Home > The Mission (Bad Bridesmaids #2)

The Mission (Bad Bridesmaids #2)
Author: Noelle Adams




WHEN KEITH HOWELL LOOKED back at his life—all twenty-five years of it—it centered around how close he was to Serena Holly.

He’d spent his first ten years in a big house in Northern Virginia with cool, detached parents and an older brother who’d never really liked him. He hadn’t known Serena then. He hadn’t been happy, but he also hadn’t been miserable.

At eleven, his family had moved to a wealthy suburb of Richmond when his father had gotten a job transfer and promotion. The next three years had been even lonelier since he was the only new boy in a snobbish private school. He hadn’t been teased or bullied. No one ever actively disliked him. He’d always been boring but neutral. Smart but not exceptionally so. Not great at sports but not laughably bad. Not particularly talented at anything, he was average-looking and average-behaving and average in pretty much everything. He faded into the background, and no one seemed to notice him at all.

Until he met Serena.

His family had moved to a bigger house in a more exclusive neighborhood in the summer before eighth grade, but that wasn’t what shifted him into the next phase of his life. On the first day of school that year, he’d sat beside Serena Holly in homeroom, and nothing was the same after that.

She was new to the school. A scholarship girl who’d gotten in on the strength of her brains rather than her family’s money like most of the rest of them. She’d been nervous. Fidgety. Clearly unsure of where to go or what to do. Since Keith had been new himself a few years earlier and he liked the look of her tentative smile, he’d helped her navigate her schedule and the halls of the school.

He’d never forget her expression when she thanked him at the end of the day. The way her big hazel eyes glowed. The sunlight on her wavy red hair. She’d left him speechless. Breathless. He’d never seen anything so warm and sincere and pretty in his whole life. She talked to him every day after that and hung out with him at lunch. He’d assumed that when she got to know more people, she would slowly detach him from her life the way everyone seemed to do eventually.

But she hadn’t. She’d remained his friend all that school year, even as other kids gradually came to know and like her too.

He’d tried for weeks to summon the courage to ask her to the big dance that spring, but a basketball player beat him to it. That was when he realized, no matter what his daydreams held, he’d never be anything but her friend.

And that was okay. He was a fade-into-the-background kind of guy, and that never changed. She never dropped him. Never failed to appreciate him. Was always there when he needed her. The rest of high school constituted his “Serena years.” Maybe he would have tried again to see if she was interested in him as anything but a friend, but he’d never had the chance.

Graduation wasn’t the thing that changed things for him. Rather, it was Serena getting engaged to that same basketball player who had beaten him out in asking her to the dance and whom she’d dated all through high school.

They went to the same college and stayed friends, but between her husband and her classes, she didn’t have time for him. Keith lived in the dorms, and his college years were better than high school except for the fact that he didn’t have Serena like he used to. He was still neutral and average, but girls seemed interested in him when they hadn’t been before. He majored in civil engineering, and he dated a lot and he had sex for the first time and he wasn’t always bombarded by the sad fact that his family didn’t really love him. Life wasn’t all that bad no matter how much he missed Serena.

After graduation, he got a part-time job as he worked on his master’s degree, and then he got a good job in Richmond. He liked his apartment—in an old flour mill converted into quirky, comfortable spaces—and he had more friends than he would have expected based on his lonely childhood. But Serena’d had a daughter before she graduated college. She’d gotten a job teaching history for the same private school they’d attended (probably thanks to her husband’s family’s influence), and her world was entirely different than his.

They were still friends. They texted regularly and got together for coffee at least a couple of times a month. But her husband had never liked how close the two of them were in high school, and Serena had always been careful not to make him jealous or betray him.

Keith couldn’t blame her. She needed to prioritize her marriage and family. But he hated her husband with a white-hot wrath he’d never felt for anyone in his boring, neutral life.

Serena didn’t talk a lot about her relationship, but Keith could read between the lines of what she did tell him. Things weren’t good with her husband. She wasn’t happy. And although she kept working at it, she wasn’t sure anything would ever really change.

On a Thursday night in November, he’d taken a shower after work, changed into a pair of sweats, and then made tacos for dinner. He had a few texts from the girl he’d gone out with last week. She was funny and good-natured and very hot, so he was planning to go out with her again. He still hadn’t met anyone who measured up to Serena in his estimation, but he assumed someday he would.

He’d like to get married and have kids. He’d always pictured himself doing that. There wasn’t any hurry, and he wasn’t going to just pick someone who happened to be available. He assumed he would know, the way he’d known about Serena.

He took his last bite of taco as he glanced at his phone again, but there weren’t any new messages. He hadn’t heard from Serena in a couple of days.

Hopefully she was okay. He’d texted her a few times to check in, but he didn’t want to bug her. She’d respond when she could.

His doorbell rang as he was rinsing off his plate.

He couldn’t imagine who it was—certainly not a welcome visitor—so he considered not answering. But he had to at least check to see, so he looked through the peephole and gasped audibly when he saw Serena standing in the hallway.

Keith yanked the door open. “Serena!”

She’d been looking down, but at his voice she raised her head. Her face was pale except for the blotchy red of her cheeks, and her eyes were swollen and pink.

“Shit—what on earth is wrong?” He beckoned her into the apartment, then glanced down the hall toward the stairs, as if there might be someone lurking, but it was empty.

Serena came in, hugging her arms to her stomach. “I’m sorry to just show up like this. Are you busy?”

“Of course not. And even if I was, it wouldn’t matter. What’s going on? What’s the matter? Is Eva okay?”

Her face contorted at his final question. “She’s fine. She’s with my mom. Thanks for asking.” She was clearly struggling not to cry, and her voice came out strangled and weak.

“You’re really freaking me out here.” He waved her toward his couch. “Sit down and tell me what’s going on.”

He sat beside her, closer than normal. She wasn’t a small woman. She was a few inches shorter than him and had a lush, curvy figure he’d always thought was gorgeous. But she looked tiny, fragile, as she huddled into herself on the couch. She leaned her head down so her hair shielded her face like a red curtain.

“Serena,” he prompted when she didn’t speak for a moment.

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