Alex Reeves is sick of jumping through hoops to make everyone but herself happy. When her courtship with a man chosen by her family comes to a surprising proposal, Alex leaves him at the altar in defiance.
But she has nowhere to go until her friend sends her a link – marry who you want!
Before she knows it, she’s on her way to Jeremy Aker’s ranch to discover the true blessings of family and just how much she needs to leap in faith. Can she trust her heart enough to find happiness? Or is she doomed to follow other people’s biddings?
Not very many people worked on their wedding day.
Lifting my blonde ponytail from my neck, I untied the dark pink apron emblazoned with a large brown donut and white letters which read Reeves’s Café.
The back office was tight and only offered enough space for employees in small cubbies by the door. My own cubby was empty amongst others, which held candy bars, spare rubber bands, chewing gum, and feminine products. I didn’t even get to keep a time card since my parents paid me a salary. They liked to make me work whenever they needed.
I rolled my head to the side, stretching the front muscles of my neck. “Tired” wasn’t an adequate enough word for how I felt.
Earlier that morning, my mother had roused me from a really great sleep. She had told me to get into the café to cover the manager until she showed up later that morning. Mom had taken the day off because she wanted to get ready for my wedding and the reception.
Instead of covering the shift herself, she’d called me.
On my wedding day.
Apparently, I didn’t need to get ready. Which didn’t make any sense to me at all, but most of the things my parents decided for me didn’t make sense.
The night before had been a long, boring, bachelorette party – if that’s what you could call it. Sitting around listening to old women gossip about who was wearing what at church the previous Sunday was not my idea of fun, or what I wanted to do on my last night of freedom.
Apparently, though, that’s what Mrs. Burton and my mom had in mind as perfectly acceptable.
I braced my hands on the small desk and continued stretching my neck and shoulders. Elizabeth had fallen asleep on the tabletop at the restaurant, earning herself deep scowls and a murmured complaint from Mrs. Burton about my acquaintances changing once I was married. My returning glare hadn’t been received well. I’m not sure what she expected. No one would threaten my friendship with Elizabeth.
She was my best friend. She wasn’t the type of friend I hung out with and told secrets to. She was the friend that made the secrets with me and challenged me to make more. Our friendship had doomed her to the position of maid of honor at my wedding. Thankfully, she hadn’t stopped texting me all morning.
At least she was righteously outraged that I was working on my wedding day. She was always upset for me, even when I was too drained of energy to care. My mother was the type that sucked you dry and demanded more.
“Alex, did you happen to grab that last guy’s bill? He hasn’t paid me yet.” Monica, our morning waitress, stood in the doorway of the office with her hand on her hip and the coffee pot in the other. “I’m getting really sick of these dine and dashers.” She sighed, checking her up-do in the mirror.
I pointed toward the front and nodded. “Yeah, he paid. Your tip is in your envelope. I’m heading out. I’ve got to go get ready for the big day.” I rolled my eyes. Monica understood what was going on. She worked for my mom, for crying out loud. Even the amazing blueberry scones we baked fresh everyday didn’t take the saccharine taste of my mother out of your craw.
Monica reached out and slapped my shoulder. Her sudden movement flooded the small confines of the office with her rich perfume. Wrinkling her nose, she gushed, “Oh, my goodness, that’s right. Why are you in here on your wedding day? Girl, you are a workaholic.” She winked. There was no room in the office for her to turn around without spilling the coffee, so she backed into the storage area just outside the door. “You better get going. Good luck and congratulations.”
I nodded my thanks, but trained my gaze on the desk.
Congratulations. Yep. That’s exactly how I was feeling on my wedding day. Congratulations to Larry for getting me as a wife. Congratulations to his family for me making their son happy. Congratulations to my parents for getting what they want and having the Burtons as in-laws.
Unable to congratulate myself on a horrible match that I was not really interested in or that I felt at all comfortable with, I ignored the tears welling in my eyes at the thought of my future looming before me.
Bacon grease wafted on the air, mingling with the sugary sweetness of the maple syrup on pancakes. I closed my eyes and tried to allow the comforting smells of the café envelope me, but they just reminded me of all the things I didn’t like about Larry. He was always there these days. Like the fact that the last time he’d come into the café, he’d made our evening waitress cry when she’d accidentally given him the apple pie and me his lemon meringue. He’d called her stupid and incompetent while smiling like a wolf. My jaw had dropped open, and I’d rushed off to console her. Not once did I stick up for her in front of him. I was a people pleaser and upsetting my chosen-for-me fiancé wasn’t the way I pleased anyone. Except myself.
Larry didn’t even like his mom. He had no respect for women or anyone he deemed less than himself. He had once called her a fat cow in front of her ladies’ group because she suggested he have only one dessert instead of two.
He’d looked at me and said, “If you ever turn out like that fat cow, I’ll leave you.” Then he’d looked around and laughed. Everyone else had laughed with him, because of course, who says that kind of thing? Unless it was a joke.
But Larry was a mean man who was good-looking as all get out. He reminded me of Gaston from the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast. Good-looking and everyone wanted him, but the one who saw the real him couldn’t get away.
That would be me.
And I was trapped.
Reaching up, I pinched the tight muscles between my neck and shoulders, wincing at the soreness of the flesh.
Larry was indifferent to me. He was only marrying me because it was expected. In our small town of Blackberry, Arkansas, neither of us had a lot of options. My parents owned three of the four restaurants in town and the Burtons wanted to have that kind of access to the public so Larry could take office one day.
My time would fast run out before I had to be in front of that preacher, God, and all those witnesses. I was more aware of the time passing than anyone else. I couldn’t hide at the restaurant any longer.
I carefully folded my apron and tucked it into my cubby. At least when I wasn’t there, my cubby had something inside it.
My cell phone buzzed against my leg. If it was Elizabeth, then I would let myself grab a raspberry and white chocolate scone on the way to the church. If it was my mother, maybe I should get two?
The text was from Mom. Two scones for me!
“The ceremony starts in an hour. Hurry!”
What was the rush? Why did I have to hurry up and get married? I glowered at the phone. I didn’t need to be married. Actually, if I was fully honest, I wouldn’t mind being married. I always wanted kids and to be married and be happy.
But I didn’t need it.
I ignored Mom’s text and grabbed my bag which held pretty much my entire life in it, from nylons to my sports bras for when I might want to go for a run – it’d been two years, and I still hadn’t used them.
The church was about three blocks away. I could walk that in less than five minutes. Sunshine blinded me when I stepped outside, and I blinked as I turned my head until my eyes adjusted. How ironic that the sun was so happy on the day I legally bound myself to a jerk. Why couldn’t the world weep that I was marrying someone like Larry?
The route took me past a coffee shop that my parents had tried to buy the year before, but the man and his wife had refused. I’d silently applauded them because I couldn’t stand up to my parents worth a goose’s poop. I loved seeing when other people did it.
A sign on their shop acted like an old-school reader board, and the man would put up random quotes or questions designed to inspire the reader or make them question themselves. The quotes usually made me laugh or nod in agreement. I’d once asked the owner where he got the quotes, and he’d answered that his wife was emailed random facts and quotes a few times a week, and he just took them from there. I loved the idea but could never find the site to sign up.
The sign that day read, “Are you doing what you want, or what you think others want?”
I stopped walking, almost doubling over at the sudden expelling of air from my lungs. Leaning against the closest light pole, I crossed my arms and stared at the sign. Catch your breath, Alex, and make sense of the question.
Was I doing what I wanted to do? Or what someone else wanted me to do? How could I still walk around the obvious answer on eggshells?
When was the last time I had done something I wanted? I didn’t want to marry Larry. At the same time, I didn’t want to upset my parents. I was an only child, and they didn’t have anyone else. When I looked at them, I could see the happiness that I would find later in life, especially if I followed the choices they made for me. Just because it wasn’t my way, didn’t mean it wasn’t a good way to go.
A bird with white markings landed on the edge of the sign. I scrambled for my small pocket camera which substituted for me when I wasn’t toting my big lens with me.
Zooming in, I focused on the bird’s face and blurred the sign just past it. I was heavily into photography. Between pictures and event planning, I would be happy with either one, but I couldn’t pursue either since they weren’t considered real jobs in my parents’ house.
Why was I doing what they wanted…? I slowly lowered the camera and stared at the bird that was free to do whatever she needed to. When my dad had suffered a heart attack about three years ago, I’d come home from Fayetteville to help them at my mother’s urging.
I’d given up a very successful business to come help them with theirs. I’d given up so much because they had said none of it was real or valuable, and because my mother was a pro at dishing out guilt.
Apparently, nothing I did was worth anything unless it had been dictated by someone else.
The sign mocked me as I pushed away from the pole to continue toward the church. No matter how many lines I stepped on or cracks I walked over, I knew my mom’s back wasn’t in danger.
I turned left and swallowed back a lump of apprehension as it worked its way up my throat. Black shutters stood out against the white clapboard siding. As I got closer to the three-story building, the details came more into focus like the lines of the rocks and the lead in the stained-glass windows. A tower rose behind the church to stand as a queen over the rest of the lot. My stomach twisted and nausea roiled beneath my control.
What was I doing? I paused mid-step and looked behind me, but there was nowhere to run. I couldn’t escape. I was locked in because I had nothing to run toward, just too much to run from.
I’d never get out of the rut I’d found myself in. Marrying Larry was my lot in life. When you lived in a town as small as I did, you didn’t make waves.
And, I had to keep reminding myself – I had nowhere to go.
I walked around the back to the tower entrance, where I had been told to show up to get dressed. I hadn’t planned anything. Even the flowers weren’t my choice. I think Mrs. Burton and Mom had decided on pink calla lilies and white roses. My choice would’ve been irises and daisies, bright purple irises. I certainly wouldn’t have chosen a church we didn’t attend to have the ceremony in.
With the beautiful weather, I would opt for something outside with an arch covered in green vines and white Adirondack chairs.
The door was painted black where I was supposed to enter. It stood open, and as I rounded the corner to go inside, I almost ran into Elizabeth, who stood there waiting. Hair up in a tight bun with little sprigs of flowers in her hair, she worked to be expressive through the heavily applied makeup she normally didn’t wear.
Giving her a questioning look, I climbed the old cobblestone steps.
Frustrated at her lack of communication, she reached out and grabbed my arm, pulling me closer. No one else was around, thank heaven. I breathed in her comforting scent of oranges and cinnamon. If Larry and his mother had their way, I wouldn’t be seeing much of Liz after today.
The thought brought tears to my eyes, and I brushed at my cheeks. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to cry. I just… It’s been a long day already.” I could get emotional with Liz. She didn’t want me to be anything other than what I was.
Her hoarse whisper came out like she’d been holding everything inside her like a vault. “First of all, I cannot believe that your mother even talked me into wearing this dress. It’s atrocious.” She pretended to gag, waving her hand in the air as if shoving the topic aside for the moment. “That doesn’t matter.” She grabbed my upper arms with her strong grip and peered deep into my eyes. “Alex, don’t marry him.”
I exhaled and twisted my lips to the side. There were those dang tears again. “I don’t have a choice. I’m in this too far. Maybe if I tried stopping it two years ago, when Larry and I started dating… It doesn’t matter. You and I’ve already talked about this. I’m stuck.”
Reality finally swooped in around me as the sounds of bustling and mingling people from inside the chapel reached us through the open windows. A mix of musty church and old woman perfume reached me on the breeze by the open window. I would lose my life as I married Larry, surrounded by decaying people and a rotting building.
Liz pulled back and studied me, tucking her chin. “Are you sure? You only get one life. That’s it. You won’t get another one. I promise, you do not have to do what everyone else wants you to. Live.” She slid her hand down my arm and gripped my hand tight, squeezing my fingers. Her desperation was evident in her grasp.
As appealing as her words were, as much as I felt her plea deep in the center of my soul, I was trapped. “You can’t fix everything. At least not this.” I blinked back the tears that apparently wanted to hang out with me all day. It was okay to cry at weddings, wasn’t it? At least when the bride was sentenced to life.
“Okay, last thing I’ll say out loud. Don’t marry Larry.” She lifted her hands and backed away from me. Jerking her head up the stairs, she whispered, “You better hurry. Your mom is on a warpath. She made me put makeup on my tattoos.” She turned so I could see her bare shoulder where her butterfly usually was. The powdery cover looked fake and I felt bad.
“I’m so sorry. I would never have asked you to do that.” My mom was intent on destroying everything good in my life.
Mom was always on some kind of a tear. She didn’t want anyone else to be happy. If you did exactly what you were asked, she would still find fault with your efforts.
Would me marrying Larry even make her happy?
Turning from Liz, I faced the stairs looming before me. Part of me could see Elizabeth as the dragon protecting the stairs, but another part made me wonder if maybe she wasn’t the knight of the story. Or knightress. She didn’t want me to go upstairs because, once I was up there, I would be chained forever to a life of…
I shook my head. Enough with the fatalistic commentary. I couldn’t blame anyone else for the decisions in my life. I made them. Just like I had to climb those stairs to get ready to come down again.
Gripping the railing, I forced my leaden feet to carry me up and up. The stairs climbed up in a circle, lining the wall of the tower. When I was little, I had never understood why they made the brides go upstairs, until I saw a bride walking down. As her dress had slowly come into view, one step at a time, the photographer had snapped pictures like crazy. I had wanted to take those pictures – to catch the light as it drifted through the stained-glass, splashing a myriad of colors across the white fabric.
But today, it would be me, and I didn’t want any colors splashed on the white dress. Maybe clouds would pass, and I wouldn’t have to face those hope-inspiring pictures for something I knew that was doomed for failure.
My parents waited in the foyer. My father’s balding head nodded in agreement to something Mrs. Burton said. The sight of my mother’s curls pushed me up the stairs. I didn’t want to see her. I didn’t want to see any of them. Hopefully, the veil they’d picked out for me would hide me from the world and protect me from view.
I pushed into the room at the top of the tower. Mirrors covered one side and my dress, covered in plastic, hung from a fabric hanger on a hook above the mirror. There was a stool set up so I could do my makeup, but I couldn’t take my eyes off that dress. I slowly sank onto the stool, lifting my feet to shove onto the lowest rung.
Even the dress was wrong. Everything about it was wrong. I had asked for an A-line skirt and she’d given me a baby doll style dress with an empire waist and a long flowing skirt.
One thing I loved about myself was my hips. I had the shape of a woman, and I didn’t hide it. My mother constantly tried to push me into this waifish figure that I would never be. Something she would never be either. I got my curves from her side, and she liked to eat. Not saying she was fat, just neither of us was never going to fit into those dresses that she wanted us to look good in.
Yet there the dress was, staring at me. I was not a Jane Austen fan, and yet my mother wanted me to be a figure from one of her books. A paper with a picture of hair pulled back with ringlets had been taped to the mirror beside the curling iron and hairspray.
I liked my hair long and flowing. My mother preferred it up. There she was, always restraining me. Suffocation would probably be the way I would die.
Fatigue slumped my shoulders. I didn’t want to get dressed. I didn’t want to get married. I wanted to go back to bed. A life with Larry would be a life full of expectation that I’d never be able to match. It would be a life of sadness.
The phone buzzed again at my hip. I pulled it out, my jaw clenched. If it was my mother, so help her…
But it was Elizabeth. She spoke in a hurried whisper. “There’s a package under the bed. You have fifteen minutes to change your mind. The taxi will leave then. Take a chance on something else. I promise you’ll be happier.”
I shook my head softly. She was my best friend, and it was her goal in life to fix everything. I guess as a handy woman it was part of the job, but her clients paid her to fix cabinets and remodel breakfast nooks.
She couldn’t fix my life.
To stay away from that dress, even if it was only for a few more minutes, I went to the bed to check for the box. Plus, I’ll admit curiosity was definitely something in my corner.
The box was unobtrusive and didn’t stand out very much. It was just a white dress box that was easy to lift and put on top of the bed. I’m not sure why there was a bed clear up in that tower, but I envied any brides that had the opportunity to sleep on their wedding day.
I lifted the lid and stared, confusion twisting my lips.
White tissue paper neatly lined the box. On top of the tissue paper to the left was a dry erase board with a red arrow that pointed towards the door. I glanced in the direction it pointed and noticed my honeymoon luggage. But there were two extra bags with the ones I had packed – my camera bag with my tripod attached to it, and a bag that looked like it held a bunch of shoes.
A brand-new tablet with a yellow Post-it stuck to the front sat in the middle of the box. The post-it read, “Turn on and swipe.”
One thing I could do was follow directions. A site had been left open called ClickandWed.com. It wasn’t open to the home screen, though. It was open to a man’s profile. Bright green numbers next to his picture read ninety-eight percent with small letters underneath which said compatible.
The man’s name was Jeremy Akers and his smile could make a cloud lose its water.
In very easy to read black font, the site told me to click I do, if I wanted to continue.
Was it some kind of a dating site? I was getting married. That wasn’t funny. Plus, Liz knew I had a horrible fear of rejection. Something like an online dating site took my fear in a small town with a population of about two-thousand and put it on a global scale with a population of about seven-billion.
There was a slight difference.
The Post-it read, “Click I do. Do something your parents didn’t tell you to.”
My phone buzzed in my hand, and I jumped.
A text from my mother. “Hurry up.”
What did it mean, though, if I clicked I do? Would I go on a date and still be stuck there? The site was indicative of a wedding site. I would be marrying him. That’s what it looked like. How would that help to go from marrying one man to another?
A huge plus would be it wasn’t Larry. An even bigger plus would be that I wasn’t doing what my parents wanted me to do.
His profile said he lived in Washington. I wouldn’t be in Arkansas for when the crap hit the fan.
My phone buzzed again in my hand and I glanced at it. “Five minutes left. What are you going to do?” Elizabeth had a way of pointing out the obvious.
What was I going to do?
A knock at the door pulled my attention from the phone screen, and I guiltily dropped the cover of the box back in place. Holding the tablet and my phone, I moved to stand beside the stool.
My mother didn’t wait for me to acknowledge her knock. She edged inside, closing the door behind her. Taking in my lack of wedding clothes and disheveled hair, she scowled. “Alexandra! Why aren’t you dressed? You have to be downstairs in thirty–no,” She checked her watch, eyes wide. “Two minutes. Come on, hurry. You don’t want to start your marriage making Larry wait.” She tsked, moving further into the room, adjusting a doily and straightening the plastic on my dress.
After a moment, she pulled the straight form from its covering and smoothed the soft white material with her elegant hands. Sunlight worked its way through the glass and sparkled on her rings and bracelets as she caressed the folds. Her murmur held a reverence I’d never heard before. “Your father and I eloped. I didn’t get a white dress or anything that was remotely romantic. You’re so lucky to have that. You’ll be able to look back at pictures and remember this day.”
My jaw dropped open and I stared at her. Who was she, and why didn’t she see what I was going through? How could she not sense my anxiety and my general dislike of the entire Burton family? Was she so self-absorbed she didn’t see me for who and what I was?
I didn’t want anything that she was choosing for me. Nothing.
The shafts of sunlight danced off the many mirrors and backlit the dress and my mother. As much as she wanted the dream for me, it was her dream – not mine. She didn’t even know what I wanted. I didn’t even know what I wanted. Why did it seem like Elizabeth was the only one who knew what I wanted, or at least cared enough to try to find out?
The buildup of anxiety mounted, exacerbated by the lack of sleep and the urgency of the minutes zooming by. I couldn’t take it any longer. “How do you know what I want? You’ve never asked.” The disrespect in my voice surprised me, but I didn’t back down. I didn’t want to deal with it anymore. Not with Larry or anything that had to do with the Burtons. Unfortunately, that included my own parents.
Dropping her hands, Mom twisted on her heel and faced me, shock cracking her normally serene façade. “Where is this coming from? You don’t know what you want. Your father and I help you. You’ve never known what you want.”
“Yes, I do, but you minimize what I want.” I continued when she opened her mouth as if to argue. “My photography, my job, my business, my house in Fayetteville. Even my schooling had to be what you wanted because what I wanted wasn’t important enough.”
My phone buzzed, and I glanced away from my mom which was like looking away from a rattle snake. Another text from Elizabeth lit up my screen. “3 minutes.”
I had to choose. Right then. The chance would be gone and I’d never get it back. On the walk to the church, and in my bed every night while I tried to fall asleep, I begged my Maker for something different, for something to get me out of the prison I was locked into. There Elizabeth was, handing me something, anything, to get away from what everyone else wanted from me, and I was taking the time to think it over?
Elizabeth had answered the call.
I had only minutes.
Nodding my answer, as if Elizabeth could see my response, I grabbed the tablet and swiped it open, my finger hovering over the bright red button. “Mom, what if I don’t want this?”
Something snapped her mask into place and she approached me, her face tight with a smile. “If you don’t marry him, don’t come home. You’re not going to disgrace your father and me, living like you do.” She smirked as if she knew I would do what she wanted and folded her hands at her waist. “You’re our only daughter, and you’re going to do what you’re asked. Be agreeable, Alexandra. That’s the key to happiness in marriage.”
“You’re right.” I pushed the red button and waited for it to say my response was submitted. I pushed the button to turn off the screen and tucked my phone in my back pocket. I suddenly could breathe like a band had been removed from my chest. “Tell Mrs. Burton I’m not eating cream of mushroom gravy for the rest of my life, and I honestly don’t care what you tell Larry.”
She stepped forward, digging her painted nails into the soft skin of the back of my arm as she grabbed both my biceps. “You have nowhere else to go, Alexandra. Don’t be a stupid girl.” My mother spoke through clenched teeth and shook me as much as she was able.
“I’m not stupid. For the first time, I think I’m being smart.” I wasn’t prepared for the crack of her palm across my cheek or the glare of satisfaction when I grabbed my stinging flesh. Shocked at her action, I tried not to let her see how much she’d hurt me.
I inhaled sharply, and the pain branded itself with the scent of her Lancôme perfume on my heart.
Mom lifted her chin and narrowed her eyes with deadly intent. “You’ll do this. Or you’re not my daughter.” Her words stung in sync with the mark from her strike.
Reality unraveled in front of me. I pressed my lips together and nodded shortly with a condescending smile on my face – at least I hoped it was condescending and not pathetically distraught. “’Bye, Mom.” I didn’t wait any longer. I had maybe a minute left to gather my bags and get down the stairs.
My luggage didn’t feel as heavy as they looked – maybe because I was lighter with my decision as my anxiety disappeared behind me, lingering with her perfume as she spluttered from her spot in the center of the room.
I clunked down the stairs and ducked out the back door, whipping my head left and right in search of the cab that was supposed to be out there.
A green minivan marked with the words “Taxi Taki” waited in the parking lot. I’d missed it when I’d arrived because I’d been wrapped up in the hell I was headed toward. I wouldn’t miss him that time.
He was backing up, the reverse lights glowing beneath the brake lights.
I lifted my hand, waving frantically. No way was I going to have come all that way, told my mom to shove it, and then have to turn back. Not happening. I yelled out, “Wait! I’m coming!”
The taxi jerked to a stop, waiting while I waddled my way to the side door with all the bags I’d somehow managed to get out there by myself. Setting the largest one down, I swung the door open and climbed in. I hauled the rest of the bags inside and slid the door shut.
Looking back for Larry or my mom wasn’t an option, but I wanted to scan the windows to see if I could catch a glimpse of Elizabeth, my friend who had tried so hard to give me what I wouldn’t take for myself.
A curtain moved in the back window by the door she’d protected earlier. A moment later, Larry rushed out the door, the front panels of his tuxedo flapping unbuttoned as he chased after the van.
We drove out of the parking lot, his glare enough to fill me with a desperate need to get away. I had the sinking sensation that if Larry ever saw me again, he’d make me pay for embarrassing him.
Buzzing from my rear pocket had me reaching for my phone. My hands shook and I dragged in a tremulous breath. The cab smelled like car freshener similar to Elizabeth’s work truck.
A text from my best-friend glowed on the phone. “Thatta girl.”