didn’t relish the idea of sharing the information with a roomful of strangers.
“Why don’t you start by telling us what happened with Mark?” Callie said quietly. She tucked a strand of curly red hair behind her ear as she propped her chin in her hand. “Don’t leave anything out.”
Trace hit her on the shoulder, grinning. “You just want the dirty details.”
Callie shook her head, trying to wipe the smile off her face. “No, I don’t. I’m trying to help my friend.”
Jenna decided the only way she was going to find resolution to her problem was if she faced it head on. “Mark said he’s in love with me.”
Callie and Trace gaped at her, speechless.
“Well, say something,” she said, shifting uneasily in her seat. “Come on, you two are never at a loss for words.”
Tracey shook her head, as though she were waking from a trance. “Hold on, did he say it in the heat of the moment or…”
“Not during sex, if that’s what you’re asking. He told me this morning, after he found out I was engaged to Kevin.”
“Ah,” Callie said, shaking her head. “That makes sense. He wasn’t ready to let you go, so he was trying to pull out all the stops.”
Jen had considered the possibility that it was a ploy on his part, but she knew Mark well enough to sense when he was being sincere. She would be willing to bet next month’s commission check on the fact that he believed he was in love with her. However, the question remained: how would he feel a year from now when the novelty had worn off and their relationship had become comfortable? That was a gamble she wasn’t willing to take.
“I believe his feelings for me are real…”
“But?” Trace asked, sliding her water glass aside.
“But I don’t trust him. He’s the kind of guy who wants something until he has it. When he does…”
“He doesn’t want it anymore.” Callie rolled her eyes. “We’ve all known guys like that, haven’t we?”
“Yeah, that’s just it,” Jenna said, pulling her hands through her hair. “I can’t build a future with a guy who may not be there tomorrow.”
“You’re worried about other women?” Trace asked, looking her in the eye.
Her friends knew that during her relationship with Mark, the ever-present puck bunnies were a constant source of conflict. She wanted to be the only one, not one of many. When she met Kevin, he made her feel special, as though no other woman could compare. He was a client, looking for commercial space for his family’s newest restaurant. He was charming, attractive, and attentive. He courted her with flowers, gourmet dinners, and theater tickets, and within weeks, she began to see him as someone she could imagine herself with for the duration.
“The women are always going to be an issue with Mark.” She rubbed her temples, trying to ward off the mounting pressure in her head. “He’s a professional athlete.”
“Who happens to be gorgeous, not to mention a born womanizer,” Trace said, raising her finger. “Let’s not forget that.”
There was no denying the fact that Mark loved women almost as much as they loved him. She would have to be delusional to believe that he would be satisfied with her for the rest of his days. “You’re right,” Jen said quietly. “There’s no way Mark is going to change, regardless of what he said last night.”
“How did he seem last night?” Callie asked. “Different?”
Jen shrugged. “Yeah, but that’s not to say he wouldn’t revert back to his old ways in no time.”
The waitress approached with a tray containing their order. They waited for her to distribute the sandwiches before Callie asked, “Forget about how he feels. I want to know how you feel.”
Jen took a small bite of her bagel, piled high with cream cheese and lox. She took her time chewing as she tried to find the words to justify her feelings for her ex. “I’m not gonna lie to you guys…”
Trace snorted. “Not that you could. You know we’d see right through you.”
Jen smiled. “You’re right.” She took a sip of her diet soda. “I still have feelings for him. I don’t know if I can label them, but I’d be lying if I said I felt nothing for the man.”
“Are you in love with him?” Trace asked.
Callie nudged her with an elbow. “She just said she couldn’t define it.”
Tracey sat back in her seat, eyeing her critically. “Yes, she can. She’s just afraid to.”
Jen took another bite of the bagel, which was now sitting like a stone in the pit of her stomach. Both women stared at her until she was forced to say something. “Fine, I may be in love with him, I don’t know. I’m confused, all right?”
“You know what this means, don’t you?” Callie said quietly, leaning forward. “You can’t marry Kevin. Not if you’re having these doubts.”
Jen felt a flutter of panic in her stomach. Her parents had spent a fortune giving her the wedding of her dreams; how was she going to tell them she was having second thoughts? They would never forgive her.
“You can’t worry about what other people are going to say, Jen,” Trace said, as though she were reading her thoughts. “This is your life. You have to be the one to decide what or who is going to make you happy.”
Jen pressed her fingertips against her trembling lips. “What if I have no idea what I want?” she whispered.