Authors: Elle Wright
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To my mother, Regina. I'm so thankful you encouraged me to feed my imagination through reading and writing. It is because of you, and everything you've instilled in me, that I do this. I created Sharon Parker (Allina's mother) with you in mind. You were the best mother I could have: beautiful, intelligent, funny, and real. You protected me, nourished me, and loved me unconditionally. Love you eternally. You are missed.
'm leaving,” Allina Parker announced, standing up.
Allina had spent the day with her friend Kent. Dinner and a movie. It had been hours since they'd returned to his place. They'd chatted about nothing in particular, but it was good. Easy. She'd missed hanging out with him. Things had been strained between them since she'd moved away months earlier. But nowâ¦now they seemed to be back to normal. It wouldn't last, though.
Kent looked up from his phone and smiled. “Okay. I'll see you tomorrow?”
“No, I'm leaving town,” Allina explained. “I've decided to go back to Ohio. Isaac and I are going to be married as soon as possible,”
Allina's gaze dropped to a piece of lint on the plush taupe carpet. Gripping the bottom of her sweater, she steeled herself for his response.
Kent didn't care for Isaac. That much was obvious. In fact, her friend had made it known on numerous occasions, announced it every single time he got the chance, no matter who was around, oftentimes without regard for her feelings. She expected a similar reaction to this news. But they needed to talk about it; she couldn't leave without telling him.
Seconds passed with no response. Allina finally met Kent's pensive gaze. His dark eyes traveled over her face. It was no different from any other time he'd looked at her like that. It felt like a tender caress, the way his gaze seemed to take every part of her in and hold her. Her stomach tightened and she couldn't help but wonder if that feeling would ever go away. Lord knows, she wanted it to. She'd spent the better part of her adult years loving Kent, only to have him reject her time and time again. Unrequited love was not the life she'd envisioned for herself. She had no choice but to move on.
“Say something,” she croaked.
“Why?” he asked.
Allina wondered if it was a trick question, if Kent was playing some sort of game with her. Only he didn't play those types of games.
“You know we're engaged, Kent.” That had been another day, another argument. It felt like a lifetime ago. “I believe this is the best decision for me. He loves me and wants to spend his life with me,” she answered, holding her chin up high.
“Do you love him?” Kent asked.
Allina's mouth fell open. She hadn't expected him to ask her that. Even so, it was a valid questionâsomething she would have asked her friend in the same situation.
“Yes,” she said simply.
It wasn't a lie. Once she'd decided that waiting on Kent was a lost cause, she met Isaac. The future minister had courted her like her father told her a man shouldâwith candlelit dinners, walks in the park, trips to the theaterâ¦ Isaac Hunter was exactly what she'd prayed for in a husbandâkind, intelligent, caring, handsome. He was a man of God, the one who'd been groomed to take over the church his father pastored. One thing she was sure of was Isaac's love for her. He told her every day how much she meant to him.
Kent arched a brow. It was a trademark, yet something only she seemed to notice. It made her pulse race. His smooth, dark skin seemed to glow in the dim light of the room. “How could you?” He inched closer to her and she slowly backed away. The faint waft of his cologne surrounded her. “You don't even know him. How can you love someone you don't know?”
“I do,” she insisted.
“Right.” The sarcasm in his voice was unmistakable.
He reached down and grabbed her left hand, surveying the ring that she had pulled out of her purse only that morning. Allina couldn't deny the warmth that spread over her like a wildfire in a dry forest as his fingers brushed over hers and twisted the ring around.
Unable to concentrate with him standing so close to her, she gently took her hand from his. “I don't understand why you're being so rude about it. I know sarcasm when I hear it.”
He took a deep breath. “You're making a huge mistake.”
“Tell me why,” she pressed. Time and again Kent had told her she was making a mistake with Isaac, but he never elaborated, never gave her a reason. Allina didn't know what she expected from Kent in that moment. Did she want him to beg her not to marry Isaac? Would she marry Isaac if he told her not to?
Kent took a step back and ran a hand over his bald head. “He's not for you.”
Frowning, Allina stepped toward him. “Why do you keep doing this to me?” she asked. “Every single time, you give me some half answer. But you never tell me why.”
He shrugged. “For starters, I know you. I know how much you want the dreamâthe wedding, the kids.”
Allina folded her arms across her chest. What he said was the truth. Becoming a wife and mother had been her dream since she'd watched
as a child. Even though her life seemed bleak at times, she still wanted the fairy tale.
“Why shouldn't I?” she asked, throwing her arms in the air. “Why is it so wrong to want a family of my own? I found someone who adores me, who treats me wellâ”
She blinked and a lone tear fell down her cheek. “Stop,” she hissed. “You don't know him.”
“I know you're struggling with this,” he argued. “You've been here for months.”
“My friends needed me.” Allina had arrived after Christmas for her best friend Sydney's baby shower and ended up staying through the birth and afterward to help out.
“Allina, it's April,” he pointed out. “If this guy is the one for you, why are you still here?”
“No need to answer. I already know. There is something about him, about marrying him, that is wrong. And you know it.”
“Don't tell me what I know,” she grumbled. “Isaac is good to me.”
Kent frowned. “How? If he treats you so well, why are you broke? Hm?”
She didn't have an answer for that. Not one that she could tell him. It would make his case even stronger. Isaac had offered to foot the bill for her trip to Michigan, but Allina had turned him down.
“You don't know him,” she whispered.
“I don't need to know him,” he said, unfazed by her weak response. “When is the wedding?”
Originally, they'd decided to wait until next year to marry, but the church had voted to install Isaac as an associate pastor. He'd told her that being married before he was promoted would be best. Agreeing to marry so quickly would put her own career ambitions on hold. After all, she'd still been struggling to find gainful employment since her abrupt move. But it was a sacrifice she was willing to make. Kent wouldn't understand, so she wasn't going to mention it to him.
Allina dug her fingernails into her palms. “In a few weeks. There's a convocation at the beginning of the month, and he wants the ceremony to take place before that. My mother is planning everything.”
“Why are you doing this again?”
Allina couldn't tell him that she'd given up on him ever loving her, even though she suspected he already knew. There was only one reason she wouldn't marry Isaac, one person who could really stop her. If he told her not to marry Isaac, to stay with him, she would. It always had been Kentâin her heart, in her thoughts. She knew she'd never love anyone the way she'd loved him.
Sucking in a deep breath, she approached Kent tentatively. “Tell me why I shouldn't,” she pleaded. “I'm asking you, please.”
*Â Â *Â Â *
The room descended into silence. Kent surveyed Allina, standing before him begging for an answer. Her big, normally expressive eyes asked him for a reason. He wasn't sure he could give her the one that would satisfy her, though. All he knew was that marrying the preacher man, Isaac, would be the worst thing she could ever do.
Since the minister had bulldozed his way into her life, he'd influenced Allina to change everything about herselfâeverything that made her the unique, ambitious, self-sufficient person he knew. The woman in front of him was not the woman who'd moved to Ohio less than a year ago. She was a shell of herself, and Kent could only assume the minister was to blame.
Kent had never met Isaac, had only seen a profile picture on Facebook. But he didn't like him, and he certainly didn't care for the hold he had on Allina. And he'd let her know that every chance he got.
How could she love someone she didn't know? More importantly,
how could she marry someone she wasn't in love with?
Because Allina couldn't love the minister. She loved
. Kent had known it for years. But he wouldn't say that to her. He'd made a decision a long time ago to keep things strictly platonic. The friend she was to him, the confidante she'd always been, wasn't something he wanted to risk for a relationship that might or might not work. The last time he'd taken one of his
to bed, the resulting drama had almost destroyed him after his childhood friend tried to kill herself right in front of him.
Raking his eyes over her thin frame, over her hair styled in a way he knew she hated, he shook his head. “Allina, you can't tell me that you're so in love with this man that you would leave your entire life behindâyour career, your friendsâto become the dutiful wife. You're so busy trying to turn yourself into the perfect preacher's wife that you can't see that he's systematically and deliberately turning you into a different woman altogether. Pretty soon, you'll be wearing church hats and directing the church youth choir.”
Her beautiful, light brown eyes widened, and she took an uneven step back. He'd hurt her. “Okay,” she murmured. “That's it?”
“What? Do you need another reason?” he blared, unable to help himself. Sometimes the truth hurt; better now than laterâafter she was married to the jerk. “He's controlling you right now, demanding that you come home and marry him before the damn convocation. And you can't tell me you don't feel that this is wrong on so many levels. Look at you: you're wasting away. You've lost so much weight. You barely eat. What the hell is wrong with you?” he roared. “You're a goddamn fool if you marry him.”
She blanched; a shaky hand covered her mouth.
“I'm sorry.” He cringed at the dejected look on her face, not that he regretted
he'd said. It was the shitty delivery that had taken it to another level. Scrubbing a hand over his face, he apologized again. “I didn't mean to yell. I'm just trying to help you. You're my friend, one of the best people I know.”
“Friend,” she mumbled with a snicker. “I'm done with this conversation, Kent. I'm going to marry Isaac. You don't know him like I do. He loves me, I love him.”
“That's bullshit,” Kent grumbled.
“Stop, Kent!” she shouted, slicing her small hand through the air. “It's almost like you don't think I'm worthy to be loved or something. You've been against him from the beginning. And you've never even met him.”
Her words pricked his heart. Allina thought he didn't think she was worthy of love. That couldn't be further from the truth. “Why would you say that?” he asked incredulously. “Of course I think you deserve love. But I don't need to meet him to know that he isn't the right man for you. I only have to look at how you act.”
“How do I act?” she asked, fire in her eyes.
“Not like a woman in love.” He pointed at her ring. “This is the first time I've seen you wear that thing since you came hereâover three months ago.”
She opened her mouth, but nothing came out.
“You don't even talk about him,” he added. “It's like he's a ghost.”
“Why can't you just support me the same way I've always supported you? If I'm your friend, why can't you accept my choice?”
Her emphasis on the word “friend” wasn't lost on him. Peering up at the ceiling, he muttered, “I can't.”
“So you're telling me you won't come to my wedding?” Her voice quaked as she sniffled. “You're so angry with my decision, you won't even be there?”
When he met her gaze again, he noted the tears standing in her eyes. But he couldn't stop himself. “I won't watch you marry him.”