BETTER THAN CHOCOLATE – Chapter 1: The Phone Call

 

 

Three canvas shopping bags weigh me down as I stumble through my apartment door, sighing when the blast of air conditioning hits me. I navigate the seven paces to my galley kitchen, then drop my groceries on the counter and rifle through the bags until I find my Snickers bar. Luckily, it hasn’t melted in the late June heat. Tearing open the wrapper, I take a huge bite.

Heaven . . . after a long day on my feet rolling pastries and filling cream puffs.

I love my job, which normally takes my mind off my lack of a history-related career and my latest string of bad first dates. But then again, nothing is better than chocolate.

My cell rings, and I struggle to chew the mouthful of gooey goodness well enough to swallow, while I extract my phone from the bottom of my purse. A picture of my bleach-blond best friend, Sadie Miller, flashes on the screen. I force down my half-chewed chocolate and lift the phone to my ear.woman-791874_1280

“Sadie-lady!”

I haven’t talked to Sadie in a few weeks, other than text messages and posting on Facebook, and it’s been even longer since we last saw each other. I went up to Atlanta in April to visit her and her fiancé, Ryan Wutkowski, but they haven’t been to Savannah since I moved into this postage-stamp-sized apartment. Sadie hates how old-fashioned things feel down here, especially when summer ramps up.

A squeal sounds on the other end of the line. “Oh, my God, Carmella, I’m so excited! I’m getting married in a month!”

“I know.” I grin and loosen the candy wrapper, then freeze. “Wait . . . What?”

“I’m getting married in St. Croix at the end of July. And you’re gonna be my maid of honor.”

The Snickers bar hovers millimeters from my lips. “You’re getting married in a month, in a foreign country, and you’re just now asking me to be your maid of honor? Are you kidding?”

“There’s nobody else, Carmella. You have to come.”

I stuff another bite of chocolate into my mouth. It’s not heaven anymore. It’s survival. “I don’t know―” I begin, fighting to enunciate around nougat, caramel, and peanuts.

“What’s that crinkling?” Sadie interrupts. “Carmella! No Snickers bars!”

“Hey, I work out and I walk everywhere,” I protest, swallowing. Still, I twist the wrapper and put the rest of the bar into the fridge for later. “Anyway . . . Wouldn’t it be better for you to have Kate?”

Though she’s made mention of me being her maid of honor in the past, I’d always figured Sadie would ask her sister when it came down to it. But from what I understand, they haven’t been on good terms since their parents got divorced last year. Sadie doesn’t talk about it much.

Still, this is her wedding. Surely, some sort of temporary reconciliation could be reached for such a momentous event.

“I can’t have Kate,” Sadie whines on the other end of the line. “She’d probably do something sinister to ruin the ceremony, just for the hell of it.”

I’ve only met Kate Miller once, when Sadie and I graduated from the University of Georgia six years ago. But I’m pretty sure Kate wouldn’t be so mean as to plot some devious way to destroy her sister’s wedding.

However, I won’t convince Sadie of that, so I try a different tactic. “I’m not sure I can fly all that way by myself. I don’t even have a passport, and I probably can’t get one in a month.”

“Carmella, you’re almost twenty-eight. Don’t give me that it’s too far crap. It’s closer than when you fly back to New York to visit your parents. And I don’t think you need a passport. It’s practically the United States anyway.”

Sadie’s obviously confusing her wedding isle of choice with Puerto Rico.

“But you actually only have three weeks,” she continues, “since I need you in St. Croix a week early for final dress fittings and pre-wedding stuff and my bachelorette party.”

I frown, trying to keep track of what’s happening. “Final dress fittings? What about initial dress fittings?”

“The dresses are being handmade by a seamstress in Christiansted. I gave them your size, and once you get here, they’ll tailor it to fit.” She giggles. “I’m so excited. I’m having the wedding right on the beach.”

“You aren’t worried about a hurricane popping up?”

“There won’t be any hurricanes.” Sadie speaks with authority, as though her bridal whims will be taken into consideration by Mother Nature and the Mid-Atlantic Basin. “I might not even have Kate at the wedding, you know. Mom’s coming, of course, but we’re keeping it very small.”

Did Sadie and Kate have a major drag-‘em-out battle between the last time we talked and now?

I decide to skip that issue for the moment. “How did you convince Ryan to have the wedding in the Caribbean?”

There’s a pause.

A huge pause.

A pregnant pause big enough to sail the Titanic and its infamous iceberg through at full speed ahead.

“Ryan?” Sadie’s voice sounds small. “Have you talked to him? What did he say?”

Sadie and Ryan started dating six years ago, during our senior year of college, and they got engaged this past Christmas. I was standing a yard away at the party when he got down on one knee and proposed to her under the mistletoe. He timed it to coincide with the exact moment Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas came up on the holiday music playlist. Sadie did complain about the ring, as though a half-carat was insultingly small. Ryan planned to upgrade it after he got his promotion at work.

“I haven’t spoken to Ryan since I came to visit you guys in April. Why?”

“We broke up three weeks ago.”

It’s my turn to have a pregnant pause. I’m pretty sure the Titanic’s heading has changed, ready to plow me down, accompanied not by an iceberg, but by the lost island of Atlantis.

Sadie isn’t concerned. I can hear her talking to someone on her end of the line.

“Who are you marrying?” I blurt. My usual tact has fled the premises.

I’m bewildered.

Flabbergasted.

Kerflummoxed isn’t even a good enough word for my current mental state. I’m not sure a proper word exists.

I should invent one. I’m Sadie-ated.

“Nelson.” She throws her mystery fiancé’s name at me as though I should already know everything about him, Carmella-you-idiot.

How long has it been since I really talked to Sadie? My visit was at the beginning of April, I called her in mid-May, and it’s now the end of June . . . It’s been six weeks, but we’ve texted back and forth several times since then.

Sadie is talking again. “I already told him you’re my maid of honor, so he’s expecting you.”

“Nelson who?” I want to strangle her. Since I can’t, I begin putting my groceries away, with some slamming of cupboard doors. “What happened with Ryan?”

He’s perfect for her—the tall, dark, and handsome sort, with a chivalrous streak a mile wide. Ex-Marine, crazy sense of loyalty to his friends. You just can’t find a better guy.

Sadie keeps going as if she hasn’t heard my question. “Nelson Mattingly. It’s actually pretty sweet—I won’t have to change any of my monogrammed stuff.”

I won’t get any more info about the massive exit-stage-left of Ryan Wutkowski, so I play along. “How did you meet him?”

“Well, I’d been saving up, you know, to marry Ryan. But when that tanked, I decided to visit the Caribbean instead. We met on the puddle-jumper from St. Maarten to St. Croix, and when we landed he invited me to spend the week with him. So of course, I had to.”

My stomach roils over Sadie’s impulsivity, and a little knot of worry forms in my throat.

“He proposed on Wednesday. The sex is great, Carmella.”

Oversharing.

“So what does he do?” I manage to choke out.

“Oh, nothing much. He does stocks.”

That must mean he’s a private investor. I envision Sadie’s nonchalant shrug.

“His family owns, like, the hugest sugar company in the Caribbean, which includes a giant sugar cane plantation. They have something like three million employees.”

“Sadie, I don’t think there are three million people even living in the Caribbean.”

“Well, it’s not just the sugar,” she replies. “They own a bunch of other companies, too.”

I hope she hasn’t fallen into an I-love-rum phase, especially since there’s a lot of good rum in the Caribbean. If this Nelson-guy has been keeping her drunk all week, maybe there’s someone at the American Embassy I can contact to help her get out of there.

“What are you going to do once you’re married?”

“Live in St. Croix.” There it is again, that Carmella-you-idiot tone. “Nelson’s loaded. You should see the rock he gave me. Three-carat diamond in a platinum setting. Way better than that half-carat crap Ryan bought.”

I recognize the bravado in her voice. She’s trying way too hard to prove she was in control of the breakup. I’ve heard it many times before. Sadie always wanted a real relationship, but nobody took her seriously. She never took herself seriously. Ryan helped her learn to slow down and join the real world.

At least, that’s what I thought.

I’m even more curious about what went down.

“So you’re going to spend the rest of your life sitting on a sugar cane plantation, drinking strawberry daiquiris, and eating pastries served on a little silver plate.”

“Of course not.”

Finally, some common sense.

“Nelson has a luxury condo on the beach.”

Never mind.

There’s a mumble on her end, like she put her hand over the phone. “I have to go, Carmella. Nelson’s taking me out to dinner.”

I whirl around so savagely, it feels like I’ve sprained my ankle. That could work to my advantage. I’d have to miss work for a couple days, but it would be a good excuse to skip out of maid of honor duties. I’d even send Sadie a doctor’s note and a copy of my x-rays.

But first things first. “Are you still in St. Croix?”

“Well, yeah. Where’d you think I was?”

“Uh . . . At home, planning your Caribbean beach wedding.”

Do I get hit with roaming charges, or does Sadie? My mind spins as I envision the astronomical damage to my cell phone bill. Lightheaded, I lean against the refrigerator. Loss of consciousness at this precise moment would undoubtedly cause me to hit my head on the edge of the counter, which in turn could produce a concussion. That, combined with my possibly sprained ankle, could get me out of sending a wedding present, which I’m not sure Sadie deserves in her current frame of mind.

“Everything’s planned. I’m just waiting for you to get here so the final fittings can be taken care of.”

She’s going to bring up the maid of honor thing again. My ankle doesn’t hurt anymore.

Damn it.

“My mom’s coming down next week with some of my stuff. Nelson and I are setting up house. I’ve got the most adorable dolphin platter on my registry. If you’re stuck for ideas, you can get me that.”

One last ditch effort. “Sadie, I don’t know if I can afford airfare and a hotel in the Caribbean. Plus, this is our busiest season at the bakery, and if I can’t get the time off―”

“Nelson’s paying for everyone coming from the mainland,” she interrupts. “He’s even got hotel reservations taken care of. Who are you bringing as a date?”

Shooting pain behind the eyes. An aneurysm? That would be even better than a concussion and amnesia. “I haven’t made it past a first date in months, Sadie, let alone have someone on standby for weddings in a foreign country.”

“Well, Nelson’s brother is the best man. You’re already partnered for the ceremony. I showed him your picture and he thinks you’re pretty hot. Could make for a fun time.”

Sadie must be thinking of a different girl—Carmen, my evil spontaneous twin who has one night stands with strangers in the Caribbean.

“No more chocolate until after the wedding. I’ll email you in a few days with flight information and all that. Bye, honey!”

The line clicks. I blink at the phone, then shake my head and wander into the living room. I stand at the picture window for a moment, staring down at Telfair Square across the street.

Sadie exasperates me; she always has. A lot of people wonder why and how complete opposites like us could become friends. But since our very first day of college, it’s been Sadie and me. I was a scared Upstate New York transplant to the University of Georgia, and she picked me out of line on orientation day. By the time we went to lunch, we were best friends.

Then Ryan came along, and we were like the Musketeers. Inseparable.

Crossing to my fireplace, I pick up the framed photo of the three of us. I keep it on the mantle to remind me of the fun we had in college. The fun we’ve had since college. I don’t remember who took the picture, but it’s a great shot. Sadie stands between Ryan and me, her arms hooked around our necks and her smile so wide she must be laughing.

Ryan is on the left, looking at Sadie. You can’t see his eyes, but they’re brown. The color of semi-sweet chocolate chips. You can always trust a person with a bit of chocolate in his soul.

And then there’s me, on the right. Next to Sadie, I barely register in the photo. My smile is as wide as hers, so I must be laughing, too. But the focus, mine and Ryan’s, has always been on Sadie.

I sigh and put the photo back on the mantle. A soft mew and the jingle of a bell signal my cat’s emergence from the bedroom. I look down as Moxley rubs against my ankles.

“Chocolate,” I tell him.

Despite the command to enter pre-event chocolate detox for the next month, Sadie’s phone call is justification for eating the other half of my Snickers bar.

Ready for more?

Three friends. A broken engagement. A surprise elopement. A big secret. A lot of chocolate.

Three friends. A broken engagement. A surprise elopement. A big secret. A lot of chocolate.

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