Fourteen years ago
“Never have I ever…” Tracy Dillon pauses for suspense, studying me with a malicious glint. “… Been in love with my best friend!”
And it must be the ten shots I already have in me that make me accept the challenge. Because next, I look at Aiden, not even caring that his girlfriend is sitting right next to him, and down the eleventh shot of the night.
I don’t know why my mind flies back to that night of so many years ago the moment I flip through my mail and find a creamy wedding invitation. As I trace a finger over the expensive cotton fiber paper, I can still remember the dumbstruck expression on Aiden’s face as I swigged the shot. And the closed set of his jaws as he didn’t. Or the way he frowned as strong arms hooked under my armpits and scooped me up from the floor. Next, I was in Jace’s arms, and he was carrying me away from the game.
“You’ve had enough to drink for tonight, Lola,” my other best friend said. “I’m taking you home.”
“But I was having fun,” I protested.
“Trust me, you’re going to thank me tomorrow.”
Too drunk to object, I waved at Aiden over Jace’s shoulder as we left whoever’s house we were at. I don’t remember how we got to my dorm. I probably fell asleep in Jace’s arms on the way. But the morning after is another one of those moments that will remain forever etched in my memory.
Aiden knocked on my door bright and early, looking all serious while he asked me if we could talk. That was my moment. I had broken the eggs the night before and I should’ve made the omelet that morning, aka confess to Aiden my undying love for him. Instead, I chickened out saying that if by talking, he meant he wanted to feed me pizza and one of his famous hangover-crushing smoothies I was game because, seriously, I’d never felt more under the weather and couldn’t remember anything from the previous night. Had the party been any good?
Gosh, how I hated myself at the relieved expression on his face.
Crisis averted, I guess. No one had to deal with silly, old Lori’s unrequited crush and unwanted feelings. We could all go back to being The Three Amigos, a trio where I was considered a sort of asexual being—not exactly a man like the other two, but also not someone either of them would ever date.
Now, crushed under the weight of the posh envelope, I lean against the front door for support—I sure didn’t expect such a bomb to come out of my mailbox when I got home after a long day at work.
I’m an idiot. A total moron for not realizing this was going to happen.
Of course, Aiden would marry Kirsten. She is the ideal woman—beautiful, posh, funny, with her head on her shoulders, and from a good family. She has everything.
But me? I’m a hot mess. I can’t keep a boyfriend for more than a few months. My hobbies are spilling all over the place and none of them are suitable for a wife.
I want to rip the letter into a million pieces, but I let it fall to the floor instead. Holding on to the walls for support, I head for the safety of the couch, meandering through the piles of old novels littering my apartment—inconvenient hobby number one: I rescue books from destruction.
Why do certain books need rescuing? Because when sales of a novel slow and not even a prolonged sojourn in the bargain cart can make copies shift, the unfortunate volumes are returned to the printing facility where they were created and destroyed through a process called ‘pulping’.
I shudder, thinking of the piles of books stripped of their covers and munched into the recycling machines. I can’t stand to fold a book’s page and do my best never to crack the spine while reading, so witnessing the book pulping process scarred me for eternity.
How did I get into this hobby? The manager at one of these printing facilities is a patient of mine—I’m a family doctor, the only accomplishment of my life—and he lets me save some of the volumes destined for the paper grinder. The liberated novels then move in with me and litter my floor until I manage to resell them online or at garage sales. Some I donate to little free libraries. But most just keep on not selling and end up camping in my apartment for a very, very long time.
I dodge another leaning tower of neglected dystopian novels and make it to the open space living room. Four cats await me sprawled on the couch—inconvenient hobby number two: I also rescue animals. The addiction started with cats and expanded to chickens when I moved into my industrial loft that has a cozy backyard. I’ve always been a cat person, but the extension to chicks came after I saw a traumatizing chicken factory documentary.
Contrary to books, I have to set strict limits on the pet population I’m allowed to keep. At any given time, I can’t house more than four cats and six chickens. Unless, of course, the shelter I collaborate with really needs a foster mom. Then I can make an exception and host stray kittens until they find a forever home.
I wiggle my butt on the couch, plopping down between Leia, a tawny tabby, and Chewie, my ginger, long-haired stud. Sitting down doesn’t help. My mouth is still paper-dry and my heart pumping in my chest on the verge of a full-blown panic attack. I drop my head in my hands, taking a few deep, hopefully calming breaths.
The Christmas tree lights blink in my face from a corner of the living room. And while I usually enjoy their blinking bursts of colored joy, now they’re making the anxiety worse. No, the holidays are over. I just didn’t get around to taking the tree down yet. I’m not in a hurry to do it, either. I love Christmas and the warmth the tree lights sprinkle on the house.
I bet Kirsten is one of those people who take down their Christmas trees on December 26th.
And perhaps that’s what’s better for Aiden. Someone organized and efficient, who doesn’t come with a baggage of approximately a thousand books, four cats, and six chickens. Maybe seeing him getting married and hearing him promise his eternal love to another woman will finally cure me of loving him.
From the moment I met Aiden, I knew he was The One, but I never confessed my feelings. I even encouraged him to date Kirsten at the beginning, when he thought she was too posh for him—I totally agreed and still agree with that assessment. The only reason I told him to go out with her was that I figured she was entirely wrong for him and that they wouldn’t last past a couple of dates. I’m such a fool and such a coward.
I’ve been a wimp since the winter of freshman year in college when I first fell hard for him.
Aiden was in one of my classes, Introduction to Undergraduate Biology Research, the weirdest class I had that quarter. The professor, George Quilliam, was unconventional and, during the first lesson, he lectured us on how scientific research is ninety percent rule-following and ten percent rule-breaking. He then asked who among us had a problem breaking rules. Aiden and I raised our hands. Jace didn’t.
Bioresearch wasn’t the first class I’d had in common with them, seeing how all three of us were bio pre-med students. But we weren’t friends back then. They were the cool kids, totally out of my nerdy league. Wherever they went, their then-duo made heads turn. Jace and Aiden had to be the hottest freshmen on campus. Both tall, athletic, and broad-shouldered. Jace, dark-haired, with eyes the color of a glacier, and a chiseled profile that would’ve made Michelangelo’s David hide in shame. With his full lips constantly upturned in a lopsided, confident smirk, he was the essence of casual, endless charm. And Aiden, fair, blond, everybody’s All-American dream. His face beautiful, elegant, and ageless—in a hanging on the walls of The Louvre kind of way. But his expression was never arrogant and his blue eyes were always gentle and warm. Jace was the personification of danger and excitement. Aiden, an angel fallen on earth.
So, yeah, I’d noticed them before. But despite our many shared classes, they’d never spoken to me, and neither had I to them. I wasn’t about to approach the two coolest guys in my year with some embarrassing, never-show-your-face-in-public-again line.
But that first day of the spring quarter changed everything. The course was elective and smaller than usual, with only ten students. So, obviously, that had to be the class where I picked a fight with the professor.
Quilliam studied us law-abiding losers with our hands raised and smirked. “Very well, class. For your first homework assignment, I’m going to send you on a little rule-breaking quest. The Garden Gnome Liberation Front recently broke into my backyard and depleted my collection. So your first assignment, due next class, is to steal me a garden gnome.”
Students looked between themselves with a mix of amused expressions and is-this-guy-for-real frowns. But of course, I had to be the jerk who raised her hand and asked, “Excuse me, Professor, but what do garden gnomes have to do with biology?”
“Ah, Miss…” He paused to check the class roster and confirm my name. “Archibald. As I said, no great scientific discovery was ever made without breaking a few rules first.”
I pouted, and he called me out. “Something you’d like to add?”
“Yeah, even if we bring you a gnome, what would make you think we actually broke into someone’s garden to steal it and didn’t simply order one online?”
“Excellent point, Miss Archibald. Express deliveries are a plague of these times. Let’s agree each of your gnomes must look properly timeworn, then.” He peeked at us from under his spectacles. “And in case you were thinking of fabricating the distress I should warn you, I also hold a degree in applied chemistry and will be able to tell.”
That statement earned me a lot of glares from my classmates, so I refrained from commenting that I could just order an old gnome from eBay.
Unfortunately, it turned out that I couldn’t. By the time I got home that evening and on my computer, four out of the five gnomes available for sale that would reach Urbana in time for the next class were already sold. The remaining one had reached a four-figure price tag that was way above my college allowance. Apparently, flexible pricing was another plague of the times.
That’s how the following evening I ended up dressed in all black, complete with a black beanie and black running gloves, strolling through the residential neighborhoods of the small college town in search of garden gnomes to kidnap. I was walking alone in a side street, trying to act inconspicuous, when Jace and Aiden overtook me from behind. Jace stole the beanie from my head and twirled it on a finger.
“You’re going to get us caught by stalking the streets dressed so suspiciously. You have garden gnome thief written all over your face, Archibald.”
“I do not,” I hissed as I tried to rescue my beanie.
But Jace snatched up his arm, bringing it out of my reach.
Aiden smiled. “You do look a little suspicious, Lori. Could you at least lose the gloves?”
I was flabbergasted that he knew my name—that they both did—and blabbed, “I didn’t want to leave fingerprints and it’s cold.”
Jace smirked. “I promise you, a crime scene investigator won’t be involved in a case of gnome grand larceny.”
I glowered. “You the expert?”
That’s when Aiden ruffled my bangs—also a thing back then—and I was a goner.
“Are we doing this or not?” he asked. “Jace and I scouted the perfect house filled with creepy dwarfs.”
Jace put on my beanie and started jogging backward, preceding us. “Do you think we’d get extra points for stealing Snow White?”
By the next class, we’d stolen three hideous lawn ornaments. We handed them in, got the bonus marks we were promised, and that was the beginning of our friendship. Sadly, that’s also the night that stuck me in the friend zone forever. With Jace, it’s never been a problem. He’s always been too wild for me. But Aiden, poised, sweet, caring, fun, gorgeous Aiden, is my soulmate. Only he doesn’t know.
Palpitations make my heart throb again as my mind goes back to the creamy envelope adorning the hall floor. I can’t be alone in my apartment with the dispatch from heartbreak central. And I sure as hell can’t open it by myself.
I roll a finger inside the neck of my blouse. I need air. I need to get out.
I stand up, top the cats’ water and food, fill the hens’ feeder, collect their eggs that I’ll sell at Saturday’s farmers’ market, grab my keys, and get back out of the house merely twenty minutes after getting in.