Five Years Ago, Christmas Day FIVE YEARS AGO, CHRISTMAS DAY
Dylan and Ace were spending the holidays with her family. She had been looking forward to this particular Christmas because she was convinced it was going to be the day he finally proposed. Ace had been hinting for weeks that he was looking for the perfect gift for her, one that would last a lifetime. He had called her father a couple of times and even asked her mother about Dylan’s taste in jewelry. Her entire family was coming to dinner—aunts, uncles, cousins… She made sure her hair, outfit, and makeup were picture perfect. She talked to her girls nonstop the day before as they tried to calm her nerves.
As Dylan and Ace drove to her parents’ house, she talked incessantly, her nerves getting the best of her. She didn’t notice how quiet Ace was on the drive over. What did register, just barely, was the constant vibrating of his cell phone. Dylan assumed they were the customary Merry Christmas text messages that people bombarded one another’s phones with on the holiday. He parked in the driveway and told her he would be inside in a minute; he needed to return a call. Dylan floated into the house to greet her family.
A half hour passed before Ace finally came in. Dylan met him at the door intending to introduce him to any family members he didn’t already know. When she grabbed him by the arm, his body was rigid. She halted and looked up at him. Ace averted his eyes.
“Is everything okay?” Dylan asked.
He nodded. “Yeah. Where are your parents?”
“They’re in the kitchen.”
Ace pulled away from Dylan and went toward the kitchen, leaving her standing in the living room. She was baffled by his demeanor but brushed it off. She resumed socializing with her family and basking in the holiday spirit. After fifteen minutes or so, just as Dylan was about to go into the kitchen to find out what was keeping Ace, he entered the living room with her dad. Her father patted him on the back and nodded to whatever they were discussing. Ace joined Dylan on the sofa.
“I thought my mom put you to work in the kitchen.”
He laughed but it rang hollow.
“What were you guys talking about in there?” she asked.
For the second time, he looked away. “The holidays and the new year.”
Dylan’s heart skipped a beat. She felt this was the moment. Ace was going to propose. She told herself to be still. They chatted with each other until dinner was served. During dinner they were pulled into other conversations with different family members. Dylan couldn’t wait until it was time to open gifts. She knew that was when he would pop the question.
Finally, her family congregated around the tree. Gifts were exchanged, carols were sung, and still she waited. Dylan told herself the special moment would take place during dessert and cordials. She was convinced Ace wanted to present her with a ring after everyone else had opened their gifts. A proposal deserved everyone’s attention.
Her family finished dessert and still nothing. Dylan wondered when it would happen. She started to question whether he was waiting for them to be alone. The time passed painfully slow. She was no longer enjoying the festivities. Instead, she was obsessing over the proposal. Dylan was relieved when it finally got late enough for them to bid everyone farewell and head home for the evening.
The car ride to her house was quiet. Ace pulled into the driveway. Dylan reached for the door and paused when she realized the car was idling.
“Aren’t you coming in?” she asked, puzzled that Ace hadn’t put the car in park and turned off the ignition.
“No, I’m going to head home tonight,” he replied sullenly.
“Yeah, I’ll be by in the morning.”
“Is everything all right?” Dylan felt a pit in her stomach. “What’s going on?”
“I’ll be by tomorrow.”
Dylan reluctantly opened the car door. She hesitated, waiting for Ace to give her a kiss. He stared straight ahead, gripping the steering wheel. She stepped from the car, closed the door, and watched him back out of the driveway.
Dylan went into the house and immediately wanted to call her girls. She refrained because she still wasn’t sure what exactly had happened and wasn’t in the mood to tell them that she hadn’t gotten a ring. Dylan went to bed on Christmas night alone and confused. Ace hadn’t called to say he got home safely or to even say goodnight. She spent the night wondering why he hadn’t proposed to her. She didn’t sleep a wink.
The next morning, Dylan sat at the kitchen table having a cup of coffee. She heard the front door opening. Immediately, she felt nervous. Ace’s footsteps approached. Her eyes were fixed on the entryway as he came in.
Dylan pounced. “What’s going on, Ace?”
He sat across from her at the table. “I love you, Dylan.”
“I know that.” She regarded him warily.
“I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.”
“Your future? Not our future?”
He continued undeterred. “I’ve been thinking about my future a lot lately and weighing some things.”
“What kind of things?”
“I thought I was ready, Dylan.” He faltered. “But, I’m not.”
“Ready for what?” Dylan felt her nervousness fading and morphing into a different emotion.
“I wanted to be…”
“What aren’t you ready for, Ace?” she demanded.
“This is not easy.” He stared at his hands.
“Just say it.”
“You deserve more than I can give you.”
“That’s all you got?” she asked, her voice raised. “That I deserve more? Where is this coming from?”
“I’ve been thinking a lot lately.”
“You said that.”
“I know. I’m trying to find the right words.”
“At this point I’ll settle for any words that make sense.”
“I realized this is not what I want right now. I’m not ready for marriage and a family. Maybe I’m being selfish, but you should be with someone who wants the same things that you do.”
“This is out of left field. I don’t even know how to process this.”
“I know it seems sudden, and that’s one hundred percent my fault—”
“You’re damn right.”
“But I have been feeling this way for some time.”
“You deserve to know how I feel.”
“Because I know what you were expecting.”
Dylan scoffed. “You know what I was expecting,” she mimicked. “Were you going to ask me to marry you?”
Silence hung over them like a storm cloud. Dylan stared at Ace. He kept his gaze on the table.
“I said, were you going to ask me to marry you?” she repeated.
He nodded. “I was.”
“What changed?” Dylan fought back the tears that were threatening to spill over.
“I don’t want to do this.”
“What does that mean, Ace?”
“I told you that it’s me.”
“I’m not disputing that. It is you. But I want to know what changed.”
“I don’t want you to hate me, Dylan. I love you and I want you to always remember that.”
“What did you say to my parents in the kitchen yesterday?”
Ace sighed. “I told your parents that they are an example of what marriage should be. I said that seeing their relationship lets me know I’m not there yet.”
Dylan shook her head. “Did you tell them that you were ending our relationship?”
“So, you pulled the wool over my parents’ eyes. That may have worked on them, but I want the truth.”
“I told you the truth.”
Dylan’s eyes narrowed. “What changed, Ace?”
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
“It’s too late for that.”
“You’re incredible. However, I feel you want more than what I can give you. I know that with you, I’ll always fall short. You set the bar so high, I’ll always leave you wanting. I’ve felt that way the entire time we’ve been together. I’m never striving high enough for you, my goals are never big enough for you, and you always think I should be doing more.”
“Tell me, Ace, who has been making you feel that you’re enough the way that you are? That you don’t need to have goals or strive for better? Was it whoever was texting you repeatedly yesterday?”
Ace inhaled. “Don’t do this, Dylan.”
“You’re already doing it. Who is she?”
“This has nothing to do with anyone else. It’s what I said. I’m not enough for you. I’m not ready and you deserve what you want—marriage and a family.”
“I would respect you more if you were completely honest. Enjoy your life with the woman who has lowered the bar for you. Now, find your way out of my home and out of my life.”
Ace left. Dylan didn’t move from where she sat for hours. The pang in Dylan’s heart was unrelenting. An endless stream of hot tears streaked her face. She was expecting a proposal, not a dismissal. She replayed over and over again the look on Ace’s face, his hollow words, his audacity to mention her parents’ marriage. Their love was genuine, and he showed just how disingenuous he could be.
She thought Ace was her person. She was wrong. As she sat alone at the table, she wondered how she would ever find love again.
Chapter One ONE
The bouquet coasted over twenty sets of waving hands, banking left toward the sister of the bride. Dylan watched from her table, having refused to join what she considered to be one of the most humiliating traditions for a single woman. Claiming her prize with a one-handed catch, the bride’s sister clutched the white rose and calla lily bouquet to her chest. She smiled conspiratorially at her sister and then sauntered over to her table with a token that supposedly meant she’d be the next one taking a trip to the altar.
Dylan collected her purse and wedding favor, bid farewell to the other singles at her table, and attempted to make a discreet exit from the ongoing reception. She glanced over her shoulder as the groom began to explore beneath his new wife’s gown to retrieve the garter. The hoots and hollers made Dylan hasten her steps as she left the ballroom. The merriment of the wedding guests echoed down the hallway and ushered her out the door. A warm breeze and the golden rays of the setting sun kissed her face. Dylan heaved a sigh and made a silent vow. That would be the last wedding she attended alone.
The valet patiently waited while she searched for her small blue ticket. As she rifled through her bag, wondering how she could lose anything in such a tiny purse, a gentleman stepped up beside her and smiled. Dylan returned the gesture and continued her search, jostling items from side to side. Sensing his gaze was still upon her, she glanced up. Smile intact, he seemed to be watching her every move. Nice smile, she thought, and he looks good in a suit. Shoes polished to a shine, nails trimmed and buffed, he was well put together. He was the type of man she wouldn’t mind getting to know. In fact, she was prepared to give him her phone number if he asked—when he asked, because she knew he would. Dylan asked the attendant to help the gentleman while she located her ticket. He stepped a bit closer to hand his ticket to the valet. The scent of cologne on the breeze wrapped around her. Dylan closed her eyes and inhaled. A little sweet, not quite the scent you would expect on such a dashing figure. It smelled similar to her own fragrance. Her eyes fluttered open. Standing beside Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome was an equally attractive companion, linking her arm through his. Dylan felt her cheeks grow warm with embarrassment. While she was in the moment, sniffing the air like a hunting dog, his lady stealthily appeared by his side. It was an effort not to take them in as a pair. Dylan stared straight ahead, not wanting to make eye contact with either of them. She walked a few paces away from the couple and sat on one of the benches next to the valet station. She pulled the wedding program from her purse and there, cradled between the pages, was her ticket.
A sleek, gleaming convertible purred up to the curb. Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome handed the valet a tip and walked around to the passenger side to open the door for his companion. Dylan brazenly watched them. The way she placed her hand in his as she slipped into her seat, how he strode around the car like others had a reason to envy him—they were acutely aware of the image they presented.
Dylan felt a tug inside. Unbeknownst to this couple, their interaction catapulted her day from bad to worse, strengthening her resolve that she would never attend another wedding by herself. The valet came over to Dylan and asked if she found her ticket. Wordlessly, she gave it to him, noticing for the first time that the number printed on it, in bold black ink, was one. She looked skyward and shook her head. The message was loud and clear. She was single and had been for a long time. What she planned to do about it was the real question. Dylan pondered that issue as she waited for her car. Unfortunately, the valet pulled up before any answers came to mind. As she slipped him a tip, he asked if he could have her number. Dylan politely declined and chuckled to herself. Right question, wrong guy.