Special Report: Gift Return Policy Loopholes.

What the major department stores don’t want you to know.

—Charleston Post

Walking up the stairs to a second-floor apartment in an unfamiliar part of town feels like a dream. I don’t know the girl in front of me from Adam, but I follow her in a trance. Laughter drifts from an unseen source, a baseball connects with a metal bat at the park across the street. Life as usual. Except for mine. When I woke up this morning, my entire life was plotted out on a strict timeline. Now it’s like someone used their backhand to sweep my milestone markers off the table…and they’re all left suspended in midair.

Was I really just left at the altar?

If I had my cell phone, it would be shrieking like a fire alarm in my pocket. But I didn’t bring it to my wedding, since everyone I knew was going to be there. And they were. My parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and colleagues came expecting to witness a union, before retiring to Gadsden House for dinner and cocktails. They bought clothes for the occasion, booked hotel rooms and purchased gifts. What are they going to eat for dinner now that their plans have changed? I pause on the stairs. Maybe I should have carried on with the reception. It wouldn’t kill me to smile for a few hours and let everyone enjoy the party they were promised.

“Are you coming?”

Several steps ahead of me, Addison leans against the wobbling railing, inspecting her nails as if she couldn’t care less whether I follow or not. Moving fast, I grip the unsteady wood in my left hand, in case it decides to give way behind her, little thing though she is. Her eyes cut to mine at the action, somewhat startled, before she goes back to examining her nails.

Lord. She’s such a departure from the mayoral aides, campaign volunteers and Charleston residents who beam as I pass them in hallways and streets, addressing me as Captain Du Pont. Yes, Addison is indifferent. Insulting, even. When I drifted down the steps of the church, at a loss for the first time in my life about what to do, an invisible wind seemed to push me toward the car. An outlandish notion if I ever heard one. I was merely hoping to avoid making everyone feel awkward. Southern manners dictate that each and every guest pat me on the shoulder and tell me I’m better off without Naomi. Jumping into Addison’s car was simply the easiest way to spare them from that obligation.

It has nothing to do with the instant…kinship I felt for her when she smiled and shook the half-empty bottle of Grey Goose at me.

“Yes. I’m coming.” I clear my throat and continue up the steps, raising an eyebrow when Addison shrugs, as if she can take me or leave me. It’s not a reaction I’m accustomed to—and it’s somehow exactly what I need. Because I’ve just been abandoned in front of an entire congregation. And I’m not ready to unpack why I’m more upset about the guests being cheated out of dinner and a party…than I am about my newly forced singledom. Addison’s nonchalance gives me an excuse not to think. To leave the mile markers of my life hanging in the air.

Just for today.

When we reach the door and Addison turns the key, it sticks, so she jiggles it, black hair falling into her face. She must belong to Naomi’s side of the family, since I don’t recognize her. There’s no doubt I would remember Addison. Dressed in leather and scuffed boots with a permanent sulk to her mouth, she’s the polar opposite of my fiancée. Ex-fiancée. Not to mention, this neighborhood and her car don’t suggest a high income. Whereas Naomi will never have to work a day in her life, thanks to family money.

“Where did you come from?”

“Huh?” Addison finally gets the door open, but pauses in the doorframe at my unrehearsed question. “New York. I’ve been there about six years, but before that I—”

“No, I mean today. Where did you come from today?” The last hour is a blur, but I try and recall the timing. “If you were in the church to see what happened, you only had about a minute to go get your car. Before I walked out.”

“Anyone lucky enough to be near an exit would have fled, too.” She rolls her lips inward and lets them go with a pop. “It was painful.”

I find myself fighting a smile. This girl is kind of mean. Have I ever met a girl who doesn’t hide a mean streak behind backhanded compliments and bless your hearts? “Yet you picked me up. If it was so painful, why bring me along as a reminder?”

“Do you always question basic human decency?” She gives an annoyed flick of her hair. “So, before we go inside, I have to prepare you. The place is decorated for Christmas. You will lose count of Santas and Frostys. It can be jarring at first.”