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Things We Left Behind: Chapter 8

Wedding Dress Hives


For the first time since my dad passed away, I was up, showered, dressed, and ready to go earlier than necessary. It was day one of my official comeback. Mom was right. I couldn’t wallow forever. I wasn’t good at it anyway. So today, I’d slap on some lipstick and a smile and go wedding dress shopping. Tomorrow, I’d officially go back to work.

I carted my breakfast dishes from the nook to the sink and grimaced when I found it already piled high with dirty plates and bowls. An oppressive weighted blanket of doom settled over my shoulders.

Energy was a precious commodity, and I’d already used all mine up putting my hair in a ponytail.

I had thirty minutes before I had to leave. I could do the dishes, but did I really have the mental energy for strategic dishwasher loading? I peeked inside and groaned. It was already full, and judging from the smell, the dishes on the racks were not clean.

Muttering to myself, I opened the cabinet under the sink and found the bottle of detergent. It was empty.

Irritated, I hurled it into the sink. The ensuing rattle and crash of dishes collapsing on themselves had the cat galloping into the room like an investigative pony.

“You know, you could help out around the house. Earn your keep,” I told her.

Meow Meow sneezed disdainfully and waddled past me.

I looked at the fork and knife clock on the wall next to the portrait of a fruit bowl.

If I left now, I could stop at one of those hip DC coffee shops where power-­suited coffee aficionados began their day and treat myself to an expensive, unnecessary high-­calorie drink.

Or I could cross something simple off my to-­do list.

I blew out a breath, ruffling the hair that framed my face. There was one thing I could tackle now that would save me considerable trouble: My dating app profile. If I filled it out now, I wouldn’t have to lie when Lina and Naomi asked me about it.

I left the chaos of the kitchen behind me and drifted into the mulberry-­wallpapered dining room with its heavy antique furniture. There, I flopped down in the velvet wingback chair between the built-­in china cabinet that housed more liquor than china and the stained glass window.

Meow Meow launched herself onto the table, draping her considerable girth over the runner.

There was already a sizable ring of cat hair visible on the russet table silk. The dull morning sunlight cast a judgmental spotlight on the dusty table surface. I blew out a breath. Lethargic moping hadn’t done me or my house any favors.

“I put mascara and cute clothes on this morning. It’s a start. Tonight, I’ll dust and vacuum,” I said conversationally to the cat as I opened the app Stef had forced me to download. “Ugh. It’s called Singlez with a z.”

The pictures of “sexy singlez near me” had me perking up.

“You know, it’s been a while since I’ve had sex. Maybe I’ll match with my perfect future husband right away, and then I can get laid and snap out of this funk.” Good sex, whether from a relationship or a flirtation turned hookup, had always been a nice reset for me. Like a spa day, only with more coed nudity.

Meow Meow didn’t seem impressed. She continued to lavish her front paws with her pink tongue.

I turned my attention back to the screen. Username.

I probably didn’t have to get too creative here. After all, I had a one hundred percent success rate when it came to walking into a bar on the prowl. It wasn’t going to be that hard to find someone suitable on an app designed to match people up.

I glanced around the room, looking for inspiration. Books. Booze. Dust. Cat.

My thumbs flew over the keys.

“Look at that,” I said. “Four-­EyedCatLibrarian isn’t taken.”

Meow Meow shot me a disgruntled look, then yawned, baring her teeth.

Likes? That was easy. “Bad tempered cats, books, and comfy pants,” I muttered as I typed.

Looking for? The standard options weren’t very specific. There was a lot of mileage between companionship and marriage. I decided to go with “other” and typed in my best approximation.

“Okay. Now all we need are a couple of pictures, and we’re good to go.”

I scrolled through my camera roll and selected a handful of cute selfies.

“Boom! Done,” I announced, dropping my phone in my lap like it was a microphone.

It had only taken me four minutes, and now I wouldn’t have to lie to my friends. I was starting to impress myself with this comeback.

I glanced around the room for another easy task to cross off and remembered that I’d promised Mom I would gather up any of Dad’s old files. Since I was seeing Lina today, I could give them to her instead of paying a personal visit to Suited Satan.

I marched out of the dining room, looped through the living room—­man, I really needed to dust—­and entered the study. The cabinet behind the desk held a collection of old ballpoint pens, broken pencils, change, and rubber bands.

In the second drawer of the desk, behind a stack of legal pads, I found Dad’s candy stash. Pronounced prediabetic a few years before his first cancer diagnosis, he’d taken it upon himself to ration his candy to one piece per day.

I pocketed a mini Kit Kat that was definitely too old to eat and moved on to the bottom drawer.

It was a deep pullout with tabbed hanging folders. Most of them were empty, though their labels remained. Property Taxes. Gift Ideas. Fantasy Football. Kids Drawings. Recipes.

I paged through them, smiling at the ripped-­out catalog pages filed under gift ideas and the stack of crayon drawings he’d collected over the years of being a father, an uncle, a grandfather, and a neighborhood favorite.

Toward the back of the drawer were a few fat files. These I liberated and piled on top of the desk as the cat pranced into the room. She jumped onto the desk and placed her front paws on the stack of folders.

“Excuse me. Do you mind?”

Meow Meow blinked at me and slowly deflated on top of the paperwork.

I ruffled her ears and then marched into the hallway to grab my coat and tote bag.

Just as I closed the closet door, I heard the frenetic skitter of claws followed by a series of thumps coming from the study. There was a final, louder thud, and then Meow Meow careened into the hall and galloped off in the direction of the staircase.

Back in the office, I discovered my neat stack of folders had exploded everywhere.

“Freaking cat,” I muttered.

I sank to the floor and began gathering the jumble of paperwork. Mr. I Can Be of Assistance to You could put them back in their rightful order, I decided.

A series of now mangled printouts of newspaper stories caught my eye.

Upshaw sentenced to twenty years for drug arrest

Judge makes example of first-­time drug offender

Defendant’s family suggests Upshaw’s sentence too harsh

I skimmed the headlines, but it was the picture of a devastated young man leaving a courthouse that caught my attention. The image was grainy and crumpled by cat feet, but I still recognized him. It was my father’s law student protégé, Allen.

After an interminable amount of time spent suffering in northern Virginia traffic, I slid out from behind the wheel of my Jeep with my phone pinned between my ear and shoulder.

“Yeah, hey, Maeve. I have a question for you. It’s about Dad. Give me a call when you get a chance,” I said to my sister’s voicemail before disconnecting the call. If Dad had been interested in Allen’s mother’s case, he probably would have discussed it at some point with my sister.

I reached back inside to drag my tote across the console.

I was five minutes late, which annoyed me. But I filed away the annoyance, straightened my shoulders, and pasted a cheerful smile on my face as I engaged bridesmaid mode.

I plugged in the parking info on my app and marched the two blocks to the bridal shop. Rather than a bell tinkling when I opened the front door, angelic harp music announced my arrival. I found Naomi, Lina, and Stef seated on a pink velvet banquette, each holding a tall flute of champagne, surrounded by an explosion of underskirts, lace, and every tone of white identifiable by the naked eye.

Naomi looked as though she was having the time of her life.

Lina looked like she was about to vomit.

“And how does our bride feel about one dress for the ceremony and a second dress for the reception?” asked a bald man rocking blue velvet loafers and matching cobalt glasses.

Lina choked on her champagne. “One dress is more than enough,” she insisted. Her eyes darted to me. “Oh! Look! Sloane is here. I’d better go greet her.” Her long legs wrapped in designer denim ate up the pink carpet between us. “Help me. I feel like I’m suffocating in taffeta,” she hissed, pulling me in for an awkward and unexpected hug.

“You must be terrified. You’re voluntarily hugging me.”

“I’ll voluntarily make out with you if you help me pick a dress in the next ten minutes so we can get out of here. I’m breaking out in hives.”

“I thought you liked fashion?”

“I like clothes I’m going to wear every day. I like badass heels and designer suits and luxury gym apparel. But apparently I don’t like wedding dress shopping. It reminds me that…” She looked over her shoulder. “It reminds me that I’m getting married.”

Prior to the appearance of the broody, wounded Nash Morgan, Lina had been more love ’em and leave ’em than “get engaged and build a house together.” She was still finding her way as a soon-­to-­be married woman.

I took her by the shoulders and squeezed. “You still want to marry Nash, right?”

She rolled her eyes. “Of course I do. But not dressed as some virginal princess!”

“Lina, what do you think about a veil?” Naomi called from the girlie couch where Stef was modeling an eight-­foot-­long veil with seed pearls.

“Oh God,” Lina squeaked. “I’m either not going to survive this, or I’m going to pick a dress that I hate just to get it over with.”

“Oh boy,” I whispered as she towed me toward our friends.

Ahmad, the dress shop employee with great shoes and a surprisingly thick southern drawl, led Lina back to a dressing room while a series of unsmiling assistants paraded after them carrying five gowns that looked increasingly princessy.

Naomi sat back on the couch and took a satisfied sip of champagne.

“Why do you look so smug? She’s going to hate every single one of those dresses,” I asked, accepting the glass Stef poured me.

“I know,” Naomi said gleefully.

“Witty here has a plan,” Stef explained.

“What kind of plan?”

“The kind of plan that ends with our friend getting her perfect wedding dress,” Naomi declared.

“You’re either being cocky or diabolical,” I mused. “I can’t wait to see which one.”

“So. Hook up with any baby daddies yet?” Stef asked me.

“Geez. I literally just set up my profile. Give me a day or two to find the perfect man. Did you ask Jeremiah about moving in together yet?”

Naomi hid her smile behind a delicate cough.

Stef glared at her over the rim of his champagne.

“Oh, come on,” Naomi teased. “Tell her your latest excuse.”

“It’s not an excuse. Closet space is very important to a relationship, and the man just doesn’t have enough. It would never work. My wardrobe and I have been through a lot together. It deserves a beautiful, spacious home. Not a few rolling racks next to pieces of an actual motorcycle that he took apart in the living room,” he said with a shudder.

“You’re right,” I agreed. “Closet space is definitely more important than being in love and sharing your life with someone. I’m sure you can cuddle up to those suede leopard loafers at night just as easily as you can Jeremiah. You probably won’t even notice the difference.”

Naomi grinned. “See? I told you.”

Stef sniffed. “Wedding dress shopping makes you two mean.”

“Here comes our beautiful bride,” Ahmad called.

“Showtime,” Naomi said, clapping her hands.

I hit the video call button on Lina’s phone, and her mother immediately appeared on-­screen.

“It’s time!” I told her.

Bonnie Solavita was seated behind an executive desk and holding a mimosa. “I’m ready!”

Lina slunk out in an ivory ballgown so wide she had to turn sideways to squeeze between two mannequins. The spaghetti straps glittered with rhinestones. The corset was tied with a pink satin ribbon. There were so many layers of tulle I had to press my lips together in order not to make a Scarlett O’Hara joke.

The bride didn’t look like she was in the mood for jokes. She looked downright miserable.

“Oh my gosh! That dress was made for you,” Naomi crooned.

“You look…amazing.” I managed to choke the words out.

“I’m…speechless,” Stef said before turning to me and mouthing “What the fuck?”

“Wow! That is some dress, sweetie,” Bonnie piped up on-­screen.

Ahmad rested his chin on his knuckles and studied her while his assistants fluttered around Lina, fluffing the skirt until it seemed to double in size. “Do you love it?” he demanded.

“There aren’t words that properly describe how much I hate this dress,” Lina said through clenched teeth.

Ahmad clapped his hands. “To the dressing room.”

Lina practically ran.

“That dress was…something, wasn’t it?” Bonnie asked nervously.

I flipped the phone around so I could see her. “Naomi says she has a plan,” I explained.

“What kind of plan?”

“I don’t know. She won’t tell me.”

Naomi leaned over Stef to see Lina’s mom. “Don’t worry, Bonnie. We’re going to make sure Lina goes home with the perfect dress. I promise you.”

“Well, that definitely wasn’t it,” Bonnie said, taking a gulp of mimosa. “It looked like a white haystack.”

“Here she comes again,” Stef said, shoving Naomi back into position.

We repeated the process four more times with each dress outdoing the awfulness of the one before it.

“You’re looking a little flushed, sweetheart. Maybe you should take a break and do some deep breathing,” Bonnie suggested from the screen.

“I’m fine, Mom,” Lina said, sounding anything but fine. “My heart is fine. I’m just breaking out from neck-­to-­toe lace.”

“That’s very common for brides,” Ahmad spoke up. “We suggest slathering yourself in antihistamine cream if you’re going to wear something that irritates the skin.”

“You look beautiful,” Naomi assured her.

“Itchy but beautiful,” I agreed.

“You know what? I think I’ve had enough trying on dresses for one day,” Lina said, already unbuckling the crystal belt one of the assistants had lassoed around her waist. “Someone get me out of this thing before my skin peels off.”

“Oh boy. She’s gonna blow,” Stef predicted under his breath.

As Lina danced in place while an assistant began to work on the first of seventy thousand buttons running down her back, Naomi gave Ahmad a nod. He turned toward the back of the store and made a series of elaborate swooping gestures.

Two employees appeared, lugging a mannequin between them. The mannequin was already dressed in a strapless gown with black floral appliqués that began at the fitted bodice and spilled down over the full skirt.

“That goes in the window display, ladies,” Ahmad said to the women.

Lina glanced up in the mirror and froze.

“What’s she looking at?” Bonnie demanded from the phone.

I angled the screen so she could see the dress.

“That one,” Lina said, pointing at the gown.

“This? It just arrived this morning. No one’s even tried it on yet,” Ahmad said coyly.

“It’s a beautiful gown,” Bonnie prompted.

“I don’t know,” Stef mused. “How many brides could get away with wearing black on their wedding day?”

“I’ll try that one on, but after that, we’re leaving,” Lina announced, shoving herself out of the dress. She flounced away from the three-­way mirror in a strapless bra and underwear.

Ahmad snapped his fingers at the women, who made quick work of disrobing the mannequin.

“Oh my God. That’s the dress,” I said.

“I know,” Naomi agreed.

“It’s freaking fabulous,” Stef said.

“I know,” Naomi said again with a smug smile.

“And so is Lina,” Bonnie agreed.

“Exactly,” Naomi said, perching on the edge of the cushion, eagerly watching the dressing rooms.

“You’re diabolical,” I told her.

“I only use my powers for good,” she explained.

“Here she comes,” Stef said, sounding excited for the first time.

Lina swept into view like a queen. I gasped. Naomi was already fanning her hands in front of her face to ward off tears. Stef’s hands shot out to grip my knee and Naomi’s.

Lina ascended the pedestal, dropped the skirts, and struck a regal pose.

“Dead. I’m dead,” Ahmad said, clutching his chest theatrically.

“Nash is going to be when he takes one look at her,” I predicted.

Bonnie let out a choked sob from the phone.

Lina whirled around, the skirt floating around her like it was alive. “Mom! Don’t cry. You have a meeting in twenty minutes,” Lina insisted.

“I can’t help it. It’s so perfect for you. Just like Nash. It just makes me so…happy,” Bonnie wailed.

I wondered for the briefest of seconds what it felt like to be standing there wearing a beautiful dress knowing that I was going to marry the man of my dreams. Would I have that moment? And if I did, would it be dimmer because I knew my father wouldn’t be here to walk me down the aisle?

Tears prickled behind my eyes. Damn it! No crying. No self-­pity. I was Comeback Sloane, Truly Excellent Bridesmaid. Not Debbie Downer of the Whomp-­Whomp Family.

“It is beautiful, and it is me,” Lina conceded. “But what shoes would I wear?”

“Your black lace-­up Jimmy Choo boots with the crystal bands,” Stef said.

“Ooh, edgy, comfortable, and regal,” I said.

“Shit. They would be perfect with this,” Lina said, fingering one of the black appliqués.

“This dress was made for you,” Ahmad decided. “It would be an absolute travesty to let anyone else even try her on.” His minions bobbed their heads in agreement.

Lina spun back around to study herself in the mirror. Her eyes met mine. “What do you think, Sloane?”

“It’s so perfect I can barely look at you,” I admitted.

“It is, isn’t it?” She brought her hand to her chest.

“Are you having premature ventricular contractions?” Bonnie demanded.

Lina rolled her eyes. “No, Mom. I’m falling in love with a damn wedding dress.”

All the occupants of the little pink couch erupted in cheers.

“Now, let’s talk about bridesmaid dresses,” Lina said.

“I can’t believe I found a dress.” Lina pushed her plate away with a gusty, satisfied sigh. “No one else had even tried it on. It’s like fate or whatever you weirdo romantics believe in.”

We were squeezed into a small booth in the back of a trendy bistro. Stef had skipped lunch under the guise of having a conference call. Personally, I thought he was just avoiding being heckled about his lack of movement on the moving-­in-­together front.

I shot a glance at Naomi over my fancy-­ass grilled cheese. She beamed all her happy newlywed vibes in Lina’s direction as they dissected every detail of the dress.

A good friend called the bridal shop and preordered the perfect gown. A great friend pretended like fate was the real hero.

My phone vibrated on the table, and I picked it up. It was a call from my sister.

“Hey, Maeve,” I answered, plugging my ear with my finger and sliding out of the booth.

“Hey, I got your message, but I was stuck in court. What’s up?” she asked.

I ducked behind a large potted plant next to the host stand. “Did Dad ever mention a Mary Louise Upshaw to you?”

“Dad mentioned a lot of people to me. Is she from Knockemout?”

“She was local-­ish. She worked at the post office. I didn’t have much time to do any digging, but it looks like she was convicted of drug charges. I think she’s the mother of Dad’s law school protégé Allen.”

“It’s ringing a vague bell. But this was probably a few years ago. Before the cancer and the move,” Maeve said.

Before the beginning of the end.

“Yeah. That’s probably the right timeline,” I agreed.

“He wasn’t her attorney, was he?” Maeve asked.

“No. I think she had a public defender. She got twenty years. First-­time offender.”

“For possession? That’s excessive even for Virginia.”

“I thought so too. It turns out his mother’s case is why Allen went to law school in the first place. Would you mind looking into it? You know, in the spare time you don’t actually have.”

“Yeah. I’ll do some digging and get back to you.”

“In return, I’ll take Chloe to play rehearsal for the next two nights,” I volunteered.

“Best aunt ever,” Maeve said, affection in her voice. “What am I going to do when you have kids of your own?”

“Ha. It’s just me and the cat for now. I’ve gotta go. I’m with Lina and Naomi. I’ll pick up Chloe tonight. Love you.”

“Love you. Bye.”

I disconnected.

“What was that about?” Lina asked when I returned to the table.

“Just some papers of Dad’s I found. Get this. My mom wants me to give them to Lucian.”

Naomi’s brows winged up in surprise. “Is your mom unaware of the mutual animosity?”

“Oh, she’s aware. I think she just wants us to find a way to be friends, but we can’t be in the same room without trying to tear each other limb from limb, so I made the executive decision to dump them on Lina here since she’ll be more likely to see Lucifer.”

“Speaking of Suit Daddy,” Lina said, running her finger around the lip of her glass of scotch. “I officially accepted his job offer after demanding more money and a few other perks.”

“That’s wonderful news,” Naomi said.

“Congratulations?” I said. I didn’t mean to make it sound like a question, but that was how it came out.

Lina laughed. “Thanks. I’m excited. I finally get to pull back the curtain and get my hands dirty.”

“What perks did you hold out for?” I asked.

“He has to be nicer to you.”

“Oh my God. You did not negotiate me into your employment contract. Did you?” I didn’t want Lucian Rollins thinking I needed someone to stand up for me.

“It was more a passing comment than a demand,” Lina assured me. “Interestingly enough, when he found out that you two were going to be in town today, he said I should invite you to the office.”

Naomi turned to me, looking like she was about to implode with happiness.

“What?” I demanded defensively.

“He finds out that you’re going to be in town with Lina and invites you to the office. You don’t think that sounds like the exact opposite thing a man would do for his sworn enemy?” she said pointedly.

“Sworn enemy is a little harsh,” I said, thinking of the breakfast burrito and my mother’s spa day. “And he invited us, not me.”

“I don’t know. My instincts tell me he wants you there,” Lina insisted.

“He does not. Maybe he was just pretending to be human to his new employee. Or maybe he has a crush on Naomi like all men with a penis and half a brain do.”

Naomi tossed her hair and pouted like a supermodel. “It’s true. Six men fell into manholes so far today,” she said breathily.

I snorted.

Lina held up her hands. “Okay. Fine. Full disclosure. He’s not even supposed to be in the office this afternoon. So maybe he offered it up knowing he wouldn’t be around to fight with you.”

I was not about to think about recognizing the tiny sliver of disappointment that news brought on.

Naomi, on the other hand, looked fully deflated.

“But seriously. Aren’t you the least bit curious why he’d extend the invitation?” Lina pressed.

“Nope,” I lied.

“Well, I’ve always wanted to see where he works. Does he really have a throne made out of the bones of his enemies?” Naomi asked.

“I was just going to give you the files to give to him next time you were in the office,” I told Lina.

“Yeah, but aren’t you just the least bit curious to see behind the frowny, rich guy curtain? I have to admit it’s pretty impressive,” she prodded. “You could deliver the files straight to his very expensive desk so you can tell your mom that you tried to give them to him personally. Maybe we could even use his in-­office espresso machine.”

Naomi clapped her hands. “Ooh! Espresso! Please, please, please, Sloane.”

It wasn’t smart, but part of me really wanted to see where Lucian Rollins ran his evil empire.

Besides, the longer I stayed down here, the higher the chances a hot, local guy on the app would slide into my DMs. There was a possibility that I could help Lina find a dress, tour Lucian’s evil empire, and get laid all in the same day.

“I guess we could stop by and see your new office,” I mused. “Since we’re here and all.”

Naomi and Lina shared a triumphant matchmaker-­y look.

“Stop making that face or I’ll change my mind.”


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