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“That’s so sad; they’ve been married since college, right?” I don’t know how much Kimberly knows about Max and his family, but given her gossiping ways, I’m sure it’s not nothing.

“They married right out of college—it was quite the scandal.” Kimberly’s eyes light up with the thrill of spilling such a juicy story to my unknowing ears. “Apparently, Max was set to marry someone else, some woman whose family was close with his. It was basically a business deal. Max’s father came from old money; I think that’s at least part of why Max is such an asshole. Denise was heartbroken when he told her of his plan to marry another woman.” Kimberly speaks as if she was actually present at the time all this was happening, instead of just passing along gossip. Maybe, though, that’s what gossips always feel like?

She takes a sip of water before continuing. “Anyway, after graduation, Max rebelled against his father and literally left the woman waiting at the altar. On the very day of the wedding, he showed up at Trish and Ken’s place in his tuxedo and waited outside the door until Denise came out. That same night, the five of them bribed a pastor, using a fancy bottle of scotch and the little bit of cash in their pockets. Denise and Max were married just before midnight, and she was pregnant with Lillian a few weeks later.”

My brain has a hard time picturing Max as a lovesick young man, rushing through the streets of London in a tuxedo, tracking down the woman he loved. The same woman that he now repeatedly betrays by hopping into bed with the likes of Sasha.

“I don’t mean to intrude, but was Christian’s . . .” I’m unsure what to call her. “I mean, Smith’s mother, was she . . .”

With an understanding smile, Kimberly ends my awkward fumbling. “Rose came along many years later. Christian was always the fifth wheel with the two couples. Once he and Ken stopped speaking and Christian came to America . . . that’s when Christian met Rose.”

“How long were they married?” I search Kimberly’s face for signs of discomfort. I don’t want to intrude, but I can’t help being fascinated by the history of this group of friends. I hope that Kimberly knows me well enough by now not to be surprised by how many questions I’m prone to ask.

“Only two years. They’d only been dating a few months before she got sick.” Her voice cracks, and she swallows, tears brimming in her eyes. “He married her anyway . . . She was taken down the aisle . . . in a wheelchair . . . by her father, who insisted on doing it. Halfway to the altar, Christian stepped down and pushed her the rest of the way.” Kimberly breaks into sobs, and I brush away the tears that are falling from my eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she says with a wan smile. “I haven’t told this story in a long time, and it just makes me so emotional.” She reaches across the countertop to pull a wad of tissues from a box and passes one to me. “Just thinking about it always shows me that behind his smart mouth and brilliant mind, there is an incredible loving man.”

She looks at me, then down at the stacks of envelopes. “Shit, I got tears on the cards!” she exclaims, recovering quickly.

I want to ask her more questions about Rose and Smith, Ken and Trish in their college days, but I don’t want to push her.

“He loved Rose, and she healed him, even in her dying days. He only loved one woman his entire life, and she finally broke him of that.”

The story, as lovely as it is, only confuses me further. Who was this woman that Christian loved, and why did he need healing after this?

Kimberly blows her nose and looks up. I turn to the doorway, where Hardin awkwardly glances back and forth between Kimberly and me, taking in the scene unfolding in the kitchen.

“Well, I obviously showed up at the wrong time,” he says.

I can’t help but smile at how we must look, crying for no apparent reason, two massive stacks of cards and envelopes sitting in front of us on the countertop.

Hardin’s hair is wet from his shower, and his face is freshly shaven. He looks incredible in a plain black T-shirt and jeans. He’s wearing nothing on his feet except socks, and his expression is wary as he silently beckons me to him.

“Should I expect you two for dinner tonight?” Kimberly asks as I cross the room to stand at Hardin’s side.

“Yes,” I respond at the same time that Hardin says “No.”

Kim laughs and shakes her head. “Well, text me when you two come to an agreement.”

A FEW MINUTES LATER, as Hardin and I reach the front door, Christian suddenly pops out from a side room, sporting a huge grin. “It’s freezing outside. Where’s your coat, boy?”

“First off, I don’t need a coat. Second, don’t call me boy.” Hardin rolls his eyes.

Christian pulls a heavy navy-blue pea coat from the rack next to the door. “Here, wear this. It’s like a damn heater in and of itself.”

“Hell no,” Hardin scoffs, and I can’t help but laugh.

“Don’t be an idiot; it’s twenty degrees outside. Your lady may need you to keep her warm,” Christian teases, and Hardin’s eyes assess my thick purple sweater, purple coat, and purple beanie, which he hasn’t stopped teasing me about since I pushed it onto my head. I wore this same outfit the night that he took me ice skating, and he teased me then, too. Some things never change.

“Fine,” Hardin grumbles and pushes his long arms into the coat. I’m not surprised to find that he pulls off the look; even the large bronze buttons that line the front of the jacket somehow assume a masculine edge when mixed with Hardin’s simple style. His new jeans, which I have grown really fond of, and his plain black T-shirt, black boots, and now this coat, make him look like he was plucked straight from the pages of a magazine. It’s simply not fair the way he looks so effortlessly perfect.

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