(NOTE: This is an unedited excerpt. (c) M. Malone 2021
I always thought that I’d leave this earth in dramatic fashion.
You’re so reckless Anya, my grandmother used to say. Then she’d clutch her chest muttering under her breath in Russian.
But even though she thought it would be the death of her, truly I’d always thought it would be the death of me.
How would I go, I’d wonder?
Fall to my death off a cliff while hiking?
Drown while white water rafting?
Or something more mundane. Such as a heart attack after spending years eating ice cream and cookies instead of dinner.
But it turns out my time to leave this mortal coil is right here. Right now. Cause of death?
Acute mortification after choking on a piece of wedding cake.
As my life flashes before my eyes, I’m not inundated with images of all the things I never got to do or with regrets about the past. There’s only one thought that’s as loud as a bullhorn.
Am I seriously going to die alone?
Just as I have that cheerful thought, I cough and my airway opens up. Finally. The cool rush of air going down my throat is heaven and I suck in deep breaths until my heart rate slows slightly and the spots in my vision fade.
“Just breathe, carina. I’ve got you.” The guy who just saved my life with dramatic use of the Heimlich maneuver stands next to me staring. Just like all the rest of the people at the table.
My face is still flaming from all the attention and the panic of not being able to breathe a few seconds ago. The source of my mortification sits innocently on my plate, the delicate pink flower crowning the top still intact.
A wedding cupcake.
I didn’t even get the dignity of almost being taken out by an entire slice.
“Sorry for the fuss everyone. I’m fine.”
Now that I’m no longer in danger of dying, I recognize the handsome man standing next to me as the brother of the groom. I can’t remember his name but it was something as ridiculously elegant as the precise fit of his suit.
I wave off his offer of help as I get to my feet, anxious to escape the table. There’s an open bar that I’ve become well-acquainted with over the course of the past hour and I’d much rather cool my mortification over a glass of premium champagne. My heart doesn’t slow down until I reach the bar and notice no one I’m familiar with standing there.
Not that it’s difficult to find anonymity in this crowd. My friend Casey Michaels just married Andre Lavin, one of the most famous designers on the planet, so the attendees at their wedding range from her mother’s nursing friends to minor members of European aristocracy.
I look over the crowd and watch as Andre leads Casey onto the dance floor, her couture gown swirling around her legs like flower petals. It’s a Lavin Bridal original and makes her look ethereal, like some kind of otherworldly being. He leans down and whispers something in her ear that brings a tender smile to her lips. The way they look at each other is so intimate it feels voyeuristic to watch.
Envy blooms, quick and nasty, and I turn away. Casey is the sweetest person I know and she deserves every bit of the happiness that has recently come her way.
“Time for the bouquet toss!”
The sudden boom of a voice over the sound system jolts me out of my dazed state. Several women at the surrounding tables groan while others chatter excitedly. I take the opportunity to slip away while everyone else is focused on what’s about to happen.
Dodging plant life is really not my thing.
Although, let’s be honest. Does anyone actually enjoy the bouquet toss? From my vast experience being a bridesmaid in all of my friends’ weddings, the tradition is the bane of every single girl’s life.
You might as well call it “Pin the Tail on the Spinsters!”
Everyone is so focused on the dance floor that no one notices a rogue bridesmaid slipping out a side door and into the hallway. The air is noticeably cooler out here and it feels amazing on my heated skin. Now I just have to find a place to hide out until the bouquet toss is over.
Preferably someplace with alcohol.
My memory of this hotel isn’t the best, the Fitz-Harrington isn’t exactly in an office manager’s price range, but I know there has to be a bar where I can drown my sorrows. Rich people like to drink too, right? I take the elevator down to the main lobby and then walk until I see the restaurant up ahead.
For the first time today, I let out a sigh of relief.
The relief is quickly followed by guilt. A close friend has found the love of her life and I’m supposed to be in there supporting her. Instead, I’m hiding out at the bar in another part of the hotel so I don’t have to stand up in front of everyone and proclaim my perpetual singleness while dodging a flower bomb.
As I sit at the bar and order a glass of wine, I have honestly never felt worse.
Until I turn my head and see the woman sitting two seats over. Her gown is the same peach color as mine but with a slightly different bodice. I was secretly glad the bridesmaid dresses were a little more demure since I don’t have the cleavage to carry off a deep v-neck like that.
“Fucking hell.” Ariana Silva points at me with the same hand holding her drink. “If you’re down here…”
I start laughing. “You’re the maid of honor!”
She drops her head and bangs it against the polished mahogany bar top. “We are terrible friends. You know that, right?”
“I’m willing to concede the possibility. To be fair, I almost got killed by a cupcake just now, so I’m probably not making the best decisions.”
The bartender sets my drink down in front of me, placing it squarely on the center of a fancy white napkin with a scalloped edge. Resigned to my fate, I hand over my credit card. Starting a tab is the least of my sins at this point.
“Well, at least I don’t feel quite as bad now.” Ariana raises her glass in my direction with a smirk. “To the last ones standing.”
“The last ones.” As I sip my drink, I pray for the alcohol to work quickly. Maybe it can drown out the tears that have been threatening ever since I watched the newlyweds pledge their love to each other.
It’s especially awful to be envious of someone as sweet as Casey. Besides it’s not like I’m jealous of her life because she doesn’t deserve it. She does. And it’s not that I want her life exactly. Andre is a handsome man but he’s not my type.
Unfortunately I only have a thing for older men with commitment issues.
I thought I was doing a good job of hiding my misery but clearly not since Ari looks over at me with pity. She motions to the bartender. “I have a feeling we’re going to need more drinks.”
* * *
As I watch everyone move around the dance floor with the kind of reckless abandon that only comes with alcohol usage, I shudder internally.
God, I hate this shit.
Yeah, I know it’s a bit of a cliché, the divorced dude who hates weddings. But it’s not easy to pretend to be happy for people when you already know the dangers that await them.
Still, watching Andre and Casey move around the dance floor, I have to concede that maybe they’ll be one of the lucky few that makes it.
I hope so, anyway. I may be a miserable bastard but that doesn’t mean I’d wish it on anyone else.
Anya has been gone for a while so I send her a quick text message. We’ve been here long enough that hopefully no one will notice if we leave a little early.
“You’re supposed to at least pretend to be happy at these things.”
The voice over my shoulder sounds as bored as I feel. I glance over at the guy I recognize as the brother of the groom. He resembles Andre a little but has a thinner build and sharper features. Still, they both look like the kind of guys who belong on billboards.
Maybe men like that get a different ending.
He holds out his hand. “Philippe Lavin. I’m not sure if you remember me. I’m the brother of that sickeningly happy guy on the dance floor.”
“I remember. You’ve been to the agency a few times for meetings. James Lawson.”
“They’re ridiculously happy.” He inclines his head in Andre’s direction and then chuckles.
It’s an unfortunate moment to look since the bride and groom are currently kissing like they’ve forgotten anyone else is in the room.
“Yes, they are.”
Apparently I haven’t done a good job concealing my disgust because he raises his eyebrows. Belatedly I remember that this guy is the brother of one of my biggest clients so I can’t wear my honest face right now. I need to have on my marketing agent, wheel-and-deal face.
“Marriage isn’t for me but I wish them nothing but the best.”
He shrugs. “It’s funny, I used to feel the same way. But lately I’ve been thinking it might be nice to have someone to come home to. Someone who is happy to see me.” The look on his face is startlingly vulnerable and I clear my throat and look away.
Suddenly it feels too hot in the room and I tug at the collar of my suit. I need to get out of here before I suffocate from the weight of all the happiness and expectation in the room. It’s a familiar feeling, one that brings back memories I’d rather not relive.
Because I’ve been that groom, flush with joy and overwhelmed with hope for a bright future.
Only to have to watch it all fall apart as the woman I loved morphed into someone I didn’t recognize.
Philippe is watching me strangely now and I yank my hand away from my neck, suddenly aware I’ve been clutching my throat like I’m unable to breathe. It won’t do to have a breakdown in front of him. Like it or not, I need the Lavin account to keep my agency afloat. The Mirage Agency is the only thing I have from my life before it all fell apart and I won’t let anything threaten that. Especially not ghosts from the past.
“I thought that once, but take it from me buddy. If you want someone who is happy to see you when you come home, get a dog. It’s cheaper.”
I finish my champagne in one gulp and deposit the glass on the tray of a passing waiter. It’s time to find Anya so we can dance once and then get out of here. She’s probably ready to leave, too. I smile thinking of her wearing a bridesmaid dress that she hates. We understand each other and she doesn’t like all this shit anymore than I do.
As if my thoughts have summoned her, Anya appears when a crowd of people move off the dance floor. When she sees me, her eyes light up. The joy in her expression makes me feel ten feet tall.
Watching her walk toward me calms the panic I always feel when I recall my marriage and subsequent divorce. I can’t wait to get her out of here and back to my place where I can peel off that satin dress she hates so much.
Despite all my mistakes, I already have the perfect woman. She’s smart, beautiful and has never asked for more than I can give. Just uncomplicated, no-strings fun.
That’s my idea of happily ever after.
When she reaches my side, she extends a hand. Tugging on it lightly I draw her against me as the band moves into a slow number. Anya sighs and rests her head on my shoulder.
The unmistakable smell of vodka wafts past my cheek and I chuckle. No wonder I couldn’t find her for a while.
“I see you found the bar. Maybe I should have snuck out with you.”
She smiles but it looks slightly strained. “I just needed to escape that stupid bouquet toss.”
Then I understand. Weddings seem particularly designed to torture single women. Even though single men gather for the garter catch, no one gives you shit if you sit it out. Because no one really cares that much. Women don’t seem to get that same consideration.
No wonder she left.
“We can get out of here in a bit. I think they’re going to cut the cake soon.”
She nods and her arms tighten around my neck. We dance like that in silence for a few minutes and just as the song changes to another slow melody, Anya gazes up at me.
“Do you ever think about where we’ll be in a few years?”
There’s something dangerous about the way she’s looking at me right now. Any man who has been in a long term relationship or, I don’t know, ever known a woman, is aware that the things they say often mean more than what they seem on the surface.
“How do I look?” translates to “Tell me I’m pretty”.
“What did you just say?” is roughly equivalent to “I’m giving you a chance to pretend you didn’t just say that.”
Most importantly “I’m fine” never means “I’m fine.” Usually it means you’ve screwed up majorly and need to figure it out fast.
But all my years of experience give me no help translating what she means. Anya is usually pretty open about what she wants and is not the type to drop hints.
None of that is stopping my woman radar from going off.
Proceed with caution.
“Sure I do. I really think that Mirage will have expanded to more cities by then. You’ve always said that you want to travel. In a few years, I think that’ll be reality.”
She sighs. “That sounds amazing. It’ll be just you and me against the world.”
“It’s already you and me against the world.”
“Maybe. I just wonder, don’t you ever want more for us? Like this?” She looks around the room.
I follow her eyes to the bride and groom and what she’s getting at finally dawns on me. “You don’t like weddings,” I stammer finally.
“No, I don’t. But I like what they represent. I don’t need a big white dress. All I need is the two of us making promises. Making plans. Sharing everything, including a last name.”
The shock of what she’s saying makes me forget my footwork and we stumble slightly, bumping into the couple dancing next to us. I run a hand through my hair before searching for the door. I have to get out of here.
Behind me, I hear Anya mutter a hasty “sorry” before she appears at my side, rushing to keep pace with me as we dodge the other couples on the dance floor.
I don’t look at her as we make our way out of the ballroom and into the hallway. I can’t come up with words to explain my reaction. Although just that makes me wonder. Why should I have to explain myself? I thought Anya got it. I thought she got me.
“Law, what is wrong with you?”
We don’t stop walking, but I acknowledge her with a quick shake of my head. “Not here. There are too many people.”
She falls quiet with a little huff. The first room we come to is completely dark. I stick my head in and then keep walking. My luck we’d end up locked in a dark room and no one would find our bodies until next week. The room next to that has a party going as well. Probably another wedding. Then, a few doors down from the main ballroom, I find a smaller room with a few tables and chairs. It looks like it was being setup for some kind of meeting. I can only hope we’ll have privacy long enough for me to get to the bottom of Anya’s sudden interest in the future.
“You’re not going to make me forget what we were talking about. If that’s what this little game of Where’s Waldo is about.”
Anya plops down in one of the chairs and crosses her arms. That’s when I get my first glimpse of her face. She’s really upset. I kneel in front of her and tug on one of her hands until she allows me to hold it.
“What’s going on with you? You disappear to get drunk and now you’re suddenly talking about getting married? Forgive me for being a little lost.”
She looks sad for a moment and I think that scares me more than anything she’s said so far. Anya is relentlessly optimistic. In the office, she’s an energetic dynamo that keeps us all organized and on schedule. After hours, she’s the bright, spontaneous ray of sunshine that shines light into my life after years of thunderstorms. I never thought I’d feel hope for the future again but Anya brought me back into the world of the living.
The idea that she’s not as happy with me as I am with her feels like being hit in the face with a frying pan.
“Law, are you happy with what we have? Just dating with no talk of the future? No labels and no commitment?”
My answer hovers on the tip of my tongue. It feels reckless to tell the truth right now since what we have obviously isn’t working for her.
“I don’t want to lose you. You make me happy.” My hope that honesty might be enough is dashed when her smile doesn’t quite reach her eyes.
“I know. You make me happy, too. I was just wondering.”
She no longer looks as sad but there’s a resolute look in her eyes that’s just as frightening.
“Let’s go home, Anya. You’re drunk and I’m tired. You can stay over and we’ll make French toast tomorrow.”
As I’m talking I’m inwardly disgusted with myself. I’m saying she can spend the night like it’s a gift. I should be grateful a woman like her would even want to.
“Okay. Let me just say goodbye to Casey.” She presses a soft kiss against my forehead before she stands and walks away.I watch her go feeling like I narrowly missed getting hit by a train. But something tells me this particular train will be coming back for me at some point.