3 years later
It was supposed to be the happiest day of my life, so why did I have this gaping hole in my chest as if something was missing? I’d given myself a million excuses for this leading up to this moment – I was afraid of change and marrying Adam meant my life would be flipped upside down. I’d already put my own aspirations into the backburner in order to work on his campaign and deep down I knew this was only the beginning. This was what it meant to be married to a someone in public office though. It was putting your own dreams on hold for the sake of the bigger picture and in this picture Adam was running for mayor of the city of New York, which was huge.
It also meant that I wouldn’t be taking either of the jobs my father offered me as the accounts manager of White Oak Beer. My heart still hurt a little when I thought about the last conversation I had with him about it, which had gone from a job offer to a screaming match. Dad was less than thrilled that I was putting my career on hold for Adam. He said it was unlike me and frankly, disappointing. The door opened behind me, and I did a little jolt as I turned around to see my best friend Jamie walking in with a huge smile on her face.
“You look stunning,” she said.
“I don’t feel stunning.”
“Is it because your mom’s flight is running late?” She frowned as she walked toward me.
“No.” I shook my head. “I’m surprised she’s even coming at all.”
“You know she wouldn’t miss this.”
That wasn’t exactly true. Neither of us knew she wouldn’t miss it, which further annoyed me. It wasn’t like her only daughter was getting married or anything. God forbid she pick a flight that would’ve had her here a few days ago and not the day of. She’d been on a month-long vacation with her boyfriend in Greece, surely she could have ended the trip a little sooner. I took a long, deep breath and exhaled it slowly. It didn’t matter. It was my wedding day. Today was about Adam and I. I smiled as I thought of him and found it a little easier to breathe. At least my father was here to walk me down the aisle.
My relationship with my parents had gone from bad to worse. Because of the job thing with dad and because I didn’t approve of my mother’s dating life. I liked to think it was in the mending stage now, especially with my mom. She’d found a respectable man her age and I had Adam – a successful politician who’d take care of me. Of course, there was a lot more to him than just that, but that was what my mother appreciated about him because it meant she no longer had to worry about me.
Standing up, I adjusted my dress and let Jamie fix the veil on my head. I looked in the mirror and took another deep breath. I loved Adam. Adam was good for me. He was hard working, loved me, and wanted to offer me the world. He’d said as much more than enough times in the two years we’d been dating.
“I think I just need a moment to regroup.” I slid my gaze to Jamie.
“I’ll go make sure the rest of the girls are ready and that none of the guys are running late.” She put both hands on my shoulders, looking me straight in the eyes. “It’s completely normal to freak out right now. If you need more than a few minutes, we’ll stall. I’ll go up there and sing and make half the attendees disappear if I have to.”
I laughed. “I’ll be ready in five minutes. No awful singing required.”
“Okay, but if you need me to take one for the team . . . “ She winked at me. “I’ll be back in five.”
I kept my smile intact until I heard the door click. Then, I sagged down on the chair in front of the mirror again. I looked perfect. My red hair was made in a perfect knot-up do. My makeup was flawless, not a freckle in sight. I reached for the champagne on the little table beside me and sipped it. Liquid courage wasn’t something I relied on, but the warmth that spread through me was welcome. I didn’t know why we’d decided on a winter wedding. A winter wedding in a grand estate. It was a little girl’s fairytale, I supposed. Not mine, but some little girl out there somewhere. Adam thought I would love it and I went along with it because I loved him and I knew public perception was important to him. The click of the door opening caught my attention. I steadied my glass, gripping the stem as I anticipated my mother’s arrival. When it opened fully and I found Nathaniel, I felt my eyes bulge out of their sockets.
I’d invited him as part of dad’s guest list. This wedding was partly for my parents and their social obligations and partly for Adam’s. I’d invited two tables of friends and that was it. Nathaniel Bradley was one of the people I’d sent an invite to fully expecting it to be rejected. I guess I’d been wrong. Not only was I not expecting him to attend my wedding, but I definitely didn’t expect him to come to my private room to see me. I stood up, setting the flute down on the table. He walked in, shutting the door behind him. He looked devastatingly handsome in his tuxedo. It was a phrase I never thought I’d hear myself think, but it was the only one that came to mind as he walked toward me, his dark blue eyes taking me in slowly. My heart pounded. I wanted to scream at him for making me feel this way. I wanted to scream at him for being here at all and catching me off guard like this.
“What are you doing here?”
He swallowed. “He’s not right for you.”
It took me a moment to register his words. I blinked. “What?”
“He’s not the one.”
“Seriously?” My mouth fell open for a beat. “You say that about every guy.”
And I knew for a fact it wasn’t because he was pinning after me. He wasn’t. I’d thrown myself at him a few times in college and the guy practically laughed in my face, so no, Nathaniel Bradley didn’t like me, he just didn’t want to see me happy. He didn’t like the idea of another man in my life and therefore my father’s life. He wanted to be the favorite for all eternity. The thought alone made me angry.
“You have some nerve showing up here like this and expecting me to . . . I just . . . “ I was breathing hard suddenly, my blood rumbling in my veins. I realized it was the first thing I’d actually felt all day. “Is this what you came here to tell me?”
“No.” He frowned, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Your mother is five minutes away. Your father wanted me to let you know that he thinks we should wait for her to get here before you start the ceremony.”
My eyes narrowed. “So you just threw the part about my very soon-to-be husband not being good for me there for kicks?”
“I said it because I always tell you how I feel and I hadn’t met him before today, so I hadn’t been able to tell you,” he said. “You haven’t exactly made yourself available to me. In the last year I’ve invited you to my housewarming party, lunch, grab a drink to catch up on things, and you turned me down every time.”
“I’ve been busy.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve heard all about your whereabouts, too. Dad keeps me informed on his favorite pet.”
“Glad to hear it.” He smirked. “And what do you think of my accomplishments, if I may ask?”
I sighed. He wasn’t going to leave, so I might as well answer truthfully. “On one hand, I think it’s amazing that you’ve accomplished so much. On the other, I think the invention is completely disgusting and you’re just contributing to one more thing society will get addicted to.”
“You don’t think it’s innovative and smart?” He raised an eyebrow. “I mean, we’re singlehandedly taking on the tobacco industry.”
“Right, by replacing it with something else people will become dependent on.”
“The company’s already worth five million and it hasn’t even fully launched yet.”
“I’m not impressed with numbers unless you’re finding a cure for the cancer that tobacco is already causing.”
“Right, because the little perfect princess has never smoked.” His rolled his eyes.
“My father smokes enough for the both of us.”
“Well, my invention will make it safer.”
“I doubt it.”
“It’s proven. We didn’t just invent this an send it out into the world. These things need to be FDA approved, you know, tested and tested again.”
“Is that why you came? To gloat about your invention? Do you want me to fall at your feet and tell you you’re a genius and then smile at every word that comes out of my mouth?” I clenched my fists on either side of me. “I’m glad something you worked at for so long finally got picked up and is making you money, but I’m not going to sit here and agree with every word you say. I’m not one of your investors and I’m not one of your little model girlfriends.”
“My girlfriend is a scientist,” he shot back.
“Well, whoopdie-do. Good for her. Good for you for expanding your horizons past bimbos who drool over your rugged exterior and only see you as a plaything. You deserve that much.” My jaw felt so tight that I had to fight to speak each word. “You can go now. Thanks for letting me know about my mom and thanks for coming to the wedding.”
“Thanks for inviting me, even though we both know it wasn’t your idea,” he said, his jaw tightening with each pause he made.
For what felt like an eternity, we just stared at each other, waiting to see who would win this tug-of-war between us. From experience, I knew the answer was simple, neither of us would. We’d get worked up and go our separate ways as we always did and yet I realized that I liked it. He always found a way to take me completely out of whatever was happening in my life and make me focus on something else, even if that something else was anger toward him.
“It’s good to have you here,” I said after a moment. “Only a jerk like you could make me see how lucky I am to be marrying such a kind man.”
“Such a little brat.” His eyes flashed as he shook his head slowly.
“I think that’s your cue.” I planted a hand on my hip and raised an eyebrow. “I need to finish up here before my mother arrives. Good bye, Nathaniel.”
Instead of leaving, he walked forward, closing the distance between us, standing almost flush against me, making me tilt my head to meet his gaze, which was dark and hard, a look I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen before. My pulse kicked. What the hell was he doing? Why was he so close to me? Why did he smell so good? What would his chest feel like if I set my hands on it?
“What are you doing?” My voice was shaky. He brought hand up to my cheek, his eyes intent on mine. I was going to die. He was going to kill me before I even got to the alter. “Nathaniel. What are – “
He brought his face down slowly. I knew it was happening. I knew he was going to kiss me. I knew I could stop it at any moment if I wanted to, but the truth was that I didn’t want to. God help me, I wanted this kiss. And when his lips met mine and his tongue slid into my mouth, I felt like I was being consumed by him. I forgot where I was and what I was wearing. I forgot that people were waiting for me and I had somewhere to be. I forgot that I had a fiancé at all and that his name certainly wasn’t Nathaniel Bradley and that he definitely didn’t push my buttons like this. Even now, as he kissed me, Nathaniel was trying to take over my life. With the stroke of his tongue and the gentle pressure from his hand on the back of my neck, he made me feel like I was tumbling and out of breath.
When he broke the kiss, I was panting and left wanting more. He was breathing heavily, his eyes looked glossy and out of focus as they searched mine. For what? Did he expect me to tell him I loved it? Did he expect me to tell him I wanted him instead of Adam? That I’d walk out of here holding hands with him, guests be damned, venue be damned, photographer and videographers be damned? My father had spent a small fortune on this wedding and I wasn’t going to just up and leave because a kiss from this man had me feeling like I’d been kissed wrong all along. The thought angered me. The fact that he’d waited until this moment angered me even more.
“What the fuck are you thinking?” I pushed his chest.
“I had to do it and I’m not going to apologize.” He ran his fingers through his hair, exhaling, and locks eyes with me again. “A few years ago, you begged me to kiss you and I didn’t and I didn’t want the opportunity to pass me by forever.”
I pushed his chest again. “So you decide to kiss me on my wedding day?”
“If not now, when? After you’re married? I’ve been trying to link up with you for a full year and you keep brushing me off.”
“You said that already!” I closed my eyes, willing my heart to steady itself, my lips to stop yearning for his lips on mine again. I looked at him again. “Link up for what? To kiss me? To brag about how put together your life is and laugh at me when I tell you all the ways mine isn’t?”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“No, you just feel the need to tell me how every single person in my life is wrong for me and then proceed to kiss me on my damn wedding day.”
“You’re just upset because you know this kiss is the best thing that’s happened to you these last two years and you don’t know how to process that being that you’re marrying the wrong guy today.”
My mouth fell open momentarily before I reached up and slapped him. “Get out.”
“Presley – “
“Get the hell out, Nathaniel.”
“I’m not going to apologize for kissing you.” He closed his eyes, took a breath, and looked at me again. “But I am sorry that it was today, like this. More than anything, I’m sorry that it was as good as it was.”
With that, he turned and left. I was too shell-shocked to move or say anything else. When the door opened again a second later, I jumped, thinking it would be him again. Instead, it was my mother wearing a rouge dress that matched the wedding party.
“Oh, honey, you look beautiful,” she cooed.
I’d been so angry at her for so long, blaming her for cheating on dad and being the reason they divorced and broke our family apart, blaming her for basically everything that went wrong in my life, but in this moment as she looked at me with pride and love in her eyes, I felt like I wanted to crumble. Maybe it was the adrenaline rushing through me from my encounter with Nathaniel, but I rushed over and threw my arms around her.
“I’m so glad you made it.”
“Are you kidding? I wouldn’t miss this for the world. I had to take four different flights to get here in time, but I made it and that’s the only thing that matters.”
I hugged her tighter. I’d had so many difference with her over the years that it never even occurred to me that she’d genuinely be happy to be here. She pulled back and looked at my face.
“We need to fix your lipstick.”
My hand flew to my mouth instantly as thoughts of the kiss Nathaniel and I shared slammed into me. She started to tug me toward the mirror and I hesitated at first, but gave in quickly. When I caught a glimpse of myself, I was relieved to see that I didn’t look disheveled. There was no visible sign of the kiss, but inside, my veins roared with the memory.
“Mom,” I whispered as she fumbled with the makeup bag. “What if Adam isn’t the one?”
“Oh, honey.” She walked over and tilted my chin up slightly. “You love him, don’t you?”
I nodded. “Of course.”
“It’s completely normal to get cold feet right before you do something life-changing. You just have to have faith that it’ll all work out.” She stopped talking and tilted her face when she realized her little speech was doing nothing to calm my nerves.
I didn’t understand. I’d been fine before . . . I’d spent the entire year planning this wedding. I’d been looking forward to it, to creating a life with Adam. So what changed? Nothing. The only disruption had been the kiss Nathaniel attacked me with. That’s all it was – an attack on an innocent bride. Except I didn’t feel all that innocent. I would’ve had it not made me feel like I’d been missing out on something major all along. I hated him for putting these doubts into my head. Hated him for making me feel things I shouldn’t be feeling from someone other than Adam.
“Presley.” My mom reached out and fixed my hair. I blinked a few times. I’d been staring at her without saying a word. She frowned slightly. “No estas segura?”
Was I not sure? My heart pounded. I knew from the look in her eyes that if I said I wanted to hightail out of here, she’d actually help me. Would I do that though? Would I risk marrying a man I loved to explore something potentially hazardous with someone like Nathaniel, a known playboy, because of a stupid kiss? I shook my head, then nodded, remembering what she’d asked.
“I’m ready. I’m ready. I’m doing this.” I inhaled and exhaled and the minute I said the words aloud and my mom smiled, I knew I’d made my choice. Whether or not it was the correct choice was another story all together.