The Ex Trials (Falling for Autumn #3)

 

 

The Ex Trials

 

By Heather Topham Wood

THE EX TRIALS

Copyright: Heather Topham Wood

Published: August 31, 2015

 

The right of Heather Topham Wood to be identified as author of this Work has been asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in retrieval system, copied in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise transmitted without written permission from the publisher. You must not circulate this book in any format.

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

 

Dedication

 

To my little one,

You are an unexpected light that has already brought so much happiness to my life. I love you with all my heart.

“Love is when he gives you a piece of your soul, that you never knew was missing.”
 

 

-Torquato Tasso

Chapter One

 

Perception
. It was a concept I would later end up thinking about a lot. What did most people think when they saw me come into the room? How did women judge me? How did men react? 

I never realized how much perception colored the way I lived my life. The way I dressed, the way I spoke—every tiny bit of my personality was based on how I wanted others to see me. I was the blonde flake. The party girl. The one looking for a good time
. The slut
.

The problem with being a fraud was that no one truly knew the real Casey Silvers. They thought they did. They thought I was fine with being treated like a disposable piece of garbage. The collective “they” assumed I was okay with being used and misused over and over and over again. As if my enjoyment of sex were a crime against humanity. Society hadn’t evolved. We were still separating women into the Madonnas and the whores.

I didn’t think a single person, even those within my inner circle, realized how much I wanted to fall in love. I needed love—maybe even more so than most. Growing up, I watched enough daytime TV to know the girls who slept around were the ones most desperate for affection. I was forever destined to search for the one man who made me feel loved and whom I loved back. And although the faces of my lovers changed over my four years of college, this man I searched for always proved to be elusive. 

But then one night, I thought I found him. His kiss, his touch—everything about him sent my heart and body into a never-ending tailspin. It was the type of soul-altering kiss that made a cynical girl like me believe in destiny. He broke down my defenses until I felt my heart belonged to him and him alone.

But it wasn’t to be. The Casey persona I crafted to perfection would come back to bite me in the ass. Who had I been kidding? The easy girls don’t get the happy endings in the story. No, they get bitch-slapped by the virginal heroine and shamed by the handsome hero.

My circumstances were comically tragic. If only everyone knew the truth. If only they saw how fake my smiles were. Or if they guessed at the emptiness I was living with day to day. I may have been seen as the party girl when I walked into the room. But I could guarantee I was the one having the least amount of fun.

 

***

 

“Casey! The cab is going to be here in less than a hour. Get to packing.” My roommate Lexi was shorter than me, but she could be scary when she wanted to be. Her no-nonsense tone told me I better get my ass in gear or there would be hell to pay.

“What do you bring on a vacation you’re forced into?” I grumbled as I tossed in a few random articles of clothing into a suitcase. I had put off packing in an effort to pretend as if the ultimate trip of doom weren't coming up. I held up a sheer black teddy and shook my head before launching the nightie into the corner of my bedroom.

Lexi sat down on my bed and looked at me with a concerned look in her big brown eyes. “I don’t get it, Casey. You told Autumn you couldn’t wait to go. I believe the phrase you used was, ‘I’ll be there with motherfucking bells on.’ If you were adamant about not going on the cruise, then why didn’t you tell her?”

I frowned as I stared down at the messy pile of clothes I had shoved into my suitcase. “What was I supposed to say, Lexi?” I asked, starting to feel frustrated. “'Hey Autumn, I know I’m your maid of honor, but I’m going to sit out your bachelorette party'?”

Lexi didn’t reply at first. I was hoping the conversation was over and done with, but after four years of being college roommates, I knew better. Lexi was just getting warmed up. Finally, she said quietly. “I think she would understand if you told her you felt awkward about Cole going.”

Cole.
Cole Caldwell
. I should have known someone with such alliteration in his name would be a huge thorn in my side—more accurately a thorn in my fragile little heart. Because every time I heard his name, I wanted to curl up into a ball and cry myself into a deep and dreamless sleep.

“It’s not just about Cole,” I said, too smoothly. I tucked a piece of my blonde curly hair behind my ear—the action being my obvious tell. I tried to diminish the strain in of my voice as I added, “I mean, doesn’t it seem kind of weird? Blake and Autumn are so in love they can’t even have their own bachelor and bachelorette parties? Wouldn’t it be fun to just have a girls' weekend together?”

Autumn couldn’t normally stun me into absolute silence, but when she told how she arranged for her entire bridal party to go on a Caribbean cruise, I was speechless. If a year ago, she had told me her pro football-player fiancé was footing the bill for my vacation, I would have done a happy little booty dance around the room. Now I felt like I wanted to lose my lunch over the prospect of seeing my ex for an entire week.

“I think Autumn would love to have a girls’ weekend with just us, but with Blake’s training schedule, she tries to see him as much as possible during the off-season,” Lexi said diplomatically. Seemingly, Lexi’s role in our trio of friends was to keep the balance. She always managed to see all sides of an argument and offered up the best advice.

Which was why I could admit Lexi had a point, but I still wanted to hold onto my bitterness. Autumn was my best friend in the entire world and I’d do anything for the girl. Even go on a week’s cruise with Blake and his meathead football buddies.

The timing of the trip couldn’t be more perfect either. Autumn, Lexi and I had graduated from Cook University a couple of months back and the cruise was likely the last time we would be all able to get away together. Lexi was moving to Philadelphia for a teaching job in a few weeks while Autumn was marrying Blake the next month. I’d been accepted to the master’s program at Cook for Hospitality Management with my courses starting in the fall. Also, I’d recently been promoted to an assistant manager position at a restaurant near my apartment called Lucky’s. After four years of college together, everyone was going off to be a grown-up. Island hopping in the Caribbean could be a meaningful way of closing the chapter on that part of our lives.

But then Autumn dropped a bomb on me. The Caldwell twins Cole and Evan were coming along with their younger brother Levi. Cue my miserable pout about being stuck on a boat for a week with my ex and his loathsome twin brother.

Not that the golden-maned bride-to-be was so self-involved to not take my feelings into consideration. Honestly, Autumn didn’t think I would be affected by Cole’s presence because she didn’t know the whole sordid tale of what happened between me and the sexy-as-all-sin drummer. I had given her and Lexi my unique spin of how after two months of intense fiery chemistry, the romance between Cole and me just fizzled out. I insisted that after a little time and space, we'd be friends once again.

My best friends falsely assumed I grew bored of him like most other men I dated and decided to move on. Evidently, Cole hadn’t told anyone the god’s honest truth, so I followed his lead. The most shameful secrets were the ones to we hoped would stay with us to our graves.

Although six months had passed since I last saw Cole, the throbbing loss still followed me everywhere. A man I could never be with again was holding my heart hostage. And he wasn’t giving it back any time soon.

My ongoing heartache incensed me—the injustice of misery still vibrating through my core was as annoying as it was painful. I thought about suing every last dumb self-help author that claimed time healed all wounds.

Lexi was still giving me the scary big eyes and I knew I had to ease her worries or she’d ask me every five minutes on the trip how I was holding up. Her long-term boyfriend Finn had already started his banking job in Philly and was busy setting up house for the two of them. His absence on the trip left Lexi with plenty of time to smother me with her motherly concern.

“I know this trip is about Blake and Autumn, but I want us all to have fun. I’m worried seeing Cole is not going to be good for you.” She blew her blunt black bangs out of her face and added, “I know you said you'd moved on, but I don’t know if that’s true. After any breakup, you're dating someone new by the next week. You've done that since Will during freshman year! And it’s been half a year since you ended things with Cole and there’s been no one.”

Apparently, my dry spell hadn’t gone unnoticed. I figured my friends were too caught up in their own relationships to notice my bedroom had become like a no-fly zone. In the past, I floated from man to man without much of a break in between. Six months was the longest I’d gone without sex since I handed in my v-card during high school.

Lexi wasn’t going to drop the topic unless I convinced her of my stability. She could be a pit bull when she put her mind to it. After plastering on a toothy grin, I shut my suitcase with a decisive thud.

“I’ll be fine, Lexi. I mean, it can’t be too hard to avoid Cole on a huge cruise ship. Right?”

Chapter Two

 

“Evan Caldwell, if you kick my fucking chair one more time, I will shove this bag of peanuts so far up your ass—”

“Casey!” Lexi hissed next to me, stopping my rant. I noticed a mother with a young child shoot me a death glare across the airplane aisle and I colored, trying to give her a contrite look.

I turned around in my seat, climbing up on my knees to face the row behind us. Evan met my eyes and gave my chair another swift kick. Everything I’d been bottling up for six months threatened to push violently outward. Evan had no idea whom he had chosen to throw shade against.

Evan was seated with his brother Levi and Levi’s girlfriend Delia Bridges, whom I was also good friends with. Delia was trying to contain her laughter while Levi was elbowing his brother repeatedly in the ribs. From the moment the plane took off, Evan had been on a deliberate mission to make the flight unbearable for me.

The Caldwell brothers were the kind of handsome that mothers warned their daughters about. The brothers were all tall with dark hair and hazel eyes. Levi kept his hair longer while the twins kept their hair razor short. Thankfully, Evan had been sporting a faux-hawk lately, so there was no way I could mistake him for Cole. When Cole and Evan weren’t performing with Levi in their band Trojan Jedi, they held jobs as steelworkers. The labor made their bodies ridiculously cut without an ounce of fat anywhere on their six-foot frames. With Evan being identical to his brother Cole, my stomach recoiled each time I saw him.

I took a cleansing breath as I waited for my blood pressure to lower. “Since there are children present, I’ll rephrase: Stop being a stupid turd and keep your freakishly large feet off of my chair.”

Evan leaned forward in the airplane seat. “A turd?  What, are we in kindergarten? And thanks for broadcasting my large feet to the plane. I’m sure that will help spread the word about how hung I am.”

I had to clamp down on the back of my seat to avoid jumping over and wrapping my hands around his neck. His resemblance to his brother was the only thing that saved him.

“There is no way I’m being stuck on a four hour flight sitting next to your douche-bag brother, Levi,” Delia mock whispered. I gave Delia a grateful look. She was Blake’s younger sister and we had bonded after she started going to Cook University a couple of years ago. She was the one who introduced me to Levi’s brothers. And although Cole and I had crashed and burned fantastically, I was still grateful to her.

Evan held up his hands in surrender. “Relax. Can’t anyone take a joke? This is going to be a boring-ass trip if you people can’t loosen up.” Evan stuck out his chin defiantly. “Honestly, I’m a little mad at you, Casey. Trojan Jedi is about to blow up everywhere and I haven’t seen you at a single show. Don’t you want the street cred of being a fan before we’re famous?”

Evan’s tone was still teasing, but I had missed going to the band’s shows. Cole was the bassist, Evan the guitarist and Levi the drummer. Their band had a kick-ass female vocalist named Rain who entranced the crowd with her sultry and smoky voice. For the most part, Trojan Jedi covered 1990s rock music, but Levi was an emerging songwriter and had elevated their sets to include original songs. The band had been getting booked at bigger venues and last I heard they had their demo being passed around record producers.

“I’ve been busy. I’ve been working nights as an assistant manager at a new restaurant in Fairfort. I don’t get a lot of time off,” I said lamely.

Evan’s look was penetrating with his casual posture forced. Had Cole told Evan the truth? Would he call me out in front of everyone on the plane? His mouth twisted into a semblance of a smile and he waved me off. “Just as well. After you started hooking up with my brother, I gave you the nickname of Casey Cock Blocker.” 

As soon as I saw the plane’s seating arrangements, I knew a disaster was bound to happen. The Caldwells, Delia, Lexi and I were meeting the rest of the party at the cruise dock in Puerto Rico. Half of the wedding party, including Blake and Autumn, had flown down a day earlier to spend the night in San Juan. I would have liked to go, but I couldn’t find the coverage for my shift. As it stood, I had to beg and barter to get the week off. Luckily, my manager was a huge Baltimore Warriors fan and I promised to come back with plenty of photos and souvenirs from Blake and his teammates.

Lexi and I had arrived late to the airport and were the last to board. I hadn’t seen hair of Cole on the plane and it was a special kind of torture to not ask his brothers where he was. If he bailed, the trip would be easier on me. But I also craved the hurt of seeing him again. The painful twisting in my gut hadn’t subsided when I thought about him. What would it feel like to see him again?

“I thought you and Cole were ‘still friends,’” Evan continued using air quotes. “But you both act like freak shows around each other. He wouldn’t even sit with us. Charmed his ass into first class why the rest of us are stuck in coach. Levi is sitting so damn close to me, every time he shifts in his seat I feel a little violated inside.”

“Stop lashing out,” Levi scolded him. “You would have been upgraded too if you hadn’t laid it on so thick. The woman on the desk had her hand on the phone the entire time you were talking. She was going to call security at any given moment.”

I silently cataloged Evan’s words. Cole wasn’t impervious to my presence. He was set on avoiding me just as much as I planned to dodge him on the trip. I was surprised over how much the idea stung. I should have felt relieved, but instead I only felt like the small bit of hope I’d been clinging to was just snatched away. 

In spite of my inner struggle, I managed to keep my expression blank. “Cole and I are fine. We’re both busy and haven’t had any free time to hang out.".

“That’s great. Because here he comes,” Evan said gleefully and began motioning with his hands. Without any actual control over my body, my head craned to look toward the front of the plane.

My heart stopped. Cole was less than five feet away from me and still as gorgeous as I remembered. The perfect olive complexion, his slim but solid build, his luscious mouth currently compressed into a thin line as he stared at me. His eyes were what did me in. His steely gaze made me cower back in my chair and lean away from him. The penetrating look was only intended for me. With a single glance, he was telling me that all that transpired between us wasn’t forgotten or forgiven.

Cole stopped in the aisle between the two airplane rows. He gave a strained smile as if his facial muscles had forgotten how to contort into the expression. “Hi Lexi,” he said without taking his eyes off of me. “Casey. We didn’t see you at the gate.”

The force of seeing him again knocked me off balance and I tried to right myself before anyone noticed. Cole would see straight through my coy act. He was a wild card and I couldn’t begin to guess how he would respond to being forced to spend time with me for one whole week.

I had thought about what I would say when I saw Cole again for the first time—replaying the scene in my head over and over until I had my lines down pat. I would be witty. I would sparkle. With a few short phrases, I would make him realize all that he had been missing. Instead, I stood frozen in alarm.

Thankfully, Lexi spoke because my words were left back on the ground ten thousand feet below us. “We almost missed the flight. Airport traffic was a mess.”

He gave a slight nod before turning to face his brothers. I studied his profile unchecked while my heart threatened to burst from so much need and want. Flashes of the past exploded into my brain: Cole’s full sexy smile and deep laugh as we shared a private joke. The way he pressed me against him when we kissed. Cole stripping me bare before taking the time to gaze at my body with wonder.

Cole addressed his twin. “Dude, did you steal all the food and magazines out of my carry-on? Very funny, by the way, filling my bag with porn magazines. The grandmother I’m sitting next to really appreciated it.”

Evan snickered. “Payback for the first class upgrade, bro. You had it coming.”

“Do you have my shit or not?” Cole was one of the most laid-back guys I had ever met, so I was taken aback by the harshness in his voice. Evan was annoying, but the brothers usually playfully riffed on each other. Evidently, Cole 2.0 wasn’t handling the stress of vacationing with his ex as well as I assumed.

I wanted nothing more than to pull Cole aside and really talk to him. Ask him what had been going on with him since we broke up. I knew nothing of his life at the moment and it ripped me apart inside.

I was confused over the reason Cole decided to come on the trip. I didn’t have a choice. Lexi, Delia and I were all part of Autumn’s wedding party. And although the brothers had become good friends with Blake through Delia, I doubted Blake would have cried himself to sleep if the twins bowed out.  They weren’t in his wedding party, but Blake had extended the invite because the twins had become a part of our core group of friends since Levi and Delia fell in love.

“Here’s your crap,” Evan said, handing over a pile of snacks and magazines that had been shoved into the seat pocket in front of him. “Do you need a Xanax too? Because if this is a preview of the next seven days, I’m ditching you all as soon as we get off the plane.”

“That’s unlikely. You already told me your plan was to go after the castoffs left behind by Blake and his football buddies,” Levi said. Delia’s eyes fluttered closed as if she was searching for inner strength to tolerate Evan.

Evan shrugged unabashedly and gave me a leering wink. With a sigh, I turned back around in my seat. As I slumped down in my chair, Lexi gave me a meaningful look. I knew she wanted an emotional inventory on me as soon as possible, to see how I was feeling after seeing Cole for the first time. I peeked around her profile to look at Cole. While Evan was handing over his stuff, Cole kept darting sideways glances in my direction. Each time I caught his eye, the air in the plane cabin felt thinner and I struggled to take a breath. He smirked at me and the coil in my chest tightened painfully. I hated that he seemed to enjoy my discomfort. Like watching me squirm was much better than the in-flight movie selection. There was no way I was surviving a week on a boat with him.

“Bye. I’ll catch up with everyone later,” Cole said with practiced politeness before stalking back to the front of the plane. I struggled to swallow as I watched him go.

I’d seen my friends destroyed over love. I’d picked them up off of the ground when all they wanted to do was dissolve into a puddle of abject misery. I'd dried their tears, loaned them my skimpiest outfit and matched them drink for drink at the nearest dive bar. I had been a fool to think I was immune. Like I had a thick enough skin that rejection would never get to me.

And Cole was rejecting me. As loath as I was to admit it, I had in the back of my mind an irrational hope about the two of us. Like we would finally see each other again and all the drama of the past would be forgotten in an instant. But with barely a word to me, he was making it clear that although he may have protected my secret about why we broke up, he had no plans to rekindle what we had.

Seeing him again was only feeding the pain. Why couldn’t I look at Cole and feel nothing? There were no second chances between us and I had to accept it. I moved on before from broken relationships and I could do it again.

I stood up and flagged over the nearest flight attendant. I handed over my credit card with a strained smile and said, “I’d like five vodkas and orange juices for me and my friends.”

I heard Evan whoop behind me. “Finally, Casey’s back!”

Lexi grabbed a hold of the hem of my t-shirt and yanked me down close to her face. “I want us to have fun, but I am giving you two rules,” she said into my ear. “One, I will not be holding back your hair all night because you decided to drink away your problems. Two, I will intervene if you try to join the mile high club with the jackass twin. He may look like Cole, but repeat after me: ‘He is not Cole.’”

I didn’t reply as the flight attendant started handing out our drinks. After mixing together the orange juice and vodka, I held up my glass and said with an artificial smile, “Let’s drink to Autumn and Blake. May we all be lucky enough to find our own true love.”

I pointedly ignored Lexi mumbling “trainwreck” under her breath and didn’t wait to see if anyone else was drinking. I downed the drink in one long gulp. Let the vacation from hell officially begin.

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