My Ex-Best Friend’s Wedding
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ABOUT THE BOOK
A wedding dress passed down through generations unravels the tangled threads of three women’s lives in a novel of friendship, family, and forgiveness from the USA Today bestselling author of Ten Beach Road.
Prized and stored away for safekeeping, the timeless ivory wedding dress, with its scooped neck and cleverly fitted bodice, sits gently folded in its box, whispering of Happily Ever Afters. To Kendra, Brianna, and Lauren it’s a reminder of what could have been, the promise of a fairy tale, and a friendship torn apart. But as Kendra knows firsthand: it wasn’t the dress’s fault.
Once closer than sisters, Lauren and Bree have grown up and grown apart, allowing broken promises and unfulfilled dreams to destroy their friendship. A successful author, Lauren returns home to the Outer Banks, fiancé in tow, to claim the dress she never thought she’d wear. While Bree, a bookstore owner, grapples with the realities of life after you marry the handsome prince. As the former best friends wrestle with their uncertain futures, they are both certain of one thing: some betrayals can never be forgiven.
Now on the eve of her daughter Lauren’s wedding, Kendra struggles with a secret she’s kept for far too long. And vows to make sure the dress will finally bring Lauren and Bree back together–knowing they’ll need each other to survive the coming storm.
What can I say about the wedding dress? I can tell you it’s been in my family for generations. That after all these years it’s still beautiful. And what happened the day I wore it wasn’t the dress’s fault.
It was designed and created for my great-grandmother’s cousin Lindy’s wedding. She was the only one of my grandmother’s female relatives whose family came through the Crash with most of their money still intact. At the time it was made THE DRESS, which is how we refer to it, cost more than your average house, a flagrant extravagance at a time when so many had no homes, or jobs, or even food to eat.
It’s one of a kind. Ivory satin with a scooped neck, flange collar, and a cleverly fitted bodice. Long fitted sleeves narrow down to a gentle point just beyond the wrist. A creamy waterfall of satin cascades toward the floor and swirls around the ankles, rounds into a train. It’s clean lined and elegant. No cutouts. No jewels. Its stark simplicity takes the breath away. With its Chantilly lace mantilla it’s the kind of dress meant for a showy, yet tasteful, fairy-tale wedding to a handsome prince. And while happily ever after is never guaranteed, it’s implied.
After Lindy, my grandmother and her other cousins wore it. So did their daughters and those of us who followed. Somehow it flatters any figure. A satin version of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants long before it was written. In fact, I bet if you subtracted the alterations that were sometimes required and divided its cost by the number of family brides who’ve worn it, THE DRESS was probably a bargain.
Every single Jameson bride looked beautiful in it. I know because I studied the family wedding albums a million times when I was a girl in Richmond and imagined myself wearing it.
The portrait of my mother in the gown hung above my parents’ bed until the day she died. It was part of the room. A touchstone. A reminder that even plain women are beautiful on their wedding day. When reality is suspended and everything, especially happiness, seems possible. When no one is thinking about what it will feel like to deal with sickness rather than health. Or anticipating the till-death-do-us-part part.
The dress fit me perfectly. A fact I interpreted as confirmation that my marriage was meant to be. That Jake was my destiny.
Try as I might to forget I still remember every detail of my wedding day. Sipping from a flute of champagne with my bridesmaids at our house on Monument Avenue while we had our hair and makeup done. The way my hands shook when I was helped into THE DRESS. How fast my heart beat on the way to the church. The way my pulse skittered while the 150 guests were escorted to their seats as the string ensemble played.
I walked down the aisle barely feeling my father’s arm under my hand or the floor beneath my kitten heels. All eyes were on me. In the most beautiful dress ever.
I smiled at Jake. Saw the love in his warm brown eyes. Let him take my hand. He squeezed it as we turned to face the minister.
And then, although I’ve been replaying it in my mind for over forty years now, I don’t really understand what happened. It was as if everything I’d thought, everything I’d felt, flew out of my head. When Reverend Frailey cleared his voice and said, “Dearly beloved,” I was struck with a thunderbolt of clarity, or perhaps it was a thunderbolt of panic, that felt as if it had been delivered directly from above. (And I don’t mean the choir loft.)
Suddenly I realized that I might be making a mistake. That I’d only just turned twenty-one. That it was 1978 and I was woman, but I had not yet even attempted to roar. That I might not actually be ready to start the family Jake wanted so badly or even commit the rest of my life to another person. Not even Jake.
Like I said, it wasn’t THE DRESS’s fault. And it definitely wasn’t Jake’s.
Three months later when the presents had all finally been returned and I discovered that I was pregnant with his child, his family wasn’t speaking to mine and I’d already done far too much damage to tell him. Until then I hadn’t realized that God was into irony. I mean what kind of deity would smite you with a fear of commitment at the worst possible moment and then make you a single mother, arguably the largest commitment ever?
So there it is. A slight wrinkle in THE DRESS’s mostly unblemished history.
I’m hoping my daughter will have a happier ending in THE DRESS. If, in fact, she ever wears it.
Three days to forty
New York City
“Oh my God. You’re . . . you’re Lauren James.” The woman looks down at the book on her lap then back up at me. “I’m reading Rip Tide right now. I’ve read everything you’ve ever written. Every single word.” She looks so genuinely excited. As if it’s Christmas morning and she found me under the tree and can’t wait to unwrap me. If her feet weren’t currently soaking in warm soapy water she would be moving toward me, holding out the hardcover of my latest novel in her lap for my signature. “I just love your books. I buy them in print and digital. I listen to them on audio while I work out.”
As other women look up, I thank my lucky stars that I put on makeup and washed my hair today. Writing is not the glamorous profession people think it is. In fact, authors spend long periods of time alone, unwashed, and on deadline. Grooming and hygiene can take a distant second to word count.
“Ah, so you’re the one keeping me in print.” My smile is real and so is my gratitude. No matter how many times you hear that someone loves what you’ve written, it feels good. It’s like being told that your children are talented and beautiful. Or at least I assume that’s what it feels like since I’ve never given birth. The thing is, if you don’t have enough readers who love what you do no one will pay you to do it anymore.
She laughs at the very idea of being my only fan, because I’ve been successfully published for over a decade and hit the New York Times bestseller list on a satisfyingly consistent basis. In fact, I’ve been dubbed the “Queen of Beach Reads.” Which means I write the kind of books that those who want to appear literary like to sneer at, but that sell hundreds of thousands of copies. And allow me to own an apartment in a really great building on Central Park West.
“Thank you. I’m so glad you enjoy my books.” I shoot the woman a last smile then turn my attention to my manicurist, Hanh. After a few words of greeting and a couple of polite questions about her children, which is about all we manage given my lack of Vietnamese and her gaps in English, I settle back into the big leather seat. I close my eyes and try to focus on the warm water swirling around my feet, but I’m careful to keep a pleasant smile on my lips so that none of the women who are currently Googling me can interpret my silence as diva-ish or carry tales about how rude and unappreciative I am.
My breathing evens out as Hanh’s small, competent hands massage my feet. I attempt to visualize a bright-blue sky with puffy white clouds floating through it. Like the ones that used to form over the Atlantic Ocean in the Outer Banks, where I grew up.
I’m not very good at meditation and although it’s not supposed to be possible, I failed yoga. My brain refuses to slow down or follow instructions and no matter how hard I try to shut down, I’m inevitably thinking about all the things I’m thinking about but shouldn’t be. Then I think about not thinking.
At the moment, all I can think about is that I’m going to be forty in two days, twenty-two hours, and thirty-five minutes whether I’m ready or not. Then I think about how old that is. How not like my body my body has become. Hanh lifts one foot out of the water and I think about how unattractive my toes are.
I take a conscious breath, counting slowly to seven then holding it before I exhale to a count of ten. This is supposed to clear your mind and help you turn your thoughts in a more pleasant, affirmative direction. I’m not any better at this than I am at not thinking, but I finally manage to pull up an image of Spencer, the man I’ve been dating for almost a year now, three months longer than I’ve dated anyone since I came to New York. He’s a successful playwright and songwriter with a string of hit Broadway musicals to his credit. He understands what being on deadline means and he’s every bit as driven as I am, only way better at disguising it.
I let myself try to imagine the surprise birthday dinner he’s planning. I inhale again, even more slowly this time. I’ve spent more than a few birthdays alone since I arrived here just after my twenty-first and am beyond glad to have someone to face down forty with.
I was supposed to come to New York with Brianna, my best friend in the world; a friend who felt more like a sister from the day we met in kindergarten and discovered we were born on the same day. (We were both wearing paper crowns at the time.)
We practically lived in each other’s houses while we were growing up. When we were in high school her grandmother died and her archaeologist parents went on yet another dig on yet another continent and never really came back and she moved in with us.
Bree and I inhaled books and dreamed of being writers. We wrote our first illustrated fairy tale together in second grade and turned it into a graphic romance novel when we were fourteen. We brainstormed and wrote part of a work of historical fiction while we were in high school and plotted out a contemporary novel set on our favorite beach in the Outer Banks in college. We planned to move to New York right after we graduated from college and find an apartment to share, and we were both going to get jobs to support us while we wrote the novel we’d plotted.
Two days before we were supposed to take the bus to New York, Bree pulled out without warning or any real explanation. It was a betrayal of everything we’d dreamed and planned our entire lives and all she said was, “Sorry, I changed my mind.” Like she’d decided to order iced tea instead of Coke or thought she’d pass on dessert. I didn’t know a soul in New York. I climbed onto the bus with wobbly knees, scared to death.
New York City is intimidating in its own right. Alone and without money it can be hard, cold, and inhospitable. A place to be survived through sheer force of will.
I was barely hanging on by my fingertips three months later, when I heard that Bree was dating Clay Williams, my boyfriend all through high school and most of college.
Six months later they were engaged. Even though we were barely speaking I tried to warn her that Clay was nowhere near ready to settle down; something I did out of the remnants of friendship and that she interpreted as jealousy. Then although she’s not a blood relative she wore THE DRESS that’s been in my family forever. And my mother forced me to be her maid of honor, because of some stupid promise and a pinky swear we made each other in kindergarten.
If that’s not a novel, I don’t know what is.
Two days to forty
Manteo, North Carolina
“Mary? Are you there?” The voice sounds tinny as if it’s coming from a great distance, which it pretty much always is. The voice belongs to the woman who gave birth to me. She and my father are somewhere in the Middle East. Or possibly in sub-Saharan Africa. Or maybe the Galápagos on some archaeological dig or another.
I was named after Mary Leakey, the famous fossil hunter whom I’ve always hated because my parents clearly loved fossils and hunting for them more than they ever loved me.
I was five when I stopped answering to Mary and insisted on being called Brianna, which is my middle name. That was when my parents, who’d been dragging me from one archaeological dig to another, brought me to live with my grandmother Brianna in her house in Manteo on Roanoke Island so that they could continue to wander. My grandmother died just after my sixteenth birthday, forcing my parents to come back to bury her. They stayed long enough to decide that I was old enough to live on my own in the house she’d left me while they finished the dig they’d been in the middle of. After that they took turns coming back on occasion though I never sensed any method or thought to their comings and goings. If it hadn’t been for Kendra and Lauren Jameson marching over and packing up my things and insisting I move in with them, I’m not sure what sort of pathetic hermit I might have turned into.
“I’m calling to wish you a happy birthday. Your father’s out of cell phone range but I didn’t want to miss this opportunity.”
“Oh, right. Thanks.” There’s no way of knowing whether she realizes my birthday’s not for two days yet. Or the time difference where she is somehow makes up the gap. Or maybe she had the chance to call and realized it was close enough to my birthday to count. I really don’t know and every year it matters less. My birth story is a little murky. I’ve heard that she was on an island off the coast of California searching for signs of Late Pleistocene Paleocoastal peoples when she went into labor and simply had me there in the sand before going back to work like Russian peasant women used to do back in the day. But instead of tying me in a sling to her bosom she handed me over to an assistant.
“Do you have special plans?”
“Oh, you know, the usual.” This is a gibe because I can’t remember more than a handful of birthdays my biological parents were around for. Which is undoubtedly why I’ve made a big fuss and party for each and every one of my children’s birthdays, including Lily’s sweet sixteen last year.
“What’s wrong?” she asks, as if we’ve ever had a comfortable conversation since I became aware that I was never even a contender in the competition between my parents’ love of their work and their love of me.
“Nothing. It’s just that I’m at the store. And I can’t really talk right now.” This is a lie, but I can’t bring myself to come out and tell her that her occasional awkward attempts to communicate just make me feel worse.
“Oh, that’s nice.” They’ve seen my bookstore, Title Waves, a handful of times. The same for their grandchildren.
“Thanks for the call.”
I’d pace if the store weren’t so crowded with bookshelves and display tables. I settle for breathing deeply and telling myself that an unsatisfying phone call is better than no call at all. Then I tell myself that turning forty isn’t that big a deal. Ultimately, I do what I always do when I’m unhappy. Or nervous. Or angry. I pull my laptop out of my bag, boot it up, and open the manuscript file. I empty my mind and let go of my hurt and irritation as I read the scene I wrote last night when the house was finally quiet and I could sit down in the attic room I’ve claimed for my office. It’s not as bad as it felt while I was writing it. I read the scene again. Then I begin to cut and paste, which is when I realize what’s missing. I lean forward and begin to type. Everything else disappears as a picture of my characters forms in my mind. Heath would never take Whitney for granted or forget to bring home the paper towels like he promised.
“No, don’t go. I can’t bear for you to go.” His smile was wry, his tone self-deprecating. His blue eyes gleamed with . . .
The bell on the front door jangles. My fingers freeze on the keyboard. It takes a few long seconds to blink myself back to the present.
“Good day, Brianna.” Margaret McKinnon is a lovely woman of about eighty-five, an avid reader who loves books almost as much as I do and cannot bring herself to read in any format that doesn’t involve paper. She’s been a regular since I started working in this very bookstore as a teenager. She’s one of my best customers and will come in to help out or even take a shift when I need to take time off or the student who works part time has a conflict. I make it a point to keep her favorite authors, and any that resemble them, stocked. Which means lots and lots of historical fiction and the occasional erotic novel disguised as a romance. Recently she’s begun to wade into fantasy.
Since her husband died five months ago she’s been coming in more frequently and staying longer. Some people drown their sorrows and losses in drugs and alcohol. Mrs. McKinnon drowns hers in the written word, which is an escape I can relate to.
“It’s lovely out, isn’t it?” she asks with forced enthusiasm. “March can be so unpredictable.”
“That’s for sure, Miz McKinnon,” I say with a smile. Sometimes March brings record snowfalls but it’s hard to argue with today’s pale-blue skies, thin white clouds, and mild breeze. Not to mention a high in the low sixties. We’ll have things mostly to ourselves until the season kicks off on Memorial Day weekend, something I will appreciate as a storeowner and complain about as a full-time resident.
She returns the smile even though her eyes are red and swollen, and I imagine her forcing herself out of her cottage and into the stores simply to keep herself from crying.
“How’s the book coming?” She aims a friendly nod toward my laptop. We live in a very small town on a narrow barrier island and it’s no secret that I’ve been working on a novel for a decade and a half and have never let anyone read a word of it.
“It’s coming.” I started this book even before my former best friend stole the idea we’d plotted out together and launched her publishing career with it.
I smile again and am careful not to let it turn into a sigh. You’d think I’d be over Lauren’s theft of “our” novel by now, but it’s not easy to see someone you once loved not only living your dream, but succeeding at it on a level you never imagined. Sometimes I practically reek of jealousy. I mean I wouldn’t trade Rafe and Lily or my family life for anything—at least not on a good day. But I’ve had plenty of years to wonder if it really had to be either/or.
“I have a hankering for something exotic,” Mrs. McKinnon says. “What have you got for me today?”
We spend a lovely hour together browsing through the shelves. She chooses a Mary Balogh, Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches, and the fifth in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files. Like I said, she’s an equal-opportunity reader.
We talk about the next book club meeting at the store and then she stays to chitchat until I lock up. It’s clear she doesn’t want to go home, and I feel terrible when I finally have to usher her out onto the sidewalk. I’ve got to hit the grocery store and pick up Clay’s shirts at the dry cleaner. Lily’s dress is ready at Myrna’s Alterations. And then maybe I’ll run over to the Sandcastle and visit with Kendra for a bit.
Sometimes I don’t want to go home, either.
1. Kendra kept a terrible secret from her daughter, Lauren. Do you understand why she made that choice? Would you have been able to forgive her if you were Lauren?
2. Kendra left Jake at the altar. Have you ever witnessed a bride or groom back out at the last minute? Similarly, in the part of the ceremony where the officiate says, “If anyone can show just cause why this couple cannot lawfully be joined together in matrimony, let them speak now or forever hold their peace,” have you ever witnessed someone actually objecting during the ceremony?
3. Kendra never married because no one could compare to her first love Jake. When Jake enters her life again, is Kendra happy about it? How has time changed them both? Why do you think it’s easier for Jake to understand the decisions Kendra made than it is for Lauren? Do you know where your first love is now? If you didn’t stay together, do you wonder what would have happened if you had?
4. Do you believe in love at first sight? Did you know you were going to marry your current spouse the moment you saw him or her? What was the deciding factor?
5. Lauren and Bree were such close friends. What kept them from resolving their differences? Have you ever had a close friendship that ended? What happened? Do you wish you could make up?
6. Bree’s marriage is not the fairy tale she was hoping for. What do you think of her reasons for staying with her husband? Would you do the same?
7. Both Lauren and Bree are writers, but they have pursued their writing careers very differently. Why do you think that is? Do you have any interest in writing a book? Do you think you would approach it more like Lauren or Bree?
8. How do you feel about Lauren and Spencer’s relationship? Do you think relationships are harder or easier as you get older?
9. The book takes place in New York City and the Outer Banks, very different places. Do you see yourself living—and thriving—in one of these settings more than the other? Why?
10. Kendra acts more like Bree’s mother than Bree’s biological mother. What are the qualities of a good mother? Did you understand why Lauren is sometimes jealous or resentful of Kendra’s relationship with Bree?
11. Both Lauren and Bree wanted to wear the wedding dress handed down through Lauren’s family. Is there a similar tradition in your family? If not, would you like to start one? Would you like to see your daughter wear your wedding gown or do you think each bride should choose a dress she falls in love with?
12. Both Lauren and Bree wanted to wear THE DRESS, but they envisioned very different weddings. Do you think brides are often pulled between what they envision and family obligations and expectations? Did you or do you have a clear idea of what type of wedding you wanted or want? What was your favorite part of your wedding or a wedding you’ve attended?