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  • Writer's pictureCait Marie

Sneak Peek: Try Me Prologue-Chapter 3

The Tease Me anthology releases in less than a week, so I'm sharing the first few chapters of my book Try Me exclusively with you here!

You can pre-order the limited-time anthology here.

Plus, don't forget to check out our Kickstarter that ends the morning of February 14.

*Please note: This book is being published under my new pen name CM Haines. It includes adult themes, strong language, and steamy on-page romance. The anthology is intended for audiences 18+.

Without further ado... a sneak peek of Try Me.

 

Prologue

Charlie

17 years ago…

Tying the last dandelions together, Charlie jumped up with a squeal. Her cousin, Vi, took the crown of flowers and placed it on Charlie’s head.

“There!” Vi said, stepping back.

Charlie twirled this way and that, letting her favorite purple dress swoosh out around her legs. She’d begged her mom to let her wear it today. “Do I look like a princess?”

Vi nodded. “Yep! Let’s go.”

Arm in arm, they walked out from their secret hideaway—the cluster of pine trees near the edge of the playground. Aiden waited on the other side.

Feeling shy all of a sudden, Charlie paused and whispered, “Hi.”

“Hi,” he said with a smile that immediately made her feel better. “You… look pretty.”

She and Vi both giggled. Her cousin let go and made her way between the two groups of their friends, dropping the extra flowers along the way. When Aiden held out an arm, Charlie hesitated.

“What’s wrong?” He stepped closer.

“Nothing,” she lied. She wasn’t about to admit she was scared to her older best friend who seemed so brave and cool all the time.

But he knew. She wasn’t sure how, but she could tell he knew the truth. Aiden reached for her hand, and she let him. “We don’t have to do this.”

“I want to.” Not a lie. Charlie was excited; she just didn’t like doing stuff in front of a bunch of people.

With a wide grin, Aiden said, “Me too.”

Nodding, she gripped his hand tighter and walked in the direction Vi had gone. She was waiting at the end of the pretend aisle with Aiden’s little brother—her other best friend, Aaron. Their classmates whispered around them, but Charlie didn’t feel as nervous now. Charlie, Vi, Aaron, and Aiden had been best friends for as long as she could remember. And being with them made her feel braver.

Charlie and Aiden held hands in front of Aaron while Vi stood off to the side a little. Aaron pretended to clear his throat before saying, “Thank you all for joining us today. We are here to celebrate the holy matri-martriminomy—”

“Matrimony,” Aiden said.

Aaron shrugged. “I don’t know what that is.”

“It means wedding, I think,” Charlie whispered.

“Then, why can’t we just say wedding?”

Charlie mirrored his shrug. “I don’t know. That’s just what I heard on TV.”

Behind her, Vi hissed, “Just keep going. Recess is going to be over soon.”

Nodding, Aaron straightened his shoulders and cleared his throat again. “Thank you for joining us for this holy matri-wedding.”

A few people laughed.

“Aiden Barnes, do you take Charlotte Powell to be your wife? In sickness and in health, till death of your heart?” Aaron said.

Aiden’s brow furrowed. “I don’t think those are the right words.”

“Oh my gosh.” Vi groaned. “Do you want to marry Charlie? Oh, don’t forget the ring!”

At that, Aiden grinned again and looked at Charlie. He pulled out a Ring Pop from his pocket and opened it. As she lifted her hand, he put the blue sucker on her finger and said, “I do.”

“Charlotte Powell, do you want to marry Aiden, and all the other stuff?” Aaron asked.

“I do,” she said quietly. It felt like a bunch of butterflies were fluttering in her stomach. She knew what came next.

But one of the teachers blew their whistle just as Aaron said, “You can now kiss the bride.”

“Second graders, line up near the blue doors,” Mrs. Grall yelled.

Charlie watched as her friends started running away. Her eyes welled with tears. She didn’t want this to be over yet.

“We have to go,” Aaron said. Only he and Charlie had to leave. Vi and Aiden were in third grade and didn’t have to go in yet. Charlie nodded with a sigh, looking at her feet as she headed toward the others.

“Wait.” Aiden grabbed her arm, and she turned. He leaned in and pressed his lips to hers for just the briefest second, but it was enough for her smile to return. “I’ll see you after school, Mrs. Powell.”

Taking Aaron’s hand, she ran toward the rest of her classmates, giggling the entire way.


Chapter 1

Aiden

Present day…

It took everything Aiden had to unclench his fists long enough to put on his tie.

Yet, he still couldn’t get it right.

With trembling fingers, he pulled it loose to try again. And again.

“Here, let me,” his mom said, taking the fabric from him. Her smile calmed his nerves but only just. “You okay?”

“Of course.” He shrugged, schooling his features. When she finished knotting the tie, pushing it up tight against his throat, she patted his chest. As he slid on his black suit jacket, he said, “Thanks, Mama.”

He leaned down to kiss her cheek. Then, he turned away to hide the pain he couldn’t entirely hide from his features. But she grabbed his arm, making him pause. “Honey, talk to me. What is it?”

“Nothing,” he said, running his fingers through his dark brown hair. Cursing under his breath, he went to the tall mirror in the corner to check that he hadn’t messed it up too much.

“Aiden James.” His mom approached his side in her long maroon dress—a few shades darker red than the other women’s, who were getting ready down the hall. “Your brother’s going to be here soon.”

“I know,” he whispered. Aaron had gone to take a walk around the lot, claiming he needed fresh air.

She went on as if he hadn’t spoken. “So, if there’s anything you want to get off your chest, now’s the time.”

His lungs tightened. There wasn’t enough oxygen in this tiny room. Through gritted teeth, he said, “How am I supposed to do this?”

“Oh, sweetheart.” His mom tugged him into her arms. She put a hand to the back of his head, just as she did when he was a child. Only now, he had to bend a bit to be at her height. “Why haven’t you ever said anything?”

He let out an unamused laugh, ignoring the burning in the back of his throat. “How exactly would that conversation go?”

She pushed him back to meet his gaze—her hazel eyes the mirror of his own. Such sadness filled them. “I suspected the truth when you were younger, but I hadn’t realized how deeply you still felt.”

“Good. I don’t want anyone to know. I—”

The door opened, and Aaron walked in.

“You would not believe where I caught this guy—” He stilled at the sight of them. “Everything okay?”

Aiden cleared his throat and forced a smile. “Yeah, just excited for the big day.”

Aaron inclined his head, but he looked dubious as he entered the room with Brent following—the other groomsman.

“How are you feeling?” Aiden stepped away from his mom, needing the space to rein in the torrent of emotions whirling through him.

“Good. I just needed some air, wanted to practice my vows one more time before heading out there, and I ran into this dude.”

Brent’s shirt was partially untucked, the buttons misaligned.

Aaron chuckled, adjusting his own cuffs. “Didn’t think you were going to make it on time.”

“I, um, got distracted.” Brent went to the mirror to adjust his shirt.

“How is Kade?” Aiden asked.

Brent winked in the reflection. “Great now.”

“At a church,” Aiden’s mom said with a sigh. “Honestly.”

But Aiden could tell she was fighting back a smile. She loved Brent like another son.

“Technically, we were in his car in the parking lot…”

Trying to ignore the ache in his chest, Aiden focused on his friend. “I’m glad you two stopped being idiots and admitted your feelings.”

His mom shot him a look that he pretended not to see. Brent scoffed. “I’ve made it clear to him how I have felt for a while.”

He and Aaron started bickering about the stubbornness of the two baseball players who’d been sneaking around for years as friends with benefits.

Best friends in denial of their love since high school.

Aiden’s grin slowly fell.

Time ticked away. He looked out the window of the old brick church, wondering how the bride-to-be was doing. Knowing her, she was anxiously pacing and biting her nails.

“Aid?” His brother moved closer, seeming to notice his silence. “Everything okay?”

No. He wanted to scream, to throw something. He didn’t want to be here. Not as the best man, at least. For once, he wanted to be selfish and just shout about how frustrated he was at the entire situation.

But he couldn’t do that. He couldn’t ruin this day for two of the people he loved most in this world. So, instead, he nodded. “Yeah, I… I think I’m going to go check on something.”

“She’s fine.” Aaron rolled his eyes, knowing he meant someone, and walked to the tray of drinks as Brent poured them each a shot. His flippant attitude grated on Aiden’s nerves. Why wasn’t he more concerned?

“She’s probably a nervous wreck.” Aiden crossed his arms. “You know she hates being up in front of people, and she’s probably overthinking every detail of what’s about to happen.”

Aaron faced him with a frown. “I think I know my fiancée a little better than you.”

Clenching his fist again, Aiden said, “So, you know that she’d rather walk down the aisle barefoot than in those heels her mom is making her wear? Because her biggest fear isn’t that the food will be bad or that someone’s place setting won’t be perfect; it’s that she’ll trip on the way to the altar in front of everyone.”

“Jesus, Aiden. Just go.” Aaron took his shot and then set his glass down with a bit more force than necessary. “If you ask me, I’d say you’re more worried than anyone. So, just go to your best friend. Make sure she’s all right if it makes you feel better.”

Aiden hesitated. He looked at his mom for any sign of what to do. When she tilted her head, shaking it a little with a shrug, he knew this was his decision alone. Letting out a sigh, he stomped toward the door and to the hall beyond. He managed not to slam the door behind him though. Somehow.

He needed to see her, even if it hurt too much. He had to see that, beneath the nerves, she was happy.

If she was truly excited, he’d keep his mouth shut just as he had for the past eight years. Once and for all, he’d step aside, lock down his thoughts, and bury his love for his best friend.

Even if it destroyed the tattered remains of his heart.



Chapter 2

Charlie

“Charlotte Louise, if you don’t stop pacing, I swear…” Vi said with both hands on her hips.

When Charlie’s fingers went toward her mouth out of habit, her cousin grabbed her wrist.

“And don’t you dare chew on your nails!” Vi reached for a champagne flute and put it in Charlie’s hand instead. “Drink this; it’ll help. You need to stop freaking out or the pictures will be ruined.”

Snorting, Charlie shook her head and then sipped on the bubbly beverage. She glanced at her mom, who sat on a bench in the corner of the room with an equal look of amusement. “You’d think she was the one getting married.”

They both chuckled. Vi let out an exasperated sigh, throwing her hands up. “Fine. Ruin your perfect day. I don’t care.”

“Aw, VeeVee,” Charlie said, whipping out the childhood nickname as she set her glass on a nearby table. The photographer silently took pictures when Charlie moved to hug her older cousin. With less than a year separating their births, they’d been best friends all their lives, practically sisters. She loved to tease Vi, but she also didn’t want to upset her. Especially since the woman had spent so much of her free time the past few months helping put this day together—creating the decorations, booking the church and the tent for the reception, picking out flowers and food. The list was endless. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine… but don’t mess up your hair and makeup.” Vi gently pushed her back with a laugh. She turned Charlie to the full-length mirror once more. Charlie’s A-line wedding dress made her feel like a princess. As soon as she’d seen it in the bridal shop, with its lacy neckline and quarter-length sleeves, she knew it was the one. The lace stopped at her waist, with flowing skirts beneath that billowed to the ground.

Granted, it took trying on over a dozen others before finding it, but she’d eventually made her way to it.

She’d opted to keep her long, dark brown hair in waves around her shoulders, with a beautiful rose gold band of flowers crowning her head. Vi, standing next to her, was a stark contrast. Her sharp bob was dyed burgundy now—she changed it every other month, it seemed. But it went well with the bridesmaid dresses that were nearly the same color.

A knock sounded at the door, and Nancy—their friend and her other bridesmaid—went to answer it.

“Wow,” a deep voice said.

Charlie’s gaze snapped up to the hazel green eyes staring at her in the reflection. It felt as if all of the air had been sucked out of the room. She swallowed past the tightness in her throat, plastered on a soft smile, and turned toward her other best friend. “Wow, yourself. You clean up well, Mr. Barnes.”

Aiden stepped closer, his own smile in place. Though, she sensed something stirring under the façade. As if he were just as nervous as her. He paused to ask Vi, “Permission to hug the bride?”

Because he knew she was truly the one in charge here, and he’d known her long enough to wisely avoid her wrath.

Vi rolled her eyes but nodded. He let out a short laugh then closed the distance, enveloping Charlie in a hug. His tall frame towered over her, and she only barely refrained from burying her face against his chest. She hadn’t realized just how much she needed to see him. How much she needed his comfort.

“You look beautiful,” he whispered.

“How’s your brother doing?” her mom asked. “Is he ready?”

Clearing his throat, Aiden released Charlie to face her. “Yep, the groom is ready to go. I just wanted to pop in and see how you all were coming along.”

“We’re wonderful,” Nancy said, her tone more than a little flirtatious as she sidled up to the best man and trailed a finger down his arm.

He gave her his ever-charming smirk, adding a wink her way. Charlie clenched her jaw. She loved Nancy, but the girl had a habit of grasping the attention whenever she could. Despite their tumultuous past, she never failed to flirt with the man.

And it never failed to annoy Charlie.

“You know, this isn’t the first time Charlie’s become Mrs. Barnes,” Vi teased, drawing the focus back to the bride.

Charlie’s eyes widened, and she subtly shook her head. Aiden stiffened beside her.

“Oh, yes,” her mom added as she got to her feet. “I remember the first wedding.”

“Mom,” she groaned. “I was seven. Can we not do this?”

Her mom turned to the photographer—the only one in the room who didn’t know the story. “When Charlie was in second grade, she and Aiden got married on the playground at school. She came home with a dandelion crown on her head, telling me all about it. She was so excited and convinced it was the real thing. I should’ve known something was up when she cried asking me to wear her favorite purple dress that morning.”

“She also threw a fit when our teacher wouldn’t let her change her last name,” Vi added.

Aiden chuckled, and Charlie elbowed him playfully in the side. She glared at him. “You were just as convinced, if I recall.”

“Oh, he was,” a new voice said from the door. His mom came in—her almost mother-in-law—and hugged Charlie. “He kept telling me we had to go to Disney World for their honeymoon.”

“I remember that!” Vi squealed.

Charlie’s face heated.

“He even gave her a Ring Pop during the wedding.” Her mom beamed at them. “She refused to eat it or take it off for a week. Everything was sticky.”

Looking at Aiden, Charlie mouthed, “Sorry.”

With a smile, he draped an arm over her shoulders and pressed a kiss to her temple. The photographer snapped another picture, and Aiden squeezed her to his side.

“They’ve been inseparable ever since,” her mom said. “Best friends their entire lives.”

Vi cleared her throat in an exaggerated, pointed way, and they all laughed.

“Okay, best friends with Vi and both Barnes boys.”

“Thank you.” Vi dipped her head.

It was true; the four had grown up together. Charlie’s mother and Mrs. Barnes—Tina—had been friends since they were teenagers, and with the families living across the street from one another, Charlie had known Aiden and Aaron practically from the moment she was born. Vi’s house had been on the other side of town, but she’d spent most of her time at Charlie’s. Her parents worked a lot, and when they were home together, they didn’t exactly get along. Vi usually just avoided them as much as possible. Now that her mom lived in Florida and her dad lived in North Carolina, the drama had eased up, but Vi still didn’t see or speak to them often.

“This is sweet and all, but it’s time to get going,” Vi said.

As if her words summoned him, another knock sounded, and Charlie’s dad poked his head through. “Everyone decent?”

Her mom laughed and went to grab him and drag him inside. His gaze landed on Charlie, and he immediately became tearful. “Ready, Charlotte?”

She looked around the room at her family and friends. The only one missing was the man she would walk down the aisle toward in mere minutes. Her stomach fluttered at the thought. This was really happening. She was marrying Aaron Barnes today.

With a deep breath, she nodded, her smile becoming genuine. Her dad clapped Aiden on the shoulder, telling him they’d see him soon, then he kissed his wife, hugged his niece, and waited for everyone to head into the hall. Aiden hesitated only a second, holding Charlie’s gaze before disappearing.

Her dad pulled her into his arms once alone. As if he knew just how nervous she was for what came next.

Well, half-nervous, half-excited.

Maybe three-quarters nervous.

“I promise that if you fall on your face,” he started, knowing her fear of tripping on the way down the aisle, “I will fall beside you and make it look like my fault.”

She let out a soft laugh.

“I’m serious. I will make a complete fool out of myself, so they don’t suspect your clumsiness is at fault.”

Grinning, she said, “Thanks, Dad.”

He stared at her a moment, taking a deep breath.

“I’m so happy for you,” he said, his voice thick with emotions.

“Thank you.” She held him tightly for one moment, then another.

When the photographer told them it was time, she really was ready. They headed out to the hall and stopped before turning into the sanctuary of the church—before everyone could see them. Charlie looped her free hand around her dad’s arm, and he patted it with his own. Her other held her bouquet of white, peach, pink, and pale-yellow flowers. Baby’s breath was sprinkled throughout the combination of roses and carnations, giving it a classic and beautiful look that had filled her heart when first selecting them. They made her just as happy now.

The music shifted, giving them their cue.

“Ready?” he whispered.

She nodded, afraid that if she spoke, all of her overwhelming emotions would come pouring out. This was really happening. She was about to marry one of her best friends. The boy who’d been at her side since they were in diapers. Her high school sweetheart.

Straightening her spine, she rounded the corner beside her father.

The small church was packed with family, friends, and others from their small town, but her eyes went straight to the man at the altar. Aaron shifted slightly, the only sign he was as anxious as she felt. His smile though… it reassured her that everything would be all right. They’d been together for eight years, a third of their life. And now, they’d spend the rest of it together.

Behind Aaron, Aiden and their friend Brent stood with their own smiles. Their boutonnières matched the flowers she and her two bridesmaids carried—their ties the same burgundy as Vi’s and Nancy’s dresses and the rose petals beneath her feet. Everything was perfect.

As she reached the end of the aisle, her father pressed a kiss to her brow, hugged Aaron, and then sat in the front row with her crying mother. He pulled out a handkerchief and handed it over without having to be asked. Because they’d been together so long that he knew what she needed. He’d known she wouldn’t be able to hold it together through their only daughter’s wedding day.

Though, to be fair, a lot of them knew that.

Charlie looked up at her soon-to-be husband, and tears brimmed her eyes. He brought her hand up to kiss her knuckles, whispering low enough only she could hear, “Told you that you wouldn’t trip.”

She let out a quiet chuckle, and then they walked the rest of the way to the altar side by side. Her heart continued to hammer in her chest. It felt surreal to be here. She faced Aaron as the pastor began officiating. They’d gone through all of this the night before at the rehearsal, but she hadn’t been prepared for so many eyes on them. She tried to stay focused, to listen to the words and see only Aaron.

Movement caught her attention, and her gaze slid over his shoulder to his older brother. Aiden was staring at the ground, but as if he felt her watching him, he raised his eyes to hers. The corner of his mouth curled up. He gave her a slight nod of encouragement, and she released a slow exhale.

It came time for the vows, and the pastor asked Aaron to go first. He pulled a folded piece of paper out; they’d wanted to write their own. Clearing his throat, he scanned the words and met her gaze.

“Charlotte,” he started, “I have loved you for as long as I can remember. You’re my best friend, the person I care about most in the world.”

Aaron paused, and Charlie smiled, biting the inside of her cheek to keep from crying. He stared down at the paper in his hands for a long moment. Long enough that she whispered, “Aaron?”

As he looked back up, glancing around the room, he folded the vows and returned them to his pocket. Only then did she notice his hands were trembling.

“What’s wrong?” She stepped closer, keeping her voice low.

“I’m sorry.” His hazel eyes finally met hers again, and what she saw there made her stomach twist. He tilted his head, shaking it ever so slightly. “I’m so sorry.”

“Why?” She wasn’t sure she wanted to know, but she had to.

“I…” He stumbled back a step, but Aiden put out a hand to brace him. Aaron shook his head again. “I’m sorry, but I can’t do this.”



Chapter 3

Aiden

Aiden stood at the altar, watching the girl of his dreams walk toward him.

Well, toward his brother.

This was hands down one of the worst days of his life. He wanted to be happy for them, he really did. But it felt as if his heart was being carved out of his chest.

Then, smashed with a hammer.

And thrown in a blender.

The only thing he could do was force a smile and pretend this wasn’t killing him. He’d stupidly thought he could get through this okay. After all, he’d perfected the art of acting like he wasn’t in love with the girl next door—or rather, across the street—for years. He’d even started believing it himself, dating countless women so he wouldn’t think about her. It wasn’t fair to her or Aaron to do otherwise.

He'd even considered giving in and going home with Nancy after the reception. It wouldn’t be the first time he made that mistake.

But seeing Charlie in that dress, the fake flowers in her hair, it was too much. It brought all of those suppressed feelings to the front. They screamed at him that this was wrong. That it should be him standing before her now.

It should be him preparing to tell her how she means the world to him.

There was no way he was hooking up with someone else tonight. It wouldn’t be distracting enough; he’d just be thinking of her the entire time. No, he’d go home alone and probably drink until he passed out.

He looked up to find Charlie staring at him, and it took everything he had to give her the small smile and nod he knew she needed. She was nervous, but she was also happy. That was what mattered.

Aaron stumbled backward, and Aiden quickly stuck out a hand to stop him on instinct. He hadn’t even realized something was wrong until his brother started apologizing.

“I can’t do this,” Aaron said, stunning everyone in attendance.

Including Aiden.

Charlie’s brow furrowed in confusion. Behind her, Vi’s mouth hung open.

“I’m sorry,” Aaron repeated, and then, before anyone could figure out what to do or say, he was turning and jogging to the side door.

Someone in the crowd gasped. Murmurs grew into chatter as people tried to decide what was going on. Vi moved closer to Charlie, whispering questions. But Charlie just shook her head. She clearly didn’t know anything more than the rest of them. Her arms crossed over her chest, and tears rolled down her cheeks.

This was so much worse than seeing her married to someone else. Her pain filled him with such agony, followed quickly by rage. He stepped closer, but one look from Vi had him halting. Her eyes flicked once to the door.

Dipping his head in understanding, he pivoted and ran after his brother. Brent followed right on his heels. They rushed to the room they’d prepared in, but Aaron wasn’t there.

Instead, they found him outside, leaning against his car, his head bowed.

“What’s going on?” Brent asked as they reached him.

Aiden didn’t have the same sort of restraint. He grabbed his brother by the lapels and shoved him against the car. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

Aaron tried to push him away, to no avail. “Let me go.”

“No, not until you go back in there.”

“I’m not marrying Charlie,” he all but yelled.

At that, at the fierceness in his tone, Aiden relaxed his hold. Something was wrong. “Why?”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m done.” When Aiden opened his mouth to ask more, Aaron added, “Don’t act like you’re upset about this.”

Aiden stepped back, shaking his head. “What do you mean? Of course I am. You can’t just walk away.”

Footsteps approached from behind, and he turned to find Brent’s boyfriend, Kade, as well as Charlie, Vi, and Aiden’s mom. All wore the same looks of concern. They stopped at the edge of the parking lot just outside the church, watching the confrontation. The only one who continued toward them was Kade as he went to Brent’s side.

“Everything okay?” he asked, slipping his hand into Brent’s.

“No.” Aiden’s attention returned to his brother. “What is going on, Aaron? Charlie deserves an explanation. You’ve been together for eight fucking years. You’ve been friends forever.”

Lowering his voice, Aaron shook his head and said, “Stop pretending. You and I both know this is what you want.”

“I’d never want her to be hurt like this.” He didn’t address the underlying accusation. He couldn’t.

“Of course not,” Aaron said, straightening his tux jacket. “Of course you're only concerned for her, not your brother.”

“That’s not fair.”

“None of this is fair,” he hissed back. “This wedding isn’t happening. I’m leaving. Congratulations, you get to be the one to hold and comfort her. You win.”

He shoved his way past Aiden and rounded the car to the driver’s side. The door slammed shut, and then he was pulling away. As if he hadn’t just shattered the heart of the most important woman in both of their lives—apart from their mother. Trying to calm down and not run to his truck to chase down his brother, Aiden took three deep breaths.

“What now?” Brent asked as he and Kade moved closer.

“Now…” He turned toward his family, toward the other guests who’d trickled out to watch the drama unfold. Rumors would no doubt spread throughout all of Perrington before sundown. Sighing, he ran a hand over his hair. “Now, we pick up the pieces.”

Brent patted him on the shoulder. Aiden and Aaron had been friends with the baseball player since high school, and Aiden knew the man was just as frustrated with Aaron’s disappearing act.

All right, maybe not quite as frustrated. More like disappointed.

Quietly thanking the couple, he headed toward the girl now sitting on the curb of the sidewalk. The skirt of her dress had fanned out, making her look even more like royalty. Vi sat on one side of her, her mother on the other. Nancy was trying to dismiss the other guests, to stop them from staring and gossiping. She might have her faults, but the woman was a good friend when needed.

Seeing him approach, Charlie’s mom stood and offered her spot.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered to the older woman. The one who’d been a second mother to him his whole life. “I… I tried, but he…”

“Shh. It’s not your fault. Just…” She looked down at her crying daughter with such grief in her eyes. “Be there for her.”

“Always.” No one ever needed to ask that.

She nodded and went to her husband, who was talking to Aiden’s mom. Aiden pulled off his jacket and draped it around Charlie’s shoulders before lowering to sit beside her. Wiping at her cheeks, she angled toward him. “Did he tell you why?”

Her voice was so soft, so unsteady. It tore at his soul. He shook his head and held an arm out. She only hesitated a second before leaning into him. He hugged her tightly as her tears soaked into the collar of his shirt—likely staining it with her running makeup. Not that he cared.

He rubbed a hand up and down her arm, resting his head atop hers. His fingers slowly combed through her hair. Her headband had either been removed or had fallen off. He met her cousin’s gaze. Vi didn’t look sad like so many of the others still lingering around.

She looked like she wanted to murder Aaron. He didn’t blame her. None of this made sense. The two had been the happy, perfect couple for eight years. They were high school sweethearts, beloved by their small town. How did someone just end all of that and walk away without an explanation?

Aiden pressed a kiss to the top of Charlie’s head as her sobs slowed to a stop. She didn’t leave his side though. Eventually, the other guests got in their cars and drove away. When it was just the three of them, Nancy, and their parents, Aiden stood. Charlie looked up at him in confusion, her eyes bloodshot from so much crying.

He simply squatted, scooped her into his arms, and then straightened once more.

“All the decorations,” she whispered. “The reception.”

“We’ll take care of it,” he told her.

She curled into his chest as he followed her parents to her dad’s truck and helped her into the backseat. Vi climbed in on her other side, telling him she’d take over from here.

Aiden tilted Charlie’s chin up. “I’m so sorry.”

When she nodded, he reached in to hug her one more time, whispering to her cousin to call him if they needed anything. Vi agreed, and he stepped back to close the door. He watched them pull away and disappear down the street.

“I don’t understand,” his mom said, coming up beside him. “What happened?”

“I have no idea.” What he did know was that if Aaron didn’t return soon with some sort of explanation, making it up to Charlie in the biggest way possible, he was done. Brother or not, this wasn’t okay. “He better have a good reason.”

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