Title: The Next Best Thing
Author: Wendi Nunnery
Genre: New Adult Romance
Four years ago, Emma Fraser’s first love took his own life. Now, twenty years old and in college, Emma and her best friend, Andy, are still mourning the loss of a friend and brother. Nothing is the same as it once was…and things are about to change even more.
Too heartbroken to even consider falling in love again, Emma stays distracted by school and work. Until she meets Landon and, for the first time ever, finds herself believing she might actually have a future with someone. But when Deegan Burke—the man responsible for all of Emma’s heartache—gets out of prison early, Emma is suddenly confronted by her worst fears. And when faced with choices she never thought she’d have to make, Emma discovers that the only person she really wants by her side is the last person she ever expected.
On Saturday morning, Emma slept late. Even though she came back to Cley for holidays and summers, Emma didn’t spend many weekends home during the school year like so many of her peers did. During football season, it was akin to sacrilege to miss a home game and Emma attended every single one. In the spring, she was busy picking up more hours at the Academic Success Center, where she was an English tutor. She preferred to stay on campus as much as possible and never grew tired of being there, even when she was stressed out about her classes or worrying about Elsie and Andy. Life had to be lived, and hard things still existed in Emma’s sparkling college bubble, but she could always rely on Georgia Southern to be exactly what she needed. Emma might have been raised in Cley, but she was growing up in Statesboro.
She stretched out beneath the comforter and yawned deeply. With a quick glance at her phone, Emma saw that Elsie had called already and she had a text from Andy asking if she’d made it home okay. Emma typed a hurried response and then padded into the bathroom for a shower.
Later, as she was finishing her first cup of coffee in the living room, the house phone rang.
“Yeah, she’s home,” Renee said from the kitchen. “Hold on.”
Emma put her mug on the coffee table just as Renee came around the corner. She held the phone out to her daughter with a smile.
“It’s Grace,” she said.
“Oh!” Emma exclaimed, taking the phone from her mother’s outstretched hand. “Hey mama,” she said into the receiver.
“Emma!” Grace sounded like she was grinning from ear to ear, and her voice had an immediate calming effect on Emma. She hadn’t realized how tense she still was until this very moment. “How are you, sweetheart? I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too. And I’m good. Just glad to have a break.”
“I bet,” Grace replied. “I hope Andy hasn’t been getting you into trouble.”
“Ha!” Emma laughed. “He’s been trying to get me into trouble for years. It never works.”
Grace laughed, too, and Emma was glad to hear it. It never ceased to amaze her that a woman who had lost so much could still manage to find joy. Emma knew that Andy had been the one who found Jesse first, but Grace hadn’t been far behind. Emma’s imagination haunted her with pictures of what Jesse might have looked like, but she was certain that nothing she imagined would ever be as disturbing as reality. Grace had seen her dying son hanging in his closet, had held him up around his chest, hoping to take the pressure off his neck. Emma found out months later, when Andy would finally talk about it, that Jesse had still been alive when the cops arrived for their interview with him. But just barely. Grace’s firstborn son had died while she screamed for the officers to cut him down, her face pressed against Jesse’s chest as she strained to feel his heart beat.
Grace was Jesse’s mother. She had been the first one to touch Jesse as he slipped into this world, and she was the last one to touch him as he slipped out. Perhaps, Emma thought, Grace had been able to find some kind of peace in that, however fleeting.
“How is Elsie doing, do you know?” Grace asked.
Emma sighed heavily. “Not good. I think she wants to move on, but she doesn’t understand why Andy ended things. And I don’t know much more than she does, to be honest.”
“Maybe it’s because he’s only twenty-one?” Grace offered, without the slightest hint of sarcasm. “I know they were together for a long time, and I love Elsie, but being together for years doesn’t necessarily mean they know each other.”
Emma agreed. “That’s a good point. Although I’m not sure Elsie would see it that way.”
“Do you?” Grace asked. Emma furrowed her brows together, considering. Of course she saw it that way. Now. In high school, Emma had encouraged Elsie to ask Andy out because she thought it would be fun having her two best friends together all the time. At first, Andy had rejected Elsie for reasons not unlike this breakup. But once Jesse was gone, Andy had turned to Elsie for comfort in ways Emma couldn’t provide. For four years, Elsie had filled the gap between friendship and love, and somewhere along the way they all got tricked into thinking it was enough.
“Andy never really wanted to be with Elsie the way she wanted to be with him,” Emma replied solemnly. “It’s better that he ended it now.”
“Well, what about you?” Grace asked, charging ahead. “Are you dating anyone yet?”
As in, “Emma, would you get around to it already?”
It wasn’t like Emma didn’t want a boyfriend. But in high school she had made the terrible mistake of falling for the guy who turned out to be an attempted rapist, so, naturally, she was a little gun shy. Emma had been just one of many girls to hope Deegan Burke would look her way. But hoping had actually turned into looking. And looking had turned into being invited as his date for prom. Which, as everyone now knew, meant walking up on a scene Emma would never be able to erase from her memory.
Before Jesse ever broke Emma’s heart, Deegan had already taught her to question it. And it was a lesson she wasn’t sure she could unlearn.
“No, not yet,” Emma replied patiently. “But I’m sure someone will come along.”
“Maybe he already has,” Grace said, sounding like the mother she was. “You never know.”
Emma smiled sadly to herself. Grace wasn’t wrong. Someone had already come along. But he was gone now.
“Yeah,” she said to Grace. “You never know.”
January 17 – Kendra Loves Books – Review
The Best Kept Secret, and The Next Best Thing. She is also the
founding editor of Lady Literary Magazine and her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Simply Beloved, and Introvert, Dear. Wendi is a proud Georgia Southern University alum and believes colorful language is good for the soul. She lives, loves, and mothers in Atlanta, Georgia.