“Why do you look nervous?” she asked finally.
“The grip you have on the steering wheel would suggest otherwise.”
I frowned more deeply and immediately loosened my hold. We were on our way to dinner, where the majority of our two families would be meeting for the first time. They had flown in from all over the country: Michigan, Florida, New Jersey, and Washington, even some from Canada. A number of them I hadn’t seen in twenty years or more. In all, there were over three hundred and fifty people arriving within the next few days. God only knew what we were in for. On a good day I hated small talk. The week before one of the biggest events of my life, I was terrified I would be such an enormous as**ole that everyone would leave town before the actual event.
Leaning forward so I would glance over at her, she asked, “Aren’t you excited for this week?”
“Yes, of course. I’m just dreading tonight a little, and wondering how I’ll handle all of the socializing.”
“My guess is ‘badly,’” she said, poking my shoulder.
“Look, just wait until you meet my aunts,” she said, leaning over and kissing where she’d poked me. “It’ll be all the distraction you’ll need.”
Chloe’s dad had traveled from North Dakota with his two very loud and eccentric sisters. They were both recently divorced, and Chloe promised me they had the potential to be the biggest disaster of the week. I wasn’t so sure we should give out that tiara just yet—Chloe had yet to meet my cousin Bull.
“You’ll forget about everything else and all you’ll be able to worry about is what they’ll do to get themselves arrested and how much it will cost you in bail money. Trust me, it’ll be very liberating.” She leaned over and began fiddling with the car stereo, stopping on a pulsing, high-pitched pop song. I slid my eyes over to her, concentrating a lifetime of disgust into the brief glance.
Satisfied that I was sufficiently annoyed, she sat back in her seat. “So what else is bothering you? You’re not getting cold feet on me now, are you?”
I leveled her with a look that was meant to imply Are you insane?
“Okay,” she laughed. “Then talk to me. Tell me what else is on your mind.”
I reached for her hand, twisting her fingers with mine before resting them both on my thigh. “It’s just the looming chaos,” I started with a shrug. “This wedding has turned into such a thing. Do you know I had fourteen texts from my mother waiting for me when we landed? Fourteen. Ranging from where to get coffee in San Diego, to whether Bull could get his back waxed at the hotel—as if I know! You said it yesterday: it’s become its own entity. I can’t believe I’m saying this but I wonder if you had it right when you suggested sneaking off to Vegas.”
She gave me her trademark gloating smile. “I believe I said ‘run.’ Run to Vegas. As in flee.”
“You know, we’re not that far from the airport,” she reminded me, motioning out the window to where we could still see planes landing and taking off. “It’s not too late to escape.”
“Don’t tempt me,” I said, because as much as I suspected we were careening headlong into disaster, I didn’t actually want to leave. San Diego had always been special to us: it was where I stopped being an idiot and finally let myself love her. It was where Chloe finally let me. And Jesus, had it really been over two years? How was that even possible? It felt like only yesterday I was covertly ogling Miss Mills’ ass as we checked into the W. Later, she’d called me by my first name, for the very first time.
We’d been back together one other time, of course, to select the location for this weekend. But that had been such a whirlwind trip, and this one carried a far greater weight. We were here for our wedding. Despite the way she’d crashed the bachelor party, the fact that we’d bought a Manhattan apartment together, or the ring on Chloe’s finger, it was this strange moment of nerves that made it finally sink in. We were getting married. When I left here again, Chloe would be my wife.
I reached up, ran a shaking hand across my clammy forehead.
“You’re being awfully quiet over there. Can I take your contemplative silence to mean you’re actually considering fleeing?” Chloe asked.
I shook my head. “No way,” I said, tightening my grip on her hand. “We’re here. And there isn’t a chance in hell I’d miss seeing you walk down that aisle. I’ve fought way too f**king hard for you.”
“Knock it off, Bennett. You’re a lot easier to deal with when you’re being a dick.”
“And I put up with way too much of your shit,” I added, grinning when I felt her fist connect with my shoulder. “But I do feel I should warn you one more time. Some members of my family are a bit . . .”
“Nuts? As in, building a vitamin-manufacturing facility in their garage? As in, paying tens of thousands of dollars for advertising in the AARP magazine?”
I blinked over to her. “What? Who did that?”
“Your cousin Bull,” she answered, shrugging. “Henry told me some stories on the phone the other day. Apparently it’s his new venture. He’s going to make a pitch this week for some financial backing from Will and Max.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “Families are supposed to be a handful, Bennett. Otherwise you’d never leave them. And mine isn’t quite all there, either. You know my aunts are . . . let’s just say they’re really going to enjoy the Ryan family gene pool. I hope you packed your running shoes.”
“Well—” I began, but stopped as she crossed her legs in front of her. “Chloe?”
She picked some nonexistent lint off her nonexistent stockings. “Hmm?”
“What in the f**k are you wearing?”
“You like?” she said, lifting her foot and moving it from side to side. Her shoes looked positively dangerous. Spiked heel, deep blue patent leather.
“Were you wearing those when we left the hotel?”
“I was. You were on the phone with your brother.”
I wasn’t one to catalog everything Chloe wore, but the familiar stirring in my pants told me I’d most definitely seen these shoes before—over my shoulders, if I wasn’t mistaken. “Where have I seen those?”
At home, in our bedroom.
The dirty little box we kept under our bed. The things we did when that box was out.
I remembered the night she wore them, almost two months ago. We hadn’t seen each other in weeks and I couldn’t get close enough, touch her enough, f**k her hard enough. She’d pulled out those shoes along with something new she wanted to try: a bottle of self-warming wax. I could still remember the heat as she’d dribbled it along my skin; the way goose bumps began at that warm puddle of wax and radiated out, spreading along my body. She teased me for so long I actually promised her I’d kneel and hand-feed her breakfast the next day. I came so hard I almost blacked out that night.
“You’re doing this to f**k with me, aren’t you?” I asked. “This is about the let’s-wait-to-have-sex-until-after-the-wedding thing, isn’t it?”
We found a parking spot about a block away from Barbarella in La Jolla and I stepped out, walking around to open Chloe’s door. I took her hand and watched as she climbed out of the car—tan legs that went on forever, shoes you could easily impale yourself on—and shook my head at her the entire time.
“You’re a demon,” I said. “I feel like a bride guarding my virginity before the wedding.”
“Well, then feel free to give it up, Ryan,” she said, pushing up onto her toes to kiss me.
I groaned but somehow managed to pull away, both of us looking in the direction of the restaurant. “Here we go . . . ”With the patio area open and visible from the street, we could hear our fathers talking before we’d even made it in the door.
“You need to make sure they sit together,” Chloe’s dad was saying.
“Nonsense, Frederick, they’ll be fine.” My father, always the diplomat. “Susan put a lot of thought into the seating arrangement and she knows what she’s doing. I’m sure your sisters are wonderful ladies. Let’s spread them around a little, give the others a chance to get to know them.”
“‘Spread them around’? I don’t think you understand, Elliott. My sisters are crazy. They’re man-hungry and newly single. They will hunt down every available male within a six-mile radius if you give them the chance.”
I stopped Chloe at the threshold, placing a hand on each of her shoulders and looking into her brown eyes. “You ready for this?” I asked.
She stood up on her toes and pressed her warm lips to mine. “Absolutely not,” she said against my mouth.
I took her hand and we stepped inside just in time to see my father laugh. “Don’t you think you might be exaggerating a little?”
“It’s about time,” Henry said, cutting in front of them to walk toward me. Both fathers looked in our direction as Henry continued, “I was worried you two wouldn’t show up and I’d have to drag you na**d from your hotel room.”
“That’s a horrifying image,” I said, hugging my brother. “And for the record, I’m having you banned from our floor.”
“Bennett,” my father said, hugging me next. “Frederick and I were just discussing the seating arrangements.”
“And what a disaster it will be if we split up Judith and Mary,” Frederick added, directing his words toward Chloe.
Chloe hugged my dad and then moved on to hers. “This isn’t going to win me any points with Susan,” she told my father, “but I have to agree with my dad here. Keep them together; we don’t want them taking over more real estate than necessary. There will be fewer casualties that way.”
With that settled, I pulled my dad to the side to give Chloe a moment alone with Frederick.
My mother had rented out the entire beachside restaurant, and I had to admit it was perfect. Tucked away in a quaint little neighborhood, meticulously maintained boxwoods lined the walk and flowering vines and greenery clung to every available surface. Now that the sun was starting to set, the huge outdoor seating area twinkled with strings of tiny lights. The tables were beginning to fill, and I realized I couldn’t identify half the people who were smiling in our direction.
“Who the hell are all these people?” I asked.
“Perhaps a little louder, son. Your great-grandmother might not have heard you,” he said. “And they’re family. Cousins, aunts . . . first nephews twice removed.” He furrowed his brow as he took in the line beginning to form at the open bar. “Actually, I’m not sure I even know. Those ones are already drinking, so they must be from your mother’s side of the family.” He tightened his grip on my shoulder. “Don’t tell her I said that.”
“I think so,” Dad said. “Your uncles are out on the patio. I haven’t seen your cousins yet.”
I winced inwardly. My brother, Henry, and I spent the majority of our summers growing up with our two cousins, Brian and Chris. Brian was the oldest of the four Ryan boy cousins and a quiet, serious child, much like I had been. He and I had always been close. But Chris—or Bull as he insisted on being called—made me want to chew off my own limb to escape. My mom used to say that Chris only wanted to be like us, and preferred the nickname so he would be one of the B’s: Brian, Bennett, Bull. I always suspected this was bullshit. After all, Henry started with an H, and the personalized beer cozy Bull brought to parties, along with his unbuttoned shirt and gold chains nestled in a thicket of wild chest hair, suggested he was totally fine being his own person. Chris just liked the idea of being called Bull because he was an idiot.
“I’m sure Bull is excited to see you,” Dad said with a knowing smile.
“I’ll keep an eye out,” I said. “And I’m sure Lyle has remembered a couple of colorful navy stories he’ll pass along to you over dinner. Maybe the results of his last prostate exam?”
Dad nodded, eyes twinkling in restrained amusement as he waved to someone across the room. Dad’s eldest brother, Lyle—Bull’s father, go figure—seemed to have no filter for the inappropriate. Over the years I’d lost count of the number of stories Lyle had told about his adventures in the navy, disgusting bodily functions, how people in rural towns had “relations” with animals, and the various moles his wife had to have removed from her back. “Maybe I should suggest he offer one as a toast?”
Laughing I said, “I’ll give you one whole American dollar to suggest it, Dad.”
My mother approached, kissing my cheek before licking her thumb and reaching to smear off what I could only imagine was a bright pink lipstick mark. I ducked out of her grasp and grabbed a napkin off a table instead.
“Why didn’t you wear the blue suit?” she asked, snatching the napkin from me to wipe my face clean.
“Hi, darling. I liked the blue suit much better than this one.”