I was all dressed up and feeling as shiny as my shoes. I looked down at them for the hundredth time, hoping I hadn’t scuffed them by shifting my feet. I couldn’t keep still. My nerves were bunched too tightly and I felt sick to my stomach.
In the next room, Autumn was dressed like springtime in a white dress that was blessed to contain her perfect body. I’d pieced all of that together from the glimpses I’d gotten every time the door opened as her mother rushed around, making sure everything was perfect.
I checked my watch and paced back and forth, knowing the time was getting closer and that there was nothing I could do to stop it.
She’d dreamt of this day since we were kids, and I’d even acted it out a time or two, never really appreciating at seven years old what I would give my right arm for at eighteen. I’d never even told her how I felt, but finally, the window was closed on that opportunity, and not only was she about to marry my best friend, but I would be the one to give her away.
The door opened again, and Mrs. Cooke stuck her head out. “She’s ready. Now we’re just counting down the minutes.”
Autumn’s cousin, Melissa, who had the privilege of being the bride’s maid of honor, walked out bouncing on her heels and darted into the nearest ladies’ room mumbling something about her damned panty hose.
“I’m ready too.” I craned my neck and caught a glimpse of Autumn as her mother stepped out. She was the prettiest girl I’d ever known, and if I could only look at one thing for the rest of my life, I’d pick her. But fate had damned that all to hell.
“Emmett, you have been just wonderful. I know Jason wanted you to be his best man, but this is such an honor, you giving her away.” Mrs. Cooke had always been like a second mother to me.
“Anything to make her happy.” My heart withered as I forced a smile.
“I only wish her father’s work hadn’t gotten in the way, but that’s business. He’s hellbent on securing those deals, but Autumn understands. She’s just like him when it comes to those things.” Although Autumn’s mother was auburn-haired, they shared the same kind, deep-blue eyes. Looking at the woman, it was easy to tell that Autumn’s beauty would withstand the test of time.
“I’m sure it will pay off,” I said.
Her father had hardly ever been around, and it wasn’t any surprise to me that he wasn’t going to be around for his daughter’s wedding. He hadn’t been around for his own marriage, but for some reason, Mrs. Cooke stayed with him.
“I’m sure it will, and in the meantime, you’ll do a fabulous job of filling in.” She leaned on my arm, only to get closer to my ear. “You know, Emmett, I always imagined you being where Jason is today. God knows it would have made me a lot happier.”
“I appreciate that, but this is about Autumn and what she wants. Besides, I guess there’s no undoing it now.” I gave a short chuckle as she patted my back.
“Funny how things don’t work out the way you imagine them. I always dreamed Lance would be the one giving her away, too.” She waved her hand dismissively, as if wiping away dust from a chalkboard. “As long as everyone is happy, I suppose it doesn’t matter.”
She looked at me with a question in her voice, and her brow lifted as if she wanted me to tell her that I didn’t like the way everything was going down. It was too late for that, though. In minutes, Autumn would marry Jason Adams.
Jason, who had cheated on her three times before I stepped in and threatened him. Jason, who had put me in the middle more times than I cared to count. Jason, who didn’t deserve the woman she was becoming before our very eyes.
She was the kind of woman who made me want to be a better man, and I couldn’t understand how anyone, even Jason, could not feel the same way. I hoped that while I was off making myself into someone she could be proud of, Jason would do the same.
“I’m happy for her. I know she’ll be okay.” Because if Jason did anything to hurt her, I would personally kick his ass. Even if I had to go AWOL to do it.
Knowing the happy couple was moving on with their lives together, I knew it was time to move on with mine, so I joined the Marines shortly after Autumn told me the news. In two weeks, I’d be leaving for basic training.
“It’s almost time. I better go and make sure she’s okay. She’s been a bundle of nerves all morning, and she didn’t eat anything.”
“Don’t worry. If she’s a bit wobbly, I’ll keep her upright all the way to the altar.” I realized then that she wouldn’t need me to lean on after the walk up the aisle, and I guessed I understood how fathers felt about losing their little girls in some small way.
Mrs. Cooke stepped away, and I started pacing again, not sure if I could do it. I had to do it. Like it or not, I’d agreed to it.
“Emmett?” I looked up, and Mrs. Cooke was peeking out the door again. “It’s almost time, dear, and she wants to see you for a moment.”
I jumped at the chance to see her and hurried into the room. I nearly tripped over my shiny shoes and fell flat on my face when I finally saw the full vision that was Autumn Cooke standing in front of the tall mirror. Her long white dress swept along the floor when she turned, and her hair, which was usually long and flowing, was pinned up like a princess with little flowers tucked here and there. Her cheeks were as soft as the petals in her bouquet, and she smelled just as sweet. I stopped in awe, jealousy burning through my gut that she would never be mine.
“Emmett, thank you so much for this. I can’t tell you how much it means to me.” She turned around and approached, stumbling on her heels. I caught her hand and held her steady as she stepped forward onto my foot.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m so sorry. I scuffed your shoe.” She gave me an apologetic look, and her eyes grew wet with tears.
“No harm done, Autumn. Better mine than yours. You look beautiful.” I held both of her hands as she stepped back and did a little turn from side to side.
“Do you really think so?”
“Yeah, and you know me, Autumn. I’d never lie to you.” But I was lying. I should have told her right then that I loved her and that she was making the biggest mistake of her life. I should have told her long before that moment, back when it all started.
“Then will you tell me something?” She looked at her mother who was across the dressing room, digging through tissue paper as if she’d lost something special. Autumn leaned in closer. “Do you think I’m doing the right thing?”
I felt a catch in my throat. As badly as I wanted to take her hand, drop to one knee, and tell her that I was the one who was in love with her, the one who could truly make her happy for the rest of her life, I knew I had to take the high road. I was at a loss for words, as usual.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry.” She let out a long breath. “I know that’s not fair to ask. Jason’s your best friend.”
“You’re my best friend, too, you know? You’re my oldest friend.” I took a deep breath, looking at the hope that filled her eyes. It was hope for a happy future with the man she loved, which for some awful reason was Jason instead of me. But that was my fault for never confessing how I felt. I wasn’t going to say it then, either. I couldn’t ruin her big plans. “It’s going to be everything you’ve ever wanted. You’ll see.”
She reached up and cupped my face, and for a moment, with her staring deep into my eyes, I thought she might kiss me. “You’re the best.” She leaned in and hugged me, but not too hard so she didn’t mess up her dress.
Her expression faded the moment the music started, and then she placed her hand flat on her stomach. “I guess it’s time.”
Her mother hurried over with a little box, “I found the cameo. It was your great grandmother’s.” She handed it to me, and I put it around her neck, making sure it was secure. “You two look so perfect.” I could almost hear her tacking on “together,” but she cleared her throat. “I better get out there.”
She turned and headed out to take her seat. We walked into the hall to stand behind Melissa, who I couldn’t help but notice was no longer wearing her stockings as she waited for her cue.
I thought to myself, I could still stop it, but then my mind took me back to the time when I had met Jason when he’d moved down to Raleigh in fifth grade. The teacher, Ms. Ladd, had seated him next to me and asked me to share my book until she could get him one issued. I thought for a moment how I could blame everything on Ms. Ladd but then remembered how I’d let him come over, which was where he met Autumn.
At first, the two hated each other, and from the way Jason was being mean to her, I didn’t think he would ever like Autumn, much less fall in love with her, but then again, that was when she was all knees, elbows, and pigtails.
By the time I had started to notice her as more than the girl next door, so had Jason, and he’d always seemed to lay the charm on much thicker than I ever could. When the first school dance came around, I considered asking her to go, but Jason had beaten me to the punch. Instead of pretending it didn’t bother me, I should have told him to back off.
Then there were the high school days when he figured out that other girls were interested in him, and he decided to break Autumn’s heart by choosing them. I’d hoped I finally had my chance, but our senior spring break, he wormed his way back in and asked her to marry him.
I knew it had to be a ploy to get her back, but there we were, standing outside the door as Melissa took her cue and started forward.
I turned to look at Autumn and caught her smiling at me. “Thank you for being my friend, Emmett. You’ve been better to me than any brother could have been, and I love you for that.”
I felt a sting in my chest, and the lump in my throat barely allowed me to croak out, “I love you too, Autumn.” Only I didn’t mean it the same way she had. I meant it with all of my heart and with everything in me. The pianist began playing the wedding march, and the doors opened for us.
We took two steps inside as the crowd rose from their seats, and I looked to the front of the room where Jason stood, knowing that he was standing where I should be.