Lola Barlow stared at herself in the full-length mirror, smoothing her hands over the silken skirt of her dress and wondering if this was how she was supposed to feel on her wedding day.
Her mother stood over her shoulder, weeping, her cries the perfect veil to cover Lola’s growing discomfort.
“Mama, don’t cry,” she told her mother. She watched in the mirror as the reflection of the older woman shifted, a watery smile crossing her face while she wiped the tears from her eyes.
“I’m sorry, baby,” came her shaky reply. “You just look so beautiful.”
Lola didn’t agree, but she didn’t voice this. Instead, she turned when her mother took her by the shoulders to look at her. “My Lulu… I can’t believe you’re getting married.”
Neither could she. It came as a total shock to her when, two-hundred and seventy-two days ago, her boyfriend, Josh Kendall, took her hand in his and led her to a picturesque pavilion and knelt before her — a velvet box in hand, question in his eyes, and professions of love on his lips.
She barely remembered uttering the word “yes” to him, and it wasn’t until he’d swept her into his arms that she realized what she had done.
She lied to him.
Lola never had high hopes for love. If her parents’ relationship was any indication, love always faded.
Except Josh. For some reason, he was different. He was real.
And now she was about to break his heart.
“How much time do I have?” Lola asked. She hoped the words didn’t betray how much of the breathless bride she was, even for the wrong reasons.
Her mother gave her a warm grin. “As much time as you need.” She stepped back. “I’ll give you a few minutes, okay? Let us know if you need anything.”
If only they knew.
Once she heard the door click shut behind her mother, Lola exhaled. Then she sprang into action — ripping the veil from her hair, haphazardly stuffing her belongings back into the overnight bag she’d brought with her to the hotel, and slipping her feet into a pair of sneakers she wore earlier that morning.
If she was going to run, this was her chance. Lola knew, deep down, that she had to take it. It would be unfair to Josh for her to stay.
She just hoped that he might find it in his heart to forgive her after it was all over.
Aaron Porter was running late, and he hoped that his best friend would forgive him for it.
As he pulled the key from the ignition, he released a breath, willing the gnawing pit in his stomach to subside. Today was supposed to be happy, exciting even — but for reasons he couldn’t quite explain, anxiety plagued him.
His best friend was getting married.
This is a good thing, he thought, almost as a reminder for himself. Aaron recalled the way his heart leapt when Josh confided in him his plans to propose to his girlfriend Lola, and again when his best friend asked him to be his best man. It seemed as though everything was falling into place: Josh was going to marry the girl of his dreams, and Aaron was going to be there to witness it and support him.
So why did it feel like the velvet ring box in his pocket was burning a hole through his pants?
His answer appeared in a blur of white and the scratchy sound of sneaker soles on pavement as a woman ran past, a duffle bag clutched in one hand, and the skirts of her white dress bunched into the other.
It can’t be her, he thought. But then … he recognized the blue and grey sneakers she wore.
Aaron opened his car door and stood.
“Lola?” he called out.
The woman stopped dead in her tracks. Aaron saw the caught expression on her face. The realization sank low into his gut, mingling with the rest of his worries.
He never wanted to be wrong so badly in his entire life.
“Aaron,” Lola said.
“Lola, what are you doing?”
How could she tell Aaron that she was leaving his best friend?
“I — uh,” she fumbled with her skirts to walk over to him, “I forgot something at my apartment.” The lie grated like dust on her tongue.
Aaron’s confusion abated, his expression easing slightly. “Oh.”
“Can you drive me?”
Wait, what? Why did she ask that? She was supposed to be lowering Aaron’s suspicions, not asking him to come along with them.
Her reply brought him up short too. “Sure,” he finally said, closing the car door behind him. “I should let Josh know fir—”
“—He knows. I told him. We should just go so we can get back quickly.” Except she didn’t plan on coming back.
“Oh… Okay.” Aaron rounded the car and opened the passenger door for her. Lola accepted.
And just like that, she had run away from her wedding.
They were thirty miles away from the church—after a series of awkward questions from Aaron and equally awkward lies in answer from Lola—when Lola’s phone began to ring. The ringtone was the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” That meant it was her mother calling.
She didn’t want to answer it.
Aaron’s eyebrows furrowed in her direction. “Aren’t you going to get that?”
Almost as soon as they quieted, the Backstreet Boys gave an encore. Lola let that call pass, too.
“Are you sure?” Aaron prodded.
Then the texts started buzzing in.
From her mother. Where are you?
From her best friend, Allie. Your mom is freaking out, Lo!
And finally, from Josh — a rapid fire of four messages in a row.
What’s going on?
Your mom said you’re not in the suite?
Talk to me.
Lola turned her phone off. Then she closed her eyes, feeling the tears there.
I’m sorry, she wished she could tell them.
She felt Aaron’s gaze on her before he spoke.
“We’re… not just going back to your apartment, are we?” he asked.
Before Lola could open her eyes, let alone respond, Aaron’s phone began to ring.
Aaron felt like he was an accomplice in a crime he didn’t agree to commit.
“Aaron,” Josh’s sigh of relief sounded in his ear, but then tension pulled at him as his best friend asked, “Where are you?”
Does he know? Aaron looked at Lola, whose face returned to that awful deer-in-headlights expression — except this time, her eyes were filled with guilty tears. She turned toward the window at the sound of Josh’s voice over the phone.
She knew it was him.
“I’m stuck in traffic,” Aaron said. “There was a huge accident on the I-9.”
And now, on top of being an accomplice, he was a liar.
“Oh,” Josh said.
“I’ll be there soon.”
“Okay, good.” Josh heaved a stressed sigh. “Have you heard from Lola? She’s not in her suite. Her mother can’t get a hold of her. She’s not… answering any of my texts. I… I don’t know what to think.”
Aaron’s heart pounded in his chest.
He had to tell him, right? That’s what he was supposed to do. But…
Lola stuck her hand out and spoke, loud enough that Josh heard her.
“Give me the phone, Aaron. He deserves to hear it from me.”
“Was that Lola?” Josh asked as Lola took the phone. Aaron straightened his shoulders, looking squarely at the road. As if by doing so he blended in the background. As if he wouldn’t have to witness this.
Lola wished he didn’t.
“Josh,” she said, “it’s me.”
“Lola,” Josh said, both an exhale and an uncertain upturn to his tone. “Oh, thank God. You… Why are you with Aaron? He… said he was stuck in traffic…” Then he trailed off as the pieces must have come together in his mind.
“I’m sorry.” It was the first true thing she said in nearly a year.
Dead air filled the line. Lola closed her eyes again.
“Do you… not want to marry me?”
Hearing the words in Josh’s voice hit like splinters to Lola’s heart. His question echoed in the chambers of her chest, in her head, over and over.
Did she want to marry him? She hadn’t had time to think about it since Josh settled the engagement ring on her finger. Since the quivering nerves prickled her stomach every time she thought about marrying him. Any normal girl would chalk it up as butterflies, but Lola knew better.
This was real. She just didn’t know what it meant.
“I… I don’t know.” She opened her eyes, hating how the words cracked coming out of her mouth.
More dead air. Josh’s sigh was long and deep and broken. He gave a sharp inhale, and Lola braced herself for what would come next.
“Are… Are you and Aaron, or I don’t know, someone els—”
“Oh my God, no,” Lola cut him off. “I’d never cheat on you, Josh. Aaron… he just got wrapped up in this because I asked him to. I swear. Please, don’t be mad at him.”
“Okay.” Some of the tension left his voice. “Okay. Good.”
“Do you believe me?”
Lola tried not to think about the other ways they would have been saying those words. “Okay.”
A few long moments passed where neither of them said a word. Then, finally, Josh spoke again.
“Why? Why did you say yes if… if you didn’t want to marry me?”
Lola bit her tongue. She allowed her mind to travel back to that moment, to Josh’s eyes shining with devotion and her heart slamming against her ribcage in… in what? Guilt? Anticipation? Fear? Somehow, none of the words quite felt right.
“I think… I think I wanted to marry you then. A part of me did, at least.”
“But not now.”
“No,” Lola said. “I… It’s hard to explain, Josh.”
“Well, I’ve got all the time in the world. You know, since you left me at the altar. I’ve got nowhere to be.”
Lola gave an exhale that was half-scoff and half-sigh at his sarcasm. But he was right. He deserved an explanation. She owed one to him.
“I’m sorry,” she said again.
“I don’t want an apology,” Josh said. “What’s done is done. Just tell me why, Lola. If you can’t do that… Do I really mean that little to you?”
“No,” Lola said. “No, Josh… You mean so much to me. You have to know that.”
“I don’t know!” she yelled. “I wish I did! I… I just know that I’ve had this feeling ever since I said yes. Deep in my gut. I don’t know why, and I don’t know quite what it is. Fear, maybe. It’s not… love. I know what that feels like. I love you, Josh. Maybe it’s my parents and the way their divorce happened, or my dad and all his girlfriends. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m not cut out for this kind of thing. For marrying you. I wish I could give you a better answer.”
The line went silent again.
“I’m sorry… that the idea of marrying me terrifies you,” Josh said. “I shouldn’t have pushed you.”
“Josh… That’s not—”
“No, it’s fine, Lola. Really.” She could hear the hurt in his voice and it twisted her gut.
“I should have told you,” Lola said. “It’s not your fault.”
“No, it’s not. But…” He trailed off.
“But what?” Lola asked.
“But… We should just call it. I’ll cancel the wedding, send everyone home. And you… can figure out what it is you want. Because you’re not coming back, right?” There wasn’t an ounce of hope in his voice.
She didn’t know. In light of everything, she didn’t know. The guilty part of her wanted to. The rest of her… “I… I don’t… I don’t even know what it was I wanted this morning.”
“I do.” Josh took a breath. “You didn’t want to get married. Look, if you want to talk, I’ll be at the hotel. I love you, Lola. Remember that.” Then he hung up.
Lola lowered the phone to her lap.
A numbness settled over her shoulders. Not fear, or guilt. Just numbness.
“You can say it,” she said.
“Say what?” Aaron asked.
“How stupid I am. How much you hate me for doing this — for dragging you into this, for hurting Josh.”
“Why would I say that? I don’t hate you.”
Lola scoffed. “Of course you don’t. Please don’t lie to me, Aaron.”
“Then what do you think?” she asked. “Seriously. I want to know.”
“I think… you shouldn’t have lied to Josh. But I also think… You wanted to marry Josh today.”
“You love Josh.” Aaron gave a shrug as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Why do you think you let it get this far, Lola? You said it yourself: A part of you wanted to marry Josh this morning.”
Lola shook her head. “But—”
“—But that’s not why I think you ran,” Aaron said.
Silence spread over the car for a solid minute as Lola let his words sink in.
“Then why do you think I ran?”
Aaron shrugged. “You were scared. You’re scared to commit to him. And that’s okay.”
Lola swallowed hard. Was it really just fear? It felt so much more… complex than that.
“How do you see that?” she asked. “I sit here and feel it for a year, but I don’t see that. I just feel it… and I don’t do anything about it, I just feel it.”
Aaron sighed. “Because… not too long ago… I was you.”
“What do you mean?” Lola asked.
Aaron felt her stare. He kept his eyes on the road, lost in memory.
He never told anyone the reason his engagement to Ashley Reynolds was broken off three years ago — not even Josh. There was a story that he told to his best friend, to anyone that asked, but it wasn’t the truth. The truth was, he told everyone that she broke it off with him to make himself look better.
“Three years ago,” he explained, “I was engaged. Her name was Ashley.”
“Aaron and Ashley,” Lola echoed, “That’s cute.”
“Yeah, I know, right?”
Too bad “cute” wasn’t enough.
“What happened?” Lola asked.
Aaron took a deep breath. “I didn’t leave her at the altar, if that’s what you’re asking.” He caught Lola’s mirthless laugh and then her downcast expression. “Sorry.”
“No,” she said, “It’s your right. Go on. Make jokes, or yell at me. I deserve it.”
“I already told you I’m not going to do that.”
“Then tell me what happened.”
“I called it off over text message,” Aaron said.
“Wow.” Lola blew out a breath. “That’s…”
“I was going to say ‘pretty damn bad and she must hate you,’ but sure. It’s lame, too.” Lola’s nose scrunched when she shot him the slightest smile before her expression sobered. “Why’d you do it?”
“You ever heard of ‘right thing, wrong time?’”
“Yeah. I wasn’t ready. I loved Ashley... but she was ready and I wasn’t. I couldn’t picture myself actually standing at the end of that aisle and devoting my life to her. And it wouldn’t have been fair to me to lie to her, or to ask her to wait. I just didn't think I could be a good husband at that time. I couldn’t… see our life together.”
Silence fell between them for a few long moments.
“What about you?” Aaron asked. “Why did you wait?”
Lola’s was silent. Finally, she said, “I couldn’t bear to tell him. The guilt of me hurting him outweighed the guilt of me waiting. And every time I tried… I just couldn’t do it.”
That was what made them different. Aaron had more guts than guilt, and Lola… was the opposite.
“Can you… see your life with Josh?” Aaron asked. He needed to know. And maybe, just maybe, she could see what he couldn’t — a future.
Even if it would never exist.
Lola felt her silence soak into the air between her and Aaron.
Every time she tried to see her life with Josh in the last year, her mind went blank. Or, worse, she saw all the ways it would go wrong.
Lola let her head fall back against the headrest and closed her eyes.
She pictured him the way he looked on their first date — the hint of a baby face still padding his cheeks amidst the definition of his jaw, hair slicked to his forehead from the rain, mouth half open like he didn’t know what to make of her while she screamed the lyrics to Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” to him in the crowd. Now, she knew what that look of wonder on his face meant: love. But then, it only spoke of possibilities, of maybes and somedays.
Then she let herself imagine him as he would look today, smartly dressed in his suit and tie, hair styled but still with a hint of boyish mess about it, eyes holding that same glimmer of wonder, of tomorrows and forever.
And she saw the living room of a house, where Lola lay on her back on the floor. A dog barked, then ran onto the scene. The black lab licked her face while she heard the sound of a car door shutting, then the shifting of a key into the front door’s lock. Lola rolled over to meet Josh’s eyes as he stepped inside, his grin a mirror of her own.
She tasted that forever kind of love in his kiss.
“Aaron,” she said, opening her eyes, “Turn around.”
Twenty minutes later, Lola wondered if she was too late. She hoped not.
“Are we there yet?”