Dex Putnam stood helplessly as the kiss of death spiraled toward her. The voices around her stilled and everything slowed. She was frozen, unable to move from its path. Faces blurred as people moved in slow motion toward her. The crowd gasped as the impact forced the breath from her chest. Flickers of red clouded her vision, and she fell backward to the floor. She raised her head, blinked, and stared at the crimson splattered across her chest. This was the end of life as she knew it.
She looked up at the stunned faces around her as they watched the lethal scene unfold. It was like a grisly scene in a horror movie, and Dex was in the middle of it. They seemed to all know her life was over too.
She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath, shrugging off the pain slashing through her heart. She’d made the wrong choice in getting out of bed this morning, the wrong choice in coming here, and so many wrong choices in her past. The look on her sister Juni’s face reflected her pain as she dropped to the floor next to her and stared into her eyes.
“Dex. Dex!” Juni’s voice echoed in her head as she watched the crowd close in around her. “It’ll be all right.” Juni wiped away the tear beginning to form in Dex’s eye.
It wouldn’t be all right. Nothing would ever be right again. Regrets swam in her mind as Juni stood and offered Dex her hand. She gripped it and hauled herself to her feet, staring into the bride’s vibrant blue eyes as the roses from the crimson wedding bouquet that cursed her chest fell to the floor. Dex had just watched her soul mate promise herself to another. Now she’d been branded as the next in line to marry. Considering who held her heart, that was a long shot.
“Come on, love.” Juni tugged Dex’s arm. “Let’s get you a drink.”
She couldn’t get to the bar fast enough. Twenty or more women rushed toward the bouquet left abandoned on the floor as she and Juni walked away. It was like a Black Friday mob scene, and all these women lived and breathed for those flowers. The bouquet indicated they would be the next to wed, but not Dex. She’d never intended to marry anyone other than Grace.
Juni leaned against the bar and shouted to the bartender, “Gin and tonic, and a shot of whiskey.”
Dex smiled at her sister, who knew exactly what she needed. She glanced back at several women who seemed to be checking her out, then turned back to the bar and groaned. “Why does this shit always come my way?” She picked the remaining crumpled rose petals from her cleavage and then stared at her boobs for a moment. She did have a nice set to offer but didn’t let them out in public often. She tugged on the semi-strapless gown—a ridiculous pink chiffon, eighties-throwback prom dress ten times too expensive for something she’d never wear again. If anyone dared to present such an atrocity on Project Runway, Heidi Klum would be running after this designer onstage screaming “You’re out” at the top of her lungs.
“What? The bouquet?” Juni shook her head. “Grace nailed you on purpose. Now every girl at this wedding will be after you. I’ve written your number on a stack of napkins by the cake to make it easier for them to get in touch.”
“I’ll make sure to get a burner phone in the morning.”
“Come on, Dex. Have a little fun tonight. It’s the beginning of the rest of your life without Grace.”
“Easier said than done.” The bartender returned with their drinks, and Dex downed the shot. “This day started out crappy and has only gotten worse.” She glanced back to the dance floor, where the remnants of the bouquet lay scattered about, taunting her. Then she caught a glimpse of Grace dancing with her new husband. “Another shot, please.” She slid the glass back to the bartender, and he poured.
“Take it easy, little sister. It’s gonna be a long night.”
She nodded. “Just doing a little prep for it.” She threw the next shot back and blew a breath out through her nose as the alcohol burned its way down her throat.
As of three hours ago, Grace would take on the name of Richardson, not Putnam, as Dex had hoped for all those years. She glanced at Grace and Brent, who’d moved to the dance floor. The two of them had met at the gym, where Grace worked the front desk, and Brent had been a customer. Dex had been forced to listen to all the details from the start of this fairy-tale romance. Grace seemed to be gloriously happy since she’d met Brent, and it crushed Dex to know she hadn’t been the cause of that happiness. She was destined to be left on the sidelines of Grace’s love life, as only a spectator while it played out.
She’d loved Grace Standish since childhood, and Grace was well aware of her feelings. Her life would’ve been perfect if only Grace had loved her the same way, but she didn’t have the tiniest interest in women. Dex was the first one to admit that Grace had loved her more than any woman, other than her sister, but that was the extent of their relationship. Friends without benefits…forever. At least the kind of benefits Dex wanted.
The music had slowed, and suddenly Dex felt arms around her waist. She closed her eyes and took in the sultriness of Grace’s voice as she whispered in her ear, “It’s our song. Come dance with me.”
The slow beat of James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” pulsed in Dex’s head. Of course their song couldn’t have been a fast one.
The alcohol was beginning to take effect, and the song hit Dex square in the chest as she held Grace in her arms. Grace was more gorgeous tonight than she’d ever seen her. Thick black lines traced her eyelids, and Grace’s indigo eyes danced with a sparkle she hadn’t noticed before. Grace tugged her closer, and Dex melted into her and took in her essence. With their cheeks pressed together as they danced, the sweet smell of hyacinth filled her head and she warmed all over. She wanted to be part of Grace’s happiness, just not in a spectator sort of way. This was too much. She pushed back and stared into Grace’s eyes, the compassion she saw in them overwhelming. Grace knew exactly what she was feeling, and Dex thought she might be feeling a little of it herself.
The music morphed into Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend.” Grace seemed as though she wanted to say something but didn’t know what. Dex held her gaze for a moment before she smiled and kissed her lightly on the cheek. Then she immediately threw Grace out into a twirl and pulled her back against her. It should be clear to anyone watching that they’d danced together many times before, and they had. They moved in sync as Dex spun Grace around the dance floor, smiling and laughing while her heart was bleeding from within. Dex refused to ruin Grace’s big day no matter how much it hurt.
“Happy Together” by the Turtles played next, and then Brent was there, pulling Grace away from her. The torment in Dex’s heart raged as her hand slipped from Grace’s and she danced away from her. The classic A-line, V-neck sleeveless Chantilly lace dress made her into the most perfect princess, only no lost glass slipper would be found tonight. Time to go back to the bar.
Juni sidled up next to her. “I saw you dancing out there. Showing off your stuff.” She swiped the shot from in front of Dex and drank it. “Looking good.”
“Since when do you drink whiskey?”
“Just taking one for the team.” Juni grimaced as she dipped her head to get Dex’s attention. “You okay?”
“Hanging in there.”
“Awesome.” Juni glanced at the table where she’d been sitting. A man there seemed to be keeping her attention. Dark hair, nicely trimmed beard, wearing a dark-gray suit and tie. At least he knew how to dress for a wedding. That was a plus.
“Who’s that?” Dex asked.
“His name’s Josh. He owns Crushed Beans, the coffee shop on the corner by the bookstore.”
She glanced at the table where Juni had been sitting. She seemed to be keeping Josh’s attention as well. “Learning all the ins and outs of coffee brewing?”
“And more,” Juni said with a huge grin.
“Wouldn’t that be awesome if the Bookworm merged with Crushed Beans?” Dex pulled her mouth in to a grin and widened her eyes. “Then you could call it Crushed Worms.”
Juni slapped Dex’s shoulder. “That’s absolutely awful. I haven’t put all my sweat into that business to destroy it with one shitty logo.”
“I thought it was rather unique.” She chuckled louder than the line probably deserved.
Juni had bought the bookstore years ago, when the place was on its last legs. The owner had been taking any profit he made and putting it into his lifestyle rather than the store. He’d let the inventory run down so much that by the time Juni bought it, the store was barely seeing ten customers a week. Dex had helped her clean, paint, and reshelve the space, and now Juni had turned it into a thriving business.
Dex eyed Josh for a few more minutes, and he waved. “Well then. You’d better get back to him.”
“You sure you’re okay?”
“Spectacular.” She tapped her fingers on the bar.
“Okay. I’ll be back in a bit.” Juni sped off toward the table where Josh was waiting.
“How about Beans and Books?” she shouted after her.
Juni swung around, pulled her eyebrows together, and mouthed, “Stop.”
When Dex caught sight of Grace again, she was absolutely stunning, glowing as the sunset rained through the plate-glass windows behind her. She remembered the night she’d realized Grace knew she was in love with her. They were on a girls-only skiing trip in New Mexico with some of their other friends. They’d reserved a vacation rental with only four rooms for eight of them. Dex had immediately regretted going when she found out she and Grace would be sharing a room with only one queen-size bed.
After dinner the first night, even though she was exhausted from skiing, Dex had fidgeted and talked endlessly in an attempt to prolong getting into bed with Grace. She’d thought once Grace fell asleep, she’d just sleep in the chair or lie on top of the blankets. Hazy eyed, Grace finally got out of bed, kissed her on the cheek, and said very sweetly that she knew how she felt about her. Then she took her by her hand and told her to come to bed. Grace snuggled up behind her and spooned her all night long. It was the closest she’d ever been to the woman she loved, a night filled with palpable pleasure and unrelenting pain. She shook the memory from her mind as she waved at the bartender and pointed to her empty glass.
Dex’s head throbbed, and her mouth felt like someone had stuffed it with cotton. How much had she drunk last night? Things had become hazy, and she’d lost count after the fourth shot. She remembered Juni walking away from the bar and bringing her back a plate of food soon after that. Or was that later?Then a glass of water had appeared on the bar in front of her. A fuzzy image of a pair of light, silvery-blue eyes and curly black hair flashed through her mind. Wait. Was that Juni?
The sun was seeping through her eyelids. She rolled over, smashed her face into the pillow, and took a deep breath to settle her stomach. She immediately blew it out and took in another breath. The soothingly sensual scent of jasmine and orange blossom filled her head. Not my pillow!She snapped her eyes open and scanned the room. Not my bed!Bolting up, she squeezed her eyelids closed to force away the constant thumping behind them and fell back to the warm place she’d come from. Her stomach needed to settle before she moved again. Open bars at weddings are never a good idea.
Lying perfectly still, she let her sight stretch to the far edges of her peripheral vision. Muted beige and sage-green colors covered the walls, a nice combination with the white molding. Whose bed was she in? Not hers. Not Juni’s. Fuck!Who had taken her home? Clearly she’d blacked out at some point last night.
Listening for sounds of someone in the house, she didn’t move for what seemed like an eternity, until her bladder couldn’t take it anymore. Noting her lack of clothing as she sprinted into the bathroom, she wondered if she’d had sex last night. She didn’t feel like it, but it wouldn’t be the first time she’d pleased another woman without gaining any gratification of her own. She really needed to stop drinking.
As she came out of the bathroom, she spotted her bridesmaid dress hanging from a hook on the wall. A stack of clothes sat on the chair next to it, a pair of flip-flops on the floor, and a note written on pink, rose-patterned paper lay neatly on top of the T-shirt.
In case you’d rather not be seen in public wearing this retro-piece-of-shit dress from the wedding.
The sentence was punctuated with a wink face at the end. “Oh my God.” She shook her head. Obviously she’d spilled many of her thoughts to this woman last night, whoever she was. She pulled on the T-shirt and yoga pants, which were a bit snug, before she slipped through the doorway and crept down the hall. It led to a decent-sized living area with a breakfast bar that peered into the kitchen. She’d hoped to avoid an uncomfortable reunion with whomever she’d latched onto last night, and it seemed she’d been successful.
On the kitchen counter she found a bottle of water as well as half a loaf of bread next to the toaster, accompanied by a jar of what appeared to be homemade jam. Andanother note.
You’ll find coffee in the pot. Drink the water, make some toast, and use plenty of the crystallized ginger jam. Trust me. It’ll make you feel better. I’m going to work and won’t be back until this afternoon, so no need for you to rush. Make yourself at home. There’s a smoothie in the fridge to take with you. Oh, and you’re more special than you realize. Don’t let some spoiled straight girl make you think otherwise.
The words resonated in her head in a low, throaty voice, which sent an unexpected zap of excitement through her. Apparently she’d poured her heart out to a sweet, lovely stranger last night, and she had no idea who she was.
After pouring a cup of coffee, she sank down onto a barstool and scanned the room. A couch with a square, wood, apothecary-type coffee table in front of it anchored the room. A long console table against the wall centered a beautiful beach watercolor. The table was topped with a few candles and decorative items, but no pictures. Across from the couch stood a square entertainment center, which housed a medium-size flat-screen TV and several other items in each of its cubes. Again, no pictures. Apparently, she wasn’t going to get a glimpse of her benefactor even from a photo. The whole place was modern but homey, somewhere Dex felt comfortable. This entire experience gnawed at her memory and comforted her all at once. Something must have gone right with the woman who lived here, but she had absolutely no recollection of her.
Her stomach grumbled, making it loud and clear that she needed to eat. She dropped a couple of pieces of bread into the toaster and picked up the small jar of jam from the counter. Even though Dex had noticed ginger jam in her local health-food store, she’d never tried it before. She usually took the safe route with peach or strawberry. She was actually looking forward to tasting it, even in the state she was in. It certainly couldn’t make her feel worse.
She covered the toast with a light coating of jam and settled in on the couch. The ginger was surprisingly good—sweet with a hint of pear and a nice zing that snuck up on you. She took the blanket from the corner of the couch and covered her legs before she pulled open one of the coffee-table drawers in search of a remote to click on the TV. Oddly, she felt extremely comfortable here. She had no idea why she wasn’t hauling ass out of this place right now. Someone could come home any minute and catch her happily snuggled up in their wonderfully warm fleece blanket just like it was her own home.
After finishing her toast, she watched two episodes of one of her favorite sitcoms that had been recorded on the DVR, another sign the woman was something special. She pulled open the refrigerator and noted the array of healthy foods—including yogurt, chicken breast, fresh vegetables, and cheese—on the shelves. It seemed as though the woman could cook. She found the smoothie front and center with another note.
Take the jam. I have more. Feel better.
A cute smiley face punctuated the end of the sentence. Oh my God, this woman is a dream.A flash of creamy white skin popped into her head, along with the subtle scents of jasmine and orange blossom. Dex couldn’t help but think that if she’d met this woman under different circumstances, they would’ve at least been friends, possibly more. But no way could she live down last night’s fiasco. She was sure she’d made a fool out of herself, crying over a woman she’d never have. Love sucks.
Dex hustled off the train and walked the short distance to Juni’s house. A plastic shopping bag swung from her hand as she paced. She’d rolled the chiffon bridesmaid dress up and stuffed it inside. Otherwise, carrying it on the L would’ve been embarrassing at best. The huge bow attached to the single shoulder strap had made it difficult, but she’d managed to get it all in the bag. Thankfully, she’d never have to wear the pink monstrosity again.
She knocked on Juni’s door, and it swung open almost immediately.
“I’ve been worried about you. Your phone is going straight to voice mail.”
She held up her phone. “Battery died sometime last night.”
Juni didn’t hide the once-over she gave her. “You look like shit.”
She pushed through the door. “Thanks. I needed that.”
“Whose clothes are those?” She’d apparently noticed the Northwestern University T-shirt.
“They’re on loan.” She dropped her bag on the couch and headed to the phone charger on the end table.
“The girl I went home with last night.”
Juni’s eyes went wide. “You went home with someone?”
“Can we postpone the interrogation until after you get me a cup of coffee?”
“Oh, sure. Be right back.”
Dex settled in on the couch. She didn’t have the slightest idea what she was going to tell her sister about the woman from last night, simply because she couldn’t remember a thing about her…except her low, throaty voice and the wonderful scent of jasmine and orange blossom. She held her wrist to her nose and took in a breath. She’d found the fragrance on the bathroom vanity and sprayed a hint of it on herself. Even if she never saw her again, she really wanted to remember this woman.
Juni returned with a mug of coffee and set a plate of buttered toast in front of her. “This will help settle your stomach.”
She tilted her head and smiled. “I don’t really feel bad. I already had some toast and this awesome ginger jam this morning.” She reached in her bag and took out the jar. “It settled my stomach instantly.”
Juni took the jar from her hand. “She makes jam?”
“Apparently, and it’s really good. She left it for me, along with a note, when she went to work.” She purposely omitted the fact that the woman wasn’t there at all this morning.
Juni raised her eyebrows. “Well, she’s awfully trusting to leave you alone in her house.” She sat down next to her and wiggled her fingers at her. “Let me see the note.”
That was very true. Dex would never leave someone she’d met only once alone in her home. She pulled the notes from the bag, along with the crumpled bridesmaid dress, and handed them to Juni.
“Is that your dress?”
She nodded. “I’m going to donate it to the Glass Slipper Project.” Thanks to her parents’ constant volunteerism when she was a child, Dex had seen the good it had done in helping others and did a fair amount of volunteer work now as an adult, as did Juni. Her brother, Ranny, did more taking than giving. The Glass Slipper Project was one of her favorite organizations. She loved to watch young girls find the dress of their dreams for prom night each spring.
Juni set the notes on the table, jumped up, grabbed the dress, and hung it from the door. “Really?” Juni laughed as she pulled at the bottom. “Do you think anyone will wear it?”
Dex took a swallow of coffee before she answered. “Not with that huge fucking bow on it, but they can alter it. In any case, it’ll be free to a girl who needs it. And, best of all, it’ll be out of my hands.”
Juni went back to the notes. “Wow. She left you three?” She passed them between her hands, examining the pink notepaper.
She nodded. “She’s very sweet.”
Juni unfolded the first one and read it. “She’s a fucking miracle. Where is she?” Her eyes widened as she went through them. “Whois she? I want to meet her now.”
She contemplated telling Juni a lie, but Dex wasn’t very good at lying, and Juni could always see right through her. “I have no idea. She didn’t sign her name, and if she told me what it was last night, I don’t remember. That’s all a big blur.” Not that she’d ever see her again anyway.
“So you don’t remember anything about her?” Juni’s shoulders dropped.
She took in a deep breath and shook her head. “Except the wonderful way she smelled.” She put her wrist beneath Juni’s nose, and she inhaled the scent. “And I think she had curly black hair.” She sighed. “And silvery-blue eyes.”
“Damn it, Dex.” Juni tossed the notes onto the coffee table. “You picked a hell of a night to get stinking drunk.”
“Under the circumstances I think it was appropriate.” She picked up the notes and stared at them. “And forgivable.”
“Did you see me with anyone in particular last night?” Someone had to have noticed her. Surely the mystery woman hadn’t thrown a bag over Dex’s head and sneaked her out the back door.
Juni shook her head. “No. After I left you at the bar, I danced a few times. When I came back you’d disappeared. I thought you’d gone home.”
“I probably should have, after the fourth shot.” She’d known she should be happy for Grace, but seeing her in such joy had only made Dex want to deaden the pain. So that was exactly what she’d done, and now the love gods were punishing her for doing it. Would a day ever come when she could bring someone new into her heart? She certainly hoped so, but not today. Her mystery woman was a complete blur.
“Humph. You were only on number two when I left you.”
“So you didn’t bring me any food?”
“Nope. I was busy rounding up my own entertainment for the night.”
“You met someone, right?” She did remember that. Dark hair, dark beard, nice smile, and very attentive to Juni.
“Well, I didn’t really meetsomeone. I already knew him. We just got friendlier.”
“Who was it again?”
“Do you remember Josh? He owns Crushed Beans on the corner by the bookstore. I pointed him out to you last night.”
“Oh yeah.” She tilted her head. “Crushed Worms. That worked out for you?”
“Yes.” Juni grinned. “And stop saying that. He heard you last night.” A flush of pink took over Juni’s face.
“Look at you? All flustered. He must be something special.”
“I am not flustered.”
“Uh, yes. You are. Your cheeks could rival the pink on this notepaper right now.” She dipped her head toward the notes on the coffee table and grinned. “Does he know Brent and Grace?”
“Apparently he’s good friends with Grace’s brother. He doesn’t get out much because of the business but had taken the day off. So, he dragged him along.”
“Wow. That’s certainly serendipitous.”
A huge smile spread across Juni’s face. “Right?”
“So it was a good night.” Dex smiled. “Ipoured my heart out to a complete stranger.” The low, throaty voice resonated in her head again, and she shook it from her thoughts. “And youstarted something new with the coffee man.”
Dex’s phone chimed multiple times as it came to life. “What the hell? Was I that popular last night?”
Juni shrugged. “I may have called you once or twice…and texted a few times.”
“Three calls and five texts.”
“I was worried. You should be glad I didn’t call the police.” She tossed a couch pillow at her, and it hit Dex in the head. “Ooh. Maybe the mystery girl got your number and called.”
The pillow shot to the head didn’t faze her. “No such luck.” Or maybe it was lucky that she hadn’t called. Dex could only imagine what she’d thought of her last night.
As she scrolled farther she skipped over a message from her mother that she knew would be a couple of paragraphs long and found one from Grace that had come through after midnight. Her stomach churned. What could Grace have possibly wanted to tell her last night? She scrolled to it first, touched it with her finger, and read it.
I was disappointed that I didn’t get to see you when I left tonight. We’re on the plane, getting ready to take off. I’ll see you in a couple of weeks. Ciao xoxo.
The expression on Dex’s face must have given it away. Juni snatched the phone from her and read the message. “That bitch. On the plane headed to Greece. On her honeymoon. Why can’t she just leave you alone?” Juni shot to her feet and tossed the phone onto the couch.
“I’m her best friend. Who else is she going to text?” She spoke with a sad sort of irony.
“She shouldn’t be texting anyone.She’s with her new husband.”
Dex picked up her coffee cup and stared into the blackness filling it. The color matched her mood as she remembered how just a week ago she’d reminded Grace how she felt about her, then asked her to reconsider her upcoming marriage to Brent. Dex had thought she might have a chance when Grace had pulled her into an embrace, held her tight, and whispered that she’d never been closer to any other soul besides Dex. They were indeed soul mates. But then she let go, and with shimmering, vibrant blue eyes, Grace told her she was sure about her decision to marry Brent.
That was that. No more hope. The decision had been made. Truthfully, she knew Grace had made it a long time ago. Dex had watched Grace fall in love with Brent and had wallowed in self-pity. She hadn’t even thought about finding someone to fall in love with herself. She’d held out for a half-court bucket shot, and the ball hadn’t even grazed the rim.
“You need to stay far away from that woman when she gets back.” Juni nudged her shoulder with her hand. “Are you listening to me?”
“Yeah, sure. I will.” She glanced at the time on her phone. “I need to get going,” she said as she pushed off the couch.
Juni’s expression went blank. “Oh, I rented the best Star Warsmovies. I thought maybe we’d hang out here and have a movie marathon.” She was clearly disappointed.
“Can’t. I have to go draw out a design in Roscoe Village.” She took her cup into the kitchen, rinsed it, and put it in the dishwasher. Working would keep her mind off yesterday, and Grace.
“But it’s Sunday.” Juni drew the word out slowly.
“Um, rich people have their own schedules.”
“Since when do you conform to them?”
“That’s how I make the big bucks.” She swiped the notes from the coffee table, slipped them into the waistband of her yoga pants, and took off to the door. “And why aren’t you minding the books at the store today?”
Juni followed her. “I left Grant in charge.”
“Letting the new guy run the shop. That’s a big step.” Dex tugged open the door.
“He can handle it. It’s been six months since he started, and he’s picked up things extremely well. That brain of his absorbs everything.” Juni leaned against the open doorjamb and watched Dex carefully. “I thought this might be a tough day for you.”
Dex couldn’t stand the sad puppy-dog face she gave her. “First three in the series?”
“Duh.” Juni had definite opinions about Star Wars, and Dex happened to agree with her on this one.
“How about I go home and shower, take care of my appointment, then pick up a pizza and see you in a few hours.”
The smile that spread across Juni’s face melted her instantly. “Sausage and mushroom?”
“Heavy on the cheese.”
“Yay!” Juni jumped up and down and clapped her hands wildly.
Dex fell against the door and laughed. “I love you, sis.”
“I know.” Juni smiled and pushed her out the door. “Now, hurry back.”
Her knuckles had barely hit the door before Grace pulled it open. Dex stopped cold at the sight of the woman glowing in front of her. She was dressed in jeans and a coral V-neck sweater that brought out the color of her electric-blue eyes spectacularly. The deep, warm, bronze tone now blanketing her usually creamy, white skin made her eyes even more vibrant than usual. Grace was definitely even more beautiful than Dex remembered. This “absence makes the heart grow fonder” crap was for the birds.
Grace flew through the doorway and pulled Dex into a hug. “Oh my God. It’s so good to see you.”
“You too,” Dex said as Grace took her hand and pulled her into the living room. The two weeks were up, and Dex’s heart was finally beginning to feel normal again. Just the sight of Grace blew that out of the water. She’d made three new bids on landscapes and five on outdoor Christmas decorations while Grace was gone. The holiday season would soon be here, and she’d be too busy to listen to her heart pining away for Grace. The message had been clear, and Dex had promised herself to move on. She didn’t see any sense in holding out for something that was never going to happen. But at this moment, with Grace holding her hand, everything she’d told herself seemed iffy. She needed to get ahold of her emotions, suck it up, and hear all about Grace’s honeymoon.
“Have a seat, and I’ll get you some coffee.”
Dex did as she was told and slid into the oversized leather couch. The house seemed different somehow since Dex had been here last. But nothing had really changed. She guessed she just hadn’t noticed how Brent’s furnishings were making a presence in the living room. The comforting man-cave and contemporary-modern styles mingled surprising well, with chocolate and cream colors filling the room. The modern end tables accented the furniture nicely. Dex was sure the whole mix was an agonizing sacrifice for Grace.
“What happened to your couch?”
She tilted her head toward the hallway. “In the office.”
“Because this monstrosity couldn’t fit through the doorway.”
“Meant to be the center of attention, eh?” Dex ran her hand across the worn leather. “This is nice, though.”
Grace rolled her eyes. “For now,” she said, handing her a mug of coffee.
She sipped at the steaming brew that Grace had made especially for her. Grace was a tea drinker, always had been, but since Dex liked coffee, she’d learned to make it.
“Here,” Grace said as she handed her a shopping bag and sat on the couch next to her. “I bought this for you at one of the galleries.”
Dex set her coffee on the table before she reached into the bag. “Wow.” She admired the small, white, kneeling female sculpture. “Grace, this is…”
“I know how much you love contemporary art.” Grace dunked the teabag in her mug up and down a few times.
“Really, Grace. This must have cost a fortune. It’s too much.”
“No, it’s not. You helped me a lot with the wedding.” She searched her bag for something else and handed her a string of what looked like marbles. “Plus, you’re my best friend.”
Dex held it up to her neck and scrunched her nose. “A necklace?”
Grace laughed. “Definitely not. They’re komboloi beads, made of amber. They’re supposed to keep your hands busy.”
Dex held up the colorful string and let the marbles slide from side to side. “Oh. Nice.”
“Or you can just hang them on the wall.” Grace stood and reached for her hand. “Leave that and come with me.” She pulled her into the office, sat in the chair behind the desk, and motioned for Dex to get the one in the corner. “I’ve got so many pictures to show you.” She put the camera card in the slot on the side of the laptop and fiddled with the mouse. “Do you know how to make these play?”
Dex stood up. “Here. Let me drive.”
Grace switched seats with her, and Dex had the pictures pulled up in just a few clicks.
As Dex clicked through the massive number of pictures, her stomach started to twist. She saw pictures of Brent and Grace at the beach, Brent and Grace at dinner, Brent and Grace at the Acropolis.
“Can you help me make a slide show out of these?”
“Sure. Do you have some music you want to add to it?”
“Yes. We bought some in Greece that would be perfect.” Grace ran out of the room and returned quickly with a CD.
While the pictures copied to the laptop, Dex opened iTunes, and they created a playlist with the songs that Grace chose from the CD, as well as a few other favorites. When they were done, Dex merged the music with the pictures and let the show run, watching the entire trip again. Dex tried to seem interested as the pictures slid slowly across the screen, but the first time had been enough for her, and she zoned out during the last ten minutes. When the slideshow ended, she found Grace sitting forward in her chair staring at her.
“What’s the matter with you?” Grace said and pressed her lips together. “You don’t seem interested in my trip at all.”
Dex sat up and moved closer to the laptop. “What? Of course I am. I was just gauging the timing between pictures.” In all honesty, it was hard enough to see Grace’s spectacular honeymoon and all their happiness the first time, and she just couldn’t take watching the love in them again.
“Are you sure that’s all?” She pulled her eyebrows together. “I hope you’re not mad about me leaving without saying good-bye. I tried to find you.”
Dex shook her head as she saved the slideshow and shut down the laptop. Dex had made sure that didn’t happen, and it was probably good that Grace hadn’t found her, or she might have spilled her guts in front of Brent. It probably wouldn’t have made the slightest bit of difference to Grace, but Dex would’ve regretted it for life.
“Did something happen while I was gone?”
“No. Everything’s fine.” But everything wasn’t. She and Grace would never be fine again. Their relationship had changed significantly. Dex felt like an outsider now.
“Okay, then.” Grace reached for her hand. “Come on. I’ll show you some of the other things I bought.” She led Dex into her bedroom.
Dex stopped and scanned the room. It looked like an F3 tornado had come into the room, swept everything up into the air, and let it crash to the floor again. Clothes and bags were strewn everywhere.
Grace seemed to notice her surprise. “Sorry. I haven’t had a chance to do anything since we got back.” She picked up a few stray pieces of clothing and tossed them into a pile on the floor next to the bed before she opened her unpacked suitcase perched on the upholstered bench at the bottom of the bed. She took out several bikini bathing suits, held them in her hand, and closed her eyes.
“The beach was covered in golden sand, and the water was such a clear blue, the ocean floor was visible as far as I could see.” Her eyes sprang open. “I could see my feet the whole time I was in the water, and the snorkeling was perfection. One day we were surrounded by little yellow-finned fish. I have no idea what they were, but it was surreal, Dex.” She smiled as though she were reliving every moment. “And the sunbathing was wonderful. We had our own umbrella and lounge chairs every day. I thought of you a lot. Two women were under the umbrella next to us the whole time we were there. They’d just gotten married too.”
She was quiet for a moment, and Dex wondered what exactly she’d thought about her while she watched the women. She took in a breath. “We swam in the ocean at sunset every night and then had drinks on the beach. We even made love on the beach.” She tossed the bathing suit into the pile. “But that’s totally overrated.” She lowered her voice and raised an eyebrow as though she was telling her the secret location of a sunken treasure ship. “Sand gets just about everywhere.”
An image of Grace and Brent on the beach together flashed through Dex’s head, and she shook it from her thoughts.
“And dinner was absolutely fabulous every night.” The pile of clothes on the floor was growing as Grace tossed more onto it. Thong underwear, sexy lingerie, short shorts, tight tops, and bikini bathing suits with minimal cover-ups. Clearly Grace had hoped for a very intimate honeymoon.
“You did that every day?” Dex knew it was an unrealistic dream, but she’d love to find a woman she could share an adventure like that with someday. Not Greece. That was totally ruined for her now, but possibly Italy.
Grace slapped the empty Louis Vuitton suitcase closed and rolled her eyes. “Not really. Brent drank a little too much once or twice and had a pretty good hangover the next day.” She dug through one of the beach bags that sat on the chair in the corner of the room. “But it was good most of the time.” She scrunched up her face. “They have some crazy customs. You wouldn’t believe what they did for us this one night. They brought grapes and flaming cheese before dinner. Then they danced around the table and gave me this beautiful necklace.” She pulled it out of the bag and tossed it to Dex.
She caught it with one hand and let it swing from her fingers before she examined it. It was a pendant of Rhea, the goddess of fertility and motherhood. Dex had always been fascinated with mythology. She was sure Grace had no idea what the necklace represented.
“With roast lamb, baked pasta, champagne, and candlelight, it was the perfect dinner. I must have gained at least ten pounds on the trip.” She glanced at her ass, at Dex, and then her ass again.
“Nah. You look great.” Dex gave her the expected response. She might have gained a pound or two, but whether she had or not, the vacation would justify Grace’s next few weeks of crazy workout sessions. The weight would be gone in a week. Grace had a great job at the gym and got her membership for free. She’d gotten Dex in free on her friends-and-family discount as well, but she didn’t have time to go. Besides, she already did enough heavy lifting on the job.
Grace was fortunate, like Dex, in that way. They could pretty much eat whatever they wanted and still stay slim. She glanced at the medallion again and wondered if that would still be the same once she and Brent started having children.
“Are you and Brent going to have kids right away?” Oh, shit. Did I really ask that?
Grace snapped her gaze back to Dex and blinked rapidly. The question must have surprised her as well. “Who said anything about kids?”
“I just thought now that you’re married, having a family would be the next step.”
“I have a lot of things to do before thatever happens. I’m not done having fun yet.” Grace was more like her mother than she liked to admit. Only her parents had created their family and then continued to do what they wanted while they left them in the care of relatives or babysitters while they went on their adventures.
Dex tossed the necklace back to Grace. “Then you’d better not wear that. Rhea is the goddess of fertility and motherhood.”
The necklace slapped against Grace’s chest as she moved her hands and let it fall to the ground. “Oh my God. No wonder they told me to always wear it.” She picked it up between her thumb and index finger as though it were a dirty diaper and carried it to the trash.
Dex chuckled. “Since when are you so superstitious?” Dex swiped it from her fingers and hung it on the corner of a picture frame on the dresser.
“Since I don’t want babies right now. Do you think it’s easy keeping this figure? I can’t imagine getting back into shape after pushing a little human out.” She closed her eyes and shivered. “No. Absolutely not.”
“Hang on to it. You may change your mind someday.”
“Yeah, maybe.” She shook her head. “But not right now.”
Her expression made Dex think all wasn’t perfect in the world of Grace and Brent. “You okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine. I just didn’t know I was going to be forced into such domestic bliss so quickly.” She stared at the pile of dirty clothes on the floor from their honeymoon. Grace had always gotten an allowance from her parents and sent her clothes to the cleaners weekly.
“Do you need help with laundry?”
“Would you mind? I have no idea what to do with it. Brent says we need to rely on his salary now and put whatever money my parents give us into savings.”
“Sounds like a good plan to me.” Dex picked up the pile of laundry and started sorting through it. “You need four piles. Whites, lights, darks, and delicates.” She pointed to a pair of Brent’s boxers. “You’re in charge of those.”
When Grace got back home, Brent was in his usual position slouched half-mast, relaxing on the couch in front of the TV with his feet on the table. She took a breath and calmed herself before proceeding into the house.
“Hey, babe. Where you been?” Brent said as he quickly removed his feet from the coffee table and replaced them with the bowl of salsa that had been sitting on his chest.
“I went to the grocery store. And I saw that.” She hated it when he put his dirty shoes on the table.
He gave her a big grin. “I thought Dex was coming over today.”
Grace melted. She loved it when he smiled at her that way. “She did, but then she had to get back to work.” She forced herself not to run into the kitchen to grab a towel and cleaning spray to wipe down the table. It still irritated the fuck out of her when Brent put his feet on the table. He knew she hated it, yet he kept on doing it.
“I bet she’s glad you’re back?”
“I really don’t know if she is.” She tossed her purse onto the couch. “She acted totally uninterested when I was telling her about our honeymoon.”
“She probably had enough of it from all the pictures you sent her. Looking at someone else’s trip is kind of boring.” He held up a bag of tortilla chips. “Want some?”
“It is not.” She plucked a chip out of the bag and dipped it in the bowl of salsa. “And I didn’t send her that many.”
“You sent her a bunch.” He glanced up from the TV for a minute. “Maybe she needs to go out and have some fun once in a while. She never really goes out with anyone, does she?”
“No. Not really.” She went into the kitchen and set the bag of groceries on the counter. “I thought she was going to fall asleep halfway through the slideshow.”
“You made a slideshow?” He popped up off the couch and followed her. “Like on the laptop?”
She pulled her eyebrows together. “Yeah.” She took a couple of beers out of the six-pack before she put it in the refrigerator. Brent took them from her hand and screwed the tops off.
“That’s awesome, babe. I want to see it.” He handed her one of the bottles and sprinted to the office.
“Really?” She didn’t think he’d be this excited. She put the milk and vegetables into the refrigerator and the rest of the groceries in the pantry. She wasn’t in the mood for shopping today and had only picked up a few essentials. She’d go again later in the week.
“Of course.” He came back out with the laptop. “I’ll hook it up to the TV.”
“You can do that?” Dex hadn’t done that earlier. Another sign she wasn’t interested.
“Yep. Where is it?” He plugged the cord into the laptop before he grabbed her by the waist, pulled her to him, and kissed her. “I can’t wait to see my beautiful bride in our tropical paradise.”
“Stop.” Grace laughed and felt all warm inside. “She put it on the desktop.”
“We need to go back next year,” he said as he clicked the file and expanded the slideshow to full-screen. Grace sat on the couch, and Brent flopped down next to her and put his arm around her shoulder. “Showtime.”