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Romance

 

“What do you think?”

Verona couldn’t take her eyes off the image in the mirror. She was breathtaking. The ivory bodice molded to the curves of her chest and waist before tumbling like a waterfall of taffeta over her hips. The beading and lace woven across the bust gleamed in the soft light of the store. The trifold mirror before her allowed her to admire the dress from all angles.

“Oh my word.”

Verona’s eyes darted to the reflection of the small audience that accompanied her. Her mother, sister, and soon-to-be sister-in-law as well as her best friend, Ashani. Their adoring smiles brought an even broader smile to her own lips, their tears made her own eyes glassy. Her gaze shifted back to the image in the mirror and she ran her hands along the folds of material.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, her voice a raw whisper of emotion. The words sent a thrill through her, goosebumps trailing along her flesh. Her bridal consultant smiled pleasantly beside her, eyes twinkling in the golden light.

“One last touch,” the woman said, bustling to a nearby display and taking a veil from its place. She hurried back, tucking the comb into Verona’s hair.

The veil completed the look. She was a bride, head to toe. All she needed was a bouquet, the preacher, and the man she loved to tie it all together. Her mother started to cry; her sister held her. Ashani eyed the dress thoughtfully, and her sister-in-law nodded approvingly. But Verona did not look at them. Only the image of herself in the mirror. In that moment, everything felt surreal.

“I’ll take all the smiles and tears as a good thing,” said the consultant. Her audience babbled their approvals, but Verona simply nodded. The black clad woman eyed her appraisingly. “But how do you feel? Is this the one?”

She opened her mouth to answer, but hesitated. The thrill she felt shifted. Gooseflesh turned to crawling skin. Uncertainty gnawed at her, twisting her stomach like a fist. Cold feet. She’d felt this before, this fear of permanence. Her image seemed to shrink in the mirror.

“I don’t know.”

The words were choked. The audience behind clamored about her beauty and the way her fiancé would react when he saw her. This only watered the seeds of doubt. She pressed her fingertips to her eyes, her breath coming rapidly. She felt constricted. The room seemed to spin on end.

“I need to get out of this dress.”

The consultant nodded, offering a hand, which Verona took gratefully. They returned to the dressing room where the consultant assisted Verona with the ties at the back. As soon as the laces were loosed, Verona gulped air like she’d been held under water. The consultant paused.

“Are you alright, ma’am?”

Verona turned and presented the consultant with a feeble smile. “I am, thank you. This is… it’s just a lot. I wasn’t expecting this decision to be so difficult.” She pressed her hands together to quell the trembling.

“Of course,” the consultant said, nodding slowly. “These things always are.” There was a hint of knowing in her eyes. Verona did not like that look.

The consultant helped Verona step out of the dress, returning it to the hanger. Verona allowed her fingers to caress the material. Honestly, it was beautiful. It was beautiful on her. The fit, the feel. Why couldn’t she just commit?

“Is there anything else I can help you with?”

Verona turned back to her consultant. “No, thank you. I think that’ll be it today.”

The woman nodded. “Of course. I’ll be at the front then if you’d like to schedule another appointment.”

Verona smiled. “I’d like that.”

Her consultant left, and she redressed. She glanced back at the dress one last time. Beautiful, a part of her said. Final. That came from somewhere deeper. She took a few calming breaths before emerging from the room. She was met by her small party, all of whom pressed her about the dress.

“I’m just tired,” she sighed to abate them. “I need to sleep on it. This is a big decision.”

The words were an echo of another response, given six months prior. Her party nodded their understanding and accompanied her to the front of the store where she scheduled another appointment for later that week. She said her goodbyes, but just before she turned for her own car, Ashani caught her arm.

“Let me walk with you.”

She had that same thoughtful look in her eyes as before. Verona bit her lip, diverting her gaze to the oversized window of the dress shop. Ivory lace, organza, and beaded bodices assaulted her eyes. She looked forward and nodded. The two walked in silence until they were out of earshot of the others.

“You’re having second thoughts.”

It wasn’t a question. Rather a statement of fact.

“Yes.”

Ashani nodded. She and Verona had been friends since middle school. They knew each other well enough to read such things.

“So, what will you do?”

“I don’t know.”

Ashani’s gaze cut toward her before returning to the path ahead.

“What do you want to do?”

 “I don’t know.” Verona’s voice was a whisper.

Ashani sighed, taking Verona’s arm in her own. “The wedding’s in six months. You need to decide.”

Verona found herself annoyed. “I’m well aware of the time constraints I’m under, thank you very much,” she snapped.

Ashani cocked an eyebrow at her.

Verona felt a flash of shame and bit her lip. “I’m sorry, that was uncalled for.” She tilted her head up, gazing at the cloudless sky. “I’m just not sure what I’m going to do. It’s hard for me to admit that, but I’ll figure it out. Soon. I promise.” They arrived at her car.

Ashani shifted, taking Verona by the shoulders. “I know you will, sis, and whatever you choose, it won’t change my opinion of you.” Verona nodded gratefully, and Ashani pulled her into a hug. “Do what’s right for you. It’s like you said. This is a big decision.” She pulled away and smiled. “Call me if you need anything. Seriously, anything.”

Verona returned the smile. “I will. Thanks, Nini.”

Ashani patted her arm once, and then was gone, trotting to her own vehicle.

The smile fell from Verona’s lips. She sighed, unlocking her car, and plopping down in the seat. Her mind drifted as she turned the key in the ignition.

 

“Medium hazelnut, extra espresso!”

Verona looked up from her book as the barista set her coffee on the bar. Oh, blessed liquid gold! She needed this today, particularly after the shift she’d pulled the day before. She closed her book, marking her place, and tucked it under her arm before approaching the bar and grasping the to-go cup in both hands. The warmth within radiated through the stiff paper and warmed her skin. This was bliss.

The barista approached the bar again.

“Large dark roast!”

She barely heard the woman as she greedily pressed the cup to her lips and drank deeply. She immediately regretted the decision when the scalding liquid ravaged her taste buds, but on the upside, she was definitely more awake now than she’d been a moment before. She sighed with heated contentment and turned for her seat. Instead of finding a clear path open before her, she came face to face with a towering figure. The man paused as their eyes met. His lips parted, and recognition flared in his eyes. Her hands tightened on the cup, her mouth went dry, and her heart thrummed treacherously in her chest. She became acutely aware of the multifaceted reminder of her commitment on the fourth finger of her left hand.

“Hi,” she said breathlessly.

He cocked his head, and his lips curled a dimpled grin. “Verona. I thought that might be you. It’s been a while. I see your taste in coffee hasn’t changed.”

Memories danced through her mind. Time spent at the river outside of town, splashing water at each other and laughing. Dancing under refracted light to slow music, her cheek pressed to his chest, his hand on her waist, both laughing about the cheesy prom theme despite playing into it completely. The cheers as he paraded across the stage at his graduation, and how he caused her to blush furiously when he spotted her in the ungainly mass of people and blew her a kiss. She could still remember the feel of her hand gripped in his, of his skin as she traced the lines of his face and chest with her fingertips. The whispered promise of his breath brushing across her lips. The tears that accompanied his decision to attend college out of state. Their attempt at a long-distance relationship that left her consumed with loneliness, insecurity, and jealousy, and him frustrated and intemperate with his words.

“A while, Hawthorne? A decade’s a little more than a while if you ask me. And great taste never gets old.” She spoke with levity, though she had to drag her mind back to the present.

His lips quirked up into an amused smirk. “Still overflowing with spunk, I see.”

“Medium flipped caramel macchiato with a triple pump of mocha!”

Verona startled, dodging around Hawthorne to move out of the way of the next patron. He followed after her. She turned back to him.

“Would you like – “she started as he said, “Do you have time to – “

They both stopped, then laughed.

“Yes,” she chuckled, “I have time.”

“Perfect.” His smile still made her heart cartwheel. “Because I certainly would like.”

They moved to a nearby table, tucked into an alcove of the café. She settled comfortably on the bench against the wall as he kicked back in the chair opposite her. She found herself glancing toward his hand. No ring.

Dangerous, she thought, then immediately wanted to smack herself. You’re engaged! She screamed in her head. But when her eyes found his again, the thought melted away.

“So, Ms. Roan,” he said, using her old nickname. Her stomach fluttered. “I heard you’re head nurse at Vembroth Hospital. Congratulations.”

Verona grinned, a twinkle in her eye. “Thank you, though I’m not sure where you heard that old news. I was promoted to director of nursing a few months back.”

His eyes widened as did his smile. “Director of nursing? Good lord, that’s incredible! You always said you’d run this town one day. Seems like you decided to specialize in its health.”

She wagged her head back and forth proudly. “Most certainly! I’m quite proud of the accomplishment myself. It took years for me to claw my way up to this position. And let me tell you,” she leaned forward conspiratorially, “The old buzzard that was my chief competition was spitting fire the way she fumed over the announcement. She’d been a rat to me from the start. I swore, I’d either get the promotion or I’d find another position elsewhere. Anything other than working under her. Guess that lit a fire in me.”

Hawthorne laughed. “Definitely still got that old spunk to you.” His eyes held fondness. “Never lose that, kid.”

Verona pursed her lips at him. “Kid? If I didn’t let you get away with that in high school, what makes you think I will now?”

He held his hands up in mock surrender, the mirth never leaving his gaze. “Ah, I didn’t mean to affront you so. Forgive me?”

“I’ll consider it,” she said speculatively. You’re flirting, she scolded herself. Stop that. She cleared her throat. “Anyway, what about you? Last I heard, you were globetrotting with some fancy international marketing company.”

His features softened, his smile faltering. “I was. I still would be, but I needed to take a year’s sabbatical.”

Verona’s brow rose. “Oh yeah? Why’s that? Got burnt out on all your fantastic travels and decided to come home?”

Instead of chuckling, the smile fell from his lips completely. “It’s my mom. She’s sick, Roan. Real sick.” His jaw tensed in that familiar way, showing just how concerned he was.

Her stomach dropped, and she felt like she’d been dunked in freezing water. Hesitantly, she asked, “What’s wrong?”

“She’s got pancreatic cancer.”

“Oh no.” That diagnosis was basically a death sentence. Her face crumpled, and she pressed a hand to her middle. Mama Lin had been a second mom to her when she was teenager. Her own mother had been, and still was, a working woman, busy and frequently unavailable. While her dad had been there, he wasn’t a mom. There was always a disconnect between them when it came to matters of the heart. Mama Lin, well, she’d filled those gaps in Verona’s adolescence. Her life lessons and acts of kindness had left a permanent mark. “I’m so sorry.”

“I’m holding out hope that she’ll pull through.” He spoke with a confidence belied by eyes of uncertainty. “She’s a tough lady. You know how she is.”

“I do,” she replied softly, “but that still doesn’t make seeing your mama sick any better.”

He looked down at his hands. “You’re right.”

He took a sip from his drink. Verona did the same, happy to find her latte much cooler and enjoyable now that she’d given it some time. When she returned her cup to the table, she found Hawthorne’s demeanor changed, his gaze pointed.

“What?” She looked down, following the path of his eyes. The ring.

“You’re married,” he said softly. Was that a quaver in his voice?

“Just engaged.” She jumped on the response far too quickly, pulling her hand from the table and hiding it in her lap. Why did she do that?

“Who?”

She bit her lip. “One of the doctors at the hospital.”

He nodded slowly, then cleared his throat. “I see. I suppose I ought to let you enjoy your drink in peace then.” He made a move to stand, but her hand darted out, catching his sleeve.

“Please don’t,” she found herself saying. His eyes held hers and for a moment she thought he would leave anyway. Instead, he settled back into the chair.

He held out a hand. “May I?”

She hesitated, then placed her hand in his. The feeling was as she remembered, familiar and firm. He admired the ring, brushing a thumb across the gemstones.

“It’s beautiful,” he said, releasing her hand. “He did a good job.”

She found herself reluctant to pull away but did so anyway, nodding. “He did.” Her eyes lingered on the ring and suddenly she found tears in her eyes. She bit her lip to keep them from falling.

“Hey.” He ducked his head low to catch her eye. “I couldn’t expect you not to move on. It’s okay.”

She blinked rapidly and scrubbed an arm across her eyes. She was embarrassing herself. “Of course, it’s okay. You left. Eventually I did too. I doubt either of us thought we’d run into each other again.” That wasn’t entirely true.

“And yet here we are.”

“Here we are.”

Silence passed between them. She peeked up at him. His eyes were distant, troubled.

“So, when’s the wedding?”

“Do you really want to know that?”

They locked gazes. “No, I don’t.”

Silence again.

Then out of nowhere, she giggled, unable to contain herself. Hawthorne gaped at her, which only made her laugh harder. She covered her mouth in an attempt to quell the giggles, but she couldn’t stop herself. Soon he started to laugh too.

“This whole situation is so absurd,” she gasped between spurts of laughter. “I mean what’s the chances that we’d meet again like this?”

“No kidding.” Hawthorne shook his head, looking up as if gazing into the heavens. “That seems to be my kind of luck.”

“Is it?”

His lips quirked back into that dimpled smile, and he looked as if he were about to say something clever, but Verona’s phone went off. His lips compressed, still holding a steady smile. Her own mirth subsided as she fished her phone from her bag.

“Shoot, it’s the office. Of course, they’d call on my day off.” She sighed. “I’m sorry, I really need to take this.”

He nodded. “I understand, I ought to head out myself.”

They both hesitated. Verona’s phone went to voicemail.

She wanted to say something. To tell him how she’d thought of him long after their relationship ended. To express how much she’d missed him, wanted to reach out to him. To confess that, on the night her fiancé proposed, fleeting memories of him flashed through her mind.

“May I see you again?”

She was shocked out of her own thoughts. She opened her mouth, but she could not make herself speak. Finally, she whispered, “I don’t know.”

Hope fell from his features. He nodded.

“But,” she added quickly, “maybe. Either way, perhaps we could exchange numbers. I can let you know when I’m feeling a bit less… confused.”

His smile returned. “That’s good enough for me.”

They traded phones briefly, then said their goodbyes and parted ways.

 

Which brought her to this moment. She’d barely registered the drive over, and now she found herself gazing longingly toward the café from her parking spot. She was torn. She brushed the diamond ring with a thumb as the other hovered over her phone between two names. She tilted her head back and closed her eyes, pressing the phone to her chest. Two futures, two possibilities. Dare she give up the man she’d grown so fond, who loved her more than anything, on such a whim? Dare she let go of the man who’d once turned her flesh to fire, her mind toward magic, her heart to music? The seeds of doubt sprouted wildflowers within her. She glanced down at her phone once more. Permanence above, second chances below. She pressed the call button.

Hello?

“Hey, it’s me.”

August 13, 2020 13:41

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2 comments

Rambling Beth
08:35 Aug 17, 2020

I really liked this! It's a nice idea emphasised by your wonderful writing style. I liked Verona's constant doubts a lot and the opening sequence finding a wedding dress really stood out because you could tell she was having second thoughts before she admitted it to her friend. I liked the memories she had of Hawthorne and I think including how she felt about his mum (as a second parent) was beautiful and very clever. I think there were some words that got confused (affront you = offend you, loosed = loosened) but they didn't detrac...

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Rachel Alvarez
13:42 Aug 17, 2020

Thank you so much! Your feedback, kind words, and support mean the world to me :)

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