Sometimes the ones we let go are the ones who were meant to stay.
As an assistant to one of the top wedding planners in the city, Claire Tyndall is tasked with making each bride’s dream celebration come true, and bigger is always better.
Jesse Bryant is back in town after graduating college, but only to put his family’s house on the market.
When a bride in a bind decides to move her reception to his historic home, a chance encounter pulls Jesse and Claire back into each other’s orbit.
The problem is they haven’t spoken in more than four years—not since the day Sean—Jesse’s older brother and Claire’s boyfriend—was killed in a texting while driving accident.
But old feelings die hard, and as Jesse falls for Claire all over again, the secrets they’ve kept locked inside will threaten to tear them apart.
Claire can never find out what happened the night before Sean’s accident, and Jesse can never know the truth about the morning he died—not if there’s any hope for a happily ever after.
Release date: June 24, 2021
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Heart of Glass
My heart pounds in my chest, hammering between my ears as I navigate hospital corridors, following each new EMERGENCY sign and their corresponding arrows. I travel somewhere between jog and sprint, artfully dodging doctors in their white lab coats. Nurses in their scrubs. Patients in wheelchairs, hanging on to rolling IVs. Visitors with bouquets of wildflowers and wild balloons and coffees in hand, heads turning as I fly past them.
The voice in my head repeats the name with every thundering footstep.
There was an accident.
But by the time I reach the emergency department I know I am too late because my parents are already there, locked in an embrace. I know the news is bad because I can’t remember the last time I’d seen them hold each other. For any reason. At all.
“Mom?” I call. My voice wavers, weak and unsteady, and I wish to God I could make myself sound more confident in that moment. Strong. I want to be the rock—the someone people can depend on when things fall apart. But it’s hard when my muscles feel like sludge and the weight on my chest makes it nearly impossible to breathe. And it’s hard when something inside me knows without really knowing that, whatever this is, it’s bad.
She writhes out of my dad’s grasp and he’s crying, too. And what’s left of her mascara is smeared beneath her eyes and her nose is red and she’s gripping this crumpled-up tissue, soggy and stained gray. My dad’s shirt is blotched wet where she’s buried her face in it.
“Is he okay?” I ask.
A simple shake of the head is all it takes.
No. No, he’s not.
And at that moment—in an instant—it’s as if all the fresh air has been sucked out of the room. My lungs won’t fill anymore and my legs—they’re like jelly, shaky and unreliable—refusing to keep me upright. I cover my eyes with my hands, trying to block it all out—trying to wipe away every last trace of that morning, thinking that maybe if I rub hard enough or fast enough, that I can go back to sleep and wake up all over again. I can do this day over. I’ll get a second chance to make things right.
But I never get to see if it works, because I hear her voice.
And she calls my name.
She’s still wearing my jacket—the one I’d loaned her in the car because she’d left hers behind. Her honey blonde hair shimmers like a halo beneath fluorescent lights.
The distance between us narrows.
“Tell me he’s okay!” she demands, teeth clenched, eyes glistening. “Tell me!”
But I can’t. I can’t even look at her. I can’t say the words out loud. I don’t want to be the one to deliver this news.
Not to her.
My mouth opens to speak, but my throat squeezes shut and my stomach churns like I am on the verge of throwing up.
“There was an accident,” I manage.
“Oh my God!” Her hand flies to her mouth, as if covering a scream, her eyes pinch closed. “Oh my God. Oh my God!”
Alexandra tugs at her sleeve. “Claire.”
She shakes her friend away.
“Tell me he’s okay, Jesse. Please,” she whispers.
Nothing anyone could do.
Happened so fast.
I’m so sorry.
A million platitudes will follow in the days to come.
So full of life.
And my personal favorite: the angels must have wanted him in heaven.
She staggers backward at the news, like I’ve punched her in the stomach, and when her knees give way I lunge for her, wrap my arms around her listless body, catching her before she hits the ground.
It’s Alexandra who rips us apart, taking Claire into her arms—Claire’s sobs echoing across the sterile hall, shoulders heaving.
And something in my chest cracks—this painful twisting and tugging and breaking. I tear through the halls—desperate to get away—footsteps pounding against the tile floor and angry tears blurring my vision. When I reach the end there is nowhere to go but out, so I strike the metal door with my fist. It throbs, aching, but it feels too good to stop. So I pummel it again and again until my knuckles are swollen and bleeding and a man in scrubs interferes.
I push through the door and step out into the cold winter morning, collapsing on dead, brown grass. Each gasping breath turns to smoke, filling the air around me, fading to nothing.
My body goes numb, and I’m glad.
Alexandra shushes me, even as her own shoulders shake. We sit in the middle of the hall floor, and as I gulp for air, desperate to catch my breath, a sharp pain pierces my abdomen. I crawl on hands and knees and press my back against the wall, squeeze my eyes shut, clutch my stomach.
I am dying.
This is what it feels like to die.
To lose someone you love.
It is not quick.
It is not painless.
It is slow and it is agony.
And all I can hear as the world shimmers, fading to nothing, is the sound of Jesse’s voice, echoing from far away.
Four and a Half Years Later
I am all that I have left in this world.
And it’s strange, coming home. No one here to greet me.
Even the house is hiding, sitting in the shadows, partially obscured by a massive magnolia on the right and an overgrown holly bush on the left. A Victorian—Queen Anne style—complete with turret and gables and wrap-around porch. The “storybook house,” once upon a time.
Today it’s the empty house. The abandoned house. The haunted house.
But even without the renovations it desperately needs, Cathy, my real estate agent, thinks I should be able to get at least a million out of the sale. My dad had life insurance, but not enough to put me through college and keep the house.
The door is jammed—swollen shut from heat and disuse. I haven’t been back since the end of last summer—spent Thanksgiving with a roommate and his family and Christmas in New York City because it was the busiest place I could think of. I could celebrate the season and lose myself in the hustle. I planned to come back over spring break, but that didn’t happen, either. Once I was gone it was easier to stay that way.
I shoulder block the door, forcing it open, and step inside. My fingers search for the switch plate and a dull glow fills the front hall, the old fixtures straining to illuminate every corner of the space.
The house is too warm, the air too stale. I traipse through the foyer and into the dining room, then the kitchen, turning on lights as I go. The refrigerator is empty, save a half-filled plastic water bottle. So is the pantry.
Upstairs, a warm shower washes away the day’s dirt and grime—the morning hours spent boxing up my apartment at school and transferring everything to a storage unit, followed by the four-hour drive home.
I am thirty days between places to live. My new flat in downtown Haleford (population 842,051) wouldn’t be available until the end of June. My internship won’t start until July.
It is what it is.
There is no cable or wifi for my laptop, so I browse the internet on my smartphone. I check my email and try to watch a crime drama via its network website, but the show stalls and re-buffers every few minutes, making it impossible to follow. I eventually give up, turn out the light, and crawl into bed.
But even though it’s my bed and my house and has been for more than a decade, I feel too much like a stranger. The space is too big. Too empty. Too quiet, without roommates and college neighborhood chatter—the coffee shops and pizza parlors and the storefronts that sell nothing but cookies twenty-four hours a day. Too quiet, without my dad downstairs kicked back in his recliner watching cable news, or my mom working on her laptop at the dining room table because her cases always seemed to make their way home with her.
But I close my eyes anyway and when I open them again it’s morning. I’m not sure when or how I fell asleep—I’m not even sure I feel rested—but I check the time on my phone. It’s already after nine and the real estate agent is supposed to arrive at eleven-thirty, so I get up, get dressed, and wonder if coming home was the best decision—if I’m capable of living out of a gym bag for the next month.
The grocery store is only a few blocks away—the first floor of an apartment complex—so I walk even though it’s the end of May and the Southern humidity has arrived in full force. Plan A is to subsist on peanut butter sandwiches, Hot Pockets, and frozen pizzas. Plan B: takeout.
This is one of the best things about grandpa’s house. It’s in the historic district—old—but within half a mile of some of the tallest buildings in the city. It’s a family home. My grandparents inherited it from their parents, who inherited it from their parents, who built it before the skyscrapers ever showed up. When my dad passed away, the house was left to me.
By default, really.
I was the only one left to will it to.
To be honest, part of me feels guilty for even thinking of selling because a large part of that part of me knows that if anyone in my family is still around to haunt the hell out of me, it’ll be because I sold the family home.
The real estate agent arrives on time. Cathy Hardison, though highly recommended, looks very little like the agent photo on her website—older and not as edited. Today she is wearing a dark pantsuit with a pink scarf, platinum blonde hair teased to the height of pageant mom, and comes equipped with a folder, tape measure, and bright smile. Her voice is high-pitched and she speaks with a Southern accent through her nose. She is the kind of woman who can get away with calling anyone “darlin’” or “sugar,” and I’m not sure I can handle her degree of “perky” this early in the day.
“It’s a seller’s market,” she tells me as we tour the space. “Yes, some updates are needed, but this is a hot neighborhood—the best of both worlds. House, trees, yard, and the concrete jungle right up the road. Easy access to dining, business, and entertainment. The prices of homes inside the beltline have almost tripled in the last ten years. Everyone wants to be here. You mentioned this was your childhood home?” Her thoughts run together, chasing one after the next, barely a breath in between.
“Sort of. It’s been in the family for a while and it’s mine now, but I recently graduated and have a job lined up in Haleford. I like the house, but it’s been a burden the last two years and isn’t something I can manage on my own.”
“That’s certainly understandable.” I follow her from the formal living room across the hall to the dining room. “I love the multiple fireplaces and the moldings. The built-ins are lovely, as well. The appliances in the kitchen are a bit dated, but it’s likely the buyer will want to add their own touches, so I don’t think it’s something to worry about. If we start to hear murmurings after showings that it’s a deal-breaker, we can discuss some kind of appliance allowance.”
“Okay,” I reply.
She smiles. “Okay! So I’m going to go from room to room to measure, get some of the specs noted, and we’ll talk pricing.”
It seems crowded inside—just the two of us—so I head out front to assess the exterior, but mostly to get some space. I need fresh air. I step into the yard and take a look at the old Victorian. The paint is peeling in some places. At the very least, it needs pressure washing. And the magnolia tree should come down since it’s blocking some of the best views of the house. The holly bush, too. The porch is still straight and sturdy, though. No sagging or shifting or cracks in the foundation. If nothing else, the house was well-built.
I head to the mailbox at the curb even though I know I will find it empty, and that’s when I hear the sobbing—the sobbing followed by a very familiar voice.
“Mia, it’s not a disaster. Lynette is on this, okay?”
A shivery jolt travels the length of my spine. I have nothing to take out of the mailbox and nothing to put in the mailbox and no way to get back to the house before I’m spotted. In fact, when I finally drum up the courage to look, I realize I’ve already been spotted. It’s too late. I see her. I see her for the first time in four years.
Even the metaphorical sock to my gut leaves me breathless.
For all my hesitation, she looks like she’s seen a ghost. “Claire.”
The other girl wipes her eyes and announces “I’m going to try Preston again,” then steps away, leaving the two of us alone, only a few awkward yards from one another. I shove my hands in my pockets and close the remaining distance between us.
“Hi,” she says. She’s dressed for work—black ankle-length pants and dress shoes. A silky white tank top. Silver bangles jingling on her wrist and a pair of dangling earrings to match her necklace.
“What are you doing here? Are you home?”
“Sort of,” I reply, feeling woefully underdressed in my khaki shorts, even for a chance meeting in the middle of the street. “Yes and no.”
“Oh. Congratulations.” She smiles politely and plays with the charm on her chain, dragging it back and forth.
“Thanks. Yeah, so not quite the summer—a month, maybe. I’m putting the house on the market.”
Her eyes widen, giving away her shock at the news. “You’re selling? Wow.”
“Yeah. So what about you?” I ask, quickly changing the subject. “Are you visiting your parents? Are they still in the neighborhood?”
“They are,” she confirms. “But I’m not visiting. I actually still live there.” When she smiles this time, a hint of pink flushes her cheeks, a tinge of embarrassment.
The day Sean died, Claire left school and never came back. I assumed she was taking some time off, heard from somewhere that she eventually finished her coursework at home and graduated. I didn’t know if she ever made it to college. And I definitely didn’t know she was still living at home. To say we’d lost touch over the years is an understatement.
“He just doesn’t get it!” We’re joined at the curb by the girl with dark hair and eyes, who now seems more angry than upset as she types furiously on her phone. “This is like, the absolute worst thing that could possibly happen to us right now! And Nicole is completely MIA this morning. What the eff, people.”
“Jesse, this is Mia. Mia, this is my friend Jesse from high school.”
The word still stings.
“Nice to meet you,” I say.
“Likewise. I’m sorry. I’m an absolute mess today, but at least I can admit there is a problem, unlike some people I know.”
“You’re not a mess, Mia,” Claire assures her. “We totally understand why you’re concerned.” Then, to me: “The site she booked for her wedding reception caught on fire over the weekend. All events are canceled until further notice. So . . . we decided to get some air while Lynette makes phone calls.”
“Lynette?” I ask.
“Lynette Sutton. Events.”
“Isn’t she like . . .”
“The best wedding planner in the city?” Mia finishes for me. “Yes. And for what we’re paying her, she’d damn well better pull a miracle out of her ass to save my reception.”
“I have complete faith in her, Mia,” Claire says, voice level. “Let’s give her some time to work this out.”
“Fine,” Mia says. “But I’m serious. And Jesse—is it Jesse? Never get married. Because I swear to baby Jesus everything that could go wrong has gone wrong with this wedding, and I am not paying what could be a down payment on a house in Lenox Park for a disaster.” She feels her forehead, as if checking for a fever. “I should’ve listened to Preston. He wanted to elope.”
“Lynette and Jenn are on the phone right now calling everyone they know,” Claire says. “And trust me when I say they know everyone, and they will not hesitate to start calling in favors. If anyone can make this happen, it’s Lynette.”
Claire’s hair is still blonde, but with more highlights. Her eyes are still kind, but not quite that sparkly blue they were before. Four years older, dressed a bit differently, but exactly the same. How could all these years have passed and she still be everything I remember?
“I just don’t want to end up at The Burger Barn,” Mia cries. “My dad’s partners are coming, and Preston’s supervisors, and my sorority sisters, and you know Morgan did Gatsby for her wedding and it was all anyone could talk about for weeks.” She’s dabbing at her eyes with a tissue when I see a flash of platinum and diamond on her left hand that might have also been the down payment on a house in Lenox Park.
“Mia, I promise you, Lynette will not let you end up at Burger Barn, okay?” Claire says. “She is going to find the perfect venue and you and Preston will have a beautiful day that will be the start of a beautiful life together.”
“Excuse me, Jesse?” Cathy calls from the porch. “What can you tell me about the roof? Do you know how old it is?”
“Not exactly,” I confess, folding my arms across my chest.
“It wasn’t updated when your family moved in?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“Okay! No problem.”
And then, turning back to Mia and Claire: “Sorry. That’s my real estate agent.”
Mia studies the house, as if seeing it for the first time, and, for a moment, the tears seem to dissipate. “This is your house?” she asks.
“And you’re putting it on the market?”
“That’s the plan.”
She takes a deep breath and her lungs shudder. “Do you mind if I . . .?”
“Be my guest.”
She makes her way across the yard, and, as soon as she’s out of earshot, Claire says: “Good. Maybe this will distract her for a few minutes,” but I get the feeling she’s talking more to herself than me. She removes her phone from her pocket and examines the screen, checking for any missed calls or text messages. “Or at least until I hear from Lynette.”
“She sounds . . . complicated.” I hesitate, searching for the right word.
Claire laughs, but there’s not an ounce of humor in it. “All brides are complicated, but that’s what makes the job so interesting. If I wanted unpredictability and emo-coasters, I got them in spades.”
“How long have you been doing this?”
“About two and a half years. When I started I was just answering phones and scheduling events and appointments. Then Lynette brought on Jenn so there were double the events and now I do everything from scheduling to meeting with vendors and going over checklists. . . .”
“And taking brides-to-be for long walks when their entire world is crashing down around them,” I finish.
“You have no idea. I could have earned a degree in psychotherapy with all the real-world experience I’ve gotten. Thankfully our office is only a couple of blocks away. This neighborhood is always a nice, quiet place to go when the world is crashing down.” She smiles, keeps her eyes trained on mine, assessing. “It’s good to finally see you again.”
“It’s been a while,” I agree.
She nods. “The funeral, if I’m not mistaken.”
“What’s that been? Four years?”
She clears her throat. “Not Sean’s. I meant your dad’s.”
“Oh. Yeah. Right. Two years, then. Sorry. That week was kind of a blur.”
It’s all been a blur, actually. My whole life, for the past four and a half years: one massive blur.
“It’s okay. I was surprised when I heard the news,” she went on. “A heart attack. Your dad always seemed like a mellow guy.” Her cheeks flush with what might be embarrassment. “Anyway, I’m really sorry,” she finishes.
“Jesse?” The real estate agent calls. “What do you know about the hot water heater?”
“Um, my parents put in a tankless about five or six years ago,” I tell her. Mom was tired of sharing hot water with three grown men—always complaining it never recovered fast enough after rinsing the dinner dishes and running the dishwasher. She liked to take baths in the evening. Still does, I guess. Wherever she is.
“Oh! That’s wonderful news! Definitely a selling feature,” Cathy says, making a note on her clipboard before heading back inside.
“So . . . are you planning to stay in the city once you sell?” Claire finally asks, breaking the heavy silence.
“Uh, no. I’m moving back to Haleford, actually. I have an internship starting in July, and I’m hoping it leads to something permanent.”
“Wow,” she says. “That’s exciting!”
“You don’t seem too thrilled.”
The truth is it’s hard to muster the appropriate amount of enthusiasm. On paper, it seems like the next logical step on the road of life—the next “right thing” to check off my list. In reality. . . . I don’t know. Adulthood happened fast.
“Yeah. No. I am. It’s just . . . there’s so much going on at once. I have a lot to do here, first, and then with the move. But the firm I’ll be working for is great, so . . . it’s good.”
“Okay. Good,” she repeats, and I’m not sure if it’s my imagination, but something in her tone seems to say she doesn’t quite believe me.
“Claire!” Mia calls, skipping down the front steps. “Claire! I’ve got it! I figured it out!”
“Okay,” Claire says, hesitating.
“Jesse, your house is gorgeous,” she tells me. “I love it. It’s beautiful. It’s perfect, and . . . I want to rent it for the day.”
“Wait. What?” Claire asks.
“It’s perfect, Claire! The downstairs is like, massive, and the rooms are huge. If the furniture is moved out there’s plenty of space for tables and guests.”
“Mia, your guest list is one-fifty,” Claire reminds her. “You’re having a sit-down dinner. The house is big, but I’m not sure it can handle—”
“We can make it handle,” she says, then to me: “Jesse, I will pay you whatever you want if you will let me borrow your house for a weekend. Just the downstairs. Friday to set up and the wedding Saturday.”
“But he’s putting the house on the market. Like, right now,” Claire says, splitting a look between the two of us, a hint of what might be fear glittering in her eyes.
“Even if it sold today the average closing takes forty-five days here. Unless someone can pay cash, and, from the looks of it, that will be a cool one point three million, it’s not going anywhere for at least a month. The wedding is the last weekend in June. Look at this neighborhood! And the shade! It’s perfect!”
“What about parking?” Claire asks. “And tables and chairs and decor?”
“Minor details. We’ll figure it out.” At this, she turns her attention back to me. “What would it take to make this place mine?” When I don’t immediately answer, she tosses out a number. “Three thousand dollars.”
“Well, um, actually—”
“Five thousand,” she says.
“Mia,” Claire begins, “I don’t think this is going to—”
“Ten thousand! And I’ll put a deposit on it. Five thousand today. The other five paid the day of the event.”
I am packing this place up to sell. I am moving at the end of the month. But this girl is offering ten thousand dollars if I let her borrow my house for two days.
Ten thousand dollars.
“Deal,” I say.
We shake hands, and Mia emits a happy squeal.
“Jesse, are you sure?” Claire asks.
“Sure. I mean, why not? Mia’s in a bind. I’m cleaning up and cleaning out the next few weeks, anyway.”
Ten thousand dollars.
She hesitates, eyes studying mine, waiting for the punchline or for me to change my mind. Because I doubt, when she spotted me ten minutes ago, she expected something like this to happen.
“Claire,” I begin, “I’m agreeing. It’s fine. If it’ll work, I’m in.”
Her shoulders fall in exhale. “Okay. Let me get Lynette on the phone.” She scrolls through her contacts and hits send. “Hey, Lynette, it’s Claire. I think Mia has found a possible reception location.” She steps away from us to talk in private.
“The house is gorgeous,” Mia says. “And don’t worry. I will take care of everything. We will be in and out and you won’t even know we’ve been here,” she assures me. “Oh my God! I have to text my mom to let her know.” She whips out her phone and types rapid-fire.
Cathy joins us at the edge of the yard. “It looks like we’re working with five bedrooms and three full baths. Approximately thirty-eight hundred square feet of livable space with a walk-in attic. I took a few candids, but our photographer will be in touch to set up an appointment to come out and take photos for the listing in the next few days. I’ve left some information about staging in the packet on the dining room table. I can set you up with a professional stager if you’re interested, and I do want to confer with my partner before we put an official price on it. Yes, it needs some cosmetic work, and it’s likely the new owners will want to update the kitchen and bathrooms, but I want to make sure you get solid market value,” she explains.
“This won’t affect the weekend of the twenty-eighth, will it?” Mia asks.
Cathy looks at her and then back to me and blinks, not understanding.
“It looks like we’re having a wedding reception here that Saturday,” I explain.
“Oh! That sounds lovely. When did this happen?”
“About two minutes ago.”
“All right. Well, we won’t let it interfere. I’ll make a note in the MLS that it is not available for showing that weekend. And, actually, it might work nicely. We’ll think of it as a private open house!”
Claire rejoins us, having ended her phone call, and announces that Lynette is coming over and bringing lunch for everyone. “She’s going to try to woo you with food,” she says, “in case you’re not already. Do you still like club sandwiches?”
“I do,” I reply.
“Is this a good time? I mean, I know you’re busy with the Realtor and all.”
“No, I’m just leaving,” Cathy says. “I’ll be in touch, Jesse!”
“Thank you,” I reply as she heads to her car—a black Mercedes parked across the street.
“Any other plans for the afternoon?” Claire asks.
“My schedule is clear.” Four years and nothing from this girl, and now a chance meeting in the street has turned to lunch. “Let’s see if we can make Mia’s dreams for a perfect wedding day a reality.”
“Fingers crossed,” Claire says, seeming unconvinced.
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