Chapter One: Shawn
It’s like my body knew the moment I stepped onto Misty Mountain soil and it went into high alert. I’ve only been back here a few hours and my stomach is wound into tight knots. My hands are clammy, the muscles in my throat are perpetually clenched. I suppose it’s some kind of muscle-memory-trauma-response. In fact, I’m sure of it.
My little sister Stella is literally the only person in the world who could get me back to Misty Mountain after all that’s happened. Not that I’m ever too far from it no matter how far I go, this town hangs over me like a shadow even when I’m at home in the city.
There’s a constant reel of memories that play in my mind on a loop. Normally I can keep them at bay, but the way they come to life against the backdrop of my small hometown is downright spooky.
“Sir, are you checking in?” The woman behind the counter at the hotel at Brew by Brewer looks up at me. “Sir, your name please.”
I snap my attention back to her. “Sorry, it’s Shawn Willman. I have two adjoining rooms booked, please.”
“Not a problem, I’ll need to see some identification and the card you used to make the reservation. Also, will your guest need a key?”
I hesitate. “Yeah, I suppose she will.” I take a step away from the counter and then lean back in. “You know what, why don’t you leave her key here and she can pick it up when she arrives. Please hold it for Kaylee Allen.”
Saying her name aloud for the first time feels odd and unnatural. I look at the woman’s face to see if she registered anything out of the ordinary in my tone. But she hardly looks up from her keyboard at all.
“Sure thing. Give me a moment and I’ll have that all squared away for you.” The woman disappears behind the counter.
I look around and take in the sights of the hotel. They’ve done an impressive job getting this place ready for Halloween. Not that it needed a ton of work. The Brewer family has converted the ancient poor farm in our town into a luxury resort, but they’ve kept all its original, old-world, charm.
Now, ancient chandeliers, old oak carved doors, and brass fixtures are topped with faux spider webs. A man dressed as a werewolf walks casually through the lobby. Leave it to my little sister to hold a wedding that lasts not one but three days and ends on Halloween.
It isn’t usually a romantic holiday. But in Stella’s case, the dude she’s marrying, Spencer Brewer, is pretty sinister, so I guess it makes sense.
Spencer Brewer has been an unwelcome part of my life for the last six years since he knocked my sister up. I’ll give it to the guy, he made a cute kid, my niece is to die for. But that’s the only thing he has going for him as far as I can tell.
Well, that and the fact that his family isn’t too bad either. I went to school with the Brewers who live here in Misty Mountain, and they’re all right, nothing like their cousin Spencer. They own this property and offered it up free of charge for the ceremony.
“Uncle Shawn!” The voice of my adorable niece McKenna sounds behind me and I turn to see her running toward me, arms open, and a gapped tooth smile on her face.
“Kenna,” my heart skips a beat.
When I see her, all is right in my world, if only for a minute. When I scoop down and pick her up, I feel full again. McKenna seems to be the only thing that fills the gaping hole inside me.
McKenna and I have been video chatting on our usual schedule, but I feel a pang of sadness stab at my stomach when I realize she’s so much bigger than the last time I saw her. “I think you grew a whole foot. What are you, like twenty-five now?”
“Uncle Shawn, I’m still six,” she giggles and I put her down.
“If it isn’t my big brother, it’s good to see you.” My sister Stella hugs me.
She of all people understands what it’s costing me to be back here for the weekend. I can’t help but think of how many times she’s come through for me in the last five years and I feel a pang of guilt stab at me for living so far away.
“It’s the bride herself, how are you doing with all of this? They certainly did good by your spooky wedding theme. Which is fitting given you’re marrying Spencer.” I lower my voice and lean in toward my sister, staying out of my niece’s earshot. “Are you sure you want to go through with this?” I know I shouldn’t ask but I’m the only person who can get away with it.
“Stop it,” Stella shakes her head at me. “I’m already in the situation, all you can do now is support me. Besides, a Halloween-themed wedding is worth it if only to see my big brother in an array of costumes… and to hang out with your mysterious new girlfriend. I literally can’t wait to meet her!”
Me neither. I wonder what she’ll be like. I wonder if I can pull this off.
“She, uh... Kaylee had to fly in late. She had a work thing. But she’ll be here.” I swallow back my nerves.
McKenna hops up and down, her dark hair in pigtails. “I’ve got so many costumes! I have a princess one, a zombie, and...” McKenna covers her mouth to control her fits of giggles. “And Uncle Shawn you aren’t going to guess… a cat costume! With a tail!”
“That is so cool, I can’t wait to see them,” I tell her.
As I chat with my sister and niece I have to admit that being in Misty Mountain feels better than I thought it would. I’d forgotten about the small-town charm. The way people say hello to you when they pass. The simple luxury of inhaling clean, mountain air and the way my niece lights up when I talk to her.
“What’s up, Big Will?” Spencer’s voice is like nails on a chalkboard and it punctures my moment of bliss. Spencer talks four decibels above everyone else in the lobby. He stands uncomfortably close to me and claps me on the back with unnecessary force. His white-blond hair is thinner than the last time I saw him, and his eyebrows are nonexistent.
“Hello, Spencer. Just a reminder that literally no one calls me that.” I try to keep my face from pinching into tight lines. I glance at my sister and for her sake, I muster up as much good-willed enthusiasm as I can. “Congratulations.”
Spencer’s mouth turns down at the corners. “I figured it was time I made it official with the old ball and chain. I mean, I already put a baby in her, I’m already stuck. Plus she’s got a decent job for now, so if she wants to be a sugar momma for life, I’m here for it.”
Good-willed enthusiasm, over. All I can think to respond with is you son of a bitch. But I look at my niece McKenna and keep myself together. “Come on now, I’m sure you’re looking forward to making your family official.”
But Spencer is already engrossed in some kind of video on his phone, so much so that he doesn’t even seem to hear me. So much so, that when my niece reaches for her dad’s hand, he doesn’t flinch except to pull it away.
“Spencer.” My tone is a thinly veiled threat.
He chuckles. “It’s cats with bread on their heads, paired with women with big tits… Classic.” Spencer holds up the video in my direction. “Hey man, I’m gonna ditch these broads in a bit and get drunk to get through this weekend. You down?”
“Absolutely not. Unbelievable.” I turn my head away from him, fury bubbling in my stomach. My eyes flick to Stella, but she’s avoiding my stare. I know my sister well enough to say with confidence that it isn’t an accident, but I lean in toward her anyway. “You’re okay with this? You’re voluntarily marrying… this?”
But Stella only rolls her eyes with a shrug and waves me off as McKenna rattles on excitedly about her costumes. For being one of the smartest people I know, Stella isn’t making good choices right now and it makes me sick.
My list of grievances with Spencer is long and detailed. But all of them start and end with the way he disrespects my sister and takes my niece for granted. The woman behind the desk finally returns with my room key and I breathe out with relief. At least I have the option of taking myself out of the situation before I say something I’ll regret.
“Here you are, we’ll leave this key for your guest. Give us a call at the front desk if you need anything.” The woman hands over my room key along with a map of the seventy-four-acre property.
“Thanks.” I turn to my sister. “I’m gonna head up to my room.”
“Okay, don’t forget, the rehearsal dinner is tonight. It’s full costume required and it’ll be so much fun. I know Mom and Dad are more than ready to see you. Our wedding planner Lauren has pulled out all the stops. This weekend should be downright scary,” Stella says.
My eyes flash to Spencer. “Now that I can believe. Kenna, come here girl, give Uncle Shawn a hug. I can’t wait to see your cool costume in a little bit.”
“Later Big Will,” Spencer calls over his shoulder without bothering to look up from his phone.
I all but fly up the stairs to my room, more than ready to put some space between Spencer and me. As hard as I try, I can’t see what my sister sees in that guy. Her choosing him is not something I’ll ever understand.
When I step inside my hotel room, I’m relieved to see that there is in fact an adjoining door. It’s an essential piece to the puzzle of this wedding weekend. The last thing I want to do is make her uncomfortable. I crack it open and step through into what will be Kaylee’s room. It’s weird to think that at any moment, Kaylee Allen, who has been nothing more than a name on a piece of paper, will be here in person.
My assistant helped me come up with three couple’s costumes for this weekend. She’s packaged each into its own bag with all the parts and labeled them for me. Best of all, she didn’t ask any questions, she’s good like that. She’s more than happy to give me my space and I dread the day she retires.
I find the three bags with Kaylee’s name on them and lay them on her bed. Then I step out and close the adjoining door. I plop onto my own bed and attempt to fire through some work emails. But it isn’t any use, I can’t focus. Rather, I can’t believe this is what I’ve been reduced to, hiring a date for my sister’s wedding.
It’s odd, but I couldn’t see any other options. So I was as careful with the selection process as possible. I needed someone who could meet all of my specifications. It’d be nice if she was friendly, or at least not unpleasant. It’d be even better if she was attractive, but I thought I might be pushing my luck.
The list of things I’d prefer stretched on and on. But when it came down to writing the advertisement, I could only think of five things that actually mattered.
Needed: Wedding Date/ Fake Girlfriend
No husband or boyfriend. Please no jealous psychos showing up.
No kids. In my experience, adding a child to anything makes it immediately complicated.
No breaking character. We need to look like a couple madly in love for the duration of the three-day event. Must cling to our agreed-upon backstory.
Couples costumes are required for events, I will provide them.
No sex or intimacy of any kind required. I’m not a creep.
When I saw it in black and white, it seemed like a lot to ask, so I made sure to offer an astronomical amount of cash. It only made sense to exchange something I have too much of for something I don’t have at all... and it worked.
I received hundreds of replies. Immediately I went to work, weeding out the spam and having my assistant help pair down the pile. When I found Kaylee’s application, something in her simple, kind responses drew me to her. She seemed down to earth. Normal. Drama-free. It was a process to find her, but it was better than the alternative of showing up back in Misty Mountain alone.
It was worth the effort to avoid the pitying looks and questions. Everyone thinks they know how long you should grieve. But this, what I’m doing, isn’t grief, I’m past that. This is an acknowledgment of the fact that I am meant to be alone.
I tried love once, and it was a supreme effort that took me to hell and back. In the end, it wasn’t meant to be. I’ve made my peace with that, but it seems no one else has. Ever since it happened, my parents worry about me. My sister worries about me. My old friends worry, but I don’t. I’m okay on my own.
As the afternoon winds on, my nerves start to get the better of me. Kaylee and I have emailed back and forth, but it’s been all business. It’d be nice to at least meet this woman for more than five minutes before we have to convince people that we are desperately in love.
I wonder if she’s here yet. I don’t hear anything next door. I look at the clock and bide my time, taking a shower, and unzipping the bag labeled, Shawn Outfit #1. On top of the outfit, there’s a note in my assistant’s old-lady penmanship.
Sorry, this is all they had last minute. The other two are better. Enjoy, Margie
When I peer inside, at first I have no idea what I’m even looking at. It looks like some kind of blue suit made from plastic. It’s complete with a white button-down shirt, pink suspenders, and a matching pink bowtie. It isn’t until I pull out the plastic wig that I realize my lovely assistant has made me a Ken doll. I chuckle to myself as I pull it on. As if this day isn’t weird enough, I might as well be the least sexy man in America.
When the clock hits four, I only have an hour until my sister’s rehearsal dinner and I pull out my phone and punch in a text to Kaylee.
Me: Hello, This is Shawn Willman. I’d like to meet if you are up for it.
Before she can respond, my stomach bubbles and anxiety rises in my throat. I punch out another text.
Me: Although of course you aren’t required to spend any additional time with me per our contract, so if you are not interested that’s okay too.
I am completely off my game. My divorce was five years ago at this point and admittedly, I haven’t dated much since then, but I didn’t think I was this bad. Three minutes pass and I start to worry whether she’s come at all. Shaking my head at myself, I punch out a third message.
Me: I will be outside of your door when it’s time to go per our agreement.
Nerves prickle on the back of my neck. What if I’ve completely misread the situation? What if she’s miserable or if our connection is totally unrealistic? If my family sees right through this, then all the groundwork I’ve laid to convince them that I’ve gotten over the sadness in my past will be for nothing.
When I hear a soft knock coming from the other side of the room, I take a step toward the front door. With this many Willman’s running around the Brewer property this weekend, I can’t just be opening the door for anyone. Lest I find myself in a three-hour conversation with my aunt who lives with her cats.
But when I look out of the peephole, there isn’t anyone to be found. Then I hear the soft tapping again and turn on a dime when I realize the knocking is coming from the adjoining door.