I turned again and caught a glimpse of Aaron coming into the backyard, dressed to the nines in a black tuxedo, his arms splayed wide. He advanced toward my sister-in-law Kristy, who had just come out the backdoor, his voice tight and full of despair. “No sign of her. I’ve looked everywhere. I don’t know what to do next.” His arms flopped down to his sides, and he slumped into a lawn chair on the deck. “This is so unlike Sophia to do something like this.”
Just then, all of my bridesmaids, my best friends—Claudia Bunker, Jenny Staid, and Laura Anderson—came out of the house to join them on the deck. All three of them, along with Kristy, were dressed in their lacy purple bridesmaid dresses, long diamond earrings, and flattering braided up-dos.
My chin trembling, I answered him with a small nod. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t answer, my mind tossing a stormy chaos of what to do next. Did I go break the news to everyone that the wedding is called off? Everyone go home. It’s over. There will be no Mrs. Aaron Stuart today. My eyes slanted back to the yard again. This time Aaron sobbed into his hands. I blinked, then blinked again, my vision blurry.
My chest ached, and I shivered as though the wind had shifted, wind that carried in cooler air— air consumed with an acidic premonition and a feverish guilt. My hands fell limp and I sagged against the tree, sliding down the length of the trunk to deposit my butt on the ground, too weak to stand.
I rubbed my face, trying to come up with the right words, words that wouldn’t disintegrate me— kill us. There were none. This was going to be the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life, but I’d been weighing the consequences since early this morning. Ever since Tate told me there was no possible way there could ever be a future for us, not in this life anyway. Carrying out this agonizing feat would mean shredding my existence, tearing every piece of livable being out of me and turning me into a hollow shell. But I saw no other way.
My breathing picked up pace, amped, making the dizziness spin my world out of control. I was losing it. It got so bad I could no longer breathe. I gasped and wrenched my body, reaching for the sun— grasping, grabbing, trying to save my life. But the air was gone. Nothing to sustain me.
Tate knelt beside me and clutched my shoulders to keep me sitting upright. “You going to be okay, Ladybug? I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn’t think it would be this difficult for you.”
Finally, my voice spewed the bitter, vile words out like a hot rush of lava. The knife had already sliced its way through and gutted me, my heart pierced to the end of the blade, long before they spilled forth. I was too debilitated to even clear my throat. I gurgled out. “I’m letting you go, Tate.” The repugnant, volcanic ashes floated to the ground in a hushed whisper, singeing the ground as they lit.
Tate tipped his head, his mouth falling open. His eyes wouldn’t move, they drilled into me. “What are you saying?”
The tears… I couldn’t stop them. They surged forth like a rapid river, spilling down my face. “I’m so in love with you and… and I know that this time… this time I’ll never be able to forget you. And I know what that means. It means that in six weeks you’ll be going away. But I can’t fight it anymore. My love for you is too strong, and I’m too tired.” Now that I said the words I knew there was no going back for Tate. He would be gone.
Tate lowered his head, his lips pressed into a thin line. He swallowed twice, a small sound escaping from the back of his throat like something wanted to burst forth but couldn’t quite get the job done, caught somewhere between hurt and anger. He sat back on his heels, looking at his hands that trembled on his thighs, then finally whispered. “Do what you have to do. For as much as it hurts both of us, I think it’s for the best. You’ll find someone besides Aaron and move on, and we’ll be together in eternity.”
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