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Imperfect Love

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Chapter III

EIGHT WEEKS WENT BY SINCE HER DATE WITH THE infamous Steward, and Holly’s thoughts about men had changed drastically—for the worst. She flat out hated them now. Whenever a guy attempted to even talk to her, whether it was one of the guests at work or in the mall while picking up groceries with Bernie, she would give them a scolding eye until they backed off. Bernie seriously had had enough of it, and basically forced Holly to go on a weekend trip with her and Leo.

Holly hated being the third wheel every time she spent a weekend’s vacation at Bernie’s or Leo’s parents, but Bernie had been adamant. Holly needed the fresh air, and Bernie hoped that the time away would change Holly’s attitude toward men. She needed to show Holly that not all were like Brandon or Collin.

Holly was still of a different opinion about the whole matter.

They were going to some Bands of the World Bash. She’d never gone to one before, because it hadn’t been Brandon’s scene. The drive felt long, even though Leo said it was only a half an hour out of the city.

When he turned off the main road onto a dusty lane, Holly could hear the music equipment being tested in the background. There were tents and RVs stacked up here and there, and a feeling of fun suddenly rose in Holly.

Maybe Bernie is right. This might be the one thing I really need.

As she scanned the passing crowd, she suddenly spotted a familiar face. “Josie!” Holly yelled out the car’s window.

The SUV stopped with a thud, and both Bernie and Leo turned around to stare at Holly who was already making her way out of the car.

“Where are you going?” Bernie yelled.

Holly didn’t reply, and when she finally reached Josie’s tent, the two friends hugged like they hadn’t seen each other for years. Josie was, unfortunately, related to Brandon, who just happened to be her cousin. Still, she was one of Holly’s good friends.

“What are you doing here, woman?” Josie asked, still hugging the shit out of Holly.

“Bernie.” It was enough for Josie. They burst into laughter.

“George, come see who’s here,” Josie yelled into the tent, and a couple of seconds later a skinny, toothpick of a man emerged.

“Holly, you beaut!” Reaching toward her, he pulled her into a death grip.

“I never thought I would see you again.” Holly heard Bernie’s voice coming up behind her, and when she turned to look she found Bernie’s arms wrapped around Josie’s neck. They greeted one another, no one saying a word about Brandon or the wedding. When Josie asked if she could get them something to drink, Leo and Bernie declined.

“Make mine a double,” Holly said excitedly.

“Holls, we need to set up camp.”

“Then go, Bernie. I can meet you there.”

“You don’t know where it is.” Bernie’s voice rose slightly.

“I can take her back. I know where you guys set up camp every year. It’s not the first time we come to Bands of the World Bash.” Josie lifted Bernie’s worry slightly, or at least Leo’s.

“Thanks, Josie,” Leo answered on behalf of Bernie, who just stood there looking at Holly.

“Go,” Holly mouthed.

“Don’t stay too long, please,” Bernie urged, using her motherly tone with Holly.

Leo pulled Bernie by the wrist toward the SUV. “Stay as long as you like, Holls,” he said, whispering something softly to Bernie as he steered her away. Bernie clearly wanted to protest but he showed her the zip it sign, closing his fingers over his thumb.

Bernie laughed right along with the others who’d witnessed their exchange. “Fine. Stay as long as you like.”

When the SUV pulled away, Holly dropped her backside into a camping chair. George handed her a double whiskey with water, and the two girls started chatting away.

“So, how are you doing?” Josie asked, giving Holly the softest look her chocolate-brown eyes could muster.

“Bernie said that I’m going through the anger phase,” Holly answered truthfully.

“Good, because that means you’re making some progress,” Josie teased.

Holly laughed. “I don’t know if I’m ever getting out of this. Apart from the men I know, I hate the rest.”

“Sweets, I can understand where you’re coming from. I would hate men, too, if my fiancé pulled a heartbreaking stunt as yours did a week before my wedding.”

“So… how was the wedding?” Holly couldn’t help but ask.

Josie stared at her with huge eyes. “You know about that?”

“Bridge called me.”

“Oh, Holly. She’s a bitch. She was never your friend,” Josie said with anger in her eyes. “She’s become really good friends with Donna now. The two are inseparable.”

“Have you seen him lately?”

“No, there is no need for me to hang out there anymore.”

Holly grabbed Josie around the neck. “I’ve missed you guys so much.”

“Me, too. I was really looking forward to becoming your cousin, but I’m glad you ditched his ass, Holls. Bernie was right. He would have only fucked you and your life up.”

All Holly could muster was a sad look.

“You don’t still feel something for him, do you?”

“I don’t know what I feel. A part of me feels as if I’m never going to trust anyone else, or fall in love again.”

“Holls, you are one gorgeous girl. I’m sure Mr. Right is just around the corner.”

“You know something I don’t?” Holly asked. Josie sounded so sure of herself.

“No, but I’ve got to warn you. If Bernie’s regular gang is up here, you will meet a distraction soon.”

George shook his head. “Are you talking about Jake again?”

“You’re darn right I am.” They both laughed as she made a face.

“Who’s Jake?” Holly asked with a huge grin on her face now, all thanks to Josie and George.

“Every girl’s dream, and every guy’s worst nightmare,” George bantered jokingly.

“He’s not that bad.” Josie looked at her husband with narrowed eyes.

“And how can you not remember him, Holls?”

“I don’t know anyone named Jake.”

“He was at Bernie’s birthday party. You didn’t see the heart-throb there?”

Holly rolled her eyes. “No.”

“I’m sure he even spoke to you.”

“I would remember if a heart-throb spoke to me, trust me. I didn’t see him.”

“He definitely spoke to you. You even said something back to him over your shoulder. This is a perfect example of one of the reasons why I’m glad my cousin fucked up, Holls. You never saw the beauty in this world when you were with him.”

“I wasn’t like that.”

George opened his eyes wide and let out a small huff.

“You agree with her?” Holly laughed.

“You did speak to him, Holls,” George insisted, “I saw it, too.”

“I honestly don’t remember.”

“My point exactly. Not to worry, you will see him today.” Josie had a twinkle in her eyes.

Holly just laughed. “Save his poor soul. My aunt always said that a beautiful man is everyone’s man.”

“There are exceptions,” Josie disagreed.

“I’m still waiting to meet one of those,” Holly spoke softly, but Josie heard.

She put her hand on Holly’s knee. “You’re going to meet someone again, Holls, we always do.”

“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Drink your martini and shut up, George.”

The girls laughed, while George grumbled something undistinguishable under his breath.

Holly visited with the happy couple until about five o’clock. When their friends, with whom Holly wasn’t familiar, started to pull up in their twin cabs and RVs, Holly decided that it was time to go back to Bernie’s campsite.

With each step Holly took, her heart thumped faster. She was nervous to meet the heart-throb Josie and George had spoken of. Both were beautiful people, inside and out, and in all the time Holly had known Josie, she’d never heard the words heart-throb exit her mouth.

They used to play ‘hot or not’ on Saturday’s when Josie, Bernie, and Bridge went with Holly for coffee at Madley’s. Holly hated that game; she’d always felt like she was cheating on Brandon by participating. Bernie always ended up with about forty hot guys, while Bridge and Josie made fun of her choices. Josie would end up with one and he would always be jaw-dropping gorgeous. So, yes, she was really weary to finally meet this heart-throb she had apparently already met.

As per Josie’s offer to walk Holly back to Bernie’s site so she wouldn’t have to make the trek alone, they walked past the showers while Josie yapped away about the past three months, and what she had been up to since the wedding. Holly listened with one ear, while trying to calm her beating heart.

“Hello, honey.”

Holly heard the familiar voice as they approached, which sent a shiver through her body at the memories it dredged up.

“Steward!” Bernie shouted, somewhere in the background.

Josie just looked at Steward, who was clearly smoked, and then back at Holly.

“I’m not a bee’s puke,” Holly said with no emotion in her voice, as Josie cackled with laughter.

They started to make their way around Steward, who happened to be blocking Holly’s path.

Josie bumped Holly softly, hooking their arms together. “Bernie sure wasn’t kidding about that hate phase.” The two girls laughed as they brushed past him.

“Steward was a blind date that went horribly wrong.”

Josie looked back at Steward. “Seriously, if you want blind dates, Holly, I have some pretty awesome friends.”

“I know you do.”

“You’ll have to tell me about him later,” Josie said as she walked up to Bernie, nudging Holly toward her.

Bernie had a funny look on her face, as if Josie had just handed her a present.

“She’s all yours!” Josie laughed.

“Stay for a drink,” Bernie offered, holding a cold cooler.

“Can’t, sorry. Everyone is back there, but I will see you soon. Promise.” She kissed Holly on the cheek, and then looked around skeptically.

“Stop it.” Holly slapped her playfully.

“What! I can look.” Josie grinned.

“What’s this about?” Bernie wanted to know.

“Is hottie here?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Holly sighed, throwing her hands in the air in exasperation.

Bernie laughed. “Yes, he’s in the RV. You want me to call him?”

“No, it’s fine. I have an image of him imprinted on my mind; it would be a shame to shatter the illusion.”

Holly shook her head as Josie winked and then turned to walk away.

“Enjoy the distraction, Holls!” she sang.

Holly scolded her with a facial expression that made Josie and Bernie laugh. “Who the hell is Jake?”

“Someone we’ve tried to get over for a BBQ for the past three months, and one of Leo’s childhood friends. I can—”

“Oh, hell no,” Holly scolded Bernie as they made themselves comfortable on camp chairs, which had been placed right next to the RV.

Bernie laughed. “You’re going to beg me.”

“I’m not that cheap.”

“We’ll talk later.”

“No, we won’t.”

Leonard walked out of the camper first with a beer in his hand, followed by a tall guy in a baseball cap. They were both laughing about something, to which Leo shook his head at whatever the mystery guy had said.

Holly felt a thousand pins and needles wash over her body as the stranger looked up. So that’s Jake, the one everyone is freaking out about. She looked away immediately to avoid staring, but caught Steward smiling and winking at her instead.

“Ugh.” Holly looked at Bernie. “You really had to invite him, didn’t you?”

Bernie rolled her eyes.

“Sorry, Holls. I promise, he won’t bother you,” Leo answered with a huge grin, and Holly caught the smile on Jake’s face.

He was so her type. So much in fact that she was seriously considering begging Bernie to ask him if he would go on a date with her, but she knew it was wrong. The poor guy was human like everyone else, and Holly was sure that he’d had his fair share of female Stewards.

“Well, it’s too late now. I can see how this weekend is going to turn out. I’m going to break something before it’s over.”

“Break something?” Bernie looked at her quizzically.

“Yes, on his face.”

Bernie, Leo, and even Jake laughed at her comment.

“Seriously, Holly, you need to find your happy place again. This anger phase? It’s too much, babe,” Bernie said through a huge grin.

“What do you mean? I’ve hardly started.” Holly giggled.

“Not all men are Brandon. You always choose the worst ones out there.”

“Second you on that, angel face.” Leo lifted his beer in silent salute.

“Oh, and your choice was so much better?”

“Damn it, how many times must I apologize for that?” Leo had a playful tone to his protest.

“I thought I was considered a really good friend, Leo.”

“Don’t start.” Leo smiled, while Holly laughed.

Suddenly, Steward made himself comfortable on the chair next to hers.

“How do you get to Bee Puke?” he asked, clearly stoned.

Bernie and Leo laughed.

“Don’t ever call Holly honey; it comes out of a bee’s front… you know, same way it went in.”

Steward laughed, while Holly gave Bernie the look. She hated stoned or drunk men.

“Take a hike, Steward,” Jake said out of nowhere, which shocked Holly.

“Jake. Holly and I go way back.”

“Dude, take a hike.” Again, Jake spoke up.

“Seriously?”

“You want me to help you?” Leo asked.

“C’mon, I’m just talking to Holly.”

“Not sure about the others, but I’m not in the mood for your stoned, pick-up lines, so go sleep it off,” Jake advised.

Holly sighed with longing. He had the most beautiful light green eyes she wanted to get lost in, and she knew his manly, model features would make her drool for days to come. He was a head taller than Leo, with arms and shoulders that looked like they could hug ten kids at the same time.

She smiled as she thought about a possibility: What if Leo and Bernie did hook her up with him on a blind date? The guy sure seemed like the type that would do anything for his best friend, even if it meant taking out a girl to make her forget her stupid fiancé. She had to stop herself from giggling out loud as the images of this ‘possible date’ flashed through her mind. She wouldn’t even know what to do with herself if this hypothetical date actually took place. Not to mention how she’d react if the object of her interest was lying next to her.

“It’s not like you never got stoned.”

“A thousand years ago, yes. I grew up.”

Holly liked that reply.

“Go sleep it off. I mean it.”

Steward growled and mumbled something that sounded like he was swearing.

“Thank you, I could kiss you right about now.” The words just slipped out of Holly’s mouth, but fortunately she knew how to handle herself after that little confession.

“She’s over her anger phase,” both Leo and Jake sang.

“No, I’m not. I said could, not would. There’s a difference.”

They all laughed. Leo just sulked.

Holly glanced over at Jake again. He had the most beautiful face, not to mention how it lit up when he laughed. Josie was right, he would surely be a distraction, and one she wouldn’t mind watching the entire day.

Chapter II

THE PAST TWO MONTHS HADN’T BEEN EASY FOR Holly. But while everything else seemed to be crumbling around her, she was lucky to still have friends like Bernie and Leonard.

Brandon had called her ten times, if not more, begging and pleading for a chance to make it up to her, if only she would give him another chance. She couldn’t. A part of her really wanted to forget everything he had done, then again, it was the blue print of manipulators and the one thing that made them such brilliant liars.

He’d even bought her flowers, the expensive kind, and Holly knew that Brandon wasn’t the flower buying type. He saw it as a waste of money, however, the gesture made it hard not to forgive him.

She had to keep reminding herself of that email and Donna’s naked body on a hotel room’s bed, right next to his. She ended up giving the flowers away, because Bernie would have just burned them if she had taken them home. And they’d been too beautiful to be burned.

When he realized that his begging wasn’t going to work like the last time, his mom, Cynthia, tried her luck. She even gave Holly the speech about how one should ‘forgive and forget’, which only made Holly’s blood boil.

“I did forgive him and now I am busy forgetting him, too,” she yelled into the mouthpiece, before slamming it back down onto the table. She knew it was probably not what the good book meant, but when it came to Cynthia, she understood why Brandon was the way he was. His mom would always stand up for him, because she used to do it with his father, too.

His dad was another story. They knew Holly couldn’t say no to him but they tried, anyway. When she began to cry, he stopped. After all, he knew exactly what she was going through and what an idiot his son was for having treated Holly that way.

Unbelievably, Brandon tried one last time before the big day. He was drunk, of course.

“Please, Holls, I love you so much,” he sobbed.

“Then why the fuck did you sleep with Donna? Go to her, Brandon. I’m giving you to her, because I can’t do this anymore.” What she wanted to say was that she didn’t want him anymore, but she didn’t believe that yet. She still loved him, but would never trust him again. Trust was more important than love, to her, anyway.

“Holls, I fucked up, please don’t do this. Donna means nothing and is nothing compared to you. It is you I want. I’m not going to give up. I will wait for you at the altar. Please, forgive me just once?”

“Brandon, I forgave you more than just once. I can’t do this anymore. I’m not going to be there tomorrow.”

“Damn it, Holly. We have paid a shit load of money for this wedding, you can’t leave me now.”

She laughed, not the ‘ha-ha’ kind, but a ‘this guy is unbelievable’ kind. “I didn’t leave you today. I left you a week ago, Brandon. You had more than enough time to call off the wedding, but you probably thought that you could screw me over one more time, lie to me, and make me come back. Well, not this time. I’m moving on with my life, I suggest you do the same, and please don’t ever phone me again. Oh, and by the way, you didn’t pay for the wedding, my mom did. Go spend our honeymoon with your slut.”

She didn’t say goodbye. He wasn’t even worth that. Sadly, she’d never felt so alone. Even when Bernie was comforting her, she felt that she could never trust another man, ever again.

Holly would probably end up like her mother, a drunk with fifty cats. Thinking of that wonderful furry future, she couldn’t help but wonder that a mini zoo would still be better than what her life would have been with Brandon, or so she hoped and prayed.

Why couldn’t he just love me? Wasn’t I enough?

It was that part that she struggled with the most, not being enough.

When the day of the wedding dawned, she drank an entire bottle of scotch she’d found after scouring the cabinet in the kitchen. It belonged to Leonard, but he was a big teddy bear and a sucker for Bernie, so there wouldn’t be much of a fight over the illicit bottle. All it took was one look and he would give her whatever she needed. And the scotch was needed.

Holly was fine on the Sunday, except for a huge hangover. And as far as Monday was concerned, she was okay too, until Bridgette, one of her so-called bridesmaids phoned her and sent her reeling. The wedding had still taken place. Apparently, his mother had made a few adjustments to the seating chart. One that removed Holly’s family and replaced it with Donna’s.

As she listened to the words crackling through the phone, she felt her knees give in and the room seemed to become a lot more active than it had been only moments before. She felt the smooth wood of her chair under her left hand become hard and painful, where it had once been soft and inviting, as her fingers clutched it tighter. Holly was bowled over by this news and could hardly believe what she was hearing. To think he’d still been pleading with her on Friday night. She couldn’t help but think about what would have happened if she’d shown up. It could only have resulted in further humiliation. Brandon had not one ounce of remorse in him, and she felt ten times worse than she had on the day she was supposed to get married.

With her life slipping through her fingers, Holly started to drink again. It lasted for about two weeks and she was glad that Jerry, her boss, had given her the two week honeymoon she was due.

As she stared into the bottom of yet another martini glass, she wished that she could be like Brandon and fuck every womanizer lurking in the bar she was currently at, but she couldn’t. It wasn’t who she was.

When her vacation was finally over, Bernie was the one who was there to pull her out of the powerful and miserable web she had woven around herself.

“Get up!” Bernie yelled. “You smell and believe it or not, life goes on, Holly.” Bernie pushed her off the bed with all her strength.

Holly fell on the floor with a thud and just lay there, moaning. In the distance, she could hear bath water running.

Bernie returned and somehow managed to pick Holly up, carrying her—all the while cussing—to the bathroom. She chucked her into the cold bath, which made Holly gasp as the icy water hit her body sending a shockwave into her very core. “You’ve got to snap out of this, Holls. He’s not worth it.” Bernie swiped the hair out of her face.

Holly began to cry. “We could’ve been so happy, Bernie,” she bawled.

“He’s a dickhead, and ‘could have’ isn’t a guarantee. Stop second-guessing yourself!” she yelled back. “How is it possible that he’s still on his pedestal, Holls? You are in love with an idea, not the real thing. The Brandon in your head doesn’t exist.” Bernie sighed. Her arms and shirt were wet from the splashes when she’d thrown Holly into the bath.

She stared at her best friend, lying hopeless in a bathtub, clothes clinging to her frail body. Reaching out, Bernie took a wisp of hair that clung over Holly’s face and moved it gently away from her eyes. “You might not see it now, but it’s the best thing that has ever happened to you, sweets. And let’s be honest here, do you really think Donna would have stayed away after you guys married? It would’ve been ten times worse. You did them a favor. He’s a smelly cheat, and you my friend do not deserve that. Donna is going to realize pretty soon what a dickhead he is, because believe it or not, he’s going to cheat on her, too.” She was out of breath after her grand speech, and her eyes pleaded with Holly for some understanding.

“Do you know what happened the night of my party?” Bernie asked.

Holly just looked at her through puffy eyes. She remembered the party vividly. It had been Bernie’s 24th birthday, and Leo had invited a bunch of friends over for a barbecue, as well as some work colleagues. “What?” she asked, still lying in the cold bath, fully dressed.

“He cheated on you. Everyone saw it, except you,” she said.

“What? Why didn’t you tell me?” Holly shrieked.

Bernie gave her the look. “What… did you think our fight came out of nowhere? I saw the idiot checking out one of Leo’s colleagues. They disappeared fifteen minutes later and when asked about it, he said he wasn’t yet married. Men like that will never be married, Holls. You don’t need him or any of your so-called ‘mutual friends’.” She finger quoted the last part.

Holly started to cry again. Knowing that the scum bag had cheated on her more than once made a small part of her glad that he had married Donna, instead. They truly deserved one another.

“You need to go on with your life. When you are ready to get out of this yucky, cold bath and really want to move on, let me know. I have some pretty great ideas.”

“Oh, please, give me strength,” Holly complained. She didn’t have the strength for Bernie’s ideas just yet.

Bernie giggled. “Strength is what you are definitely going to need, my friend.”

Holly didn’t like Bernie’s answer. It usually involved other men she had absolutely no interest in whatsoever. She knew from experience just how wonderfully these ideas tended to work out. If it hadn’t been for Collin breaking up with her, she would have never been in that bar the night she met Brandon.

Thinking about what Bernie said, she drained some of the cold water and turned on the hot water tap. Bernie was right, she really did need a bath and a long one too.

When she was done, dry and fully dressed, Bernie eagerly told her about Steward. Holly rolled her eyes at the mere thought.

“I am not saying you should marry the guy, just go out and have fun, Holls.”

“Fine, whatever will get you off my back,” she mumbled.

Holly went back to work the following Monday; her colleagues’ faces said it all. Thank heaven they had stopped with the ‘sorry about Brandon and you deserve better’ speeches. She heard them often enough from Bernie.

By Wednesday, she realized that life really did go on and that time didn’t stop for anyone in order to get over a broken heart. A date or two wouldn’t kill her and if Leonard approved, she figured Steward couldn’t be that bad.

Friday couldn’t have come soon enough. Holly knew she wasn’t ready for another relationship, but Bernie had told her that she needed to have fun, and try to find herself again. It was easy to lose oneself in a relationship where only one half of the couple gained from it, and Holly had had plenty of those relationships. She just figured she now knew how to pick them.

They decided to meet at the closest bar to Bernie’s house. Brandon had refused to set foot in this bar, because according to him it wasn’t classy enough. He would rather go to the lounges where men paid big money for cognacs and cigars.

Steward had told her that he would be wearing a black T-shirt and jeans so she could easily recognize him. With Bernie’s help, she had settled on a beautiful emerald top that flowed around her curves, skinny jeans, and high boots that hurt the living bejeebers out of her toes. It was one of the things Brandon loved; Holly in skinnies with boots covering her calves. She had the ass and legs for it.

A couple of men turned in their bar stools as Holly took a seat on one of the high chairs. Every single guy that looked her way was wearing a black T-shirt and jeans.

Just great!

“Holly?” a blond guy queried.

Holly smiled. Why, for once, couldn’t they be dark-haired and look as if they’d just walked out of a Hugo Boss advert, she silently wished.

“You must be Steward,” she finally said, deciding to give him a chance, knowing she owed it to herself to be nice and see how this date would end. But she already knew what the outcome would be.

“Bernie wasn’t kidding when she said you were beautiful,” he complimented her, making Holly blush.

“Thanks.” She couldn’t remember the last time Brandon had said those words; that she was beautiful.

“Can I get you something to drink?” he asked, already halfway onto the chair next to hers.

“Whiskey and water, please.” She smiled again, as he raised his hand to grab the bartender’s attention.

Quite a number of men were staring at her, which made her uncomfortable. She decided that they’d have one drink and then move on to another place. Holly didn’t like the bar; it was full of men with greasy hair and dirty clothes who did nothing but sway on their chairs.

She had to admit, Steward wasn’t a bad looking guy. He didn’t have Brandon’s looks and if he worked with Leonard, he didn’t have the wealth either, but it didn’t bother her that much. The only thing she couldn’t understand was why on earth she always ended up with blond guys. Blonds weren’t even her type. She like the tall, dark-haired, handsome type, but everyone she knew who happened to fit that description was either married or taken, and she didn’t believe in taking another girl’s man. It had happened so many times, she didn’t have it in her to inflict that kind of pain on anyone, not even Donna.

They started off talking about their professions and where they worked. Holly was easy to chat to and she was quite clued up on a range of topics. Conversing was one of her favorite things and if Bernie were here, poor Steward wouldn’t get a chance to say anything.

“Could we go someplace else?” she asked, after one of the drunks near them refused to stop staring at her.

“Where do you have in mind?” he asked with a sly smile on his face.

She knew he was thinking about his home, or worse… his bed, but she smiled politely and mentioned the mall. It was more her scene and she hoped that Brandon would still be on his honeymoon. If she ran into him tonight with Steward by her side, Donna would surely love the fact that she had won the prize.

“Sure. You aren’t going to dump my sorry ass now, are you?” he joked, which made her giggle.

“No, I just don’t want to be here.” She gestured to the crowded bar, pointing out the fact that they had to scream to hear the other talk.

“Fine. Madley’s?” he queried, to which she nodded.

She hoped her ex wouldn’t make an appearance, seeing as it was five minutes from his house, but the mall was big enough for both her and Brandon, so there wasn’t much of a chance she’d bump into him. Besides, she knew Brandon would rather take Donna to a casino, or someplace fancier than Madley’s.

The drive to the mall felt long and she couldn’t shake the gloom that settled over her. She felt like crying, because she quickly realized that this date was not going to be a short one. Mentally shaking herself, she knew she might as well make the best of it and forced a smile onto her frozen face.

Over coffee, Steward talked about his parents who lived three thousand miles away. She felt sorry for him and could sympathize with how he felt.

Her mother was not the type of woman who wanted people around her, either. She’d started drinking after her dad left them and when Jamie, her twin, was diagnosed with cancer which took her at the age of fifteen, Jane completely fell off the wagon. She quickly forgot about Holly and that was when Bernie’s parents stepped in and raised her right up until Holly graduated. Her childhood hadn’t been easy by a long shot.

After her second cup of coffee, she looked at her watch and doing a quick calculation, figured that if they ran they could make the last show at the movie theater in the nick of time.

“Would you like to watch a movie?” she asked quickly and lucky for her, Steward didn’t seem to care what they did.

They ended up watching a soppy love story where the girl got her guy in the end. Holly was smart enough to know that life didn’t work that way. She even briefly considered what it would be like to marry Steward, which was positively stupid because he seemed like a safe choice.

Shaking the troubling thought from her mind, she knew deep down that there had to be more than that. She couldn’t live a boring life where everything was the same, day in and day out. She needed adventure, passion, and a Prince Charming who fulfilled her every wish and dream, and who would be more than happy to just be with her. Why couldn’t life be like that? Why was it that the hot guy who was also the good guy only happened in books and the silver screen?

In real life, the hot dude was everyone’s dude. She had learned that with Brandon. Hell, if she could just get an eraser and rub out the last two years of her life with him, she would. She didn’t want to feel this emptiness inside. Maybe she’d made a huge mistake leaving Brandon.

Well, it was too late now.

When the movie ended and the lights in the theater came on, Steward dutifully walked her to her car. She turned to say goodbye with a friendly handshake and thank him for the fun evening, when he suddenly kissed her fiercely. Locked lip to lip, she had no idea what to do and decided to wait it out until he was done. Holly could never tell a nice guy like Steward that this wasn’t what she wanted, that she didn’t feel the same way he did. Not yet, anyway, as they’d just met.

He finally broke away and looked into her eyes. “Do you want to come home with me?”

“Umm…” She didn’t know how to answer that question politely. She closed her eyes and thought quickly. Not knowing Steward that well, or at all seeing as this was their first date, and she wondered how well Leonard did. “I’m really tired, Steward, but thank you for the offer. Can I take a rain check on that? It’s been one hell of a week. I hope you understand.”

Perfect.

“No problem. If you’d like, we could do this again. Tonight was actually fun.” He smiled.

Holly couldn’t help but smile back, telling herself to be polite. “Yeah, sure. I will let you know when,” she replied, hurriedly jumping into her car. “Please start,” she begged under her breath. It would just be her darned luck if he decided to wait for her until her car left the parking lot. She looked up. Yep, he was still there. Lucky for her, the little engine roared to life and she reversed out quickly, keeping her foot on the gas. She silently wished she could drive to nowhere and run away from everything that kept haunting her.

Once home, she walked up the driveway and noticed that the lounge light was still on. Oh, she so hoped Bernie was still awake, only so that she could scold her over what an idiot Steward was. Her thoughts ran rampant.

How could he have kissed me without even knowing if I wanted it? Seriously, if I wanted to spend more time with him, I would have asked for another cup of coffee, or even accepted his invitation to go home with him. Even though that would have been slutty.

Snapping out of her thoughts, she made her way inside, stopping only when she plopped herself down onto the sofa’s soft cushion and rested her head on the edge of the seat with an exasperated look on her face. She was sick and tired of guys like Steward and Brandon, who apparently lived for the second she fell in love with them and then started treating her like dirt.

“And how was your date?” Bernie’s head popped around the corner of her entrance.

Holly gave her the look.

“That bad?”

“The guy freaking kissed me!” Holly’s hands gesticulated around her head as she talked, showing Bernie how disgusted she really was with what had happened. In a flash, she noticed Leo’s huge figure and bald head appearing behind Bernie’s. “I didn’t even want a kiss from him. Why do you men always think that women want a kiss on the first date?” she yelled, looking pointedly at Leonard.

He made his way over to the opposite sofa, while Bernie sat down next to Holly. “So sorry, Holls. I told him to take it easy. Maybe Steward was not such a great idea.” Leonard looked at Bernie with a sad expression on his face.

“You think?” Bernie shot back sarcastically.

“I beg of you, don’t do that again.” Holly looked at Bernie, pleading with her eyes. “All he ended up doing was make me think that Brandon was the best I could do.”

Bernie’s eyes became huge at this last statement. “No more Stewards. Got it,” she replied in a serious tone.

“No more, period.” Holly took a deep breath, but didn’t take her gaze from Bernie.

“Fine, no more. But—”

“No buts. I will find my own guy when the time is right,” Holly interrupted, quickly saying goodnight before they could push the topic any further. She was still having trouble believing what an idiot Steward had been. Where does Leonard meet these guys? She knew he was a work colleague, but really she was one of their best friends and therefore he should’ve done his homework better.

As she got ready for bed, she was surprised at how glad she was that she didn’t have a cell phone any more. She’d thrown hers against the wall after hanging up on Brandon the last time she spoke to him. Deep down she really did miss him, but knew that he was finally with the woman he deserved.

Crawling into bed and pulling the satin sheet over her head, she cried herself to sleep that night.

She hoped that someday her tears for Brandon would finally dry up.

Chapter I

HOLLY SCALLANGER LOOKED AT THE EMAIL IN HER hands.

That son of a bitch. How could he do this to me, and only a week prior to our wedding?

She had given him everything. Had stood by him in his time of need, having fulfilled the vows she hadn’t yet made before God. And what had he done? Her fiancé had slept with the woman he’d promised never to speak to ever again; Donna Sinclair.

That little stunt had ripped her heart out and tore it into a million pieces, like a wolf with a fresh kill. He had decimated her without a second’s thought.

Their relationship was the price demanded of one tramp in a push-up bra, and paid with the wink of an eye.

Donna had always been a thorn in her side, the kind that wedged in deep like a tick, burrowing in deeper and deeper the more you tried to remove it.

She should have left him when that bitch first made her appearance in their lives, but she had innocently believed his rotten tongue.

Not only that, she had taken into her heart the poison he’d fed her with every “I’m sorry” and “It will never happen again”. She’d believed that he loved her more than anything in existence, and that he’d made a mistake.

Tears welled up in her eyes and her stomach knotted.

But if he loved me, why’d he sleep with that skank only a month ago?

A part of her knew that Brandon was aching for Donna. They were the same, both liars… cheaters. They belonged together. She just wished Brandon had had the balls to break up with her. Maybe she could have saved all the money she had poured into their farce of a wedding.

Better now than too late, she thought.

She should have known that Brandon Morgan would never change his ways. There was a saying her mother always used: “A fox may change its fur, but never its color.”

Holly sat in front of her computer and began composing an email to Donna. She pounded away at the keys until the screen before her illuminated a vicious, scolding letter. Pausing, she deleted it, re-typed different cuss words, but eventually deleted that, too.

“You’ve won,” she said out loud, as her fingertips tapped with resigned beats on the letters that spelled the two words on her keyboard and pressed the send button.

Composing herself, she gazed around the polished wooden desk that housed her computer. As her eyes swept over the books and various notes, they rested on the small, black device like a beacon of her misery. Her phone was going to ring in the next couple of minutes and she knew who it would be. Brandon, of course.

Holly wasn’t stupid, knew the two secretly messaged each other, but she’d been too in love and blind to truly see Brandon’s weakness.

As she looked around the small bedroom, her eyes focused in on the dark wood of the closet door. Her suitcase was pushed way to the back.

Unable to control herself, she kept running over and over in her head what the hell she was going to tell her mom. God knew, Jane Scallanger didn’t have money but had nevertheless spent—more like wasted—a fortune on a wedding that would never take place.

Pulling her legs up to her chest, she silently made a promise to herself and to whatever god happened to be listening. She would repay every penny, even if it took the rest of her life to do so.

Holly got out of the plush chair and gingerly walked across the soft carpet. Grasping the metal handle, she opened the closet door with a flourish and pulled out the suitcase. Flapping it open, she began arranging all her clothes haphazardly. Lucky for her, it was a big suitcase. When she bought it, she’d known the size would come in handy one day, she’d just never thought that it would be used for the situation she now found herself in.

Pausing in her frantic packing, she fell back onto the white carpet, letting her hair swirl around her, reflecting the tornado of emotions swirling within.

How could he have done this to me?

 They’d had so many dreams. They could have been such a great couple, if he would have just kept his dick in his pants. Heaven knew she loved Brandon, but she refused to marry Donna, too.

Tears began streaming down her cheeks, leaving a hot path that burned into her very soul. She inhaled deeply, trying not to lose it as she pushed her hair back. She knew that as soon as his Audi pulled into the driveway, he was going to start with his begging again. Especially now, a week before the big day.

She had to stand her ground. She owed it to herself and deserved so much more than that two-timing whore. Yes, Holly was sick of double standards; if women were called whores when they slept around, men should be labeled in the same manner.

Suddenly, her phone began buzzing frantically. She reached out a hand to grab it off the floor, where she’d placed it when she started packing, and looked at the polished glass screen. A beautiful picture of him and her smiling, greeted her.

Damn… we look so happy.

“Yes?” she answered.

“Hey, Holls. What are we going to eat tonight?” his deep honey voice asked.

Just hearing his voice caused a wave of emotion to roll through her body, which almost sent her phone flying toward the closet’s door. She knew he wasn’t calling about the evening’s menu. Donna had probably called him as a result of the message she’d sent half an hour ago.

“You know what? Eat whatever you want to eat. Hell, eat Donna, for all I care.” Angrily, she punched the red disconnect button on the screen.

Her phone rang again a second later, the same picture flashing on the screen. “What do you want, Brandon?”

“You okay?” he asked.

“Am I okay?” She gave her ‘you’re unbelievable’ snort, wanting to hang up on him yet again.

I’m so sick and tired of playing this game with him.

“No, I am not okay, but I will be, Brandon,” she bit his name out with pure venom.

He cussed. “Is it that time of the month again?”

“You know what? Go fuck yourself. I can’t do this anymore… you, you sleazeball, and two-timing piece of shit.” She took a deep breath. “I’m leaving you. And I think it’s better we do this now, rather than waste two years of our lives with each other.”

“Wh-what? Just wait for me, Holls, okay? I’ll be right there. I love you, baby.”

She knew the minute she spelled it out for him that he’d cottoned on to the fact that she knew he’d slept with Donna, and then the lies would start all over again. He would begin by telling her his soppy version, and ultimately manipulate her into staying by telling her that it would never happen again. Except, that this time, she had proof.

The dead line signal beeped in her ear before she could tell him not to bother.

If she wanted to be rid of his sorry ass, she had to move fast. Where he worked was only a twenty minute drive to her place, and in an emergency, ten.

Holly got up off the floor, grabbed the rest of her stuff, shoved it into her suitcase and hauled it to her pathetic little Beetle, unceremoniously chucking the suitcase into it. She didn’t own anything else, because he had everything. Another thing he’d manipulated her with throughout the years.

She backed out of the garage of the million dollar mansion her now-no-longer-to-be-daddy-in-law had bought them as a wedding present three months earlier. She knew she would never find that kind fortune again, but money couldn’t buy happiness, she knew that now.

Her phone was on the passenger seat.

She had no idea where to go, except to Bernice’s, her best friend. They’d had a falling out a month ago, and although Bernie had warned her to not go crying when he hurt her, she knew her friend hadn’t meant it in that way.

They had been friends since they’d been in diapers. Bernie would understand. She’d tried and failed to tell Holly, repeatedly, that Brandon was a dick, but Holly hadn’t listened. At that time, the reality of not being with him had been unbearable.

Now the only thing she saw whenever she closed her eyes, was Donna on top of Brandon in some classy hotel he’d never taken her to.

Holly resolutely dialed her friend’s number, thanking God she hadn’t deleted it when he’d asked her to. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as Holly knew Bernie’s number by heart. The phone rang three times before Bernice answered.

“Never thought I’d hear from you again,” Bernie huffed in an unimpressed tone.

“I did it,” Holly blurted without a greeting, and then promptly began to cry. She’d kept most of her tears back for way too long.

“What?” Bernie sounded surprised. “Where are you now? Shit, I hope you’re not driving.”

“I had to get away. I only have my suitcase and no idea what I’m going to do!” she bawled.

“Calm down, okay? Pull over, or better yet, go to the mall. I’ll meet you at Madley’s. Just don’t drive, please,” Bernie begged.

“Okay,” Holly uttered, so softly it was barely audible. She disconnected the call, dropped her phone onto her lap and quickly wiped the tears from her eyes and face before she ended up causing an accident. Thankfully, the mall was a five minute drive from their home. She didn’t think Brandon would go looking for her there. At least, she hoped he wouldn’t.

Holly ordered a regular coffee, since Madley’s was a non-licensed coffee shop, and waited for Bernie. She went over in her head how she was going to beg her for forgiveness and ask to be given another chance, and possibly a room until she was able to save up enough money to afford a place of her own.

The waiting was crucifying. For Bernie, it wasn’t a five minute drive to Madley’s like it was for Holly. It was more of a half an hour drive.

As she waited, her mind wandered back to the day she’d met Brandon. She remembered how his blue eyes had set her heart on fire in a downtown bar. Neither of them were supposed to have been there that night, but fate had intervened. And as far as Holly was concerned in regards to fate—it didn’t fucking exist.

She should’ve seen the signs. She wasn’t even fond of blond guys, but for Brandon she had made an exception. His personality had transformed all his flaws right before her eyes and turned him into her dream guy. At the time, she never had a clue he was a living, breathing replica of her father. Just thinking of the comparison upset her.

Charles Scallanger, she whispered, the name leaving a bitter taste in her mouth. She hated men like her father, yet there she’d been, on the verge of marrying his carbon copy.

Growing up, Holly’s mother had worked two jobs, one to put food on the table and pay the bills, the other to pay her father’s ass through university so that he could fulfill his dream of becoming an architect.

These weren’t men, they were boys who never grew up. And what had Charles done when his ship finally sailed in? He’d dumped her mother and married his blond bimbo secretary, Gabriella, who he’d known for less than three months.

No, Holly didn’t want a life that remotely resembled theirs. In the end, her mother hadn’t gotten her father, and to this day still lived alone.

Maybe there was no such thing as a good husband. Maybe they were all cheaters, and there would always be a Donna.

The two men she once loved and worshiped had proved that. What was said by many was true; you always ended up marrying your father. She almost did.

Feeling herself being pulled down into a spiral of depression, Holly forced the good things about Brandon to the front of her mind. He had really made her feel like a million dollars at times, but the reality of those emails to Donna quickly made her feel like she had never been worth a dime to him.

How could I have been so stupid?

As much as Holly hated Donna, she had to admit that the bitch was really good. She’d had her sights set on Brandon ever since the day they’d met on that stupid website everyone was making such a big fuss about. Perhaps, stupidly, Holly had thought love would prevail and conquer that devil spawn. Thank heaven she found out sooner rather than later that love didn’t have that kind of power. It didn’t conquer all if there was no respect and trust.

She pulled the printed email out of her purse and read through it again. There wasn’t any forwarding email address with her name attached to it. And it wasn’t from Donna either, but somehow it had managed to get to her, a week before their wedding. There were even entries that went way back, even after he’d promised he would never speak to Donna again. She’d read through those a million times.

Fire burned inside her again as she took in every inked word. She had never felt this kind of betrayal or humiliation in her life, not even when her father left.

Brandon had written to Donna about how beautiful she was, and the words ‘miss you’ popped up a couple of times. What hurt the most were the emails where he told Donna how he felt trapped in his relationship with Holly. Now that she thought about it, she’d never actually had Brandon all to herself. Guys like Brandon would never know what they had, until it was too late.

Bernie suddenly dropped her skinny ass into the chair across from hers. “Sorry I’m late.” She had cut her long, summer blond hair to shoulder length and it looked really good.

Holly didn’t say anything, but slid the twenty-four page email in front of Bernie.

Grabbing the pages up from the table quickly, her piercing blue eyes scanned through them, as if earth’s existence depended on the information she held in her hands. “That fucking asshole,” she whispered, and continued to read. She gasped now and then and gave her ‘I don’t believe it’ snort here and there. “What did he say?” Bernie asked, halfway through.

“He didn’t say a thing. I just told him I’m leaving and that was that.”

“He didn’t even put up fight?” She looked at Holly with raised eyebrows.

“I didn’t give him the chance. You know what he’s like, Bernie. He’ll manipulate me and tell me that it’s not him, and you know how naїve I can be.”

Bernie looked at her, eyes huge and round. “Holly, after this, no way he’d be able to bullshit you again,” she huffed. Shaking her head gently, she closed her eyes for a beat. “And, you can’t be that stupid.”

Holly inhaled deeply, knowing that Bernie was right. But her ex-fiancé would have found a way of talking her into making the biggest mistake of her life. Brandon was that good. “You know what he’s like, Bernie,” she repeated, fresh tears forming in her eyes.

Looking across the wide table at her friend, Bernie knew how tormented Holly was. She had a weakness when it came to Brandon Morgan. “Just think about these emails, Holly. No one in his or her right mind would take someone like that back. If you like, you can stay with Leonard and me. You’ll just have to purchase a pair of earplugs for the nights Sam keeps me up. He’s teething and it’s driving me insane.”

Holly hugged her friend awkwardly across the table. “Thank you, Bernie.”

“You’re doing the right thing, Holls. He doesn’t deserve you. Be happy that this happened now, instead of two years down the line when there’d likely be little feet running around the house.”

Holly nodded. Bernie always thought about others, especially children.

They decided to have lunch while Bernie wandered off to place a call to Leonard, updating him on the change of plans involving Holly. Sam stayed with Leonard’s mom in the mornings, so Bernie had a chance to catch up on all the chores around the house. Luckily for Holly, it was a Saturday and Brandon had to work, or so she presumed. For all she knew, he could be at Donna’s. Thinking about that made her blood boil, leaving her no choice but to agree with her BFF that Brandon didn’t deserve her.

When Bernie returned, they both ordered a hamburger and chips—traditional comfort food. In the end, Bernie paid the bill, which Holly hated but her friend had been adamant.

Out in the parking lot, they split up to collect their cars respectively. Bernie had parked on the opposite side of where Holly’s car was, so she waited patiently in her Beetle.

Removing her phone from her handbag, she noticed that it had somehow switched to silent while they had been talking and eating.

She had wondered why it hadn’t rung, although she couldn’t remember making the switch. Twenty-four missed calls were brightly displayed on her phone. Three of the messages were from Brandon wanting to know where she was, why she wasn’t answering her phone, and begging her not to do this to him a week before their wedding.

She sighed, forgetting all the steps involved in canceling a wedding. All the people she had to phone. Aunt Suzie, as well as Lorinda, would give their condolences and say that they’d always known Brandon wasn’t the right one for her. She had gotten so sick and tired of that saying of theirs: Beautiful men, belong to multiple women. This task would require a bottle of vodka.

She read the last message again.

Don’t do this to me, please!

Blah, blah, blah.

Holly chucked the phone onto her back seat. Do this to him, indeed! She couldn’t help but giggle. She’d almost felt bad thinking that she was doing that to him a week before their wedding, but then he should have thought about what he was doing a month ago when he’d rolled into bed with that slut.

She had to find another job, since the five star restaurant where she currently worked as a full-time personal assistant didn’t pay enough to support herself. Thinking of her job made her heart sink. She loved working in the food industry and needed the people who always looked out and cared for her.

Holly’s boss and her husband were darlings, and they’d offered to help her financially ever since she’d started working for them. However, Brandon had always had more than enough to support them both.

Just then, Bernie’s SUV pulled up and Holly quickly started her Beetle. But when she turned the key in the ignition, a loud whining noise emitted from under the hood. The car backfired and she couldn’t help thinking that if he had really loved her the way he’d always said he did, he would’ve bought her a safer car—one that didn’t die at every stop light.

Tears filled her eyes again. No matter how hard she tried to push him off the pedestal she had placed him on so many years ago, he was still on it, standing just as tall as he always had.

“Please, God, give me the strength to let him go,” she whispered. Her faith had always held strong, but lately it was beginning to wane, probably because she hadn’t gone to church in months. However, Holly still prayed at night, which didn’t detract from the fact that she still felt bad in knowing how she had chucked God away, like a discarded toy. He was the only constant in her life, and she was banking on that constant to pull her butt through the torturous week that awaited her.

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Messages from readers

Some of the great reviews from the readers of the book.

Jaqueline Hentz

Jaqueline Hentz

I have to say I was really surprised with how much I enjoyed this book. I thought it was gonna be another PREDICTABLE love story but I'm left with so many questions! Why did Jake suddenly change...

Brie Dolezal

Brie Dolezal

What an emotional this book was. I loved every minute, and experienced every emotion. Jake's mother is horrible and I hope there's a good explanation in book two.

Karen Stevens

Karen Stevens

I have just finished crying from reading this book. I won't give any spoilers but Holly deserves a medal for all the crap she has to take from Jake, his family and her father.

About the author

Isabella_White_author.png

 

Isabella White was born and raised in South Africa, where she still lives with her husband and two beautiful little girls. She always knew she was going to be a writer, but it only started to really happen about four years ago. In her free time―if she gets any because moms don’t really have free time―she loves to spend it with friends, whether it’s a girls night out, or just watching a movie. She’s a very chilled person.

Her writing career started with Firebolt, book one in the Dragonian series under the pen name of Adrienne Woods. Her other series, Dream Casters, will be released mid 2015. She also writes in different genres, The Pregnancy Diaries, You and Me 4Ever has a total of 3 novels. More to come in the Pregnancy Diaries soon. And then, she has a paranormal series by the name of the Aswang series, which will consist of about ten novels. And if that wasn’t enough, there is another series, Guardians of Monsters, which will be released in 2016. Both novels are written under another pen name called Kristen Ping.

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