Aubree

Everything was perfect.

My wedding dress was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I’d fallen in love with it the moment I’d first seen it at the bridal store and everyone said it was made for me. The only one, of course, who hadn’t given an opinion was Ronald, but everyone assured me that he’d love me in it.

As I stood at the back of the church, watching my bridesmaids make the slow walk up the aisle, their royal purple dresses shimmering, I hoped everyone was right. I wanted today to be the most special day of my life. I was marrying the man I loved and I’d remember this day forever.

Then came the wedding march and my dad gave me a supportive smile. We started down the aisle and the audience stood. All eyes were on me, but… no one was smiling. In fact, the expression on every face – my friends, my family, my co-workers – was one of pity. I didn’t understand. What was wrong?

I was halfway toward the front when I looked up. My bridesmaids were all there, lined up in order. My two closest friends, my sister-in-law and my cousin. Their face held pity as well. I looked to my right. The groomsmen were all there, including my brother, but I didn’t see Ronald anywhere.

My heart began to pound as my father and I kept walking. Where was Ronald? Why wasn’t anyone stopping the music and looking for him? Why was the priest just standing there, a solemn expression on his face?

Suddenly, the pressure on my arm was gone. I looked to my right but my father had disappeared. A glance to my left and found him sitting with my mother now and they were both looking expectantly at the priest. I turned toward the old man as well.

“Dearly beloved,” he intoned in a flat voice. “We are gathered her to witness the humiliation of Bree Gamble as her fiancé Ronald Peterman has chosen to desert her on their wedding day…”

I jerked awake, a protest on my lips and breathed a sigh of relief as I flopped back down onto my pillows. My pulse was racing and there was a thin sheen of sweat on my skin despite the air conditioning in my tiny bedroom.

It was a dream. A nightmare. Sort of.

I turned my head and in the dim early morning light, made out the stack of presents sitting in the corner of my room. Their unopened paper and untouched ribbons reminded me that it was a nightmare based on reality. While the events hadn’t played out the same way, the ‘humiliation of Bree Gamble’ had occurred.

I rolled away from the gifts and punched my pillow a few times, wishing it was Ronald’s face instead. He and I had dated for five years, then been engaged for nearly two. Everything had been perfect – until that day. I’d been standing in front of the mirror, waiting for my maid of honor to come and tell me it was time. Instead, she’d come into the bridal room looking both pissed and upset in equal measure. Ronald had left… with our wedding coordinator.

Over the past week, I learned that the two of them had slept together one night when Ronald had volunteered to go over the seating arrangements because I’d been sick. Now, they were living together in the apartment we’d picked out, leaving me to figure out the best way to return all of the gifts we’d never opened.

I closed my eyes for a moment, wishing I could block out my memories as easily as I could the gray light. The pain was still fresh, but I supposed that was normal. It had just happened last weekend. This past week, I’d intended to be on my honeymoon, but instead, I’d given the tickets to my parents, hoping the Caribbean cruise would make up at least some of the cost of the wedding. I hadn’t gone crazy with it, but I was the only girl, so my parents had been more than happy to pay for the wedding of my dreams.

I barked a harsh laugh. For the past nine nights, I’d been learning the hard way that there was a difference between a day-dream wedding and an actual dream wedding. I sat up and raked a hand through my short, cocoa-colored curls. I was still getting used to that. My hair had been down to the middle of my back last week, but on Wednesday, tired of moping around the house and avoiding phone calls, I’d decided I wanted to make a change. I’d gone into a stylist and gotten my hair cropped shorter than it had ever been before. Even I didn’t recognize me sometimes.

I glanced at the clock. Five minutes until my alarm was scheduled to go off so no point in laying back down. I climbed out of bed. Other than that one little foray to the salon, today is the first day I ventured outside my apartment since my non-wedding. I hadn’t even gone to the teachers’ meeting on Friday.

Headmaster Norris had already given me permission to miss the meeting for my honeymoon, so she was willing to give me time off for my bittermoon as well. She’d been pretty sympathetic and it hadn’t taken much to convince her I was having a hard time pulling myself together. That wasn’t entirely true. I wasn’t falling apart. Sure, I’d spent pretty much the entire week in my pajamas, sitting on the couch binge watching television shows online, but I wasn’t breaking down in tears or drowning my sorrows in alcohol. Double chocolate fudge ice cream worked just as well.

I was actually looking forward to getting back to work, getting my mind off of things. One of the reasons I’d been thrilled to get hired at Legacy Academy last year had been their rigorous academic standards. Their students were among the brightest in all of Chicago. Keeping lesson plans that would engage, interest and challenge students whose IQs were in the gifted to genius ranges was quite a challenge.

The one thing I wasn’t looking forward to, however, would be the questions from students and staff as to why the diamond ring they’d gushed over hadn’t been joined by a wedding band, but had, rather, disappeared. Only a couple of the other teachers at Legacy had been invited to the wedding, but I was hoping they’d at least told the faculty what had happened. I didn’t want to spend the entire first day having to repeat that story.

Almost unconsciously, my thumb rubbed against the inside of my ring finger. In the two years I’d worn it, I’d gotten in the habit of playing with my engagement ring. Ever since I’d taken it off and mailed it back to Ronald, I’d found myself behaving as if it was still there.

My phone buzzed as I finished laying out my clothes. I glanced at the name before swiping the screen to read the full message. I’d gotten a text apology from Ronald a few days ago and ever since then, I felt a knot of dread inside me whenever my phone alerted me to a text.

This one, however, was from my best friend, Adelle Merriman-Dane. She and I had grown up next door to each other in one of Chicago’s middle class suburbs and we’d been inseparable almost from moment one. Our birthdays were even only two weeks apart, with me being the older one. We’d been through a lot together. My mom’s breast cancer, her father’s heart-attack. Her marriage at twenty-two and then being widowed just six months later. Everything had just brought us closer together. She’d been the one to tell me about Ronald leaving and the one who’d held me while I cried, telling me I’d feel better in time.

I read through her text, the tension inside me easing when I saw that it wasn’t more bad news.

Hey sweetie, wishing you luck on your first day back. Don’t let the little hellions get to you. Don’t forget dinner at L20. You, me and Mindy are getting our wine on Friday night!

I managed a faint smile as I sent back a quick thank you and five emoji shaped bottles of wine. Adelle and I had made Friday dinners a thing since we were in college, though those had usually consisted of pizza in our dorm room. When she’d married a dot-com billionaire, we’d started going through the finer restaurants in Chicago. By the time I met Mindy at Legacy while we were both student teaching three years ago, Adelle and I had regular reservations at L20, a beautiful seafood restaurant with amazing service and even better food. Adding one more to our table hadn’t been difficult.

I climbed into the shower and thought about how nice it would be to drown my sorrows in some expensive wine. It had taken me a while to get used to Adelle paying for our Friday nights out, but once she’d shown me the extent of the fortune her late husband had left her, I hadn’t let it bother me. I’d do the same for her if the situation was reversed.

I dressed automatically, but when I looked in the mirror to apply my make-up, I did a double take. My skin had always had a golden touch to it and it got even darker if I tanned, but now I looked practically pale. The circles under my eyes were purple, almost the same shade as my violet irises, and I looked at least ten years older than twenty-five. I scowled at my reflection and then got to work. By the time I finished, I didn’t look completely like my old self, but I was at least presentable.

I took a deep breath and looked myself square in the eye. I could do this. So what if my entire adult life so far had been as Ronald’s other half. I’d moved into my own apartment after I’d signed my contract at Legacy. Granted it was in Washington Park, but it was still my own place. I could stand on my own two feet.

I kept telling myself that as I headed out the door, determined to have a good first day.

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