My shirt stuck to my damp skin as I lifted the bottom hem. The air was so thick that it still covered me, even after I peeled off my clothes.
I tried not to cry while in the shower, scolding myself for finding a way to be melancholy while in a marble bathroom under a shower with high water pressure instead of the antique plumbing in the loft. After a while, I reasoned that my face was wet anyway, and I was alone, so I might as well get it out of my system.
So, I cried. I cried for Olive, for my parents, for what I’d done to Taylor. I cried for not being content before, and I cried because I knew we couldn’t get that back. Being the first woman Taylor loved, I had no idea what it must have taken him to admit it to himself—or me. I had destroyed that trust, seemingly for no reason. I cried because I was angry. And then I cried for crying on a beautiful tropical island in a five-star resort.
When I was all cried out, I washed, rinsed, and pulled on the lever, the stream of water disappearing as if it were never there, just like a Caribbean rain shower.
I wrapped the fluffiest white towel I’d ever touched around my chest and stepped out, wiping the moisture from the mirror.
There I was, a blurry mess, but this time, I had puffy red eyes. “Shit.” I quickly wet a rag with cold water and held it against my eyes.
When they looked almost back to normal, I combed out my wet hair and then used the hotel blow-dryer. The ceremony was in forty-five minutes. I had taken longer in the shower than I’d meant to.
I rushed around the room, pulling on the maxi dress I’d borrowed from Kirby. The fabric was light and flowy, the empire waist making the V-neckline feel a bit more modest. My favorite part about it was the ombre design, the cream color darkening to pinkie-peach and then a dusty purple. It reminded me of a sunset on the beach, so that had automatically made it an appropriate choice.
I twisted my hair into a sleek, low side bun, and I did my best to put on enough makeup to look a bit more formal. I sucked at being a girl.
When Taylor had said to take the stairs around the corner and down to the beach, I hadn’t realized there would be a hundred of them. I took my skirt in my fists and tried not to let my sandals slap against the smooth rock with every step. A small lizard scurried just in front of my feet, and I yelped.
A hotel employee chuckled at me as he passed me, going in the opposite direction. I was glad he was the only witness.
Finally reaching the walkway below, I caught a glimpse of white muslin blowing in the ocean breeze, and I headed in that direction. A handful of white chairs were positioned in front of a white gazebo, white fabric was draped around the pillars, and dozens of roses in muted tones covered the tie-downs.
Jim sat alone in the front row, in the chair closest to the aisle, and I lumbered down the white-sand walkway, navigating it poorly in my shoes. When I finally reached him, he looked up at me with a warm expression.
“You made it,” he said, patting the empty chair on his right.
I grinned, leaning away from him to see his expression. I didn’t know him well enough to be certain that he wasn’t being a smart-ass. “That’s a nice thing to say.”
“Hi! I’m here!” a woman said, stumbling past Jim and me before falling into the chair next to me. “Whew!” she said, brushing her long dark curls behind her bare shoulders. She was wearing a white tank top with a long floral skirt. Her big ice-blue eyes overshadowed the intermittent batting of her lashes. She looked like a supermodel, but she moved like an overgrown teenager.
“Always. I’ve been in Shep’s room, taking pictures. Hi,” she said, one hand letting go of her very expensive camera long enough to greet me. “I’m Ellison, Tyler’s friend. Date. Whatever.”
“Oh,” I said, my body jerking with her firm handshake.
I blinked, completely taken aback by her mention of the mistake-slash-misunderstanding-slash-clusterfuck at Cowboys so many months before.
“That was a long time ago. And an accident.”
Jim laughed harder, his belly bobbing. “Those damn boys. I don’t know where they got it from. Not from me.”
“Not from their mother,” Ellison said.
I stiffened at the mention of Jim’s late wife, Diane, but he grinned, his eyes lit only with fond memories.
He tapped the gold band on his finger. “She was a good woman. But she would never have caught my attention if she were all good.”
“The boys definitely get that from you,” Ellison said.
I wondered how long she’d known Jim. She seemed familiar enough with him to give him a hard time, but Taylor had never spoken of her.
She reached her arm behind me and squeezed, touching her cheek to mine. “It’s so nice to meet the other half of Tyler’s other half.”
Okay, maybe she’s just overly familiar with everyone.
Another woman approached us after taking a few pictures of the gazebo with her phone.
Ellison scooted down, creating an empty chair between us. “Sit here, Cami.”
I had the feeling Cami meant more than just giving her a place to sit.
Camille’s razored haircut bounced when she sat, and then she tugged at the bodice of her strapless dress. Her arms were covered in dozens of tattoos—large and small, simple and intricate—that ran down to her fingers.
“Which …” I began but decided too late that it was an inappropriate question.
Ellison held up Camille’s left hand. “They just got engaged! Can you freaking imagine?”
“I don’t … know what you mean,” I said.
Jim laughed. “She means, the thought of marrying a Maddox boy scares her. And she should be worried. She’s going to give in sooner or later.”
“You are not even fooling yourself,” Camille quipped.
Ellison just shook her head, still in good spirits.
After a few minutes, an older couple arrived with another woman. Jim introduced them as his brother, Jack, and his wife, Deana. The woman was America’s mother, Pam.
I looked down at my phone, checking the time. It was only ten minutes before the ceremony.
A fifth woman arrived, gripping her clutch and trying her damnedest to appear calm.
“Liis!” Camille said, a hint of panic in her voice. She reacted to Liis’s arrival, scooting away from me.
“What?” Ellison said, moving to the last seat in the row. “I thought …”
Camille seemed to just realize what would come next when she settled into her seat.
Liis stared in horror at the empty seat between Camille and me. Then she quickly sat down and looked forward.
Liis was stunning, her shiny black hair a beautiful contrast to her vivid purple dress. It wasn’t hard to guess which brother she was with because Thomas had kissed her cheek before cutting across the gazebo’s steps.