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Wasted Vows by Colleen Charles (1)

Prologue

The rich wooden doors of the Cathedral of Saint Paul stood open, waiting for me.

I inhaled a cleansing breath and promised myself to stay grounded in the moment and enjoy the journey. This only happened once in a lifetime, so I wanted to savor every sight, smell, sound, and taste.

“You look beautiful,” Larissa said and walked around me in a slow circle. The blue and red chiffon of her bridesmaid’s dress whispered around her toned legs. “Perfect. How do you feel?”

I swallowed hard and smiled at my best friend. For a fleeting moment, I contemplated staying outside, under the tree on the hill, with the cathedral at my back and the stately capital city of Minnesota spread out in front of me. With a church looming before me fit for a queen. Or a bride.

Nerves bubbled in the pit of my belly, and I pressed my gloved hands to the designer Vera Wang I’d purchased from L’Atelier Couture. A splurge. And I deserved it. Just like I deserved the man waiting for me at the altar.

The Thorn Edwards.

I blew out a breath. I just had to keep telling myself that.

“Luna?”

“I’m great,” I said as brightly as I could muster. “Why wouldn’t I be? It’s the first day of the rest of my life. I can’t wait to get inside and see Thorn in his tuxedo. I’m sure it’s swoon-worthy.”

Larissa didn’t look convinced and dug her cell phone out of her clutch. “We’d better get in there.” She checked the time, then plopped it back inside. “Yeah, we’re ten minutes late already. You really know how to make a grand entrance, Lunatic.”

I laughed at my bestie’s use of my old nickname and shook out my arms. “I just need a minute.”

“Hey, the nerves are normal.” Larissa flashed the same smile of encouragement she’d shown me after my first D in middle school history. “Nothing like being on display at the most beautiful church in the state with the society page gunning for an exclusive. Probably the sports page too. But you’ll do fine. Forget about all the strangers in there. Thorn knows a lot of people. It is what it is.”

“Thanks,” I said and rolled my eyes. “That helps a lot.”

It felt as if the entire sponsorship base of the Minnesota Twins had been invited along with every teammate, coach, and article writer Thorn had ever been involved with. Without even going inside, I knew that the groom’s guests overflowed the bride’s pews. In reality, it was just the team, and their wives, and their – I gulped again and let out a nervous chuckle.

“It’s my fault for marrying the star catcher, right? I’ve never been good with, uh, public appearances.”

“Once you get in there, everyone’s going to be so totally stunned by how you look that they’ll forget all about Thorn Edwards and his all-star status.”

That wasn’t true. Nothing could erase Thorn’s fame from the radar of every citizen in the state. He’d been on the Twins’ roster since his rookie season, and local sports fans worshiped the ground he dug his cleats into. Thorn had suggested televising the event on a lark, and it was done before I’d had any say in the matter. The press had eaten it up. As if on cue, Eric Perkins strode toward me with a mic and a cameraman. A little shiver traveled up my bare arms. Gosh, I was terrible with this kind of thing.

The other bridesmaids stood under a tree and gossiped behind their hands. They’d been selected because of their attachments to Thorn’s friends. I didn’t even know their names. No doubt, gossip and rumors about my pre-wedding jitters would spread like wildfire, shaming me in front of every little leaguer, baseball mom, and pot-bellied sports fan with their hand glued to the remote control. I could almost imagine their hateful stares. Ever since I started dating Thorn, women state-wide had openly despised me, talking behind my back and sometimes straight to my face. No one considered me good enough for the iconic idol, Thorn Edwards. Sometimes, I wondered if I could really do this. The invisible wife of a professional athlete thing.

The dresses fluttered on the breeze, red and navy chiffon floating through the air. God, I hated those dresses, but they’d been chosen as a tribute in color – as the wedding planner had called it – to the Minnesota Twins. Any other color would be considered blasphemy. And Thorn didn’t believe in disappointing his fans.

I’d spent the last two years working as a wedding planner myself, and I loved my career. Nothing about my own attendant’s dresses said “classy” or “elegant.” They could’ve been modest cheerleader’s outfits. I almost expected Eric Perkins to produce sets of pom-poms from his black canvas gear bag.

I looked up at the dome and spire of the cathedral, stark against the azure blue sky, then squared my shoulders. “Let’s do this. I may not love some of the wrappers today, but I… I l-love the m-man.”

“That’s the spirit,” Larissa said, still looking worried, but she clicked her fingers at the other bridesmaids. “All right, ladies, get into formation.”

“Beyoncé again?” I asked with a soft snort.

Larissa snorted too. “I can’t help myself.”

“Just don’t go all ‘crazy in love’ on me when we’re walking down the aisle. I don’t think the crowd would recover.”

“Please, they’d be privileged to see my rendition.” Larissa tapped my upper arm. “And you can do Jay Z’s rap.”

I brought my fist to my lips as if speaking into a microphone and gave my best thug pose. “Oh my god,” I said and stifled a laugh. “Forget about the cameras broadcasting to Thorn’s fans across the state.”

Larissa hurried ahead, but one of her heels got stuck in the grass. She thunked it out, gave me a thumbs up, then rushed into the cathedral.

I reached the bottom of the stairs behind the long line of my nameless bridesmaids. They chattered and gripped their bouquets, sprays of red, white, and blue roses. Irises were my favorite flower. I’d argued and whined, but not one Iris would be present today, even in my reception centerpieces. Seemed I’d compromised down to the petals.

Larissa rushed down the stairs to meet me and handed me a much bigger version of what I’d have described as an eyesore if anyone had deigned to pay attention. If one of my brides had asked for this type of bouquet, I’d have spent the better part of a week gently talking her out of it. I couldn’t believe this foliage fuck-up would be forever immortalized in my wedding photos. Even though a wedding was normally all about the bride, this wasn’t so much my wedding as it was Thorn’s.

“All right. This is it,” Larissa said. She pressed her cheek to mine in lieu of a kiss. “You’re fabulous. So hot. Totally unique.”

My heart pounded against my chest, but I managed a smile and quipped, “Don’t break into song.”

“You’re playing with fire.” Larissa winked, then grew serious. “You’re sure?”

I forced a brighter smile. “Absolutely.”

She looked at me closely, then turned to take up her position in front of me.

The string quartet sounded inside the cathedral, a loud strain of tones I could barely distinguish as Pachelbel. I inhaled, the cleansing breath soothing my nerves. Everything was fine. Wasn’t it? My mind drifted back to high school when my mom had advised me to worry more about the marriage itself than about the wedding.

Every woman in Minnesota lusted after Thorn. Dreamy, tall, muscular, and blond. And he loved me. He loved me.

“He loves me,” I murmured.

Larissa didn’t hear me over the lilting music. The line of bridesmaids dwindled, and as Larissa floated in front of me, it was my turn to traverse the steps. I carefully took them one at a time, ignoring the vicious cramps threatening to double me over.

Not today.

Not on my wedding day. This would be the best day of my damn life. It had to be.

I reached the doors and entered the antechamber. The next set of doors hovered in front of me. At the end of the aisle, Thorn stood on the raised platform beneath a stained-glass window and a colossal gilt arch, looking angelic.

His easy grin didn’t belay any anxiety. He was the star catcher and the star catch. His perfectly groomed head tilted to one side as he peered past the river of bridesmaids clad in Twins colors. His eyes, icy and blue as the ocean, speared me.

Loving what he sees?

Silently criticizing?

He’d be sure to let me know later.

Larissa spared me one last glance. She blew a kiss, then mouthed, “Crazy in love, baby.” A last attempt to make me smile. It worked.

I stepped over the threshold and onto the cold stone tiles leading up to the dais. A few gasps rang out. Women whipped out their handkerchiefs and dabbed at running mascara. Men cleared their throats, Adam’s apples bobbing.

I could do this. One foot in front of the other, Luna. No problemo.

The tempo of the music altered, a slight change in rhythm, and I took my first step toward the rest of my life, locking gazes with the man waiting for me. The other half to my whole. The yin to my yang. The mate to my soul. The...

Why was I trying to sell this to myself so hard?

Wedding guests creaked in their wooden pews, glancing at me and then back at the real star of the show, the groom, all eyes drinking in his every movement and every facial expression. And Thorn put on a show for the fans. Cameramen drifted along the far ends of the pews, one lens trained on me, the other on Thorn and his triumphant look as he inspected his future bride.

I took another step. One at a time, that was all it would take to reach my future husband and begin our blessed future. His groomsmen looked surly in their tuxes, all teammates with their hands clasped in front of their coats.

I took another step and hazarded a soft smile. No one in the crowd returned it except for Ross, Larissa’s husband – he hadn’t been invited to be a groomsman. And he should have been.

I pressed my lips together in an effort to tamp down my nerves but stopped right away. I’d ruin my lipstick.

Another step and my gaze landed on the two kids in the front row. The flower girl and the ring bearer. Thorn’s niece and nephew. A perfect little boy and a girl, one bored but outfitted in the cutest tux I’d ever laid eyes on, and the other blinking at me, her sparkling green eyes a mirror of my own. My stomach lurched. They were so beautiful. Angelic little cherubs with nothing but joy and love shining in their eyes.

A lead weight dropped in my heart. Or maybe the lead weight was my heart.

I didn’t take another step.

The music continued and murmurs spread through the crowd as I stilled along the silk-lined aisle. Both cameras focused on me. Thorn’s triumph flickered as his eyes narrowed.

“I can’t do this,” I choked out, but nobody heard my tortured whisper.

Larissa’s eyes went round as the china I’d chosen for the reception – the only thing I’d had a hand in during the planning phase for the wedding. Insisting on Raynaud, I’d finally gotten my way after my eyes had filled with tears over the lack of Irises. The wedding planner had taken pity on me. His hawk-like eyes blazed fire from his place in the third row. I don’t think he pitied me now.

The music faltered, and silence fell, apart from the whispers rustling between the benches, like kindling and leaves on the cusp of bursting into flame.

“Luna,” Thorn demanded in his go-to commanding tone.

Luna, can you get me a beer and a sandwich? Luna, can you suck my cock? And make sure you swallow this time. Luna, can you…

Lose weight.

Dress nicer.

You’d look so much sexier as a blonde.

Cook something edible.

Give up your dreams.

I spun on my heel, lifted my skirts, and sprinted for the front doors.

Shocked squeals bounced off the cupola. Pews rattled, and people shot to their feet behind me, craning their necks for an unobstructed view, the click of heels and dress shoes hitting the flagged stone.

“Damn,” I muttered and rushed through the antechamber. “Damn and double damn.” I dashed down the front stairs and onto the path leading to the road, unable to believe I hadn’t fallen. I’d catch a cab if I had to or whatever I could find. A sedan. A utility van. A golf cart. A horse-drawn carriage.

Damn it. If I had to, I’d walk.

I glanced back at the church.

Maybe I’ll run.

I tore down the hill, the hem of my dress dragging on the tar. Not even thinking of the fact that I’d maxed out my only credit card in one last stubborn display of independence to purchase this godforsaken dress, I yanked hard, and the ripping sound tore through my body. Good. I hoped I’d damaged it beyond repair. Just like my relationship. Just like my life.

“Luna!”

I searched for the voice. It didn’t contain censure, only empathy, and… love.

“Luna, over here.” Larissa pulled up beside me in her Volvo – the one Ross had parked around the back. “Get in.”

I clunked open the back door and slipped inside. My dress got caught on the bottom rim of the door, and I tugged it free. It ripped, and I slammed the door shut, creating a black line in the already shredded hem of poor Vera.

“Are you okay?” Ross asked from the passenger seat.

“That’s a real smart question, honey,” Larissa said and whacked him on the top of the head. “She just flew from the filled to capacity church like a deer caught in the headlights of a semi. Does she look okay?”

“Just being polite,” he grumbled. Larissa pinched his cheek but kept the physical contact to a minimum. No doubt, she thought seeing her happy union would set me off again. Even I knew I wasn’t behaving rationally.

I fought back tears of panic. “I couldn’t go through with it. You know why I couldn’t–”

“I know,” Larissa said. “But listen, you don’t need to explain yourself to me or anyone else. And don’t look back, okay?”

“Do you mean metaphorically?” I hiccupped.

“No, I mean like, cars are chasing me right now. I think they might be paps,” she said.

“What’s a pap?” Ross asked and pulled a face. “Pap smear?”

“Yes, darling, there are angry gynecologists after us, using speculums as weapons. Paparazzi, Ross. Try to keep up.” Larissa spun out of the grounds and into the street. “We’ll lose them in the city.”

St. Paul rushed by the windows, and I kept my head low, not paying attention to any of the landmarks. Even the stunning beauty of Summit Avenue couldn’t lift my tortured eyes to the light of day. I wanted to stay locked deep inside my own little world of failure and disappointment. I didn’t dare sit up in case someone caught sight of me and imploded the last shred of my self-esteem straight into oblivion.

I squeezed my eyes shut against the mental image of Twins fans chasing me with pitchforks and flaming bats instead of torches and sought the quiet inside place my mother had told me about when I was a kid. Tears leaked out from under my lids, but the sense of relief was there too. It felt like an escape and a heartbreak all rolled into one. How could I ever show my face again? After living in Minnesota my entire life, I’d probably have to move in order to escape well-deserved persecution.

The car slowed to a stop. Knuckles brushed against my cheek. “She’s cold,” Larissa said. “Hon, can you carry her in?”

“I can walk,” I muttered.

“No, it’s okay. Ross has got this. He’s strong. He’s intelligent. He’s dependable. Let him help you.”

“I was a weight-lifter in college,” Ross said, flexing.

I snorted and cracked an eyelid. “I’m really okay.” But I wasn’t. I had no idea how long we’d spent driving around, but I could barely move a muscle, and the heavy wedding dress didn’t help. I drifted toward a blanket of darkness and relief.

I woke hours later, snug in Larissa’s guestroom. Someone had left a cup of coffee on the nightstand. It was warm to the touch, and I gulped it down for one blissful moment pretending I wasn’t Luna Faye Anderson, public enemy number one.

Forgetting.

Within seconds, everything rushed back to me on waves of pain and regret. My heart hammered against the inside of my ribcage, and I sat back.

Oh, Luna. What have you done?

But what woman wouldn’t have done the same in my position?

***

The next few days passed in a blur. Larissa insisted I stay with her until it all blew over. Since they lived about an hour outside the Twin Cities, the paps hadn’t traveled that far to get their story, preferring to interview anyone and everyone else, filling in the blanks with their own collection of sordid details not even resembling the truth.

The truth.

Something I believed in with all my heart, but I couldn’t tell my version of it. Larissa tried to keep me away from the TV and the papers, but some of the confusion and downright hatred crept through. I almost couldn’t believe how much perfect strangers hated my guts.

People had named me the Runaway Bride. Thorn was in a supposed state, though he had no trouble expressing his sorrows at cheap strip joints with Benjamins, an open fly, and VIP bottle treatment. In a haze of self-induced purgatory, I watched him on television. His first game since I’d left him stranded at the altar. After the seventh inning stretch, I’d gone and hidden away in the bathroom, fighting the urge to vomit up the contents of my stomach. I couldn’t believe what I’d done to him. I couldn’t believe what I’d done to myself.

A soft knock on the door snapped my head to attention, and I tried to swallow the lump of agony in my throat.

“Luna,” Larissa whispered through the solid oak door creating a barrier I didn’t even think my very best friend in the entire world could break through. “Honey? Something’s happened.”

“Yeah?” I clamped my eyes shut not wanting to hear it. Wanting to hear it.

“Honey, Thorn’s injured. They’re saying it might end his career.”

My insides evaporated. “No.”

“I – they’re blaming it on you. They say he lost focus because of… because of what happened.”

And just like that, everything I’d known – my business, my reputation – crumbled into dust.

Luna Anderson was over.

Done.

 

 

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