“Go live your life,” her parents said. “You can get a husband after you’ve seen the world.” Her father encouraged. Her mother added, “Don’t make the mistakes we made and anchor yourself to responsibilities when you’re young.”
Grace Hudson followed her parent’s advice. Now she was the only one in her group of friends who was single. She sighed and took one last look at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her brown hair shaped into barrel curls hung on her shoulders. Grace spoke to her reflection, “Am I expecting too much?”
Her friends would argue, yes.
“And we still love you,” her best friend, Wendy would add.
It had to be true. They all had boyfriends. Boyfriends that allowed them to go to a concert for a girl’s night on Valentine’s Day. Grace’s last boyfriend broke up with her when she wanted to go to a women’s retreat in France for a month. Since then she had navigated life solo. Whenever she went out with someone, she compared men to him. His lack of response to her texts left a clear message. There were no second chances.
But that wasn’t what tonight was about. It was about having a good time. Grace smiled at a woman who entered the bathroom as she was leaving to meet her friends at the concession stand. She stopped short when a man oblivious of her presence darted by. He was in the middle of an animated conversation with…Grace froze. She could have sworn the stranger was talking to Wendy’s boyfriend, Matt.
Grace focused on the stranger. She recognized the wavy brown hair that peeked out beneath the baseball cap. From the back, his muscular frame did not resemble anyone she knew. Her gut told her to look again. There was something familiar about the man. She shook aside the feeling and wondered if Matt got tickets to the concert to keep tabs on Wendy. That would explain why he was willing to let her go without him. Grace found Wendy in the crowd. “Did you know Matt was here?”
Wendy’s face flushed. “It is Valentine’s Day.” Her eyes darted to their friends, Alana and Sarah, and pleaded for support.
Sarah’s lips folded in on themselves. Her red lipstick formed a downward shape curve. “We bought the tickets six months ago.”
“Yes,” Wendy exclaimed. Her auburn hair made the red on her cheeks even more pronounced. “Yes, Matt is here. He is with Clark.”
“Why did you have to include me in this?” Alana whined. Apparently, her boyfriend was at the concert too.
“She would find out when we sat down,” Sarah held her palms up. “The guys are in the same row as us.”
Grace saw the picture. Her friends didn’t come to the concert without their boyfriends. Technically they did, but once they got to the venue they planned to meet up. The cute backside she saw with Matt came to Grace’s mind. “Did you set me up?”
“No.” Wendy leaned away from the conversation. Her eyes widened at something behind Grace. Grace turned to see Matt and the mystery man walk away. They turned. But not before Grace caught a glimpse of the man’s chin. Her gut was right. She knew the man. Still, she had to ask. “Is that?” she stammered. It couldn’t be. She hadn’t seen Tanner Peterson in three years. Or at least not in person. She had seen pictures of him on her friend’s social media profiles. He unfriended Grace after he broke up with her. He wanted to get married but not to someone who would set a relationship with him on the back burner. Grace saw the writing on the wall. She and Tanner were in different places in life. At the time Grace thought them breaking up was a good thing.
Then she came home from the retreat and her father died. Her mother who was a widow at forty-nine shook her head in bewilderment. “I thought for sure we’d have a fortieth and fiftieth anniversary.”
Then the tune changed. “Grace, you need to find a husband.”
Like they pop out of a garden during husband season and she needed to pick the one that suited her taste.
“You need a man that can make you smile when you’re in a bad mood.”
That Grace could agree with. She wanted someone she could laugh with. Regret hit her. Especially when she saw an article about Tanner on social media. He played games with children at the hospital. Grace assumed Tanner’s new girlfriend was the parent of one of the children. Or he was dating a nurse and wanted to impress her. Regardless of why he was doing it, one thing was obvious; Grace blew it.
“Yes,” Alana confessed. “We bought an extra ticket thinking you’d have a boyfriend by now.”
“By now?” Grace winced.
“Don’t take it like that,” Sarah rubbed Grace’s shoulder. “We were thinking it would suck if you had a boyfriend and all of us had tickets but he didn’t.”
Grace wanted to be mad. They bought the tickets six months ago. They’d known all along their boyfriends were coming along and nobody said a thing to her. It was a conspiracy. They could have told her the truth and she could have offered her ticket to a couple. Then she’d be alone on Valentine’s Day. Embarrassment set in. She was so pathetic she couldn’t get a date for Valentine’s Day.
“Don’t be mad,” Wendy pleaded. “Consider it our Valentine’s Day present to you.”
They thought it was a present to set her up with an ex-boyfriend who hadn’t talked to her in three years.
“Does he know about this?” Grace pulled at the curl closest to her chin.
“No,” Alana said.
The air left Grace’s chest. Her mind flew to the quickest way to get out of the situation. She pulled out her phone to check the time. It was almost seven. If she drove home soon, she’d be home by nine. It wasn’t the best Valentine’s Day. But her friends saved her from wallowing alone in front of the television. “So, he wouldn’t know if I didn’t come.”
“Okay, we lied,” Wendy blurted. “He knows.”
“He wanted it to be a surprise,” Sarah added. “You weren’t supposed to see him until you saw him at the seat.”
Grace’s eyes instinctively darted to where she remembered where she last saw Tanner. Wendy pulled on her hand to get her to turn back toward the group. “He wants to see me?” Her voice hitched. “Why didn’t he just call me?”
“That’s for him to explain,” Wendy replied. “Just give him a chance.”
Butterflies took over Grace’s stomach. The last time she and Tanner spoke came to her mind. “One day, you’ll regret this decision. By then I’ll have found someone better than you and moved on.” She spent the years wondering what better than her was. Was better than her taller, funnier, prettier, smarter?
Alana didn’t give Grace time to answer. “I’m buying the first round of drinks.” She joined the line in front of the concession stands. Wendy pulled Grace in the opposite direction of where the men were talking. “This will be fun.”
Sarah chimed in. “The worst thing that can happen is you’ll pick up where you left off.”
Grace didn’t want to think about the worst thing that could happen. Sarah left out a multitude of other possibilities. So, Grace tried to ignore the empty seat beside her. Singing along with the music on the PA system helped. Taking selfies and posting them to social media set her mind at ease. She almost forgot about the person in the empty seat beside her when the lights in the arena dropped. The stage lights flashed across the front curtain. Live music blared loud enough to send vibrations of energy through Grace’s body. A sense of anticipation filled her. The audience clapped in a rhythm that matched the drum’s beat.
Shuffling in the seats to her right caught Grace’s attention. People stepped back and Tanner sidestepped his way closer to her. His eyes glowed with expectation. The wide smile on his face erased all of Grace’s concerns. He didn’t stop when reached the edge of the empty seat. He wrapped his arms around Grace’s shoulders and hugged her. She melted into his chest and wrapped her arms around his back. Tanner tightened his hold and kissed Grace on the top of the head. They remained in the embrace for a couple seconds. It felt like home to Grace. She forgot she missed the feeling until it returned.
The pain of being apart came at Grace and forced tears to her eyes. Tanner wiped them away with his thumbs. Grace sniffled to push them back. Tanner leaned in to speak in her ear. He said, “Me too, baby,” and kissed her gently on the lips. Then he said, “We’re here to have some fun. You ready for a Valentine’s Day we’ll both remember.” The excitement in his voice made Grace laugh. She nodded, he winked, and they both started clapping in unison.
Wendy bumped Grace with her hip. She leaned in and said, “Happy Valentine’s Day best friend.” Grace bumped her back. “Happy Valentine’s day to you too.”