A/N: I don't own what you recognize. And I'm terribly sorry about the length between updates, but such is the price of a full-time job for me.
September 17, 2011 was a noteworthy day for two reasons. It was my first solo job as a wedding photographer; Lauren wasn't feeling well and arranged for me work alone. I had a suspicion, one that would later be substantiated, that would be happening much more frequently as her pregnancy progressed.
But the seventeenth was also the day that my car broke down at eleven-thirty at night. I was a little more than half an hour from home and it was raining. So, when my car shuddered and died on an exit ramp in Novi, I did what I always did in those sorts of situations. I pulled out of my cell phone and called a tow truck. Then I called Hugo.
Hugo told me that he was busy "but don't worry about it, Annabel. I'll take care of you. I'll be there ASAP.
Forty minutes later, as I watched the tow truck loading my car, Nick arrived. He was wearing jeans, a sweatshirt, and glasses. I immediately knew that Hugo had dragged his brother out of bed to avoid going out in the rain.
The first words out of my mouth were "Hugo woke you up to come get me, didn't he?"
Nick nodded. "But don't worry about it. It's fine."
"I'm going to kill your stupid brother," I replied as I picked up my purse and bags.
"Don't kill Hugo. It's fine. He was with Kate. I don't mind coming to get you."
"It's midnight, Nick. Your brother shouldn't wake you up at midnight if he's already awake."
"Annie, it's no big deal. I don't mind." Nick's voice was firm and steady.
I shrugged as I climbed into his car. "Okay, but we'll argue about this later."
Nick laughed. "If you insist."
Nick drove me to the mechanic and then home. "If you want, I can take you to work on Monday. And give you a ride home," he added. He was rubbing his face, an old habit that I knew was a nearly futile attempt to stay awake.
"That would be nice," I said. "I might ask Kate if I can borrow her car or share it with her. But if that doesn't work out, I'll let you know."
"Sure thing, just give me a call some time tomorrow. I have to work all day tomorrow, so just call me or send a text. I don't have to be at work until eight on Monday and I'll be done around four. Like I said, just let me know."
"I will," I told him. "And Nick, thanks for all your help."
He nodded. "Don't mention it."
Kate and I couldn't share her car. When I had proposed the idea, I had forgotten that she had to be at her student teaching placement at seven-fifteen and didn't get home until well after eight in the evening. So, I texted Nick and asked him if I could take him up on his offer of a ride to and from work.
His response was immediate. "Of course, and maybe we could grab dinner together afterwards?"
I hesitated before replying. I didn't want to seem desperate or needy. But I also wouldn't mind spending time with my occasional best friend. So, about an hour and a half after receiving Nick's text, I replied that dinner sounded great.
When Nick knocked on my front door, he had a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin in his hands. "I thought you'd need a morning pick-me-up," he said as I mumbled my thanks. "I know you've never been a morning person."
I tried to smile but yawned instead.
Nick chuckled. "Let's just get you to work, Annie. You don't need to say anything."
I smiled and climbed into the car.
Nick picked me up around five-fifteen, which had allowed me to get some grading and lesson planning done. A few minutes after he pulled out of the school parking lot, a question popped into my head. "Nicholas, how the heck are you a morning person?"
He laughed. "To quote Lady Gaga, baby, I was born this way."
When I stopped laughing, I shook my head. "Nick, you're beyond belief. That's something I would expect your brother to say."
"Annie, Hugo isn't the only member of our family who has a sense of humor. You just have to realize that I'm just as funny as he is; I just don't talk as much."
I sighed. "That's a relief. You're brother is so talkative that we all need to rest our ears before we can listen to much else."
He smiled. "But we do love him no matter how chatty he is."
"At least Kate loves him."
"We'd better hope she loves him. It appears that she'll be stuck with him for life."
"I'm glad that they've found each other. No matter what I've said or done in the past, I do want my brother to be happy. And I'm so glad that she makes him so happy."
I nodded. "I always knew that you two loved each other."
Nick laughed. "Sometimes, you're a real romantic."
"Romanticism makes better pictures sometimes."
That elicited another laugh from my friend. "I don't believe you. I think you're full of it."
"Maybe your brother is starting to rub off on me."
He shook his head. "I've suspected that ever since you two started living together last spring."
I adjusted the sleeves of my sweater. "Aren't you afraid that he'll rub off on you now that you live with him?"
"Meh, if he hasn't rubbed off in the past twenty-nine years of being his twin brother, then I doubt that anything will change in the next twelve months."
I smiled. "I'm glad that you two are getting along so famously now."
Nick laughed. "We've done it before. We were best friends until we were about eight. And now, we're adults. We've both done a lot of growing up in the past few months."
I looked at him. "You just as much as him, I should think."
"Maybe I had more growing up to do than he did in the first place."
"Nick, you shouldn't be so hard on yourself," I began.
He raised his hand and shook his head, effectively cutting me off. "No, Annie, hard on myself is exactly what I should be. I need to see myself clearly as I am. And when I look back at my actions over the past few years, I don't see things of which I am proud."
"You haven't done anything that's morally wrong."
He snorted. "That's no defense, Annie. I dated Daisy. I should have seen through her. I should have known she was all wrong for me. You, on the other hand, dated Dan. He wasn't bad for you."
"He just wasn't The Right One. He was more interested in pulling my pigtails than in kissing me senseless and doing what bunnies do with me."
"I kind of want to blush right now."
"You're talking about sex."
I rolled my eyes. "Nicholas, I am twenty-three years old. I am allowed to talk about sex if I want to."
He sighed. "I guess I have to realize that you grew up somewhere along the way."
"I should hope I grew up," I replied firmly. "I'm sick of arguing with you about this."
"You know why I have a hard time believing that you grew up?" he asked, an edge of anger creeping into his voice. "It has nothing to do with you, Annie. It's about me. I don't think I've grown up as much as I like to think that I did. I dated Daisy. I pushed Jay at you. I was like Nick in The Great Gatsby. I wanted to believe an impossible myth. I was unbelievably infantile about the whole thing. I was a child. And I treated you like you were a plaything. It's hard to admit that you're more mature, more responsible with your relationships than I am."
I looked at him, just looked at him with my mouth hanging open. And then he pulled up in front of my house.
"Annie, what's with the look on your face? Seriously, are you all right?"
"I can't believe you're saying this. You're actually admitting everything that Hugo and I thought about you last fall. We kept talking about how you were living in a fantasy world and how we hoped you would finally wake up to the real world." I gasped and put my hands over my face. "Oh, Nick, I didn't mean to say that. I mean, yeah, we did talk about you behind your back, but I-I, I don't know what I'm trying to say. But I'm sorry that we talked about you behind your back."
He laughed. "Annie, it's fine. It's very, very fine. I know that you and Hugo weren't happy with me last fall. I know I made some dumb decisions and I hurt you. Now can we please go inside and eat dinner?"
"Oh fine," I replied.
My car ended up spending over a week in the shop. I could have gotten a rental, but Nick graciously volunteered to drive me everywhere I needed to go and I frugally accepted his offer.
Ultimately, I found this to be one of my better decisions in life. Nick and I renewed our friendship. We hadn't really talked since before he broke up with Daisy. But now, spending fifteen minutes here and twenty minutes there with him in the car-and eating dinner with him every evening, I was learning so much about him. The car accident had served as a wake-up call to him. Maggie's divorce had terrified him. "I never really knew how screwed up my family was until January. I think Hugo had known for years, and I know that you knew. But I had always had blinders on when it came to my sisters' behavior. I knew they were far from perfect. But I never thought that Maggie had the capacity to be so hurtful inside of her."
"What do you mean?" I asked. We were sitting in my living room on Thursday evening after dinner at Panera-Nick's treat.
"Think about what she did to Sam," he replied. "She probably never really thought about Sam's feelings. Heck, Hugo and I just thought of him as a beige wall that was just there. And I'm pretty sure that Maggie just saw him as a rich beige wall that would always be there no matter what stupid shit she did."
"And then he filed for divorce when he found out that she was being unfaithful," I said, finishing Nick's thought.
He nodded and took a sip of tea. "I give him major credit for that. It had to take major balls for him to look my self-absorbed sister in the eye and tell her to get out. I didn't think he had it in him."
"But you were pretty sure that she was cheating on him even before they got married," I said.
"True, but I didn't think he'd ever walk away from her. I figured he was dumb enough to stick with her no matter what happened."
I smiled. "But he wasn't."
Nick shook his head. "Nope, he turned out to be more of a man than I gave him credit for. And I like that about him. I like he turned out to have a bit of chutzpah underneath the vanilla icing."
"What would you have done if you'd been in his shoes?"
"I don't know, and I hope I never have to find out. But I'd probably leave the bitch the way he did."
"What if you'd really loved her?"
He shook his head. "No, love is a two-way street, and I'd only ever marry for love. I would never get married unless I knew that we could live together happily and peacefully all the days of our lives. Sam didn't know that when he married Maggie, and that was a mistake on his part."
"But how would you know that?" I asked.
Nick shrugged and sighed. "I don't know how I know, but I know that I would know. Where there is a true equality of spirit and affection, then there is also an awareness of such a mutual affection." Then he laughed. "God, I sound like a Jane Austen novel right now."
I laughed too. "I suppose that happens to the best of us, especially to library boys."
"Oh man," he sighed. "I can't believe that I just let Daisy call me that in public all the time. What was I thinking?"
"That she had big boobs," I replied.
"Did you pick that one up from my brother?"
"Him or Dan," I confessed. "The two of them and Milo were pretty sure that you were only interested in Daisy for her looks and body. In fact, they all thought that if you ever really noticed her brain, it would turn you off to her."
"They were right," he admitted. "I eventually did notice her brain and that was the end of the relationship."
I pressed my lips together. "I'm sorry. I wish that hadn't happened to you."
He shook his head again. "It's not your fault.
"But I'm still sorry that it happened."
Nick laughed. "That's one of the things that I love about you, Annie. You always want to make people feel better or offer them sympathy even if you had nothing to do with their troubles. And you rarely have anything to do with anyone's troubles."
"But I hate to see anyone hurt," I protested. "Even if I didn't hurt them, I hate that they are hurting."
He smiled and squeezed my hand, the heat from his tea mug still in his hands. "You have the kindest heart I've ever known. You're almost too good, but you're not too good. You're just wonderful."
"I'm just trying to make the world a better place. I want others to have a better experience of the world than I've had, and I'll do anything that I can to make that happen."
"Oh Annabel," he sighed. He so rarely called me Annabelle except when he was truly being affectionate. Hugo tossed my full name around flippantly, but Nick held it in reserve for those dark moments when he felt that I needed to be reminded that I was loved. And no, I didn't come up with that idea on my own. He told me that once when I was about seventeen.
"I'm just one person," I said. "But I really do want to make the world a better place. I want to adopt children because no kid should feel like I did when I was eleven and no one wanted me."
Nick grimaced. "For years, I tried to argue with you on that score, but now, I know that you're right. My family didn't want you. But I'm so glad that you fell into our lives. You've made me a better person. And you've definitely been a positive influence on Hugo."
"And you two have meant the world to me. Also, if your family hadn't taken me in, I never would have met Kate and Lauren, and that would have been a tragic loss for me."
"And Hugo never would have met Kate. And that would have been an enormous tragedy. They were meant to be together."
I smiled. "I love that you've become such a strong proponent of their relationship."
He ran a hand over his face and smiled. "You know how much I hate all the sappy crap that people say about relationships in romantic comedies. But she really is the Meg Ryan to his Tom Hanks."
"I think she's more the Katherine Heigl to his Josh Duhamel," I replied. "They're both a little too splashy to be the Ryan-Hanks duo. But they've definitely got that Heigl-Duhamel in Life as We Know It thing going on."
Nick laughed. "Oh Annie, what would I do without you?"
"You'd be bored," I replied flatly. "But somehow, you'd survive."
"No, I'm serious. I really don't know what I'd do without you."
I didn't really realize what he was trying to say for many weeks after that. But a few things changed in late October that began to open my eyes to a few things I'd never noticed before. On October 29, Lauren and I were scheduled to photograph the wedding of Alessandra Beraducci and Parker Seton-Wagner. Both of their families are important in local society, and this was a big gig for us. We were both looking forward to it because we knew it could be our big break and totally change our photography careers.
And that was why I was totally surprised when Lauren called me two days before the wedding. "I can't do it," she told me. "I can't do the Beraducci wedding."
"Why?" I asked. "This is our dream."
"Milo's parents are coming into town from England and I have to meet them. Saturday is the only time that works for them. I tried to explain to Milo. He tried to explain to them. But they're being assholes about this, and I can't do the wedding."
"What am I supposed to do?" I asked her. "I can't do this alone. We promised them two cameras."
She sighed. "I don't know. Ask Kate or Hugo. Or if they're busy being smooch-faced, ask Dan; he's pretty decent as a second camera."
"I'll call him," I said accidentally letting my anxiety and frustration seep into my voice.
"I'm so sorry about this, sweetie," she replied. "I really am. And I'll make this up to you. I promise."
Kate and Hugo were, in fact, busy although not being smooch-faced. They had to go to a function for Wentworth Enterprises, Hugo's employer. And Dan had a date with a girl named Cassandra Austen. "You'd really like her," he assured me even though I'd never even remotely suggested anything to the contrary.
"You are aware that Jane Austen's sister's name was Cassandra, aren't you?" I asked.
"Yeah, but that's okay. I'm an English professor. I can handle those sorts of weird quirks in my life. That's why I've had a crush on Anne Hathaway for years. That name just keeps me coming back for more."
I laughed. "Have fun."
"Call Nick if you're desperate," Dan replied. "I'm reasonably certain that he knows how a camera works."
"Yeah, I know how a camera works," Nick said when I called him. "But how desperate are you?"
"I'd lick your shoes clean if it meant you'd help me."
"Eww," he replied. "My shoes are gross. Please never lick them. Ever."
I laughed. "Okay, I won't lick your shoes. But I am desperate."
"I'll get paid for this, right?"
"Of course," I replied.
"Then I'm in," he replied.
"I need you to look nice," I told him.
"I always look nice," he protested.
I sighed. "Look really nice, please and thank you."
Nick helped me photograph the wedding. I wasn't thrilled about the idea. It was highly unorthodox to use someone who had never done any sort of photography that didn't involve his cell phone, a disposable camera, or random touristy shots purely intended to make his mother happy for a wedding of this importance. But like I said, we were desperate.
And then things went brilliantly. I don't know how else to explain it, but the job went beautifully. The lighting, the setting, the colors, the people involved-everything was gorgeous.
But the most important part of the evening was a picture that I took. It was a photo of the bride and groom after the ceremony. As I recall, it was actually a candid, but I might be wrong about that. The important thing about it is that the bride's father loved it. In fact, Sal Beraducci loved it so much that in early January of 2012 he had an enormous canvas print made of it that he hung in his office. The photo attracted a great deal of attention, and Sal made a point to always tell anyone who asked about the photo that it had been taken by Annie Price of Lauren Cassidy Photography. He also gave a fair number of people my business card.
However, that picture wasn't hung for almost three months after the wedding. And in the almost three months between October 29 and January, Nick continued to amaze me. He was actually being helpful in the planning of his brother's wedding. He sent me flowers (daisies, my favorites) at work for absolutely no reason other than "you have a beautiful smile and I know that parent-teacher conferences aren't exactly known for making me you smile," as the note said.
He made me dinner every now and then. He even watched chick flicks with me. It was different from the way our friendship used to be. And I liked it.
But Kate had editorial comments that were confusing me and stirring up old feelings that I was trying to squelch. "He's trying to woo you, you know," she told me a few days before Thanksgiving. "The flowers, the movies, the dinners, the boy is in love with you and he's trying to win you over subtly."
A/N: Please review!