I looked down at the charcoal Prada suit I wore, smoothing a hand over the front of the jacket. “I like this one.” And, I didn’t add, I packed at two in the morning under a drunken sex haze.
“Blue would have been more appropriate for tonight.” She was practically vibrating with nerves. “This one makes me think you’re heading to a funeral.”
Dad handed her his cocktail and she downed it with a shaking hand before walking away again.
“Well, that was fun,” I said and Dad laughed.
Chloe joined us—clearly a bit exasperated from dealing with her father—and we made a circuit of the room, greeting everyone who had come early in the week and reacquainting ourselves with old family and friends. A little while later, my mom called to let us all know that dinner was starting and we moved back to the dining area.
I located the place cards with our names near the center of the room. Chloe sat on my right, her dad next to her. My dad had apparently taken Frederick’s advice because Chloe’s aunts—Mary and Judith—were seated together nearby, slapping the table and cackling up a storm. Chris . . . Bull made his entrance as we were all taking a seat, shouting my name and lifting his can of beer—and requisite cozy—in my direction. His eyes moved over Chloe slower than should have been humanly possible, after which he gave me a thumbs-up.
I made a mental note to call a friend of mine at the IRS and have him audited.
I was only kidding. Mostly.
Dinner consisted of seared salmon and heirloom tomatoes, potato puree, and basil beurre blanc. It was perfect, and made it almost possible to tune out the conversations around me.
“Are you kidding?” Bull yelled from across the room at an elderly second-aunt on my mother’s side. “You must be kidding me. Eagles fans live their life feeling like they never get the credit they deserve. You want attention and praise? Win a goddamn game, that’s what I’m saying!” Bull took a giant gulp of beer, swallowed, and semi-stifled a loud belch. “And another thing—you’re old, I bet you know the answer to this: why the f**k is Wheel of Fortune still on? Did you know they have a goddamn website where you can dress up Vanna White? Dress her up like she’s some sort of f**king paper doll. Not that I know from experience, mind you.” He made a point to meet the eyes of everyone unlucky enough to be seated at his table, whether they were listening or not. “But what the f**k is that all about? And I’ll tell you what, she might not be getting any younger, but if I could find someone as hot as that woman to walk around the lot, motioning to the cars like she does on the TV?” Here he made a dramatic flourish with his hand, the other one cocked on his hip as he motioned to the empty space next to him. “I’d make a goddamn fortune.”
“Jesus Christ,” Chloe whispered in my ear. “That is a train wreck and a half right there.”
I swallowed a large pull of my drink before saying, “You said it.”
“You grew up with this guy?’
I nodded, wincing as I downed the rest of my red wine in a single, burning gulp.
“Has he always been like this?”
I nodded again, sucked in a breath, and wiped my mouth with my napkin. I watched as Chloe glanced around the room, first to my cousin Brian, who would be considered by most to be handsome and who had always been fit. Then to my dad and his brothers, Lyle and Allan, both still pretty good-looking for their age. She turned briefly to Henry and then to me, before blinking back to Bull. I could practically hear her evaluating the genetic map in front of her.
“And we’re sure there’s not a leak in the Ryan family gene pool? Like, is there any way he’s the milkman’s kid?”
I barked out a laugh that was so loud, almost every head in the restaurant turned in my direction. “I need another drink,” I said, standing in a way that momentarily left my chair wobbling on its two back legs.
My phone insistently buzzed in my pocket and I pulled it out to see a flurry of texts from my mother:
we had the Preston carignane set for the table wine.
Tell your father to stop introducing Aunt Joan as the Prospector. I have no idea why she’s
wearing so much gold nugget jewelry, but he’s being rude.
I had just escaped to the bar for a shot of Johnny Black and to scope out all easily accessible exits—I loved my family but Jesus Christ, these people were f**king nuts—when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“So you’re the one who’s marrying our Chloe.”
“If she doesn’t get wise and escape before the ceremony,” I said, turning to the women behind me. In an instant, I knew who they were. “You lovely ladies must be Chloe’s aunts.”
The one to my right nodded, and her entire head of fluffy red hair nodded right along with her. “I’m Judith,” she said, and then pointed to her sister. “This is Mary.”
Judith had hair that could only be described as some sort of sugary confection: overdyed and overteased into what resembled spirals of strawberry cotton candy erupting from her head. It could have been merely the power of suggestion, but I swear she even smelled like strawberries. Her skin was still relatively smooth considering her age—mid-sixties, if Chloe was correct—and her brown eyes were sharp and clear as she considered me. Mary shared many of the same facial features as her sister, but her hair was a much more subdued, subtle brown, and piled high on her head in some sort of bedazzled and bobby-pinned twist. And while Judith was tall like Chloe, stopping just below my chin, Mary was barely pushing five feet, and was probably as wide through the chest area as she was tall.
I reached out to shake each of their hands. “It’s nice to finally meet you both,” I said, smiling politely. “Chloe’s told me wonderful things.”
They were having none of that and each pulled me in for a squeezing and rather lingering hug.
“Liar,” Mary said with a cheeky smile. “Our niece is a lot of things, but full of false compliments, she is not.”
“She’s told me she used to spend summers with you. I believe the phrase she’s used most frequently is ‘they’re a hoot.’” I left out the phrases cougars and bat-shit crazy.
“Now that I’ll believe,” Judith said with a snort.
“And how are you ladies enjoying San Diego?” I asked leaning back against the bar. I could see Chloe out of the corner of my eye, and just as I expected, Bull had taken it upon himself to fill my seat and keep her company in my absence. A part of me wanted to be her knight in shining armor, and rescue her, but a larger part knew better: if there was one woman who absolutely did not need rescuing, it was Chloe.
“Oh we’re having the time of our life,” Judith said, sharing a meaningful look with her sister. “Or at least we will be. Did you know this is the first time we’ve both been single in over thirty-five years? This town doesn’t know what’s about to hit it. We’re going to make up for lost time—or die trying.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. I was certainly beginning to see that blunt honesty was a Mills family trait.
“So, what’s the plan then?” I asked. “You two going to spend some time on the beach and break a few hearts?”
“Something like that,” Mary said, winking and doing a little dance to the music overhead.
Judith moved to stand next to me at the bar, leaned in, and lowered her voice. “Tell us about your family,” she asked, eager, bright eyes moving around the room. “Just the one brother? Any uncles? Anyone single?”
I shook my head, laughing again. Frederick had nailed it. “Just the one brother and sorry, other than the one currently talking to my fiancée”—they looked over to Bull and deflated a little—“everyone’s spoken for.”
“My oh my oh my my my,” I heard Judith say, voice suddenly soft and low. I followed her gaze to the front door, where Will and Hanna had just arrived. There was a lot of giggling in that corner of the room, where Hanna had practically been tackled by Chloe and Sara, leaving Will to stand by and watch, wearing that stupid grin he never seemed to shake anymore. I missed his ironic scowl. I missed his insistence that we were a bunch of pussies. God, he was the biggest f**king pu**y now.
He looked up to find me watching and, apparently able to read the giant I TOLD YOU SO in my expression, flipped me off. And suddenly, even though I knew it was wrong and Chloe would kill me when she found out, a plan began to blossom in my mind.
I mean really, how could I not do this?
“Who is that?” Judith asked in a breathy rush. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever actually heard someone leer before, but I figured that was as close as I was ever going to get.
“That’s Will,” I said. “He works with Max, the Brit with the pregnant fiancée?”
“Is he available?” Judith asked at the very same moment Mary said, “Is he straight?”
I could feel my conscience poking at me, nudging. Some small, shriveled part of my brain was trying to stop me from what I was about to do, insisting this was absolutely not a good idea.
“Oh, he’s definitely straight,” I said. Not a lie. “And he’s a lot of fun, ladies. A lot of fun.” Technically not a lie.
Mary pressed up to my side, asking “Who’s the girl with him?”
“That’s Hanna. She’s . . . an old family friend,” I said finally. Still not a lie. “You should go over and introduce yourselves.”
“So he’s not married?” Mary asked, compact already out and mouth shaped in a little O as she reapplied her lipstick. These women were determined.
“Married? Noooooooo. Definitely not married.” What? Not a lie.
“Hot damn,” they both said in unison.
I glanced quickly around the room before wrapping an arm around each of their shoulders, bringing them closer and bending to speak. “I’m going to tell you two a little secret, but it’s got to stay between us.” I looked at each of them individually and they nodded, eyes wide as they hung on my every word.
“Our Will? He’s a bit of a wild boy. He’s insatiable, and he’s got quite the reputation for his skill, if you’re catching my drift. The thing is? He likes ex-pe-ri-enced women,” I said, emphasizing each syllable. “And he likes them in pairs.”
They both sucked in a breath and looked at each other. I had a feeling a huge telepathic conversation passed between them before they blinked back to me.
There was no way I wasn’t going to hell.
I watched as Judith and Mary cut a line straight for Will. Hanna, Chloe, and Sara had dispersed, leaving him alone.
I realized the only way this would work was if I had buy-in from the most important person in the restaurant. I scanned the room, my eyes stopping on Hanna as she emerged from the back, smoothing her sapphire-blue dress down over her sides.
I practically sprinted over to her.
“How are you?” I blurted out too loudly and far too enthusiastically to someone who had just stepped out of the restroom.
She let out a small gasp and stopped dead in her tracks. “Bennett,” she said, pressing her hand to her chest. “You scared the shit out of me.”
“God, sorry. I just wanted a chance to talk to you before you got swallowed up by the girls again.”
“Um, okay . . .” she said, looking around us and clearly confused by my laser-focus attention.
Her posture relaxed and she smiled, attempting to look over my shoulder to where Will was sitting, probably chin-deep in cougars if my guess was correct. I shifted to block her view.
“Good, good,” I said, realizing too late that I hadn’t let her answer. “Look, I wanted to mention something to you,” I said. Play it off as casual. Play it off as no big deal. Be cool.
Her lips curled up in an amused smile. “Okay?”
“You know what a horrible prankster Will can be.” She nodded and I continued: “I may have just done something to get back at him and I swear,” I said, resting a hand on her shoulder, “I swear, Hanna, you’ll think it’s hilarious . . . eventually.”
She considered me through narrowed eyes. “This is just a prank, right? No shaved heads or scars?”
I pulled back to study her. “That was a very specific question. Scars?” I shook my head, clearing it. “And no, no, no, no. Just a silly little prank.” I gave Hanna my best smile, the one Chloe said made panties drop. But apparently it only made Hanna more suspicious.
Her eyes narrowed further. “What would I need to do?”
“Nothing,” I said. “You’ll probably see some weird stuff but just . . . go along with it.”
“And this will be funny?”
She thought about it for a full ten seconds before reaching out to shake my hand. “You’re on.”Hotel Del Coronado was built in 1888, and stretched across the fine-sand beaches of Coronado Island. With its striking red turrets and blindingly white buildings, visiting here felt a lot like being dropped in the middle of a Victorian postcard. Chloe and I had stayed a few months ago while scouting out possible wedding sites. One glance at the ocean from the balcony of our hotel room and Chloe was sold; this was where we would get married.