It is true that I am slightly more prone to disaster than the average person, but even I was surprised by the fire.
I mean, it’s not like I had a habit of igniting household goods—either on purpose or by accident. And certainly I had other options for destroying that invitation. Flushing it down the toilet, for example. Shredding it in the garbage disposal. Stabbing it repeatedly with an ice pick. All good ideas, and each would have been gratifying in its own way.
But in the end, I went with fire — and got slightly more than I bargained for in the process, which is often the case with me.
It happened on a Friday.
I’d come home from the Devine Events office a little early since I’d worked late at a corporate event the night before. Normally, I only handled weddings and my partner Coco managed corporate events and fundraisers, but she was way pregnant with her fourth child, had three rowdy boys under age six, and was beyond exhausted all the time. I didn’t mind taking on a few extra projects here and there to help her out. Weddings were slow during March in Michigan, anyway.
The funny thing is, it’s actually my last name—Devine—on the business, because my cousin Mia Devine started it like ten years back, then partnered up with Coco, her college roommate, a year or so later. It was Mia who suggested I take her place when she and her husband moved up north to open a winery a few years ago. The timing had been perfect since I was fresh out of grad school with a business degree but didn’t want a job where I’d be stuck at a desk.
Incidentally, you might think a person slightly prone to disaster would be ill-suited for handling the biggest (and most expensive) day of someone’s life, but somehow misfortune never follows me to work. It’s perfectly content to wait for me at home, however, and that particular afternoon, it practically greeted me at the door.
I’d picked up my mail in the lobby of my building and was idly sorting through it on the elevator ride up to my 23rd floor loft. There was the usual assortment of bills, coupons, special offers, appeals for donations, and crap addressed to the guy who’d lived in my apartment before me, but there, at the bottom of the pile, was something unexpected — a wedding invitation.
For a moment, I frowned. Did I know anyone getting married that wasn’t a client? I attended all those weddings automatically and wouldn’t normally have received an official invitation, since I wasn’t technically a guest.
One glance at the return address and my jaw dropped.
They couldn’t have.
My breath stuck in my lungs and my pulse thundered in my head as I waited for the doors to open on my floor. When they did, I dashed through them and hurried down the hall, my heels catching on the carpet. Once inside my apartment, I slammed the door behind me, dropped my bag and the other pieces of mail on the floor, and tore open the fancy engraved envelope.
Then I gasped.
They had. They actually had.
My blood boiled as I stared in disbelief at the thick ivory card stock in my hand, its elaborate black script requesting the honour of my presence (what a joke) at the marriage of my ex-boyfriend, Richard the Turd, and my former assistant, Lucy the Traitor.
I’d known they were getting married, of course. Before she quit working for me “to focus on the wedding,” Lucy was constantly flashing her big diamond and pitiful-yet-smug expression my way. I’d spent months pretending it didn’t bother me that I’d been dumped for my younger, skinnier, prettier assistant.
Of course I understand.
You can’t help who you love.
I’m not angry. I’m happy for you. Really.
It was all an act, though. Of course I was angry—who wouldn’t be? I’d dated that asshole for almost a year and he’d never once mentioned marriage, yet he’d proposed to Lucy after only a few weeks! And she’d worked for me for two years and had known how I felt about him. I’d wanted to scream, bite their heads off, throw things when they told me. But I didn’t want them to know I was hurt, so I summoned my dignity, smiled, and played the role of the Bigger Person as I congratulated them.
Then I literally became a bigger person, since the whole situation drove me to eat my way through the holidays. I’d probably put on 10 pounds between Halloween and New Year’s, and let me tell you, there is nowhere—nowhere—on my five-foot-two frame to hide an extra ten pounds. I’d spent hours in the gym this year trying to take it off, and I loathe the gym.
It was all their fault.
I shoved the invite back into the envelope and whipped it across the room like a Frisbee. Then I shrugged off my coat, dug my phone from my bag, and wondered which of my sisters I should call first to rant about this. I decided on my younger sister, Maren, only because our older sister, Stella, was a therapist and might try to analyze my anger rather than indulge it. Maren, a free-spirit who believed that everything happened for a reason and gluten-free pancakes tasted as good as regular pancakes, might not share my outrage either, but she seemed a better bet to start with.
“They invited me,” I fumed.
“Lucy and Richard! They sent me a fucking wedding invitation!” I gestured wildly with my free hand.
She gasped. “They didn’t.”
“Why would they do such a thing?” Maren kept her voice low, which meant she was likely still at the yoga studio where she taught.
“To show off, obviously,” I huffed. “To rub my face in the fact that I am a loser and they are the winners.”
“Emme, come on. You’re not a loser.”
I began to pace back and forth in front of the big picture window overlooking downtown Detroit. Normally the view of the city lights coming on at twilight cheered me up, but not today. “Then why can’t I find someone nice? Why do I keep dating assholes who disappoint me? Why don’t my pants fit?”
She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Listen, can we talk about this later? I would be happy to help you find answers to some of these questions you have about yourself, but I’m at the desk and the studio is getting busy with the after-work crowd. Hey, why don’t you come down and take a class? I think it would be great for you, really help you find some peace and balance.”
I wrinkled my nose. I didn’t want peace and balance. I wanted wine and cheese. Maybe a cupcake. “I can’t,” I lied. “I have to work tonight.”
“Okay. Maybe tomorrow?”
“Maybe. I’ll call you.”
We hung up, and I stood there fuming for a moment, eyeballing the invitation, which lay on the floor in front of the television. Tossing my phone onto the couch, I picked up the envelope and took it into the kitchen, holding it away from me between my thumb and forefinger like it was a rotting vegetable. Then I set it on the counter while I yanked the cork from a bottle of Merlot I’d opened last night. Since no one was looking, I took a few swills straight from the bottle while I continued to give the invite the stink eye.
“Lousy motherfuckers,” I seethed, my nostrils flaring. “No class whatsoever.” After a few more mouthfuls, I set the bottle on the counter and pulled the RSVP card from the envelope. It gave me two choices—I could regretfully decline or accept with pleasure.
If I were really the bigger person, I thought, I would put an X on the regretfully decline line and simply send the RSVP card back. That’s what Stella would have done, but Stella has way better control of her emotions than I do. It’s easier for her to be a bigger person because she hogged all the careful, rational genes. I got all the wild, unbalanced ones, which was great for enthusiasm and creativity, but meant my feelings occasionally got the better of me.
Okay, often got the better of me.
Better make that usually.
Maren says this is because I am not centered and lack inner homeostasis (which I think sounds like some sort of infection, so I’m pretty glad I don’t have it). If this had happened to Maren, she might have gotten angry, but then she would have gathered herself with a few deep breaths, repeated some sort of soulful affirmation about letting it go, and tossed the invite into the recycling bin. But while I agreed that the tree deserved a better purpose in its next life, there was no way in hell I could let this go—not without a retaliatory move.
Lifting the bottle to my lips again, I considered my options. I could show up at their stupid wedding and cause some kind of disturbance, but that would be a little bit public, and I prefer to keep my crazy hidden whenever possible. So no attending. But maybe I could send the RSVP card back with a little message from me. Like I could cross out regretfully and pencil in a more accurate word, like disgustedly. Or revoltingly. That might be satisfying.
I set the bottle aside, pulled a thick black sharpie marker from a drawer, and stuck the cap between my teeth. But instead of merely adding a word, I decided to add my own response.
There. That was better.
But it still wasn’t enough.
Maybe it would have been enough if I hadn’t told him I loved him. If I hadn’t thought he might be the one. If I hadn’t confided all this in Lucy, who’d probably been sleeping with him at the time.
No, I couldn’t send this back. Because I didn’t want them to think they had broken me in some way, or shaken my faith in love. They’d shaken my faith in humanity, perhaps, but I still believed in love. I still believed in soul mates. I still wished on stars and blew the fluff off dandelions and read my horoscope every morning, hoping for romance on the horizon.
I just wasn’t sure I believed in myself.
I mean, I must be doing something wrong to be single at thirty when I didn’t want to be. I just didn’t know what it was. And this wedding invitation felt like a kick in the gut, a reminder that I was the butt of the joke, a giant signpost from the universe that said YOU CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS.
It had to be destroyed.
It was while I was opening a second bottle of wine, a Firesteed pinot noir, that it came to me—fire.
Fire was the answer.
It was symbolic!
I would burn that invitation, ignite one little corner and watch the flames eat away at their fancy paper and their pretentious words and their choice of chicken or steak. I’d turn their love to ashes, just like they’d done to my pride. Then I would truly be over the betrayal, and I’d let it go. I’d move on. I’d rise from the embers like a phoenix, triumphant and strong!
I put the RSVP card back into the envelope and opened the kitchen drawer again. My hands shook as I pulled out a utility lighter. It ignited with a gratifying click. I picked up the invitation in the other hand, my lower lip caught between my teeth. Then I carefully set it ablaze, my heart racing as the flames crept toward my fingers, much quicker than I’d expected. In fact, the thing was burning so fast that it startled me, and I dropped it.
This probably would have been okay except for the fact that I had this Easter bunny decoration sitting on my counter that turned out to be highly flammable. It was cute—at least, it had been before I barbecued it—a white rabbit standing on its hind legs with big floppy ears, faux fur, and a straw pack on its back with colored eggs in it.
Before I knew it, there was a raging rabbit inferno right in front of me. I totally panicked, screaming at the top of my lungs and frantically looking around for something to put out the fire with. The only thing at hand was the bottle of wine, but thankfully I at least had the good sense not to pour that on the flames.
In hindsight, of course, there were any number of things I could have done. Aimed the faucet nozzle at the blaze and drowned the bunny. Smothered the bunny with the kitchen rug. Recalled that there was a fire extinguisher right below the sink.
I did none of those things.
Instead, I stood there freaking out, flailing my arms and continuing to shriek, imagining the headlines: BITTER OLD MAID BURNS DOWN HISTORIC BUILDING IN JEALOUS RAGE. I wondered if I should dial 911 or run into the hall and pull the fire alarm. It seemed like I might save more lives if I got everyone out of the building, so I bolted for the door. I was halfway there when I remembered the lesson from visiting the firehouse in kindergarten – you were supposed to crawl if your house was on fire so you wouldn’t breathe in the smoke! Immediately I dropped to my hands and knees and kept moving.
Right at that moment, the door to my apartment swung open and my neighbor from across the hall burst in. He wore a suit and tie and a worried expression.
I looked up at him from my hands and knees. “Nate! Help!”
“Emme, what the hell? Why are you screaming?”
“Fire! In the kitchen!”
He moved past me with long, quick strides. Scrambling to my feet, I followed behind. The rabbit was still engulfed in flames on the counter. Without a word, Nate went straight for the extinguisher under the sink and sprayed the poor creature with huge clouds of white. When the fire was out, the two of us stood next to each other, staring at the mess on the counter.
“Jesus, Em. What did the bunny ever do to you?”
I flattened a palm over my chest. My heart was beating way too fast. “I think I’m having a heart attack.”
“You’re not having a heart attack. Do I even want to know how this happened?” Nate gave me a sidelong look.
Closing my eyes, I took a deep, slow breath and exhaled. “Probably not.”
“And yet I’m oddly curious.” Nate, maddeningly calm as usual, returned the fire extinguisher to the cabinet and closed the door. “Fire is one calamity from which I haven’t had to rescue you. And there aren’t many of those left.” He straightened and leaned back against the sink, crossing his arms over his chest. Not a speck of dust on his black suit. Not a hair out of place.
Smoothing back the wayward strands that had escaped my bun, I opened my mouth to defend myself, but wasn’t sure how to do it. Rescue seemed too strong a word for the way Nate occasionally helped me out, but I will admit to calling him whenever I saw a big spider in my apartment or heard a strange noise in the night or locked myself out. And he always answered the call, even if he had to come home from work to resc—
Ahem. To help me out. I wasn’t the kind of girl who needed or wanted to be rescued.
“It was an accident,” I said, brushing dust off my skirt.
“I assumed that much. You’re a little crazy, but not that kind of crazy.” His smile widened and he cocked his head. “And why, exactly, were you crawling on the floor?”
My face got hot, but I lifted my chin and defended my knowledge of kindergarten fire safety. “You’re supposed to crawl when your house is on fire. Everybody knows that.”
He burst out laughing. “I see. And where were you planning to crawl?”
“Into the hallway to pull the fire alarm,” I said, like it was obvious. “So I could save everyone, including you, I might add.”
That made him laugh even harder, which made me feel even smaller next to his six-foot frame. “Thank you for that. Can I ask why you didn’t just use the fire extinguisher?”
“I don’t know. I couldn’t think, okay? I forgot it was there.”
“Ah. Well, next time you play with matches, try to remember it.”
“I wasn’t playing with matches,” I said irritably. “I was trying to burn something, and set the rabbit on fire by mistake.”
“What were you trying to burn?”
I ignored the question and went to the upper cabinet where I kept my wine glasses. Taking two out, I set them on the island and reached for the bottle of wine on the counter behind Nate. He didn’t move out of my way, and I came close enough to smell him.
Nate always smelled good, even when he’d just come from the gym. It was totally unfair – if the universe was going to give a man the kind of good looks it had bestowed upon Nate Pearson, the chiseled jaw, blue-eyed movie star kind that melted hearts, willpower, and panties with a single glance, then it could have at least given him overactive sweat glands or something. But no. As far as the male species went, he was about as perfect a specimen as you could imagine, at least physically. Yet another example of how the universe favors some people more than others.
Not that I had anything against Nate, other than the fact that he was a divorce attorney and thought it was insane that people spent a fortune on their weddings—including my fee—when half of those marriages were going to fail. Needless to say, we disagreed on things like marriage, love, soulmates, and wishing on stars. Actually, we disagreed on almost everything. But I’d never been one to shy away from conflict, and both of us liked a good argument.
That said, I didn’t particularly feel like arguing about this. Nate was not going to understand my feelings.
“Well?” he prompted.
“Let’s just say I had a bad day,” I told him as I poured us some wine.
“Don’t tell me — the mother of the groom refuses to wear beige.”
“Very funny.” I handed him his glass. “Are we ever going to have a conversation where you don’t make fun of what I do?”
“I doubt it.” He took a sip. “Thanks. Now what were you trying to burn? And don’t bother lying because you’re horrible at it, and you know I’ll get the truth out of you anyway.”
It was true. I swear, the man could talk the bark off a tree. I steeled myself and gave in. “A wedding invitation.”
A grin tugged at his mouth. “Only you.” This is his favorite thing to say when I get myself into troublesome situations.
“It wasn’t just any wedding invitation,” I said defensively.
“Do go on.”
“It was for Lucy and Richard’s wedding.”
He gasped dramatically. “Lucy the Traitor and Richard the Turd are getting married?”
“Yes! And they had the audacity to invite me!” Just thinking about it made me angry all over again. “Talk about rude. They don’t really want me there. They did it just to spite me. To shove it in my face.”
“I see. And burning their wedding invitation was going to make you feel better?”
“I don’t know. I just got so mad, I needed to express it somehow. Don’t you ever get that mad?” I asked him, although I knew the answer. Nate could always keep his cool. He probably didn’t even sweat in the sauna.
“Nope. I don’t give anyone that sort of power over me.”
I rolled my eyes. “I know, I know. Feelings are bad.”
“I never said feelings are bad.”
“You just don’t have them,” I prodded.
“I have them. I’m just careful with them — not like some people I know who hand them over at every opportunity.” He gave me a pointed look over the rim of his wine glass.
“I don’t just hand them over,” I said in a huff.
“You’re at least buy one, get one free.” He took a drink, enjoying this a little too much.
“Well, how am I supposed to just turn it off? When I feel something, I feel it deeply.” I paused and took another drink, then studied the toes of my shoes. “My sister says I’m not balanced, that I lack inner peace.” I peeked up at him. “Do you think that?”
“Normally, I think all that stuff is a bunch of B.S.” A smile tugged at his lips as he glanced behind him at the charred rabbit. “But in your case, I think it might be true.”
“Sorry I’m not as perfect as you,” I bristled.
“No one is.” He countered my dirty look with a wink. “Look. Did it ever occur to you that maybe the invitation was sincere? Maybe they thought you’d want to come.”
“Are you being serious right now?”
He shrugged. “You told them you didn’t care about their relationship. You told them you were happy for them.”
“I was lying, Nate! I just didn’t want them to see how hurt I felt. How stupid I was.”
“You weren’t stupid, Emme.” Nate shook his head. “You just trusted people you shouldn’t have. It happens all the time. Have you seen my car? My flat screen? My wristwatch collection? All paid for with disappointment and broken trust.”
I frowned. “That doesn’t help. I feel like a fool.”
“So you’ve learned a lesson. Don’t be so trusting next time. Don’t get so carried away.”
“I guess.” But somehow his advice didn’t make me feel any better either. Why wouldn’t I trust someone who claimed to care about me? Who said he loved me? Who gave me every indication, at least outwardly, that he was happy? How was I supposed to know who to trust and who would disappoint me? My eyes filled with tears. Embarrassed, I tried to blink them away.
Nate tapped me on the nose. “Hey. Cheer up, calamity. It’s Friday night. Let’s do something fun.” He finished the wine in his glass and set it on the counter.
“No date tonight?” I asked, surprised. Rare was the weekend night Nate wasn’t out on the town with a beautiful woman — or several — on his arm. I’d seen them leaving his apartment the next morning on multiple occasions. He definitely had a type: tall, bombshell brunettes with long legs and big chests. Needless to say, I did not fit the bill, which was just as well. I didn’t want a man who was “careful” with his feelings. I wanted a man who was generous with them. And I liked being different from all those one-nighters. Our friendship felt special.
He shook his head. “Originally, I was going to have dinner with my mother, but she wasn’t feeling well enough to make the drive down.”
“Oh. Nothing serious, I hope.” I didn’t know a lot about Nate’s family, but I had met his mother once, and she’d seemed unusually frail and shaky to me. I remember she’d been wearing gloves in the middle of May.
“Nothing serious. Anyway, lucky for you, that means my evening is free. Do you want to go out? Or come over and watch a movie? I’ll even watch Skyfall.”
We both loved Bond flicks, but Nate found every Bond actor other than Sean Connery a personal affront. I happened to prefer Daniel Craig. “That’s big of you.”
“What can I say? I’m that kind of guy. And I don’t like to see you so upset.” He grabbed my head and wobbled it side to side. “So let’s do something to put a smile on that face. Preferably something that does not involve fire.”
I tried to push his hands away, but I was laughing. “That could have happened to anybody.”
“Nope. Only you.” He started for the door, and I trailed at his heels. “Come over whenever.”
“You’re telling me you’ve never started a fire in the kitchen by mistake? Not even a small one?”
Reaching the door, he pulled it open and tossed a rakish grin over his shoulder. “I set my fires in the bedroom, calamity. And they’re never small.”
My stomach flipped as the door shut behind him, his words setting off a stirring deep inside me. Relax, you silly fool. He’s not flirting with you — he’s bragging.
Back in the kitchen, I got some paper towel and started to clean up the mess on the counter, shoving the thought of Nate in his bedroom from my mind.
But the fluttery feeling in my belly lingered.