"You look incredible, doll." Modelling an ice-grey three-piece suit and a white, slim-fit shirt, Grayson, his hands casually laid on my hips, met my eyes in the mirror. "And you smell divine. I could eat you."
Spending six hours in the hotel's spa will do that to a woman. The female aesthetician performed an array of cosmetic treatments; skin rejuvenation, recent facial, body-wrap and waxing. My skin is softer than warm butter and smells like pungently embedded pomegranate. I sparkle, too, which irritates the eyes. Body glitter spray was hardly necessary, but Grayson insisted. In fact, he's the culprit for many unfavourable outcomes. He importuned me into a hotel slumber party last night to drink lethal cocktails, to wear novelty pyjamas, to slap on a mint-infused face mask and to sport edible cucumber eyes. He forced me to wax every inch of my skin this morning, shoved chocolate-coated strawberries into my "objecting" mouth at breakfast and had the audacity to call me "Immature" for requiring pain killers for an unceasing headache. I mean, call me a grousing mare, but this man's too eccentrically expectant at times. And high maintenance.
He's incorrigible, too.
Yet, I wouldn't change him for the world.
Grayson's intervention guaranteed a successful bachelorette party. Well, if you can even call it a celebration. I am friendless, specifically on the girl front, but he made sure I had a night to remember, a crazy morning to laugh about in the future, and memories I shall treasure forever.
"Oh, Lord." Heather's antique-rose formal coat matched her Mariposa knee-high dress and Roseville twist fascinator. "I might cry."
I sent Heather and her partner, Ivor, an invite to the wedding, hoping for their attendance, but received no correspondence. Imagine my stunned ebullience when the innkeeper who welcomed us with open arms, who took care of us, Jace and me, back when reality debilitated and shattered us, knocked on the room door two hours ago, dressed in royal fabrics, a cosmetic case in hand, a bottle of fizz in the other hand, iron-curlers and cosmetics sticking out of her handbag. "Don't cry," I said, laughing lightly. "You'll ruin your makeup."
"I can't help it." She dabbed her cheeks with bunched-up tissues. "You look beautiful, Alexa."
"You can't deny it, doll." His hands in his trouser pockets, Grayson rocked back on the heels of his shoes. "Warren might pass out when he sees you."
"Yeah?" I bite my bottom lip to refrain from smiling. "I scrub up well, huh?"
"Here." Teary-eyed and lachrymose, Heather fixed the white-gold chain around my neck. "Must you insist on wearing these?" The military tags clanked against Adaline's locket. "I can't persuade you to wear something more delicate?"
Heather shared no semblance to my mother, yet her innocuous question, loving attentiveness and motherly demeanour hit me hard in the chest. I'd give anything for Adaline to be here with me, to help me prepare, to walk me down the aisle. My memories of her are that of a child's perspective, but I know, if it weren't for the cruel world we live in, she'd be fussing with my dress, holding my hand, giggling and spilling tears with my sister, Kathy. They'd look statuesque in their floor-length gowns, sipping champagne, reminiscing about what used to be. Kathy, in jest, would lecture me for marrying an older man at age twenty, whilst my mother, partly in Kathy's favour, would chastise my sister for light-hearted teasing. I wanted that. I wanted them here.
"Are you alright, dear?" Heather asked, and I blinked back unshed tears. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you. You can wear the chain. It was only a suggestion—a stupid suggestion nonetheless."
"Heather." Swallowing a sore lump, I grasped her upper arms. "You didn't upset me. It's fine." I faked a small laugh. "But I am not removing the necklace. It stays."
"Ignore Alexa." Grayson slipped an arm across my shoulder. "She likes to think everything is about her."
"Gray." I elbowed him in the ribs, and he doubled-over on a theatrical wheeze. "It's my wedding day, asshole. It's allowed to be about me."
"Oh, Lord." Heather did the sign of the cross. "Profanities, Alexa."
I restrained an eye-roll.
"I need a drink." Grayson popped open a champagne bottle and poured effervesces into the ceramic mugs he stole from the hotel's restaurant. He offered an elbow to Heather. "Care to join me on the balcony, madame?" The pair relocated outside to enjoy the afternoon sun before our hired transportation arrived.
Liam covered all expenses; conveyance, church, venue, hospitality and entertainment. My only requirement, to buy whatever desired at the bridal boutique and to meet him at the altar.
It's been a whirlwind of emotions since the night Liam asked me to be his wife. Even Christmas, my favourite day of the year, became an afterthought. Of course, we celebrated in the traditional sense. We half-heartedly decorated the tree and bought each other, friends and family, thoughtful gifts. Tony and Camilla visited. Brad rocked up late to dinner in his black tracksuit, having only just rolled out of bed. Nate spent the holiday with his aunt and younger sister. Josh and his grandmother celebrated at home. And Liam's brother, well, nobody has heard from Vincent for a while.
January 14th, the day I marry my inamorato, the love of my life.
I envisioned many optimistic scenarios growing up, but finding my soulmate and falling wholeheartedly in love, at no time, under no circumstances, did such possibilities spring to mind. If truth be told, I never thought it possible for a man to love someone as damaged as me. Moreover, after what I suffered as a child, I hated to be in the sights of any male, despised the idea of them appreciating me, touching me, so from a young age, I resigned to a lifespan of singleness.
And then I met him, Liam Warren.
I didn't know how much my heart needed Liam until it began to beat for him. It wasn't love at first sight or the personification of true romance. Our relationship, it's messy, toxic, painful and dangerous. Being together hurts more often than not, but parting ways, irrespective of failed separation periods, breaks hearts—our hearts. People might judge him for loving damaged goods. People might judge me for loving a criminal. But the inconsequential opinions of others didn't matter then, and they didn't matter now. I am signing my life away to this man, and there isn't a force on earth that can stop me.
My eyes returned to the vanity mirror. I looked too pure and seraphic. It's what a bride should represent on her wedding day, sublime angelicness. Something was missing. Emptying my handbag onto the dresser, searching for cosmetics, I picked up the unopened matte red lipstick and stained my lips. It's not too bright, too loud. It's the perfect shade of regal carmine.
I lowered my gaze to clear the desk when the room door knocked. "I'll get it," I shouted, not that Grayson had any intentions of leaving his rattan chair. The impatient person knocked again. "Just a second."
Holding the train of my dress to the waist, I unlocked the door, swung it open and came face-to-face with my best friend, Jace. He looked far too imposing and intimidating in the hotel's majestical hallway. His combination of tattoos and facial piercings differentiated from armed, tailored security that unsubtly regarded our exchange. Jace's ice-grey suit duplicates Grayson's, which makes me wonder if their decided attire had been unintentional or prearranged. His three-piece suit and leather shoes were a striking contrast to his usual all-black and leather. "Wow," he said, eyeballing me from head-to-toe. "Alexa..." He slowly shook his head. "Just incredible."
"Thank you." Jace had two patternless navy ties slung over one shoulder. "Did you guys shop together?" I let go of my dress to upturn his collar. Pulling one of the ties around his neck, I began to fix him a full Windsor knot. "And what's with the matching blue ties? What am I missing?"
"Grayson told me where to buy the suit." His hands clasped to the back of his head."Said he forgot the ties, so I had to pick them up. As for the colour? Instruction."
"Evasive." My fingers splayed across his chest. "Orders from whom? Gray? Liam?"
"Mind your business." Grayson shoved me aside. "How's it going?" Outstretching his arms, he gestured for Jace to show him some love. "Quit procrastinating, hot stuff. Hug me."
"Christ." Jace aimed for a quick round of formalities. "You'd never think I spoke to you on the phone half an hour ago."
Our former boss had other ideas, though. Hauling the reluctant man into his arms for a long squeeze, Gray openly ran his nose along Jace's neck, sniffing the scent of his masculine cologne. "Damn," he purred, and Jace wriggled to get away from him. "Can't I convince you to swing a different way? Just for one night?"
"No," Jace barked, his cheeks flushed. "I don't like cock, Gray."
"Jace!" Heather scolded behind us, and he flashed her an apologetic smile. "Must you be so vulgar? I can barely tolerate the word 'penis'."
"Why not?" Grayson's genuine question had me in a state of laughter. "You might like 'penis'?"
Jace put a closed-up fist to his mouth. "I don't like...penis."
"How can you be sure?" Gray nabbed his tie from Jace's shoulder. "You ain't sampled it yet."
"I don't want to sample..." Jace narrowed his eyes. "Grayson, quit looking at my fucking crotch."
"Jace!" Furious by Jace's slew of expletives, Heather's short yet indomitable frame arose in our circle. "Please, for the sake of my sensitive ears, terminate bad language."
"Sorry, Heath." Jace upheld his boyish smile, and she melted. "It won't happen again. I promise."
"Good." She diverted her caution to Grayson. "You," she pointed in his face, "Mr Troublemaker, can come with me to cool off."
Albeit protesting, Grayson let Heather take him by the ear to the balcony. Drowning out his peevish voice, I carried two mugs of champagne to the brown leather Chesterfield sofa and, not wanting to crease or wrinkle the lace of my dress, carefully became seated. Jace relaxed beside me. His arm draped on the sofa's rear. His green eyes looked brighter beneath the room's vibrant ceiling lights. Brighter upon searching. "What?" I asked, unable to read his expression, the inquisitive flicker in his stare. "Have I smudged my makeup?"
"You chose a backless dress," he stated the obvious. "Your wings show."
"Good." I hand over a mug. "I shall bear them proudly." While gazing into space, his finger absently traced feathers on my back. "Are you okay?"
"Of course." Resting his ankle on the opposite knee, he put the mug to his lips and slaked thirst. "Why wouldn't I be? My friend's getting married." He glared into the empty mug as if it offended him. "I'm drinking fluff in a cup."
"Fluff in a cup?" My nose crinkled. "Is Armand de Brignac not to your standards?"
"Ace of Spades," he said, reading the label of the bottle with pouted lips. "It's good. But I prefer the Russian stuff." He glanced over his shoulder, keeping an eye on Heather and Grayson. "I met a broad."
My interest skyrocketed. "You met what?"
"A broad?" He deadpanned. "As in—"
"I know what broad means, Jace." My arms folded on my lap, I leaned in, nose-to-nose. "Who is she? What does she look like? Is it serious? Will I like her?" I squinted. "Will I have to kick her ass?"
"Calm down, Tiger." He shifted closer. "Keep your voice down. I don't want Grayson to overhear. You know what he's like for gossip."
I had a light-bulb moment. "Is it Harlyn?"
"No." His face screwed up. "No, it's not Harlyn. The fuck? Her as a roommate? That's bad enough."
"Well, kill the suspense, Jace." I grabbed a champagne bottle from the coffee table to refill his mug. "Who is she? Actually, go back to the beginning. What does she look like?"
Jace mulled over my question. "She's pretty."
"Pretty? What, that's it?" My forehead creased. "No profile description?"
"What do you want? A full disclosure?"
"Yes, I want that," I syllabised, and he rolled his eyes. "What? You can't blame a girl for trying. I need all the juicy details."
"It's not serious," he said unconvincingly. "I think she might be different, though." Sadness clouded his expression. "You know?"
My chest constricted. I think Jace likes the girl more than he lets on. But he doesn't want to, or rather, he's too scared to let go of Lucy, Summer's mother. "Did you invite her to the wedding?" He gave a curt head shake. "Jace?" I placed my hand atop his. "Labels mean nothing in our world. Extemporise. Play it by ear. See what happens."
"Yeah," he agreed, masking discomfort. "I overthink shit. Ignore me."
"I see." From beneath the archway, Grayson enters the seating quarters, his accusatory glare condemning us to Hell. "Having a party without me. I am wounded."
Jace squeezed my shoulder. His way of ending the conversation. "Why doesn't our bride have champagne flutes? Who utilises kitchen mugs for someone's wedding day?"
"We do." Grayson flexed a hand between us. "If you have a problem with that, put those legs to use, walk your cute behind downstairs and pinch us an alternative."
"Alexa!" Camilla's unanticipated voice jerked me out of my skin. "Look at you." Before I had a chance to stand and greet, she pushed between Heather and Grayson, an assortment of metallic helium balloons in hand. "Well, come on. Stand up." She shoved the balloons in Grayson's face, and he whacked them aside to nose. "Let me get a better look."
Passing the mug to Jace, I soared to my full height, letting the train fall to the ground. "I thought I'd see you at the church." Camilla and Tony booked a room at the venue last night. They plan to stay there for the entire weekend to enjoy celebrations before returning to Newquay, Cornwall. "We need more champagne."
Gray elected himself. "Leave it to me."
"Oh, Alexa." Clapping her hands lightly, Camilla glanced at Heather and smiled. "Doesn't she look marvellous?"
All their sentimental compliments began to darken my cheeks an impossible shade. I hate being the centre of attention. "I look like any other bride."
"We don't care about other brides," Tony said. "We care about our bride."
Seizing the bottom of my dress, I moved around the horde of guests to find the man himself. I observed his tailored suit first. It's the same colour as Jace's and Grayson's. Dashingly suave and handsome, he's clean-shaven. His dark hair slicked back. "Why do you all wear the same suits? Did Grayson boss you around, too?"
"I heard that," Gray chimed somewhere.
Tony met me halfway. "Alexa." Pulling me in for a tight hug, he whispered, "You look just like your mother."
I held onto the back of his suit jacket. "I wish she could be here," I said quietly, opposed to unsettling Camilla.
He nodded in agreement.
"Now, will someone tell me the story behind these suits?" Everyone laughed except me. "Well?"
"Well," Jace parodied, his eyes going from Gray to me. "You need bridesmen."
Assured I heard incorrectly, I stopped breathing. "What?"
"And I thought..." Tony hesitated. "I could walk you down the aisle if you want." His eyebrows furrowed into a sympathetic frown. "Is it what you want?"
"Really?" Toying with the charm bracelet on my wrist, I asked Tony, "You'd do that for me?"
"Why wouldn't I?" He took my hand. "You're my daughter."
Today's not supposed to be sad and emotional, yet unpreventable tears flooded my eyes. "Oh, God." Wiping the moisture from under my eyelashes, I blinked up at the ceiling. "Guys, don't make me cry." Silence persisted. "Shit, on a serious note, I cannot wait to see Jace and Grayson walking down the aisle together."
"Likewise." Grayson wrapped his arms around Jace's waist. "It's like a dream come true."
"Gray," Jace spat through gritted teeth. "Quit fucking about."
"I can't take much more of their language." Heather collected the champagne and empty mugs. "Camilla, shall we prepare a toast? And Alexa? Is it okay for me to text Ivor? He's in the suite by himself."
"Yes." Rubbing my clammy hands together, I added, "The more, the merrier."
Grinning impishly, Camilla accepted a bottle of white wine from Tony, kissed him on the cheek, and followed Heather to the balcony.
"Shall we join them?" Tony offered the men cigars. "Saved these for a special occasion. Cuban."
Jace slid one from the box and popped it in his mouth.
I left the men unattended for a quick bathroom break, which proved to be complicated. I had to hold the dress up to my head to relieve urination. And don't even start me on the tissue blunder.
Washing my hands in the basin, I rechecked my reflection for the umpteenth time, reined in scattered thoughts and returned to the suite. Everyone is outside, smoking cigars and drinking champagne. Both vices failed to appeal. Meeting Liam at the altar, half-cut and bumping of smoke, he'd kill me.
Conveying a silver tray of crustless sandwiches, I opened the front door to offer the Suits something bitesise to eat. I found no one, not one member of the syndicate. "Gavin?" I mused, stepping into the hallway, looking concerningly down the other end. "Hello?"
"You should know better," Vincent whispered behind me, and, in sheer panic, the platter fell straight off my upward facing palm to its shambolic death. "Pity."
"Vincent." Wiping the back of my hand across my forehead, I turned to face him. "You scared me."
Vincent wore a slate-grey, two-button, single-breasted suit jacket over his black shirt. He'd styled his hair. It's slightly longer than I remembered, dark strands wisped under his ears, and his firm, angular jaw, grey with a five o'clock shadow. He looked dark and mysterious. I wondered if his timeless suit complemented Liam and his groomsmen. "Where were you?" I later found my voice. "Liam's been looking for you."
"You should protect innate modesty and guileless, Angel. Monsters pry on the unassuming." He stepped closer with predatory grace, levelling me with his eyes, the same crystal blue eyes as his brother. "You and I both know Liam's unperturbed by his brother's whereabouts."
Vincent's wrong. I know Liam. He mightn't admit concerns, but he worries for his younger brother more than his ego permits him to acknowledge. "Why are you here? You should be at the church alongside the groomsmen." I withstood his stoic glare. "Next to your brother."
"You are due to be my sister-in-law." A small white box exhibited between us. "Have a look."
I studied the box in perplexity. "Why?"
"Why did I come here to congratulate you?"
"Why did you buy me a gift?"
His gaze roamed over my face. "Open it."
Knowing Vincent's not going to answer my question, I reached for the box, but his unmovable fingers caged it. "Well, release it."
"I didn't say you could take it out of my hand." His jaw steeled. "I said, open it."
"Fucking Hell. You moody bastard." I unclasped the delicate lock, popped open the lid and found a white-beaded rosary. Diamond spacers filled the gaps between white marble beads and an encrusted cross centred attention. "It's beautiful." I glanced from the white-gold cross in his lobe to the onyx rosary on his wrist. "Am I supposed to wear it as a bracelet? Like you do yours? That's if you allow me to have the untouchable gift, of course."
He lifted the rosary from off the velvet bed, closed the box and tucked it in his trouser pocket. "May I?"
Removing my mother's bracelet felt wrong, but I carry a piece of her on my necklace. "Sure." Extending my arm, I waited for him to unclasp the charms. "It's a thoughtful present. Thank you, Vincent." His fingers grazed my wrist as he wrapped layers of delicate beads. "It's heavier than it looks."
"It's deceiving," he said under his breath, his two fingers testing its resilience. "Done."
Pulling my arm back, I examined the rosary and belatedly noticed two black and silver beads. "That's a bit dark for something so holy, isn't it?"
He brushed a strand of hair behind my ear. "It serves its purpose, Angel."
"Alexa?" Grayson's voice boomed from behind the door. "I hope you ain't gone all 'runaway bride' on us?"
"I'm out here," I called, my eyes on the door as it flung open. "Gray?"
"What happened to the sandwiches?" Dragging a hand over his pink hair, Grayson assessed the mess on the floor. "And why are you standing in the hallway like a spare part? We only have twenty minutes before the horse-drawn carriage arrives."
"You better be lying, Gray." Dread like never before detonated inside me. "I will not arrive at the church by chariot."
"It's a joke." He waves a dismissive hand in the air. "Champagne?"
"One more glass." Grappling the train of my dress, I returned my gaze to Liam's brother. Like an apparition, he had disappeared. Not a trace of him in sight. "Vincent?" His pungent cologne lingered in his wake. "Where did he go? You could have told me he walked away."
"Vincent?" Gray's eyes rounded with a mixture of suspicion and amusement. "What about him? Is that why you snuck out? To call him?" He exited the suite, shutting the door behind him. "Are you having an affair with the younger Warren? Girl, what even? Give me your phone. Right now. I am to text that man and give him a piece of my mind—"
"Gray," I whisper-shout, tugging him in by the tie. "Why must you get carried away? I am not sneaking around with Liam's brother. Vincent was out here. He came to give me a gift."
"Do you have a fever?" His judgemental eyes hold me in place. "Hallucinations? Too much bubbly?"
"You infuriate me."
"My apologies." His hand slid into his pocket. "But I cannot reason with a nonsensical woman."
Exhaustion hindered explanations. I no longer cared to explain or defend myself. "Champagne?"
"Oh, yes." Opening our room door, he entered the suite, rubbing his hands together. "I found her outside. Talking to herself."
I pinched the bridge of my nose. "Ignore him."
Jace passed me a ceramic mug the second I joined everyone on the balcony. "A toast," Tony said, offering everyone fizz top-ups. "To my beautiful daughter on her wedding day. Here's to love, laughter and happily ever after."
My cheeks ached from smiling so hard. "Thank you, Tony."
Grayson's phone bleeped. Polishing off the last drop of champagne, he dabbed a napkin on his lips, unlocked his phone and read a text message. "Transportation just arrived."
Whilst everyone moved around in excitement, I clutched the back of a chair and inhaled a long, encouraging breath. Inert with emotional anxieties, I rolled my shoulders back, collected the beautiful cascade of white calla lilies from Heather, thanked her, and walked ahead in a daze.
Flanked by six members of the syndicate, I followed the others out of the hotel to the long-line of stark-white Rolls-Royce vehicles dominating the car park. A Suit's hand on my lower back, I tilted my head back to feel the sun on my face and braced myself for the future.