Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Finding Love at Hedgehog Hollow’ by Jessica Redland.
Finding Love at Hedgehog Hollow
Hedgehog Hollow Book 1
‘Would I be right in thinking that wasn’t easy for you?’ Dad whispered to me shortly after we exited the church behind the newlyweds.
My stomach did somersaults. Had he guessed the truth? ‘It was really easy,’ I said quietly, hoping to deflect him. ‘All I needed to do was smile, hold the bouquet, arrange her train and smile some more. My cheeks are aching.’
‘And I bet your heart is too. Mine would be if my cousin had just married the love of my life.’
‘Dad! Shhh!’ Even though he’d spoken softly, I still felt the need to grab his arm and lead him down the church path away from prying ears – like Great-Aunt Agnes’s. Mum’s auntie already hated me for some unfathomable reason so it was best not to provide her with more ammunition.
‘James is not the love of my life,’ I insisted, very much aware of the shake in my voice. ‘We just… well, he… it was…’ Looking up into Dad’s warm brown eyes, I crumbled. There was no point denying it. ‘No, it wasn’t easy. If I was to compile a list of the worst days ever, losing Gramps would be top but today wouldn’t be far behind.’ My voice cracked on the final words.
Dad pulled me into a hug, instantly comforting me with his warmth and strength. At six foot four, there was a lot to hold onto and I didn’t think I’d ever grow too old for a hug from him, especially on a day like today.
‘Thanks, Dad,’ I said as we separated. ‘I needed that.’
‘Can everyone except the bride and groom move away from the church entrance please?’ called the wedding photographer.
I lifted up the skirts of my bridesmaid dress as Dad and I moved further down the church path. With a heavy heart, I turned and watched Chloe and James gaze adoringly at each other under an archway of pink and cream roses while the photographer snapped photos and tried to shoo away the paparazzi of friends and relatives thrusting mobile phones into his shot. The mid-August sun warmed my bare arms and I closed my eyes for a moment, head tilted upwards, as the gentlest of breezes kissed my face, comforting and relaxing me.
Dad and I stood in silence for a few minutes, watching the photographer issue instructions to Chloe and James to stand side by side, hold hands, face each other, kiss. I couldn’t help fantasising that I was the one in the ivory dress instead of my cousin, starting my happy ever after with the man with whom I’d been hopelessly in love for nearly two years.
Unable to bear watching them any longer, I drew my eyes away but they rested on the equally unsettling sight of Mum smiling proudly and hugging Auntie Louise, mother of the bride. A familiar wave of sadness swept over me. I completely understood that their sisterly closeness was multiplied several-fold by being identical twins but what I’d never understood was why that warmth and affection couldn’t be shared with Dad and me. I actually couldn’t remember the last time she’d hugged me. Some people aren’t tactile but she didn’t fall into that camp, frequently hugging Auntie Louise and Chloe. I’d always had a difficult relationship with her and had often wondered if part of it was her envy of how close I was to Dad. Yet she was so close to her twin that surely it couldn’t be a surprise that Dad and I, left on the periphery, had forged such a strong bond. Stop it, Sam. Not today. Today is challenging enough without going down that road.
‘Mum looks nice,’ I said. In keeping with the colour scheme, she wore a pale-pink floaty dress, a matching pink waterfall jacket and a fascinator.
‘Your mum looks beautiful,’ Dad said, a wistful tone to his voice. ‘It’s good to see her in something that isn’t black for once.’
I couldn’t remember seeing Mum wear anything but dark, drab colours. Auntie Louise, by contrast, usually wore bright colours although she’d opted for a muted palette today. Her mother-of-the-bride outfit was really classy – a fitted dusky pink shift dress with an ivory lacy bodice, pink jacket and matching wide-brimmed hat.
‘And you look very smart,’ I added. Dad was a vet so I was used to seeing him in a shirt and trousers but he’d invested in a charcoal three-piece suit and new shoes for the wedding and he looked very distinguished.
Looking towards the bride and groom once more, I sighed. What a strikingly beautiful couple they were. With his muscular physique, dark blond hair, immaculately coiffed beard and piercing blue eyes, James could have been a model – and so could Chloe. The off-the-shoulder bodice and the bottom of her ivory dress were covered in intricate pink and cream embroidery. Her waist-length blonde hair was piled in loose curls on the back of her head, pinned back with sparkly flowers, while two delicate plaits criss-crossed over the top of her head like a headband. Absolutely stunning. Although Chloe could have worn a binbag and still looked incredible. Her dad, my Uncle Simon, had Danish roots and those genes had blessed Chloe with straight pale-blonde hair, ice-blue eyes and chiselled cheekbones.
Chloe attracted male attention wherever she went and, once we hit our teens, was never without a boyfriend. As we got older, she became a magnet for men who used her like a beautiful trophy on their arm. None of them appreciated her. She was cheated on several times, put down or made to feel stupid. I remembered one particular ex ridiculing her for her job as a pre-school assistant, calling it, ‘playing with children all day because you’re too thick to teach them’. She was no pushover so wouldn’t take it for long before ending it and moving on, yet she never seemed to learn, picking the same alpha-male bad-boy type each time.
She also struggled with female friendships, being on the receiving end of jealous accusations of flirting with their boyfriends or trying to outshine them all the time, so she clung to me – the one person who’d always been there for her.
It saddened me that, as a result of so many negative experiences, Chloe was insecure about her looks when she absolutely had no need to be, whereas I – the one who blended into the crowd – was really comfortable in my own skin most of the time. I was five foot eight and slim, same as Chloe, but the complete opposite in colouring. My hair was thick and brown like Mum’s and Auntie Louise’s. For years, Chloe had tried to persuade me to get it thinned out or highlighted ‘to attract the men’ but I resisted. If I needed an expensive haircut for a man to notice me then they weren’t worthy of my time, and no amount of toning or shading was going to make me the sort of woman who’d get a second glance when Chloe was around anyway, although that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
My favourite feature was my eyes, which were hazel with amber and green flecks and a dark rim. When I wasn’t with Chloe, and therefore not invisible, they were the first thing anyone noticed.
‘Chloe looks stunning, doesn’t she?’ I said.
‘She certainly does,’ Dad agreed, ‘and so do you. Lovely to see you in a dress for once.’
I curled my lip. ‘Even a pink one?’ I loved the style – full-length A-line tulle skirt with a ruched off-the-shoulder bodice, satin waist ribbon and corset-style detailing at the back. But the colour?
Dad laughed. ‘It suits you. Although, being the only bridesmaid, I’d have thought Chloe could have given you some say in the colour.’
‘She gave a few other options – very unenthusiastically – and you know how it is. What Chloe wants…’
‘…Chloe gets,’ we chorused together, smiling at each other.
‘Which was one thing when you were kids and it was one of your Barbies or dresses,’ Dad continued. ‘But you do know you can say no, don’t you?’
‘I know, but it was obvious how much she wanted pink and it’s her big day, not mine.’ My voice caught as I said the words. No, definitely not mine. If only… I cleared my throat as I continued. ‘Her excitement far outweighed my objection so I was happy to go with the flow.’
Dad looked down at me earnestly. ‘I love that you’ve always been so kind and thoughtful, Sammie, but I worry about it too. You’re not kids anymore. You don’t have to keep giving her what’s yours.’
‘I know, but James was never mine to hold onto.’ A lump constricted my throat and I had to blink back my tears.
He shook his head, frowning. ‘I know I only saw you together a few times but I thought you two were happy. Next thing I know, he’s with Chloe and you’re a bridesmaid at their wedding.’
‘Sucks doesn’t it? If it had been up to me, I’d have married James, had his children, and we’d have grown old together. But he wasn’t feeling the love. Then one day, he finally was. Except it wasn’t for me.’
‘Oh, Sammie,’ he said gently, his eyes full of sympathy and his shoulders slumped. ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘Please don’t be nice to me. You’ll set me off again.’ I took a deep breath. ‘I know it’s not ideal that he chose someone in my family but, if it hadn’t been Chloe, I’d have lost him to someone else. It was never going to last much longer, no matter how much I wanted it to. But it was Chloe he fell for and it is what it is. And look how happy she is. She deserved to find a good guy after all the bad ones.’
How could I begrudge her happiness with someone who I knew to be a genuinely lovely person whose only flaw, from what I’d seen, was that he hadn’t fallen helplessly in love with me like I had with him?
‘Can I have the bridesmaid and best man?’ the photographer called. ‘And can the immediate family be standing by please?’
‘That’s our cue.’ Dad squeezed my hand as we stepped forward. ‘You know I’m here for you if you ever want to talk about it.’
‘Thanks, Dad. I know and I love you for it.’
As we posed for what seemed like hundreds of photos, I pushed my heartache aside and focused on Chloe’s happiness. She wasn’t just my cousin, she was my lifelong best friend. With only a six-month age difference, we’d been in the same class at school and had attended many of the same after-school clubs. We lived a couple of streets apart and our families holidayed together so every aspect of our lives had always been inextricably linked. And now we were linked by James, and I just had to learn to live with that or risk losing Chloe.
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