Tell Me No Lies
I blinked to hold back the tears, stunned by what I was hearing. No! I don’t believe it. But I did.
Hurt followed the disbelief, growing to an agony that urged me to physically lash out at Sadie, my best friend and bearer of the terrible news, but I was frozen in place, as though my heart had stopped pumping blood to my suddenly useless limbs.
Besides, it wasn’t Sadie’s fault.
Oh, Julian. How could you?
Sadie put a hand on my shoulder, but the sympathy in her eyes did little to comfort me. “I’m sorry, Tessa. I really am. I didn’t want to tell you, but . . .” She sighed and continued in a whisper, “I would want to know if it were me.”
Her words released me from my mute state. “I need to be alone.”
“Of course. I understand. Call me if you need me.” Sadie stepped close and hugged me while I stood without moving. I barely noticed her departure.
My eyes wandered the room of my childhood, only recently familiar again since I’d come home to Flagstaff to prepare for the wedding. Mother had insisted on dinners and celebrations, and because Julian and I planned to live in Flagstaff, where he would work in his family business, it only made sense for me to leave the job at my father’s factory in Phoenix several weeks early. I missed the job and my friends the minute I’d left, but Julian and I were ready to take the plunge into matrimony—or so I’d thought.
The door to my walk-in closet was open, and I could see the wedding dress I was to have worn in just over forty-eight hours. Bile rose in my throat, and a tear skidded down my cheek. I brushed it impatiently away. I wouldn’t cry for a man who had betrayed me.
Since tonight we were having the rehearsal dinner, last night had been Julian’s bachelor party. Sadie’s brother had been at the party and had told her all about Julian disappearing early with a woman whose hands had been altogether too familiar with a man who was about to be married.
I slumped on my bed, covered with the homemade quilt my grandmother had made, my eyes still locked on the white satin dress. Drenched in lace and small pearls, it had a sweetheart neckline and a gorgeous chapel train. The dress cost seventeen hundred dollars and had taken three weeks of daily shopping to find. My mother had been with me every one of those days, which had been a torture in itself.
I bit my lip until I tasted blood.
I’d met Julian Willis when I’d come home to visit for the Christmas holiday, though if the truth be told, my visit had more to do with my horse, Serenity, than seeing my parents. At my mother’s insistence, I’d tagged along on their invitation to attend a party thrown by the Willises. I hadn’t minded going, once I met Julian. If his blond good looks and toned physique hadn’t won me over, his attentiveness and charm would have. After countless trips to Phoenix on his part and numerous weekends home on mine, the inevitable had happened: we’d fallen in love. He asked me to marry him, and I said yes.
Two weeks later, my father and Julian’s had negotiated a business arrangement to take effect after the wedding. The Willis family owned a huge frozen food conglomerate, and my father produced a line of breakfast cereals, where I managed the swing shift. With the help of the Willises, our business would expand to new markets my father had never before reached. I wasn’t sure what the Willises were getting out of the deal since our business was stable but not growing. Maybe they would simply have in-laws who were up to their standard of living.
Not that we’d ever been poor in my lifetime—thanks to my grandpa who’d worked himself into an early grave to create that first bowl of sugar-coated cereal. I still missed him terribly.
What am I going to do?
The awful thing was that a part of me wasn’t all that surprised. Julian was attractive, thoughtful, and a big flirt—a hit with ladies of every age. Half of the marriageable women in Flagstaff had chased him at one time or another, and before we’d met he’d had a bit of a reputation—one he’d assured me was complete fabrication.
I won’t marry a liar and a cheat. Every woman deserved better than that. I wondered if I’d purposely been blind or if he’d been good at hiding things. Perhaps his betrayal had been a momentary lapse, but if so, what did that say about our future? If I couldn’t trust him now, how could I trust him for the next sixty or more years?
Maybe it’s all a mistake. I latched onto the idea. Yet in the next minute I had to discard it. Sadie had been my best friend since kindergarten, and I’d trust her with my life. There was no way she would have spoken unless she was certain it was true. More likely she hadn’t told me everything she knew, not wanting to hurt me further.
A knock on the door startled me from my thoughts. “Who is it?”
Elaine Crawford didn’t so much as enter a room as sweep into it. She was the epitome of grace and elegance. Even at eight o’clock on a Thursday morning, her hair was styled in an elaborate twist that was both attractive and left her beautiful neck bare.
“My, Sadie was in such a hurry this morning. I’ve never seen her run off so quickly. Did you two have a disagreement?”
I shook my head, unwilling to trust my voice.
My mother’s eyes didn’t leave my face. “What happened? We can’t be losing your maid of honor at this late date.” She smiled to show she was teasing, but there was a warning under the words.
“Sadie and I are fine.”
“Wonderful.” She walked to the closet and peered inside. “You’re going to look like a princess in this dress. Even without you in it, I could stare at it all day. Julian won’t be able to take his eyes off you.”
I gave her a weak smile. I did love the dress—a good thing, since it had taken so much time to find one we both agreed on. My mother wasn’t a woman to give up on any goal, and her goal had been to find a dress that not only would I agree to wear but that would make people sigh with admiration for years to come.
She rambled on, going over a last-minute menu change and reminding me we needed to pick up my father’s tuxedo. “I hope Lily’s man comes dressed appropriately,” she said, almost as an afterthought.
“Mario’s wearing a suit. Lily said he looks great.”
“I wish you hadn’t insisted on their coming.”
“Lily’s my sister. Of course she’ll be at my wedding.”
“You weren’t at hers.”
I didn’t say anything. Lily had done what she felt she had to, and I’d been happy for her.
“He will never amount to anything,” my mother added.
“And you think Julian will?” I couldn’t hold it back any longer, though I knew my mother was the worst person to confide in. She’d never been the kind of mother to bake cookies, to take her kids to the park, or sit and discuss school and boyfriends. As teenagers, Lily and I had agreed that she was like Mary Lennox’s mother in the Secret Garden—too occupied with her own life and goals to really care about her daughters. “Well, you’re wrong. I just found out he cheated on me. Maybe more than once.”
My mother didn’t gasp. She didn’t hug me and ask me how I knew. She showed no sympathy for me or anger toward my fiancé. She simply stared, her arms folded tightly against her stomach.
“I can’t marry him,” I said.
That brought her to life. “Of course you’ll marry him. It’s you he loves, no matter what you’ve heard.”
Something in her demeanor tipped me off. “Wait. What do you know about this?”
“I know that Julian is good for you. He’ll take care of you. His family’s business is doing well, and our contract with them will do wonders for our company as well. Your company someday.”
“You knew? All this time, you knew?”
It was one thing for my mother to disown a daughter because she’d married a man she didn’t approve of, but I couldn’t believe she’d want me to commit my life to a man who cheated before he was even married.
“How long has it been going on?” I asked. “Does everyone in town know?” I could imagine it now, people wagging their tongues and in the end sympathizing with Julian because he was oh-so-handsome and exciting, as if that excused everything.
Not in my book.
“The truth is,” my mother said, “marriage is little more than a business arrangement. Eventually you will realize that, and then you will understand this is a problem you can overcome. Besides, Julian will see the error of his ways. He’ll always come back to you.”
I hadn’t even known he’d left me. I shifted on the bed, searching for something to make her see reason. “Would you have married Dad if he’d been cheating?”
“I would and I did.”
I gaped at her. I knew my parents’ marriage wasn’t perfect. Growing up, Lily and I had often clung to each other at night as they’d argued loudly in their bedroom. I’d been glad to escape to college, though it had hurt to leave Lily behind. But she was far more resilient and determined than I ever was, never wavering from her dreams of leaving and building her own life. It was she who’d fallen in love and eloped in the middle of the night a year ago when she was only twenty-two.
We’d both come home for the Fourth of July, and telling our parents about her engagement to Mario hadn’t gone well. I’d helped Lily pack the rest of what was in her old room, and she’d left during the night while our parents lay sleeping. I’d never forget how happy she looked.
“I love him so much!” She’d told me. “He’s like the air that I breathe. He’s a hard worker, and I know we’ll make it. You don’t have to worry about me anymore.”
They had made it, at first, while both were working. They’d even bought a big, old, run-down house to fix up. Then a leaky water heater and a small fire set them back, and they’d cut their work hours at the beginning of summer semester to finish school. Now Lily was expecting and so sick she had to quit her job altogether.
Meanwhile, she’d filled every vacant space in their house with teenage girls who had nowhere else to go except the street or back to the unloving homes from which Lily had rescued them. In a few years, Mario would finish school and be able to support them, but for now they survived on love, money from the state for a few of the girls who’d been placed with them officially, the little money I could spare, and the funds I begged for them from my parents.
Now thinking of how Lily’s face lit up every time she talked about Mario, or whenever he entered the room, and how careful he was of her, made me strong. I wanted that for myself.
“I can’t go through with the wedding,” I told my mother. “I’m sorry.”
“At least talk to Julian. He’ll make it right. I know it.”
I knew it, too, and that was exactly why I didn’t want to talk to him. When I was with Julian, he was all too persuasive. He should have been a televangelist, because he could convince anyone of just about anything. Since he’d been over sales in his father’s company, he bragged that the business had doubled in profits.
My mother drew herself to her full height. “Think of the caterer. All our friends coming from out of town. I swear if you do this, you’ll be making the biggest mistake of your life.”
“The mistake would be marrying a man who doesn’t love me!” Tears were coming, despite my effort to stop them.
“He does love you. Every bit as much as you love him. Please, Tessa, you must talk to Julian.”
Would it be too much to ask to have her on my side for once?
I jumped to my feet and walked past her. “I’m going to see Serenity. Then I’m emailing Julian to tell him everything’s off.”
“What about Lily? She’ll lose her house without our help.”
I froze at the door. “What?” I turned, feeling stupid and slow.
“You heard me.” My mother lifted her chin, and not for the first time did I notice her beauty. Lily took after her, with her blond hair, even-toned skin, and swan-like neck. My hair was altogether something else, looking as though someone had upended a diluted bucket of orange paint on my head. Strawberry blond, they called it, though that was a big stretch of the word strawberry. A genetic gift from my grandmother, I’d been told. I didn’t remember her myself, but when my grandfather had been alive, he’d touched the splotchy freckles that nearly covered all my face, and told me I looked exactly like her. I’d heard the love in his voice, and it was the only time I’d really felt beautiful.
“I’ll give her my money,” I said without thinking.
“You forget that if you aren’t married, you won’t have your trust fund. Not until five more years. And your father has already filled your place at the factory, so you can’t help her out with a regular paycheck. Since Lily’s married, she’ll get her inheritance in two more years, but her house can’t wait that long, which means all her foster girls are going to end up in the street.”
She was talking about the trust fund my grandfather had set up—a half million dollars up front at age twenty-five if we were married or thirty if we weren’t, and monthly payments of one thousand dollars thereafter. Lily was married, but too young at twenty-three to receive anything. Being twenty-five, I qualified if I married, and I’d planned to lend Lily my money to buy her house outright after my wedding. Now it looked as though she’d have to wait two more years.
I stared at my mother, fury racing through my body. “Are you saying you won’t help Lily anymore if I don’t get married? I don’t believe this! Being angry at her because of Mario is one thing, but letting her lose her house because you’re upset with me is—” I couldn’t think of a word bad enough, not one I would say in my mother’s presence, so I quit speaking.
My mother’s eyes narrowed, and when she spoke her voice was as brittle as ice. “It’s not for you to judge my relationship with your sister, but what I’m saying is that we’re not in a position to help Lily further—that’s why we’re pushing for this merger. With the economy the way it is, you are the only one who can save your sister.”
“Then I’ll drive to Vegas and marry the first man I meet!”
She laughed. “Oh, Tessa. Stop this. You love Julian. Go talk to him. There’s been a mistake, that’s all. Go ride Serenity, or take a walk or whatever you need to do, and then get this taken care of. All the relatives will be here tonight. All your friends from Phoenix.” She swept past me. “Or you can let Lily finally see what a big mistake she made marrying that boy.”
She was gone before I could protest. Before I could remind her about the baby, who would be her grandchild, regardless of who his father was. Neither Lily nor I had ever discovered why our parents hated Mario so much, but it seemed to go much deeper than his race or his family’s blue-collar status in society. I didn’t understand their objection. Mario Jameson Perez came from good, hard-working parents—an American mother and a father from Spain—both of whom had taught him and his numerous siblings the meaning of love. Mario was fun and intelligent, and he loved Lily more than anything. That he was handsome was simply an added bonus. He was also good with the girls they fostered, helping them realize how special they each were by the courtesy he extended them. The example he was of an adoring husband changed the way many of them thought about love.
If I couldn’t help Lily, and my parents couldn’t or wouldn’t, my little sister would lose everything she’d been working for. Except Mario, of course. And the baby.
I went out to see Serenity, putting a few sugar cubes in my pocket as I always did without thinking about it. I was on autopilot. What was I going to do? I couldn’t marry Julian, not if what Sadie said was true, but neither could I leave Lily without help. I’d been mothering her since I was two and she so tiny that all she could do was suck at the bottle the nanny taught me to give her. After the nanny left when I was four, I became more of a mother to Lily than our own mother.
Serenity was out in the far pasture near the copse of trees that marked the border of our three-acre plot, almost as though she was trying to get as far away from the house as I was. When she saw me, she trotted over with a soft whinny, her brown coat glistening in the morning sunlight. She was beautiful, grace incarnate, and for a strange instant, she reminded me of my mother.
She put her face close to mine in greeting. I could feel the heat of her breath and the smell of freshly chewed grass. “I know what you want.” I gave her a cube of sugar, which she ate greedily, her soft brown eyes begging for more. I gave her another before walking toward the trees. She hesitated a moment, as if confused about why I didn’t head for the barn to get the tack so we could go for a ride, but I didn’t feel like riding now. I felt like collapsing into a ball and crying my eyes out.
I wanted a mother to turn to for guidance.
There was a gate at the end of the pasture, which bordered a wide path on the other side of the fence line. The city had built the path before selling the land beyond it to a developer, who had promptly put up a myriad of tract houses that had infuriated my mother and the other neighbors. Thus the thick row of fast-growing trees that almost hid the abomination from our sight.
I, on the other hand, had been the one to put in the gate. I loved riding Serenity on the path that extended for several miles. I liked seeing mothers jogging behind strollers, children on bicycles, runners stopping for breath after their runs.
Today none of that mattered. I slumped down at the base of a tree and let my head drop into my hands.
What was I going to do?
Lily. I was calling her cell before I’d thought twice about it.
“Hello?” she said a little breathlessly.
“It’s me,” I said.
“Of course it’s you, or I wouldn’t have answered. I would have stayed hugging the toilet.”
“That bad, huh?”
“Worse than bad. On top of all this sickness and the house problems, I’m spotting, and the doctor told me I’m going to have to drop out of school to stay in bed. I don’t mind, except that means I’ll soon have to start paying on those student loans I took out. Not exactly what we need right now with the mortgage three months overdue. It’s all we can do to get food in the house at this point. If not for you, the food I get from WIC, and what Mario and the girls make, I wouldn’t know what to do.” She heaved a sigh. “The worst is all the phone calls from the mortgage company. I tell you, I will be so relieved when the house is paid for, and I can tell them to bug off. You can’t know how much you are saving our lives. Well, I guess you know exactly how much, but I will be forever grateful. You’ve always been there for me.”
I shut my eyes for a moment. What was I going to tell my sister? I couldn’t marry Julian, but I couldn’t let her down, either.
“Don’t worry,” Lily added, as if suddenly figuring out the reason for my silence. “I have permission from the doctor to go to your wedding—just not the rehearsal dinner. Sorry about that. At least I’ll be there for the real thing.”
“That’s good. We’ll make sure you have a comfortable chair.”
“Is Mom okay with us being there? I mean, I know you must have had to sacrifice a limb to get her to help with our last mortgage payment.”
“She doesn’t have a choice. You’re my sister. I’m just really sorry things are so hard right now.”
“We’ll make it. I’m happy, Mario and I are still crazy in love, and I want to be helping those girls. They’ve had it so hard. For some of them, this is the only place they’ve ever felt safe.” Lily sounded fierce and a little bit scared. As if to make up for that, she tried to make the next comment light. “Anyway, the hard times are almost over with. The real problem is going to be losing this weight after this baby comes. I was fat enough to begin with. So what’s up, anyway? Why did you call?”
I hesitated, still unsure what to say. I twisted the engagement ring on my hand, which all of a sudden felt too tight. It was a beautiful ring, though in lesser circles the diamond might be considered ostentatious.
“Tell me,” Lily urged. “Is it Julian? What’s he done now?”
“What do you mean, now?”
“Well, he’s always doing something.” She paused before adding, “Are you sure you should be marrying him?” She’d asked me this a dozen times in the past two months. I usually got mad. “Look, it’s not too late to call it off.”
What about the catering, the flowers, the guests? I wanted to say. What about your house and all those girls?
“Tessa, we both promised ourselves that we’d never have the kind of marriage our parents have. They barely talk. They live separate lives. If you aren’t sure, you can’t go through with it.”
I had the sense she was speaking to me as if I were one of the girls she was trying to save. “I love him,” I said.
“Do you really? Do you love him so much that you feel like you’ll die if he doesn’t love you back?”
I imagined her holding a hand to her heart and gazing out the window as she spoke. “It certainly feels like it right now.” Yet I knew I wouldn’t die because thickly layered over the hurt was a growing coat of anger that was urging me to do something. To act. To show Julian I didn’t need him.
“Maybe this is a sign. I’ve told you before that he’s not real. I can’t tell when he’s being truthful or making something up. The worst thing is that you’re not yourself when he’s around.”
“Mom would be furious if I canceled the wedding.”
“Then leave and come here. We’ll make it work somehow. I hope you know that I’d rather have you happy than all the houses in the world.”
I did know that whatever the cost to her, Lily wouldn’t want me to sacrifice myself. But she was the one who needed help now, whether she admitted it or not. “Maybe it’s just pre-wedding jitters,” I said, faking a casualness I didn’t feel. “I should talk to Julian.”
“I don’t know. That might not be a good idea. If you’re having doubts, maybe you should delay things a few weeks and decide without him around. You only have one chance to do this right the first time.”
I didn’t know if delaying things would help. It certainly wouldn’t change his infidelity. If Lily knew about that, she’d probably hunt him down herself. She’d think I was crazy for even considering going through with the wedding. But for all the young women she’d saved, she didn’t know what it was like to protect a younger sister. I’d been doing it all my life.
“Everything is going to be fine,” I said. “In a few months, when we’re sitting inside your mortgage-free house playing with your little baby, we’ll laugh about this.”
“Oh, Tessa. Are you sure?” The tone in her voice told me she was smiling.
“I’m sure. Don’t worry about a thing.”
“I love you, Tessa.”
“Love you, too.”
I hung up but remained sitting in the tall weeds, my back against the tree, staring into nothingness. Serenity nuzzled my head in worry. “It’s all right, girl.”
But it wasn’t.
I have to think. Why couldn’t I think? I kept seeing my mother’s face drawn in disapproval and my father’s flushed with anger. Lily sick in bed, her girls sleeping in the streets. Julian’s smile—mocking. I rubbed my face with my hands, and they came away wet. I hadn’t even realized I was crying.
The creak of the back gate signaled someone’s approach. “Tessa? Are you okay?” A man’s voice, one I recognized.
I hurriedly dried my face with the hem of my shirt before he came into view around the trees.
“Oh, there you are.” He was a tall, broad, scruffy-looking man with restful green eyes. I thought he was nearing forty, but it was hard to tell with the brown beard and the hair that fell to below his ears. He lived in one of the tract houses, and many times over the last year, I’d caught him petting Serenity over the fence. I didn’t mind because, except for the groom who fed her after I moved away, she didn’t have company.
“Hi, Gage.” I knew little more than his name, though we’d talked on numerous occasions. The rumor around town said he was an ex-con, recently released from prison, though no one seemed to know what he might have been in prison for and were either too lazy or unbelieving to research it. My mother had at least checked with the local police to make sure he wasn’t on any child predator list, which he wasn’t, but she still would have taken up a petition to force him from the neighborhood, had it been possible. I was glad she’d deemed it a waste of time. Over the months of talking to him and observing his gentleness with Serenity, I doubted the rumors were true. I suspected only his shaggy appearance kept the gossip alive.
“I saw Serenity, and she was looking kind of nervous. Thought maybe you’d had a fall.”
“Ah, Gage, she’s not even wearing a saddle, and I don’t ride bareback. Not usually.”
He looked at the sorrel. “Oh, right.” He gave me a tentative smile, which didn’t have much effect on his face under all that hair. “Well, as long as you’re okay. But shouldn’t you be shopping or at the hairdresser or something? You’re still getting married Saturday, aren’t you?”
I closed my eyes for a painful moment. I wondered if he’d heard the rumors about Julian, and if he felt sorry for me. “I don’t know.”
An emotion I couldn’t define passed over his face. In a swift movement, he squatted down beside me. “What happened?”
“What makes you think something happened?”
He gestured to the grass. “Because you’re sitting in a bunch of weeds two days before your wedding, looking like you wished a hole would open up and swallow you.”
A hole would be nice, except then how would I help Lily? My father had hundreds of applications for each job opening in his factory, and other companies were just as flooded. No one would want to pay me what I’d earned with my father, and my degree in liberal arts now seemed rather useless. Of course, I’d never thought I’d actually have to find a job outside the family business.
A burst of anger blotted out the despair. How could I have been so stupid? Lily had at least tried to become independent, while I’d stayed reliant on my family. Now they controlled my life—and they wanted me to marry Julian.
For a moment the hurt and betrayal were too great to endure. Yet I didn’t die, and after a moment the pain receded enough to breathe again, and I knew what I had to do. I arose, brushing my hands on my pants. “I’m getting married,” I said, “but not to my fiancé.”
Gage’s eyes narrowed as he stood. “What are you talking about?” At that moment he looked hard, like a man who actually might have served time.
“He’s a liar and a cheat, and I’m getting out, even if I have to hitchhike my way to Las Vegas and marry the first man I meet.”
“So is marrying someone who doesn’t love you.”
“At least you know him. Don’t you think marrying some stranger in Las Vegas would be even worse?”
“Not if it’s a business arrangement. Temporary.” Take that, Mother. I was a quick learner. I’d find a way around the trust fund requirements because I knew if my grandfather were alive, he’d be the first one to help Lily, and he certainly wouldn’t see me married to a man who would betray me. He’d been faithful to my grandmother not only for all the time they were married, but for twenty years after she was gone.
I stuck out my hand to Gage. “It’s been nice knowing you, Gage. I hope you have a wonderful life.”
His hand swallowed mine with a strength that made me slightly uneasy. “What about Serenity?”
Serenity had been a constant in my life for seven years, but I couldn’t see walking down the Las Vegas strip with a horse in tow, looking for a likely marriage candidate. If I managed to get the trust fund, I could move Serenity to wherever I ended up. Maybe I could buy the field next to Lily’s house. That is, if my parents didn’t sell the horse first.
I bit my lip, tears smarting in my eyes. “She’ll be okay here for now.”
I turned to go, but Gage’s hand shot out to grab my arm. I felt a momentary shiver of fear, and he must have seen it in my eyes because he dropped his hand instantly. “Sorry. I just—are you in trouble? Is there something I can do to help?” He was uniquely appealing at the moment, a mix of little boy and wild-looking ex-con. I hadn’t noticed how tall he was before or how broad his chest, and I wondered what he looked like under all that facial hair.
I forced a smile. “How about a ride to Las Vegas?” My old car had been sold, and the new one, a wedding gift from Julian’s parents, wasn’t scheduled to arrive until after Julian and I returned from our honeymoon. “I’m kidding. Look, thanks for your concern, but everything is fine. I’m not the first woman to have her heart broken.”
He arched a brow, and I noticed he had nice ones. Expressive. “You look more mad than heartbroken.”
He was wrong. My heart did hurt. I hated knowing that I wasn’t enough for Julian, that he didn’t love me the way I loved him. Yes, I was also furious at him, and at my parents, but most of all at myself. I was the reason I was in this mess, the reason Lily was in danger. I’d trusted the wrong man.
“Then you don’t know me very well,” I told Gage. “Good-bye. It really has been nice knowing you.”
I could feel his eyes on me as I left. Grabbing Serenity’s mane, I pulled myself up on her bare back and let her take me to the other side of the pasture.
“I’ll miss you more than anyone here,” I whispered, giving her the last cube of sugar in my pocket. “But I’ll be back some day. I promise.”