A parallel universe, a parallel Earth. A woman torn between family duties and a stranger.
|England, March, 2022
Scott nodded his thanks to the woman behind the serving counter, picked up his coffee mug and headed back to the corner table by the window. It was a small cafe, only six tables which bordered the counter, but he appreciated its cosy atmosphere. Two other tables were occupied, providing a constant hum of muttered conversation. A singer crooned out a love song from a radio in the kitchen.
Outside, a woman dressed in a trench coat at least one size too big for her, stopped outside the window, causing Scott to freeze mid—step. He was off duty and had no appointments for that day, but something about the woman unsettled him. The collar of her coat was turned up against the wind and any prying eyes behind her, head slightly bent so that she could see over the rim of the redundant sunglasses perched on the end of her nose.
Scott continued to his table and sank into his intended chair, with his back to the wall as he continued his observation. To all intents and purposes, the woman was scanning the menu, and with clouds threatening to unleash their burden, no one could blame her for considering taking refuge in the cafe. He knew different. Her grey eyes pointed to the left of the menu, the direction from which she'd come, using the window as a mirror to check for anyone following her.
Hands thrust deep into her pockets, the woman turned and crossed the road, coming to a stop outside a computer shop directly opposite. Scott suspected she was no more interested in the laptops on display than she was in coffee and cake at the cafe. He drained his mug, left a tip borne out of habit, and grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair.
“Let’s see how good you really are,” he muttered, shrugging on his jacket
Spain, 3 Weeks Later
Tracey Brown’s shoulders sagged as she perched on the edge of her bed, gazing at the image of a bride in the mirror, chestnut hair topped by a glittering tiara, from which a delicate veil cascaded around to her right and down to the floor. She didn’t look any happier than she felt.
She was brought out of her reverie by a gentle tap and her father putting his head around the door. As much as she loved him, he was the last person she wanted to see at that moment.
“There she is!” he beamed. “You look gorgeous, honey. Ready?”
Tracey remained deadpan. “No.”
Tom entered the room fully and sat beside her on the bed, addressing her reflection. “Cold feet, huh?”
“Nope. I don’t want to marry Jack.”
Tom grinned. “Yup. Cold feet. It’s normal. Everyone gets them,” he leaned forward and gave her a gentle nudge with his shoulder. “Even me,” he winked.
Maybe you should have listened. “It’s not cold feet, dad. I really don’t want to marry a man I don’t love. It’s wrong.” Tracey knew she sounded every bit as defeated as she looked
Her mother’s shrill voice reached her from the hall. “I don’t care what you want, my girl!” she shouted. “Your father and I paid for this wedding, and I want a ceremony that will be the talk of the town for weeks to come!”
Tracey stiffened. “Do you now?” she muttered. “Only weeks? I’ll give you a wedding that will be talked about for months!”
Her father missed the declaration of war, and beamed. “That’s the spirit! Told you it was just cold feet.”
The church was situated on the edge of a small village, nestled in a valley bathed by the midmorning sunlight. A low stone wall surrounded the grounds, protecting the church and the handful of gravestones worn by decades of time.
The church itself was a small, simple building built from the same material as its boundary wall, with a modest bell tower topped by a similarly modest steeple. Inside, a red carpet runner led from the door to the altar, and Miriam Brown had decorated the ends of ancient pews with baby pink ribbon bows which matched her Mother of the Bride outfit. Tracey hated all of it. She resisted an eye roll as she walked down the aisle on her father’s arm.
Even half way down the aisle, she could feel Jack Huntson's excitement. There was no hesitation from him. She hesitated, her step faltering, causing her father to glance at her. Jack deserved someone who would love him for who he was. And that, Tracey realised, would never be her. She took a deep breath, offered her father a wavering smile, and continued on her way to meet her groom.
“Do you, Tracey Helen Brown, take this man, Jack Hunston, to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, til death you do part?”
Tracey forced herself to look Jack in the eye, but couldn’t prevent a slight shake of her head. “I do not,” she replied.
The priest seemed flustered. He leaned towards her. “Um, right, Tracey, it’s ‘I do’” he said.
“Only if I promise to marry him, and I don’t,” she replied.
Silence gave way to stunned muttering. Phones that had been taking photos of the ceremony switched to video and swept across from the altar to the immediate family on either side of the aisle. At the back of the church, a solitary man slipped out of the door unnoticed.
“I. . . I think the bride and groom could do with somewhere to talk in private,” the priest stuttered. He indicated a door behind his left shoulder.
Tracey reclined against the polished oak door after the priest closed it behind him. Jack stood in the middle of the room, just in front of a desk, his back to her. She waited.
“Why?” he asked, as he turned around.
Tracey shrugged. “Because this will never work,” she said, adding, “I hoped to call it off before now, but . . .”
She was nearly knocked off her feet as the door was forced open and her mother barged into the room, her veiled hat askew.
“Just what do you think you’re playing at?” Miriam demanded, hands on hips.
Tracey folded her arms. “Well, Mother. You said you wanted a wedding the neighbours would be talking about for weeks.” She tilted slightly forward from the hip. “This one will be the talk of the town for months!” she snapped.
Miriam’s face was crimson, bordering on purple, but her voice was deceptively low as she flung her arm in the direction of the congregation. “Get back out there, right now and tell them you’ve had a moment’s panic,” she spat, “Or don’t bother coming home!”
For a second, Tracey was intimidated enough to consider backing down. She had no doubt that her mother meant every word. She also knew that her mother would hunt her down, so staying with friends and family was out of the question too. She gave an involuntary shake of her head and her resolve returned. “No. I can’t. I won’t go through with it.” She glanced towards her groom. “I’m so sorry, but this is wrong for both of us.” With that, she removed her veil, laid it on a table, and left her mother and groom stunned into inaction behind her.
Tracey blinked as she emerged into the sunshine, pausing to give her eyes time to adjust after so long in the partial gloom of the church interior. Then she ran out of the gate at the back of the churchyard and up the hill, only coming to a stop when she reached the fence marking the boundary of a nearby farm. What had she done? What on Earth was she going to do now? She fought the sting of tears, even as they blurred her vision.
“Good for you,” said a sympathetic voice. It had a Colonial accent. American, Tracey guessed.
She pulled a rough hand across her eyes, wiping away the tears, then scanned the area for the speaker. A man appeared to walk out from the sun itself. He was dressed just like any of the guests, but she couldn’t remember seeing him before. His tuxedo jacket was flung carelessly over his shoulder.
“To walk out like that takes guts,” he continued, drawing in alongside her.
“Who are you?” Tracey asked, then realised how rude she sounded. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
The man didn’t seem to take offence. “A wedding guest’s Plus One,” he smiled.
Tracey looked at him. She could believe that. He was quite good looking, she decided. Tall, dark, handsome, impossibly blue eyes and black hair. Any one of her friends would have been thrilled to have him as a date. She scanned the farm. Cows and sheep grazed in the distant fields, oblivious to the turmoil inside her.
The man ignored the livestock and kept his eyes fixed on the bride. “You did the right thing you know?”
“Did I?” she sighed. “I’m pretty sure I’ve just made myself homeless, don’t have anywhere I can go where my mother won’t find me, and no way to support myself even if I did.” She wondered why she was telling him all this.
The stranger studied her for a moment. Blue eyes sparkled. “Maybe I could help with that,” he said.
Tracey snapped her attention back to him. “How?”
For an answer, the man used his index and middle fingers to withdraw a business card from the breast pocket of his jacket. “Give these a call. Ask for Spencer. Tell them Peregrine gave you this number. They’ll advise you further.”
“Peregrine? Is that your name?”
He grinned. “One of many. We’ll meet again, Tracey Brown.” He bowed and turned to retrace his steps back up the hill.