Chapter 54 ~ No More

dressupThe women’s dressing room in Kadlec’s department store smelled faintly of mildewed carpets, old tobacco and sandalwood, reminiscent of Ashley’s grandmother’s house. The dresses she had selected to try on also carried a heady old-lady vibe, every stitch an ode to sagging boobs, unrealized dreams and impending death. The washable polyester and starched rayon made Ashley’s skin itch. The peach and cream tones of the aging inventory cast a sickly hue to her complexion. Everything on the rack was a different shade of awful, but she’d be damned if Kylie thought she arrived at the wedding looking anything less than “church-appropriate,” so she pressed on.

With another whispered curse to Mike for abandoning her in her ultimate time of need, she cast aside a beige sheath dress that made her look like a naked Buddha and yanked a ruffled nightmare from the next hanger. Boasting a floral pattern in shades of blue and white, tiers of polyester flowed around Ashley’s hips and swept her thighs in a surprisingly flattering way. The top of the dress, sleeveless but modest, covered her cleavage while still accentuating her heavy curves. Impressed, she snapped a quick picture of her reflection in the mirror and shot it to Trevor with the accompanying text, “??”

She fretted and posed and messed with her makeup while she waited for his approval. She’d colored her hair that morning, covering the fading violet with midnight black. It had been a last minute decision, and she’d rushed. She lifted her thick tresses into a messy upsweep and debated pinning it in place, but a faint swipe of dye stained her skin along her hairline behind her left ear. It looked enough like a bruise she would never be able to convince Kylie otherwise. She let her hair drop, shook her messy curls, and wished she were brave enough to shave it all off completely, just be done with the chore of it all.

Her phone hummed and she snatched it up to see Trevor’s reply.

“Eh.”

Eh? That’s it?” she grumbled and checked out her reflection. She twisted and turned and watched as the ruffles fluttered in the breeze she created. Fuck him, she decided. She looked damn good. Besides, she didn’t have time to try another.

Leaving the dress on, she slipped her feet into her sandals, scooped up the shorts and tank she’d worn in, and headed for the registers. A tiny, white-haired woman dressed in a pale yellow sweater stepped into line behind her. She brushed a timid touch against the cascade of fabric covering Ashley’s hip and fingered the price tag that dangled from the seam under Ashley’s arm. Ashley popped the tag off the dress, took a step away from the creepy old lady, and concentrated on a display of gaudy costume jewelry, eyeing a pair of cubic zirconia pinwheel earrings accented in sapphire blue.

Ashley was once again surprised, and slightly horrified, by her attraction to them. She wanted them. Bad. The dress itself was way more than she could afford, but she couldn’t pass up the sparkle of the earrings. She planned to pocket them on her way out the door, but the cashier offered a discount for opening a line of store credit. She slapped them on the counter and added the matching necklace to boot.

Arriving at the church, she circled the overflowing lot twice before settling on street parking behind a silver Lexus with Wyoming plates. She took a deep breath, swiped gloss across her dry lips, did a second check for tags on the dress, and climbed from the car. A few other stragglers walked in pairs and clusters of three or four up the sidewalk to the church, and Ashley cursed Mike once again for abandoning her. If she ever saw that greasy son of a bitch again, she planned to kick him in the balls and wring his stupid, scrawny chicken neck. The jackass didn’t even say goodbye.

But, as pissed as she was, it wasn’t totally his fault she would have to walk through the doors of the church alone. She was the one who couldn’t keep a boyfriend, who couldn’t be bothered to nurture friendships. The only true friend she had was Jill. Inviting her would have been plain awkward, especially if Chase had decided to tag along. Watching Stacy and Chase would have been entertaining as hell, and well worth the price of admission, but she would never do that to Jill.

“I hate you,” she sent into the wind to Mike as she fell into step behind Frank and Cloris Blechen. Cloris glanced over her shoulder with a smile at the ready to greet the friend and neighbor who approached, but the woman did not deem Ashley worthy enough to receive more than the fake pleasantries she had already dispensed. Her smile turned sour as she raked a quick, judgmental eye along Ashley’s attire before dismissing her entirely. Ashley felt her lip curl in a snarl and she daydreamed of bopping the snot-ass woman in the back of the knee with the toe of her sandal, just to watch her buckle off her high horse.

As they started up the steps to the main entrance of the church, Ashley caught sight of a familiar truck in the parking lot. The name stenciled on the door had changed slightly, but it was the same dusty, dented Ford she had ridden thousands of country miles in, the truck she had road tripped across the Midwest to countless Husker games in. She’d had the best sex of her life in that truck, fought her nastiest fight in that truck, and had counted a hundred snowy fence posts trying to keep from puking peppermint Schnapps in that truck. It was dumb to think she could ever miss a truck, but as Ashley stepped aside to allow those behind her to pass, she realized just how much she missed the life that surrounded that stupid, godforsaken truck.

She also missed the sexy-ass man in a black tux who pulled a beer from the cooler stashed in the bed of the truck and headed across the sun-baked parking lot toward the back of the church. She missed his smell. How messed up was that? He was always working, always dusty or dirty, splattered in paint or fish guts or motor oil, sweaty and tired and half-pissed drunk, but he always smelled amazing. She fought the urge to cross the distance, pull him close, bury her face in his smell once more.

As she watched, her sister emerged from the back door of the church. They said nothing, but as Kylie reached out and stroked the hair above his ear, as she stepped close and expertly tied his tie, as she smoothed his jacket and pressed a kiss to his lips, as she held his hand and he stood straighter, calmer as he opened the door for her, as Ashley watched the two disappear into the church together, she realized once again, for the millionth time, that she did not belong there. That she never had. That she never would.

“No more,” she cursed herself aloud as she turned back toward her car. No more lusting after Jimmy. No more desperate attempts to please her sister. No more pretending to be someone she wasn’t. No more believing what she wanted didn’t matter. “No fucking more.”

To make damn certain she never forgot, she headed straight to her favorite tattoo artist and had him ink those words in sapphire blue cursive along her inner wrist, where she would read it and believe it every single day for the rest of her life. No more.

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