Just Between Friends by Donna Small

Emma’s best friend Layne is getting married to Andy, the old friend Emma has always secretly loved. For the sake of dear friends, Emma keeps her love for Andy to herself. But what is she to do when Layne begins a torrid affair and expects Emma’s complicity as she cheats on Andy.

Chapter One

What the hell have I gotten myself into?

Layne Matthews stood in front of the mirror turning from side to side in order to inspect her appearance from every possible angle.  Finally she nodded, satisfied with what she saw in her reflection.  Satisfied, perhaps, that what she felt inside wasn’t something that was able to be seen in the mirror.  To the casual observer, everything was perfectly, immaculately, in its place.   It was only if you knew Layne, really knew her, that you got a sense that something was just a bit off.  Only then would the small furrow in her brow, the tiny trace of tension in her shoulders, or the fact that her bottom lip jutted out ever so slightly, cause you to look at her with concern in your own eyes.

If you were only a casual acquaintance, you saw what Layne wanted you to see; the strapless Vera Wang wedding gown with a bodice that was altered to fit her torso perfectly, the thick, auburn hair pulled into an elegant chignon, the veil with tiny combs that complemented the dress perfectly, and the matching necklace and earrings that accented the tiny beads covering the gown.

Tiny tendrils of hair had been strategically left out of her bun and were now curled delicately around her neck, providing a look that was both soft and graceful.  Her skin, fresh from a series of facials over the past several weeks, was flawless.  Her makeup, applied earlier by a professional hand, ensured the photographs from today would be stunning.

She was the picture-perfect bride.  This was the image she had had chosen to project, so therefore, she did.

The dress, purchased by her mother, was the “something new” required if one followed wedding legend protocol – and she did.  She wore her grandmother’s long, white gloves, which fulfilled both the “borrowed” and the “old” requirements of her attire.  Underneath her dress, a blue garter sat on her right thigh, waiting to be removed by her soon-to-be husband.

It was overwhelming the amount of effort had gone into planning for this one day.  Not to mention the amount of money that had been spent; that would be spent.  It was silly really, she thought.  Her parents, however, had insisted on the large wedding, wanting to invite all of their friends.  Right now, in fact there were well over two hundred people waiting for her to walk down the aisle.

So why today, on what was supposed to be the happiest day of her life, was she filled with terror?

There it was again; that feeling deep inside that told her something just wasn’t right.    As she watched in the mirror, her brows came together slightly making a small crease between them.  Knowing that her best friend, Emma, sat behind her and could read her emotions better than anyone, she smoothed her brow with her gloved fingers, trying to erase any visible sign of whatever it was that had her feeling unsettled.

It had to be nerves.  Of course! She was nervous, that’s all.  What bride wasn’t nervous on their wedding day?  Layne felt certain that nerves came with the event itself as opposed to the hesitation one might have with spending the rest of your life with one person.  For her, that one person was Andrew Harper.

Andy.  Her future husband.  As she thought of him, a slow smile worked its way onto her lips.  They’d been dating for almost a year when he’d proposed and she had been thrilled to accept.  When they’d rushed home to tell her parents, they were just as excited as she was.  Everyone fell in love with Andy almost the moment they met him.  He was the type of man that few women were lucky to meet, let alone fall in love with and marry.  And she loved him.

She just wasn’t in love with him.

It wasn’t that he wasn’t everything she wanted because he was.  On paper, he had all the requirements she’d look for in a husband.  Of course he was handsome, but he was also polite and charming and had the ability to put anyone at ease.  But it was more than that.  He had charisma.  When in conversation with someone, he would listen much more than he spoke (a very admirable quality to Layne, who loved hearing the sound of her own voice) which made one feel as though what they were saying was of great importance.

Andy had a great sense of humor that allowed him to see the positive in any situation.  Because of this, Layne and Andy had rarely, if ever, fought.  She thought about that for a moment and wondered if perhaps that might be what was worrying her.

Sure, they’d discuss things, occasionally disagree, but more often than not, Andy would simply give in, unwilling to be ruffled by anything Layne might throw at him. That was Andy, unflappable, always-willing-to-please Andrew Harper.  Mr. Compromise.   Layne had often thought that Andy lacked the passion to become enflamed about anything.  She even occasionally wondered if he was passionate about her.   She knew, without any sort of hesitation, that Andy loved her; she’d never questioned that.  But there were times when she wondered what it would be like to be wanted.  She wondered if Andy had the ability to desire something so much that he would actually become enflamed with passion.  But that just wasn’t who he was.

She loved him but still wasn’t sure of the precise moment when she realized it.  The feelings she had for him had slowly grown from friendship and companionship into comfort and love, which she supposed was the best way for love to happen.  She enjoyed spending time with him; it didn’t matter what they were doing.  Marrying him was the next natural step, wasn’t it?

Things always seemed to flow so easily between them that when he proposed, she didn’t even hesitate before accepting.  Logically – which was how Layne thought about everything – it was the right thing to do.  And of course, it made her happy to accept his proposal (and the 1.5 carat emerald cut diamond), which was why she couldn’t understand why she felt the nagging feeling in the pit of her belly.

Layne looked in the mirror one last time and nodded, positive that what she was feeling was completely and absolutely normal.

* * *

Emma Stewart sat on the couch filing her nails.  She’d long since given up trying to tear Layne away from the mirror knowing that they weren’t going anywhere near the aisle until Layne was satisfied that every bead and inch of material was in its proper place.

She heard the rustle of Layne’s dress and looked up to find her turning around to face her.  For probably the hundredth time that day, Emma’s eyes welled up as she looked at her best friend in her wedding dress.  Somehow, it all seemed surreal.  The two of them had been planning for this day since they first met nearly twenty years ago.  They’d imagined how they’d each be each other’s maid of honor, what style of dress they’d wear, what they’d serve and even what color they’d choose for their bridesmaids’ dresses.  The only unknown was the name of the groom.  Of course, they’d both had their share of boyfriends and had written their own name next to any number of differing last names, but none of them had stuck.  Until now, that is.

Emma had always known that Layne would be the first to walk down the aisle.  When they were teenagers, it was Layne who would use her allowance money to purchase Bride magazine, the one who would drag Emma to every bridal show within driving distance, and the one who had enough confidence to step into jewelry stores and try on ring after ring so she could be certain which shape and size looked best on her hand.  While Emma certainly looked forward to her wedding day, Layne had been the one planning every detail since she was old enough to know what a wedding was.  And now that the day had finally arrived, Emma was thrilled for her.  So thrilled, in fact, that she could barely manage to keep herself from crying, but she gave herself a little leeway; she had more than one reason to be emotional today.

“Layne, you look so beautiful!  Oh, god! I think I’m going to cry!”  Emma said, as she gently dabbed at the corner of her eyes with a tissue.

Layne giggled.  “Again?  Emma, you’ve been crying all day!”

Emma was careful not to smudge her makeup, which had also been carefully applied earlier by the same professional hand.  “I know, I know. I’m just so emotional.”

“Well, that’s what I love about you.”   Then worry crept into her features.  “Are you sure I look all right?”

Emma rolled her eyes.  Layne had never looked anything other than beautiful a day in her life.  She got up and walked over to her friend, turning the both of them to face the mirror.

“Look at you!  How can you even ask that?”  Emma looked at the two of them side by side and couldn’t help notice how different they were.  Layne was tall and slender, with thick auburn hair and olive skin that turned golden brown after any time in the sun.  Her own skin, in direct contract to Layne’s was pale and almost translucent since Emma rarely, if ever, spent any time in the sun. Even without exposure to the sun, her cheeks displayed a smattering of freckles which she’d long since given up trying to hide.  Earlier today, Emma had tried to convince the makeup artist of just that.  However, said make-up artist was not one to shy away from a task such as this, and before Emma could finish her sentence, she pulled out her entire arsenal of concealers, powders, and brushes to prove she was up for the challenge.  It was nearly an hour later before she finally gave up, opting instead to enhance the freckles rather than hide them.

Emma was several inches shorter with straight blond hair that fell to just below her shoulders.  Today her hair had been piled into curls on the top of her head in a style similar to Layne’s.  Rather than make her appear more glamorous, Emma felt she looked somewhat like a little girl playing dress up.  She noticed that even the layer upon layer of eye shadow, eye liner, and mascara weren’t enough to make her look close to her twenty-eight years. She thought she could mostly blame her youthful features on her freckles, which she noticed were clearly visible given the natural light that was pouring in from the floor to ceiling windows.

She squelched a sigh as she looked from herself to Layne, who was completely in her element all dressed up and oozing with glamour.  Layne was what someone that was often described as voluptuous or sensual.  Emma lacked even a hint of any of sensuality, or so she thought, but she had a pixie-like quality that made her immediately liked by anyone who met her.

As Emma stood there looking at their reflection, she felt a tiny twinge of jealousy followed almost immediately by a small pang of guilt.  Today, it seemed, was going to be much more difficult than she initially thought.  Difficult, but not impossible, Emma told herself, and quickly focused her attention back to her best friend.  Knowing how close they were and how much she loved Layne only made her feel worse.  She’d kept her feelings hidden for so long but today, those feeling were nearly choking her.  Layne was getting married and Emma wasn’t sure how she was going to survive given how she felt about the groom.

Emma had been in love with Andrew Harper from almost the first moment she’d laid eyes on him.  It was only because of her stupid bladder and her own insecurities that she didn’t have the courage to approach him before he met Layne.

It was nearly two years earlier and Emma was meeting Layne for drinks at a bar after work.  Emma had gotten there a few minutes early and needed to use the rest room. As she made her way to the back of the room, she noticed a man seated at the end of the bar.  As her gaze took him in, her insides turned to mush and she felt a rush of emotion unlike anything she’d ever experienced.  She knew this was something serious.

He was nursing a martini with three olives on a toothpick.  It was his hands that she noticed first.  They were large, which to her meant capable and strong, and his nails were neatly trimmed.  Another plus, she thought.  She watched as he scrolled through his blackberry with one hand while the other stirred the olive-filled toothpick around the inside of the glass.  She stood there, transfixed, and took in the rest of him.  He was wearing a neatly pressed pale yellow dress shirt with the top button undone.  The tie had been loosened around his neck and revealed a white undershirt beneath.  She felt her pulse quicken and imagined what it would be like to unbutton that shirt and pull it out from his waistband in order to run her hands up and underneath it.

Because she was lost in her own imagination, she had forgotten she was in the middle of the path to the restroom and had been standing there, practically salivating and staring at this stranger.   Someone bumped her as they tried to get past and the jolt brought her back to reality.  She mumbled an apology and once again attempted to make her way to the bathroom. Safely inside, she splashed a bit of cold water on her now reddened face and tried to compose herself.  Forgetting for the moment, the urgency in her bladder, she began to figure out how exactly to meet this man who affected her with emotions that were unlike anything she’d ever experienced.  But as she would soon find out, no plan was needed.  By the time she had made her way out of the restroom, the man had vacated his spot at the end of the bar and was now seated with Layne at a table.  Luckily, there was an empty chair -a sign that she’d not been forgotten by her friend- and she walked over and sat down with the two of them.  Already there was a freedom in their behaviors that signaled, at least to Emma, a mutual attraction.  In that moment, Emma knew that any chance she had with this man had vanished.

Although Emma felt the loss of possibility deep within her, she didn’t begrudge Layne for this turn of events.  People couldn’t help but be drawn to Layne and Andy was no exception.  She was a striking looking woman who also possessed intelligence and a great sense of humor – a bonified  tri-fecta of admirable qualities.  Emma did what any best friend would do; she put on her best smile and immediately set out to determine whether or not this guy was good enough for her friend.

And he was.

Emma could not find a single thing wrong with him, not even so much as a scorned ex-girlfriend.  It seemed as though Andy was the one guy in the world who could actually get away with the “we can still be friends” line.

Layne had never been someone who neglected her friends when she was involved with someone. Quite the opposite was true, in fact.  More often than not, Emma was asked to come along with Layne and Andy when they went to the movies, out to dinner or just met for a drink after work. While this was a great characteristic to have in a best friend, the merits of this particular situation were not so effective when you were trying to fall out of love with the man you were constantly being forced to see.

To add insult to injury, any time Emma was not included, she was later given a complete debriefing in which Layne and Emma analyzed and discussed every possible meaning to each statement, facial expression and nuance Andy made. The dates were discussed in great detail until Layne was satisfied that things were progressing as they ought to.

In addition to the basic relay of venue, scenery, and conversations, Emma was given a detailed account every time some relationship milestone occurred.  When Layne and Andy shared their first kiss, Emma was told how, when, where, and most importantly, whether or not he was a good kisser (He was).  When Andy surprised Layne with a weekend at the beach for their one month anniversary, Emma got all the details (Oceanfront room at a bed and breakfast, long walks on the beach).    When they had sex for the first time, Emma again, had to suffer through hearing all the intimate details that one shares only with their very best friend. (On the bed, then the floor, then in the shower, and he was an AMAZING lover!)  Through all of this, Emma acted as though she were thrilled for her best friend, and she was; she just wished that Layne’s happiness were the result of some other man – any other man.

And then, one day after Layne and Andy had been dating for almost a year, Andy proposed.  Of course, Emma was the first person Layne called.   Emma listened dutifully, shouted congratulation with gusto, hung up the phone, and then drank herself into a stupor, trying to ease her heartache.

Nothing, however, could dull the throbbing pain of her heart shattering into tiny pieces.

What made this all the more difficult for Emma was the fact that she couldn’t discuss this problem with Layne.  She had to keep it bottled up inside of her, unable to reveal her pain to anyone, least of all her best friend.  Every other problem she’d had, she’d been able to discuss with Layne over and over until either a solution was found or she just felt better after talking about it for hours on end.  With this particular problem, she wasn’t sure which aspect of it was the hardest; the part where she was in love with her best friend’s fiancée or the part where she wasn’t able to talk about said problem with her best friend.

Of course, the final nail in this coffin was the fact that she was wracked with guilt every time she thought of Andy and felt those flutters inside her belly, which was pretty much all day, every day.  She knew she couldn’t help how she felt but Layne was her best friend, the person who knew every single thing about her and loved her despite it.  And though she tried to convince herself of the fact she couldn’t control how she felt, and certainly couldn’t make herself fall out of love with Andy, she just couldn’t shake the thought that she was betraying her best friend.   After all, wasn’t that the cardinal rule of friendship?  You don’t fall in love with your best friend’s boyfriend.  Period.  Emma’s feelings were inexcusable despite how completely and utterly right they made her feel.

Of course, Emma had tried to fall out of love with him – God knows she tried – but she spent so much time with Andy and Layne that she was never away from him long enough to even begin to forget about him.  It was hopeless.  She just went about her days aching for something she knew she would never have and carrying the load of guilt she knew would never lighten.

This was the first time in Emma’s life that she had kept something from Layne and it was eating her up inside.  But while she knew she was hopelessly, desperately in love with Andy, she knew that Layne loved him and was going to marry him.   As difficult as it was to suffer in silence, Emma did it, knowing that Layne was happy.

Today, however, was going to be the toughest challenge yet.  Seeing the man she loved marry her best friend might prove to be too much for her (She hoped there was plenty of wine at the reception), but Emma vowed then and there that she was going to get through this day, no matter what.  She was going to be there for her best friend, as they’d always done for each other.

Layne looked at Emma’s reflection in the mirror.  “You’re sure I look all right?” Her voice sounded almost foreign to Emma as it lacked any of the confidence she normally carried around with her in abundance.

Emma stood up and placed her hands on her hips.   “It kills me that you even have to ask.  Andy is going to have trouble remaining standing at the end of the aisle when he sees you!”

Layne giggled.  “He’d better be standing when I get up there.  I want him to be completely coherent when he takes his vows.”

“He will be.  I don’t think anything could make him miss you walking down the aisle.”

Layne released a small sigh and felt her eyes mist up. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, Emma.”

“Well, you’ll never have to find out.”  Emma replied.

Layne gave her friend a smile that is only shared between the best of friends, then turned and stepped away from the mirror in order to reach for the bouquet that had been resting on the table.

“Okay, then.  Let’s go.”  Layne said, as she took a deep breath.

Emma picked up the train of Layne’s gown and placed it gently over her forearm, careful not to wrinkle the delicate fabric.  She then reached for her bouquet of flowers with her free hand and together, they left the room.

They walked silently to the front of the church, each lost in their own thoughts.  Layne found herself thinking about the months and years that were to come, and wondered if every bride felt this way.  Emma found herself wishing she were the one getting ready to walk down the aisle and spend the next fifty years or so with Andy.

They arrived at the back of the church and greeted Layne’s father, who was there waiting for them. She settled Layne on his arm and then moved behind her to adjust her train, lifting it up to catch the air beneath it and then lay it down gently on the white runner that had been laid out for her to walk on.

Emma stepped in front of her best friend, adjusted her veil one last time and nodded.  “Are you ready?”

Layne nodded and forced a stiff smile onto her face.

The music began to play inside the church, signaling the need for Emma to face forward.  The wedding planners opened the doors slowly, revealing pews filled with wedding guests all turning to face the bride.  Emma didn’t notice a single one.  Her eyes were focused on the man at the end of the aisle waiting for his bride to come to him.  Taking a deep breath, she began to walk slowly down the aisle, just ahead of Layne.

She was, after all, the maid of honor.

***

Donna Small fell in love with the written word a very early age, frequently ignoring her teachers in order to discreetly read a book while hidden behind another student and below the wooden desks in her Catholic School. After graduating from college, she moved to North Carolina and began working in the non-profit world writing business plans, grants and anything that required putting pen to paper. She lives in Clemmons, North Carolina with her husband, two daughters, and their beagle, Charlie, where she is at work on her next novel.

Click here to buy: Just Between Friends

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