ANYTHING BUT LOVE

Chapter One

Ben Taggart hated suits, social obligations, and most of the people he’d grown up with, and Jessica Bullock’s wedding would be the perfect storm of all three.

The last thing he wanted to do on a summer Saturday was attend the nuptials of a woman from his Upper East Side past. He and Jessica were barely even acquaintances anymore, so why the hell was he going to her big society wedding?

Because his mother was making him. He was a grown-ass man, and he was going to put on a tie and go to this stupid shindig because he couldn’t say no to his mother.

“That’s adorable,” Jamal Baker told him as Weisman dribbled around them both, sinking a three-pointer with ease. “I had no idea you were such a mama’s boy.”

Ben made the rebound and passed the ball to Jamal. “I can’t help it. She’s like a human ASPCA commercial. I take one look at those big sad eyes and it’s all over.”

Jamal dribbled toward the other basket. “Your mother has big sad eyes?”

“Like a golden retriever.”

Jamal attempted what should have been an easy layup, and the ball ricocheted off the backboard.

“That was pathetic,” Ben told him as Garrett made the rebound, passing the ball to Weisman.

“I know,” Jamal acknowledged, panting as the two of them attempted man-to-man defense against their far more skilled opponents. “Explain to me again why we’re subjecting ourselves to this humiliation?”

“Because when a former student gets drafted by the Knicks and asks if you want to join him and a teammate in a pickup game, you say yes.”

“I used to admire you for getting so involved in your students’ lives. Now I think it’s time for you to get cynical and jaded.”

Ben grinned as Garrett made a superhuman leap and dunked the ball over Jamal’s head.

“And miss moments like this? No way.”

Jamal called for a mercy time-out and went over to the bench where he’d left his water bottle. “You have to reconsider moving to Chicago,” he said. “If you leave New York, who’s going to remind me that I’m getting old and can no longer play a decent game of basketball?”

Garrett and Weisman had joined them. “I will,” Garrett promised. “Right after I remind you that if you and Mr. Taggart hadn’t gotten me through high school, I wouldn’t be here to kick your asses.”

A little while later Ben and Jamal, having graciously conceded defeat on the basketball court, were walking through Fort Tryon Park toward the 190th Street subway station. It was a beautiful June day: perfect for basketball, jogging through the park, or anything that didn’t involve sitting in a church watching two people recite empty wedding vows.

“How do you know they’ll be empty?” Jamal asked.

Ben used the hem of his T-shirt to wipe the lingering sweat from his forehead. “I’ve known Jessica for twenty years. I have no idea why she’s getting married, but it’s not because she’s in love.”

“I thought you said you haven’t seen her for a while.”

“So?”

“So maybe things have changed. Maybe she’s fallen for someone.”

“She hasn’t.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because the only person Jessica Bullock could ever really love is herself.”

“Wow. Harsh.”

Ben shrugged. “Like I said, I’ve known her a long time.”

“Yeah, but aren’t you the guy who’s all about redemption and second chances? It’s never too late to change. Isn’t that what you tell the kids everyone else has given up on?”

“It’s easier to reach kids who grew up with nothing than it is to convince Park Avenue royalty that there’s anything wrong with the way they live.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t you a royal yourself?”

“A former royal.” Ben swiped his card and pushed through the turnstile. “I’m the exception that proves the rule.”

Two subway stops and a short walk later, the two men were back at their Washington Heights apartment building.

“You’re coming tomorrow, right?” Jamal asked when the elevator stopped at his floor.

Ben drew a blank for a second. “Coming to—? Oh, your poetry slam. Yeah, I’ll be there.”

Jamal stuck his hand in front of the elevator doors to keep them from closing. “I find your lack of enthusiasm disturbing,” he said in his best Darth Vader voice.

“Sorry. This wedding has me off my game.”

“It’s only a few hours out of your life,” Jamal said, stepping out into the hallway. “How bad could it be?” he added as the elevator closed behind him.

A few minutes later, unlocking the door to his apartment, Ben asked himself the same thing.

How bad could it be?

Here was an even better question. Why was he so riled up? As Jamal had said, it would all be over in a few hours. He could cut out of the reception early and erase the memory with cheap beer in a local bar. Why was he letting this get under his skin?

He tossed his keys on the table inside the door and went to the kitchen for a glass of water. As he passed the refrigerator, he saw the invitation his mother had stuck under a magnet the last time she’d stopped by—a gentle reminder of the event he’d promised to attend.

Mr. and Mrs. William Bullock

request the honor of your presence

at the marriage of their daughter

Jessica Anne

to

Thomas Harrison Shelburne

He pulled the invitation off the fridge and laid it down on the counter. As he stared at the elegant script spelling out Jessica Anne, two very different images came into his mind.

One was a memory of Jessica from junior high, when the two of them had still been friends. The other was a memory from high school, when they’d been enemies.

Maybe enemies was too strong a word. But when Jessica had come back from camp the summer before ninth grade—her parents had sent her to an exclusive fat farm for teens—she’d been like a different person.

A person who wasn’t interested in his friendship anymore.

She was twenty pounds lighter and dressed in the kind of fashionable clothes she used to despise. She started wearing makeup, and she stopped talking to him.

It had taken him a few days of the new school year to realize what was happening. But the third time she walked past him in the hall without even making eye contact, he got the hint.

Jessica was making a new place for herself in high school, and he wasn’t going to be part of it.

He spent the first few months of freshman year trying to find his own place. He was good at sports, but he wasn’t a jock; he got good grades, but he wasn’t a brain; he liked gaming and science fiction, but he wasn’t a geek.

He wondered for a while if he’d always be someone who could visit different groups without ever belonging to one. But he started to make a few good friends, and after a while he realized that what they had in common wasn’t what they liked but who they were: Kids who could enjoy a lot of different things but didn’t want to be defined by them. Kids who would stand up to bullies and didn’t care as much about being popular. Kids who knew they wanted to make a difference in the world even if they weren’t sure yet how they’d do it.

With a lot of different interests and a group of new friends, Ben had enjoyed high school for the most part. His life became busy with school and activities—but that didn’t mean he forgot about the friend he’d lost. The friend who’d turned her back on him.

He’d been too proud to ask her why, even though their parents’ friendship had given him plenty of opportunities. At least once a month he saw her at a family function, either hers or his, but he never took advantage of the circumstances to talk to her.

He’d figured she was putting distance between herself and anything that reminded her of her “fat” past. The funny thing was, he’d found her far more beautiful when she was twenty pounds heavier. Once she was skinny and a better fit for society’s definition of beauty, his feelings were a lot more complicated.

It was hard to separate her changed appearance from her apparently relentless pursuit of popularity, something that had never mattered to her before. And of course the fact that she’d turned her back on their friendship so completely was a factor, too. But as much as he’d tried to dismiss her from his mind the way she’d obviously dismissed him, he hadn’t been able to.

All through high school, as much as he’d hated the person she was becoming, he couldn’t make himself hate her. Somewhere under the superficial exterior she’d constructed for herself was the thirteen-year-old girl he’d had a crush on—the girl who never met a stray cat or dog she didn’t try to rescue, who volunteered at the local animal shelter every weekend. He couldn’t believe that the Jessica Bullock he’d known so well had just disappeared.

But the more time that passed the more it seemed she had disappeared, leaving only a beautiful shell behind. His friend had turned into an aspiring Park Avenue socialite who didn’t seem to care about anything but herself.

Now she was getting married—to Tom Shelburne, of all people. Tom and Jessica had been friends since high school, but Ben had never gotten a romantic vibe from them. The only thing he knew they had in common was wealth and social prominence. Because of that, it was easier to imagine their marriage as a kind of business merger rather than a love match.

It shouldn’t matter to him. But as he stared down at the invitation and remembered Jessica as she’d once been, he realized that it did matter.

Which made no damn sense at all. He hadn’t even seen Jessica for a couple of years now. Watching her walk down the aisle to marry a man she probably didn’t love shouldn’t affect him in the slightest. So why the hell was it getting to him?

He crumpled the invitation in his hand and tossed it in the trash as he headed for the bathroom. It was time to get ready for the wedding he didn’t want to go to.

Suck it up, he told himself as he turned on the shower. As Jamal had said, it was one afternoon out of his life.

A few hours and it would all be over. How bad could it be?