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Authors: Dani Atkins

The Story of Us

BOOK: The Story of Us
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To Kimberly and Luke, for holding my hand.

And to Ralph, who holds my heart.

THE END
PART ONE

You'd think that the day your whole life changes would be marked in some way. Bells should be ringing (well, I guess they would be later). Maybe there should be lightning bolts or a thunderclap or two? I looked through the window, but all I could see was a bright autumn morning, with a handful of russet leaves tossed by a breeze, floating past like amber confetti.

I could feel the nervous tension inside me flipping my stomach like a pancake. My hands were shaking so much that I was sure to make a mess of my make-up, which was lined up on my dressing table like surgical instruments in an operating theatre. I smiled at my reflection. Not too bad. I took a deep breath and forced myself to relax. That was better. It was natural, of course, to feel this way. What woman wouldn't feel nervous on a day like this? A drink might have helped, but the last thing I needed was to turn up at the church with the smell of alcohol on my breath. Although I knew how hilarious he would find that.

‘Not going to happen,' I told my reflection. As I carefully applied my make-up, I found my eye drawn to the elegant dress hanging in a protective covering on the wardrobe door. I'd known it was the perfect choice as soon as I'd seen it, and I really wanted to look special for him today. Not that he cared how I looked… well, not in clothes, anyway. Honestly, Emma, I chastised my reflection, while a range of highly improper and graphic images came to mind. Talk about inappropriate!

A knock on the front door got me to my feet, but before I was halfway across the room, I heard the sound of it opening and the rumble of voices in the hall below. The house was full of family and friends, some of whom had travelled a long distance to be here today, so there were more than enough people to handle door duty. In fact, was it really ungrateful of me to wish I could have got ready for today without the distraction of them all around me? Surely that was normal?

I could hear various family members getting ready in the bedrooms next to mine, and I knew I should probably be dressed and done by now. If I didn't move faster, perhaps they'd go without me? I gave a small laugh at the ludicrous thought and stepped over to the window to check out who'd just arrived. A small white florist's van was parked in front of our house, and the flowers we had ordered were being carefully lifted and carried inside. Okay, I really was late now. Just time to do my hair and get into my dress.

I'd dithered over whether to go for an up or down style for today. But then I thought of his hands running through the long reddish brown strands, twisting them around his fingers like reeds, to pull me closer towards him. No contest. Leave it down and let it sit on my shoulders as usual. Before shrugging out of my silky dressing gown, I peered at the mirror and suddenly swept back the fringe from my forehead, exposing a faint scar which was still visible at my hairline. I ran a finger over the white, slightly raised skin and briefly closed my eyes in memory of how it came to be there. That night had marked us all, and while I might be the only one who still bore a visible reminder on my face, nothing had ever been the same for any of us from that moment on. So many lives had been changed that night, so many futures had been rewritten.

I let my hair fall back into place, as the mirror caught and bounced a comet-bright reflection of my engagement ring, bathed in a beam of autumn sunshine. Of course I'd been wearing a different ring on that finger on the night of the accident, but that one had ended up at the bottom of a ravine. Long story. It was unfortunate, but not as unfortunate as falling in love with a mysterious stranger had been. I'd read every wedding magazine and book going, but none of them seemed to cover that particular thorny issue. What do you do when, a fortnight before your wedding, you suddenly find yourself in love with two different men?

THE BEGINNING
CHAPTER 1

Despite the obvious assumption, it was definitely the deer that caused the accident and not the daiquiris, and it
most definitely
wasn't due to Caroline's driving, because she hadn't touched anything stronger than lemonade all night.

As hen parties go, mine had been a fairly subdued event. Nothing tawdry; no strippers, no L-plates, no drunken antics that come back to haunt you in the months to follow. At twenty-seven I felt I was perhaps a little too ‘elderly' for the nights of raucous partying which had been a signature note to my university days. Not that we hadn't all had a great time, mind you. A group of ten of us had spent an indulgent ‘girly' day at a luxury spa hotel, and then, pampered, massaged and moisturised to within an inch of our lives, we'd moved on to the hotel bar which (allegedly) served the best cocktails this side of Manhattan. I'd never been to New York, but if that was what the locals drank, it was certainly worth a visit in the future.

We'd only had one round of drinks when Sheila, my soon-to-be mother-in-law got to her feet. ‘Oh, don't say you're leaving already?' I cried in disappointment.

‘I have to,' she said with a regretful smile. ‘Poor Dennis has been on his own all day. I've just called a cab; it'll be here in a few minutes.'

I got to my feet with a smile. ‘I'll walk you out,' I said, picking my way over an obstacle course of legs and handbags. With my arm linked through hers, we wove across the bar and headed towards the hotel foyer. Our route took us past my close friend Amy, who was sitting on one of the highly polished bar stools, ostensibly ordering more drinks. However, from her body language and low provocative laughter, I suspected she was looking for more than just a round of daiquiris from the good-looking young barman. With his floppy blond hair and perfect white teeth – which I could virtually count from the wide grin he was flashing at Amy – he looked more boyband member than bartender. I almost felt sorry for him, the way you'd feel sorry for a marlin just before it's hauled from the sea. He didn't know it, but he didn't stand a chance.

The foyer was eye-dazzlingly bright after the discreetly lit bar, and my eyes watered a little in adjustment as we walked to the revolving doors. ‘Thank you so much for coming today, Sheila,' I said sincerely. I'd initially been rather surprised when Richard's mum had accepted my invitation to join us. Of course, she was already like family to me, even before she officially became my in-law. Our mothers had been friends for years; it was how Richard and I had first met, although as we were only two years old at the time, I really don't remember it much.

‘I wouldn't have missed it for the world,' Sheila replied, pulling me towards her in a real motherly bear-hug of an embrace. I felt the pinprick of impending tears, as she softly whispered the thing we'd both been thinking all day, ‘It's such a shame that your mum wasn't here with us.'

I nodded into her shoulder, enveloped in a fragrant cloud of Chanel No. 5, not entirely sure I could trust my voice to reply. She let me step back, squeezing both my hands tightly. ‘It's all going to be fine, Emma, you'll see.'

I watched her walk to the cab and waved as she climbed inside, but as the car pulled off the hotel forecourt, the smile on my face slowly slid away. Her words echoed in my mind. Mum
should
have been with us today, indulging in the lavish spa treatments and then pretending to be shocked at the bawdily named cocktails. My eyes began to water again, and this time it had nothing to do with the lighting.

At that moment the door to the ladies' room opened, and Caroline, my third musketeer, emerged and saw me. She crossed the foyer in rapid strides, her face a picture of concern.

‘Emma, what's wrong?'

‘Nothing. I was just saying goodbye to Sheila.'

I gave Caroline an admittedly wobbly smile, and then almost lost the feeble hold I had on my composure, when her arm went comfortingly around my shoulders. She didn't need to hear me explain why I was suddenly overcome with emotion. She knew without asking, in the way that only your very best friends who've known you for ever can do.

She steered me gently from the door and back to the place she had just come from. Every woman's sanctuary in a crisis: the ladies' toilets. She paused just once at the entrance to the hotel bar, and waited until Amy glanced our way. Caroline semaphored a message with a vigorous nod of her head and a meaningful glance at me. To the untrained eye it might have looked as though she had some sort of nervous complaint, but to the final member of our trio, it was as clear as if she'd just shouted through a megaphone across the room. Amy jumped lightly down from her stool and left the barman without a backward glance.

They listened with matching faces of sympathy and understanding as I told them why Sheila's words had affected me. They allowed me just a few tears of self-pity before springing into action like well-rehearsed mechanics at a pit stop. Caroline pulled a handful of tissues from the chrome wall dispenser, while Amy rummaged in her bag for mascara and powder to fix the mess I'd made of my make-up.

They waited patiently as I repaired the damage, their teasing banter gradually pulling me back from my moment of darkness. ‘Feel better now?' asked Amy, giving me a brief hard hug when I handed back her make-up bag. I nodded and turned to face the reflection of the three of us in the wall of mirrors. They both smiled back at me in the glass, and wound their arms around my waist. I'd known Caroline since we were at primary school, and Amy almost as long. And although there had been a period of time when we had drifted apart, in the year since I'd moved back to Hallingford, we had picked up the dropped stitches of our friendship and sewn it back together, almost seamlessly.

Our bond was a real and tangible thing, a golden and unbreakable cord that tied us to one another, every bit as strongly as it had done in childhood. I hadn't known a second's hesitation when it had come to choosing my two bridesmaids. They'd both been in training for the role for over twenty years. No one had my back better than they did.

‘So, shall we go?' urged Amy, clearly anxious to return to the bar.

I just knew Caroline wouldn't be able to resist.

‘You're in an awful hurry. Wouldn't have something to do with that hot guy serving the drinks, would it?'

Amy gave an impish smile. ‘Maybe. I think he goes off duty soon.'

Caroline glanced down at her watch, then gave me a small wink. ‘It figures. He won't want to be up too late… not with it being a school night, and all.'

‘No, it's not. It's Saturday,' Amy corrected automatically, before the penny dropped and her face twisted in a wry smile. ‘Ha, ha, very funny.'

At just after twelve people decided to call it a night. Some of my guests faced a long journey home, and I'd be seeing everyone again in just two weeks' time, on the day of my wedding. I felt a familiar shiver run through me at the thought, part nerves, part excitement, part… something else. I shivered again as we stepped into the cold March night air of the hotel car park, wrapping my arms around me in an effort to combat the biting wind, slicing with grim determination through the thin material of my sleeveless dress.

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