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Weddings, Willows, and Revised Expectations

by V. Joy Palmer

Kaylee McGrurd feels like life has left her behind. Her best friends have all moved out, married, or are in the process of matrimony. Meanwhile, she’s lost another job, and her daily diet consists of noodles that are better suited as packing material.

Then Kaylee’s ex, Gabe Sanders, enters the equation.

Gabe walked out on Kaylee without warning or explanation nine years earlier, but now he’s been brought back to the area for the unforeseen future. And he’s in need of new lead vocalist for his wedding band.

A dwindling account balance calls for desperate measures, and Kaylee reluctantly accepts Gabe’s offer. While the former couple works together in the midst of happy marriages and heartfelt melodies, secrets and the need for forgiveness highlight the strife between them…and the hope that maybe God’s rewriting the conclusion to their story.


When real life starts to mirror the first verse of any number of country breakup songs, you should expect it to get messy.

I didn’t. That’s my bad.

Mistake Number One: thinking that it was just a coincidence that “What Hurts the Most” by Rascal Flatts was playing on the radio that day. I should have recognized the foreshadowing in the brokenhearted lyrics.

If I had, maybe I could have prevented complete and total devastation, humiliation, and did I mention devastation? The memories of that last day together flood my entire body like a crashing tsunami, from my trembling fingertips to the dumb look of shock that graces my stiff face as I stare…

At him!

I beseech thee, learn from my mistakes as I share my tale of woe….

Everything feels very Boy Meets World, but what’s wrong with the idea of two eighteen-year-olds running away in the dead of night to a justice of the peace’s house to complete the final phase of their elopement? Who cares that my walk down the aisle is essentially a drive down the New Jersey boardwalk?

I look out the window and squint.

A boardwalk that I can just make out in the distance behind some buildings…

A line from Boy Meets World about how only creeps and weirdos are out this time of the night flashes through my mind.

That’s us. A couple of creeps and weirdos. In love. Totally worked out for Cory and Topanga. (Not one word out of you about their multiple breakups! Or the fact that they’re, you know, not real!)

I glance at Gabe, noting the tense set of his shoulders that scream everything is not okay in Whoville.

Gulp. (I mean it. Don’t say anything!)

Everything is quiet. Very quiet. Even the ever-present jukebox of songs in my head are quiet. Nothing is playing. No confirmation. No warning. No feeling. Just the eerie quiet before the internal storm rages.

I resist biting my lower lip because if I do, Gabe will know I’m about to freak out. I will remain calm. Wesley calm. Calm like the sea after a storm…

Oy. Bad analogy. Who wants to go through the storm to get to the calm?

We turn down a long driveway, and a big orange house comes into view. Behind the hideously painted house, the ocean catches bits of moonlight to toss back and forth. The car lurches to a stop next to a blue Sedan.

Behold, our future.

“You ready?” Gabe askes in a wooden voice.

And that’s when the conga line of panic starts to dance through my head. Like I can hear the annoying rhythm as each doubt shimmies by. How could I do this? What about my parents? I know that we are not close by any stretch of the imagination, but what if they wanted to be at their only daughter’s wedding? My brother is only ten and vehemently believes girls are gross, so they won’t get another chance for a long time—or ever, if my brother sticks to the he-man, woman-hater vows, courtesy of Little Rascals. And what about Izze? She’s the kind of best friend who’s closer than a sister. She would be devastated if she missed my wedding. And what about Gabe? He’s not exactly in the best place right now…

“Gabe,” I whisper, “are you sure about this?”

“I’m not sure about this necktie you talked me into.” He tugs at his collar in an attempt to loosen the offending, paisley-patterned garment. “Paisley, seriously? Do I look like a paisley kind of guy to you?”

“That’s not what I mean.” I shift so I can look at him better, but I can’t read his gray eyes thanks to the dark car. “Three days ago, this all seemed so romantic, but you just had a huge emotional bomb dropped on you. And it’s like…it’s seriously only been three days since everything happened. Maybe this isn’t the best time. I mean, you’re—”

“Has nothing to do with this,” Gabe says as he cuts me off and grabs his black suit jacket from the backseat.

Cue awkward silence.

Gabe lays the suit jacket across his lap and takes my hand in his. “Yes, to answer your question. I love you, and I want to marry you.” But that muscle on the left side of his jaw starts to twitch, something that only happens when he’s anxious in a bad way.

But I choose to ignore it like the dolt I know I will call myself in the future. I coax a tight smile out of my strained facial features. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

He passes me a lemon drop candy. “Eat your nasty version of chocolate, Love.” He winks, but even that looks stiff.

I unwrap the sour candy and pop it into my mouth, tucking the plastic wrapper into the cupholder in the middle console. Normally, these are like magic to my overwrought nerves.

But I’m worried about him.

He’s shutting me out. He won’t talk about his parents’ abrupt separation and impending divorce. I can barely wrap my head around the thought of two people who have always struck me as the perfect couple divorcing. And if I can’t believe it, then it’s a hundred and twelve percent more world-shattering for Gabe. And he refuses to talk about it, changing the subject to our impending marriage whenever I bring it up.

Impending sounds bad right there, doesn’t it?

“Do you think we could use a Taylor Swift song—like “Mary’s Song”—for that part where we walk down the aisle afterwards? What is that part called?” Despite the question, he stares out the window as if in a daze.

“It’s the recessional.” I finally succumb to the urge to bite my lower lip. Not that he’s even looking at me, so it’s not like he’ll notice anything is wrong.

I love him.

This is a good idea.

It is.

Not. One. Word.

We climb out of the car at the same time. All at once, something sweet-smelling yet oddly revolting hits me. Oh, my. You can really feel this stink in the eyes. I think this is the stink that “Weird Al” Yankovic is referring to in “Trash Day.”

“What is that?” I choke the question out in between gasps of tainted air. It even burns the throat. I yank my dark blue, sparkly sweater off and attempt to wrap it around my head like an air-filtering turban.

“The ocean would be my guess,” Gabe says between his fingers.

Great, so this is my fault thanks to my life-long dream to get married on the beach. I thought the miraculous discovery of a justice of a peace who did weddings in her home on the beach was like God blessing this. But thanks to the acidic feeling that’s working to actively liquefy my eyeballs, I’m starting to wonder about this omen business. Does God send bad omens to say, Stop! You are making the biggest mistake of your life! these days? Is this coma-inducing smell my talking donkey?

It would be so much easier if He used that big, booming voice of His. Then the message wouldn’t get lost in translation, and I wouldn’t be blind by the time I said I do.

Gabe winks at me. “Something to tell the grandkids.”

And just like that, all my doubts and fears melt away. Because I do love this man, and I have no doubt that he’s the one God picked for me. My Daddy wouldn’t steer me wrong.

I grin at him. “Let’s do this,” I say again, but this time, I mean it.

We run to the house, and Gabe knocks on the door. An elderly man in a brown suit opens it and without missing a beat (remember, my sweater is still wrapped around my head) steps to the side. “That algae is pretty sulfurous smelling lately. Come in before your bride faints.”

My heart skips a beat at being called Gabe’s bride, and my feet are more than happy to cross the threshold into what I hope and pray is an odorless home.

“My name is Roland, Rolly for short. Delia, the justice of the peace, is my wife. She’ll be downstairs in a few minutes.” He sticks his hand out for me to shake, then moves to Gabe. The overhead light of the entryway glints off the top of his balding head.

When Rolly turns around, Gabe taps the top of his head and mouths, It’s safe to breathe now.

I smile at him with my eyes and unwind the sweater from around my head. Slipping the light cardigan over my shoulders, I then attempt to smooth down my static-infused red tresses.

“Do you have the money?”

I jump, the unexpected mafia-ish question startling me as much as the short, blunt woman in unicorn slippers suddenly standing before me. Where did she come from?

“Yes.” Gabe passes her an envelope overflowing with cash.

Yeah, not helping the mafia image.

Delia, I presume, snatches the envelope from Gabe’s hand and counts it, occasionally muttering under her breath. “Okay.” She lifts her head, and her countenance immediately changes. “Let’s make our way to the sunroom where the ceremony will be held.” Her voice drips with a sweetness that comes from being paid.

Delia charges ahead, informing us all about what we can expect at the ceremony—our wedding!—as she walks. However, I don’t hear any of it. I reach out and grasp Gabe’s clammy hand, giving it a gentle squeeze.

But he doesn’t respond.

“Here we are.” Delia stops in front of two rather ornate doors and pushes them open.

I study the room I will remember for eternity. Three of the four walls are made of floor-to-ceiling glass, providing a stunning view of the moon-lit beach and ocean. The room is set up to look like a chapel, complete with five white-painted wooden chairs on each side of the room to make an aisle, a matching wooden arch, and an old organ centered at the far side of the room. I step into the room to get a better look, and I swear the worn wood of the floor creaks before my navy-blue flats brush the surface. There’s some type of fern in a gray ceramic vase in each corner, but the rest of the room isn’t decorated.

It’s beautiful yet simple…but not what I had been imagining for the last three years. I should feel something more about this sacred space, but I don’t. And that scares me almost as much as the fact that Gabe hasn’t even tried to hide the way he’s flinched every eighty-four seconds since we stepped into this house.

He flinches like that when he’s hiding something.

“I’ll be right back. You can set the marriage license on top of the organ,” Delia instructs.

Gabe crosses the room to do as she says, and I attempt to smooth the wrinkles from the ivory lace dress I secretly purchased from a thrift store two days ago. Long car rides and dresses don’t mix.

“Hey.” Gabe shuffles over and takes my left hand. “I want you to have something.” He slips something onto my ring finger. I look down to see his class ring, the emerald looking huge on my bony finger. I smile. He always said he picked out the “green stone” because it reminded him of my eyes.

I look into his gray eyes. “Thank you.”

He squeezes my hand. “It can be your something, uh, new? Or old?”

“Both. And borrowed.”

“No, it’s not borrowed. It’s yours. Forever. No matter what.”

Cue the pile of ooey-gooey me.

With a hint of paranoia over his word choice…

A shadow darkens his eyes, but just then, Delia and Rolly reappear.

“Okay, love birds, it’s time. Rolly, man your station. Gabe and Kaylee, right?” She waits for us to nod before continuing. “Why don’t you guys stand at the back of the room and walk down the aisle together, but count to ten before you start.” The way Delia says this makes it clear that she’s instructing us and not asking us what we’d like to do for our wedding.

Gabe and I move to take our places. Delia, who is still wearing her unicorn slippers, stands square under the arch. Rolly starts to play Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March.” After counting to ten, we start to walk.

The strains—cough, cough—of the wedding march fill the small room.

This is nothing like how I imagined this day would be. But it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t.

Is Gabe squirming? I glance at him out of the corner of my eye. I must be crazy.

I hope… Once again, that sliver of doubt seems very, very possible.

We stop in front of Delia, her musky perfume settling around us, and Rolly stops playing. “You walked too fast,” he mutters.

Delia shoots him a withering look, before smiling at us. “We are gathered here today to join the two of you in marriage. Turn to face each other and join hands.”

We do as we are instructed. Apparently, that’s the theme of our wedding. Very original. I attempt to smile at Gabe.

He grimaces.

Repeat after me,” Delia says, looking at Gabe. “I—”

Gabe drops my hand and takes a step back, casting a look over his shoulder.

The music of my soul Zips! to a stop like it’s scratched up vinyl.

“Oh, not again,” Delia mutters behind me.

“I’m sorry, Kaylee. I can’t do this.”

The world slows down. Everything feels surreal. You know when something awful happens and your mind can’t process it, so everything starts to feel fuzzy and disoriented? Yeah, that’s only a fraction of how I feel right now.

Everyone stands there in painful, frozen silence for approximately six beats.

“I-I can’t do this,” he says again.

“What? What do you mean you can’t do this? You said you loved me. That you wanted to marry me. For crying out loud, you were the one who proposed!” I burst. This can’t be happening. I fell asleep on the way here. I’m dreaming. When I wake up, Gabe and I will get married—minus the sulfur smell.

He runs a hand through his wavy black hair. “I know, and I am so sorry. Please, please believe that.” His voice breaks, but I refuse to feel an inkling of compassion.

The truth hits me in full force right then, and my knees warble. Even though I’m almost twice her size, Delia reaches out to steady me.

“But you’re walking out on me? You don’t abandon the people you love.” I know that firsthand thanks to my parents.

“I can’t hurt you, Kaylee. If I marry you, I’ll hurt you.”

“As opposed to right now, where you’re hurting me?” I spit.

“You won’t get your deposit back,” Delia chimes into the conversation, as if that will convince him.

But it won’t. I know that look. I know how stubborn he is.

And he’s made up his mind.

“I’m sorry, Kaylee. I am so sorry.” His voice breaks, and he clears his throat before continuing. “But I can’t do this to you.” With that, Gabe turns around and jogs through the doorway. A moment later the front door slams shut and the sound of the car engine roaring to life fills my ears.

“Maybe you’re cursed, Delia,” Rolly says.

“Now is not the time for your dumb jokes, Roland.”

So much for happily ever after.

Chapter 1

I grin at one of my best friends as she thrusts the bouquet of wildflowers into the air and lets out a whoop of joy.

Apryl grins at Chance, and they share a quick kiss as everyone claps for them. “Let’s get this party started!” she shouts.

That’s my cue. I’m in charge of the music, you know. But by “music,” I mean the playlist. I go to the little table where an iPod dock is set up, and I start the reception playlist. First up, “Ride of the Valkyries.”

Apryl wanted to greet married life with an enthusiastic battle cry.

The small, small wedding took place in the willow grove near the house Apryl and Courtney grew up in, which is also now the headquarters of Willow Grove Weddings, a wedding venue decoration service. So obviously this is a Willow Grove Wedding. It’s definitely…eclectic, but that’s Apryl. The color—brownish sepia, burnt oranges, deep greens, and touches of sapphire blue—of the pieces created the theme of the wedding, and everything looks lovely amidst the willows. The delicate branches, fully intact thanks to the unusually long summer, sway in the breeze, creating the perfect Kodak moment.

The next song on the playlist starts, and Frank Sinatra croons out “The Way You Look Tonight” over the speakers.

Something moves out of the corner of my eye. A photographer shuffles at the outskirts of the reception area, attempting to capture that Kodak moment. Oh, that’s right. Miles thought it’d be cool to post some pictures from Apryl and Chance’s wedding on the website.


I whip my head back and forth, attempting to follow the call of my bestie. Is it possible to give yourself whiplash from turning too fast?

I must be getting old.

Izze—who is apparently standing right next to me—tilts her head, waiting for me to say something.

I blink at her. “What did I miss?”

“Seriously? I’ve been talking to you for at least three minutes.”

“Oh.” I give her a sheepish grin and gesture toward the makeshift dance floor where Chance and Apryl are already attempting the Charleston. “Sorry. I was just looking around. It’s gorgeous.”

“Right? A part of me can’t believe they actually got everything done in just a few weeks.” Izze shifts to look around at the “intimate gathering of family and friends,” as Courtney put it when she declared herself Wedding Planner and Sister of the Bride.

“If anyone can pull off a wedding that quickly, it’s Apryl. Besides, she’s not the type to go for a long engagement.” But to be fair, while none of us expected her to wait as long as Courtney and Dallas (whose wedding isn’t for another couple months), we were all a bit thrown when they announced the day after Chance proposed that they would be getting married in three weeks.

Izze snorts. “I can’t blame her there. I wasn’t a fan of ours.”

“You weren’t a fan of our what?” Miles asks as he steps behind his wife and wraps his arms around her waist.

“Our long engagement.” Izze makes a face.

Miles snickers. “Really. I never knew that. I wish you were more vocal about what you do and don’t like. You should really work on that, love of my life.”

Izze hasn’t finished rolling her eyes before Miles leans in and whispers in her ear. The next second, he’s whisking her to the dance floor.

And I’m alone.


It seems like that melody is the soundtrack of my life.

I walk into Sew Magical still clad in my wedding attire, a simple A-line dress that I had made from some fabric that Ann (my boss) had given me as a birthday present. After Apryl and Chance left for their honeymoon, and the rest of us spent a few hours tearing down Apryl’s magical garden party in the willow grove, I went to Sew Magical (the alterations and fabric store where I work) at the request of an urgent voicemail.

And I’m trying not to panic.

Uber urgent voicemails are never good. Especially the ones that insist you, “Please come immediately because it is urgent!”

I make my way to the office and knock on the door.

“Come in.”

I open the door and immediately freeze.

What on earth?

Ann flits from one corner of the room to the next, stuffing things in boxes that are scattered everywhere. The Kimono she made out of scrap fabric whirls and twists with each spastic movement like she’s performing an interpretive dance. While the forty-seven-year-old wife and mom of two grown children had always been eccentric, this is a new level of intensely weird.

Ann jerks to a stop, having just noticed me. The sheer fabric of her Kimono takes two beats to follow her lead. “Kaylee.” She glances around at the chaos and sighs. “I’m so sorry.”

That’s a bad sign.

“You don’t need to be sorry.” I offer a comforting smile. I have no idea why she needs to be comforted, but it’s obvious that she does. I’m getting the overwhelming urge to make her my famous boxed brownies.

Yes, I said boxed. I can cook all sorts of things, and I have been doing just that since I was old enough to operate the oven unsupervised. Sometimes Izze even gifts me cookbooks and marks the recipes that she wants me to try. I won’t be auditioning for Chopped! or anything like that, but I can make almost anything.

Except brownies. I undercook them or overcook them whenever I try to make them from scratch, and the kitchen always looks like Izze tried to make a grilled cheese (don’t ask). It is my second biggest secret, and my greatest cooking shame. Only Izze knows, something she takes great pleasure in knowing. The cookbooks that she gives me always have a brownie recipe that’s marked with an LOL! and a taunting smiley face.

But back to Ann, who’s practically leaking saltwater from every pore.

She reigns in her emotions and lets out a heavy sigh. “Take a seat, Kaylee.”

A sense of foreboding fills me as I shuffle and sit in the oversized orange chair on the other side of her desk. She takes the purple furry chair across from me.

I start to subtly bite my bottom lip. I can’t help it. My spirit knows what she’s going to say before she says it. I’ve been here before. I’ve been the one who’s been let go because of budgets and bottom lines and whatever.

No, no, no! NO, God! I was supposed to have more time. She promised!

“I’m closing the store,” she announces.

Yup. There’s my trusty intuition. It never fails me. Well, that one time…but that was more because I ignored it. Looking back, my intuition was screaming at me on The Day That Shall Not Be Named.

I open my mouth to ask why or say that I’m sorry, but Ann doesn’t notice and continues to explain. “We are moving to Oregon this weekend. As you know, my father has dementia, and he ended up in the hospital over the weekend due to a bad fall. My mother is overwhelmed by the whole situation. Pete and I have decided to accelerate our timetable, so we’re moving. This weekend.”

“I’m sorry, Ann,” I finally say. What am I supposed to say? How dare you leave now when you promised it would be six months to a year! There’s no way you’re leaving! One of the many lessons Friends has taught me is that chaining her to the desk will result in more problems.

She hangs her head. “I’m the one who is sorry. I assured you that it would be months, giving you time to find a new job. I hate to do this to you. I am really so very sorry, but we need to go. I need to be with them.”

“It’s okay, Ann. I understand. Really,” I say because that’s what you’re supposed to say. And because part of me really does understand. I just wish the other part of me—the part that’s convinced I’m going to have to sell a kidney on the black market to make next month’s rent—wasn’t shrieking so loudly in my inner ear.

Ann sniffles. “Thank you, Kaylee.” Her hoarse voice squeezes every ounce of compassion and empathy from my heart.

Ann keeps talking about all the details as my rear end goes numb in the old, uncomfortable chair. Then I offer to help her pack up her office. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do. A few hours later, I’m handing my key to Sew Magical to Ann and grabbing my small box of belongings. I won’t be coming back after this. The radio in my head starts to play “This Is the Stuff” by Francesca Battistelli, a catchy tune about how annoying and frustrating stuff in life points us back to God.

No offense to Francesca, but I’m not feeling it.

I don’t think I’m feeling anything.

Shouldn’t I be feeling sentimental?

I feel like I should be, but I think a small part of me always knew my time at Sew Magical was temporary. I never felt settled.

However, I’d take anything over the completely-at-the-mercy-of-the-raging-ocean feeling that’s threatening to consume me right now. A scratching starts in my chest, the panic dying to get out and unleash havoc on me. Balancing the box of measly belongings on my hip, I yank the car door open, throw the insulting cardboard cube of failure into the passenger seat, and climb into my ancient Subaru.

“Get your act together,” I tell myself. “You cannot fall apart here. Ann is under enough pressure as it is.”

When my internal radio switches to “Going to the Chapel,” I know where I’m going. My secret place. My hideaway. The haven of my soul when I’m falling apart.

My childhood church. Or more specifically, the wedding chapel behind the church.

Gabe took a deep breath and brushed from his clothes the wood shavings from the carving he’d been working on earlier in the day before pushing open the double doors of the small wedding chapel. Thankfully, the pastor still left it unlocked, something that always used to baffle Gabe in his teens. But after each spontaneous trip to the unexpected sanctuary over the years, he was thankful the pastor had deemed the small neighborhood safe.

He glanced around the familiar room. It wasn’t like there was anything to steal in this building. Besides the sparse furniture in the bridal room, the only things in the chapel where the pews and the podium, all of which were bolted to the floor in a way that could only be described as the overkill that killed overkill.

Gabe went to the first pew on the left, narrowly dodging an old piece of gum that someone had left in plain view. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a receipt from the gas station he’d stopped at on his way here and used that to pull the gum off the seat before some poor woman sat in it at the next wedding. Crinkling the gum-plastered receipt into the palm of his hand, he mentally flipped through his To-Do List.

He had to find an apartment.

He had to convince the remaining members of the band to relocate with him for the time being and find a new lead singer.

He had to help his mom—the most frustrating part of all.

Okay. It wasn’t like she asked for diabetes. It wasn’t like she asked for the reduced blood flow that was making her diabetes difficult to manage, putting her at the brink of an amputation. And it wasn’t like she asked Gabe to upheave his entire life and move home to support her.

She hadn’t asked, and that’s why he was annoyed. If she had at least asked, then he felt like he could justify his annoyance at—hopefully temporarily—moving back to the area. But she hadn’t asked, hadn’t even hinted, so Gabe couldn’t be annoyed about his own stupid decision to return to the place he’d abandoned. But after everything hit the fan, his mom had been a rock. Gloria Sanders was strong. She’d adjusted to a life she never wanted and never could have imagined, but Gabe wanted better for her. She tried to help Gabe the best she could through the aftermath. The least Gabe could do was help her through this.

He leaned back in the pew, soaking in the musty, wooded scent of the tiny chapel. His Bible lay beside him, forgotten. He’d been instructed to read the books of Luke, Acts, and 1 Timothy before his recovery group met later this week. Gabe had figured if he was going “to strengthen his spirit with truth” then he might as well start reading the passages here.

The stale air strengthened Gabe. The hard pews strengthened him. This place strengthened him. Year after year, the tiny wedding chapel grounded Gabe in his promise, his resolve, his purpose because her siren’s call to come and find her was too great to ignore with white-knuckling willpower. One note of her loving song would ensure that he never emerged. That note would guarantee devastation he would be powerless to stop, devastation that would destroy that siren herself.

“Siren” wasn’t really a fair way to describe her. With the exception of singing, the two had nothing in common. The call to love her was the true siren.

And Gabe couldn’t do that again. He wouldn’t do that to her again.

Which made what happened next seem like the Heavenly version of the legendary Kobayashi Maru Test from Star Trek, designed to make him fail and fail hard.

The double doors where flung open for the second time that day, and Gabe could almost hear them groan from the strain of it. He slouched down in his seat, hoping the intruder would take the hint.

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize anyone was in here.”

Gabe’s entire body whirled in the pew to face the back door, fully under the spell of the siren’s song he hadn’t heard in nine long years.