Clearing his throat, Bennett said, “Just a lot of wonderful landmarks to hit, Lyle. Wouldn’t want you to miss out.”
Bull swept up to us, his famous beer cozy currently occupied with a can of Bud Light, and held up double finger-triggers. “I know what I’d like to hit this week.” He winked, made a clicking noise as he pulled the triggers at me. “THAT LADY RIGHT THERE.”
Bull waved over his head and headed straight toward the empty dance floor. The DJ was only just starting out the night with music on the upbeat but quieter side before food and then the real party started, but it didn’t seem to matter. Bull moon-walked out to the center of the floor and then started soft-shoeing in circles, beckoning to every woman who dared to make eye contact. “I’m a single stallion this week, ladies. Who’s the first to ride?”
Most everyone turned back to their drinks, or whomever they were talking to, or simply looked up at the ceiling.
I took my mai tai and sipped it, before coughing harshly. “Wow, you’re not kidding.” Bennett rubbed my back as I wheezed, “That is strong.”
“Oh, please, Chlo,” George said as he approached, bumping his hip into mine. “You’re man enough to take it.”
“More man than you are,” I agreed, looking him over. He’d changed from his suit into dressy jeans and a fitted white button-down shirt with intricate black diamonds on it. He looked fantastic. I felt my smile wilt a little when I realized there wouldn’t be anyone fun here for him to flirt with, except Will, who was taking a much-needed respite in the corner of the room with Hanna. Will looked a little exhausted already from the Adventures of Judith and Mary—he’d finally given in and enjoyed their brand of absurdity, letting them feed him strawberries over breakfast while Hanna laughed—and probably wouldn’t even be up for some good George Games anyway. “Looks like Bennett’s cousin is out there looking for a dance partner. Are you ready to ride the Bull?”
George’s dark eyebrows inched up as he looked over at the man in question, still dancing alone, still working on his own brand of seduction. “Is that my only option for shenanigans this weekend? Having fun with the Jersey Shore contingent?”
“Sadly, I think so,” I said. “Unless you want to try to turn Will some more. I just fear you have some cougar competition there, and from what I hear, Hanna is trying to break his penis this weekend.”
George took my drink and enjoyed several large gulps before wincing and handing it back, now only half full. “Holy crap that’s strong.”
“You think that’s strong,” Lyle said, pointing his drink at George, “you should try some of the drinks we had back in the navy.”
A tiny grin pulled at the corner of George’s mouth. “I bet I would have loved everything about the navy.”
“Every single sailor,” Bennett said under his breath, sipping his drink. He ran his free hand down my back, coming to rest on the curve of my ass.
Lyle continued on as if no one else had spoken, “Those drinks . . . you’d try them and afterward think gasoline tasted like water. And the hooch would make us randy, oh boy.” Beside me, Bennett shifted on his feet, groaning quietly. Lyle nodded, pointing at me. “I’d have to walk around until I found a willing lady, sometimes had to pay for it, but I didn’t mind.” Lyle looked across the room, raising his drink in greeting to Elliott and Susan. “The drink was that kind of wicked, what can you do?”
I pressed my hand to my lips, struggling to hold back my laugh. “Oh, I don’t know, Lyle,” Bennett said quietly. “Maybe you could not point at my fiancée when you’re referencing hiring prostitutes?”
“That’s probably what I would do,” George agreed.
Oblivious, Lyle turned back to us. “They’d put a cinnamon stick in it over the holidays. Mark the occasion. Still tasted like fire.”
“In the drink or in the prostitutes?” George asked, brows pulled together.
“Really could have gone either way,” I said to George.
“I don’t know what women taste like with or without cinnamon sticks in them, is what I’m saying,” George stage-whispered to me. “Maybe it’s a thing.”
“One kid from my crew,” Lyle started, rolling back into his memories again. “Now what was his name?” He took another drink, closed his eyes, and then opened them in a flash. “Bill. Oh, that Bill, I tell you what. He was something else. One night he drank the hooch and came back wearing women’s underwear. Boy, did he get chased around the barracks that night.”
We all stood in silence, contemplating this for a few beats before George said, “Like I said. The navy sounds like my kind of place.”
We all turned at the sound of a loud shout. Across the room, Will was covering his ass with both hands, giving my aunt Mary his sexy-fire look of oh-woman-you’re-in-trouble before taking several predatory steps toward her. Mary was covering her mouth in a pathetically inadequate look of contrition.
George looked over at me. “Should I be jealous that someone else is harassing my boy toy?”
“Well, then maybe I need to go find him and tell him once he goes gay, there’s no other way. I think he’ll be particularly interested to hear about what these magical hands can do.” He wiggled his fingers suggestively in my
Lyle turned, drink in hand, and gave George a quizzical look.
“To a keyboard. Do to a keyboard,” George added, winking at me before walking across the room to the dance floor.On the patio, Bennett and I looked out at the water, and chatted with some distant cousins he hadn’t seen in years, and whom I’d never met. They were nice enough, and the conversation entered the familiar territory of most conversations this week:
How’s the weather been in _____?
Now what is it you do again?
When was the last time you saw Bennett?
The entire time, his hand was around my waist, gripping me as if I was being punished.
His rough touch pissed me off, and thrilled me. Sliding my hand over his, I carefully dug my fingernails into the back of his hand. He squeezed my side harder and I dug in deeper. With a small yelp, he let go of my waist, glaring down at me.
I smiled up at him, sugar sweet and giddy from winning the tiny battle, and felt Max’s giant hand cover my shoulder as he leaned between Bennett and me to speak to the wide-eyed cousins. “Don’t mind them. This is how they show love.”
The DJ announced that dinner was ready, and we all filed in to find our seats. Bennett and I were seated at the front of the room, sandwiched between our parents and flanked, farther down, by the entire wedding party.
I could still feel the echo of Bennett’s hand on my side, and it ached. But more than that, it felt cold and hollow. He was the only man I wanted so desperately that I pissed him off just to relish the satisfaction of watching him crack and give in to me.
Elliott and my father stood and walked to the front of the room. Elliott smiled at the DJ as he took the microphone. “Bennett is my youngest, and his entire life he has been driven, restrained, and poised. When Chloe came into my life, Bennett was still living in France. At the time, I would have no idea what she would do to my son’s composure.”
The room filled with quiet laughter and murmurs of agreement.
“I hoped, mind you,” he said, looking at me. “It was hard to know you, darling, and not want you to belong to us in some way. But, especially with these two, you can’t force anything. They are forces of nature. I’m so happy for you both, and I’m happy for Susan and myself, Henry and Mina. It feels a bit like the world has settled down the right path when you two are together.”
My father took the mic when Elliott handed it to him. It squawked loudly, and everyone winced. Dad apologized in a shaky voice and then cleared his throat. “Chloe’s my only kid, and her mother died several years back. I suppose I’m here representing for both of us, but I’ve never been any good at this kind of thing. All I want to say is that I’m proud of you, honey. You found the one person who not only can handle you, but wants to handle you. And for your part, Ben, I like how you look at my daughter. I like what I see in you, and I’m proud to be able to call you son.”
Elliott seemed to sense that my dad was growing a little emotional, so he retrieved the mic from my father’s shaking hand. “We’ve put together a little slide show of these kids growing up. It’ll play on a loop for you to enjoy during dinner. Please, enjoy the meal and the company.”
The guests applauded briefly and then awww’d in unison as pictures of us as babies, as small kids, and as teenagers reeled through. I smiled at pictures of me in my mother’s arms, wrestling with my father. I looked so goofy. In each of his photos, Bennett was well groomed and handsome, even in his awkward preteen years.
“Were you ever hideous?” I asked in a hiss. A picture of me came on screen and was met with loud laughter: it was the year of the worst haircut in the history of the world—jagged bangs, the rest of it basically a mullet—and braces so big I looked like I was eating train tracks.
Just after he said it, a picture came up of Bennett holding some sort of certificate. Clearly he’d had a growth spurt; his pants were too short, his hair was long and unkempt, and the picture caught him in the middle of a particularly unattractive laugh. He looked just a fraction less than gorgeous, but by no means hideous.
He leaned over, kissing the side of my head. “Sure you do.”
The pictures ended in the present day, with a shot I recognized from the picture of us that Susan kept in the family room: Bennett stood with his arms behind me, bent and whispering something in my ear while I laughed. I leaned over, kissed my dad’s cheek, then stood and hugged Elliott and Susan.
The pictures began to reel through again, and everyone began sipping at the wine the waiters poured into their glasses. I looked down our table, watching our wedding party in their unguarded moments. Sara said something under her breath as Max leaned close and kissed her cheek. Down the table, Will threw an almond at Hanna, and she tried to catch it with her mouth, missing by a mile. George and Julia argued about the ramifications of the return of acid wash. Bennett’s niece Sofia crawled all over Henry’s lap and Elliott poured water for Susan, who looked up at me and smiled, full of such happiness that I could practically see the entire history of Chloe and Bennett in her eyes, and how much she’d wanted this for her son. Beside me, Bennett reached under the table and slid his hand up my knee and under my skirt.
My heart squeezed so tight it felt like it stopped beating, and then took off in a heavy, stuttering gallop.
The rehearsal had been so disorganized that it wasn’t until this moment, right here, that I felt the full force of our impending wedding.
To the man who’d anger-fucked me into loving him.
“Miss Mills, it would make working with you so much easier if you wouldn’t insist on ignoring all grammatical rules in your meeting minutes.”
“Mr. Ryan, I noticed the company is offering communication training to entry-level managers. Shall I sign you up?”
“Take these invoices down to accounting. What, Miss Mills? Do you require a map?”
I reached for my water, hand shaking as I downed half of it.
“You okay, baby?” Bennett whispered in my ear. I nodded frantically, giving him the calmest smile I could manage. I’m sure I looked like a lunatic. I could feel sweat breaking out on my forehead, and my silverware clattered onto my bread plate as I fumbled for my napkin. Bennett stared in na**d fascination, as if he were watching a lightning storm build in slow motion.
“It’s nice to see you finally taking an interest in your physical fitness, Miss Mills.”
“And then you’re going to make up the hour lost this morning by doing a mock board presentation of the Papadakis account for me in the conference room at six.”
“Ask me to make you come. Say please, Miss Mills.”
Bennett slid a calming hand along the back of my neck. I looked up at him, blinked rapidly. “I love you,” I whispered, feeling like my heart was being strung up on a kite, sent headlong into the wind. It was nearly impossible to keep from climbing onto him, begging him to touch me.
“I love you, too.” He leaned closer, brushed his lips across mine. All around us, people broke out in cheers and catcalls. But very carefully he pressed his mouth to my ear and murmured, “Don’t you f**king tempt me right now, Mills. This isn’t the place to test my willpower.”
I tried to explain that I wasn’t playing a game, I wasn’t trying to seduce him right now, but no words came out.
He smiled, tucking a stray strand of hair behind my ear, but the sweet gesture was betrayed by his sharp hiss: “If you try to tease me with my father sitting right here, I’ll take out any gentle tomorrow night and give you nothing but hard and fast. I’ll leave you hungry and unsatisfied on our wedding night.” He pulled back, winking, and then passed the basket of rolls to Elliott on his right.