“You and Brendan have to come over tonight, Tessa. I have something urgent I need to talk to you two about. ASAP.”
I rolled my eyes, unmoved by my sister’s theatrics, and pulled the phone away from my head as Meg’s dramatic voice whined in my ear. Everything was a big deal to my big sister. I didn’t even bother asking her what was up.
“Brendan and I were going to go out for a nice dinner tonight. Can’t it wait a few days?” I straightened up the papers on my desk, made sure my email account was set to vacation mode, then shut down my computer. It gave a happy little goodbye chime as the screen went black.
“No it cannot wait a few days! I told you, it’s urgent! As soon as possible, Tess, that’s what ASAP means. Besides, you’re off all week. You can go out some other night. We’ll do something fun, like have a game night.”
I groaned. “I’m tired, Meg. It’s been a long, crazy couple of weeks. I just want to relax. You know how competitive Mark gets when we play board games. It’s definitely not relaxing.”
Just thinking about it set me on edge. I pulled the watering can out from under the bathroom sink and filled it from the tap then gave each of my plants a generous drink of water. The calming ritual made me feel a little better.
“Okay, fine, whatever. We won’t play games if you don’t want. But I have to talk to you both tonight. I won’t take no for an answer.”
I sighed and put the watering can away then switched off the diffuser that perfumed the office with the crisp, fresh scent of lemon grass. There was no point resisting; she’d just badger me till I gave her what she wanted. My sister had been bossing me around since the day I was born, and I’d been giving into her to keep the peace between us.
“Fine. We’ll be there. But you better have good food.” I slung my purse over my shoulder then headed towards the door.
“I’ll order wings from the place Brendan likes.” That meant a wing-eating competition between Brendan and Mark, but at least they wouldn’t expect me to participate in that.
“Okay, we’ll be there in an hour.” The sooner I got there, the sooner I could hear her out and help her through whatever personal crisis had her in a tizzy. Maybe I could even get home early.
My stomach clenched as I took one last look around the office to make sure everything was in order. The new assistant I’d hired would be manning the office while I was on vacation, but I’d never been away from my business for so long. I felt like a mother leaving her baby with a sitter for the first time.
Satisfied that the place wouldn’t catch fire or crumble to the ground while I was out, I switched off the lights and stepped out onto the sidewalk, locking the door behind me. The golden sunshine of a summer evening greeted me, brightening my mood. I wasn’t going to let this spoil the start of my vacation — my first vacation since the ones I took with my family before I was old enough to have a job. I’d been working nonstop since I was 15, giving up summers at the beach for waitressing jobs so I could earn enough to start my own business.
But after years of hard work, my employment agency had just celebrated it’s first year with its best month ever. I’d successfully placed almost a hundred applicants at the new Sweet Bay Resort and Spa, earning a nice commission for each. Now that the resort was fully staffed, I’d decided to reward myself.
I called my fiancé, Brendan, as I got in my car and drove towards my apartment. “Hi Bren, I know we had planned to go to dinner tonight, but Meg is insisting we come over. She has something she wants to talk to us about.”
Loud voices, rubbery squeaks, and clanging metal echoed in the background, making it hard for me to hear him, so I turned down the radio. “Ohhh, man. I knew there was something I was forgetting. I told Lance I’d go shoot hoops with him tonight. I’m already at the Y.”
Disappointment rolled in like a gray cloud, darkening my mood again. “You forgot? You promised to take me out for a celebratory dinner. We have reservations.”
“Sorry, babe. But this works out better, anyway. You know your sister irritates me. You go hang out with her tonight, and we’ll celebrate some other night.”
My sister irritated me sometimes, too, but, for some reason, it bothered me when Brendan said it. And the fact that he’d forgotten all about our plans made me even more upset. He’d been unwilling to take any time off to spend with me during my vacation, claiming he couldn’t afford it, but tonight was supposed to be special. In frustration, I pressed my foot harder to the accelerator and veered around a slow-turning car.
“She wants to talk to both of us. She said it was urgent.”
I could practically hear his eyes rolling. “You know how your sister is; everything is urgent to her. I’m sure whatever her problem is, you can handle it without me. You go, have a girl’s night, and I’ll see you tomorrow night, okay?”
I snarled at the traffic light that forced me to stop with a squeal of my brakes, but I didn’t put the brakes on my mouth. Instead, I released the pressure on my aggravation with an uncharacteristic outburst. “No, it’s not okay. You promised to spend the evening with me. Tell Lance you have plans tonight and meet me at Meg’s house.”
Brendan was stunned silent for a moment, and I resisted the urge to capitulate. Eventually, he sighed. “Fine, I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
We hung up, and I scowled at the cars that turned in front of me, blocking my path, even though my light had turned green. I wanted to barge through the intersection anyway. I had the right of way, after all. But I’d always hated conflict; it was easier to give in and let the other person get their way than to make a fuss. My conversation with Brendan was a perfect example. Even though I’d stood up for myself and gotten my way, I didn’t feel good about it. It didn’t seem like a victory.
I managed to weave my way home through 5 pm traffic, which wasn’t that bad in a small town like Sweet Bay, but it still made me irritable. I could’ve gone straight to Meg’s, but I needed to feed my border collie, Trixie, and take her out.
I parked and headed up to my place, a tiny studio apartment barely big enough for me and Trixie, that was filled with mismatched, hand-me-down furniture I’d taken from my parents house when I first moved there three years ago and a collection of houseplants I’d grown, most from tiny cuttings I’d snipped off while I was out walking Trixie. Brendan complained that they were taking over the space, turning it into a jungle, but I loved the variety of bright green foliage and the earthy scent of live plants.
Now that my business was doing well, I was eager to find a bigger place, but since Brendan and I were getting married eventually, there was no point moving until we were ready to live together. His place was small, too, so we planned to buy a house after the wedding. But so far, Brendan hadn’t been in any hurry.
Trixie met me at the door like she always did, poking her nose in the crack as soon as I started to open the door. When she was younger, she would jump and bark and spin around, wearing a circle of scratches in the floor. But now, at age 12, she just wiggled a lot, her tail swishing like a fluffy windshield wiper, stirring up a cloud of fur.
She scooted back an inch at a time as I pushed the door open. I set my things on the counter and dropped to my knees to hug her and tell her what a good girl she was, coating myself in her fur. I didn’t mind; I wanted to change out of my work clothes, anyway.
After our cuddle, I filled her bowl with kibble then changed into nice shorts and a breezy, flowery blouse that hid the fact that my stomach wasn’t as flat as I’d like it to be. I checked myself in the mirror, brushing out my shoulder length, dark brown hair and freshening my makeup. I wanted to look nice, even though I wasn’t going anywhere special. Even though my sister and I looked a lot alike, I always thought Meg was prettier than me, so I tried to look my best whenever I was with her.
By the time I was ready, Trixie’s bowl was empty, and she was whimpering at the door. I clipped on her leash and let her drag me to the dog park where she marked every tree, chased a squirrel, a bird, and a yipping chihuahua, then rolled around on the ground till dirt and grass coated her black and white fur. Maybe I’d spend some of my vacation giving her a bath. When she plopped to the ground at my feet, I petted her for a few minutes then grabbed her leash and led her back home.
On a whim, I decided to take Trixie with me to Meg’s place. I’d had Trixie since I was a kid, so Meg and Trixie were old pals. I knew Meg wouldn’t mind the visit, even though Brendan might. Sometimes I wondered if he was dragging his feet on the wedding, waiting for Trixie to die. He wasn’t exactly a dog person.
I grabbed an old blanket to protect my car interior, draping it over the passenger seat, then let Trixie climb in and turn in circles till she settled down. She sat upright as soon as we started moving and hung her head out the window when I rolled it down halfway, letting her tongue flap in the wind.
We pulled up to Meg’s apartment a few minutes later, and Trixie raced ahead of me to the door as soon as she realized where we were. I gave a knock then let myself in since the door was unlocked. Meg and her boyfriend Mark were kissing on the sofa. They jumped apart as soon as they heard me. Meg’s cheeks turned the color of her flowery, pink sundress, either from bliss or embarrassment, I couldn’t tell which.
“Trixie!” Meg’s eyes lit up when she saw her, and she leapt up and attacked my dog with hugs and kisses even more enthusiastic than the ones she was giving Mark. After she was done, she turned her attention towards me, hugging me, too, only slightly less exuberantly.
“Hey sis, thanks so much for coming. Sorry to mess up your plans, but I swear, this is really important.”
“So, what is it?” I plopped down on the bright red loveseat, and Trixie jumped up next to me, burrowing a nest in Meg’s serape throw.
“I’ll tell you when Brendan gets here. He is coming, isn’t he?” Meg gave a worried look then sat back down next to Mark, so close their hips were practically welded together. Mark wrapped his arms around Meg, making me worry they were going to start making out again.
“Yeah, he’ll be here soon.” I glanced towards the door, and a knock sounded as if on cue. I jumped up to open it since I was closest and Meg and Mark were tangled up in each other’s arms, looking like a two-headed octopus. Trixie followed me.
But it wasn’t Brendan, it was a man wearing a red polo with a Wing King logo and holding a giant bag of deliciousness. Trixie stuck her nose up to the bag, sucking in the aroma of chicken wings and French fries, then gave the plastic a lick.
“I got this.” Mark untangled himself and jumped up, pulling out his wallet and handing some bills to the delivery man.
Brendan appeared at the door behind Mr. Wing King and shooed Trixie away from the bag with a swat to her snout. “Trixie, no!”
Then he pulled his wallet out of his jeans, after Mark had already paid the man. “You want me to help with that?”
“Nah, it’s my treat tonight.” Mark smiled and patted Brendan on the back, ushering him into the house like they were best friends, even though they were as different in personality as they were in appearance. Brendan was big, blond, and easygoing, while Mark was smaller, with dark hair and tan skin, and a go-getter attitude.
“Hey, babe.” Brendan glanced at me then gave me a strained smile and a peck on the lips before turning his attention to the bag of food in Mark’s hand. I forgave it since I knew he didn’t want to be there. At least he’d come.
“Smells great. What flavors did you get?” Brendan followed Mark to the kitchen where they emptied the bag onto the table.
“Pretty much all of them.” Mark started opening the styrofoam containers. There were at least six different kinds of wings, plus a huge pile of crispy, salty fries, and a bunch of celery and carrot sticks with tubs of ranch and blue cheese dressing.
I grinned when I saw my favorite Thai chili flavor. “This looks awesome, Mark. Thanks.”
Meg pulled out some paper plates, and we each filled ours with food while she passed out bottles of soda. Then we pushed the containers into the middle and sat down around the table. The only sounds for several minutes were moans, lip smacking, finger licking, and the hiss of soda bottles opening as we dug into the meal. I was surprised that Mark hadn’t challenged Brendan to a wing-eating contest, but I wasn’t going to mention it.
Brendan eventually broke the silence, tossing his fifth wing bone into the pile and wiping his sauce-covered face with a napkin. “Man, this is great. I can’t believe how much food you got. You must really be buttering us up for something big.”
Meg and Mark exchanged a tense look, then Meg wiped her hands and dug in the tiny pocket of her sundress. When she pulled it out again, she turned to me and held out her hand, flashing a diamond solitaire. “Mark proposed; we’re getting married!”
My face instantly lifted like I’d sucked in helium, and any remaining irritation at the change in my plans for the evening floated away. Mark and Meg were a great couple, and I knew my sister had been dying for him to pop the question.
I leaned over and hugged her. “Congratulations! I’m so happy for you. Let me guess, you want me to be your maid of honor.”
Meg’s face froze in a caricature of horror, and my own did the same. Had I overstepped? I’d always assumed we’d fill the role for each other, but maybe she wanted someone else to do it.
“Not exactly.” She glanced at Mark, her eyes begging him to help her.
When Mark set down the wing in his hand, I knew it was serious. “Well, see, I got a new job as a territory manager, and I start in two weeks.”
“That’s great!” I knew he’d been looking for a better job — Sweet Bay was a great place, but good jobs were still hard to find, even with my employment agency there to help people.
“The thing is, the job’s in South Dakota.”
“South Dakota?!” Brendan and I both squawked and glanced back and forth between Mark and my sister. That was hundreds of miles away from Sweet Bay.
Mark ran a hand through his thick, dark hair and stroked his mustache. “I know, it sounds crazy. But the jobs are plentiful there, and the pay is, too. And Meg said she was up for the adventure.”
Meg always had been way more adventurous than me. She’d gone to a college on the other side of the country, majored in music theory, something that seemed totally impractical, then came back to Sweet Bay and managed to eek out a living giving music lessons. Meanwhile, I’d stayed home and gotten a business degree from the community college. The only risky thing I’d ever done was opening my business. But even that had low overhead, so I didn’t have to invest a lot.
“We want to get married here in Sweet Bay before we go, but that doesn’t give us much time. We’d need to have the wedding next Saturday.”
I dropped my chicken wing and gawked at her. The sauce splattered onto my shirt, but I didn’t bother wiping at it. It blended into the pattern, anyway. “Next Saturday? As in, a week from tomorrow?”
She bit her lip and nodded her head. “I know it’s really soon, but that’s why I’m hoping you’ll help me. I know you’re off all week.”
“You want me to help you plan your wedding in a week?”
She and Mark exchanged another tense look then glanced between me and Brendan. Meg put her hand on my arm and gazed at me with the puppy dog eyes she used whenever she wanted something.
“Well, see, I’m going to be so busy packing this week, I won’t have time to help much, and it’s not really fair to ask you to do all the work. But, since you guys are already engaged, and you haven’t picked a date yet, well, I thought maybe you could plan your wedding, and… we could share it.”
“Share it? You mean like a double wedding?” Brendan and I had the same dumbfounded look.
Meg flicked back her long, brown hair that was the same as mine yet somehow always looked better and gave me a rosy smile. “Yeah! Wouldn’t it be great? We’re both engaged. We’d invite all the same people. Why shouldn’t we get married at the same time?”
“Think how much money it would save,” Mark interjected. Brendan tilted his head and nodded thoughtfully.
“I know it’s asking a lot, sis, but it would mean so much to me. I’d let you make all the decisions. You know I don’t care about stuff like that. I just want to get married here in Sweet Bay with all my friends and family.”
I stared at her for a long moment while I contemplated. We’d always been best friends, but was I willing to share the most important day of my life with her? That meant sharing the spotlight, but I’d never cared about that, anyway. Being the kind of person who liked to plan every detail, I’d probably have to make a lot of concessions to get a wedding organized in only a week, but it would give my sister the chance to have a real wedding.
I glanced over at Brendan who had a dazed look on his face. We’d been dating for a couple years, but he only proposed when I told him I was going to break up with him if he wasn’t serious about a future together. We’d been engaged for almost three months, and he still hadn’t committed to a date. This might be my opportunity to get him to take the next step.
I slid my hand over to his and laced our sticky fingers together. “What do you think, Brendan?”
He shrugged. “I have to work this week. I wouldn’t be able to help much.”
“But you’re willing to get married next Saturday if I can arrange it?”
“I guess so. We’re gonna do it sometime, right?” It wasn’t exactly the eager response I was hoping for, but he wasn’t opposed.
I looked back at my sister who was twisting her hands and her face in anticipation. How could I say no to her? I’d never been able to for the last 24 years.
I sucked in a shaky breath and smiled at her as I stood up. “I think we better call it a night. I’ve got a busy day tomorrow… I need to plan a wedding!”
“Yay!” She jumped up and threw herself at me, knocking her plate to the floor. Trixie gobbled up her French fries as Meg bounced us up and down and Mark gave Brendan a fist bump. But a hole opened up in the pit of my stomach. Was I crazy to agree to this?