"That you've been there, done that, dumped the bride, so that venue is off-limits."
"I tried, but she said after experiencing the magic of the Hartford Club, she couldn't think of a better place to get married."
Frustration bubbled up in her throat and the anger expanded, sealing off her airway until breathing became impossible and she feared she might pass out. Reaching behind her, she popped the top two eyehooks of her corset to let her lungs expand far enough to take in air.
It didn't help so she popped a third.
"Grab a pen and paper," she instructed, fury vibrating through her words. "Because I can think of a thousand other places to get married. Ready? Great. Now jot this down. 'Anyplace that isn't where you were going to walk down the aisle with another woman.' Or how about 'Find a place that won't hold my ex's money hostage.' That's my rainy-day money, Clark," she stressed. "I need it back."
"It's supposed to be a dry summer, but I promise I'll pay you back after the wedding. It will just be easier and less confusing that way."
"For who?" she asked.
Clark was silent, his devastating disregard for her situation sobering. "It's my grandparents' wedding date."
"I know," he said softly. "Which is the other reason I've been trying to get ahold of you. I wanted to get your thoughts before we committed to anything."
"The dress isn't up for discussion. Period." Realtering it again would be daunting, maybe even impossible, but there was no way in hell her grandmother's dress was going to be worn by any woman other than a Walsh.
"Of course not," he said, doing a piss-poor job of hiding his disappointment. "I was referring more to the day of the wedding."
Annie had worked with Clark for six years, lived with him for three of those, so she knew his moods and quirks. Knew by the long, soft pauses between words that renowned surgeon Dr. Clark Atwood wasn't providing options. He was delivering a prognosis.
Whatever hopes Annie had about the possible outcome of this conversation were beside the point. Clark had weighed the possible scenarios, come to his decision, and nothing was going to get in the way of his wedding. It was moving forward regardless.
Any rational person would shout a resounding "Fuck off" to the universe, Clark, the inventor of carrot cake, and—she popped another eyehook—all of Victoria's rib-crushing secrets. But anger wasn't a luxury Annie had ever afforded herself.
"Clark, it doesn't matter what I think or even what I say. It's your wedding, you've made up your mind, and I'm no longer the bride."
Her heart gave an unexpected and painful bump, followed by enough erratic beats to cause concern. Not with resentment or jealousy. Not even anger. She'd learned long ago that resenting other people's happiness didn't lead to her own.
No, the familiar ache coiling its way around her bones and taking root was resignation. Resignation over losing someone who had never really been hers to lose.
Too tired to hold on any longer, Annie released her grip on the silk and the dress slid to her hips, leaving her with only a matching corset set, heels, and an overwhelming sense of acceptance, followed by acute loneliness.
"I know," he said gently. "But you're still my friend. When we broke up, we both promised to do whatever it took to keep our friendship. I don't want to lose that."
"You convinced me you weren't ready for marriage, and not even a month later you were Instagraming love sonnets about another woman."
"That was shitty timing on my part. I should have handled it better." He released a breath, and she could almost picture him resting his forehead on the heel of his hand. "I don't even know how to explain what happened. Meeting Molly-Leigh was unexpected and exciting, and I know it seems completely insane but...suddenly everything made sense, the pieces all fell into place, and I couldn't wait another second to finally start my life."
Annie expelled a breath of disbelief, which sent Clark backpedaling.
"God, Annie, I didn't mean that how it came out. But when it's the right one, when it's your person, you know it. And there's this urgency to grab on and hold tight. No matter what."
That's exactly how Grandma Hannah had described meeting Cleve. A single spin around the dance hall and—bam—they were in love.
"And when you said you loved me? Was that a lie?"
"No. I meant every word I said, and I still do. But over time it became clear that we were better as friends. You and I both know that."
Yeah, she did. But the rejection was still raw. Her best friend now belonged to someone else. And that hurt most of all.