My One and Only
Author:Kristan Higgins

CHAPTER ONE


“STOP SMILING. EVERY time you smile, an angel dies.”

“Wow,” I answered. “That’s a good one.”

The man with the negative attitude sat at the bar, looking as if he was living a bad country-and-western song—no woman, broken truck, dead dog. Poor slob. “Listen,” I said. “I know it’s sad, but sometimes, divorce is just the euthanization of a dying relationship.” I patted his shoulder, then adjusted his white collar, which was just a bit off center. “Sometimes our hearts just need time to accept what our heads already know.”

The priest sighed. “Listen to her with that ridiculous line,” he said to Mick, the bartender.

“It’s not ridiculous! It’s great advice.”

“You’re evil.”

“Oh, my,” I said. “You’re taking it harder than I thought.”

“It’s true. After all my hard work, you swoop in and ruin everything.”

“Father Bruce!” I said, feigning hurt. “There was no swooping! How cutting!”

The good father and I were at Offshore Ale, Martha’s Vineyard’s finest bar, a dark and charming little place in Oak Bluffs and a favorite place for locals and tourists alike. Father Bruce, my longtime friend and the immensely popular pastor of the island’s Catholic church, could often be found here.

“Now come on, Father,” I continued, sliding onto a stool next to him and tugging my skirt so as not to flash him. “You and I are actually a lot alike.” He responded with a groan, which I ignored. “We shepherd people through life’s hard times, guiding them through an emotional minefield, the voice of reason when reason is lost.”

“Sad thing is, she believes it, Mick.”

I rolled my eyes. “Stop being a sore loser and buy me a drink.”

“Marriage ain’t what it used to be,” the priest grumbled. “Mick, a bourbon for the shark here.”

“Actually, just a Pellegrino, Mick. And Father, I’m going to strike that last moniker from the record.” I smiled generously. Of course I was a shark. All the best divorce attorneys were.

“I take it you lost again, Father?” Mick said, adding a slice of lemon to my sparkling water.

“Let’s not discuss it, Mick. She’s gloating as it is.”

“I’m certainly not gloating,” I objected, reaching over to move another patron’s beer, which was in danger of being knocked into Father B.’s lap. “I have nothing against marriage, as you will soon see. But in the case of Starling v. Starling, these two were doomed from the day he got on bended knee. As is one in three couples.”

Father Bruce closed his eyes.

Though on opposite sides of the divorce issue, Father B. and I were old pals. But today, Joe Starling, a lifelong parishioner in Father Bruce’s parish, had come into my office and asked me to begin divorce proceedings. There’d actually been a race to my door, and Joe won. He was…let’s see…the ninth parishioner in the past two years to do so, despite Father B.’s best efforts at weaving together the fraying bonds of matrimony.

“Maybe they’ll have a change of heart,” Father Bruce suggested. He looked so hopeful that I didn’t remind him of one hard fact: not one of my clients had ever backed out of proceedings.

“So how’s everything else, Father?” I asked. “Heard you gave a killer sermon last weekend. And I saw you power walking the other day. Your new heart valve must be working great.”

“Seems to be, Harper, seems to be.” He smiled—he was a priest, after all, and had to forgive me. “Did you perform your random act of kindness today?”

I grimaced. “No. It was a senseless act of beauty.” Father Bruce, viewing my soul as a personal campaign, had challenged me to, in his words, “offset the evil of your profession” by doing at least one random act of kindness each day. “Yes, yes,” I admitted. “I let a family of six go in front of me at the café. Their baby was crying. Does that pass?

“It does,” said the priest. “By the way, you look nice today. A date with young Dennis?”

I glanced around. “More than a date, Father.” Wincing as John Caruso accidentally-on-purpose bumped into my back, I pretended not to hear his muttered epithet. One grew used to such slurs when one was as successful as I was. (Mrs. Caruso got the condo in the Back Bay and the house out here, not to mention a very generous monthly alimony payment.) “Today’s the day. I plan to present the facts, make a convincing case and wait for the verdict, which I completely expect to be in my favor.”

Father Bruce raised a bushy white eyebrow. “How romantic.”

“I think my view on romance is well documented, Father B.”

“One would almost pity young Dennis.”

“One would, except the boy has it made, and you know it.”

“Do I?”

“Please.” I clinked my glass against Father Bruce’s and took a drink. “To marriage. And speak of the devil, here he is now, all of four minutes early. Will wonders never cease.”

My boyfriend of the past two and a half years, Dennis Patrick Costello, was…well. Picture every fantasy you’ve ever had about a hot firefighter. Uh-huh. That’s right. Eye candy didn’t even begin to cover it. Thick black hair, blue eyes, the ruddy cheeks of the Irish. Six-two. Shoulders that could carry a family of four. The only fly in the ointment was a rattail…a long, anemic braid to which Dennis was senselessly attached and which I tried very hard to ignore. Be that as it may, his physical beauty and constant affability always gave me a little thrill of pride. There wasn’t a person on the island who didn’t like Dennis, and there wasn’t woman who didn’t break off midsentence when he smiled. And he was mine.

Den was with Chuck, his platoon mate on the Martha’s Vineyard Fire Department, who gave me a sour look as he headed to the far end of the bar. Chuck had cheated on Constance, his very nice wife. Not just once, either. Nope, he’d pulled a Tiger Woods, eventually admitting to four affairs in six years of marriage. As a result, Chuck now rented a single room in a crooked, 600-square-foot “cottage” out on Chappaquiddick and had to take the ferry to work every day. Such are the wages of sin.

“Hi, Chuck! How are you?” I asked. Chuck ignored me, as was his custom. No matter. I turned to Dennis. “Hey, hon! Look at you, four minutes early.”

Dennis bent down and kissed my cheek. “Hey there, gorgeous,” Dennis said. “Hi, Father B.”

“Dennis. Good luck, son. I’ll offer up a Hail Mary.”

“Thanks, Padre.” Apparently not curious as to why a priest would be praying for him, Dennis smiled at me. “I’m starving. You hungry?”

“You bet. See you around, Father Bruce,” I said, sliding off the bar stool. Dennis gave me a smoky once-over—that was, after all, the point of my dress and painfully high heels, which bordered on slutty. I wanted Dennis’s full attention, and, as he was male, showing a little breast wasn’t going to hurt my case.

Tonight, I was popping the question. Two and a half years with Dennis had shown me that he was very solid husband material. Good heart, steady work, decent guy, close family ties, quite attractive. It was now or never…at almost thirty-four, I wasn’t going to hang around and be someone’s girlfriend forever. I was a person who made lists and took action, and Dennis, bless his heart, needed direction.

First element of the plan…feed Dennis, who needed to eat more often than an infant. A couple of beers wouldn’t hurt, either, because Dennis, though he seemed quite happy with our relationship, hadn’t yet brought up the subject of marriage on his own. A little mellowing wouldn’t hurt.

And so, half an hour later, a pint of Offshore Nutbrown Ale already in him and a massive blue-cheese-and-bacon hamburger in front of him, Dennis was telling me about an accident call. “So I’m trying to get the car door off, right, and all of a sudden, the thing comes flying off, hits Chuck right in the nuts, and he’s like, ‘Costello, you asswipe!’ and we all just lose it. And the thing is, the old lady’s still in the car. Oh, man, it was priceless.”

I smiled patiently. Firehouse humor—for lack of a better word—was crude at best. Nevertheless, I chuckled and murmured, “Poor thing,” meaning, of course, the old woman stuck in the car while the brawny men of the MVFD clutched themselves and made testicle jokes. For Chuck, I felt only that justice had been served. “Was the driver badly hurt?”

“Nah. Not a scratch on her. We wouldn’t have laughed if she was decapitated or something.” He grinned cheekily, and I smiled back.

“Glad to hear it. So listen, Den. We need to talk.”

At the dreaded words, Dennis’s smile dropped. Blinking rapidly, as if I was about to punch him in the face, he groped for his half-pound, overladen burger as if for protection—defensive body language, something I often saw in the spouses of my clients. Best to move in for the kill. I folded my hands neatly in front of me, tilted my head and smiled.

“Dennis, I think it’s time for us to take things to the next level, you know? We’ve been together awhile, we have a very solid relationship, I’ll be thirty-four in a few weeks, next year is advanced maternal age, medically speaking, so let’s get married.”

Dennis jerked back in alarm. Drat. I hadn’t sounded terribly romantic, had I? Maybe I should’ve gone for a more sentimental note, rather than a recitation of the facts. This is what I got for practicing in front of a dog, rather than a human. Then again, there was nothing wrong with being straightforward…closing arguments, if you will.

My boyfriend answered by shoving a good quarter of the giant sandwich into his mouth. “Mmm-hrmph,” he said, pointing to his bulging cheeks.

Well, resistance was expected, of course. Dennis was a guy, and most guys, with only a few notable exceptions, didn’t pop the question without a nudge. And I had been nudging…I’d admired an engagement ring of one of Dennis’s cousins three months ago, commented on Dennis’s love of children, telling him he’d be a good dad, mentioned my own desire to procreate…but so far, nada. I assumed Dennis needed something a little more, er, blatant. A kick, for example. Didn’t most men need a good swift kick?

“Now don’t panic, hon,” I said as he chewed desperately. “We get along great. We spend most nights together, we’ve been together for more than two years, you’re thirty now, you know you want kids… It’s time. Don’t you think so? I know I do.” I smiled to show him we were both on the same team.

Dennis swallowed, his chiseled, gorgeous face now pale. “Uh, listen, dude,” he began. I grimaced—dude? Really? He noticed. “Sorry, dude,” he said. “I mean, Harper. Sorry.” Dennis closed his mouth, opened it, hesitated, then took another massive bite of burger.

Fine. I would speak. It was better that way. “Let me go on, okay, Den? Then you can say something. If you still want to.” I smiled and maintained eye contact, which was a little hard, given that Dennis’s eyes were darting frantically. Also, the Red Sox game was on, which didn’t help, as Dennis was a rabid fan. “Den, as you know, I spend my entire day dealing with crappy relationships. I see the mistakes people make, and I know what to avoid. We don’t have a crappy relationship. Our relationship is great. It really is. And we can’t be in limbo forever. You’re at my place most nights anyway—”

“Your bed is wicked comfortable,” he said sincerely, stuffing some fries into his mouth. He offered a few to me, but I shook my head, my own salad more of a prop tonight.

“No thanks. Back to the subject…” I leaned forward a little more, giving Dennis a better glimpse of my cleavage. His eyes dropped the way Pavlov’s dog drooled, and I smiled. “Our sex life is certainly good,” I continued, reminding him of our finer moments. A woman at the next table, who was trying to convince her toddler to eat a fried clam, gave me a sharp look. Tourists. “We obviously find each other attractive, don’t we?”

“Most def.” He gave me the wide, even smile that rendered so many women speechless. Perfect. He was now thinking with the little head, which would help my case.

“Exactly, hon. And I make a great living, you have…well, a solid salary. We’ll have a very comfortable lifestyle, we’ll make beautiful babies, et cetera. Let’s make it permanent, shall we?” I reached down for my bag and withdrew the black velvet box. “I even picked out the ring, so we know I love it.”

At the sight of the two-carat rock, Dennis flinched.

I closed my eyes briefly. “I paid for it, too, so don’t worry. See? This isn’t so hard after all, is it?” I gave him my firm court smile, the one that said, Your Honor, please. Can we stop screwing around and get this done?

Father Bruce and Bob Wickham, head of the church council, made their way over to the table next to our booth. The priest shot me a knowing look, which I ignored.

At that moment, Jodi Pickering, Dennis’s high school girlfriend and a waitress here, shoved the prow of her bosom into Den’s jaw. “Are you all set here, Denny?” she asked, ignoring me and giving my soon-to-be fiancé a docile, cowlike gaze.

“Hey, Jodi, what’s up?” Dennis said, grinning past her 36-Ds to her face. “How’s the little guy?”

“Oh, he’s great, Denny. It was so nice that you stopped by the game the other night. He just loves you! And you know, without a father in the picture, I think T.J. really needs—”

“Okay, we get it, Jodi-with-an-i,” I said, smiling pleasantly up at her. “You have an adorable son and are still quite available. Dennis, however, is with me. If you would just take your boobs out of my boyfriend’s face, I would deeply appreciate it.”

She narrowed her eyes at me and sashayed away. Dennis watched her departure as one would watch the lifeboats paddling away from the Titanic. Then he swallowed and looked at me. “Listen, Harp,” he began. “You’re…you know…great and all, but, uh…well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? I mean, why change a good thing? Can’t we just keep hanging out together?”

Again, totally expected. I straightened up and tilted my head a few degrees. “Dennis,” I said firmly, well aware that this kind of circular conversation could go on forever. “This isn’t high school. We’re not kids. We’ve been together for the past two and a half years. I’m thirty-four next month. I don’t want to hang out indefinitely. If we’re not going to get married, we need to break up. So…shit or get off the pot, honey.”

“That was beautiful,” murmured Father Bruce as he opened a menu.

I favored him with a withering glance, then turned back to Firefighter Costello. “Dennis? Let’s do this.”

Dennis was granted a brief reprieve by a roar from the bar. We both looked over. On the television, various and sundry members of the Sox were spitting and scratching their groins. Did they have no PR department, for heaven’s sake? And a game was just what Dennis didn’t need…more distraction.

Clearly, choosing a public place for this discussion was a tactical error. I’d originally thought it would work in my favor…even had a little vision of Dennis shouting, “Hey, everyone, we’re getting married!” and people (even the people who kind of hated me) cheering and clapping.

Didn’t seem like that was about to happen. “Dennis?” I said, my chest tightening just a little. “Can I have an answer?”

Dennis picked up his napkin and started ripping off little pieces.

A small, sharp blade of uncertainty sliced into my consciousness. Dennis was usually so…agreeable when I made plans. Yes, I was the one who took control of our relationship, but wasn’t that typical? Men didn’t plan things on their own. They didn’t suggest picnics or trips to the city or what have you. And even if his words tonight indicated reluctance, Den’s actions bespoke permanence. Two and a half years—years!—in an exclusive and mutually satisfying relationship without one significant fight. Of course we were headed for marriage. He had all the necessary qualities of a husband…he just needed a little shove into full adulthood.

Actually, I had right here next to my plate a honey-do list to help Den on that front. Get a second job, as he had too much free time as a firefighter and really shouldn’t be playing Xbox as much as I knew he did (or downloading porn, which I suspected he did). Get rid of the 1988 El Camino he now drove—one door green, all other parts rust—and drive something that didn’t make him look like an impoverished pimp. Cut off the rattail, because please! It was a rattail! And lastly… Move in with me. Despite our four or five nights a week together, Dennis still lived in a garage apartment he rented from his brother. I had a two-bedroom house on the water.

My plan had been to wait till he accepted my offer, then pass over the list and discuss.

But he wasn’t accepting.

I confess that I was a little confused. I asked Dennis for very little and accepted him the way he was—a good guy. Sure, he was still something of a kid, but that was fine. Though I wasn’t one to get all sticky with proclamations, I loved Dennis. Who didn’t? A native Islander like myself, Dennis was mobbed by friends wherever we went, from the guys who worked on the ferry to the road crew to the summer people who occasionally dropped in at the firehouse.

Granted, maybe he wasn’t the, uh, most intellectual man on earth, but Dennis was kindhearted and quite brave. In fact, he’d saved three children from a house fire his second week on the job a few years ago and was something of a local legend. And speaking of kids, Dennis was very good with them, natural and at ease in a way I’d never been, despite my hope to have kids of my own one day. Dennis, though—he’d get on the floor and roll around with his seven nieces and nephews, and they adored him.

And—one couldn’t rule this out—Dennis liked me. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you how many men got that retracting-testicles look when they learned what I did for a living. Women too, as if I was a pox on our gender just because I facilitated the end of crappy marriages. There was a fair number of people who’d cheerfully slash my tires after I’d signed on to represent their spouses. I’d been called a bitch (and worse), had coffee thrown in my face, been spit on, cursed, threatened and condemned.

I took it as a compliment. Yes, I was a very good divorce attorney. If that meant a larger-than-normal percentage of the population owned voodoo dolls with red hair and a tight gray suit, so be it. In fact, I’d met Dennis when my car was rammed by an angry wife and the MVFD had to cut me out (no injuries, and a nice damages award from Judge Burgess, who had a soft spot for me). “Wanna grab a beer? I get off in half an hour,” Dennis had said, and more shaken than I’d let on, I agreed.

He didn’t seem scared by my reputation as a ballbuster. Wasn’t intimidated by my healthy paycheck, funded by the dissolution of happily-ever-after dreams. So yes. Dennis liked me. Though I didn’t sigh with rapture when I looked in the mirror, I knew I was attractive (very, some might say), well dressed, hardworking, successful, smart, loyal. Fun, too. Well…sometimes I was fun. Okay, sure, there were those who’d disagree with that, but I was fun enough.

All in all, I thought we could be very content. And content was vastly underrated.

As I well knew, marriages were fragile birds of hope, and one in three ended up as a pile of dirty feathers. In my experience, the vast majority of those were the oh-my-darling-you-make-my-very-heart-beat variety…the type that so often ended in a pyre of hate and bitterness. Comfort, companionship and realistic expectations…they didn’t sound nearly as glam as undying passion, but they were worth a lot more than most people believed.

There was one more reason I wanted to get a commitment from Dennis. Soon, I’d turn thirty-four, and when that happened, I’d be the same age as my mother the last time I saw her. For whatever reason, the thought of being (alone, adrift) single…at that age…it felt like a failure of monumental proportion. In the past few months, that thought had been pulsing in a dark rhythm. Same age as she was. Same age as she was.

Dennis was silent, his napkin now confetti. “Dude, listen,” he finally said. “Harp. Er. Harper, I mean. Uh, hon…well, the thing is…”

At that moment, Audrey Hepburn’s whispery voice floated from my purse—“Moon River,” the song indicating a call from my sister. Like Audrey, my sister was lovely, sweet and ever in need of protection. She’d moved to New York recently, and I hadn’t heard from her much these past few weeks.

“You wanna take that?” Dennis asked hastily.

“Um…do you mind?” I said. “It’s my sister.”

“Go right ahead,” he answered, practically melting in relief. “Take your time.” He drained the remaining half of his beer and turned again to the Boston Red Sox.

Oh, dream maker, you heartbreaker… “Hi, Willa!”

“Harper? It’s me, Willa!” Though my stepsister was twenty-seven, her voice retained a childlike chime, and the sound never failed to bring a smile to my face.

“Hi, sweetie! How’s the Big Apple? Do you love it?”

“It’s so great, but Harper, I have news! Big news!”

“Really? Did you find a job?”

“Yes, I’m, um, an office assistant. But that’s not my news. Are you ready? Are you sitting down?”

A chilly sense of dread laced through my knees. I glanced at Dennis, who was focused on the ball game. “Okay…what is it?”

“I’m getting married!”

My hand flew to my mouth. “Willa!”

“I know, I know, you’re gonna have kittens, and yes, we just met a couple weeks ago. But it’s like kismet, is that the right word? Totally real. I mean, Harper, I’ve never felt like this before! Ever.”

Crotch. I took a breath, held it for a few seconds, then released it slowly. “I hate to be a buzzkill, Willa, but that’s what you said the first time you were married, honey. Second time, too.”

“Oh, stop!” she said, laughing. “You’re a total buzzkill. I knew you’d freak, but don’t. I’m twenty-seven, I know what I’m doing! I just called you because…oh, Harper, I’m so happy! I really am! I love him so much! And he thinks I walk on, like, water!”

I closed my eyes. Willa had married her first husband when she was twenty-two, three weeks after Raoul had been released from prison; the divorce followed a month later when strike three came after he robbed a bead store. (I know. A bead store?) Husband #2, acquired when my sister was twenty-five, had come out of the closet seven weeks after the wedding. Only Willa had been surprised.

“That’s great, honey. He sounds, um, wonderful. It’s just… Marriage? Already?”

“I know, I know. But Harper, listen. I’m totally in love!”

So much for live and learn. “Going slow never hurt anyone, Wills. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Can’t you say you’re happy for me, Harper? Come on! Mama’s totally psyched!”

This was not a surprise. My stepmother, BeverLee of the Big Blond Hair, lived for weddings, whether in the family, the tabloids or on one of the three soap operas she watched religiously.

“It’s just fast, that’s all, Willa.”

Willa sighed. “I know. But this isn’t like those other times. This is the real deal.”

“You just moved two months ago, honey. Don’t you want to enjoy the city, figure out what you really want to do for a living?”

“I can still do that. I’m getting married, not dying.”

There was an edge in my sister’s voice now, and I figured I’d dangle a carrot. “True enough. Well, this is exciting. Congratulations, honey! Hey! I’d love to throw you guys a big wedding out here on the Vineyard. All the good places are booked for this fall, no doubt, but next summer—”

“No need, but thank you, Harper! You’re so nice, but we already found a spot, and you’ll never guess where.”

“Where?” I asked.

“Glacier National Park, that’s where! In Montana!”

“Wow.” I glanced at Dennis, but his attention was still fixed to the screen above the bar. “So, um…when were you thinking?” Please let it be a long time from now.

“No time like the present,” she chirped. “September eleventh! You’ll be my maid of honor, right? It has to be you!”

“September eleventh, Wills?”

“Oh, come on! That day could use a little happiness, don’t you think?”

“That’s two weeks away.”

“So? When it’s right, it’s right. Will you be my maid of honor or not?”

I opened my mouth, closed it and bit my tongue. Two weeks. Holy testicle Tuesday. Two weeks to talk Willa out of another disastrous marriage, or at least to slow down and really get to know her potential groom. I could do it. Just had to play along. “Well, sure. Of course I’ll be your maid of honor.”

“Hooray! Thank you, Harper! It’ll be so beautiful out there. But listen, I haven’t told you the best part yet,” Willa said.

My heart stuttered. “Are you pregnant?” I asked calmly. That would be fine. I would support the baby, of course. Pay for college. Make sure the kid stayed in school.

“No, I’m not pregnant. Listen to you! It’s just that you know the groom.”

“I do?”

“Yup! It’s a totally small world. Want to guess?”

“No. Just tell me who it is.”

“His first name starts with a C.”

Men whose names began with C in Manhattan? “I—I don’t know. I give up.”

“Christopher.” Willa’s voice was smug with affection.

“Christopher who?”

“Christopher Lowery!”

I jerked back in my chair, my pinot noir sloshing dangerously. “Lowery?” I choked out.

“I know! Isn’t that amazing? I’m marrying your ex-husband’s brother!”