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Chapter no 22

The Summer of Broken Rules

The reception was, without a doubt, Sarah’s wedding Pinterest board come to life. My breath caught when I entered the tent, alive with fairy lights and cascading greenery. There was a wide circular dance floor, white cloth-covered tables, sandy-colored wicker chairs, and illuminated lighthouse centerpieces wreathed in blue hydrangeas. “Which table are you at?” Wit asked, holding up a smooth gray stone. STEPHEN WITRY, it said across the front in black calligraphy, giving me goose bumps. I loved his name.

“Let’s see,” I said, scanning the credenza for a beat before finding my stone…and when I did, mine wasn’t the only name that jumped out at me.

BENJAMIN FLETCHER sat right next to MEREDITH FOX.

The wedding planner hadn’t gotten the message about Ben; Aunt Christine or Sarah had probably forgotten to pass it along to her. I started laughing—really, truly laughing.

“What?” Wit asked as I giggled. “What’s so funny?”

I picked up Ben’s stone and handed it to him. “Here,” I said. “Look at this.”

Wit studied it before grumbling something, then turned and walked straight out of the tent. I imagined him hurling the stone into the dunes. Upon his return, he flashed me a grin. “Drink?”

“Please,” I said, and so the two of us joined the long line for the bar. Eli, Pravika, Luli, and Jake had already been there, done that, and were now congregated by the three-tiered wedding cake sipping glasses of the

blackberry lemonade punch that Honey had been talking about all week. I knew for a fact that it was delicious; after all, it was her secret recipe.

“Meredith, is that you?” I heard someone say after Wit and I had been waiting a while, and I turned to see one of Sarah’s cousins who’d just flown in for the wedding. “It’s been years!”

“Darcy, hi,” I said, remembering her from several summers ago. She’d socialized so much on the beach that I swore her voice was still stuck in my head when I went to bed at night. “How’s it going?”

And just like that, I’d unintentionally opened the gates for a catchup. I listened to Darcy and nodded along as best I could, but all I wanted was some lemonade, and my stomach had started to rumble.

Wit tactfully cut her off by introducing himself. “I’m Michael’s stepbrother,” he said, and after giving us an up-and-down look, Darcy smiled.

“You two are cute,” she said, taking a sip of wine. “How long have you been dating?”

My gut twisted. We aren’t, I almost told her, even though I knew it looked like the opposite. Wit had absentmindedly hooked an arm around my waist, and I was leaning into him so that my chin rested on his shoulder. His was on the top of my head. It was all so natural—so amazingly but agonizingly natural.

Wit straightened up a bit, but his arm stayed firmly around me. “Not long, Darcy,” he said, clearing his throat. “Meredith’s sister, Claire, actually tried setting us up a couple of winters ago, but we only got together this week.”

“This week?” Darcy laughed. “Really?” She put her hand on my forearm. “I would’ve guessed at least a year!”

“Yes, really,” Wit said, and I nodded. Not because we were pretending, but because my heart…

It swooped and soared the way it always did around Wit.

“I have to text you!” I exclaimed once we finally reached the bar. “I never texted you, so you don’t have my number.”

Wit watched the bartender fill our glasses. “You don’t need to text me,” he said quietly.

“What?” I accepted my drink. “You don’t want to text?”

“No, I do,” he said. “I do, but you don’t need to send me your number.” He scrubbed a hand through his hair and then sighed. “Because I already have it.”

His words didn’t quite compute. “You already…”

“I wasn’t joking earlier,” he murmured. “Claire really did try to set us up

—she gave me your number that night before leaving the restaurant.”

All of a sudden, my eyes were stinging. “But you never texted,” I said, voice catching. I let him lead me away from the bar. “You never reached out.”

Wit’s lips quirked up. “Killer, why would I reach out?”

Because I would’ve adored you, I thought. I adore you now, and I would’ve adored you then.

“Everything else aside,” Wit said, taking my hand, “Claire failed to mention that you had a boyfriend.” He paused. “I admit that after hearing about you, I found you on Insta—”

“See!” I exclaimed, blackberry lemonade sloshing around in my glass. “You say you don’t do Instagram, but you’re really all over it!”

Wit blushed.

“Okay, you went on my profile…” I prompted. “Like a stalker…” “I scroll,” he corrected. “I don’t stalk.”

I sipped my drink. “Mm-hmm.” He sipped his. “Mm-hmm.”

“So what did you think of it?” I asked.

“I thought it looked carefully curated,” he answered.

“It was,” I said, thinking of how ridiculously long I would spend editing photos and brainstorming captions. “Anything else?”

Wit hesitated.

“Say it,” I told him. “Just say it.”

He glanced into his punch, then at me. “I thought it didn’t match the girl Claire couldn’t stop talking about,” he said. “If I’m being honest.”

I felt my upper lip tremble, because I knew it was true. I was not that light pink–tinted girl posing at parties and dangling from her boyfriend’s arm like an accessory. I was the girl who loved laughing with her friends in the sunlight, sleeping in a sandy bunk bed, and grinning while licking butter off the face of a beautiful boy named Stephen. That was the real me.

Wit squeezed my hand. “But that only made me want to meet you more.”

I squeezed his hand back. I squeezed it back and kissed his knuckles but didn’t say anything.

* * *

Michael and Sarah Dupré danced their first dance not to a Taylor Swift song but to the band’s rendition of Ed Sheeran’s “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here.” There were seventy-five people watching them, but I doubted they noticed their guests. My cousin and her husband were too wrapped up in each other, smiling and swooning and so in love.

“No way,” Aunt Julia said to our table, shaking her head. Aunt Rachel and the baby were doing well, so she’d convinced Aunt Julia to come to the reception. “I love this song, but there’s no way Michael picked it. He’s an R&B guy.”

“But also a Sheerio,” Wit said. He was sitting next to me; he’d decided to alternate tables throughout the night. “He’s a secret Sheerio.”

“I’m sorry,” my dad said, cocking his head. “A what?”

“A Sheerio,” I replied. “For example, Sarah is a Swiftie because she’s part of the Taylor Swift fandom, so Michael’s a Sheerio because he loves Ed

Sheeran.”

“Well, what am I?” my dad asked. “If I’m a Dave Matthews fan, what does that make me?” He pretended to puff out his chest. “You know I’m at forty-five concerts now.”

“Oh, wow, Tom,” Aunt Julia deadpanned. “You’ve never mentioned that before.”

Under the table, Wit’s hand went to my knee. “What’s wrong?” he murmured.

I didn’t take my eyes off Sarah and Michael. “How do you know something’s wrong?”

“Just do.”

The back of my neck warmed, and I willed myself not to let it spread to my cheeks. “Nothing’s wrong,” I told Wit and kissed his cheek—once, twice, three times. Across the table, my mom gave me a look. “I’m just dying to dance with you.”

“You should be,” he replied lazily. “I am an exceptional dancer.” “Are you now?”

“Yes,” he said. “Because if you can believe it, skiing and dancing skills sort of overlap…” He trailed off as the music faded out and everyone rose to applaud the newlyweds. Wit grabbed his tux jacket from the back of his chair before returning to his assigned seat with his family. He winked. “You’ll see soon enough.”

Everyone loved the toasts. Danielle spoke about Sarah being the sister she’d never had, while Gavin read aloud a series of texts that Michael had sent him after first meeting Sarah. “I’ve saved these messages for five years,” he said. “They say you can’t convey tone in texting, but back then…” He shook his head. “Back then, I could tell—I could tell through all his hungover typos that something had shifted, something had happened.” He raised his champagne glass. “Cheers to you, bud. Cheers to you and the nerdy hot girl in your way-too-fucking-early psych class!”

Tears streamed down both Sarah’s and Michael’s faces from laughing so hard. She punched him in the biceps. “How is any of that complimentary?” she asked. “You almost skipped class!”

“But I didn’t!” he said. “And I said you were hot!”

The entire tent burst into laughter all over again, and soon dinner was served. True to form, I ignored the salad plate in front of me; instead, I pushed back my chair and found Danielle devouring hers several tables away. “That was a wonderful speech,” I told her as she put down her fork and slid over in her chair to make room for me.

“Thank you,” she said. “Gavin’s had more flair, but for Sarah, I wanted to speak from the heart.” She smiled. “Even if it was kind of all over the place.”

“No, it wasn’t all over the place,” I said. “Not at all. I really liked the part where you talked about needing to take a semester off school and what Sarah said when you asked for advice.” I swallowed hard.

Danielle took a sip from her water glass. “You’re starting college next month, right?”

I nodded.

“How are you feeling about it?”

“Confused,” I admitted, thinking of my conversation with Wink about whether I wanted or needed to stay near home. First needed, then wanted, now worried…that I’d made too hasty a decision. Was I even ready for college?

Because there’s more than one path, I realized. Danielle’s speech had hit it home, but Wit had pointed it out last night. “I think you need something,” he’d said. “Something different.”

Danielle tilted her head. “Do you need to talk, Meredith?” “Yeah,” I said. “I think so.”

* * *

It was a relief when dinner ended and the band struck up again. Uncle Brad and Sarah’s father-daughter dance ended with my uncle in an absolute puddle, and Jeannie Dupré also needed tissues during her dance with Michael. Wink leading Honey out onto the floor signaled that the rest of us could follow. I broke into a grin when Wit twirled me into his arms. “You are smooth!” I said once our fingers laced together and we were waltzing. A little discombobulated, but we managed.

“Yes, I am, thank you very much!” he responded and grinned back at me. I threw back my head and laughed.

“What?” he asked. “What’s so funny?”

“Your teeth,” I answered. “Your teeth…”

Purple. His teeth were purple from the blackberry lemonade.

“Oh no!” Wit dropped my hand to cover his mouth. “What will Aunt Christine say?”

I rolled my eyes before he took my hand again and unexpectedly dipped me, my legs wobbling like Bambi’s in my high heels. Half my hair had also fallen out of its braid crown. “She would say we’re a hot mess,” I told him.

“We’re more than hot,” Wit said. “We’re stunning.”

A shiver ran up my spine. The tent was humid from so many bodies, but still, a shiver, because I didn’t think Wit was referring to what a mess we were. “Don’t.” I shook my head. “You said, you promised—”

He kissed me.

Just a light brush of his berry-stained lips against mine, but he kissed me as a flash went off somewhere nearby. There were three wedding photographers moving about the tent tonight. “Do you think that was of us?” I whispered.

“How could it not be?” Wit whispered back. He already had us dancing again.

I giggled into his chest, then rested my head there for a moment. He had undone his bow tie along with the top couple buttons of his shirt. I let

myself breathe in his familiar scent: oranges, sweat, sunscreen, the ocean.

Melt. I wanted to melt.

“No, honestly,” he went on, “we are stealing the show.”

Stealing the show.

Wait. A. Second.

I popped up my head. “Eli!” I shouted, looking in every direction, hoping he wasn’t in our vicinity. Because he’d been schmoozing like everyone’s favorite guest all night, and I didn’t want him to have photobombed Wit’s and my picture. Something told me it was a truly special one, one I wanted…

Well, one I wanted more than anything. “Eli!”

“Yeah, Mer?” I glanced over my shoulder to see Eli a dozen yards away, about to slip into a photo with Aunt Christine’s side of the family. “Everything good?”

Yes, everything was good.

Wit and I danced for a while longer, and then my dad spun me around the floor, then Wink, and after that, I congratulated the groom. There was still frosting on Michael’s face from the ceremonial cake cutting. “Don’t even think about licking it off,” he joked. “I know you and Witty are into that sort of thing, but…” He held up his hand, a silver band glinting in the light. “I’m a married man now, Meredith.”

“Indeed you are,” I said, looking over at Sarah. She was barefoot and whispering something to Wit, who was on his second slice of cake. “But don’t assume that’ll deter Honey.”

My grandmother and her steadfast crush on Michael Dupré.

“Eh, I’m not worried about that,” he replied and nodded toward his wife and stepbrother. Honey had just joined them. She hugged Sarah and patted Wit’s cheek. “I think she now has eyes for someone else.”

We watched Honey smile like a schoolgirl as she smoothed down Wit’s hair.

“If you want him,” Michael said, “go get him.” I waved him off. “Honey’s harmless.”

“No, Mer,” Michael said. “I’m serious. Imagine if I hadn’t gone to class five years ago.” He gestured to Sarah. “I could’ve missed my chance. She saw me that day. There were two hundred people in the room, and somehow, she saw me.” He shrugged. “Any other day, maybe she wouldn’t have. But she saw me, she did, and now here we are. Here we all are.” He glanced at Wit, then gave me a look. “Enough with this pretending nonsense. If you want him, go get him. Don’t miss your shot.”

* * *

Sarah tossed her hydrangea bouquet right before she and Michael left for their honeymoon. Wit and I laughed—not only did Nicole Dupré catch it, but Eli also launched himself into the air. “I’m at thirty photobombs,” he’d told us earlier. “I’ve introduced myself and posed, I’ve sat down at tables and smiled, I’ve done my thing on the dance floor.” He shook his head. “Believe me, I’ve done it all.”

Wit and I were sipping from a stolen champagne bottle in a corner. My stomach was fizzy and warm, but I couldn’t tell if it was from the champagne or from him. “Did you know,” he was saying, “that your face is shaped like a heart?”

“No,” I told him. “I didn’t.”

“Well, it is,” he replied and lightly sketched out the shape. “Probably because you have such a big one.”

I grinned. “That was not your best line.”

He grinned back crookedly. “I suppose not.” He raised his hand again to trace my lips. “I haven’t gotten to kiss you enough tonight,” he murmured in that melodious voice. “I kind of want to kiss you.”

“Kind of?” I ran a hand through the blond hair at the nape of his neck, giddy when I felt goose bumps rise. “Only kind of?”

Wit sighed. “Okay, I desperately want to kiss you.” “Desperately?”

“Desperately.”

But when he leaned close, I dipped away from him. “Not here.” I nodded toward the tent’s exit. “Follow me.”

We snuck outside onto the Big House’s porch and traded the champagne for one of the quilts Honey always kept on the hammock. I tossed it to Wit, who draped it over his shoulders while I kicked off my heels. “Where’re we going?” he asked.

“You’ll see,” I answered, heart in my throat. This was really it. This was our last hurrah.

Tonight’s stars glimmered above us, and the moon shone so brightly that we didn’t need flashlights. It was like Paqua was illuminated in a mysterious glow, mysterious in such a way that you knew the world was full of possibilities. We navigated The Farm’s network of trails together, my feet silent on the sand and Wit’s scuffing in his shoes. If he realized where we were going, he didn’t say anything.

The tall grass swished as we got closer to the dunes, and instead of crashing against the beach, I heard the ocean waves calmly wash ashore before retreating back out to sea.

Barely a week, I thought. Barely a week ago, Wit had snuck up on me during my late-night walk. I’d threatened him with a knife, but by the end of the evening, I didn’t want his knees to stop knocking against mine. His energy—his everything—was infectious.

“I wondered if we might end up here,” he said once we’d found our secret nook. I took the quilt from him and spread it over the sand and matted grass. We both looked at it, ready and waiting.

Unlike our first kiss in Wit’s room with all its awkwardness, we didn’t hesitate—we just began. He drew me close and kissed me as I shimmied up his body, tangling my legs around his waist.

I slid off his navy tux jacket before he unzipped my dress. It fell first to my hips, then to the ground when he put me down, and we unbuttoned his shirt together. I kissed his shoulder, his collarbone, the hollow of his throat

—skin tinged blue in the moonlight. “I adore you,” I whispered. “Please tell me you know how much I adore you.”

Instead of answering, Wit kissed me again. He kissed me long and lingering, lips leaving behind the spiral sensations I loved so much.

I think he does, I told myself before the rest happened. I think he knows.

* * *

Afterward, we lay wrapped up together in Honey’s quilt. I had no idea what time it was, the world wonderfully hazy—so wonderfully hazy. I was nestled into Wit’s warm chest, and his fingers were splayed across my shoulder blades. They felt like butterflies. “Mmm,” I murmured, but he didn’t say anything back for a while, not until I was drifting off to sleep.

“I know you don’t like hearing this,” I heard him say, “and I know I promised not to tell you, but you are pretty, Killer. You’re pretty, beautiful, stunning, mesmerizing.” He paused. “But that’s not all you are. You’re everything Claire said and more. Clever, funny, caring, lively, strong, brave

—all of it. You are all of it.” He kissed the top of my head. “And I do know how much you adore me,” he whispered. “I just wish it was as much as I adore you.”

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