Memory Garden (Part One) by Kerri Carpenter

“This one here.  Is this a lily of the valley?”

“Um…” Lilah stuttered, praying for some flower enthusiast to spontaneously walk by.  “Well, actually, I think it’s quite lovely.  It looks so fresh and happy there, doesn’t it?” she attempted lamely.

Chrissy pinned her with a dubious stare before rolling her blue eyes.  “Whatever.  I don’t really care what it’s called but I want this flower in my bouquet.  Make a note,” she commanded.

Lilah suppressed an urge to make a note about possible hit men in the Washington, D.C. area.  Instead, she took a picture of the flower in question with her phone and made a corresponding note.  Flowers really weren’t her thing.  She knew dandelions, roses and, well, dead, since that’s how all living plants ended up in her apartment.

Chrissy let out an annoyed whine before moving on.  The one good thing about Lilah’s current bridezilla, er client, was that her attention changed every second.  “Where’s Perry?  I mean, ohmigod, we have so much to do.”

“I believe your fiancé said he was meeting his best man out front and would be back in a couple of minutes,” Lilah supplied.

“But that was like ten minutes ago.  Doesn’t he realize how busy I am?  I mean, I have like a million things to do today.”

None of which involve a real job, school or anything remotely adult, Lilah thought with a silent sigh.  She did suppose that swiping daddy’s credit card took some energy.  At least at the rate Chrissy used it.

“I still have to go to the gym and get my nails done,” Chrissy continued her rant.

Chrissy Pendleton was the cherished daughter of one of the area’s wealthiest families.  Did she say cherished?  She meant spoiled.  Chrissy was getting married in two months and it was Lilah’s job to plan the happy day.

Unfortunately, she had to adhere to every single wish and whim of Chrissy because that same adoring father doubled as her boss at Wyatt & Associates, the event planning firm where she worked.  Lilah didn’t typically plan weddings.  She worked as the Assistant Director of Corporate Events.  But if she had any hope of moving up to director, she needed to comply with her boss and his bratty daughter.

“It kind of smells out here,” Chrissy said as her perfect nose scrunched up in a look of distaste.

“It’s a garden,” Lilah pointed out.  “I thought you wanted to get married in a garden?”

“Um, I did.  But I didn’t think about the smell.  It’s kind of gross.”

“It’s kind of flowers.”  Whoa, Lilah needed to reign in the sarcasm.  If she didn’t execute this wedding perfectly, her career at Wyatt & Associates would be on the fast track to nowhere.  “Chrissy,” she attempted with her most placating voice.  “The Washington Botanical Gardens did a massive favor for you.  They moved quite a few events around so you can have your wedding here.”

“Can we cut down any of those flowers over there?  I don’t like the colors.”  She pointed toward a row of what Lilah thought were perfectly beautiful purple-looking flowers.

“Probably not.”  Time to bring out the Chrissy-equivalent of a cookie.  “You know, I heard that one of the Kardashians got married in a garden.”

Chrissy raised a single eyebrow.  “No, they didn’t.  Only Khloe and Kim are married and neither did it in a garden.”

Shit.  “Ah, that’s right.  I was just testing you.  Your knowledge of the Kardashian family is legendary.”

“Isn’t it!” Chrissy preened.

“Um, sure.  But I was told by a very reputable source that Khloe actually did have her heart set on getting married in a garden.  But because her wedding happened so fast, it couldn’t happen. “  Lilah thanked the heavens that she had watched the E! True Hollywood Story about the Kardashians last week.  Of course, the garden part was a lie but at least Chrissy seemed interested now.

“Really?”

“Yep.  Just think how jealous she would be of you.

Worked like a charm.  Lilah watched Chrissy spin in a circle, now clearly delighted with the garden.  All thoughts of bad-smelling flowers gone.

“Well, I still don’t know what’s taking Perry so long.  I’ll just go look for him.  You stay here,” she bossed.

Aye-aye, Captain Obnoxious.  She was only too happy to stay put.  Her feet were killing her, she thought as Chrissy pranced away on much higher heels than she wore.  How she didn’t fall over was beyond her.  Maybe her enormous ego kept her in check.

Now, now, Lilah berated herself.  It wasn’t Chrissy’s fault she had been brought up in privilege, or that rich kids tended to make Lilah uncomfortable and insecure.

The fact of the matter remained.  Lilah had been tasked to plan Chrissy’s big day and that’s just what she had to do.

When going into event planning, she had specifically shied away from planning weddings.  Weddings meant love and romance, two things that Lilah did not want to think about.  Her life had no room for romance.  She wanted to focus on moving up in her company, not being in a relationship.

The fact that she purposely denied herself the luxury of remembering a certain summer, a particular relationship, and all of that love… well, it had nothing to do with her current path in life.  Besides, that ending hadn’t been happy.

As she waited, she plopped down on a wooden bench painted a clean-looking white.  She stretched her legs out in front of her and ran a hand through her auburn hair.  It was getting a tad long.  She made a note in her blackberry to schedule an appointment.

She looked around at the flowers and marveled at their beauty.  Even if she really wasn’t a flower person, she still admired the rows of lovely colors and shapes.

The garden was quiet.  So she closed her eyes for a moment and her mind instantly transported her back to another garden, another time.

She remembered that summer so vividly.  After working long shifts at the country club, waitressing until her feet wanted to fall off, she would meet him in the garden, with the moonlight streaming through the arbor.

More than just stolen kisses, they would talk for hours.  He knew everything about her.  Aware that she came from the wrong side of the tracks, he encouraged her to go after her dreams.  And he knew about each and every one of those too.

By the end of the summer, he had become everything to her.  Her first love, her first lover and in the end, her first regret.

She sighed as a breeze filtered through the garden.  Opening her eyes, she could still see him so clearly.  Tall and handsome, with brownish-blond hair and light blue eyes.

But when her vision moved, she realized it wasn’t her imagination.  Her memories had faded and there, standing five feet away was Drew.

***

Drew felt like he got sucker-punched in the gut.  He was staring at Lilah Adler, the girl he had been madly in love with eleven years ago.

Impossible.

When he walked into the garden, all he saw at first was a gorgeous woman sitting on a bench with her eyes closed.  The long auburn hair and porcelain skin drew him toward her.  But as he neared the woman he realized she was no stranger.  No, he knew this woman.  And she had known him like no other.

She popped up from the bench, her binder and blackberry crashing to the ground.  But she didn’t bend to retrieve them.  Instead, she continued to stare, open-mouthed, much the same as him.

Lilah was still short and thin, even with the tall heels she wore.  Her legs stood out under the tight skirt of her light pink suit.  He had always loved her toned legs, a benefit from her days as a tennis player.  But the adolescent body he remembered in his dreams had filled out into lovely curves.

Those curves were sure to set off a whole new wave of dreams.

They still hadn’t said a word to each other.  So he reached down and picked up her things.  Handing them over, his hand brushed hers and a shock of heat ran up his arm.  Looking into her heavily-lashed green eyes, he knew she felt it too.

Before either could utter a word, he heard his cousin’s voice.

“Hey, Drew, you made it.”

Without taking his eyes off Lilah, he answered back, “Sorry I’m late.”

“Oh, Drew, there you are,” came the high-pitched voice of Chrissy.  What Perry saw in her escaped him.  But it didn’t really matter.  He was here to support his only cousin.  If he was happy marrying Chrissy, he wouldn’t stand in the way.  So long as he was truly happy.

Because Drew knew all about unhappy choices, he thought with one last look at Lilah before turning.

He greeted his cousin with a handshake and accepted the dramatic hug from Chrissy.  Introductions were made but he noticed Lilah not only stayed quiet, she didn’t mention they knew each other.

The pain of that slashed through him.  Of course, what could he expect?  He broke it off with her that summer.  He embarrassed her in front of an entire room of people she already felt intimidated by.  And when she ran away, he hadn’t gone after her.

The biggest mistake of his life.

As the four of them walked through the garden, the women talking about different options he didn’t fully understand, he allowed himself to reflect in the memories of the first and only girl he ever loved.

***

At the end of the day, Lilah couldn’t get to the bar fast enough.  She was happily meeting with her high school best friend, Penelope Walker.  After going to different colleges, they had lost touch.  But when Lilah moved to Alexandria, Virginia, last year, the two reconnected.

“I never thought this day would end,” Penelope said as she hugged Lilah.

“Trust me, I know the feeling.  I’m having the worst day.”

“I don’t know.  My boss’s idiot niece is driving me nuts.”  Penelope pulled her dark hair back and secured it with a clip.

I’m working with the world’s most spoiled rich girl.”

Penelope tilted her head.  “Rich doesn’t mean better, Lilah.”

“I know.  It’s just that…” she stumbled over her words, not sure how much to tell Lilah.

“Rich people still make you feel uncomfortable?” she guessed.

Lilah shook her head.  As they ordered a glass of red wine for Penelope and white for herself, she thought back to her afternoon at the Botanical Gardens.  She still couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that she ran into the one person she thought she would never see again.

To make matters worse, she hadn’t spoken a word to him and even left without saying goodbye.  Not that it mattered, she would be seeing him soon enough, with Chrissy and Perry’s engagement party set for the following night.

After settling in at the upscale bar in Old Town Alexandria, they sipped their wine and caught up on little things.  Penelope talked about a new account she was trying to get in her consultant job.

“What do you have going on this weekend?”

Lilah groaned.  “Fancy engagement party tomorrow.  Actually, you wouldn’t be able to come with me, would you?”

“Wish I could,” Penelope said earnestly.  “But my sisters are in town this weekend.  A girls weekend.  Want to join us on Saturday night?”

“Sure.”  She could use a night out to forget about this stupid wedding and Chrissy’s asinine demands.  And she definitely needed to get her mind off Drew.

“Okay, random, but do you remember that guy you dated in high school?” Lilah asked.

Penelope cast her eyes down and clasped her hands together.

“I’m sorry, Pen.  We don’t have to talk about Ethan if you don’t want to.”

Penelope took a long gulp of wine and signaled to the bartender for another.  “No, it’s okay.  I just haven’t thought about Ethan Callahan in awhile.  Why do you ask?”

“I just remember how jealous I was of you and Ethan.”  She laughed at Penelope’s shocked expression.  “Seriously.  He played on the football team and you were a cheerleader.  You guys were so cute.”

“We were so in love,” she said wistfully.

“Do you mind if I ask what happened?”

Penelope thanked the bartender as he refilled her wineglass.  “I don’t know if this will make you more jealous or convince you I’m a crazy person, but Ethan and I decided to elope right before college.”

Lilah choked on her wine.  Coughing, she managed to eke out, “What?  You got married?”

“No, we never married.”  The sad look returned to Penelope’s face.  “Ethan never showed up to meet me.  In fact, I never heard from him again.  So I went off to college and I have no idea what happened to him.”

This explained quite a bit actually.  Penelope didn’t have the best family situation but her relationship with Ethan had been amazing.  Losing that must have devastated her.  No wonder she rarely dated now.

Then again, neither did Lilah.

“Still envious of me?” Penelope asked, attempting to smile.

Lilah reached over and squeezed her friend’s hand.  “Well, actually, when I went to college I realized I needed to get a job.  Even with the tennis scholarship, there were still bills; books and room and board.  So I started working at this country club.”

She swirled her wine around in the glass.  “The summer after my freshman year, I met this guy.”

“Aha,” Penelope said knowingly.

“He was twenty-one.  His family was super wealthy.  Old money, you know?  They were very prominent members at the club.  But Drew, oh he was so dreamy.  Gorgeous and funny, I just fell head over heels for him and we spent almost every second together.”

“What happened?”

“His family, particularly his father, didn’t exactly know about me.  Drew said we needed to keep it secret because they wouldn’t approve.”

“Oh, Lilah,” Penelope said on a sigh.

“It’s okay.  Drew said he would come up with a good way to introduce me to them and it would all work out.

“At the end of the summer, the club had this big dance.  Black tie, champagne, the whole nine yards.  I worked the event. “

She paused, thinking of how good Drew had looked walking toward her in his black tuxedo.  He smiled and she knew it would be the night he told his father about her.  Her life would change.

And it had.  Lilah just hadn’t realized it would change for the worse.

“There was this girl that belonged to the club.  Clearly, she was the type of girl Andrew Hamilton, IV, was supposed to be with.  Cecilia Van Sutton,” she said with an eye roll.

“Cecilia went to Yale and she was set to inherit an exorbitant amount of money from her family.  Drew said he didn’t like her, that he loved me.  But I knew his father was pushing the match.”

Penelope continued to listen.

“When Drew walked in the ballroom, I called out his name and started toward him.  Very taboo for the wait staff to talk to the members,” she explained.  “Then Cecelia came around the corner and linked her arm through Drew’s.  She announced to everyone in the room that I had a little crush on Drew and that I was going around saying we were dating.”

Penelope gasped.

“Both my manager and Drew’s father stared down at me.  Drew didn’t say anything.  He just kept his mouth shut as the entire room laughed at me, the white trash waitress.  Humiliated, I ran out.  He never came after me.”

“Wow.”  Penelope caught the bartender again and asked for another refill for both of them.  “I can’t believe you never told me about this.”

“Honestly, I don’t think I ever got over the embarrassment.”  She couldn’t even stop the tear that trickled down her cheek.  “Oh, Pen, I saw him today.  Drew is the best man at this heinous wedding I’m being forced to plan.”

Penelope hugged her as their wine was being poured.  After awhile, she pulled back.  “Yep, you are definitely having the worst day.”

***

Lilah didn’t have time to go to the hairdresser, nail salon and get her makeup done like Chrissy for the engagement party.  Instead, she had to settle on changing in the restroom at her office.  At least the emerald gown fit her well, she thought, turning back and forth in the mirror.  She swiped some blush and mascara on her face, left her hair in loose tresses and grabbed her silver clutch.

Twenty minutes later, she arrived at the club, checking that everything was set up and in place.  She welcomed her boss and his family of wannabe royals, pointed the way to the event room and listened to yet more of Chrissy’s complaints.

After the majority of guests arrived, she took a moment for herself before heading into the ballroom.  Just as she was about to sit down, the door opened and Drew walked through.  The fact that he still looked good in a black tuxedo made her want to throw something at him.

He walked directly to her and said, “Lilah, it’s really good to see you.”

“I’m sure it’s just lovely for you to see me.  Here, in this empty room, away from the prying eyes of your family and friends.”

Proud of herself, Lilah made to turn.  But Drew stopped her.

“Okay, I deserved that.  But I mean it, Lilah, I’m really happy to see you.”

She wanted to touch him.  If she just reached out she could run her hand along his strong chest, over his broad shoulders or through that thick hair.

Instead, she said, “How’s your father?”  Drew didn’t say anything.  “Did you stay in touch with that horrible girl, Cecilia?”

He looked down, clearly uncomfortable.

“I married her.”

***

Come back tomorrow to read part two of Memory Garden by Kerri Carpenter.