June, Ten Years Ago
There are five stages of heartbreak.
The first is Denial (He didn’t! He wouldn’t!), followed by Fear (What if he did? What will happen to me if I dump him?), a variable period of Rationalization (He didn’t even have time! I would know if he’d been with someone else!), and eventually Acceptance (Okay, he did it, I have to move on, he doesn’t deserve me).
Then comes Revenge.
Unfortunately, all too often these stages mix themselves up or repeat, repeat, repeat like a film on a loop, and sometimes another person gets thrown into the mix.
Once upon a time, that was what happened to Quinn Barton.
“Quinn, Frank’s at the door. He says he needs to talk to you. He says it’s urgent.”
Quinn Barton turned to her bridesmaid, Karen Ramsey, and lifted her veil, an act that was soon to seem very prophetic. “He needs to talk to me now?”
Karen nodded. “He’s insisting.”
This was weird.
Something was wrong. Had something happened to Burke? Had he been hit by a car? Killed minutes before their wedding?
Heart pounding, Quinn pushed past Karen and hurried to the door, holding her skirt up enough so that she didn’t trip, but otherwise unconcerned about what she might knock over on her way past.
“What’s wrong?” she asked Frank as soon as she saw his face.
His eyes darted left and right. “I need to talk to you privately.”
“Is Burke dead?”
“What? No! No one’s dead, there’s just something I need to tell you about.”
All of Quinn’s anxiety immediately melted into disproportionate irritation. “Really? Hm. I’d love to chat, but maybe now isn’t the best time. I’m about to get married.”
His expression hardened. “That’s exactly why it has to be now.”
Something about the way he said it, or maybe that granite set of his jaw, gave her pause. “Fine. We’ll go out the back door. There’s probably no one out there. I don’t want Burke to see me in my dress before the wedding, it’s bad luck.”
Frank made a derisive noise.
They stopped on the sidewalk a few yards outside the church and Frank said, “I think you need to consider stopping the wedding. Or at least postponing it.”
“You think I should stop the wedding now?” she asked, vaguely aware of a hint of feeling, deep inside, that she’d been waiting for something like this. Then, numb, afraid to hear the answer yet looking for it like a rubbernecker in traffic looks for severed limbs and decapitated heads at the scene of an accident even though those details could never be forgotten or less horrifying, she added, “Why?”
“Come on, Quinn, you know why. Surely you know why.”
“No, I don’t! Tell me, specifically, why.”
“Because he’s cheating on you, that’s why!” Like she was stupid for asking. Like she already knew it, like everyone knew it, and he was just tired of watching her silly game.
She felt her hand go reflexively to her chest. What is that gesture? Why do people do it when they get a shock? To make sure they’re still alive, that there’s a heart beating under there, that they haven’t died and gone to hell?
Because this revelation certainly made Quinn feel like she was in hell. Quite suddenly and unexpectedly. “No, he’s not!” Denial. “He wouldn’t do that,” she went on. Her voice was small. Childlike. But that didn’t make him any gentler on her.
There was no compassion in his voice. “He would and he did.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“You want proof?”
Fear. What kind of proof? If it existed, would she want to see it? Or would that just be the kind of thing that, once seen, could never be forgotten and would gnaw at her forever?
“I don’t believe it.” She swallowed and leveled her gaze on Frank. “When did this supposedly happen?”
“Are you kidding, Quinn? You know he did. Repeatedly! Probably different girls. Probably even last night. Definitely in the last month. Does that answer your question enough?”
It felt like she’d been punched, hard, right in the gut. That’s the cliché, there’s a reason for it. Felt like she’d been punched in the gut. Shorthand for the myriad emotional, intellectual, and physical ramifications of being stunned.
Punched in the gut.
Except that was exactly how it felt—the unexpected blow connecting to the solar plexus, forcing the air from her lungs, tripping her heartbeat, curving her shoulders over in the time-immemorial position of, Stop! I give up! I can’t take it!
In short, his words immobilized her. It was like crazy sci-fi technology in action—he said it and she was instantly frozen into complete inaction at the very moment the church bells began to ring their call to action.
It’s true, her most fearful inner voice said. You know it’s true. But fear is such a liar, isn’t it? Always there for you, louder than anything else inside, always pretending to be on your side. It’s just looking out for you, right?
“When exactly?” she challenged, but she knew she wasn’t going to like the answer. This wasn’t fear she was talking to, or at least it wasn’t fear who was going to answer, this was a real-life person who would know. Her hands tingled and she balled them into and out of fists as she paced on the sidewalk in front of him.
Frank. Francis Albert Morrison. Named, by his mother, after Frank Sinatra, despite his distinctly English ancestry and complete lack of creative talent, musical or otherwise. He wasn’t a romantic either, or at least he’d never demonstrated anything resembling that in the six years she had known him. Why he was suddenly Dustin Hoffman yelling, Elaine! at her would-be wedding, she didn’t know.
Well, that wasn’t quite fair. He wasn’t yelling Elaine! He was yelling Cheater! Not to her but at her, and actually he wasn’t even yelling it so much as he was condescending it, and he was talking about someone who, right up to that moment, had been her fiancé.
Someone who, at that very moment, was waiting for her at the altar of the Middleburg United Methodist Church to become her husband. Unless, of course, he was fucking her maid of honor behind the pulpit, which perhaps Frank would have her believe was equally likely.
Or which, god forbid, was equally likely.
“Give me the details.” Her knees went weak. She sank down onto the curb next to Frank and took off her wedding shoes. Her grandmother’s wedding shoes.
Something old. It took some effort. Her feet were dented and grooved where the material of the slightly small shoes had cut into her flesh, which had swollen in the heat and stress.
Later she realized that “Give me the details” are some of the most ill-advised words anyone can ever utter. Details never make anything better.
“I don’t want to say … I can’t do that to him…”
“Him?” she raged. As if he could just go this far and let her handle the rest on her own?
“I wouldn’t do it to you either. Maybe even mostly you.” Like that made it better. “It’s none of my business at all, I’m just trying to help you before you make the biggest mistake of your life.”
“Then help me! You cannot make this implication while I’m supposed to be walking down the aisle and not tell me exactly what you’re talking about.”
He looked pained, it had to be said. A good actor, or just a guy with a conscience? She didn’t know. She realized, all in that one moment, that she’d never known. Because she’d actually always thought he was a good guy. Solid. Not one to whip up some sort of dangerous passion inside his soul and use it to potentially destroy someone else.
“Frank.” She stood and continued pacing in front of him even though her bare feet were killing her. Her feet always swelled when she got really stressed out. It was weird, but it was her thing. Maybe weirder since she wasn’t really into shoes like her mom was. She’d spent a lot of time barefoot as a teenager, pacing her feet into a size that, as her father always said, was better suited for the box than for the shoes that came in it. At this moment, every tiny pebble of the street pavement felt like it was cutting into her feet like glass, but she couldn’t stop and try to wedge her Jurassic feet into her wedding pumps now. “I don’t believe you.”
He looked surprised. Hurt? Maybe insulted, maybe just worried that she’d dismiss something important. Ego or altruism, she didn’t know. But he went forward boldly. “I saw her,” he said. “I saw them. Together.”
“You saw her,” she repeated dully. A foreign student learning the language by repeating.
He nodded. “Yes. I saw her.”
“And…?” She didn’t want to know. She really, really didn’t want to know. But she had to. She wanted every single awful detail. She was ready to hear it all and slice herself with each tiny detail again and again for the rest of her life, regretting it each and every time. “Where? How? Elaborate!”
“A few times, she was at the farm,” he began.
Her throat went so tight she nearly gagged. Eight words that held so much. The shortest longest story ever told, at least to her. A few times = there were too many to count. Not one single betrayal, possibly drunken, possibly mistaken, possibly—somehow—forgivable. A few times …
But, worse, the farm = her place. The place she loved more than any other. His family’s farm went back generations. But she’d been going there since she was fourteen, so it was part of her as well. She grew up in town, but Burke’s family had a farm—actually, it was a huge horse farm to her, ninety acres of the most beautiful rolling green hills you can imagine, with stables so pristine Thurston and Lovey Howell could’ve moved right in. It was a place she’d always loved. Middleburg was horse country, and, as a girl growing up, she’d loved horses and always wanted one of her own. Her family weren’t particularly wealthy, despite their zip code, so that dream remained an impossibility for her.
But when she’d begun dating Burke at age fourteen—which was still young enough to cling, if only in some vaguely subconscious way, to those childhood dreams and wishes—the place might as well have been Disney World to her.
There was a five-page entry in her high school diary describing the farm from the first time he took her there. Every detail was still correct, from the ebony bookcases in the den to the crocheted bedspread in the guest room. And everything she wanted to change, on the day she was certain she would eventually move in, was also still in line with who she was and what she wanted. It seemed so much like fate.
It wasn’t just a place to live out her childhood fantasies of horses and stables and whatever old Spin and Marty episodes were shown on The Mickey Mouse Club reruns they played on Channel Five. When Burke and she started to date and fall in love, it became their place. Burke and his grandfather and often his brother as well, would work around the place while Quinn would sit on the patio with his grandmother Dottie, drinking iced tea and hearing tales of the old days while the wind hushed across the long stretches of green nothingness that were increasingly rare in the D.C. suburbs.
The farm was sacred space.
Surely Frank knew how much it would hurt her to bring this up this way. Surely he wouldn’t do it if he didn’t think he had to … would he?
“He took her there?” she said. Her voice sounded so much stronger than she felt. Her throat was so tight she felt like someone was strangling her, yet it sounded like she had the conviction and anger appropriate to a woman who has found out, just in the nick of time, that she’s been betrayed. She’d ask the questions she had to ask, even though she didn’t want the answers. She needed the answers, and she’d get them. She was a detective, she was fucking Columbo or something, with a pretend pad and pen in her hand, saying, And what, exactly, do you know about that?
“I really don’t want to say more. You know enough. Ask him now. How could he deny it?”
“Apparently he has for some time!”
Frank shook his head. “I can’t betray him anymore, it goes against Guy Code.”
“Fuck Guy Code!” How could anyone look at a woman in the pain she knew was contorting her face and burning in her eyes, and think it was sufficient to give a small, yet powerful, detail without follow-up? “What. Else. Do. You. Know. About. Her?”
Long pause. “She’s a stoner,” he finally said with a shrug, though his tone was one of disgust.
Ah. That should make her feel better. She was lesser than Quinn, because Quinn wasn’t a stoner. Quinn was the opposite. How comforting. She was totally anti-stoner. But so was Burke! Burke was as straight and narrow as they came! She’d never seen him have anything stronger than a beer, and he usually opted for milk at that. Yet he’d taken some stoner chick to the farm and banged her there? This was either a huge flaw in Frank’s story or it was the detail that dropped the Price Is Right Plinko chip into the $5,000 slot of her lingering doubt about Burke’s faithfulness.
Her throat tingled and she thought she might pass out, a big white unidentifiable splash in the street gutter that people wouldn’t even slow down before running over.
What was that? A sack of sweet feed?
She straightened, with some effort in the now-ridiculous dress, and tried to breathe and walk off the shaking that emanated from a spot in the center of her being.
Then Frank delivered his final blow, which she’d never have time to figure out whether it was an incredibly clever manipulation via lies-so-weird-they-had-to-be-true or just truth-is-stranger-than-fiction.
“Actually, she got stoned there with Rob.” He looked at her earnestly, his wavy dark hair short and controlled just like his demeanor, versus Burke’s wild mane. And Frank’s eyes were a serious amber brown, in contrast to Burke’s heartthrobby blue.
It made Frank easier to believe somehow.
He considered for a moment before adding—as redemption for Burke?—a lame, “That did piss Burke off.”
“But…” Her mind couldn’t compute. Couldn’t make sense of this. Couldn’t do the math. Yet couldn’t stop trying. Rain Man trying to add every single number in the phone book. Rob was a hired hand who’d moved out, what, a year ago? Ages ago. It was weird enough to say that Burke had somehow condoned this, but adding the detail—Rob—that conceivably had credibility and the vague insinuation of a time frame … well, honestly, she just would never have given Frank credit for being that creative. He was very smart, but in a left-brain, numbers sort of way.
Weaving these perfect, weird details for her just seemed out of his league.
Hell, it was even out of her league, and she was what she would normally consider a fairly wily woman.
“But he hates…,” she tried, then lost her voice. Or her point.
Or her soul.
This just sounded too true, if only in its very falseness. It didn’t matter what Burke hated or approved of, maybe there had even been some perverse fetishish pleasure in going for someone deliberately opposite Quinn. Still, it was the timing that stung like lashes from a whip. “It’s been going on that long?”
Frank gave a half shrug. In cynical retrospect, she would believe it was meant to look sympathetic. Or maybe commiserative was the better word. Hey, I know, it sucks, that shrug implied. I’m so sorry you’re going through this, but give the jerk what he deserves. Because he clearly expected her to be outraged by this news.
As pretty much any self-respecting woman would be.
But all she could think about were weird little clues, tiny things that she’d ignored—though consciously—time and again. There had been scratch marks on Burke’s shoulder once when she was massaging his back. She’d noticed them, thought the curve of them seemed pretty distinct and specific, yet she didn’t even question him about them because she completely trusted him. She just figured there had to be a reasonable explanation.
Because there’s always a reasonable explanation for things, right? How many times had she been worried about something and been 100 percent sure the only possible outcome was that something awful had happened, when, in fact, a little series of innocuous things had happened?
She didn’t enjoy being angsty and upset. She didn’t want to be Jealous Girl. Jealous Girl is just so uncool. She’s Walter Mitty’s wife, the harpy nag who gains power with a wedding ring, then demands an accounting of every moment her man isn’t with her. The fat actress in every old movie who lost her guy to Marilyn Monroe or Myrna Loy or Katharine Hepburn. Jealous Girl was Insecure Girl, and she did all kinds of ugly things that turned life into drudgery for everyone around her.
Quinn wasn’t Jealous Girl! She honestly thought she was a good catch because she didn’t freak out about every little thing! Once upon a time, she would have been all, Ugh, I hate those girls!
But here she was, pacing on hot, rough pavement in what was once a beautiful wedding gown, her mind racing with angry, suspicious, painful thoughts.
A couple of times he’s told me the same story more than once, without remembering he’d already told me. Is that because he thought he’d told her?
Those times he said he wanted to stay in because he was “tired,” even though he obviously would have had hot sex with me if he’d seen me—was he having hot sex with her instead?
Oh, my God, hotter sex with her? Was that even possible?
The pain of imagining it was awful. Him touching her, stripping her, her hands on him, her mouth on him—that was Quinn’s man, that was Quinn’s body to love, he reserved it for her. She knew every single millimeter of it, knew which muscles hurt just by touching him, he never even had to say a word. No one else would know, or care probably, that he held his tension in his shoulder blades; that the arch of his foot tightened when he ran, and that that turned his calves to tight painful ropes; that for some reason his left upper body was usually tighter than the right but his right lower body was tighter than his left.… All those meticulous little details that Quinn had so proudly believed proved she loved him better than anyone else ever could.
Had he cupped this other girl’s face and kissed her while he was on top of her, moving inside her? God, that was the worst of all. Him kissing her. Kissing was so much more intimate than the rest. Emotional.
Not that the rest didn’t matter. Not that the rest didn’t exist. Apparently it did. This puzzle had so many more pieces than she’d anticipated. Had he ever been with her the same day he was with Quinn? Had her kisses still been on his lips when she, Quinn, kissed him?
She felt like she was going to puke.
“Why would he do that to me?” she asked Frank, though she wasn’t really looking to him for an answer. How could he have it?
“You know him. He did it because he could. He did it because he always wants more. More money, more attention, more pizza, whatever, he’s like a six-year-old who thinks of no one but himself.”
And she did know Burke. She knew he was completely capable of being a child. Wild, irresponsible. His sense of humor was sometimes raunchy, his timing sometimes inappropriate. Sometimes he laughed too loud, drove too fast, pushed too hard. But in spite of that—perhaps even because of some of it—he was wildly charismatic.
And she had won his heart. She—Quinn Morgan Barton—whose Awkward Phase had gone on longer than many other girls’ in junior high, who had always thought just a little too much about things, and tried just a little too hard to do everything right—maybe sometimes erring on the side of being too dull for a guy like Burke—she had won his heart in ninth grade and had been with him ever since, almost seven years.
Yes, they’d had their challenges now and then. There was that time they’d broken up because he refused to go to the homecoming dance, and then, while they were broken up, he went with Tammy Thomas, whose stupid name made her sound like a brand of shoes and whose stupid face could probably model for the ads. That had sucked. But he’d done it to spite her for dumping him and, in some weird way, that was better than him doing it without regard for her at all.
At least he was thinking of her.
But for the most part everything had been good between them. No, they’d been great. The two of them were the best of friends, they had a long history, god knew they had amazing chemistry.
They loved each other.
He’d loved her enough to propose. She hadn’t even seen it coming, but he’d done it, he’d proposed, and here it was, their wedding day.
Or was it?
“Why are you telling me all this now, Frank? Why now?”
“Because you need to know before you go in there and marry the wrong guy.”
She sank down next to the curb again, her own private rise and fall of service, and hugged her knees closer to her, her feet stinging against the hot pavement of the gutter.
There was a steady drumbeat of, This isn’t true, this isn’t true, this isn’t true, this isn’t true, thrumming in her head.
But she didn’t buy it.
“But why now? Why at the last possible minute?” She met his eyes. “Why not, I don’t know, yesterday? Last week? Last month? Just how long have you known all
this was going on?”
“I’ve known it all along. I thought you knew—I mean, how could you miss it?—but I guess you didn’t want to know. It wasn’t until today that I realized maybe you really didn’t get it. You missed every hint.”
“There were a million of them. Hell, I gave you a million of them!”
“Jeez, Frank, you might have a million thoughts in your head, but if you throw me a balloon, all I’m going to catch is the balloon!” She threw her hands in the air and came perilously close to hitting him in the face. Which she wouldn’t have been sorry for at all. “Who wants to leap to conclusions only to have their heart broken?”
“I understand,” he said, in an infuriatingly calm voice. “But sometimes you need to be realistic.”
“I thought I was, Frank.” She practically spit his name. “Right up until this moment, I thought I was. Because no one gave me the benefit of, apparently, the facts.”
“But you knew them, Quinn. Come on. Deep down, you must have known.”
Had she? Her stomach tightened at the thought. Had the occasional worry or moment of mistrust been significant, or just paranoia? Didn’t everyone have doubts in a relationship now and then? Didn’t everyone occasionally think the person they loved might be … attracted to other people?
“I think you’re mad at the wrong person,” Frank concluded.
“No, I’m not! I’m mad at all the right people. I’m mad at you, I’m mad at that sonofabitch in there”—she gestured toward the church—“and I’m mad at myself most of all. Myself and you. And him.” God, she hated everyone.
He gave a soft laugh. “I guess that about covers it.” He looked as if he wanted to reach for her, to comfort her, but thought better of it. “I’ve known you a long time,
Quinn. In fact…” He held a breath for a moment, pent up, then expelled it. “I … well, I kept hoping you’d see what was going on. The truth. I would never treat you like this.”
She looked at him incredulously. “You are not seriously making a pass at me.”
“Quinn, I want you to be treated the way you should be treated. You know me, you know who I am. There’s no need to sell myself to you, I’m not right either, I’m sure, or you would have seen it a long time ago. That’s not what this is about. I told you what my conscience said I had to tell you. What you do with it is up to you.” He stood up and dusted off his pants. “I’m going in now. I’ll let them know you’re on your way, no matter what you decide to do once you’re in there.” He shrugged. “And, Quinn, I’m really sorry to have done this … this way. Or at all. I just didn’t know what else to do at this point. I couldn’t sit on it without giving you a straight shot.”
Then he went into the church, his gait certain, if not confident. And why wouldn’t it be? He wasn’t the one whose life was just shattered. He’d be okay no matter what. Obviously he’d made something of a confession to her, but it was equally obvious that his life—his heart, his sanity, his well-being—didn’t depend on what she did.
She didn’t know how long she stood there, staring at the carved wooden door after he’d gone through it. It felt like forever. She was completely numb. Part of her wanted to never move again. To never have to do anything again. Her world had been shattered, and she wanted to just collapse into a million little pieces on the ground, the million little puzzle pieces she would otherwise have to put together in order to make sense of this.
Then she heard her mother’s voice calling to her. “Quinn! Come on! Come in here! Everyone’s waiting!”
And that was duty’s call.
Mechanically, she got up and started to walk toward the door, aware that her veil was askew, that she’d sweated her makeup into something of a blur, but unaware of the gum she’d sat on that was now sticking to her dress, and marched to the internal beat in her head, morbidly in tempo with the “Wedding March.”
It can’t be true, it can’t be true, it can’t be truuuue, it can’t be true.
That beat carried her all the way up to the altar. She was aware of eyes on her, but she met no one’s gaze. Not even Burke’s, though she knew—she could just feel—
it was questioning. What’s wrong? What’s going on? No clear answer formed in her head. She didn’t know what was going on, exactly. She was dazed, being carried on a rickety raft by an ocean of adrenaline. She didn’t know what she was going to do until she was right there by his side.
That’s when it all came clear.
She drew her hand back and slapped him with all the power of every unacknowledged hurt he’d ever inflicted on her.
Then she turned and ran back down the aisle, out of the church, followed, not by the undoubtedly stunned Burke, but by his best man. His brother.