Their watches started beeping within seconds of one another.
Micah slowed his pace down from the last half mile sprint he’d been doing to a comfortable jog. In the process, he lost track of Jacob, who had stopped with his watch and was now bent over at the waist, his hands on his knees. Micah hid a grin at this as he made his way back to him.
Jacob was one of his many cousins. Not his first cousin. Just one of the many second, third, fourth cousins, all of whom had grown up together at church. But he and Micah were better than distant cousins. They’d gone to the same college, and Jacob, who was a couple of years older than Micah, had become his big brother when he’d pledged his fraternity.
Micah well remembered groaning when the brothers lined him up across from his own grinning cousin and how he had rightly figured out that it meant the hazing would be ten times worse. And it had been, but it had been a small price to pay for the friendship that had lasted well beyond those college days.
“You dead yet?,” Micah asked, standing beside him.
“Not yet,” Jacob said, glancing up. “But close.”
“You’re slow,” Micah noted wryly.
“I’m normal,” Jacob insisted. “But I’m in a family full of speed freaks. How do you all run so fast?”
“I’m not fast,” Micah sighed. “I ate at Mom’s house tonight, so I’m, like, a whole lot slower than normal, too, thanks to the ton of food that she cooked.”
“Maybe I’m getting slower in my old age,” Jacob groaned, standing up straight and stretching. “I went and visited Sadie last weekend, and I swear, she lapped me three times on a five mile run.”
Micah grinned at this. “Well, she was never one to let anyone beat her. Especially not her slow, younger brother.”
“Yeah,” Jacob affirmed, looking to Micah sourly. “And she was rude about it, too, whacking me on the butt every time she passed me, yelling at me to go faster.”
“Well, I appreciate that you kept up with me tonight, at least,” Micah said, beginning the walk back to their cars. “Couldn’t stay out here much later. I’ve got an early morning at the office.”
“Exciting appointments, huh?”
Micah shrugged. “Not so much. I’m prepping a guy for dentures.”
“How exactly do you do that?”
“I’m pulling every last one of his teeth.”
Jacob gave him a look. “That’s not exciting at all.”
“Well, my morning will be like pulling teeth, too,” Jacob said, walking with him. “We have a group coming in from the Florida office for the week.”
“Fun in the sun with the beach crew, then?,” Micah grinned, knowing the answer, thanks to the complaints Jacob always had about his job and this group from the Florida branch.
“No,” Jacob started in, just like Micah knew he would. “Just twice as much work with half the help, thanks to the rest of the office taking a mental break with so many others in. They’re still having trouble getting the branch off the ground out there. They offered me their head of accounting position a few weeks ago.”
“That’d be a bad move,” Micah said. “Volunteering to man a sinking ship.”
Jacob shrugged. “Would get me out of here,” he said quietly. “And maybe the ship wouldn’t sink if I was there.”
Micah watched him. “You wanna leave Texas?”
“Maybe,” he said. “Just feel like I’m living the same life I’ve been living since high school. Didn’t even go away for college, took a job just down the street from where I grew up, still sit next to my mother in church every Sunday…”
“Family’s important,” Micah said simply, thinking of his own mother, needing him now more than ever. And of Joy, of taking care of Joy for the rest of his life…
“Sure is,” Jacob said. “And I’d like to have my own one day, you know? Find a godly, strong woman and start a family. And I don’t see that happening when nothing ever seems to change around here.”
“What about that one girl?,” Micah said. “Hilary… was that her name?”
Jacob laughed. “Turns out she was certifiably insane.” He frowned, no hilarity for Hilary in his eyes. “No. Really. Insane.”
“That’s probably an exaggeration –“
“Oh, that it were, brother,” Jacob said. “I went out to dinner with some friends from work one night and left my phone in my car on accident. Came back to find it full of missed calls and messages from her.”
“A few messages don’t make her insane.”
“How about thirty messages in two hours?”
Micah’s eyes rounded at this. “Well. That’s… troubling.”
“You think?,” he said. “And I’m a good guy who can forgive a little crazy, you know. I mean, if she’s a little looney but still loves Jesus, I can work with that. But I got back with her, hoping and praying that she would be rational, and she flipped out on me. You know what I’m thinking, Jakey?! Do you?! DO YOU?! Like I should have been able to read her mind. Can’t do that even if she’s sane, so insane? Think again.” A pause. “And I hate the name Jakey. That alone should have been the deal breaker.”
“Where do you find these women?”
“They find me,” Jacob sighed. “I’m not sure why I only attract women who are living in some fantasyland, where up is down and crazy is the status quo. Maybe I should send them your way, Micah. You had an affinity for crazy women once.”
Micah thought on this, about how Jacob had met April early on, and how he had assessed, as she’d clung to Micah and shot glares at anyone who took his attention from her, that she was a little off.
That had been Micah’s first year of college. He’d never been on his own, had never had a girlfriend, and had never felt so important, so needed, as he did when April chose him. She had issues, of course, but he’d excused them all for so long because she made him feel like someone. Someone she needed. Someone who could protect her.
He’d spent his life protecting Joy from the world, and it just made sense to his young heart that love meant sheltering someone from everything that could hurt them.
He’d let April call the shots in his life while he protected her from all her hurts and insecurities. Until that day their junior year when she’d given the engagement ring back to him.
“I’m sorry,” Jacob said. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Probably not,” Micah sighed. “But you’re right. I actually got an invitation to her wedding. She and Corey are getting married.”
Jacob turned to him with disgust on his face. “Really?”
“Well,” he frowned, “they deserve one another. But why would she even invite you to the wedding?”
Micah shrugged. “It was probably Corey.” Probably nothing. It was a passive-aggressive April move, even all the years after they’d grown up and moved on.
Jacob shook his head, seeming to read Micah’s mind. “Oh, it was her. And I’m sure she did it just so she can continue to shove it in your face, huh?”
“Probably,” Micah affirmed.
“You’re not going, are you?”
Micah looked over at him. “Probably will… but I’m going to make sure I don’t go into the situation alone. Lest, you know, April gets me by myself and tries to eat me alive or something.”
“That sounds like her,” Jacob muttered. “Who are you taking?”
Micah opened his mouth to tell him about Rachel, then snapped it shut again. “Just… someone.”
“Sounds intriguing,” Jacob grinned. “Good, old Micah. Cryptically vague, all the time.”
“She’s very nice,” he said, thinking that the vague way he spoke now had less to do with him being cryptic and more to do with… well, not knowing a whole lot about Rachel.
“Very nice. Hey, as long as she’s not crazy,” Jacob grinned back, “you’re doing better than you were, brother.”
“Okay, Rachel. Let’s go for not crazy today, shall we?”
She stood before her bathroom mirror and gave herself a stern look.
“You’re more than this day, Rachel,” she continued telling herself, even as she finished putting on her makeup and fixing her hair. “You’re more than this day and that idiot man who couldn’t see you for who you really were.”
It was Seth’s wedding day. Rachel had been praying to remain civil, dignified, and above all else, sane. This is how she’d get through it. Civil, dignified, and sane. That would certainly be better than spiteful, shameful, and insane… which she had considered on her worst days, honestly.
Sane, she reminded herself. Sane.
The plan had been to meet up with Micah at the church. But he had called the day before, insisting on picking her up for the wedding like a gentleman, which was… well, nice.
Because it could only look better for her if they were together the entire time and didn’t just meet up outside the church, like the strangers that they were.
She couldn’t figure out what Micah was standing to gain from the whole fiasco, other than the breakfast she had promised him, but she was certainly glad to see him there on her front porch, looking better than she had remembered. She was even more glad he was there after the ceremony, offering her his arm, as they stood in the impossibly long line at the reception, waiting to give their congratulations to the bride and groom.
The groom. Oh, the groom. Rachel had imagined Seth’s wedding day more than a hundred times over the course of their friendship, and it was nothing like today. He had always worn a tuxedo, with a white vest and tie to match the dress. And he always had a red rose pinned to his lapel, to match the bouquet. The church was always done up in candlelight, with flowers everywhere, and ten attendants leading the way to a lavish, extravagant reception downtown.
In reality, though, the groom was dressed casually, so there was no lapel for any rose. And a rose would have been out of place next to the bride’s handful of wildflowers, which matched the simple, understated sundress she wore. The church had hardly been decorated, and the few attendants were dressed simply like the bride, leading the way to the casual reception in the fellowship hall of the church.
But the most marked difference between Rachel’s imaginings and reality was most definitely the bride.
The bride was someone else.
Chelsea. There she was, standing beside Seth with her two children, Tanner and Maggie, standing beside her. She’d been a widow when she moved to their town, struggling to make ends meet, but as she stood beside Seth, she looked confident and content, smiling up at… well, at him.
Hadn’t Rachel smiled at him just like that thousands of times before?
She sighed at this, just a few steps from the front of the line, and prepared herself to say something nice to the man of her dreams –
“Dr. Johnson!,” Tanner shouted, prompting Chelsea to glance up from where she smoothed down Maggie’s hair.
Rachel glanced over at Micah, who smiled at the small family. “Hey, Tanner,” he said. “You still on for our appointment in a couple of weeks?”
Before Rachel could comment on this, Tanner let out a breath. “Do I really have cavities?”
“Oh, yeah, a whole head full of them,” Micah said. Then, in a kind voice, “Mrs… well, I guess it’s not Moore anymore, huh?”
“No,” Chelsea smiled, glancing from him to Rachel, then back again. “Seth, this is our… dentist, Dr. Johnson.”
“Just Micah,” he offered.
“Seth,” Seth said, smiling and looking downright giddy to see Rachel with a date, shaking Micah’s hand as he did so.
“Rachel,” Chelsea said, tentatively reaching out to hug her, “we’re so glad you were able to come.”
And Rachel found that she couldn’t speak around the lump in her throat as she hugged the bride. By God’s grace, she would get through this day and over this, and –
“Couldn’t keep her away,” Micah said softly. “She speaks so highly of you, Mrs. Huntington, and now that I’ve made the connection and know who she’s been talking about, I would have to agree with her.” Then, looking at Seth, “You’re very, very lucky.”
Chelsea looked to Rachel with surprised tears in her eyes as Seth beamed at them both. And Rachel couldn’t help but turn to Micah and beam a little at him, at this perfect lie that he told, that left her looking like the most gracious woman in the room.
Which she most certainly wasn’t.
“Well, we’ll let you get back to the rest of your guests,” Micah said, sliding his arm around Rachel’s waist. “Rachel’s been telling me just how much she’s been looking forward to dancing.”
Seth raised his eyebrows at this, likely remembering the number of times Rachel had attempted to dance at the different formals she’d dragged him to during college, where every dance she tried looked vaguely like the chicken dance.
Vaguely, because even her best dance didn’t look as good as the chicken dance.
“Yeah,” she said, even as Micah led her away. “Congratulations, Chelsea. You, too, Seth.”
They walked side by side, his arm still around her, over to the tables set up around a very small dance floor, where a few couples were already dancing together.
“Well done,” Micah said softly, twirling her into his arms easily and naturally.
She blew out a breath. “I didn’t do anything except watch you,” she said. “Thank you. For lying through your teeth.”
“I didn’t lie,” he said. “Seth is very lucky.”
“Yeah,” she sighed. “Chelsea is… well, she’s a nice lady.”
Micah shrugged. “That, and he’s had you pining over him for years. That’s the lucky part. Although the idiot couldn’t manage to finish that up right, could he?”
Rachel narrowed her eyes at him. “Thank you… I think.”
“You think?,” he asked, pulling her onto the dance floor.
“Oh, Micah, I don’t dance,” she sighed. “I look like a chicken when I try. A tone-deaf chicken. On an LSD trip.”
“Wow.” He smiled at this.
“It’s bad,” she said, squirming the closer they got to the center of the dance floor. “Seriously. I don’t dance.”
“I do, though,” he said. “Follow me. Put your arms around me. There. Easy, right?”
She put her arms around him tentatively, watching what he did. And it was easy enough. She tried to concentrate on how he was moving, how she should follow –
“And what do you mean, thank you, you think?”
She took her eyes off of her feet for a moment and looked up at him. “Thank you? You mean earlier? I said thank you for the compliment, about Seth being an idiot.”
“No problem,” he said.
“Although,” she said, “I can’t figure out if it is a compliment, mainly because you can’t be giving them since you know nothing about me.”
“I know,” he said, “that you didn’t say any of the things you were likely wanting to say. And that you didn’t ruin Mrs. Moore… Mrs. Huntington’s day. She’s had a hard road.”
“Yeah, I know,” Rachel breathed, thinking of Chelsea’s story.
“I know that you did all of that,” Micah continued on, “which indicates some kindness and compassion on your part. And you’re beautiful, of course. I meant that as well.”
Rachel regarded him with a faint smile. “You’re a great fake date, Micah.”
“I’d be an even better real one, likely,” he said, pulling her closer on the dance floor. “Hey, you wanna take off?”
“Already?,” she whispered, looking around.
“Yeah,” he whispered back. “You’ve made an appearance. They saw you. You said the right things. You’re good. I’ll take you to breakfast and let you say all that you really wanted to say.”
She bit her lip, thinking of how much harder this would be if she had to face everyone else. Her brother, her best friend, all of Seth’s family…
“Okay,” she managed. “The rest of the wedding party isn’t even here… or the family… but who cares, right?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Brunch. You pick the place, okay?”
She grinned at this. “I know just the one.”
Want more? NEXT MONDAY, April 28th, the whole novella will be available in Kindle and paperback formats on www.amazon.com! Hope you’ve enjoyed Rachel’s story so far and that you’ll get the book and read the rest!